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Peer-Review Record

The Future of Extinction: William S. Burroughs’ The Western Lands

Humanities 2020, 9(4), 142; https://doi.org/10.3390/h9040142
Reviewer 1: Erik Mortenson
Reviewer 2: Oliver C. G. Harris
Humanities 2020, 9(4), 142; https://doi.org/10.3390/h9040142
Received: 28 September 2020 / Revised: 22 November 2020 / Accepted: 25 November 2020 / Published: 8 December 2020

Round 1

Reviewer 1 Report

 

I read “The Future of Extinction: William S. Burroughs’ The Western Lands” with pleasure.  While there were some minor grammatical issues, overall this was a well-written piece that provided much food for thought.  The paper, in my opinion, should be published.  However, I also believe that the author would do well to deepen their focus on Burroughs’s text in ways I will outline below. 

As I see it, the author wants to use ecocriticism and its critique of the “human” to reimagine the possibilities of Burroughs’s novel The Western Lands.  While the author provides a good overview of the theoretical criticism, I believe a bit more analysis of Burroughs’s text and a discussion of how this reading fits into the larger field of Burroughs scholarship is warranted.  The author claims that s/he is “less interested in what Burroughs’ writings mean” than s/he is in the “ways in which Burroughs’ writing can make us think differently about humanity” (40-41).  The author also points out that “this bird’s eye view of The Western Lands is not an interpretation nor a deep analysis. I have simply located some materials for insight that allow us to see what literature might bring in terms of rethinking mankind” (209-210).  I understand the approach offered here but grounding the essay more thoroughly in the text and its place in the scholarship would, I feel, broaden its appeal to readers. 

The author does a good job making a case for the need for rethinking what “human” can and should signify, but the idea that The Western Lands epitomizes this position needs more argumentation.  The author quotes Burroughs statement (twice) that “Man is an unsuccessful experiment caught in a biologic dead end and inexorably headed for extinction” (37-38 and 351). While this claim does indeed support the argument offered, much of the discussion concerning the text is performed without delving into the novel itself (either relying on other critics’ points or making more sweeping generalizations).  Why not offer a more detailed reading of select passages to make this claim?  I am not arguing that the author’s thesis is wrong; on the contrary, I found it convincing.  What I am arguing is that the author’s claims could be strengthened, especially as they relate to Burroughs in particular, in ways that would produce more of a payoff for the reader.

Another way to go about this would be to discuss at more length how this argument enters into Burroughs scholarship.  The question of how Burroughs’s work relates to “the human” has been a central issue from the very beginning of his reception.  I agree that Burroughs’s novel lends itself to the author’s approach, and in general, seems to support his/her thesis.  The author correctly invokes the work of Skau, Dolan, Roberts, and especially Weidner, but if the author wants to produce a paper that is going to circulate among Burroughs scholars and enthusiasts, they would do well to deepen the approach.  While I realize that the paper, like any academic study, is directed towards an audience that is conversant with the dominant narratives of the field, a bit more contextualization would not hurt (same goes with “philo-fictions” which could use a sentence or two more of description [don’t all good works cause us to “think”?], and the claim that Deleuze relied on Burroughs for “his insight into control societies” (384) needs further explanation and perhaps citation as well).  This is even truer when the author deals with Burroughs, who has “done much to flatten and transmute the idea of the human species” (32).  I am by no means attacking this claim (which seems broadly true), but I would like more on how this study fits in (or doesn’t) with other Burroughs scholarship that addresses this issue.  How does this work shed light, say, on an earlier moment of reception that positioned Burroughs’s anti-humanism in postmodern terms?  Burroughs’s work has often been redeemed by appeals to satire (his seemingly anti-humanism is in fact a means of calling us humans to task for our often inhuman behavior).  What does a move to ecocriticism do for that understanding?  In sum, what are the payoffs of this approach for understanding Burroughs and his work? 

