Reading the Pharmakon: Part III
Updated: Feb 6
Crossing Out Into Xenon
To endure such a rigorous and sustained assault on the essential poetic metaphors is a fierce initiation.
--Iain Sinclair on Michael S. Judge’s book, …And Egypt Is the River
The danger was real enough.
--William S. Burroughs, The Western Lands
In previous essays in this series, I provided a brief overview of Michael S. Judge’s work as well as a more theoretical account of the pharmakonic nature of his writing. Here, I continue to pursue the notion of the pharmakon—the poison which contains the cure (and vice versa)—with reference to Judge’s The Scenarists of Europe, his more recent Post-Solar Histories, and William Burroughs’ “Nova Trilogy” of the mid-1960’s. Additionally, I offer a brief memoir of my teenage reading of Burroughs’ The Soft Machine, taking this as emblematic of a kind of pharmakonic initiation. Throughout, I examine how readerly disorientation can effect profound psychic changes, offering modes of resistance and reorientation that may prove crucial for enduring the psychopolitical assaults of the present era.
In Post-Solar Histories, one of five books Michael S. Judge completed in 2017, the reader is dropped into a disorienting, protean, and seemingly inexhaustible text. Beginning with a dense, impersonal passage of nearly ecstatic prose poetry, it soon allows a slightly different register to emerge: the voice of a guide. The reader is addressed directly by this guide as circumstances are described, norms recounted, and tendencies revealed: “You can date the screws and lumber and specific chemical composition of the paint, the way it does or doesn’t pick up traces of certain nerve gases after extensive if none-too-careful testing, the way it verifies or just corroborates or stays basically silent about the idea of an attack we’re trying to push.” As stated in a previous essay in this series, this guide is obsessively involved with the charting and naming of an endless array of stars: "(posthumous arthroscopic star with inward sample-and-hold windstorm of its glitch-riven playback over the prefab storage units lined up row after pseudoidentical row in the middle of a city otherwise collapsing from the periphery inward, white stone en bloc as cut into the mountainside like fossil-record ashlar of biomechanical star’s mass extinction." But throughout, this higher, ecstatic register is tethered to the guide's terrestrial voice. And this guide's voice is frequently directed right at you, the reader:
or immobilized at peak of waveform, carted out then to spread-spectrum distribution, and already, there you are – happened a few minutes ago, each of these fractally analyzed down to a functional infinity of subdivisions, and we’re already talking about the vast and systematic impact, the means of its transduction and efficient routing, the relay stations and the overall drains on the grid, remember, voiceprint arthropod denatured through the voltage-control star
“And there you are – happened a few minutes ago.” In a sense, this is the retrospective acknowledgement that a subjectivity—you—has been constituted by this text, and that someone is now looking back upon and narrating you’re having happened here. And now, this “voice” is proceeding to weave you into its own material, which is sutured to the cosmic and the violently technological. That is, “you” exist here as subject in a process of analysis, subdivision, transduction, routing and relay, etc. As reader, you are partly subjected: an operation is happening here, and it is not immediately clear what it intends.
Naturally, to grasp our position, we turn toward the guide. However, its status is ambiguous and unnerving. When its singular pronoun emerges, it acknowledges its own uncertainty: “so I hear; wouldn’t know firsthand of course.” And so the “I” here—tho it changes throughout the book—is first constituted as an (at least) secondhand entity, tho we may simply not be able to trust it on this. Regardless, commerce has begun: “we’re already talking.” And what about? “The vast and systematic impact”—that is, a problem of scale and influence. How enormous, consequential, and interconnected is “this,” whatever it is? We know it has to do with technology and stars, with transmissions cosmic and microscopic, but we soon begin to encounter colonialism and geo-politics as well. Ultimately, this voice—this “voiceprint arthropod”—reveals itself (frequently, tho not always) as a vaguely defined agent of quasi-governmental provenance:
foundations of the buildings we destroyed to lend ourselves an earthed blank for its subsequent reoccupation, an entire city
this is regulated land, this is earth to which we’ve deeded ourselves the rights of measurement and surveillance in perpetuity . . . parceling out to security services public and private and, most importantly, the shadow in between them.
