by Steven Shaviro

©1995-1997 Steven Shaviro

"Which came first, the intestine or the tapeworm?" In this epigram, Burroughs suggests that parasitism--corruption, plagiarism, surplus appropriation--is in fact conterminous with life itself. The tapeworm doesn't simply happen to attach itself to an intestine that was getting along perfectly well without it. Say rather that the intestine evolved in the way that it did just in order to provide the tapeworm with a comfortable or profitable milieu, an environment in which it might thrive. My intestines are on as intimate terms with their tapeworms as they are with my mouth, my asshole, and my other organs; the relationship is as 'intrinsic' and 'organic' in the one case as it is in the other. Just like the tapeworm, I live off the surplus-value extracted from what passes through my stomach and intestines. Who's the parasite, then, and who's the host? The internal organs are parasitic upon one another; the organism as a whole is parasitic upon the world. My 'innards' are really a hole going straight through my body; their contents--shit and tapeworm--remain forever outside of and apart from me, even as they exist at my very center. The tapeworm is more "me" than I am myself. My shit is my inner essence; yet I cannot assimilate it to myself, but find myself always compelled to give it away. (Hence Freud's equation of feces with money and gifts; and Artaud's sense of being robbed of his body and selfhood every time he took a shit). Interiority means intrusion and colonization. Self-identity is ultimately a symptom of parasitic invasion, the expression within me of forces originating from outside.

And so it is with language. In Burroughs' famous dictum, language is a virus. Language is to the brain (and the speaking mouth and the writing or typing hand, and the listening ear and the reading eyes) as the tapeworm is to the intestines. Even more so: it may just be possible to find a digestive space free from parasitic infection (though this is extremely unlikely), but we will never find an uncontaminated mental space. Strands of alien DNA unfurl themselves in our brains, just as tapeworms unfurl themselves in our guts. Burroughs suggests that not just language, but "the whole quality of human consciousness, as expressed in male and female, is basically a virus mechanism." This is not to claim, in the manner of De Saussure and certain foolish poststructuralists, that all thought is linguistic, or that social reality is constituted exclusively through language. It is rather to deprivilege language--and thus to take apart the customary opposition between language and immediate intuition--by pointing out that nonlinguistic modes of thought (which obviously exist) are themselves also constituted by parasitic infiltration. Visual apprehension and the internal time sense, to take just two examples, are both radically nonlinguistic; but they too, in their own ways, are theaters of power and surplus-value extraction. Light sears my eyeballs, leaves its traces violently incised on my retinas. Duration imposes its ungraspable rhythms, emptying me of my own thought. Viruses and parasitic worms are at work everywhere, multiple outsides colonizing our insides. There is no refuge of pure interiority, not even before language. Whoever we are, and wherever and however we search, "we are all tainted with viral origins."

Burroughs' formulation is of course deliberately paradoxical, since viruses are never originary beings. They aren't self-sufficient, or even fully alive; they always need to commandeer the cells of an already-existing host in order to reproduce. A virus is nothing but DNA or RNA encased in a protective sheath; that is to say, it is a message --encoded in nucleic acid--whose only content is an order to repeat itself. When a living cell is invaded by a virus, it is compelled to obey this order. Here the medium really is the message: for the virus doesn't enunciate any command, so much as the virus is itself the command. It is a machine for reproduction, but without any external or referential content to be reproduced. A virus is a simulacrum: a copy for which there is no original, emptily duplicating itself to infinity. It doesn't represent anything, and it doesn't have to refer back to any standard measure or first instance, because it already contains all the information--and only the information--needed for its own further replication. Marx's famous description of capital applies perfectly to viruses: "dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks."

Reproduction (sexual or otherwise) is often sentimentally regarded as the basic activity and fundamental characteristic of life. It's only through reproduction that natural selection does its work. But look a bit more closely: reproduction is arguably more a viral than a vital process. It is so far from being straightforwardly 'organic,' that it necessarily involves vampirism, parasitism, and cancerous simulation. We are all tainted with viral origins, because life itself is commanded and impelled by something alien to life. The life possessed by a cell, and all the more so by a multicellular organism, is finally only its ability to carry out the orders transmitted to it by DNA and RNA. It scarcely matters whether these orders originate from a virus, or from what we conceive as the cell's own nucleus. For this distinction is only a matter of practical convenience. It is impossible actually to isolate the organism in a state before it has been infiltrated by viruses, or altered by mutations; we cannot separate out the different segments of DNA, and determine which are intrinsic to the organism and which are foreign. Our cells' own DNA is perhaps best regarded as a viral intruder that has so successfully and over so long a stretch of time managed to insinuate itself within us, that we have forgotten its alien origin. Richard Dawkins suggests that our bodies and minds are merely "survival machines" for replicating genes, "gigantic lumbering robots" created for the sole purpose of transmitting DNA. Burroughs describes language (or sexuality, or any form of consciousness) as "the human virus." All our mechanisms of reproduction follow the viral logic according to which life produces death, and death in turn lives off life. And so remember this the next time you gush over a cute infant. "Cry of newborn baby gurgles into death rattle and the crystal skull," Burroughs writes, "THAT IS WHAT YOU GET FOR FUCKING."