A final thought.  Throughout the novel Burroughs mentions that only “one in a million” will make it through the Western Lands, but that that possibility is enough.  Those successful will be those capable of transcending stable notions of humanity that are comforting but ultimately an impediment to the sort of change required of a deceased soul.  Yet the implications of that are that the vast majority will perish, oftentimes horribly.  The author might find little cause for concern given his/her rejection of traditional humanist modes of thought, but I would imagine for a number of readers the idea of mass extinction is indeed troubling.  The author takes the desirability of the end of traditional conceptions of “human” as a given, but would do well, I believe, to better nuance that claim.  What should we make, for instance, of Burroughs’s misogynism?  At several points, Burroughs echoes his long-standing comment that women are a “biological mistake.”  Given that the author is hopeful of moving beyond a human-centered world, should we just not worry about such troubling aspects of Burroughs’s work?  And what about a more recent example—should we consider a disease such as Covid-19 just an opportunity to mutate?  If so, why not just “roll the dice” and see what happens?  In fact, given the recent reduction in pollution due to a slowed economy, should we argue that Covid-19 is actually a good thing for the planet overall?  I am not trying to be facetious; my point is simply that it is easy to talk about transcending the human in abstract and global terms, but much more difficult to talk about the implications of that sort of change on the individual level, and the author would do well to address this difference. 

Author Response

I read “The Future of Extinction: William S. Burroughs’ The Western Lands” with pleasure.  While there were some minor grammatical issues, overall this was a well-written piece that provided much food for thought.  The paper, in my opinion, should be published.  However, I also believe that the author would do well to deepen their focus on Burroughs’s text in ways I will outline below. 

 

As I see it, the author wants to use ecocriticism and its critique of the “human” to reimagine the possibilities of Burroughs’s novel The Western Lands.  While the author provides a good overview of the theoretical criticism, I believe a bit more analysis of Burroughs’s text and a discussion of how this reading fits into the larger field of Burroughs scholarship is warranted.  

 

The author claims that s/he is “less interested in what Burroughs’ writings mean” than s/he is in the “ways in which Burroughs’ writing can make us think differently about humanity” (40-41). The author also points out that “this bird’s eye view of The Western Lands is not an interpretation nor a deep analysis. I have simply located some materials for insight that allow us to see what literature might bring in terms of rethinking mankind” (209-210).  I understand the approach offered here but grounding the essay more thoroughly in the text and its place in the scholarship would, I feel, broaden its appeal to readers. 

 

I have added external references to more scholarship to position my argument more clearly within the field. 

 

The author does a good job making a case for the need for rethinking what “human” can and should signify, but the idea that The Western Lands epitomizes this position needs more argumentation.  The author quotes Burroughs statement (twice) that “Man is an unsuccessful experiment caught in a biologic dead end and inexorably headed for extinction” (37-38 and 351). While this claim does indeed support the argument offered, much of the discussion concerning the text is performed without delving into the novel itself (either relying on other critics’ points or making more sweeping generalizations).  Why not offer a more detailed reading of select passages to make this claim?  I am not arguing that the author’s thesis is wrong; on the contrary, I found it convincing.  What I am arguing is that the author’s claims could be strengthened, especially as they relate to Burroughs in particular, in ways that would produce more of a payoff for the reader.

 

Another way to go about this would be to discuss at more length how this argument enters into Burroughs scholarship.  The question of how Burroughs’s work relates to “the human” has been a central issue from the very beginning of his reception.  I agree that Burroughs’s novel lends itself to the author’s approach, and in general, seems to support his/her thesis.  The author correctly invokes the work of Skau, Dolan, Roberts, and especially Weidner, but if the author wants to produce a paper that is going to circulate among Burroughs scholars and enthusiasts, they would do well to deepen the approach.  While I realize that the paper, like any academic study, is directed towards an audience that is conversant with the dominant narratives of the field, a bit more contextualization would not hurt 

I have added more on the scholarship in general.

(same goes with “philo-fictions” which could use a sentence or two more of description [don’t all good works cause us to “think”?], 

I have expanded on the idea of philo-fiction and its purpose generally and its suitability for the article. 

and the claim that Deleuze relied on Burroughs for “his insight into control societies” (384) needs further explanation and perhaps citation as well). 

I have added a citation for Deleuze using Burroughs and positioned it within my larger argument.  

This is even truer when the author deals with Burroughs, who has “done much to flatten and transmute the idea of the human species” (32).  I am by no means attacking this claim (which seems broadly true), but I would like more on how this study fits in (or doesn’t) with other Burroughs scholarship that addresses this issue. How does this work shed light, say, on an earlier moment of reception that positioned Burroughs’s anti-humanism in postmodern terms?  Burroughs’s work has often been redeemed by appeals to satire (his seemingly anti-humanism is in fact a means of calling us humans to task for our often inhuman behavior).  What does a move to ecocriticism do for that understanding?  In sum, what are the payoffs of this approach for understanding Burroughs and his work? 