and all this to be remembered when you’re handing out the State Department funds and recognizing the same man from the Agency office and the boardroom at USAID and asking whether it wouldn’t in the long run be more profitable in every sense of “profit” just to let the natives keep burning sheets of rubber for want of firewood or candles I mean we’re used to it they’re used to it why fuck up a good thing or at least a thing that runs steadily
As seen in this final excerpt, the “you” has been made complicit—or it already was. It’s as tho the reader is now receiving instruction, being briefed on their role in this operation (and it is extremely relevant to this text that “operation” signifies both surgery and military exploit). That is, the voice’s “we” contains us in advance; this “we” is inside us, and we appear to be some kind of terminal American:
Project for a New American Century, o please for fuck’s sake plan a Project to Put Us Thoroughly Out of Our Misery
and there’s not a city Americans visit but that they occupy; this is perhaps the foremost modern meaning of ‘American,’ anywhere but in the States themselves, and even there, most of the time
call it the very slow admission of American involvement in, ahem, amazing what kinds of things you’ll find on the local hilltops if you’ve got the time and safety, in the local sense, to look
The final passage here is characteristic of the evasive and insinuating quality the guide often affects: right as it touches on the nerve of all this—American involvement in…EVERYTHING--
it clears its throat, shifts, and speaks more indirectly. Through these five-hundred pages, the voice’s allegiances and perspectives fluctuate -- ultimately being just as much the subject of its operations as their supposed perpetrator -- but never for long is it able to escape 1) its sense of visceral, asphyxiating complicity in horrors and atrocities, and 2) the recurring ecstatic delivery into stars, fugitive zodiacs, dreams of nova.
In a sense, the voice in Post-Solar Histories is a hub or relay space: a central node operating as interface, translator, connector—a kind of psychic modem—routing us through the horrified and horrifying psyche of American conquest. It doesn’t matter where we start, or who we are: we’re already talking, we were an “us” before we had a choice. And given this hyper-connectivity—drawing on a vast, chaotic store of accumulated knowledge—the morally ambiguous, oracular, and utterly relentless voice pushes the reader to the limits of what they can actually read. As Oliver Harris writes of Burroughs’ cut-up trilogy, “It’s ‘unreadable’ in the sense of being impossible to read without being forced to wonder what ‘reading’ is at all.” Locked into Post-Solar Histories for the duration, a reader may have the fleeting experience of annihilation. As its epigraph from Meister Eckhart tells us, total knowledge means the sun is black, and here the sun is absolutely gone. This is the poet as shaman fractally crucified thought intel networks whose aura of total control blots out the sun. This is “post-solar.” The central, illuminating intelligence of ego and identity has been coded into an endlessly dense tapestry of waste fragments, and this chapter’s job is to theorize it for us in “an introduction to the modernized theory of solar waste.” Ultimately, total receptivity to this work would simply evacuate a reader’s subjectivity, enacting psychic eclipse, such that the psychic coding operation of the writing is all there is—to the extent that contact with it can be endured. And so, along with my own feeling of awe and exhilaration while reading this text, I’m also drawn to ask: what does it really mean to read this? What would it mean to need to read this? Can it “be read” in any conventional sense? How? And what does it mean for the writer, its first reader, to have endured it into being?
In what follows, I want to explore these questions with reference to the idea of the pharmakon, to Burroughs’ work, and to another work of Judge’s, The Scenarists of Europe. But I first take a detour through a formative reading experience that, twenty-five years ago, started me on this course.
When I first read Judge’s work, its effect on me was profound. I had little to compare it to but was immediately taken back to my earliest experience of literary art—the first time I was compelled to ask what reading even is. At age fifteen—about the age of Judge’s character Patient when he was still reading his “Series of Americas” [Note: from Judge’s The Scenarists of Europe; see previous posts]— the first work I read with any conscious intent was William S. Burroughs’ The Soft Machine. I could liken the experience only to a dream or a fever:
Islands of garbage where Green Boys with delicate purple gills tend chemical gardens
—Dead postcard you are thinking of?—What thinking?—peeled noon and refuse like ash—Hurry up please—
dumb animal eyes on ‘me’ brought the sickness from white time caves frozen in my throat to hatch in the warm steamlands spitting song of scarlet bursts in egg flesh.
