Writing Outer Space for ‘Potential America’

William S. Burroughs

in Powers of Possibility

Published in print December 2011 | ISBN: 9780199609291
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780191731723 | DOI:
Writing Outer Space for ‘Potential America’

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‘My purpose in writing has always been to express human potentials and purposes relevant to the Space Age.’ That summative statement by Burroughs in 1991 is the starting point of the chapter, which proceeds to look at the ‘cut‐up’ techniques he presented as a literary space programme in his 1960s ‘Nova’ trilogy (The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket that Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964)). The trilogy ends with meditations on the cut‐ups’ capacity to turn textual possibility into ‘biological potentials’. Burroughs develops this further in his ‘Cities of the Red Night’ trilogy (Cities of the Red Night (1981), The Place of Dead Roads (1983), and The Western Lands (1987)), which presents ‘outlaw’ characters intent on exploring alternative modes of space flight (such as astral travelling), all in the name of ‘Potential America’ (‘P.A.’). The chapter offers a detailed reading of the trilogy and presents new scholarship showing how Burroughs fashions a potentialism that engages with wider debates about space colonies, human evolution, and Cold War scientific experiments.

Keywords: potentiality; space programmes; Cold War; evolution; power; cut‐ups; counter‐culture; affects; postmodernism; utopia

Chapter.  18531 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (20th Century onwards)

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