What Is Schizo-Culture? A Classic Conversation with William S. Burroughs

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This Sunday, MoMA PS1 joined with publisher Semiotext(e) to present The Return of Schizo-Culture, an afternoon of screenings, music, performances, and readings from the storied 1975 Schizo-Culture conference, which featured an array of cultural, intellectual, and artistic radicals. The conference produced a series of writings that were later collected into a book designed by a group of artists including Kathryn Bigelow and Denise Green. Taken together, the book and the papers from the conference document the chaotic downtown arts and cultural scene of NYC in the 1970s and feature an amazing collection of interviews and essays from artists, writers, and musicians including Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, The Ramones, John Cage, Philip Glass, Jack Smith, and William S. Burroughs.

So what in the hell is Schizo-Culture? This is not an easy question to answer. It appears to be, on one hand, the undulating breakdown of governmental control in society, a development which leads to 1) new forms of psychological control (think: the 1970s fascination with mind control techniques) and 2) new forms of social organization that don’t rely on conventions, like political parties.

“There can be no doubt that a cultural revolution of unprecedented dimensions has taken place in America during the last thirty years,” William S. Burroughs writes in his seminal “The Limits of Control.” “And since America is now the model for the rest of the western world, this revolution is worldwide… the fact that this worldwide revolution has taken place indicates that the controllers have been forced to make concessions.” But what is the schizo-cultural revolution that Burroughs is identifying? His broader point is that governments are making political concessions to the dissenting population, but that these concessions are just another form of control, albeit a preferable one.” He continues: “They could of course take all the concessions back, but that would expose them to the double jeopardy of revolution and the much greater danger of overt fascism.”

So Schizo-Culture, from Burroughs’ angle, is both the recognition and rejection of new forms of control. Or as Sylvère Lotringer writes: “‘Schizo’ does not refer here to any clinical entity, but to the process by which social controls of all kinds, endlessly re-imposed by capitalism, are broken up and opened to revolutionary change.” The below Q&A, excerpted from the recently republished Schizo-Culture book, shows Lotringer in a lively and sometimes hilarious conversation with Burroughs.

What is schizo-culture according to you?

William Burroughs: Well, I think the “schizo-culture” here is being used in rather a special sense. Not referring rather to clinical schizophrenia but to the fact that the culture is divided up into all sorts of classes and groups, etc., and that some of the old lines are breaking down, and that this is a healthy sign.

Do you think that too much concentration is being placed in our culture on identifying, describing, you know, saying “This is this,” and this kind of a description of what exactly our culture is, “What we are?” like, you know, as opposed to past cultures that maybe were more preoccupied with basic arts and, you know, cultural uh…

Well yes, this defining, etc., is a luxury that the affluent society permits itself. I mean, poor people in Morocco and Spain and places like that are just too busy keeping alive to think about what they are, who they are…

Can I ask one thing? What do you think of all this fascism [audience laughter]?

Ah, well … [chuckles]

And if…we have been told that we are, and how they interpret the fact that they are fascist if they are.

Well, every question is different, and poses a different problem.

Just because it would be stupid to call in the army, that’s no reassurance that they won’t call in the army. All the examples seem like cases where they were least likely to before.

Every time they have done so they have regretted it. I don’t say that they won’t. I say they’ll regret it if they do. Because some of these people have read history, after all. They know what happened in the Roman Republic, they know what happened in Germany, and to a lesser extent what happened in Spain, all those places…

It seems your analysis is based on one good thing, and that is hoping for enlightened self-interest amongst leaders. Seems that one hitch in what you said, that you need to work out is, if we get an insane leader…

Well, are we fooling ourselves? These are very serious concessions that are being made. Remember that all censorship is political, and when they start removing censorship they have made a concession, and that’s important. Don’t expect to get everything all at once, because you won’t — yeah?

A lot of your analysis was in terms of the limits of the use of control—what about, which you mention in passing when answering his question, what about the demand to be controlled? Don’t you think that in some sense if fascism is to develop it has to develop either through a growth in the demand to be controlled or, more subtly you might say, in the growth of the control of the demand to be controlled?

