nakedlunch8Still from the film Naked Lunch by David Cronenberg (1991)

I am now at the end of my European trip for Archipelago and a few talks and will soon go back to my desk to write articles more regularly. I am now at the University of Sussex near Brighton where I recorded a podcast this morning with friend Lucy Finchett-Maddock (it will be released in January) that articulated a few of the idea that we had explored together in the past in the context of our epistolary exchange about architecture and the law, her contribution to the Funambulist Papers, as well as her contribution to the Disobedience workshop at Birbeck school of law (London) in 2011 that I published here in the past. The latter was about the notion of naughtiness in the literary work of William Burroughs and that is the object of this not-so-synthetic synthesis of our conversation here.

In the epistolary conversation to which I was referring above, Lucy and I had spoken about the collusion in Indian cities of eminent domain that reclaims an important amount of land to accommodate the conditions of life of the new Indian bourgeoisie, and what we then called “immanent” domain in the presence of the numerous informal settlements that claim land for the bare urban survival of the lowest social classes of the country. While the eminent domain constitutes a strategical modification of the legal system in a spirit that we could define as reminiscence of the colonial spirit, the immanent domain unfolds itself through the practice of the city and within an ambiguous interpretation of property within the legal framework. This immanent domain is what brought us back to Burroughs, and through him, the description of the Interzone that he does in Naked Lunch (1959) and Interzone (1989). The Interzone, as we discussed with Lucy, is both an international zone and a zone in which the law has been suspended. It was inspired to Burroughs by his life as a fugitive in Tangiers, as well as his consumption of heroin that has been one of the objects of his literary work. Burroughs’s descriptions of the Interzone reach a visual richness that even David Cronenberg was not fully able to introduce in his cinematographic adaptation of Naked Lunch in 1991 (longer excerpt at the end of this article):

The physical changes were slow at first, then jumped forward in black klunks, falling through his slack tissue, washing away the human lines…In his place of total darkness mouth and eyes are one organ that leaps forward to snap with transparent teeth…but no organ is constant as regards either function or position…sex organs sprout anywhere…rectums open, defecate and close…the entire organism changes color and consistency in split-second adjustments…

The room seems to shake and vibrate with motion. The blood and substance of many races, Negro, Polynesian, Mountain Mongol, Desert Nomad, Polyglot Near East, Indianraces as yet unconceived and unborn, combinations not yet realized pass through your body. Migrations, incredible journeys through deserts and jungles and mountains (stasis and death in closed mountain valleys where plants grow out of genitals, vast crustaceans hatch inside and break the shell of body) across the Pacific in an outrigger canoe to Easter Island. The Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market. (William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch, New York: Grove Press, 1959.)

The comparison between the Bangalore’s informal settlements and Burroughs’s Interzone in our conversation should in now way be perceived as a romanticization of the urban slums through a reading “from the outside;” this comparison should rather be understood in what they both tell us about the law. The ambiguity of their legal framework that I was evoking above corresponds to what we find in what I often called “the thickness of the line” (see past article), that is the geometrical paradox that makes the ‘perfect’ diagrammatic lines of the law acquire a thickness when they incarnate through architecture. This space contained in the thickness of the line should not be perceived morally as it involves the two faces of the same coin: the suspension of the law, but also the loss of status of subject of rights for each body that inhabits it. Considering these two aspects simultaneously is a tool to avoid the traditional romanticization of these spaces. In some sense, it corresponds well to the description of the heroin of Burroughs that simultaneously offers a rich spectrum of additional perceptions while triggering an addiction that he expresses in the inversion of the anthropocentric consideration of the drug to the drugocentric consideration of the human (“The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product.”) as we can see in a past article comparing Burroughs and Karl Marx.

This addiction, understood as the subjectivization to a strong force from the outside, can be understood as the imprisoning of one body within the thickness of the line, a sort of immurement (see past article) that prevents this body to re-acquire his/her status of subject of rights. The existence of interzones like Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay for instance, is precisely supplying spaces for such an imprisonment in the thickness of the line. The notion of rights is understood as something conventionally (= by convention) given to a body as a member of a given society. It requires for this body to be clearly visible within the diagrams established by the law, and this also includes the possibility for this body to accomplish illegal actions. After all, the law is not an element that attributes duty and freedoms, but rather, an apparatus that wants to be able to categorize each behavior as either “legal” or “illegal.” Being “within the thickness of the line” precisely means not to be able to be visible within the diagrams drawn by the law since the very notion of thickness cannot be understood diagrammatically. What results from this ‘invisibility’ is this loss of status of subject of rights that is experienced by Burroughs’s characters in the interzone, the inhabitants of the Bangalore’s slums, Julien Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy (see past article), the Eritrean refugees at the border of Israel (see past article) and the prisoners of Camp Delta. The degree of choice for being in the thickness of line is different for each of these bodies; nevertheless, they all question the law in the way it unfolds upon the bodies and the way it materialize through architectural apparatuses.