I have expanded on the relation to ecocriticism and what use Burroughs is in that respect.

A final thought.  Throughout the novel Burroughs mentions that only “one in a million” will make it through the Western Lands, but that that possibility is enough.  Those successful will be those capable of transcending stable notions of humanity that are comforting but ultimately an impediment to the sort of change required of a deceased soul.  Yet the implications of that are that the vast majority will perish, oftentimes horribly.  The author might find little cause for concern given his/her rejection of traditional humanist modes of thought, but I would imagine for a number of readers the idea of mass extinction is indeed troubling.  

 

The author takes the desirability of the end of traditional conceptions of “human” as a given, but would do well, I believe, to better nuance that claim.  What should we make, for instance, of Burroughs’s misogynism?  At several points, Burroughs echoes his long-standing comment that women are a “biological mistake.”  Given that the author is hopeful of moving beyond a human-centered world, should we just not worry about such troubling aspects of Burroughs’s work?  And what about a more recent example—should we consider a disease such as Covid-19 just an opportunity to mutate?  If so, why not just “roll the dice” and see what happens?  In fact, given the recent reduction in pollution due to a slowed economy, should we argue that Covid-19 is actually a good thing for the planet overall?  I am not trying to be facetious; my point is simply that it is easy to talk about transcending the human in abstract and global terms, but much more difficult to talk about the implications of that sort of change on the individual level, and the author would do well to address this difference.

I have added clarification about the use of mutation and transformation, along with more details about what it is that Burroughs’ writings can do for us, more than his unfortunate views of humans

Reviewer 2 Report

This is a difficult piece of work to assess. On the one hand, it is brimming full of interesting ideas about a range of subjects related to the human, drawing on a good field of sources and focusing on one of William Burroughs’ least-studied novels. It follows in the wake of Chad Weidner’s work while bringing in new ideas, and has a very clear and strong polemical message. It has high potential but falls short in execution.

 

However, the essay would need significant revision to be published. Part of the problem is structural. Ideas are stated and restated throughout the essay but do not seem to develop. In places, not only ideas but quotations and precise phrases are repeated (e.g. “the authority of the human species over the human species” lines 275, 281, 286, 291). In places, entirely new ideas are introduced (e.g. parasites) that have not been prepared for and do not seem integrated into a developing argument.

 

There are also problems of definition: magic, for example, is explained so loosely as to lose any meaning. Passing references to larger ideas or bodies of thought (Foucault here, Deleuze there) are too brief to be very helpful, and likewise short mentions of texts like The Last Words of Dutch Schulz do not add anything.

 

Throughout there are many slips in the writing, either small errors (e.g., “for how to making humanity extinct in our conception of the word”?? [p.2]; “teach is that writing and fiction is” [p.3]; “flows from the his attack” [p.3]; “is mostly connect to” [p.3] “as is several” [p.3] etc.), confusions of logic (“The question then becomes” [p.2]) or both together (the passage on variation at the end of p.8 is extremely hard to follow).

 

One of the other aspects of the essay that needs rethinking is the use of critics. Many are cited and all are agreed with, rather than made use of in order to develop new ideas or engage in a debate. A consensual approach to Burroughs feels counter-intuitive because his writing is always so provocative and contrary. While the essay itself admits that “This bird’s eye view of The Western Lands is not an interpretation nor a deep analysis,” (p.5), there isn’t any textual analysis here. It’s not enough to call the novel’s temporality “disruptive” and quote a line where Burroughs jumbles up people from different epochs (p.6). How does the effect of this text’s non-linearity contrast to other non-linear texts (whether by Burroughs or anyone else), and is this sabotage of teleology always the same, or always mean the same thing? While the final lines claim that The Western Lands is less “focused on destruction” compared to earlier novels, there is no effort to notice destructive material in the text and no comparison is made with other works to demonstrate change over time.

