Time-Binding and Time-Scrambling

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William Burroughs and the E-Meter


The E-Meter (Electropsycometer) was used in scientology auditing sessions. The E-Meter is ostensibly a polygraph which registers a subject’s reaction to a series of questions; the galvanic charge produced by each response is picked up by two metal cans held by the subject. With the E-meter activity of the nervous system is played back to the subject, which allows for their adaptation. In the Dianetic (Scientology) system, the excitation of the dial registered a past trauma (“engram”), which can be erased (“cleared”). The aim is to be “flat” on the E-meter (“clear”). The E-meter is one in a long list of psychic-machines used within, and at the fringes, of psychotherapeutic- psychiatric practice. The machine was related to the galvanometer, used by the psychoanalyst C. G. Jung in his word association experiments in 1901. Jung’s machine registered galvanic response to a series of words, as each word was uttered a stopwatch would record the response and the next word would follow. The result was a series of lines forming peaks and troughs drawn by a pen-recorder on a paper tape, making an image of stimulus-response over time.[1] The E-meter differs to the galvanometer in that whilst the galvanometer registered excitation and rendered it as a visual image, the E-Meter used feedback to affect the signal being sent to the machine by the subject to engineer and direct the subject’s subsequent response. In this respect, as a training apparatus, it was akin to the Structural Differential.

Patent diagram for the E-Meter (1954)

In 1950 L. Ron Hubbard was an enthusiastic reader of Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics. The book provided inspiration for the corner stone of Scientology, Dianetics. Wiener was horrified by Hubbard and his associates trumpeting his achievements and demanded a retraction of Hubbard’s uninvited endorsement: “Be advised” Wiener wrote to Hubbard “I most definitely do not support your pretended science, your book, your systems of therapy, your foundation, yourself, nor [your associate] Dr. Powell". [2] In a letter to William Schlecht, Wiener wrote: “DIANETICS sounds like the attempt of an illiterate to capture the swing of CYBERNETICS”.

Despite promises to cease and desist, Hubbard persisted in describing his own discipline as “an engineering type science[that] dovetails nicely with cybernetics.”[3]

W. Gray Walter, in The Living Brain (1953), was also damning of L. Ron Hubbard’s work:

“The aim [of the Dianetics of Hubbard] is apparently to unite the principles and practices of Freud, Jung, Adler, Pavlov, Behaviourism, Faith Healing, Christian Science, Autosuggestion, Yoga and Theosophy into a single practical system of analysis and treatment. The resultant is the lowest multiple of all these cults, incorporating their crudities and exaggerations, ignoring their subtleties and implications. This is something to beware of, what we need to preserve and cultivate are just these growing-points of science, not to arrange in arbitrary style, like cut flowers, their sterile and exotic efflorescence.”

In Warren McCulloch’s assassination of Freudian psychoanalysis, The Past of a Delusion, he takes time aside to add: “We are ripe for an ism. This century we’ve had Theosophy and Anthroposophy and Buckmanism and Psychoanalysis and now Dianetics, its peerless caricature.” [4]

Gregory Bateson, in Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry (1951), was less condemning of Hubbard. For him the methods and apparatus of Dianetics offered an alternative to Freud’s “talking cure”. Bateson cites Dianetics as an example, along with narcosynthesis, and hypnosis, of “nondirectional” therapy: “Dianetics, should be mentioned in this connection as a type of therapy devised by an electronic engineer who makes a definite attempt to introduce engineering ‘know-how’ into psychiatric procedure.”[5]

L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics in its 1950s (scientific) cover

Hubbard’s methods used various machines as psychic technologies of self, including the tape recorder and the E-meter. In scientology the human mind is a recording machine. Moments of derangement come from moments of “unconsciousness”; when the record is not available to consciousness. Such moments (engrams) can be reached and drained of “charge”, which is a “harmful energy or force accumulated or stored in the reactive mind resulting from conflicts and unpleasant experiences”.[6] The reactive mind is the non-rational, instinctive aspect of the mind which opposes the analytical mind, seeks survival, and avoids past trauma. The reactive mind only recognises identities (a=a) and is unable to recognise different levels of abstraction; as with Korzybski’s Structural Differential there is a misalignment between the word and the thing it represents.

If the software for the brain was the tape, Hubbard’s ultimate hardware for the brain in good order (the analytical mind) was the computer: “the analytical mind is not just a good computer, it is the perfect computer”. The Scientology audit was the means by which the corrupted code of the human psyche could become “clear”, to debug the imperfections in the mind’s program.

William Burroughs had been fascinated with the methods and technologies of Scientology for years. In 1959 Burroughs wrote to Allen Ginsberg advising his friend to undertake a Scientology audit. “they do the job, without hypnosis or drugs, simply run the tape back and forth and the trauma is wiped.”[7] Burroughs is using “tape” in a broad sense, although the tape recorder was used extensively in the methods of scientology – in the practice of the Scientology audit, to monitor the behaviour of members, and to broadcast L. Ron Hubbard’s lectures – here Burroughs presents the tape as the carrier of the software of the psyche; software which can be reprogrammed and altered by cycling information through the system to reform “old thought patterns”, “habit patterns”, “behaviour patterns”, “speech patterns”.[8]

By the mid 1950s Hubbard had successfully insinuated himself into the discourse of cybernetics, variously as a fool (to Wiener), as a knave (to Gray Walter), or as a model for the new breed of psychic engineer (for Bateson). Within this curious nexus William Burroughs found inspiration in apparatus developed by both W. Grey Walter and L. Ron Hubbard. In addition to being attracted to the psychic-machinery of the E-meter, Burroughs was a keen reader of Grey Walter’s The Living Brain and gave a copy to fellow beat Allan Ginsburg.