I was completely enthralled and disoriented. My desire for a familiar meaning, for affection and connection, for anything that confirmed my idea of myself or my world—these were totally refused. At first, I had no idea if I liked it or not; however, I couldn’t leave it alone—or it couldn’t leave me. I was simply with it, grafted onto by it—not unlike an infection, or inoculation.
During this period of my life (high school, 1995), I was also going through profound changes personally: breaking with friends, quitting all sports (which had until then defined my identity), and essentially redefining my persona as a complete blank. Most people in my conservative town just treated me like I’d died. And I preferred this. I had gone inward, and in nearly all situations, I simply did not speak. In retrospect, this was the dawning of a lifelong struggle with depression. But all I knew at the time was I wanted out, away from the depressed Ohio town of three thousand people where the future was bleakly “normal” and inflected with random death. And going through all this while immersing myself in the full trilogy and other works of Burroughs, my psyche emerged permanently marked by his work. A path had been traced. But it had little to do with the actual content of the writing (i.e. I had no longing to be a junkie or to otherwise try to outdo his excesses). Instead, Burroughs was my initiation into the intoxicating and disorienting nature of writing itself—the mystery of the Word. As I read more of Burroughs, including biographies and essays, I became fixated on the central questions he posed: what is language doing? And what was it doing to "me"?
Famously, Burroughs stated, “Language is a virus.” That is, it is composed of semantic, grammatical, and somatic units that seek to replicate themselves at the expense of anything that is other than language. Language maps the territory in order to destroy it: “[The word] is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. . . . Try halting your subvocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word.” Drawing us into itself, subjecting us, language is—like a virus—the principle of identity run amok. All the more so when it is bound to instrumental uses, Aristotelian either/or logic, and the effect of advertisement, commodity, and media. For Burroughs, these led into simulations of identity that were little more than disguises for the an inflexible, all-controlling principle of identity that was the enemy of all life, Control. Against all this, he sought silence: freedom from the word’s viral repetitions and structures of domination. Given this, we see that his nevertheless being a writer is an inherently pharmakonic position: he was working with the toxin itself; the cure is the poison, the poison is cure. However, his writing practice sought to work against the inflexible principle of identity, the textual prescriptions to which one must align ones “mechanism.” Instead, Burroughs’ anti-viral writing performs surgery on the viral principle of identity itself.
His most concerted attack against the word-as-virus appeared in the form of the “cut-up” method of writing. Appropriated from his friend and collaborator Brion Gysin—who’d recalled it from Tristan Tzara—the cut-up method involved literally cutting up texts in order to rearrange the pieces and unlock new combinations. According to Burroughs, these new combinations had the ability to “cut word lines,” as he put it: to disrupt linear rationality and habitual thought-patterns. Not only did this reveal meanings that others wanted concealed, but also they exposed what one’s own subjective orientation would edit out. As Burroughs was fond of saying, one could never overcome “the mark within”—that is, the liability of one’s own blindspot. Insofar as each of us were shaped and subjugated by the cosmic propaganda of the Reality Studio, our abilities as readers and writers were limited, suspect, infected. The cut-up method, then, was an antidote, a medicine—a pharmakon—and it worked through alteration, disorientation, and destruction of readerly sensitivity. Ultimately, pharmakonic texts deny those elements which would allow a reader to sustain a familiar feeling of identity while in contact with the work. As Oliver Harris puts it, Burroughs’ texts were “a device for conducting experiments on the reader: learning to ‘read’ cut-ups means not only experiencing textual time travel but living in a new medium, maybe to mutate and grow ‘purple fungoid gills’ like the amphibious Fish People.” In a sense, a reader of Burroughs’ texts becomes his patient, and one’s subjectivity is altered by having familiar circuits by-passed and new pathways written in.
