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

by | 7 Jun 2011

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

  1. Great to be able to read it…


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