Gysin and Sommerville’s Dream Machine, an adaptation of British cybernetician Grey Walter’s Flicker, originally designed to monitor the production of Alpha Waves.

In 1959 Gregory Bateson recommended Ginsberg be part of the LSD experiments at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto[9] Following discussions with the researcher (and on Burroughs’ suggestion), Ginsberg used a combination of LSD and a flicker machine which was hooked up to an EEG for the duration of the experiment. This meant that Ginsberg’s own alpha waves were fed back to him as a series of flashing lights in a feedback loop through the apparatus of drug + flicker + EEG, an early example of “bio-feedback”.[10] Ginsburg gave a vivid account of the experience, describing self as co-extensive to system in the following terms: “It was like watching my own inner organism. There was no distinction between inner and outer. Suddenly I got this uncanny sense that I was really no different than all of this mechanical machinery all around me.”[11]

Burroughs also gave a copy of The Living Brain to the artist Brion Gysin, who, like Ginsburg, recognised flicker as a feedback technology with cyber-narchotic properties. Gysin and mathematician Ian Sommerville adapted flicker into a more rudimentary device called the Dream Machine, ostensibly a cardboard tube with vertical slits in it. The cylinder was affixed to a record turntable turning at 78 rpm and a 100 watt lightbulb was lowered into the centre of the tube. The user would sit close to the flickering lights with their eyes closed. The strobe effect would produce a state of mind conducive to lucid dreaming where one sees: “all ancient and modern art with eyes closed”[12]; for some it promised an LSD experiment without the need to take LSD.[13]

By 1966 Burroughs was a devoted Scientologist, reaching the status of “clear” in 1968 after attending a two month, eight hour a day programme, at the cost of 1500 pounds.[14] The status of “clear” is just below “Operating Thetin” the level when the scientologist became privy to the science fiction narrative that underpinned the therapy[15]: The galactic ruler Xenu transported the Thetins to Earth 23 trillion years ago and indoctrinated their souls with “various misleading data” which were passed, like an infection, into the human psyche.

By the end of 1968 however, Burroughs was a designated “heretic”, at war with Scientology and using their own technologies and rhetoric – a perversion of cybernetic apparatus and discourse – against them.[16]

The elements that drive Burroughs’ argument in Electronic Revolution(1970), published the following year, are apparent: at a fundamental level – at the level of language (which is a virus) – humans have been lied to and corrupted. In Hubbard’s narrative “all forms of life evolved from the basic building blocks: the virus and the cell”.[17] All humans are burdened with the reactive mind which constantly challenges the analytical mind; humans have in store an “engram bank, the reservoir of data that serves the reactive mind”.[18] Engrams are something more vivid than memories, they are a high fidelity record of past events: “engrams are a complete recording in the body. They have their own force. They are like phonograph records or motion pictures, if these contained all perceptions of sight, sound, smell, taste, organic sensation, etc.” The engram is a “permanent trace left by a stimulus on the protoplasm of a tissue. It is considered as a unit group of stimuli impinged solely on the cellular being”.[19] The engram is a meta technology of record (subsuming the phonograph and film) and is equivalent to a heightened, unmediated experience, programmed into the body on a cellular level. Furthermore, engrams are fused into the “body circuits” and have the power to “command the body”.

The similarities between Hubbard’s engrams and Burroughs language virus are apparent. In Dianetics a technology is available which can “discharge the reactive engram bank” whereby “symptoms vanish and a man begins to function at his optimum pattern”. In scientology, at the time when Burroughs was a devotee, this process was aided by the E-Meter. In Electronic Revolution the tape-cut-up technique shakes up the “habit patterns”, “behaviour patterns” and “old thought patterns” which (like engrams) are endemic to the human condition. The tape-cut-ups reprogram the false consciousness which language – and the technology of writing – has engendered in humans at a cellular level from the beginning of human existence. To support his argument Burroughs provides an “in-mixing”[20] of Korzybski’s time-binding theory (language binds humans to time), 1960s structuralist literary criticism (literacy alters consciousness) and his own science fiction (language is a virus from outer space) laced with the narrative structure of Dianetics.

If the occult narrative of scientology sits in isomorphic relation to Burroughs’ Electronic Revolution, there is a similar relation between the E-meter and the Structural Differential. When it was first developed, The Structural Differential used a Pavlovian technique of stimulus-response to help schizophrenics understand different levels of abstraction: to distinguish the blood from the wine, to discern the map from the territory. This was achieved through a tactile connection with the plastic diagram and a reiteration of the distinction between levels of abstraction (this is X, this is not Y, Y is an abstraction of X).

In this way aberrant perception is altered and a change in behaviour and outlook follows. The apparatus of the E-meter works on the same principle – in this case a crude behaviourist manipulation is patched on to an impoverished reading of cybernetics – but both operate on the level of stimulus-response in a feedback loop of self-correction. In both the E-meter and the Structural Differential news of a change is fed back through the system, both understand the human nervous system as the hardware that runs the software of language. Furthermore, the engram represents a failure to recognise different levels of abstraction, the Structural Differential and the E-meter claim to correct this tendency. In Electronic Revolution Burroughs flings Dianetics and General Semantics into unexpected alliance, the cut-up-tape technique, exploits the reactive brain’s tendency to recognise the map for the territory. Burroughs does not seek to cure this condition but distorts it through amplification (positive feedback). Language, although ridden with bugs, glitches and bad data, is the software that runs the soft machine.



