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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Shredding the Script

I will continue to tweek the blog with resources and links to basic wikipedia entries for those who may be coming to this material for the first time.

My first thread (The Scarlet Thread) is underway, and I will also continue to build upon it in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I wanted to share some insights into the work of William S. Burroughs. A man whom, I think, REALLY got it...


    The Ticket That Exploded continues the basic montage/collage form of The Soft Machine, but carries the experiments with cutup and mythology much further. This second novel of the trilogy makes more extensive use of cut-ups and develops the Nova mythology more explicitly and at greater length, leading to the inclusion of expository passages that were not present in The Soft Machine. In The Ticket That Exploded Burroughs exhibits a technical control that is not attained in the previous novel. The cutups are often effective and moving prose poems, and the increased prominence of the Nova mythology gives the work a coherence and structure that balances the fragmentation of the cutups. Cutups also become meaningful as narrative elements since they play a part in the plot of the myth.

    The Ticket That Exploded evolves from The Soft Machine and contains much of the same materials, but creates its own fictional world through different thematic emphasis. Whereas The Soft Machine concentrates on an analysis of past control of mankind through sexuality, The Ticket That Exploded concentrates on mind control in the present through word and image systems. The Soft Machine is dominated by South American imagery and anthropological approaches to myth, while The Ticket That Exploded is dominated by Moroccan and outer-space imagery and the creation of new myths in science-fiction forms. In Ticket Burroughs makes use of the science-fiction convention of portraying the present in a fiction about the future, a purpose clearly announced in the very first routine: "I am reading a science fiction book called The Ticket That Exploded. The story is close enough to what is going on here . . . " (TTE, p. 5).

    Mind control through language ("word and image locks") is the domi- nant theme of The Ticket That Exploded, and this theme is associated pri marily with imagery of machinery, technology, science, and space travel. A secondary cluster of Moroccan images is also associated with the language theme. Since control by the word and image "machine" and liberation from that control both depend upon "technology" (understanding and manipulating the symbol system) some of the same images represent both control and liberation. Interpretation depends upon the context. For example, a "camera gun" may be used by either "force."

    The most prominent technological and scientific images are the following: space travel, encounters with fantastic new beings and environments on other planets, the film and its script, the tape recorder and its tape, the camera, the radio and radio static, the electronic switchboard, electrical charges, the pinball machine, the typewriter (which types or punches the script-ticket), laboratory experiments and operations on human subjects, viruses and immunization, addiction and apomorphine. Character-images associated with the language control machine are the Nova Mob characters, Bradly and Lykin-the twin astronauts, a film producer and his sycophant, and the old doctor. The Nova police are associated with dismantling the machine; and aggressive partisans, patrols, and combat troops are added to the more passive agents, inspectors, supervisors, and technicians. Moroccan characters-Hassan i Sabbah and Arab street boys-are associated with liberation from word and image control and are linked to space travel fantasies of fish boys and frog boys. Imagery of the Moroccan landscape (panpipes, mountains, blue sky, wind, and mist) is often linked to the liberation imagery of the Nova Police (flutes, tornadoes, blue mist, silence, disintegration) and sometimes to the power Imagery of Minraud (Minraud is a hot, desert place). For Burroughs, the body is associated with time and the mind with space, so the mind control theme dictates futuristic space travel imagery in Ticket, in contrast to the earthbound time travel of Soft Machine.

    Sexuality remains an important secondary theme in Ticket, and the vegetable-Venusian sexual imagery is present. Some of this imagery is used to create outer-space fantasies of the carnival city of sexual victimization, portrayed as the garden of delights (GOD), the exhibition, and the amusement park. Brief narratives portray explorers on earth and in space being taken over by diseases of sexual control: Ward Island disease, the Sex Skin habit, the Happy Cloak, the Other Half. Three extensive cutup collages are devoted to the sexual theme. The outer-space exhibition and amusement park are the basis for extensive collage in the seventh and eighth routines, "writing machine" and "substitute flesh." A collage of lyrics from popular love songs forms the fourth routine, "do you love me?" The latter cutup of love lyrics is a pop-art tour de force using the cutup technique and a form of popular art to criticize the concept of romantic love. The most prominent characters associated with the sexual theme are Bradly as traveler-victim and the predatory seducers, Johnny Yen and the Orchid Girl.

