To Dis or not to Dis? Disobedience and the Case of the Naughty in Relation to Law

This piece was ori­gin­ally written for and presented at the Disobedience Workshop (20 – 21 May 2011) at the School of Law, Birkbeck College.

Since put­ting to­gether my ab­stract a few months ago, there have been some al­ter­a­tions and ad­di­tions and ana­lo­gies that have in­flu­enced the writing of this piece. I have been reading, and I have to say, not his en­tire opus, but some of the early writ­ings of the American Beat nov­elist and poet, William Burroughs. Whether I have liked it or not, he has mis­chiev­ously and some­what mys­ter­i­ously found his way into this paper, and whether he is ap­plic­able or not we shall soon find out too. So the writing has been kid­napped some­what, by Burroughs, leading to a more sin­ister ap­pre­ci­ation of dis­obedi­ence and law’s response.


I have de­cided to focus on naugh­ti­ness, as a way of being, a re­la­tion to, and product of, the pres­ence of law, or au­thority. ‘Naughtiness’, is as­sumed to be con­sidered a form of dis­obedi­ence, and even rep­res­ents the very ‘dis’ of dis­obedi­ence it­self. ‘Dis’ means to set apart, to un­ravel, to de­con­struct – ‘dis’secting. ‘dis’respecting’, ‘dis’sonance, ‘dis’ease, ‘dis’senting’, ‘dis’embodying, ‘dis’membering. In the form of naugh­ti­ness, it is the manner in which we are not obed­ient, the way in which au­thority enters daily life by our pro­active denial of its pres­ence. It is a prac­tical and ver­nacular form of res­ist­ance to law.

As one tries to write on naugh­ti­ness, the ques­tion that re­turns once and time again, is ‘what is naugh­ti­ness’? Definitions speak of mis­be­ha­viour, mis­doing, wrong­doing and ant­onyms of good­ness. When you are naughty, you are ‘up-​to-​no-​good’. In Italian, the trans­la­tion is ‘in­dis­cip­line’, the lack of obed­i­ence and dis­cip­line. In Spanish, it is ‘trave­sura’, to tra­verse, to turn up­side down. In French it is just plain bad con­duct. But is naughty really bad? It is un­deni­ably a form of willful dis­obedi­ence. Figures such as Mae West (1893 – 1980) made her ca­reer on ‘being naughty’, stating: “I be­lieve in cen­sor­ship. I made a for­tune out of it.” This is very much an adult naugh­ti­ness, one of tit­il­la­tion and mild sexual in­de­cency, but more often than not, naugh­ti­ness also relates to chil­dren and their playful dis­obedi­ence. In the 14th cen­tury, ‘naughti’ in­curred being ‘needy’, or having nothing, or in­dic­ating a nought, or lack. The wicked­ness and moral wrong­ness is at­tested from then 1520s. From the 1630s, it takes on its more mis­chievous form with which we are fa­miliar with today.

Naughtiness ap­pears throughout lit­er­ature through Shakespeare, the Bible, and even Monty Python. As we know from the film ‘The Life of Brian’: “He’s not the Messiah — he’s a very naughty boy.” And so he is not some­thing — he is cer­tainly not the Messiah, and that which makes him that nought (which is being told off by your mother in front of a great deal of people), is be­having in­cor­rectly in the eyes of someone else, or some form of au­thority. Within the Bible, naugh­ti­ness is wicked and evil and rep­res­ents sinful ex­ist­ence and that from which one should seek re­demp­tion: “Wherefore lay apart all filthi­ness and su­per­fluity of naugh­ti­ness, and re­ceive with meek­ness the en­grafted word, which is able to save your souls.” Shakespeare of­fers a dystopic vision of naugh­ti­ness in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, as Portia sees a light in the dis­tance: How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”


The evasive nature of pin­pointing naugh­ti­ness is in­dic­ative of its func­tion and form as a way of being, and as a way of acting. It seems as though naugh­ti­ness comes from an in­des­crib­able ‘nought’ (hinting to its ety­mo­logy), a space of com­promise, or some­where in between. “Where does Burroughs fit into this?”, you might ask. I re­cently started reading Burroughs, not in an aca­demic con­text, but one purely just to read. Having read only a seg­ment of his work, and that of his earlier tri­logy of works, ‘Queer’, ‘Junky’ and ‘Naked Lunch’, my know­ledge is not one of a Burroughs fan­atic. But it is enough to de­tect the rel­ev­ance of law, and the manner in which law relates to Burroughs’ writing style, his ex­per­i­ences in life, and the way law is evaded, un­der­stood and util­ised in sym­bi­osis, throughout the snap­shot that I have read. To de­scribe Burroughs as naughty, would seem wrong, but at the same time as law being present throughout, there are in­stances where Burroughs’ be­ha­viour acts in the same evasive, dif­fi­cult to de­scribe way that at­tempting to cat­egorise naugh­ti­ness acts too. Despite Burroughs’ seeming de­tach­ment from his world, you know that here is a man that tran­quil­ises him­self due to the heav­i­ness or over­whelm­ing­ness of his sur­round­ings, and his vul­ner­ab­ility and sens­it­ivity al­most aches from the char­acter Bill Lee, in Queer spe­cific­ally. This middle-​aged gay mis­nomer, who falls in love with Allerton, a younger, ex­per­i­mental char­acter whom con­siders Lee as someone he wouldn’t wish cer­tain friends to know about. It is this aching that reaches out as an in­stance of the pres­ence of a norm, and its ex­pect­a­tions, and the way in which Lee does not fit these so­ci­etal rules and anticipations.

