The theme of the spectacle and reality simulation can be very well grasped in Burroughs’ work in light of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. According to Debord, the spectacle has become one with reality in the postmodern space of production: Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the result and the project of the dominant mode of production. It is not a mere decoration added to the real world.
It is the very heart of this real society’s unreality. In all of its particular manifestations — news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment — the spectacle represents the dominant model of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production. In both form and content the spectacle serves as a total justification of the conditions and goals of the existing system.
The spectacle also represents the constant presence of this justification since it monopolizes the majority of the time spent outside the production process . (The Society of the Spectacle, n. p. ) The spectacle is thus generated by the dominant social class or force via various media which engage individuals in its representational and symbolic modes of exchange but also separate them from actuality. Moreover, the spectacle is aimed at altering perception and ultimately manipulating the mind:
When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings — dynamic figments that provide the direct motivations for a hypnotic behavior. Since the spectacle’s job is to use various specialized mediations in order to show us a world that can no longer be directly grasped, it naturally elevates the sense of sight to the special preeminence once occupied by touch: the most abstract and easily deceived sense is the most readily adaptable to the generalized abstraction of present-day society.
But the spectacle is not merely a matter of images, nor even of images plus sounds. It is whatever escapes people’s activity, whatever eludes their practical reconsideration and correction. It is the opposite of dialogue. Wherever representation becomes independent, the spectacle regenerates itself. In this light, the spectacle appears as an external imposition enforced upon the individual who has become unable to perceive the frame of the staging or the actual string that are drawing the puppets.
The invisibility of the spectacular nature of society is a very significant feature and it is particularly important for William S. Burroughs’s work as the author seems to attempt to render visible this unseen game of mirrors. In the Nova Express or Cities of the Red Night, Burroughs constructs characters whose subjectivity seems to have been displaced by myriad external discourses. The societal masterdiscourses appear in this work in the guise of the “Reality Studio” which has created a “Reality Script” – a system of duplicitous signs designed to overlap with people’s consciousness.
Significantly, these scripts get infected with “viruses”, which, in their turn serve to infect humans: “Ladies and gentlemen, I propose to remove the temporal limits, shifting our experimental theatre into past time in order to circumvent the whole tedious problem of overpopulation. You may well ask if we can be certain of uh containing the virus in past time. The answer is: we do not have sufficient data to speak with certainty; We propose; the virus may dispose…”
Another image that Burroughs employs in order to foreground the ways in which the spectacular society alters perception is that of hallucinogens, an ever-present device in his works: We know that you are the chemist responsible for synthesizing the new hallucinogen drugs many which have not been released yet even for experimental purposes – We know also that you have effected certain molecular alterations in the known hallucinogens that are being freely distributed in many quarters – Precisely how are these alterations effected?