    Like The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded conveys its meaning through a combination of image clusters and narrative episodes. In Ticket, one narrative dominates the whole work, appearing in fragments of action and exposition: the Nova mythology. The focus on mind control in this novel and its association with space and technology imagery make possible a further development and use of the Nova narrative. And, through the Nova mythology, Burroughs is able to subordinate the themes of sex, addiction, and power to the theme of language, giving the second novel greater unity. Thus writing and cutups become more important than in The Soft Machine, and Lee the agent-writer plays a larger role. Furthermore, as Burroughs develops his theory of the cutup and its role in the Nova myth, cutups point toward something beyond chaotic destruction. The theme of revolt becomes the more positive theme of liberation, and sheer anarchy is replaced by the ideal of autonomy.

    The Ticket That Exploded explicitly narrates the plot of the Nova Mob and the Nova Police, with particular emphasis on the Venusian plot called Operation Other Half, in which the Word (language) is used to define and control sexuality (the body). The story is of the invasion of planet earth by the Mobsters and their mechanism of vampirelike possession, transformation, and control. Ticket, however, minimizes the gangster and vampire metaphors and develops the virus and film metaphors-which are in keeping with the science and technology theme of the novel. The double metaphor of virus and film provides the controlling imagery for the Nova plot in Ticket. Operation Other Half is defined as a double virus invasion: "There were at least two parasites one sexual the other cerebral working together the way parasites will" (TTE, p. 144). The replication of a virus is equated with the linear repetition of the same image. Thus the Other Half is a "disease of the image track" in which human victims are forced to participate in "the reality film," a linear repetition of the same scripts, images, and sounds with no alternative allowed-indeed no alternative is conceivable. The Word virus controls our concept of reality and imposes a dualism that makes it impossible to change reality. Burroughs attacks all either-or thinking, especially the separation and opposition of mind and body, word and world, birth and death, pleasure and pain, male and female. It is these concepts, according to Burroughs, that trap us into bodies that can be manipulated by power elites. The primary form of control is a sexuality in which the Other Half is a yearning for another body to assuage the feeling of separation caused by dualism:

    The human organism is literally consisting of two halves from the beginning word and all human sex is this unsanitary arrangement whereby two entities attempt to occupy the same three-dimensional coordinate points giving rise to the sordid lattrine brawls which have characterized a planet based on 'the Word,' that is, on separate flesh engaged in endless sexual conflict-The Venusian Boy-Girls under Johnny Yen took over the Other Half, imposing a sexual blockade on the planet- (It will be readily understandable that a program of systematic frustration was necessary in order to sell this crock of sewage as Immortality, the Garden of Delights, and love- (TTE, p. 52)

    To Burroughs, the Other Half we yearn for-whether seen as the physical pleasure of orgasm, the sentimental feeling of love, the opposite sex, or another body-is an illusion, an image created by Word that is part of a repetitious reality film controlled by external forces. Thus. says Burroughs, Word is the Other Half.

    Dualistic thinking sets up a desire for unity that can never be fulfilled because opposites can never become one; at the same time, it creates and aggravates conficts through polarization. The only unity possible in such a mental universe is the victory of one "half" over another, but this is death or Nova. A universe of irreconcilable opposites in conflict is the Nova plot:

    The basic nova technique is very simple: Always create as many insoluble conflicts as possible and always aggravate existing conflicts-This is done by dumping on the same planet life forms with incompatible conditions of existence-There is of course nothing "wrong" about any given life form since "wrong" only has reference to conflicts with other life forms-The point is these life forms should not be on the same planet-Their conditions of life are basically incompatible in present time form and it is precisely the work of the nova mob to see that they remain in present time form, to create and aggravate the conflicts that lead to the explosion of a planet, that is to nova- (TTE, pp. 5 4-5 5)

    The Nova Police combat this plot through a double metaphorical action: exposure, which produces immunization to deception (the virus-apomorphine metaphor), and cutups which produce a wordless silence (the technology metaphor of film and tape). When the Nova plot is seen as a virus, seeing and understanding the evil are sufficient to free oneself from it with the understanding that regulation of a physical need is the goal, not eradication: "Communication must become total and conscious before we can stop it" (TTE, P. 5 1). The Nova Policeman combats the virus as an "agent" who trains himself through exposure, tracks down Nova criminals like a private eye, and "arrests" them by exposing their identity and techniques. The Biologic Courts attempt to control the arrested virus-criminals.

    When the Nova plot is seen as a reality film and individuals as con- trolled by a pre-recorded tape, the Nova Policeman becomes a guerrilla fighter who aggressively destroys control "lines," "locks," "molds," and "habits" through cutups with film, tape, and text. Many do-it-yourself passages in Ticket instruct the reader in specific cutup techniques in these three media. (The "Invisible generation," a previously published essay, appears at the end of the book as an appendix on technique.') Control by word and image is paradoxically destroyed by new arrangements of word and image, the random method of cutups ensuring freedom from external control. From this revolt comes a vision that goes beyond destruction. A new autonomous consciousness is born from the realization that reality is an illusion created by word and image locks: "What is word?-Maya- Maya-Illusion-Rub out the word and the image track goes with it-" (TTE, p. 145). Knowledge of the illusion and how to break it leds to the creation of new realities in the Rewrite Department: "Alternatively Johnny Yen can be written back to a green fish boy-There are always alternative solutions" (TTE, P. 54). The narrative of the fish boy, in particular, is Burroughs's metaphor for metamorphosis into a new state of being based on new mental constructs.