Burroughs was gay, and a writer who, amongst other things, was riddled with the phys­ical ef­fects of heroin and opiate ad­dic­tion throughout the ma­jority of his life. Despite that, he lived to the ripened age of 83, and died whilst still un­der­going a course of meth­o­done. He seems to quite ad­eptly shoot just about any­thing into his veins, and clas­sify it in his lucid drawl with the clin­ical ac­curacy of a labor­atory as­sistant. His raw, blank doc­u­ment­a­tions of his ex­per­i­ences, are hor­rific enough to per­suade anyone it would be a bad idea to do heroin, or ‘junk’ as he refers to it, de­scribing the ad­dicts as iden­ti­fi­able by their smell of de­com­pos­i­tion, their thick air of sup­pur­a­tion. His per­sonal life was thus sur­rounded by the law, in his terms, ‘agents’ and ‘pi­geons’ (those selling heroin who were tip­ping off the police).

Not only that, but he ac­ci­dent­ally shot his common law wife dead whilst doing his William Tell act at a party, aiming to shoot a glass off her head and the bullet de­flecting in the wrong dir­ec­tion. He got off charges of culp­able hom­icide with the help of an ex­pensive lawyer, hired by the repu­ta­tion of his very wealthy family. Getting away with things was one of Burroughs’ skills, al­though he did get caught every now and then for drugs-​related of­fences. And so he was de­viant in life, as­well as his writing. The melding of law and lit­er­ature is re­pro­duced clearly, the product and the pro­cess, as Burroughs’ life op­er­ates in the same manner as that of which he speaks through his writing. Burroughs in his writing and his haunted self, seems to ex­em­plify a trick­ster char­acter, a myth­o­lo­gical figure that has ap­peared throughout the folk-​tales and story-​telling of many dis­parate cul­tures: The: “…Trickster is at one and the same time cre­ator and des­troyer, giver and neg­ator, he who dupes others and who is al­ways duped him­self […] He pos­sesses no values, moral or so­cial, is at the mercy of his pas­sions and ap­pet­ites, yet through his ac­tions all values come into being.” His pages de­pict a rare achromic starch­ness, that offer a lack as much as he gives. Burroughs as trick­ster is Burroughs using him­self as a siren for ex­treme life ex­per­i­ences, and the hon­esty of an ac­count of life that ex­isted out­side of the me­diocre. Burroughs as trick­ster, des­troyed and then cre­ated, claiming the death of his wife as that which, “… brought me in con­tact with the in­vader, the Ugly Spirit, and man­oeuvred me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have no choice ex­cept to write my way out.”

Thus Burroughs’ life was em­broidered with law and res­isting law. The le­gis­lating of morals, and the res­ultant cre­ation of de­vi­ance weave in and out of his life nar­rative, and that which he shares on the page. He writes on drugs that were be­coming il­legal, he writes on being ho­mo­sexual, which be­came il­legal, his books were con­demned and then ad­u­lated, he uses the law and gets off the murder of his wife, he tears apart the grammar of writing in order to limit power of norm­ativity. In the trial testi­mony of the pub­lic­a­tion of ‘Junky: the Definitive Text on Junk’, his agent, Alan Ginsberg, had to prove that the pub­lic­a­tion was ac­tu­ally a book, and not junk in the un­wanted product sense. And then his audi­ence show their naughtiness:

“… the gen­er­a­tion now re­acting so vis­cer­ally to Naked Lunch is the same gen­er­a­tion which only a few years ago was handing sur­repti­tious copies of it around with other such high school de­lights as clandes­tine beer or pot and photo-​copied por­no­graphic car­toons. Naturally this has im­posed on the book aroma which per­sists after it be­comes sud­denly ‘legal’ and which de­term­ines its meaning as newly public state­ment, not ne­ces­sarily, how­ever, an aroma in­herent to Naked Lunch itself.”