Granted, the experience of having one’s subjective orientation deeply altered is something one must prepare for lest it appear, at first, like an attack. As Burroughs himself suggests somewhere, if writing were capable of delivering its ultimate message—of finally succeeding in what it was trying to do—it would kill the reader. That is, in the Word’s moment of final consummation and presence, it would disappear its only witness: You. At the same time, Burroughs’ The Ticket That Exploded tells us, “Communication must become conscious and total before we can stop it.” And so the pharmakonic experience—for writer and reader alike—is an approach to that horizon where familiar modes of subjectivity are annihilated. Where the interface become the face itself: a deathmask, a collapsed star. When Burroughs went to work on my adolescent self, I was not prepared. But it alerted me to the potential for radical interface between myself and a text: the reflexive space in which the language begins to read me— to show me how I’ve been written in falsely, and thus threaten my self-as-text with a curative instability revealing possibilities for transformation.
Highly sensitive to the work texts can do on the psyche, Judge’s Patient (in The Scenarists of Europe) grows afraid of how close the language in his “Series of Americas” is trying to come. In fact, it is trying to write its way into his very body. It instructs him to recite the following:
Someday I will have a normal stomach. It won’t extend too high and harbor fire-eels in its highest tubes. The eels won’t mutate or be globular fire; they won’t stick like breathing eggs to my stomach’s unnatural regions…
Someday I will have a normal head. It won’t turn hatbrims into planetary dust and choke them with a white unsmelling sweat. The sweat of my head will be distilled. It will turn clear because I have set my lands in order . . . all elements of my head: sanded-down fast by communication. I’ll never have a horn or magnetic ridge where moths are made from metal scrap and treegum. No matter my desires, I will not tap my head like you tap a tree for its syrup. (150-51).
The recitation here a caustic parody and destruction of the catechism. In all its hallucinatory excess, its posits normalcy as the object of desire, but it does so by deranging every possibility for attaining it. This paradox is written-in explicitly in the clause, “Above all I will not become a Patient” (53). That is, the text which inscribes him into its title—“Patient’s Series of America’s”—and simultaneously insists that he not become the very thing it is making him; not be the Patient that he is. This is a vicious double-bind. To betray this tyrannical text, then, is to annihilate himself. Or the self he is taught is the “correct” one. This is what he is to believe. Does he believe? And does he have a choice?
In this sense, Patient’s Series of Americas is for Patient a destructive version of what The Soft Machine was for me: the text as delirious interface. Whereas Patient’s “Americas” were a site of textual confinement and impossibility, Burroughs’ text offered me a way out of the confining rationality of my identity up to that point. It came with its own difficulties and confusions, but in time, it led me away from a life that would have been intolerable for me. Its pages marked for me the opening of a path out. Mercifully for Patient, The Scenarists of Europe offers him the mercy of a similar path. After wandering across a devastated landscape in disoriented horror, Patient has the experience of being “stitched to Ezra,” Judge’s ghostly recreation of Ezra Pound. In this, Patient finds a moment of deliverance that transfers also to Ezra himself, as both eventually experience a radiant passage out of their respective prisons. And yet, in their pharmakonic way, each is profoundly wounded in the process, bearing this wound as a mark as lethal as it is sacred. As we are told later, “He probably won’t ever read the Americas again. Not now that he’s out in them. Or better said: between them” (153). Thus, Patient has moved—or been moved—into an intermediate, ex-static position that has severed identity in order to free it. This is a the pharmakon who has escaped, for now, the fate of the pharmakos, the victim and scapegoat.