 

Although there are confident and astute observations about Burroughs here, which demonstrate an informed knowledge, the essay fails to apply it in detail or depth: the meaning of his work may be “a notorious problem anyway” but it’s disappointing to make so many large, vague and impressionistic claims. I’d have liked to see some arc of Burroughs’ development, going back to 1950 (“Human, Allen, is an adjective, and its use as a noun is in itself regrettable”) and for it engage with some of the internal friction of his work and some of its affective qualities in enough detail to focus the ideas. This would be a way to prevent the essay remaining at the level of large abstractions and polemical statement.

Author Response

This is a difficult piece of work to assess. On the one hand, it is brimming full of interesting ideas about a range of subjects related to the human, drawing on a good field of sources and focusing on one of William Burroughs’ least-studied novels. It follows in the wake of Chad Weidner’s work while bringing in new ideas, and has a very clear and strong polemical message. It has high potential but falls short in execution.

 

However, the essay would need significant revision to be published. Part of the problem is structural. Ideas are stated and restated throughout the essay but do not seem to develop. In places, not only ideas but quotations and precise phrases are repeated (e.g. “the authority of the human species over the human species” lines 275, 281, 286, 291). 

Repeating quotes and phrases have been removed. 

In places, entirely new ideas are introduced (e.g. parasites) that have not been prepared for and do not seem integrated into a developing argument.

I have prepared the reader for the idea of parasites by adding in references in general to both parasites and the posthuman earlier on. 

There are also problems of definition: magic, for example, is explained so loosely as to lose any meaning. 

 

I have added in Stengers’ definition of magic and expounded on its significance and use in relation to Burroughs’ work. 

 

Passing references to larger ideas or bodies of thought (Foucault here, Deleuze there) are too brief to be very helpful, and likewise short mentions of texts like The Last Words of Dutch Schulz do not add anything.

Throughout there are many slips in the writing, either small errors (e.g., “for how to making humanity extinct in our conception of the word”?? [p.2]; “teach is that writing and fiction is” [p.3]; “flows from the his attack” [p.3]; “is mostly connect to” [p.3] “as is several” [p.3] etc.), confusions of logic (“The question then becomes” [p.2]) or both together (the passage on variation at the end of p.8 is extremely hard to follow).

I have clarified the writing throughout the piece.

One of the other aspects of the essay that needs rethinking is the use of critics. Many are cited and all are agreed with, rather than made use of in order to develop new ideas or engage in a debate. A consensual approach to Burroughs feels counter-intuitive because his writing is always so provocative and contrary. 

I have added more on the non-consensual reception of Burroughs and his fluid sense of meaning.

While the essay itself admits that “This bird’s eye view of The Western Lands is not an interpretation nor a deep analysis,” (p.5), there isn’t any textual analysis here. It’s not enough to call the novel’s temporality “disruptive” and quote a line where Burroughs jumbles up people from different epochs (p.6). How does the effect of this text’s non-linearity contrast to other non-linear texts (whether by Burroughs or anyone else), and is this sabotage of teleology always the same, or always mean the same thing? 

I have contrasted The Western Lands with other, more non-linear works of Burroughs’ and added a discussion of the purpose of non-linear time in The Western Lands

While the final lines claim that The Western Lands is less “focused on destruction” compared to earlier novels, there is no effort to notice destructive material in the text and no comparison is made with other works to demonstrate change over time.

I have drawn in multiple sources of comparison, noted how there is both a continuation of interests and themes, while these themes also develop and change over time.

Although there are confident and astute observations about Burroughs here, which demonstrate an informed knowledge, the essay fails to apply it in detail or depth: the meaning of his work may be “a notorious problem anyway” but it’s disappointing to make so many large, vague and impressionistic claims. I’d have liked to see some arc of Burroughs’ development, going back to 1950 (“Human, Allen, is an adjective, and its use as a noun is in itself regrettable”) and for it engage with some of the internal friction of his work and some of its affective qualities in enough detail to focus the ideas. 

I have added more exposition on the larger trajectory of Burroughs’ interest in the human species.

This would be a way to prevent the essay remaining at the level of large abstractions and polemical statement.

This is a polemical piece, by necessity, but I have added clarification for the need for this polemical stance.

Round 2

Reviewer 2 Report

The revisions really add to and improve the essay, which is now a very interesting and strong contribution to the field.

A couple of minor fixes to make in the writing: 

“quote in a latter” (2) should be “quotation in a letter”

“and turning it in its head” (24) should be “and turn it on its head”

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