The two essays, The Invisible Generation (1963)[21] and Electronic Revolution: Feedback from Watergate to the Garden of Eden (C: 1971/4) advocate methods with which to hack reality. Burroughs advocates an application of the cut-up technique applied across film, video, and tape media, fed back through the media system.

The Invisible Generation[22] stands as a call to arms to the counter-culture, and an instruction manual outlining a number of methods of “playback” which can be used to break the “obsessional association tracks” produced by contemporary systems of control: the mass media. The principle instrument is the audio tape recorder, audio tape and a series of editing and playback techniques which undermine normative reality. These techniques are an extension and amplification of the text-cut-up technique (to which The Invisible Generation and the novel it prefaces, The Ticket That Exploded, owe their structure). The Invisible Generation provides various strategies by which individuals – working as underground agents – could turn the power of the media around through the splicing, editing, and playback of tape. This amounts to unbinding time by scrambling the code of language that binds humans to time and subjectivity. If The Invisible Generation illustrated this principle through examples of how reality can be subverted, Electronic Revolution develops the issue in more philosophical, albeit perversely philosophical, terms.

These tactics involve particular procedures and particular apparatus. The language code is fed through the machine and the code is scrambled. The principle machine in Electronic Revolution is a tape recorder, although other machines (including the E-Metre, Wilhelm Reich’s Orgon Energy Accumulator) and methods (the scientology audit and the text-cut-up technique) are discussed. These techniques – in their performance, in their telling – scramble and dismantle the either/or binary established by the control system of language, repeatedly demonstrating what it might be like to lose the line between nervous system and mind, between animal and human. Burroughs' creative bending of time-binding allowed him to engage with media theory in the late 1960s and early 1970s as it emerged, and as media practices – including USCO, Raindance, Radical Software, TVTV, Ant Farm – emerged as tactical media practices (see The Fabulous Loop de Loop).

In 1939 Burroughs had attended five lectures by Alfred Korzybski at the Centre for General Semantics in in Chicago. Entry to the course required an essay and Burroughs – an avid reader of Korzybski’s Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (1933) – submitted a paper on the London dandy Beu Brummell[23] The essay has been lost, but it is believed to have reflected on Brummell as an “oral” personality, the role of the dandy-artist as detached observer of society. It also reflected on the role of modern media – the text was submitted several weeks after President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation via the new medium of television (the first person to do so).[24]

Electronic Revolution – riffing on the “anti-Aristotelian” principles of the General Semantics program – argues for an abolition of the false categories introduced by the either/or construct, along with the abolition of the verb “to be”, the definite article, “the” and the third person singular present indicative of “be”, “is”.

For Burroughs such particles of language are “virus mechanisms”, elements which perpetuate the illusion of permanence and the logic of division, difference and war. In line with Lacan and Bateson, it is at the level of syntax that the bedrock of consciousness is formed.[25] For Burroughs the control system of language can be subverted, in the first instance, by media tactics which unbind man from time and which scramble the code of language that anchors humans to permanent identity.

The title: Electronic Revolution: Feedback from Watergate to the Garden of Eden (c1972) bares testimony to Burroughs’ shift in emphasis from underground campaigner who argued for the benefits of guerilla media as a means through which the individual could gain autonomy, to a philosopher of language. The text is more clearly a reflection on how, in the Watergate era, the autonomous counter-cultural media revolution was under serious threat. Burroughs suspects that the CIA had taken some of the lessons outlined in The Invisible Generation to heart[26] and that the counterculture had been insufficiently attentive to the warnings and proposed solutions The Invisible Generation offered. In Electronic Revolution Burroughs concedes some ground to the powers of control, the agents of The Invisible Generation had been outmanoeuvred. Watergate was, after all, an example of guerilla media, in which technological weapons are turned against the enemy (President Nixon’s dirty tricks organisation and the Democratic Party).

Korzybski's time binding provides the basis for Burroughs’ argument in Electronic Revolution:

“In the beginning of WRITING. Animals talk and convey information but they do not write. They cannot make information available to future generations or to animals outside the range of their communication system. This is the crucial distinction between men and other animals. WRITING. Korzybski, who developed the concept of General Semantics, the meaning of meaning, has pointed out this human distinction and described man as ‘the time binding animal’. He can make information to other men over a length of time through writing. Animals talk. They don’t write.”[27]

Burroughs takes the argument of the significant difference between oral and literate cultures an extreme, elevating writing to a high status and disregarding the importance of orality in the transference of cultural knowledge. In fact, the proponent of the “great divide” between orality and literacy in the 1950s and 60s, Harold Adams Innis’ Empire and Communications (1950) built a media theory around the division between the oral and written traditions. This premise was adopted by Eric Havelock's, Preface to Plato(1963); Goody & Watt's "The Consequences of Literacy." (1963), and Marshell McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy(1962). They maintained that for the greater part of human history language was the medium through which human culture was transmitted from generation to generation, orality gave continuity and social “homeostasis”. [28]

For his part, and from beyond the grave, Korzybski replies:

“[...]we could argue endlessly about ‘what made civilization possible.’ Some say that ‘thinking’ made it, others say that ‘speech’ is responsible (Watson), or writing, etc., etc. As a matter of brute fact, all such statements, taken separately, are false, because civilization is a joint affair of all of them and an infinity of others, as yet not abstracted.”[29]

What binds man to time, for Korzybski at least, is the organisation of levels of abstraction – it is symbolic representation (phonic and inscribed) and the persistence of the illusion it presents which separates human from object-event.