Burroughs’ life co­in­cided with the world of nar­cotic pro­hib­i­tion, his family already af­fected by the stat­utory pro­vi­sion of the ‘Harrison Narcotics Act’ of 1914, with the sui­cide of his morphine de­pendent uncle, Horace Burroughs, after finding the crim­in­al­isa­tion of his con­di­tion too much. The act was drafted as a tax measure to reg­u­late the market, but it soon was in­ter­preted as a law pro­hib­iting the supply, and thus the il­leg­ally gained, pos­ses­sion of opi­ates, coca, and help-​based smoke­ables. Burroughs doc­u­ments the state of Louisiana passing a law that crim­in­al­ised ad­dic­tion, and with the de­cision of the Narcotics Bureau to in­car­cerate ad­dicts, Burroughs claimed the, “… real sig­ni­fic­ance of these scan­dalous laws is polit­ical.” He though law-​makers were gang­sters, where, “… ethics be­come fu­git­ives, sanity is branded mad­ness, and the artist’s only op­tion is total res­ist­ance.” Even the pa­per­back in­dustry was under scru­tiny of the law for pub­lishing works like those of Burroughs’. These laws per­col­ated through into his writing, and there are some key con­cepts in re­la­tion to his re­ac­tion to law that relates to naugh­ti­ness: those being con­trol, his ‘cut-​up’ tech­nique, and his de­scrip­tions of the ‘Interzone’.

As has been well-​documented, a central concept within his work has been ‘con­trol’, Burroughs being stated in Nathan Moore’s ‘Nova Law’, “… as one of the most fun­da­mental dia­gnosti­cians of the 20th cen­tury [in] the role of power and beyond.” ‘Dis’, its ety­mo­logy and his­tory, is a prefix that is present within Burroughs’ work within many forms, but not one so ob­vious as his writing tech­nique. To dis­semble, to take apart, to ‘cut up’. The cut up tech­nique was a re­ac­tion to the om­ni­po­tence of con­trol, whether through nar­cotics laws or con­trol re­lating to his sexu­ality. By cut­ting up, he di­luted con­trol and dis­membered the re­la­tions between words and im­ages, pre­valent in his work from Naked Lunch on­wards. Moore re­lays the problem of con­trol as how to con­vince people to comply to norms — to cut up is to di­vert the pre­dict­ab­ility cre­ated by the norm. By cut­ting up, the gap between what hap­pens and should happen, is re­vealed. Cutting up, dissing, ex­poses the ef­fects of con­trol, and by freeing the words, Burroughs pro­fanes. He is put­ting back that which had been taken away by law, as Agamben would agree: “… if ‘to con­sec­rate’ (sac­rare) was the term that in­dic­ated the re­moval of things from the sphere of human law, ‘to pro­fane’ meant, con­versely, to re­turn them to the free use of men.”

Relating this to naughty, Moore’s dis­cus­sion on con­trol and law’s pre­dict­ab­ility, in­dicate that which naugh­ti­ness seeks to sub­vert. By cut­ting up, one is taking the law by sur­prise, and cre­ates mo­ments of un­fore­see­ab­ility. The re­pe­ti­tion of an act is not naughty, but the more one re­peats, the more one be­comes a law to one’s self, the more one op­er­ates in a pre­dictive cast, and naugh­ti­ness trans­forms to an­other phe­nomena. As is evident in this quote: “Once you begin being naughty, it is easier to go and on and on, and sooner or later some­thing dreadful hap­pens.” Naughtiness does not allow for un­sa­voury acts to happen, be­cause true naugh­ti­ness stops short of that un­wanted in­cident. Once some­thing dreadful hap­pens, then naughty dis­ap­pears and an­other form of obed­i­ence to the act takes place. Naughty is not even obed­ient to it­self, naugh­ti­ness is a law unto it­self, it ex­ists as a re­la­tion, a way of being that al­lows sub­jects of law con­sciously de­tract the ef­fects of law’s de­cisions and con­sequences. Naughty is a tactic as much as law is. Burroughs goes beyond naughty, in his life, but not in his writing. He re­peats his de­vi­ance time and again, gets caught, and kills his wife.

The Interzone is the point at which Burroughs’ de­scribes breaking from heroin, which sim­ul­tan­eously is at the point at which the drug deems it­self most powerful. It is a pre­cisely that, an in­terzone, the world between human will and its neg­a­tion: “… The point at which, in the ab­sence of the drug, speech at all be­comes pos­sible, but cor­rel­at­ively, the point at which the drive to­ward re­sumed ad­dic­tion is at its strongest.” It is a move­ment in between two ways of being. This is where Burroughs resides when with­drawing from heroin, he is not within the world of norms, he is ‘The Invisible Man’: “’Possession’ they call it,”, writes Burroughs. “As if I was usu­ally there but sub­ject to goof now and again … Wrong! I am never here …”. He is nought, he is Not-​I, he is Not-​the-​Messiah.