Language is one of these mechanisms of reproduction. Its purpose is not to indicate or communicate any particular content, so much as to perpetuate and replicate itself. The problem with most versions of communications theory is that they ignore this function, and naively present language as a means of transmitting information. Yet language, like a virus or like capital, is in itself entirely vacuous: its supposed content is only a contingent means (the host cell or the particular commodity form) that it parasitically appropriates for the end of self-valorization and self-proliferation. Apart from the medium, there's no other message. But if language cannot be apprehended in terms of informational content, still less can it be understood on the basis of its form or structure, in the manner of Saussure, Chomsky, and their followers. Such theorists make an equivalent, but symmetrically opposite, error to that of communications theory. They substitute inner coherence for outer correspondence, differential articulation for communicative redundancy, self-reference for external reference; but by isolating language's self-relational structure or transformational logic, they continue to neglect the concrete and pragmatic effects of its violent replicating force. Both communicational and structural approaches try to define what language is, instead of looking at what it does. They both fail to come to grips with what J. L. Austin calls the performative aspect of linguistic utterance: the sense in which speaking and writing are actions, ways of doing something, and not merely ways of (con)stating or referring to something. (Of course, stating and referring are in the last analysis themselves actions). Language does not represent the world: it intervenes in the world, invades the world, appropriates the world. The supposed postmodern "disappearance of the referent" in fact testifies to the success of this invasion. It's not that language doesn't refer to anything real, but--to the contrary--that language itself has become increasingly real. Far from referring only to itself, language is powerfully intertwined with all the other aspects of contemporary social reality. It is a virus that has all too fully incorporated itself into the life of its hosts.

A virus has no morals, as Rosa von Praunheim puts it, talking about HIV; and similarly the language virus has no meanings. Even saying that language is performative doesn't go far enough; for it leaves aside the further question of what sort of act is being performed, and just who is performing it. It is not "I" who speaks, but the virus inside me. And this virus/speech is not a freestanding action, but a motivated and directed one: a command. Morse Peckham, Deleuze and Guattari, and Wittgenstein all suggest that language is less performative than it is imperative or prescriptive: to speak is to give orders. To understand language and speech is to acknowledge these orders: to obey them or resist them, but to react to them in some way. An alien force has taken hold of me, and I cannot not respond. Our bodies similarly respond with symptoms to infection, or to the orders of viral DNA and RNA. As Burroughs reminds us: "the symptoms of a virus are the attempts of the body to deal with the virus attack. By their symptoms you shall know them... if a virus produces no symptoms, then we have no way of knowing that it exists." And so with all linguistic utterances: I interpret a statement by reacting to it, which is to say by generating a symptom. Voices continually call and respond, invoke and provoke other voices. Speaking is thus in Foucault's sense an exercise of power: "it incites, it induces, it seduces, it makes easier or more difficult; in the extreme it constrains or forbids absolutely; it is nevertheless always a way of acting upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of acting. A set of actions upon other actions." Usually we obey orders that have been given us, viscerally and unreflectively; but even if we self-consciously refuse them, we are still operating under their constraint, or according to their dictation. Yet since an order is itself an action, and the only response to an action is another action, what Wittgenstein ironically calls the "gulf between an order and its execution" always remains. I can reply to a performance only with another performance; it is impossible to step outside of the series of actions, to break the chain and isolate once and for all the `true' meaning of an utterance. The material force of the utterance compels me to respond, but no hermeneutics can guarantee or legislate the precise nature of my response. The only workable way to define "meaning" is therefore to say, with Peckham, that it is radically arbitrary, since "any response to an utterance is a meaning of that utterance." Any response whatsoever. This accounts both for the fascistic, imperative nature of language, and for its infinite susceptibility to perversion and deviation. Strands of DNA replicate themselves ad infinitum. But in the course of these mindless repetitions, unexpected reactions spontaneously arise, alien viruses insinuate themselves into the DNA sequence, and radiation produces random mutations. It's much like what happens in the children's game 'Telephone': even when a sentence is repeated as exactly as possible, it tends to change radically over the course of time.