Unpacking this as readers ourselves, we move through strata of imaginative material, and this material also enfolds the real. Patient is a reader, and yet he is a fiction; he meets a writer, Ezra, who is also a fiction, but who was once real and living. And this refracts and intensifies the realities of my own actual reading of these texts while also conjuring the reality of Judge’s having written them. And all of this belongs to the imagined, psychic reality of the work itself. Ultimately, it is the writer who occupies the more dangerous position, and the reader is as though drawn into this operation through an interface or, more figuratively, an eclipse of their identity. And elsewhere in Judge’s work, we see other examples of such dual, interwoven and altered identities: Klang and Hibu in …And Egypt Is the River; the two niles, Black and Blue, in Lyrics of the Crossing. These offer us, diegetically, a figure for what is, for the actual reader, an experience of confused merging with the imaginative power of the text itself. However, in the pharmakonic experience, there is a simultaneous evacuation of the familiar subjective orientation and a vivid encounter not with a separate subjectivity, but with a nexus of trans-subjective intensities through which imagination and reality are constituted. The danger of this position is its drawing one down into the spontaneous powers of articulation and dispersal that hold together just as much as they tear apart.
In Burroughs’ The Soft Machine, we see another diegetic enactment of the dangers a pharmakonic writer, and their readers, are drawn into. When agent K9 of the Nova Police is in combat against the Nova Mob whose insistence on control has threatened the very galaxy, we see the subject entering the delirious interface with “alien mind screens” and inverting it: “Pilot K9 caught the syndicate killer image on a penny arcade screen and held it in his sight—Now he was behind it in it was it—The image disintegrated in photo flash of total recognition—Other image on screen” (152). Here, in a literal screen-interface with the enemy, K9 experiences a “total recognition” that leads not to his destruction but to that of the enemy’s confining image. And just as it likely is for the reader, K9 experiences this as a disorientation. Having momentarily gone into eclipse himself, he receives communication from headquarters, saying, “’Pilot K9, you are cut off—Back—Back—Back” (ibid.). There is a moment of lethal possibility here, but Burroughs culminates this passage with the motif of victory that recurs throughout the cut-up trilogy: “Photo falling—Word falling—Break through in Grey Room” (ibid.). The Grey Room, the junk-dependent brain under control, the psyche trapped in a dead reading of the Americas, is here overcome. Whereas the exploitative, softly tyrannical ones who write the Americas pretend to give one exactly what one wants and recognizes, pharmakonic writing denies those elements that would allow a reader to sustain a familiar subjectivity while in contact with the work. And in doing so—in opening the sacred woundedness of its inscription to another, to otherness—it offers new possibilities for orientation, new stars. Photo and word as viral commodities are destroyed. The Patient is redeemed.
Of course, such triumph and redemption are fleeting. And this is in the nature of the pharmakon: were it to eliminate the toxin, it would no longer be pharmakonic—there would be nothing left to cure, no need to become shamanic scapegoat. The principle of self-present identity would reassert itself, purified of sickness. Burroughs recognized this and so modeled his Nova Police on the non-addictive apomorphine cure: that is, once the addiction to junk has been cured, apomorphine was simply no longer required. Likewise, the Nova Police would simply disappear once the Nova Conspiracy had been dismantled; they would not insist on justifying their continued existence through the perpetuation of phony drug wars, population control, bureaucratic entrenchment, etc. As such, apomorpine as a principle seeks to break what I have referred elsewhere to the “sacred double-bind of the pharmakon.” It is a cure that effectively breaks with the poison. And within the Burroughs’ universe, this would require breaking through into total silence—“the most desirable state.”
As with other Burroughsian visions, this one is utopian. And it failed. The pursuit of it also carried him to some dark places. As Oliver Harris notes in his introduction to the fourth edition of The Soft Machine, Burroughs himself declared he had “become a megalomaniac”—that is, a mirror image of the Nova maniacs he was warring against—and was known to indulge in ugly moments of misogyny and anti-Semitism. The toxic part began to outweigh the medicine. And it is easy to hear Burroughs’ own voice echoed in the declarations of his work’s central villain, Mr. Bradley Mr. Martin: declaring his parasitic antipathy to the human species, he declares “All I want is out of here.” Similarly, Burroughs spoke throughout his life of a need to “Go,” to travel, to evolve onward, off the planet. Was he trying to save or to destroy? Was there a difference? Like the junky and the cop, the Nova Police and Nova Mob are pharmakonically entangled, with the cost of their parallactic warfare borne by human beings fated eventually to die, each in their own singular body. As Burroughs recognized in the later Red Night trilogy, whatever reality was awaiting the species in the future, he knew he would not make it and had begun to question the use of all his battles: “I have blown a hole in time with a firecracker. Let others step through. Into what bigger and bigger firecrackers? Better weapons lead to better and better weapons, until the earth is a grenade with the fuse burning. . . . A few may get through the gate in time. Like Spain, I am bound to the past.” The Word, and the counter-writing he enacted in pharmakonic resistance, were his poisoned inheritance, and it would be the only vehicle he’d have to navigate whatever remained for him. In the final part of his last trilogy, The Western Lands, he sees The Old Writer reduced to a living in a box near a river, with his outmoded technology of the written word the only thing left with which to save himself.