Burroughs presents a wilful and productive misreading of Korzybski’s notion of time-binding which establishes a space between the rhetoric of General Semantics, literary criticism and the pseudo-scientific prose of L.Rod Hubbard. Burroughs riffs on these various forms of address to make his own performative space.

At the centre of Electronic Revolution is Burroughs' reflection on the relation of language to literacy. Burroughs acknowledges, in common with contemporaneous literary critique, that writing is a technology which shapes subjectivity. Harold Adams Innis’ Empire and Communications (1950), for example, had been influential in building a media theory around the division between oral and written traditions and the ways in which technologies of inscription had shaped subjectivity during the course of human history.

Burroughs riffs on these recent (1960s) debates about the role of orality and literacy in the transmission of cultural knowledge and in the construction of subjectivity, [30] which were central to the discourse of literary criticism in the early 1960s, and would form the basis of media theory as it emerged throughout the 1960s.[31]

In The Consequences of Literacy (1963) Jack Goody and Ian Watt note that “man as talking animal [is studied] primarily by the anthropologist, and man as talking and writing animal primarily by the sociologist.”[32] For Goody and Watt history proper begins with writing; “history” as a category of knowledge transmission is produced with and by the mnemonic technology of writing. At the beginning of Goody & Watt's text three elements emerge which bear a relation to Burroughs’ argument: a) writing as technology; b) writing's relation to orality and c) writing’s relation to memory storage systems. These three figures, given a perverse inflection, would propel Burroughs' argument in Electric Revolution.

For Goody & Watt natural human language allows for forms of social organisation to be passed down through generations. Although this resonates with Korzybski’s notion of “accumulation”[33] Goody & Watt borrow Durkheim’s term “intellectual capital”. Because writing engenders a fundamentally different relation to symbol and referent wholly different systems of communication and technologies of memory are produced which engender a different conception of time. In oral cultures “each word is ratified in a succession of concrete situations”.[34] The transmission of cultural tradition (cultural memory) in oral societies is regarded as “homeostatic”,[35] in the sense that information is consolidated and carried forward, an expression of negative entropy, and - in the social sense – homeostasis is a way in which the past can be folded into the present to achieve social cohesion. It is in this way that “the tribal past is digested into the communal orientation of the present”. In literate cultures there is a different relation to the line of time as “literate society can not but enforce a more objective recognition of the distinction between what was and what is.”[36]

Goody & Watt’s three key premises are the starting point for Burroughs' in Electronic Revolution: writing is a technology, writing has a relation to orality and a relation to memory storage.[37] However Burroughs does not find a specific space for the development of the alphabet, claiming it preceded speech and implying it was introduced by extraterrestrial agents. Goody & Watt hold that “representation of phonemes (the basic units of meaningful sound) was left to the Near Eastern syllabaries, which developed between 1500-1000 B.C[38] and did not fully develop into a phonic technology, “adapted to expressing every nuance of individual thought, to recording personal reactions as well as items of major social importance”, until the eighth century B.C.[39]

In contrast to the precision of Goody & Watt, for Burroughs: “the written word was a virus that made the spoken word possible”. In Burroughs, natural language and the alphabet are collapsed into the same space, Burroughs’ position is possible because he conflates written and spoken language, indeed for him they are co-evolutionary. “It is doubtful” Burroughs claims “whether the spoken word would ever have evolved beyond the animal stage without the written word.”[40] Burroughs draws on an authority of his own creation, Doktor Kurt Unruh von Steinplatz, to claim that spoken language occurred in human prehistory after a virus infecting the human vocal system caused a mutation, which allowed for the first articulation of human speech.

Whereas the argument of Goody & Watt, and 1960s textual analysis as a whole, depended on the division of natural language and the alphabet, Burroughs is at war with language in general precisely because it is structured by division and at war with the particular elements within language which generate that division.

For Burroughs the battle ground is precisely between the human nervous system and the systems that encode it. It is possible, he posits, that once in control of these various apparatus of self, to change the self and also in-mix subjectivities, to warp time and matter. This is because it is language, and specifically the technology of writing, that binds man to time. It is the symbolic system of writing that orders images in a time line.

Burroughs’ techniques – through cutting and scrambling – break the time line, “the association locks”, “the association tracks”, that produce the chain of signification, and through the playback of recorded and edited material feed back into the time line, breaking the objectifying function of language.[41]

In the tape-cut-up-technique a degree of accumulation occurs with each successive iteration. As information is fed back through the system we travel to a new level of abstraction; the tape recorder works in the manner of an e-meter or structural differential, but there is a significant difference, Burroughs’ tape recorder 3 encodes a new reality.

There are three stages which thread through each other

Tape recorder 1 = Adam – the virus is a code, information is transferred into the body. Tape recorder 1 opens a new circuit

Tape recorder 2 = Eve + Adam – sex; at this stage the virus is sexually transmitted, because the virus is also a code, information is transferred into the body through the circuitry of tape recorder 2 and the bodies of Adam + Eve

Tape recorder 3 = God and disapproval

Tape recordings 1-3 follow a similar hierarchical structure as Korzybski’s Structural Differential:

Tape recorder 1 is the iteration of the object-event;

Tape recorder 2 presents a level of abstraction removed from tape recorder 1;

Tape recorder 3 is the meta-level in which a new reality is produced, at which the spell of the performative speech act is cast.

