Monday, 26 March 2012

William Burroughs - memetics pioneer

In 1970, William Burroughs wrote "The Electronic Revolution". In it he writes:
And what then is the written word? My basis theory is that the written word was literally a virus that made spoken word possible. The word has not been recognized as a virus because it has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host...(This symbiotic relationship is now breaking down for reasons I will suggest later.)
I have frequently spoken of word and image as viruses or as acting as viruses, and this is not an allegorical comparison. It will be seen that the falsifications of syllabic western languages are in point of fact actual virus mechanisms. The IS of identity the purpose of a virus is to SURVIVE. To survive at any expense to the host invaded.
Virus, symbiosis, it not being an analogy - he even talks about "taking the virus eye view" at one point.

Even eariler we had this - from "The Ticket That Exploded" (1962):

From symbiosis to parasitism is a short step. The word is now a virus. The flu virus may once have been a healthy lung cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the lungs. The word may once have been a healthy neural cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal 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.
A little later came this - from the essay Ten years and a billion dollars - reprinted in The Adding Machine: Selected Essays (1985):

My general theory since 1971 has been that the word is literally a virus, and that it has not been recognized as such because it has achieved a state of relatively stable symbiosis with its human host; that is to say, the word virus (the Other Half) has established itself so firmly as an accepted part of the human organism that it can now sneer at gangster viruses like smallpox and turn them in to the Pasteur Institute. But the Word clearly bears the single identifying feature of a virus: it's an organism with no internal function other than to replicate itself.
William Burroughs seems to have grasped a fair chunk of the essence of memetics in these paragraphs - and he did so quite early on. A case of art and science meeting, perhaps.

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