Excerpt of Naked Lunch ///
(William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch, New York: Grove Press, 1959.)

Panorama of the City of Interzone. Opening bars of East St. Louis Toodleoo … at times loud and clear then faint and intermittent like music down a windy street….

The room seems to shake and vibrate with motion. The blood and substance of many races, Negro, Polynesian, Mountain Mongol, Desert Nomad, Polyglot Near East, Indianraces as yet unconceived and unborn, combinations not yet realized pass through your body. Migrations, incredible journeys through deserts and jungles and mountains (stasis and death in closed mountain valleys where plants grow out of genitals, vast crustaceans hatch inside and break the shell of body) across the Pacific in an outrigger canoe to Easter Island. The Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market.

Minarets, palms, mountains, jungle… A sluggish river jumping with vicious fish, vast weed-grown parks where boys lie in the grass, play cryptic games. Not a locked door in the City. Anyone comes into your room at any time. The Chief of Police is a Chinese who picks his teeth and listens to denunciations presented by a lunatic. Every now and then the Chinese takes the toothpick out of his mouth and looks at the end of it. Hipsters with smooth copper-colored faces lounge in doorways twisting shrunk heads on gold chains, their faces blank with an insect’s unseeing calm.

Behind them, through open doors, tables and booths and bars, and kitchens and baths, copulating couples on rows of brass beds, crisscross of a thousand hammocks, junkies tying up for a shot, opium smokers, hashish smokers, people eating talking bathing back into a haze of smoke and steam.

Gaming tables where the games are played for incredible stakes. From time to time a player leaps up with a despairing cry, having lost his youth to an old man or become Latah to his opponent. But there are higher stakes than youth or Latah, games where only two players in the world know what the stakes are.

All houses in the City are joined. Houses of sod-high mountain Mongols blink in smoky doonuays-houses of bamboo and teak, houses of adobe, stone and red brick, South Pacific and Maori houses, houses in trees and river boats, wood houses one hundred feet long sheltering entire tribes, houses of boxes and corrugated iron where old men sit in rotten rags cooking down canned heat, great rusty iron racks rising two hundred feet in the air from swamps and rubbish with perilous partitions built on multi-levelled platforms, and hammocks swinging over the void.

Expeditions leave for unknown places with unknown purposes. Strangers arrive on rafts of old packing crates tied together with rotten rope, they stagger in out of the jungle their eyes swollen shut from insect bites, they come down the mountain trails on cracked bleeding feet through the dusty windy outskirts of the city, where people defecate in rows along adobe walls and vultures fight over fish heads. They drop down into parks in patched parachutes…. They are escorted by a drunken cop to register in a vast public lavatory. The data taken down is put on pegs to be used as toilet paper.

Cooking smells of all countries hang over the City, a haze of opium, hashish, the resinous red smoke of Yage, smell of the jungle and salt water and the rotting river and dried excrement and sweat and genitals.

High mountain flutes, jazz and bebop, one-stringed Mongol instruments, gypsy xylophones, African drums, Arab bagpipes …

The City is visited by epidemics of violence, and the untended dead are eaten by vultures in the streets. Albinos blink in the sun. Boys sit in trees, languidly masturbate. People eaten by unknown diseases watch the passerby with evil knowing eyes.

In the City Market is the Meet Café. Followers of obsolete, unthinkable trades doodling in Etruscan, addicts of drugs not yet synthesized, pushers of souped-up Harmaline, junk reduced to pure habit offering precarious vegetable serenity, liquids to induce Latah, Tithonian longevity serums, black marketeers of World War III, excisors of telepathic sensitivity, osteopaths of the spirit, investigators of infractions denounced by bland paranoid chess players, servers of fragmentary warrants taken down in hebephrenic shorthand charging unspeakable mutilations of the spirit, bureaucrats of spectral departments, officials of unconstituted police states, a Lesbian dwarf who has perfected operation Bang-utot, the lung erection that strangles a sleeping enemy, sellers of orgone tanks and relaxing machines, brokers of exquisite dreams and memories tested on the sensitized cells of junk sickness and bartered for raw materials of the will, doctors skilled in the treatment of diseases dormant in the black dust of ruined cities, gathering virulence in the white blood of eyeless worms feeling slowly to the surface and the human host, maladies of the ocean floor and the stratosphere, maladies of the laboratory and atomic war…. A place where the unknown past and the emergent future meet in a vibrating soundless hum… Larval entities waiting for a Live One …