Burroughs: “NUMBER 3 IS OBJECTIVE REALITY PRODUCED BY THE VIRUS IN THE HOST. Viruses make themselves real”.

Tape recorder 3 is the loop in the cycle which allows for the production of The Big Other, The Superego, God. Tape recorder 3 is the meta-state where the map and the territory collapse into the same space, at which point the media loop “bootstraps” a new reality.

Tape recorder 2 simply records; one’s self awareness is not affected by simply being recorded, one has to conceive of a viewer: tape recorder 3. Reality is produced when one is aware that one’s actions can be played back – the moment when the consummation of Adam and Eve is broadcast. This is the moment when the control systems of the psyche (id, superego) are co-opted, a moment when consciousness reaches a new level of abstraction.

Self- surveillance, as a technique of control or therapy, is central to Burroughs’ tactics (as it had been in the scientology audit and for users of the structural differential) because it reveals false consciousness in the authority of tape recorder 3. Burroughs’ interest in the techniques of auditing (a self-surveillance technique) used by Scientologists and self-experimentation through the use of narcotics, or Reich’s Orgon Accumulator attest to an obsession with what might variously be described as self-programming or methods of autopoesis. Burroughs proposes something akin to Bateson’s Deutero-learning, a stage of extreme self-reflexivity in which one understands the contexts that constitute the self and are transformed by that knowledge; when one understands one’s place in different levels of abstraction as such. For Burroughs, the revolution occurs when one realises that the constructs we take to be real are an artifice of media – the word virus.

Burroughs also registers a shift from a use of language which is representative to a use of language which is performative. In Burroughs’ reality hacking the speech act engenders a new reality. In a mediatised world in which the dominance of the alphabet is challenged and in which the division of the sign and the signified are no longer stable, reality is produced within the media space itself. This was the liberation for the generation of the video artists that included Radical Software (a term coined by Bateson), who enthusiastically looped themselves into the circuitry of participatory media, their bodies “inmixing” with new encoding technologies. Burroughs: “consider the Human body and nervous system as unscrambling devices.”

According to Burroughs, text is scrambled code, and it particularly scrambles the code which produces pattern within language. Despite the fact that the tape has been scrambled – in fact because of that fact – something beyond the time-binding function of language is communicated.

Burroughs: “In 1968, with the help of Ian Sommerville [the co-inventor of the dream machine] and Anthony Balch, I took a short passage of my recorded voice and cut it into intervals of one twenty-fourth of a second movie tape (movie tape is larger and easier to splice)- and rearranged the order of the 24th second intervals of recorded speech. The original words are quite unintelligible but new words emerge. The voice is still there and you can immediately recognise the speaker. Also the tone of the voice remains. If the tone is friendly, hostile, sexual, poetic, sarcastic lifeless, despairing, this will be apparent in the altered sequence.” Here, the system that encodes film is applied to another medium of record – tape.

Burroughs scrambles media across the senses.

The eye = film encodes images at 24 frames a second and

The ear = tape encodes sound on a magnetic strip.

The first encoding system is applied to the second

The encoding system that binds time for the end organ of the nervous system (eye) is scrambled with the end organ (ear). Repeatedly, Burroughs brings us back to the raw edge of the nervous system; looping animal functions, sex, violence and pleasure through the circuit as noise produces a new pattern, in which a radical adaptation can be formed.

Burroughs remedies invariably involve a procedure and a machine, an apparatus through which to run the procedure which introduces a new virus. The aim is to scramble the code that regulates time. Sometimes the apparatus is text, which scrambles the space binding animal and the time binding human:

Burroughs evokes Hubbard’s notion of the reactive mind (RM)

“Mr. Hubbard has charted his version of what he calls the reactive mind. This is roughly similar to Freud’s ID, a sort of built-in self defeating mechanism. As set forth by Mr. Hubbard this consists of a number of quite ordinary phrases. He claims that reading these phrases, or hearing them spoken, can cause illness, and gives this as his reason for not publishing this material. Is he perhaps saying that these are magic words? Spells, in fact? If so, they could be quite a weapon scrambled up with imaginative sound-and-image track. Here now is the magic that turns men into swine. To be an animal: a lone pig grunts, shits, squeals and slobbers down garbage. To be animals: A chorus of a thousand pigs. Cut that in with video tape police pictures and play it back to them and see if you get a reaction from this so reactive mind.”

...as the site of encryption and decryption...

“Remember that when the human nervous system unscrambles a scrambled message this will seem to the subject like his very own ideas which just occurred to him, which indeed it did.”[42]

Burroughs’ understanding of language as a virus arose in the midst of a debate on orality and literacy, around the time that media theory as an academic discipline was invented; somewhere between Harold Adams Innis’ Empire and Communications (1950) and the reception of Marshall McLuhan as guru of secondary orality.

Burroughs responds to this discourse and acknowledges that language is a control system regulated by the technology of writing – from the code of the alphabet to the various inscriptive technologies of contemporary media – and it is through such technologies that the subject is formed. I argue that Burroughs understands the meeting of the code of the alphabet and contemporary media as a discourse network (To borrow Friedrich Kittler's term),although he would not have used that term.[43] For Burroughs, the autonomy of the individual is assured through engaged reflexivity, an awareness of how these technologies are used and how – through their subversion – the suppression of autonomy can be countered. His approach to the written word and the technology of tape recorder are therefore the same: both can be used to scramble and reorder the code that constitutes reality and therefore change reality.