Law’s Response

Burroughs’ ex­per­i­ences bring us back to law and the role of con­science within dis­obedi­ence and naugh­ti­ness: “The ex­per­i­ence of a sense of guilt for wrong-​doing is ne­ces­sary for the de­vel­op­ment of self-​control. The guilt feel­ings will later serve as a warning signal which […] can [be] produce[d] […] [when] an im­pulse to re­peat the naughty act comes over.” Law’s re­sponse to naugh­ti­ness is a state of con­fused per­missive­ness. To be naughty is not to be caught, to pa­cify and ma­nip­u­late law, for naughty’s end. Burroughs’ hon­esty is his trade­mark, and this is what gets him either in trouble, with re­gards to his pub­lishers, or out of trouble, with re­gards to his savvy know­ledge of the system and his blank va­cuum of tac­tical and legal ma­nip­u­la­tion. On some levels, naugh­ti­ness op­er­ates on a plateau of dis­hon­esty, but there is a con­scious and wilful ob­jec­tion that al­lows for one’s con­science to cease from shifting from naughty to the next stage.

Is Naughty for­giv­able? Does it even re­quire the bracket of ab­so­lu­tion? Of course Derrida would say that the only thing that calls for par­doning is the un­par­don­able: “…for­give­ness for­gives only the un­for­giv­able. One cannot, or should not, for­give; there is only for­give­ness, if there is any, where there is the un­for­giv­able. That is to say that for­give­ness must an­nounce it­self as im­possib­ility it­self. It can only be pos­sible in doing the im­possible.” In a pre­vious paper, I ar­gued that to be naughty im­plies the re­treat of the law. But naugh­ti­ness is defined not by the ab­sence of law, but by its very pres­ence, and the gap that lies in between preaching and prac­ti­cing, what ought and what is. It is law that for­gives naugh­ti­ness, like in the case of Burroughs and his ex­pensive lawyer. Naughtiness is guilty, and the most un­for­give­able act be­cause it is for­given by law. Naughtiness, is thus for­giv­able, be­cause of the in­di­vidual asking to be for­given and their re­la­tion to the law. Your sins al­ways find you out – or, if you are naughty, you re­main un­detected with only law it­self keeping your secret. To be naughty de­pends on who you are, and who you are in re­la­tion to law. Burroughs and the death of his wife — to be naughty is to be for­giv­able — in the in­stance of his wife, thus be­cause he had a weighty repu­ta­tion, and his family, a weighty wallet.

Law re­sponds by saying: “It’s al­right, don’t do it again, now be gone with you”, in a jolly reb­uckle. The law says yes, be­cause the law knows. There is a form of an auto-​immune tol­er­ance prac­ticed by law that al­lows the space for naugh­ti­ness. In the same sense, Burroughs un­der­stands that con­trol op­er­ates para­dox­ic­ally: “…on the one hand, its tend­ency is to­ward ab­so­lute con­trol, while on the other, it re­quires the un­con­trolled as the point of its in­ter­ven­tion, causing con­trol to vir­tu­alise the so­cial field through con­stant ariations of the latter. In the same sense that cri­tiquing cre­ates al­tern­ative pas­sages, so too naugh­ti­ness, “… in­tro­duces a nov­elty that is ex­ternal to law.”


To ask if dis­respecting is the same thing as dis­obedi­ence, is to high­light the evasive role of the nought. It may seem a genial manner of res­ist­ance, but naughty has its dark­ness. Naughtiness, dis­respecting and dis­obedi­ence are dis-​ontologies, that rely on the ex­ist­ence of rules against which to not exist, in turn. Burroughs disses left right and centre, but as soon as he is faced with law as tactic, re­moving him­self from the con­sequences of ac­ci­dent­ally shooting his wife, he be­comes naughty. He re­spects the ex­ist­ence of law and his legal conun­drum, and uses the be­suited bar­rister to ro­mance his way out.

Naughtiness’ evas­ive­ness is as evasive as this piece on dis­obedi­ence it­self, it has a re­fusal of defin­i­tion and co­gent form, but it is al­ways defined by that which it is not. The gap between what hap­pens and should happen, it in­fects neither, but acts as a sig­ni­fier of law’s ex­ist­ence. Naughty is a law of the Not-​I (Naught-​I): it is an amor fati, the an-​archic af­firm­a­tion of life. To be nought, nothing, to exist in re­la­tion to some­thing else, in a stasis between ways of being, within the Interzone, is to exist as a dis-​ontology and a pro­faning freedom within bounds, the residue of some­thing most powerful when it is Noch Nicht.

  1 comment for “To Dis or not to Dis? Disobedience and the Case of the Naughty in Relation to Law

  1. Elena Loizidou
    7 June 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Great to be able to read it…

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