Flesh FilmTags: Cut-Up, Jurgen Ploog, William Burroughs
A Cut-Up Novella by Jürgen Ploog
With an Introduction by Edward S Robinson
I first encountered the name Jürgen Ploog when I obtained a copy of Claus Maeck’s film, Commissioner of Sewers. The film features an interview with Burroughs, conducted by Ploog, and as a fan and student of William Burroughs of many years, I found it a most enlightening discussion. It wasn’t until some time later that I discovered that Ploog was a writer and cut-up practitioner in his own right, and subsequently had the good fortune to be able to interview him by email as part of my research.
One thing I learned from our conversation was that Ploog still very much considers the cut-up to be a vital (and viral) literary technique. This stands in contrast with many of his peers, who moved away from the technique almost immediately after its heyday in the 1960s. Given that recent years have seen a new breed of cut-up poets and authors emerging, it would seem that his belief in the cut-ups is more than justified.
To backtrack a little before moving forward to the present (after all, if there’s one thing we should be aware of, it’s that history is not fixed and linear narrative, linear time, is essentially no more than a construct)… Where the precise origins of the cut-up lie remain the subject of debate in certain circles, although no one would dispute the fact that it was Burroughs who formalized the method, provoked controversy in the literary establishment, and is the writer with whom the technique will be forever associated. Burroughs himself acknowledged myriad literary precedents, and accredited Brion Gysin with the actual “discovery” of the method, quite by chance, in 1959. Of those involved in the first collection of cut-ups, Minutes to Go (1960) — Burroughs, Gysin, Sinclair Beiles and Gregory Corso — only Burroughs would subsequently pursue cut-ups further. From Burroughs’ central point, however, radiated concentric rings of influence as other authors took his proclamation that “cut-ups are for everyone” as a call to arms against language control and the narrow confines of linear narrative structures.
Without in any way wishing to denigrate Burroughs’ groundbreaking work, it is fair to say that his cut-ups, primarily as represented by the Nova trilogy, have eclipsed those produced by other authors, of whom there are a considerable number. This is a grave injustice, in that the focus on Burroughs not only overlooks the very existence of what can be considered a cut-up canon, but also in that it overshadows the merits of the works of those other cut-up practitioners.
There is an abundance of evidence to suggest that the cut-ups have begun to undergo something of a renaissance in recent years, and that we have the Internet to thank for this. This should not be considered too surprising, really. As Burroughs theorised, “life is a cut-up.” He observed that that “every time you walk down the street, your stream of consciousness is cut by random factors… take a walk down a city street… you have seen half a person cut in two by a car, bits and pieces of street signs and advertisements, reflections from shop windows – a montage of fragments.” As such, a leading function of the cut-up was to produce a mode of narrative that more accurately reflected the way we experience life in the modern world. If anything, the world in which we find ourselves is more fragmentary and jumbled than ever: the media overload that is contemporary culture, not to mention the Internet, is by nature fragmented, and as such forges a fragmented perception, and to this end, the cut-up is a more accurate reflection of our fragmented realities than at the time when the cut-ups were in their heyday in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Jürgen Ploog has considerable first-hand knowledge of experiencing life in a fragmentary fashion. As an airline pilot, he has spent considerable time between continents and time-zones, the rapid shifts of times and cultures giving a heightened sense of disorientation. As he explained to me in 2007, “My life consisted of interruptions both geographically (outwardly) & psychologically (state of mind). Being in different countries constantly plus jet-lagged changed my outlook on the (my) world. In other words: I found out that life indeed is a cut-up & needed to find a way of adjusting my writing accordingly. Ira Cohen stated: ‘Cut-up set me free.’ My version is: ‘Cut-up set my writing free.’” Thus, Ploog’s mode of art very much does reflect — and replicate — life.
