IS LANGUAGE A VIRUS?
Laurie Anderson’s song of 1986—“Language Is a Virus (from Outer Space)”—takes its title from a dubious allusion to William S. Burroughs.
The track was released as a single to promote Anderson’s concert film, Home of the Brave: a compilation of several video recordings from New Jersey’s Park Theater in 1985. The multimedia show featured charming, androgynous Anderson singing, reciting spoken word, playing violin and keyboard, and dancing acrobatically, with more than a dozen fellow musicians and vocalists—including a performance by Burroughs himself.
Alongside the staging’s uncannily timely background projections—of text (expressions like “911” and “THAT MODERN FEELING”), animations (such as kamikaze airplanes, cartoonish televisions, enormous eyeballs), and filmed footage (of deserted industrial sites)—the performers’ costuming remains especially apropos of this and the past year: their heads covered by hazmat-style balaclavas; hands sheathed in sterile white gloves; limbs cloaked in matching lab coats, jumpsuits, or business attire. The atmosphere, redolent of post-apocalyptic purgatory, also exudes hope for utopia—from the refrain that begins and ends the song:
Is exactly like
Where you are right now
Only much, much
Coinciding with the film’s debut, a music video aired on MTV, featuring a different instrumental arrangement—which would be released as the single—and alternate concert footage. Here, the performers wear the same suits, gloves, and balaclavas: their bodies entirely enveloped—save for their exposed mouths.
To open both concert film and music video—projected onscreen—a quotation attributed to Burroughs reads: “Language is a virus from outer space.”
I haven’t encountered this quotation verbatim in Burroughs’s books, but it’s attributed to him—verbatim—in various online outlets, either with an incorrect citation or no citation at all.
In the closest phrasing that I could find, Burroughs begins the essay “Ten Years and a Billion Dollars” by writing: “My general theory since 1971 has been that the Word is literally a virus.” He elaborates: “The Word clearly bears the single identifying feature of virus: it is an organism with no internal function other than to replicate itself.”
Language does “go viral”—communication being communicable—it infects, it infiltrates, it incites human bodies to act and react.
Here, now: I am replicating some language as accurately as I can. For posterity?
Anderson first says “language is a virus” when, in the lyrics’ narrative, the narrator sees someone in a trance uttering the sound ugh, which the narrator’s companion calls a pain cry.
The narrator says, “Pain cry? Then language is a virus.”
The non sequitur makes for a somewhat clumsy and mystifying segue: What renders a pain cry as evidence of language’s virulence?
Anderson doesn’t say “from outer space” in the song lyrics proper.
And I haven’t encountered the word virus in proximity to outer space in Burroughs’s books.
In his novel Nova Express, “word dust drifted from outer space”; but the word wasn’t necessarily virulent there. It’s rather benign: Word dust drifts in the malignant light of “a million drifting screens” throughout the city—a sort of Times Square at the end of the mind, where words litter the gutter and screens reign supreme.
Seventy minutes into the ninety-minute Home of the Brave, Burroughs’s silhouette appears from behind a blue scrim (the contours of his fedora, a dead giveaway) before he appears in the flesh (black suit, white tie), a martini in his left hand and a cigarette in his right, to deliver a thirty-second monologue: the intro to “Sharkey’s Night”—their collaborative track on Anderson’s LP of 1984, Mister Heartbreak.
Burroughs’s participation implies that he must’ve sanctioned Anderson’s use of the quotation. Indeed, in interview footage attached to the music video on YouTube, Anderson says, “This is a quote from William Burroughs: Language is a virus from outer space.”
I sent a message to Ira Siverberg to ask if he knew where I could find a direct quotation; he suggested either “Electronic Revolution” or The Ticket That Exploded. Both sources replicate the concept of the Word Virus—the title of the Burroughs Reader (and a concept that pervades his work)—but neither yielded the exact phrase.
“You know his redundancies are numerous,” Silverberg wrote back.
If language is a virus, does it spread on surfaces?
My lover tells me that language wouldn’t live (would be dormant, inactive) without the human—the host—to write and read, say and hear, sign and see it.
For a decade, I’ve loved this language from A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes: “Language is a skin. I rub my language against the other.”
A virus is a skin: a shell of proteins or lipids encasing DNA or RNA. Viruses purportedly compose 8 percent of human DNA. Is a human a virus?
If we imagine language as a virus, it’s possible, the Burroughs essay imagines, “to rub out the Word.”
I’m rubbing my language, like a salve, against this surface.
I’m rubbing out this word.
I don’t think that language is a virus. A virus is not a metaphor.
In reality, a virus ravages human bodies around the world as I rub out these words.
One of the only large-scale remedies available to us now: face masks—to cover the nose and mouth, because the virus transmits through the salivary droplets and aerosols we emit as we breathe and speak. Speaking to someone has become a particularly fraught experience: I imagine droplets and aerosols—my own and those of others—floating around my face. I picture our droplets and aerosols dispersing through open windows and doors. When strangers approach, I exhale all the way to the end of my breath and hold there; I don’t inhale until we’re six feet away again.
I’m telling you this because my life depends on it.
Because language isn’t a virus, language is a remedy (and we're already in outer space).
Zachary Pace is an editor and writer whose work can be found in The New Engagement, BOMB, Bookforum, Boston Review, Fanzine, Frieze, Literary Hub, Los Angeles Review of Books, PEN Poetry Series, and elsewhere.