Nautilus

How to Collapse the Distinction Between Art and Biology

What Xenotext does is cause its audience to reevaluate their ideas of creation, both literary and biological.Illustration by GiroScience / Shutterstock

Language,” the Beat writer William S. Burroughs supposedly once exclaimed, “is a virus from outer space.” Burroughs was making a metaphorical extrapolation about the ways in which words, phrases, idioms, sentences, lines, and narratives can seemingly rewire our brains; how literature has the power to reprogram a mind just as a virus can alter the DNA of its host. Such a concept holds that more than just a simple means of expressing and communicating ideas, language is its own potent agent, a force that actually has the ability to shape the world, often in ways that we’re unconscious of and with an almost autonomous sense of itself. 

As with something biological, language is capable of infecting, of propagating and spreading, of indelibly marking its host. In Burroughs’ characteristically experimental 1962 novel , he writes that “Word is an organism… a parasitic organism that invades and damages.” His concept of the viral nature of language has, appropriately enough, mutated and multiplied across culture, influencing figures from the musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson who composed a piece whose title comes from the Burroughs’ quotation, to the biologist Richard Dawkins’ concept of “memes.” In 1970’s , Burroughs writes that “I have frequently spoken of word and image as viruses or as acting as viruses, and this is not an allegorical comparison.”

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