One criticism that many of the new wave of textual manipulators face is that which was commonly levelled against the first wave of cut-up practitioners, that the texts they produce are largely unreadable. I can appreciate how, to the common reader, one who is not au fait with the premise of the form, or its functions, this would be so. It seems rather ironic, then, that one of the fundamental objectives behind the cut-up was to re-educate readers and to shake them from their unquestioning, passive consumption of cozy, linear narratives. Nevertheless, one of the first things that struck me about Ploog’s Flesh Film was its readability.
Much of this readability can be attributed to the fact that, rather than presenting a scree of disconnected and disjointed words and phrases resulting purely from unadulterated cut-up experiments, Ploog has applied the technique more sparingly, judiciously incorporating cut-up sections within a more overtly conventional narrative. That isn’t to say that the narrative of Flesh Film is entirely conventional, at least in the linear sense: what he gives us is a disembodied and shifting narrative perspective that drifts through time and a series of locations on a journey that is as much in the mind as in the body. Moreover, rather than limit the power of the images that have emerged as a result of cutting up, this more careful and restrained application of the method serves to heighten the effect, the unexpected juxtapositions of words yielding some vivid, striking and truly unique descriptions.
Another criticism levelled at many of the cut-up authors who followed Burroughs’ lead was that their work lacked the potency of Burroughs’ on account of the less “volatile” source material, and the way in which they applied the method seemingly uncritically and indiscriminately. However, what Ploog achieves in Flesh Film is a text that answers such criticisms — and then some. Perhaps this is due in part to his re-creation of a Burroughsian world, often set in exotic and mystical places and populated by all sorts of shady characters — and Mugwumps. Equally, though, it is again due to taking a fundamentally random mode of writing and harnessing it. Ploog freely admits to editing his cut-ups, the cutting, splicing and reconfiguring of text analogous to the cutting and editing of film. A flesh film, no less. Rather than being a slave to the random elements of the process, he takes the possibilities of his textual experiments as a starting point. Of his process, he explains, “it tells me what to write about and how. It sets the tone for where I want to go in my writing.” As such, the method is used as a device, a tool, another weapon in the writer’s literary arsenal, rather than the sole implement or the end in itself. He continues: “usually I don’t know what I will write about when I start to write… I feel this gets the best results. The material can later be shifted, rearranged, cut out or expanded. Often I re-write older pieces because I feel they have to be clarified or provided with more detail. So random is only the first step but the results are in no way binding or have to be left untouched.” This sense of potential for a text to be revisited and reworked (and within that potential, the implicit notion that there is no final version, no single fixed definitive text, but a series of texts evolving from a given starting point) is not unique in Ploog’s writing. However, the idea of a text that can be rearranged and take new trajectories with near-infinite possibilities is something that has particular significance in context of the cut-ups.
Jürgen is the first to admit that his application of the technique has become more refined through the years, commenting that his earlier works were constructed “using language as material with little regard for plot or readability.” The result of this learning process and constant revision, is Flesh Film. That Flesh Film is (as much as any cut-up texts is “written”, or perhaps more accurately, “formed” and “manipulated”) in the English language is noteworthy. That different languages produce different results when cut up should not be surprising: the syntactic rules of some languages grant greater flexibility (“freedom” is a word best avoided, given that one of the fundamental purposes of the cut-up was, from the outset, to free the writer — and the reader also — from the confines and controls of linguistic learning or indoctrination) than others. On this subject, Ploog comments that “My feeling is that cut-up is easier in English (as in comparison with German) because English is more flexible and semantically not so determined. Words can easily take on different meanings. This fact poses a difficulty with translation. The semantic diversion cannot be transcribed without using other words, meanings, situations. I can write (with limitations) English texts when using the cut-up method which I could not do without it.”
As such, that Flesh Film is an English language text may be a significant factor in its success — and indeed, a success it is. It’s a triumph of imagination and experimentalism, of form and content synthesised to lead the reader through a world that’s so real it’s almost unreal. Run VT….