How Burroughs and Digitization Expand Our Understanding of Texts and Archives

Dr. Gontarski’s talk on Tuesday, October 20, concerned the current project of digitizing the William S. Burroughs archive held at Florida State University, which included the history of how FSU eventually obtained manuscripts that were largely unknown to scholars and the larger public. Because I have been involved with the archive since January, much of the information Dr. Gontarski gave was familiar to me; however, I was very interested in many of the ideas and questions that came up during his talk and in the discussion afterwards.

One of the issues raised was, “what is an archive?” We often think of digitization as a process of copying, of creating an image—a stand-in—for something that exists in the “real world” of materiality. People have online avatars that are meant to pictorially stand in for or represent them in some capacity; we scan and upload pictures and make digital copies of documents, often so that we can throw away the physical original that has now become obsolete; and we tend to view online life as an escape or a distraction from reality. Never mind that avatars can be part of a creation of an original online persona (one which is often characterized by an anonymity that people don’t otherwise have) that does not need to reflect who they are in their non-digital lives, or that digital data still takes up real space and is therefore not an immaterial copy. We have hard drives with limited space, after all, and digital texts can be affected in ways similar to traditional texts: they can be lost, corrupted, erased, tampered with, etc. Yet, it is true we still have a reverence towards physical texts. For example, to intentionally delete a thousand copies of a holy book from a hard drive (or to physically damage that hard drive) is not going to have the same effect (likely none at all) as intentionally burning even just one copy. Digitization is perhaps fitting then for an author who was so interested in subverting the conventions and traditional sentiments that are often attached to a physical text.

A digital archive, of course, is not just a copy of a physical archive of material texts—a convenient supplement for someone who does not have the option of dealing with the “real” thing. While it may certainly be the case that the material qualities of a book or a cut-up could be necessary to someone’s research and interests, a digital text has its own unique qualities and capabilities that extend beyond a traditional text, creating new functions and points of accessibility. As one can see from exploring burroughsarchive.org, digitization creates a manuscript text that is searchable, transcribed, and collated with other versions of the text (various drafts as well as the first edition). As the archive grows, so do the possibilities. As indicated by Dr. Gontarski, intertextuality is fundamental to Burroughs’ production of writing, and the digital platform will allow visitors to see each text as more than a singular book. Ideally, a visitor would able to view the tremendous amount of fragmented phrases, paragraphs, and images that traverse Burroughs’ entire corpus, able to observe that so many of these elements are not fixed points but movable parts.

For example, a part of the Crawdaddy piece that I have been working on (published in November 1975) can be found in multiple publications, including Electronic Revolution (1970), the short story “From Here to Eternity” printed in Exterminator! (1973), and even another Crawdaddy piece (April 1976). But these interplays of text are not necessarily restricted to one body of work, i.e. Burroughs’, but may very well, as Oliver Harris suggests in his introductions, refer to other types of texts produced by others. For example, the phrase used the most in the above works is, “It’s the old army game. From here to eternity,” which echoes verbatim two old movie titles. I plan on watching both of these movies to see what kind of connection there may be, if any. It may very well be the case that Burroughs is just referring to the titles of these movies (or perhaps just one of them, likely From Here to Eternity) and the connection stops there, or perhaps even that connection is strained and is merely coincidental. Even if the latter is true, that Burroughs was not intentionally referring to these movies, the echo nonetheless reflects the inevitable repetitions and fragmented relationships that Burroughs’ method points to in the worlds of language and texts. Fragments—words, sentences, etc.—vibrate and resonate with other fragments, creating generative conjunctions and disjunctions of meaning which are often beyond the writer’s control. Burroughs incorporates this aspect of textuality directly into his artistic method, but the implications of his aesthetic principles extend beyond his own work. The digital archive and Burroughs’ ideas point towards the textual instability that is implicit in all works, including those of traditional/canonical authors.

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