The Electronic Revolution is a largely underread work by William S. Burroughs positing the sometimes sinister possibilities of living in the post-industrial age. Often more lucid than his more complicated cut-up based fiction (Naked Lunch, the Nova Express, the Ticket That Exploded) Burroughs examines what in some aspects would now be considered meme-theory: the word as virus.

It begins, "In the beginning was the word and the word was god and has remained one of the mysteries ever since. The word was God and the word was flesh we are told. In the beginning of what exactly was this beginning word? In the beginning of written history." In this sentence alone, one can see the influence of Gertrude Stein's experiments in literary clarity. Repetition allows one to clearly state a series of proclamations with small differences, thus calling attention to the differences.

Burroughs then identifies the semantic theories of Alfred Korzybski, wheras he defines the human as the "time-binding animal," using language to pass on information from one generation to the next using the written word (and thus the clear distinction). "And what then is the written word?" Burroughs continues, "My basic 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..." and BAM!, a paradigm shift in many readers.

It is this thought, the word as virus that has captured ahold of me in my own pursuit of the art of writing. In the art of living. Once this sort of world view is accepted and integrated, the mind becomes like a pendulum shifting between a fatalistic view and a transcendental one. There is, of course, a negative connotation to the word virus that is hard for an English speaker to avoid, possibly due to hard-wired bio-survival programming: the fear of physical human viruses. And there's no reason not to be afraid of the verbal species either, for they can also be used as weapons.

There is a particularly well written section that extrapolates on the consequences of viewing the word as virus:

In an article entitled "Virus Adaptibility and Host Resistance" by G. Belyavin, speculations as to the biologic goal of the virus species are enlarged: "Viruses are obligatory cellular parasites and are thus wholly dependant upon the integrity of the cellular systems they parasitize for their survival in an active state. It is something of a paradox that many viruses ultimately destroy the cells in which they are living..."

And I may add the environment necessary for any cellular structure they could parasitize to survive. Is the virus then simply a time bomb left on this planet to be activated by remote control? An extermination program in fact? In its path from full virulence to its ultimate goal of symbiosis will any human creature survive? Is the white race, which would seem to be more under virus control than the black yellow and brown races, giving any indication of workable symbiosis?...

"Taking the virus eye view, the ideal situation would appear to be one in which the virus replicates in cells without in any way disturbing their normal metabolism..."

Would you offer violence to a well intentioned virus on its slow road to symbiosis?

He goes on (and on, and on, and on) to say that it is possible that the host could never know a virus exists within them. Apply this to words and you have a portrait of a modern totalitarian state. He says that apes don't have a language capability like humans primarily because of their throat structure, and that according to Doktor Kurt Unruh von Steinplatz that structure was modified and mutated by a virus. If you've done your research, you'll find a similar hypothesis positioned by the esteemed Terence McKenna.

Ok, so that's the background of what this slim 1970 volume holds in it. It is not the meat of the book. What Old Bull Lee finally begins to tell us are the possibilities that arise once accepting the word as virus. Terrible things. Great things. But it's all about control, and the unfortunate truth is that control is easy when the word is a virus.

The honest truth is I'd love to just cut and paste the entire publication here, as it is mostly out of print with the exception of a wonderful volume published in Germany by Expanded Media Editions. The cover shows a dog shitting an electrical cord in a wasteland. Flip it over, and the entire text is Deutsch. -- But I know that I can't, and I want to tantalize the reader to seek out this wonderful text, so from here on out, I will summarize its contents.

Imagine a world where revolutionaries carry tape recorders, capable of recording and playing back these viruses. They could be used to: spread rumors, discredit opponents, to incite riots, to stop a riot (though it is easier to cause trouble than to stop it), AS A LONG RANGE WEAPON TO SCRAMBLE AND NULLIFY ASSOCIATIONAL LINES PUT DOWN BY MASS MEDIA. Really, infinite possibilities, all building on the original premise of the word as virus.

I'm working on a short story/novella right now where these concepts are brought to the next logical conclusion... gestalt meets chaos and the sort. If one enjoys the work of William S. Burroughs, and has yet to read his non-fiction, I recommend locating these essays. An excerpt is available in Word Virus, the William S. Burroughs reader. It can also be found on-line at

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