I…don’t quite follow you. [audience laughter]

No, but that’s what I’m saying, is that, I mean, as you get a greater and greater amount of co-operation, it’s quite obvious that a lot of people get freaked out by it, and people have a great problem dealing with change, so I mean obviously they’re going to want something to control that change and slow it down. No, if the impasses that you’ve described are correct, the leadership has to control that demand to slow down change, and ’cause that could always get out of hand, and from your analysis it would seem that if it did get out of hand that would create exactly the kind of situations where they would have to exercise the sorts of repression that would be suicidal for them to exercise. You see, and that’s how even giving them the assumptions of rationality you are forgetting about insane leaders, and things still could get out of hand.

Well, of course, I said that. They’re never more dangerous than when embarking on a self-defeating course. That’s what happens. It’s unlikely that it would happen unless we got in some kind of war, I mean a serious war.

Do you think that it’s happening now is what I really want to ask you…

No, I don’t think so.

I have a related question. You said that you were optimistic; that is, we have every reason to believe this change will continue in its present direction. You also said that “they,” I guess you were referring to the leaders, are not in fact [likely] to take back any of their concessions. Are we then to assume that this is to culminate in a complete lack of control, at some point in the future, or rather, I think more pragmatically, is that there is going to be a trade-off point?

Trade-off point. I think there will be continued modifications of control. They can’t very well take everything back at this point.

What do you mean by “continued modifications”?

Well, what we have seen in the last thirty years. Now even ten or twenty years ago there was no right to protest, even the right to protest is a very important concession. A minority group thirty years ago had absolutely no recourse against police brutality or anything else. Now they can protest and that undoubtedly has an effect.

So are we to assume that there will be a culmination of this general direction, resulting in a total lack of control?

BURROUGHS: Ah well, I wouldn’t…I mean, I’m not a prophet; I wouldn’t speculate about the future. I’m talking about what has happened up until now.

This seems to be a sort of big boom theory of history, with sort of a continual diffusion of power, and theoretically I mean it would seem to come down to this area of total noncontrol or … But it seems clear that what we know until now is that societies can reconstitute themselves at high levels of control, and I think that what some of the earlier questions were about—you’ve defined some of the techniques by which governments or those in power maintain their control…And you also defined a situation where one group would want to re-establish or establish control, but what you don’t seem to have spoken to as far of the question was, what the specific techniques of this re-establishing or establishing controls would be when there is a low level of control.

Well, it depends on what you mean by “low level of control”—if you have complete anarchy, such as we might have if we got in a war with China, and this country was subject to atom bombing, the control reverts to almost a mediaeval or warlord state, where anyone with a small army is in a pretty good position. If that’s what you mean by when control reaches a state when it doesn’t exist, well then you do get warlords and city states in that kind of a situation.

Yeah, but we’re not in the Middle Ages anymore, I mean, that might’ve been, we may be able to explain how power was reconstitute in the Middle Ages, but how would you see that happening now, I mean do you see it happening in the very same way?

It isn’t happening now. It isn’t happening now. We’re not anywhere near that, we’re not in a state of anarchy.

But don’t you see that point coming?

Well, I could see it coming under certain circumstances. I could see it coming if we got in a war; I could see it coming with a complete economic collapse. But none of these things are right here now, or even around the corner.

Can you envision a complex social organization where control does exist?

Uhm, no, not with regard to a heterogeneous city population. I mean, there is, a certain control is absolutely necessary. Where’s all the food come from here—it’s brought in, right? There’s a whole unseen bureaucracy that is bringing that food in, and putting it in the shops, it’s providing power, etc. If those people didn’t work, millions of people would be starving overnight. So any system must find a way to keep those people on their jobs, whether economically or giving them food coupons, or whatever.

But your presentation was from the standpoint of controllers and exploitation, and are those necessarily connected?

No, I mean, I wouldn’t say that you would say that the necessity of maintaining power and food in a big city was necessarily a part of exploitation…

[Shouted] Down with Foucault!

[Audience laughter]

Burroughs: [Chuckling] Hear hear…well, okay…