Based on a comparison between the contemporary evolutionary perspective supported, among others, by Terrence Deacon, and the biotheoretical thinking of early twentieth-century Germany, this paper purports to contribute to the debate on the origin of the aesthetic faculty, enhancing the role of morphology and the question of play, meant as an exemplary manifestation of the interaction between individuals and environments.
William Burroughs’ oft-quoted idea that language is a virus is often reflected in the many different versions of the posthuman found today. While this idea of language as virus has been behind many information theoretical readings of Burroughs’ works, it is clear that Burroughs’ poetics is as much a poetics of embodiment, or what I will call a biopoetics.
In order to develop this notion of biopoetics, I will draw both on Eugene Thacker's argument about biomedia as the conflation of information and body (Thacker 2004), or what we can call bioinformatics. However, this leaves unanswered the question of bioenergetics, or the question of the felt intensities of Burroughs' writing. To develop this affective dimension of biopoetics, I draw on Tony Sampson's concept of virality (2012), the way energetics and not only information is shared and transferred between bodies by way of media.
By focusing on biopoetics, we can see how written language emerges as a nonhuman force of control in Burroughs' work; his emphasis on language as alien and nonhuman reveals how the human being emerges as a process of biopoetics. Burroughs’ central insight is that the entanglement of word and body not only is what Sampson calls affective contagion, although certainly Burroughs emphasizes the negative affects as part of this bodily control. Burroughs underlines that this affective contagion is also one of affective control; the word spreads through affective contagion and exerts control in this manner. Control and affect are inextricably linked for Burroughs and linked precisely through biopoetics, language being primary in this case.
The crisis of the modern age is first and foremost a crisis of bios – this being the alienation of mankind from nature through the social impact of industrialization. As a reaction, modern literature evolved into what Adorno called “Mimesis ans Verhärtete und Entfremdete”, meaning the aesthetic adaptation to the fragmented environment.
Opposing this progressive approach, antimodernists tried to regain the lost sense of wholeness by developing an aesthetic of “Transfragmentarism”, merging insights of natural science and monistic philosophy with romantic traditions. Literature following this biopoetic strategy to strengthen the mental fitness of its readers was exceptionally successful after World War I. Nevertheless, it couldn’t achieve canonisation in German literature and from today’s perspective could be regarded as a failed method to cope with the evolution of art. The following article will pursue the aim of portraying the implications of this process by examining Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer’s main work, his "Paracelsus-Trilogie" (1917-1926). As a typical antimodernist he considered his writing to be a tribute to the survival of an imagined German Volk and thereby overestimated the healing influence of his art on the country’s shattered post-war society.