February 23rd, 2007

The Day: Part II

happily conversing with the woman next to me about parenting, I didn't give it too much thought. I was already too late to care about being much later. But when we finally arrived at the gate -- or the "gate," to be more precise, since we ended up having to walk across the tarmac before making it inside the airport -- I noticed, looking through my window, that our plane was surrounded by emergency vehicles. I had clearly mistaken "something" for "someone."

It turned out that an American Airlines flight from Dallas that had arrived shortly before us had made an emergency landing. Upon entering the terminal, I saw paramedics left and right and personnel in those shiny, silver moonsuits they use for fighting high-temperature fires. No one looked to be seriously injured, but there were plenty of people coughing. The lingering fear in the air was disturbing to say the least. Some of the passengers on that flight had clearly feared for their lives.

The man who assisted me in getting my rental car appeared to be half-asleep, on heroin, or both. But he did put me in a pretty nifty little Volvo, which is so much nicer than last year's Dodge Charger it blows my mind. It's nice to drive a rental car that actually handles and accelerates. Unfortunately, that was the highlight of my night. When I arrived at my Orbitz-booked hotel, I discovered that it had been overbooked. The non-smoking room I'd requested was not available. Not only that, the smoking room the front-desk man wanted to give me lacked the wireless internet I'd been promised. And he claimed to be incapable of doing anything about it.

I huffed and puffed about how unacceptable that was, then left to see if I could find something else nearby. Apparently, though, there are big conventions in town. The only room I found was way too expensive. So I trudged back to the place I'd booked and was pleasantly surprised that the front-desk man had, against his better judgment, found me a non-smoking room with wireless. "It's the jacuzzi room. I hope I don't get in trouble for giving it to you."

I thanked him for his generosity, then went to check the room. In this part of the United States, a "jacuzzi room" looks an awful lot like a regular room with a bathtub in the middle of it. Still, I was counting my blessings that I'd avoided inhaling the stale scene of cigarette smoke. That wouldn't have helped me fight off this bug that I'm trying to ward off. Needless to say, the wireless internet doesn't work in my room. But I'm at least able to sit here in the lobby and get an intermittent connection. Or was. Oh, well. It's time for bed, assuming that the odd banging noise in the room next to me ceases.

Cut Out

In Convolute N, the most theoretical section of the Passagenwerk, Benjamin emphasizes that it is important, “to say something about the method of composition itself.” (456) A little later, he does just that. His goal is to, “develop to the highest degree the art of citing without quotation marks.” (458) He specifies further: “Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show.” (460) Although we will never know how the Passagenwerk would have looked had Benjamin been able to finish it, his comments on composition in this section imply that he had no intention of making it look more like a traditional work of scholarship. At one point, he proposes to, “outline the story of the Passagenwerk in terms of its development.” (462) In other words, he wished to retain the project’s scaffolding, rather than removing it to reveal the façade underneath. “To say something about the method of composition itself,” then, would be to show, “how everything one is thinking at a specific moment in time must at all costs be incorporated into the project then at hand.” (456)

One effect of this approach to composition, as many of Benjamin’s commentators have noted, would be to collapse the distinction between the “then” being examined and the “now” of its examination. And this is, indeed, something he consciously sets out to accomplish. After comparing his method to, “the process of splitting the atom,” he seeks to explain this provocative analogy by suggesting that the Passagenwerk, “liberates the enormous energies of history that are bound up in the “once upon a time” of classical historiography. The history that showed things ‘as they really were’ was the strongest narcotic of the century.” (463)

Narcotics are, of course, one of the biggest preoccupations of Burroughs’s oeuvre. He does not apologize for his own addictions, but also explains how and why he had to overcome them. Vigorously opposed to anti-drug hysteria and the social ills to which he perceived it leading, he nevertheless lays bare the destructive aspects of drug use with unusual clarity. Ultimately, though, what sets him apart from the vast majority of addicts who have documented their experiences with pharmaceuticals, is his relentless destabilization of the terms of debate. Readers of Burroughs are more likely to come away with the conviction that taking drugs is dangerous than they are to come away with the conviction that they know what drugs are.

In one of the interviews Daniel Odier conducted with him in the late 1960s, first published in French and then translated into English as The Job, Burroughs gives his stance on philosophy. “The Aristotelian ‘either-or’ – something is either this or that – is one of the great errors of Western thinking, because it’s no longer true at all.” (48-49) Prompted to explain why this fundamental mistake has stood the test of time, he explains that, “there are certain formulas, word-locks, which will lock up a whole civilization for a thousand years. Now another thing is Aristotle’s is of identity: this is a chair. Now, whatever it may be, it’s not a chair, it’s not the word chair, it’s not the label chair. The idea that the label is the thing leads to all sorts of verbal arguments, when you’re dealing with labels, and think you’re dealing with objects.” (49) Burroughs then goes on to reinforce this critique of “arguing about labels,” emphasizing that, “when you’re talking about things like democracy, communism and fascism that have no clear-cut references, no clear-cut thing to which they refer, you’re not talking about anything.” (49)

The problem of “not talking about anything” lies at the foundation of the aesthetic strategies he deploys. He wants to pick the “word-locks” that keep humankind in chains. And this goal encompasses the labels associated with substance abuse as fully as the labels associated with politics. In the end, drugs are only “drugs” because of a classificatory apparatus that transforms arbitrary decisions into the semblance of nature.