Bachelor of Arts
Naked Lunch, William Burroughs, Obscenity, Law and literature, Justice
First made available in the United States in 1962, William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch and those who ventured to sell the illicit book were brought before obscenity courts on three separate occasions within the book's first four years in print. Despite breaking a different law on each separate occasion, Naked Lunch was judged to be equally obscene in all three cases. However, as Allen Ginsberg's testimony during the 1966 Massachusetts State Supreme Court trial that eventually exonerated Naked Lunch from its prior obscenity convictions demonstrates, there exist multiple interpretations and functions of the term "obscene". The discrepancy of usage between Burroughs, Ginsberg and the Court demonstrates a fundamental characteristic of obscenity, its ambiguity. The difficulty in definitively articulating the obscene is best characterized by United States Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, in his famous quote, "I shall not today attempt to further define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [pornographic]… But I know it when I see it." Despite the transparency and moral certitude Justice Potter assumes in his widely quoted remark, the inability of the Supreme Court to standardize or elucidate a description of the obscene beyond the subjective acts of 'knowing' and 'seeing' represents a serious lapse in an otherwise exacting mode of discourse. To understand the significance of this lapse and to begin to gauge its influence on the critical reception of Naked Lunch, it is first necessary to approach the legal origins of obscenity.
Harrison, Luke, "On the Genealogy of Obscenity: Naked Lunch and The Death of Obscene Literature" (2014). Honors Papers. 290.