Wednesday, 10 September 2008

"Anderson's pop praise ['Language is a Virus']...just so happens 2 be a paean to L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Dianetics & the Church of Scientology"

Tonight, after finishing my nightshift, I had that experience again of remembering something that I wanted to post on William Burroughs' literary legacy, a trigger that conjured aural memories of a recorded lecture from the mid-1990s given by Douglas Kahn at the University of Technology, Sydney on Burroughs' viral tropes. The first time I wanted to bundle some thoughts together on Burroughs was the invocation of that meme examplifying meme, "language is a virus", which I stumbled upon in an article on Pontypool, the forthcoming film by Canadian film and television director Bruce McDonald.

"Pontypool, based on a novel called Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, has been in development for 10 years. In this hallucinatory, horrific and hilarious book, a flesh-eating virus has transformed the population of Southern Ontario into cannibalistic zombies. The virus, called AMPS (Acquired Metastructural Pediculosis) is spread via the English language. Words themselves are weapons, communication a contagion. Imagine William Burroughs as re-written by Joss Whedon. Burgess, whom I've known for about 12 years, calls the novel 'autobiography'".

And then time got a hold of things, the way time does, and I forgot about what I remembered about viruses and language, and that Laurie Anderson's famous meme machine song "just so happens to be a paean to L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Dianetics and the Church of Scientology". WTF? SHUT YOUR MOUTH!!!

Now, the second time this came back me to me was when I was reading an email from the progenitor of this blog, NHuthnance. The email reproduced parts of the criticism section from the Wikipedia entry for Neal Stephenson's 1992 novel Snow Crash, in particular Walter Benn Michaels' succint criticism of Stephenson's collapse of interpretive depth that results from treating language as a code capable of viral embodiment and reproduction like software:

"The body that is infected by a virus does not become infected because it understands the virus any more than the body that does not become infected misunderstands the virus. So a world in which everything - from bitmaps to blood - can be understood as a 'form of speech' is also a world in which nothing actually is understood (emphasis in the original), a world in which what a speech act does is disconnected from what it means".

Reading that passage reminded me of Douglas Kahn's geneaological investigation of Burrough's viral tropes, especially their largely unknown Scientological origins in the Dianetic demon:

"...over thirty years ago Burroughs had developed viral tropes of genetic mutation, genetic algorithms, binary code as genetic information of the human organism, computers and viruses, i.e., concerns of present-day artists, many of whom have Laurie Anderson's contagious ditty running through their heads: 'language is a virus, oooooo'. Although the old man of the Beats seems to grow younger against an increasingly pervasive backdrop of viral tropes and technological rhetoric, it is best to temper thoughts of prophecy when listening to Anderson's pop praise song because it just so happens to be a paean to L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Dianetics and the Church of Scientology.

"Burroughs' notion of the virus had developed through his engagement with a series of organismic theories, the first one being the General Semantics of Count Alfred Korzybski, the second the orgone theories of Wilhelm Reich, and the third the Dianetics of Hubbard. The first two theories were an important source for the uncanny bodies familiar to Burroughs' readers, bodies capable of amoeba-like osmotic ingestion of other bodies as though their entire surface had become orifice, bodies with the gelatinous consistency of protoplasm, entire bodies, in other words, that mimicked cells. Culminating with Naked Lunch, these goo bodies were the culture in which Burroughs' first variety of virus grew, what I call the usurper virus, one that overtakes completely through the pathologising of Burroughs' self-described gay erotics of becoming one and the same, through the monomaniacal drives of junk and sex, through an association with the global metaphors of cancer, or through incorporative operations of metaphoricity itself. Dianetics, on the other hand, influenced the virus' first major mutation in his writings immediately following Naked Lunch, creating a new virus that shifted from its formerly crass amoeboid behaviour to a differentiated and technically sophisticated entity and, most importantly, to something that functioned so similarly to language that it became language.

"This capacity for and of language was a product of the combined effect of Hubbard's engrams and the Dianetic demon, namely, of inscription and voice. Furthermore, it was fused at every point with communications technologies which recorded absolutely everything into the core of cells, took over the internal broadcasts prefiguring the voice, and rendered people inveterate senders or receivers. On an evolving historical backdrop of twentieth century psychotechnologies (in the non-Cartesian framework of organismic theories, psychophysiological), the movement from Burroughs' usurper virus to its mutation is repeated in the transformation of Korzybski's psychogalvanic tests, used to assert the existence of psychosomatic responses, to Scientology's E-meter, something akin to a lie detector used to 'clear' the 'aberee' of engrams. In the same manner Reich's atmospheric orgone energy became intermixed in the post-war period with both the mutative background radiation of above-ground atomic testing and the mind-control transmissions of telecommunications."

"Cellular Phones:Corporeal Communications Technologies in William S. Burroughs and L. Ron Hubbard"
Douglas Kahn

The meme mutates on, and zombies will have been afoot, again...except they aren't so much zombies as...conversationalists.

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