We all have parasites inhabiting our bodies; even as we are ourselves parasites feeding on larger structures. Call this a formula for demonic or vampiric possession. The great modernist project was to let the Being of Language shine forth, or some such grandiose notion. If "I" was not the speaker, the modernists believed, this was because language itself spoke to me and through me. Heidegger is well aware that language consists in giving orders, but he odiously idealizes the whole process of command and obedience. Today, we know better. We must say, contrary to Heidegger and Lacan, that language never "speaks itself as language": it's always some particular parasite, with its own interests and perspective, that's issuing the orders and collecting the profits. What distinguishes a virus or parasite is precisely that it has no proper relation to Being. It only inhabits somebody else's dwelling. Every discourse is an unwelcome guest that sponges off me, without paying its share of the rent. My body and home are always infested--whether by cockroaches and tapeworms, or by Martians and poltergeists. Language isn't the House of Being, but a fairground filled with hucksters and con artists. Think of Melville's Confidence Man; or Burroughs' innumerable petty operators, all pulling their scams. Michel Serres, in his book The Parasite, traces endless chains of appropriation and transfer, subtending all forms of communication. (He plays on the fact that in French the word parasite has the additional connotation of static, the noise on the line that interferes with or contaminates every message). In this incessant commerce, there is no Being of language. But there are always voices: voices and more voices, voices within and behind voices, voices interfering with, replacing, or capturing other voices.

I hear these voices whenever I speak, whenever I write, whenever I pick up the telephone. Marshall McLuhan argues that technological change literally produces alterations in the ratio of our senses. The media are artificially generated parasites, prosthetic organs, "the extensions of man." Contemporary electronic media are particularly radical, as they don't just amplify one sense organ or another, but represent an exteriorization of the entire human nervous system. Today we don't need shamans any longer, since modems and FAXes are enough to put us in contact with the world of vampires and demons, the world of the dead. Viruses rise to the surface, and appear not just in the depths of our bodies, but visibly scrawled across our computer and video screens. In William Gibson's Count Zero, the Haitian loas manifest themselves in cyberspace: spirits arising in the interstices of our collectively extended neurons, and demanding propitiation. In DOOM PATROL, we learn that the telephone is "a medium through which ghosts might communicate"; words spoken over the phone are "a conjuration, a summoning." The dead are unable fully to depart from the electronic world. They leave their voices behind, resonating emptily after them. The buzzing or static that we hear on the telephone line is the sum of all the faint murmurings of the dead, blank voices of missed connections, echoing to infinity. These senseless utterances at once feed upon, and serve as the preconditions for, my own attempts to generate discourse. But such parasitic voices also easily become fodder for centralizing apparatuses of power, like the military's C3I system (command/control/communication/intelligence). DOOM PATROL reveals that the Pentagon is really a pentagram, "a spirit trap, a lens to focus energy." The "astral husks" of the dead are trapped in its depths, fed to the voracious Telephone Avatar, and put to work on the Ant Farm, "a machinery whose only purpose is to be its own sweet self." As Burroughs similarly notes, the life-in-death of endless viral replication is at once the method and the aim of postmodern arrangements of power.

No moribund humanist ideologies will release us from this dilemma. Precisely by virtue of their obsolescence, calls to subjective agency, or to collective imagination and mobilization, merely reinforce the feedback loops of normalizing power. For it is precisely by regulating and punishing ourselves, internalizing the social functions of policing and control, that we arrive at the strange notion that we are producing our own proper language, speaking for ourselves. Burroughs instead proposes a stranger, more radical strategy: "As you know inoculation is the weapon of choice against virus and inoculation can only be effected through exposure." For all good remedies are homeopathic. We need to perfect our own habits of parasitism, and ever more busily frequent the habitations of our dead, in the knowledge that every self-perpetuating and self-extending system ultimately encounters its own limits, its own parasites. Let us become dandies of garbage, and cultivate our own tapeworms, like Uncle Alexander in Michel Tournier's novel Gemini (Les Météores). Let us stylize, enhance, and accelerate the processes of viral replication: for thereby we increase the probability of mutation. In Burroughs' vision, "the virus plagues empty whole continents. At the same time new species arise with the same rapidity since the temporal limits on growth have been removed... The biologic bank is open." It's now time to spend freely, to mortgage ourselves beyond our means.

Don't try to express "yourself", then; learn rather to write from dictation, and to speak rapturously in tongues. An author is not a sublime creator, as Dr. Frankenstein wanted to be. E is more what is called a channeller, or what Jack Spicer describes as a radio picking up messages from Mars, or what Jacques Derrida refers to as a sphincter. Everything in Burroughs' fiction is resolved into and out of a spinning asshole, which is also finally a cosmic black hole. In Chester Brown's graphic novel Ed the Happy Clown (originally published in his comic book Yummy Fur), there is a man who suffers from a bizarre compulsion: he can't stop shitting. More comes out than he could ever possibly have put in. It turns out that his asshole is a gateway to another dimension, a transfer point between worlds. This other dimension isn't much different from ours: it has its own hierarchies of money and power, its own ecological dilemmas, and even its own Ronald Reagan. The interference between the two worlds leads to a series of hysterical sexual fantasies, grotesque amputations, and surreal confusions of identity. But what's important is the process of transmission, not the nature of the product. That's the secret of scatology: waste is the only wealth. "Why linger over books to which the author has not been palpably constrained?" (Bataille). This constraint, this pressure in my intestines and bowels, marks the approach of the radically Other. It's in such terms, perhaps, that we can best respond to George Clinton's famous exhortation: "Free your mind, and your ass will follow."

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