The performative power of Burroughs’ texts is in its transgression, it is underscored by the belief that one can bend reality, code one’s own reality, hack and re-program society and the self. In a sense it is re-enchanting the machine, proposing that the machine of language can conjure a “spell” that writes the code of reality anew. This new horizon of agency and difference presented by these new technologies was recognized by a younger generation of artists and writers with their hands on a brand new tool kit.

Burroughs: “So take the best of your sessions and invite your nabors to see it. Its the naborly thing to do”[44]

Michael Shamberg, in Guerilla Television, (1970) wrote: “True cybernetic guerrilla warfare means re-structuring communications, not capturing existing ones.” Shamberg, echoing the strategy of Burroughs, wrote about how the feedback technology of TV might be used to break the stronghold the networks and advertiser held over the minds of viewers back in the early 1970s:

“[strategies] might include tactics like going out to the suburbs with video cameras and taping commuters. The playback could be in people’s homes through their normal TV sets. The result might be that businessmen would see how wasted they look from buying the suburban myth.”[45]


Groups like Ant Farm, Radical Software, Raindance alongside writers Micheal Shamberg, Paul Ryan [&c...] understood that to break the hold of the media monopoly it was necessary to include the viewer into the feedback loop of production (the equivalent of Burroughs’ tape recorder 3): making the viewer visible to themselves would create a shift in the economic logic of the media. Looking back at the early projects by these groups and individuals it is striking to see how much promise the portable video device held for them. The stakes were not simply to do with changing others, the new medium also offered a new understanding of the individual’s nervous system in communication with a broader communication apparatus.

One of the first and most influential video works of the period, Frank Gillette & Ira Schneider”s Wipe Cycle (1969) used the iterative process of video feedback to engender a sense of dis/location and dis/embodiment. [describe more] Such apparatus, which were plentiful in the media art scene of the late 1960s and early 70s – including Ant Farm’s Dirty Dishes; the video works of Dan Graham, Nancy Holt and Bruce Naumann – allowed the move away from art as representative to art as performative. The circuitry of intersubjectivity, or as Gillette termed it – “the fabulous loop de loop”– refused mind body duality, refused the distinction between individual and group, and refused the division between organism and environment, and, as Burroughs’ text also advocated, it invited extension and adaptation of the self and the environment, affirming: “and...and...and”

The video system – in its most readily available and compact form, such as the Sony Videorover DV-2400 (1967), one of a range of video systems collectivity known as Portapak – was also understood as a therapeutic technology. This could mean therapy for the individual or therapy for society. To feed knowledge of oneself back through the circuit of the conscious system would result in an altered consciousness. This is the logic which allows Burroughs to equate Scientology’s E-Meter – which monitored the activity of the nervous system and played it back to the conscious subject – with a tape: “run the tape back and forth and the trauma is wiped.” Guerrilla TV and the polemics published in Radical Software understood the emerging technologies of their day as technologies of self. Their correct use would bring control back to the individual; the individual as medial (as produced through technologies) and collective (constituted within a group which is mediated by technology). Mastery of technologies of inscription ultimately mean control over the inscription of the self.

The artist Dan Graham, like Frank Gillette & Ira Schneider, had studied the work of Gregory Bateson carefully. It was Graham who – 11 years before William Gibson used it – coined the term “cyberspace” to describe the new inter-subjective technological space created by the interaction of humans within a video mediated circuit;[46] This was a space of self-enhancement in which the division between subject and environment is arbitrary. It is no accident that at the point when research into cybernetic environments by Douglas Engelbart at the Augmentation Research Center – which developed the mouse (1961) and demonstrated an interactive environment in an event known as The Mother of all Demos (1968)[47] – and the artistic and social experiments involving video technologies would be founded on Bateson’s notion of co-evolution. The notion of the human nervous system co-extensive with environment are central to the development of video art and information technologies as they emerged in the early 1970s. In these spheres the site of difference is the site of the interface between the map and the territory, the conceptual and the physical.


In Bateson and Korzybski’s terms, William Burrough’s Electronic Revolution might be understood as schizophrenic. Throughout his writing Burroughs strategically fails to distinguish the metaphorical or symbolic from the real (to rewind a tape becomes a form of reversing time, to playback the sounds of riot or a fire engine will cause a riot or set a fire, a new reality is bootstrapped by media action). This signals a shift into a performative form of art which supersedes the representational. Media act on and shape reality, they do not just represent it. In an age of media feedback loops and actionable code such strategies of détourement serve to hack reality.

