William S. Burroughs’ Manifesto for Overthrowing a Corrupt Government with Fake News and Other Prophetic Methods: It’s Now Published for the First Time

The Boy Scouts of Amer­i­ca have faced some deserved crit­i­cism, unde­served ridicule, and have been cru­el­ly used as props, but I think it’s safe to say that they still bear a pret­ty whole­some image for a major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans. That was prob­a­bly no less the case and per­haps a good deal more so in 1969, but the end of the six­ties was not by any stretch a sim­pler time. It was a peri­od, writes Scott McLemee, “when the My Lai Mas­sacre, the Man­son Fam­i­ly and the Weath­er Under­ground were all in the news.” The Zodi­ac Killer was on the loose, a gen­er­al air of bleak­ness pre­vailed.

William S. Bur­roughs respond­ed to this mad­ness with a counter-mad­ness of his own in “The Revised Boy Scout Man­u­al,” “an impas­sioned yet some­times inco­her­ent rebuke to ossi­fied polit­i­cal ide­olo­gies,” writes Kirkus. We can pre­sume Bur­roughs meant his instruc­tions for over­throw­ing cor­rupt gov­ern­ments to satir­i­cal­ly com­ment on the out­doorsy sta­tus quo youth cult. But we can also see the man­u­al tak­ing as its start­ing point cer­tain val­ues the Scouts cham­pi­on, at their best: obses­sive atten­tion to detail, Mac­Gyver-like inge­nu­ity, and good old Amer­i­can self-reliance.

Want to bring down the gov­ern­ment? You can do it your­self… with fake news.

Boing Boing quotes a long pas­sage from the book that shows Bur­roughs as a com­pre­hen­sive, if not quite whole­some, Scout advi­sor, describ­ing how one might use mass media’s meth­ods to dis­rupt its mes­sage, and to trans­mit mes­sages of your own. We might think he is fore­see­ing, even rec­om­mend­ing, tech­niques we now see used to a no-longer-shock­ing degree.

You have an advan­tage which your oppos­ing play­er does not have. He must con­ceal his manip­u­la­tions. You are under no such neces­si­ty. In fact you can adver­tise the fact that you are writ­ing news in advance and try­ing to make it hap­pen by tech­niques which any­body can use.

And that makes you NEWS. And a TV per­son­al­i­ty as well, if you play it right. 

You con­struct fake news broad­casts on video cam­era… And you scram­ble your fab­ri­cat­ed news in with actu­al news broad­casts.

We might read in Bur­roughs’ instruc­tions the meth­ods of YouTube pro­pa­gan­dists, social media manip­u­la­tors, and some of the most pow­er­ful peo­ple in the world. Bur­roughs does not rec­om­mend tak­ing over the media appa­ra­tus by seiz­ing its pow­er, but rather using tech­nol­o­gy to make “cut­up video tapes” and ham radio broad­casts fea­tur­ing doc­u­men­tary media spliced togeth­er with fab­ri­ca­tions. These “tech­niques could swamp the mass media with total illu­sion,” he writes. “It will be seen that the fal­si­fi­ca­tions in syl­lab­ic West­ern lan­guages are in point of fact actu­al virus mech­a­nisms.”

Bur­roughs is not sim­ply writ­ing a ref­er­ence for mak­ing fear­mon­ger­ing pro­pa­gan­da. Even when it comes to the sub­ject of fear, he some­times sounds as if he is revis­ing Sergei Eisenstein’s mon­tage the­o­ry for his own sim­i­lar­ly vio­lent times. “Let us say the mes­sage is fear. For this we take all the past fear shots of the sub­ject we can col­lect or evoke. We cut these in with fear words and pic­tures, with threats, etc. This is all act­ed out and would be upset­ting enough in any case. Now let’s try it scram­bled and see if we get an even stronger effect.”

What would this effect be? One “com­pa­ra­ble to post-hyp­not­ic sug­ges­tion”? Who is the audi­ence, and would they be, a la Clock­work Orange, a cap­tive one? Did Bur­roughs see peo­ple on street cor­ners screen­ing their cut-up videos, despite the fact that con­sumer-lev­el video tech­nol­o­gy did not yet exist? Is this a cin­e­mat­ic exper­i­ment, mass media-age occult rit­u­al, com­pendi­um of prac­ti­cal mag­ic for insid­er media adepts?

See what you can make of Bur­roughs’ “The Revised Boy Scout Man­u­al” (sub­ti­tled “an elec­tron­ic rev­o­lu­tion”). The book has been reis­sued by the Ohio State Press, with an after­word (read it here) by V. Vale, pub­lish­er of the leg­endary, rad­i­cal mag­a­zine RE/Search, who excerpt­ed a part of the “Revised Man­u­al” in the ear­ly 1980s and planned to pub­lish it in full before “a per­son­al rela­tion­ship blowup” put an end to the project.

McLemee titles his review of Burrough’s redis­cov­ered man­i­festo “Dis­tant Ear­ly Warn­ing,” and much of it does indeed sound eeri­ly prophet­ic. But we should also bear in mind the book is itself a coun­ter­cul­tur­al pas­tiche, designed to scram­ble minds for rea­sons only Bur­roughs tru­ly knew. He was a “prac­tic­ing Sci­en­tol­o­gist at the time” of the book’s com­po­si­tion, “albeit not for much longer,” and he does pre­scribe use of the e‑meter and makes scat­tered ref­er­ences to L. Ron Hub­bard. But as a prac­ti­tion­er of his own pre­cepts, Bur­roughs would not have writ­ten a mono­graph uncrit­i­cal­ly pro­mot­ing one belief sys­tem or anoth­er. (Well, maybe just the once.) He also quotes Hassan‑I Sab­bah, dis­cuss­es Mayan hiero­glyph­ics, and talks Gen­er­al Seman­tics.

“The Revised Boy Scout Man­u­al” “has ele­ments of lib­er­tar­i­an man­i­festo, para­mil­i­tary hand­book, revenge fan­ta­sy and dark satire,” McLemee writes, “and wher­ev­er the line between fic­tion and non­fic­tion may be, it’s nev­er clear for long.” In this, Bur­roughs only scram­bles ele­ments already in abun­dance at the end of the six­ties and in the ear­ly sev­en­ties, dur­ing which he revised and record­ed the work sev­er­al times as he tran­si­tioned him­self out of an orga­ni­za­tion that main­tained total con­trol through mass media. Like Mar­shall McLuhan, Noam Chom­sky and oth­ers, he was begin­ning to see this phe­nom­e­non every­where he looked. Bur­roughs’ most last­ing influ­ence may be that, like the late-60s Sit­u­a­tion­ists, he devised a cun­ning and effec­tive way to turn mass media in on itself, one with per­haps more sin­is­ter impli­ca­tions.

via Boing Boing

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How William S. Bur­roughs Embraced, Then Reject­ed Sci­en­tol­ogy, Forc­ing L. Ron Hub­bard to Come to Its Defense (1959–1970)

How William S. Bur­roughs Used the Cut-Up Tech­nique to Shut Down London’s First Espres­so Bar (1972)

When William S. Bur­roughs Appeared on Sat­ur­day Night Live: His First TV Appear­ance (1981)

5 Ani­ma­tions Intro­duce the Media The­o­ry of Noam Chom­sky, Roland Barthes, Mar­shall McLuhan, Edward Said & Stu­art Hall

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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