    But Nova Police do not attempt to set up a new world order based on one truth (one Word); they "do their work and go" (like apomorphine), providing a model of resistance and autonomy for others. They are identified with Hassan i Sabbah, founder of the secret assassin cult of the eleventh century, and with Prospero of Shakespeare's The Tempest, a magician who voluntarily gives us his power. They produce a "silence" in which words and images exist in a random field or space, uncontrolled by linear concepts (the sentence, plot, time, cause and effect). In this silence all forms and identities disappear, the Police and the Mob included. Burroughs the author becomes identified with this activity, and the novel is his silent space, its form a metaphor for the alternative consciousness the work itself creates. In the final routine, "silence to say goodbye," the disappearance of forms is illustrated as the Nova characters say goodbye, and the text itself disappears into the calligraphy of Brion Gysin.

    The Nova mythology allows a great proliferation of narrative fragments since the myth acts as a master metaphor that includes and interprets all of the narratives as secondary metaphors. Even narrative fragments that do not explicitly refer to the Nova plot can be seen as versions or transformations of the basic conflict. Astronaut narratives featuring Bradly and Lykin signify exploration of the symbolic field of consciousness and the possibilities of enslavement, rebellion, or metamorphosis. Explorers taken over by the Sex Skin, Happy Cloak, Ward Island disease, or the Orchid Girl are versions of the Venusian Operation Other Half. The adventures of Arab street boys lead to apocalypse and rescue through transformation. The autobiographical John and Bill, experimenting with their 1920s crystal radio set, are technicians producing cutups. The Board and their Board Books are a three-dimensional, realistic version of the Nova Mob and the Word virus. There is no end to the possible transformations or elaborations, making the myth an open construct. The novel is thus a form open to endless elaboration: its present text is but an arbitrary fragment that can be altered in subsequent editions."

    Cutups also proliferate in Ticket, opening up narrative "lines" to new associations and transformations beyond the capacity of improvisational fantasy by one author. juxtaposition through cutup exposes hidden relationships and creates new ones, increasing the number and speed of transformations. Cutups break down conventional boundaries ("lines"), thus creating the possibility of alternative forms and alternative realities. And cutups represent the alternative of a new consciousness, that of a self-regulating autonomous individual free of external social and psychological controls. In Ticket Burroughs incorporates into his theory of cutups some of the vocabulary and techniques of Scientology, which he investigated in the early 1960s in London, contemporaneously with the writing of the trilogy- "Thus Scientology is added to Reich's orgone theory as a major metaphor for and analysis of control.

    Burroughs's exploration and analysis of mind control in The Ticket That Explode,d reveals a theory of language that is structuralist in orientation, although his method of analysis is metaphorical rather than theoretical or scientific. Like the structuralists, Burroughs sees language as a synchronic system of relationships that is suprapersonal. The subject is a creation of language rather than vice versa. And, in subordinating all other behavior to language, Burroughs parallels the structuralist idea that all aspects of culture can be identified linguistically as symbol systems having the same structure as language. Like the structuralists, Burroughs attacks conven- tional bourgeois concepts of the self and society, and the belief that these concepts are natural, self-evident, or real. He shows that they are linguistic-social constructs linked to particular economic and political structures, and that a structuralist analysis can free one from unconscious victimization through total awareness and self-consciousness." Burroughs's literary expression of structuralist theory goes a step further than the critical analyses of Levi-Strauss or Barthes or their followers. Burroughs, through his art, attempts to act upon the linguistic system and change it, thereby acting upon and changing the reader's consciousness. He acknowledges the paradoxical nature of his task (fighting words with words), but maintains a belief in the possibility of individual autonomy.
    Text © Jenny Skerl. Excerpt from her book William S. Burroughs [Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1985]


Friend said...

yay! since i was a teenager I've always loved William Burroughs, but I'm only now starting to see the larger Why I love him. Looking at his works and seeing new and sobering things... It was pointing me in the right direction all along.

FilmNoir23 said...

His understanding of seeing through things is astounding to me...and makes much greater sense these days even. Cut-up's and breaking the prerecordings of the life script give us the clues to what is REALLY happening around us.