As we will see in subsequent chapters, in the pages of Radical Software video art production becomes a laboratory to produce new realities, new forms of social relations, a new way of understanding the self, new relations to media. Burroughs (publishing in counterculture organs such as International Times) was part of a more generalised countercultural reality hack, which called on the artistic community to take reality into their own hands. If Invisible Generation (1963) can be understood as a call to arms, Electronic Revolution (c.1971), can be understood as a lament for a lost opportunity. For Burroughs, while the CIA and the ruling political elite learned a great deal from his Invisible Generation, the artistic community failed to take advantage of the invitation to artistic, individual and social autonomy, allowing the elite to maintain control. By the mid 70s, for Burroughs, the control was nearly absolute, language was a virus that infects human subjectivity at a fundamental level, Watergate is merely a symptom of a deep-seated condition. We are spoken by language and language is a virus. We are born into a pre-ordered symbolic system and, as programmed, we find our place within it. It is very easy to splice and cut-up the clinical analysis of Lacan with Burroughs’ paranoid schizo-literature because both share the same techno-epistemological foundation. Both are symptomatic and responsive to a reorganisation of systems of knowledge, both express how the way that knowledge is produced, stored, transmitted, and reproduced has undergone a fundamental change. In Burroughs’ text we follow a similar dialectical move to that described by Lacan in the seminar on the Purloined Letter:[48] writing is first exposed as code on a particular, syntactical level, it is also a coding and information storage system, amongst others, such as tape recorders and psychic-machines such as the e-meter. Secondly the biological substrata of the human nervous system becomes the circuit through which information is cycled, the material, earthbound component of which is the body. Burroughs text, generated within an apparatus of inscribing psychic-machines, navigates and tests the contours of the media theory emerging at the time, part polemic, part manifesto, part performative reality hack.

In Electronic Revolution Burroughs stays true to Korzybski whilst at the same time betraying him. Burroughs confuses different levels of abstraction by conflating written language with spoken language and obfuscating their difference. This is a productive confusion because it opens up an understanding of different media as constitutive of the subject. Burroughs is able to describe a media horizon in which subjects are constituted through inscription by different storage and transmission media (without recourse to terms such as ‘secondary orality’, ‘discourse networks’ or ‘control societies’)[49]

Burroughs’ claim that writing proceeds language queers the claims of general semantics and the structuralist literary theory of the 1960s alike. Here Burroughs performs the move described in the essay: the order is reversed and played forward, the same trick of reversal and scrambling is used with the title (Feedback from Watergate to the Garden of Eden): mediation precedes the mediated. Burroughs abolishes the figure and the ground on which reality is constructed – the all controlling, time-binding word – becomes instead the information feedback loop.

In contemporaneous terms we can read Burroughs’ thesis as an attempt to meet the technical standards of the time. Literary criticism (Havelock, Goody & Watt, McLuhan) recognised the immense difference between oral and literate cultures. Writing might be diagnosed as a virus which infects (overwrites) subjectivity. In the second half of the twentieth century, the alphabet becomes one form of encryption amongst many others. Strategies of hacking the code – of splicing tapes or cutting through words and sentences to rearrange the elements – are methods of taking control back from the virus.


In Electronic Revolution Burroughs was fascinated with L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology, particularly the technique of ‘auditing’ which involved re-programming the subject through the use of various programmatic methods and (pseudo) psycho-technologies. In a curious perversion of this system, Burroughs advocates a series of reality hacks which transcend systems of control by inventing and mastering media technologies of self, and using them to reprogram and recode reality.

In common with other emergent media theories and practices – Whole Earth Catalogue, Raindance, Radical Software, Ant Farm – Burroughs advocates the introduction of feedback into the top-down control system. In his revolutionary fantasy the subject of control becomes the agent of change and adaptation. The circuit that previously conditioned a monolithic reality is looped back into itself to allow for the production of multiple realities.