In Judge’s Post-Solar Histories, we see a similar interrogation of the pharmakonic principle and a recognition of its double-bind. In the final passages, we read: “because medicine, no mistake, resents you for needing it, carries with it a certain lordly and condescending hauteur, only deigns to act when it acts at all, is a series of contemptuous gestures which only put right the wronged body as a means of both explaining and demonstrating its contempt”. The subject of medicine—the patient, the wronged body—endures contempt and is, in fact, a means of demonstration, a proof. Here, we see a slippage from pharmakon to pharmakos, the victim and scapegoat. The medicine fails. Further, in roughly half a dozen instances throughout the text, we encounter the phrase “nuclear medicine.” Radioactive, carcinogenic, war-bound—a strong figure for the pharmakonic word-as-medicine-as-toxin. Elsewhere in the book, a weapons cache deposited in a foreign country is imagined as a medicine (against the “inverse plague” of the people’s growing too healthy, too powerful). And later, we are overtly presented with a “medicine that kills.” In all these instances and elsewhere, the affliction—physical, psychical, political—calls up a cure and the cure evolves an image of the poison it is working against. This image, then, becomes a kind of field of action. And make no mistake: as with Burroughs’ work, Post-Solar Histories is an act of psychic warfare playing out across hundreds of pages of radioactive, textual collision (thousands if we include the continuity between Judge’s multiple other works—thirty-two, by my count, with a thirty-third in progress).
For the pharmakonic text, its relationship to a hostile alterity—an entity, like Burroughs’ Trak Utilities, whose motive is “Invade. Damage. Occupy.”—is foundational. And this is, ultimately, its precise political agency: the pharmakonic writer is in combat on behalf of an oppressed and occupied world. And while this battle sometimes takes on “spiritual” aspects, in both Burroughs’ and Judge’s work, we are continually reminded of the historical, political, and economic reality of the United States as empire with the capacity to literally destroy the planet in the name of control and profit. Ultimately, the pharmakonic, visionary texts of Judge and Burroughs sound the alarm. They have seen the psyche as a site of war. The planet is quite literally at stake, and these two American writers know that America has always been a lethal con, and Americas are everywhere. In one sense, the pharmakonic text wants to map and annihilate the America within you, the reader. And this is to your benefit. Finding yourself laid out on the page’s operating table, you yourself are read back by this text and thus drawn into that which is written. This is treatment, inoculation. This is writing against extermination, against the total foreclosure of the imagination and its biome. And so the pharmakonic text takes into itself the annihilating mechanism of our psychopolitical reality, and in doing so seeks to subvert it—to reclaim the materia prima of the imaginal and psychic and to re-inscribe it against control, against commodity fetish and addiction. And in doing so, the pharmakonic script must READ this psycho-power and turn it against itself, even re-enacting some of its most violent operations. Because this violence is made powerful through concealment, and by reading it into writing and allowing the written to trace an endless, fugitive zodiac, the psyche is decentered and thereby dis-/re-oriented, cut off from the commodified sun whose centralized intelligence blots the horizon. And so another star emerges. A fractal path unfolds, and there you are. And there it is, "a sarcophagus not only for the dead but likewise for all language that came in contact with it him her, all conceivable tangency of nouns, all connectives, all the earthed and routed voltage, fracture maps of myographic star embedded in the broken edges of glass[.]"