  1. Liu, Lydia H. The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
  2. Rid, Thomas. Rise of the Machines: the lost history of cybernetics. Scribe Publications, 2016. p.158
  3. Rid, Thomas. Rise of the Machines: the lost history of cybernetics. Scribe Publications, 2016. p.160
  4. The Past of a Delusion (1953), in McCulloch, Warren S., Michael A. Arbib, Jerome Y. Lettvin, and Seymour A. Papert. Embodiments of Mind. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016.
  5. Bateson, G. Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000.p. 236
  6. Hubbard, L Ron, Dianetic: The power of the mind over the body, New Era, Copenhagen, 2002 (1950) p 73
  7. Miles, Barry. William S. Burroughs: A Life. London: Hachette UK, 2014.
  8. All phrases used in Electronic Revolution. When asked to reflect on the positive aspects of his experiences in scientology Burroughs response was that it corrected “old thought patterns” and it thought him how to pass a polygraph test. Miles, Barry. William S. Burroughs: A Life. London: Hachette UK, 2014
  9. CIA funded, Bateson was participated in the program. See: Lipset, David. Gregory Bateson: The Legacy of a Scientist. Boston: Beacon Press (MA), 1982.
  10. Pickering, A. The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010. p. 80
  11. Pickering, A. The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
  12. Gysin, in Geiger 2003,62
  13. Details of Gysin-Sommerville’s device were published in Olympia in 1960, but the machine was in use as an aid to creation prior to this date.
  14. Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.; Miles, Barry. William S. Burroughs: A Life. London: Hachette UK, 2014.
  15. This has long since become common knowledge, however, in the 1960s it was still “occult” information. Burroughs availed himself of the information in 1968. Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.; Miles, Barry. William S. Burroughs: A Life. London: Hachette UK, 2014.
  16. Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw, the life and times of William Burroughs; Barry Miles, William Burroughs, A Life
  17. Hubbard, L Ron, Dianetic: The power of the mind over the body, New Era, Copenhagen, 2002 (1950) p.67
  18. Hubbard, L Ron, Dianetic: The power of the mind over the body, New Era, Copenhagen, 2002 (1950) p.69
  19. Hubbard, L Ron, Dianetic: The power of the mind over the body, New Era, Copenhagen, 2002 (1950) p.79
  20. I borrow Lacan’s phrase from a previous chapter.
  21. First published in the preface to Burroughs “cut up novel” The Ticket That Exploded (1963) and as an article in International Times (1966). Burroughs, William S. The Ticket That Exploded: The Restored Text. London: Penguin UK, 2014.
  22. This is in line with other imminent media critique produced by the counter-culture at the time, including Theodore Roszak's The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition (1968), Jeff Nuttall's Bomb Culture (1968) and Michael Shamberg's Guerilla Television (1971); International Times, Ever Green Times and the video-activist magazine Radical Software.
  23. Miles, Barry. William S. Burroughs: A Life. London: Hachette UK, 2014. Also: John Cussans notes that Burroughs’ grandfather, the inventor of the Burroughs Calculating Machine, was a member of the Society for General Semantics: https://www.bannerrepeater.org/recorded-talks-and-lectures
  24. Throughout Electronic Revolution Italic textBurroughs returns to Korzybski, paying attention to time-binding theory and the key distinction the facility of language engenders between animals and humans.
  25. See chapter, Lacan Builds a Circuit
  26. Burroughs, William S.,Electronic Revolution
  27. Burroughs, William S., Electronic Revolution
  28. Goody, Jack, and Ian Watt. "The Consequences of Literacy." Comparative Studies in Society and History 5, no. 3 (1963), 304-345.
  29. Korzybski, Alfred. Time-binding: The General Theory : Two Papers 1924-1926. 1949. p. 8
  30. Harold Adams Innis’ Empire and Communications (1950) See also, Havelock, Eric A. Preface to Plato. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009 (1963); McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding media: the extensions of man. McGraw-hill Book Co., 1964; Goody, Jack, and Ian Watt. "The Consequences of Literacy." Comparative Studies in Society and History 5, no. 3 (1963), 304-345.
  31. See John Johnston’s introduction to Kittler’s Essays: Kittler, Friedrich A. Edited and introduced by Johnston. Literature, Media, Information Systems. London: Routledge, 2013.
  32. Goody, Jack, and Ian Watt. "The Consequences of Literacy." Comparative Studies in Society and History 5, no. 3 (1963), 304-345. P 304
  33. Korzybski, Alfred. Time-binding: The General Theory: Two Papers 1924-1926. 1949.
  34. Goody, Jack, and Ian Watt. "The Consequences of Literacy." Comparative Studies in Society and History 5, no. 3 (1963), 304-345.P 306
  35. Goody, Jack, and Ian Watt. "The Consequences of Literacy." Comparative Studies in Society and History 5, no. 3 (1963), 304-345P 308. It is no coincidence that the use of homeostasis as a phrase appears in the time when structuralism and cybernetics meet- see also Bateson and Levi-Strauss as anthropologists who use the vocabulary of cybernetics to articulate anthropological arguments. For “the past to be digested by the present' describes circular causality. It is a teleological conception.
  36. Goody, Jack, and Ian Watt. "The Consequences of Literacy." Comparative Studies in Society and History 5, no. 3 (1963), 304-345. p311
  37. Note:Phonography, telephony and film. The debate on orality and history also emerged at a point when even newer technologies of memory storage and transmission were overthrowing even the “mass- media” – See Kittler Discourse Networks 1800-1900; Johnston intro to Kittler’s collected essays
  38. Goody, Jack, and Ian Watt. "The Consequences of Literacy." Comparative Studies in Society and History 5, no. 3 (1963), 304-345. P. 312
  39. Goody, Jack, and Ian Watt. "The Consequences of Literacy." Comparative Studies in Society and History 5, no. 3 (1963), 304-345. P 316
  40. Burroughs, William S., Electronic Revolution p4
  41. Note:In the same way as Korzybski,’s Structural Differential serves as a performtive model, so does Burroughs text [performance and representation – non-teleological machines and teleological machines – in the latter, in the conscious subject, knowledge of performance results in adaptation of performance, (human augmentation). ]
  42. Here Burroughs alights on feedback’s relation to purpose. Burroughs’ conception for the human as nervous system indivisible from mind is in line with Korzybski and also with Norbert Wiener’s definition of Ashby’s Homeostat, which Wiener relates to his own position on teleology and purpose, describing the homeostat as a: “purposeful random mechanism which seeks for its own purpose through the process of learning”, breaking the relation of cause and effect, producing recursive pattern.
  43. Note: In Discourse Networks 1800 /1900 Kittler defines a discourse network as: “[T]he network of technolo­gies and institutions that allow a given culture to select, store, and pro­cess relevant data. Technologies like that of book printing and the institu­tions coupled to it, such as literature and the university, thus constituted a historically very powerful formation, which in the Europe of the age of Goethe became the condition of possibility for literary criticism”
  44. Burroughs, William S., Electronic Revolution
  45. In Rushton, Steve, Masters of Reality, Sternberg Press, 2011; |Joselit, David. Feedback: television against democracy. The MIT Press, 2007.
  46. Kaizen, William, “Steps to an Ecology of Communication: Radical Software, Dan Graham, and the Legacy of Gregory Bateson”; Art Journal, Vol. 67, No. 3 (FALL 2008), p.
  47. This extended Vannevar Bush’s Memex dual-screen system (1945). The Mother of All Demos’ official title was Fall Joint Computer Conference demo, San Francisco (1968).See: Bardini, Thierry. Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing. Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2000
  48. See previous chapter
  49. Kittler, Friedrich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 1999.; Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge, 2003.; Deleuze, Gilles. "Postscript on the Societies of Control." Surveillance, Crime and Social Control, 2017, 35-39.