Discussing the cut-up technique, a method whereby “new” narrative is created by cutting up and splicing together existing texts.
Seminal Beat author, William S. Burroughs, recounted the event variously: “In 1959 Brion Gysin said: “Writing is fifty years behind painting” and applied the montage technique to words on a page.” Gysin recalls the event as follows:
I had a big table on which I worked very often with a Stanley blade, and I had cut up a number of newspapers accidentally. They had been underneath something else that I was cutting. The pieces sort of fell together, and I started matching them up, and I thought Wo-o-o-o-ow, it’s really very funny. And I took some of them and arranged them in a pattern which was visually pleasing to me and then typed up the results; and I have never laughed so heartily in my entire life.
The texts which caused such mirth were the first cut-ups, and appeared under that title in Minutes to Go (1960), ‘unchanged unedited’ and included the following:
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Miss Hannah Pugh the slim model – a member of the Diner’s Club, the American Express Credit Cards, etc. – drew from a piggy bank a talent which is the very quintessence of the British female sex.
“People aren’t crazy,” she said. “Now that Hazard has banished my timidity I feel that I, too, can live on streams in the area where people are urged to be watchful.”
… There seemed little doubt, however, that Mr Eisenhower said, “I weigh 56 pounds less than a man,” flushed and nodded curtly.
… He boasted of a long string of past crimes high-lighted by a total eclipse of however stood in his path when he re-did her apartment. (MTG 7-8)
And so occurred the advent of the cut-up. Of course, to give Burroughs or Gysin individually or jointly the full credit for the “idea” of the cut-ups would be unjust, as James Grauerholtz observes:
Aleatory techniques of literary composition was nothing new; Lewis Carroll had hinted at the idea, and Tristan Tzara’s poem pulled in pieces from a hat is now famous.
Despite many critics subsequently hailing Burroughs as the technique’s great innovator, he was himself well aware of the literary precedents to the cut-ups, and spoke of these frequently and at length:
When you think of it, “The Waste Land” was the first great cut-up collage, and Tristan Tzara had done a bit along the same lines. Dos Passos used the same idea on “The Camera Eye” sequences in U.S.A. I felt I had been working toward the same goal; thus it was a major revelation to me when I actually saw it being done’ (TM ).
Gysin initially considered the power of the collage texts to be limited and short lived. Burroughs, however, was particularly excited by the potentials of the cut-ups, and encouraged Gysin to assist him in the beginning of a lengthy spell of rigorous experimentation. however, he was insistent on substituting what he referred to as the “piss poor” material Gysin had first accidentally cut with “his own highly volatile material” as he recounts:
…we cut up the Bible, Shakespeare, Rimbaud, our own writing… We made thousands of cut-ups. When you cut and rearrange words on a page, new words emerge. And words change meaning. The word “drafted,” as into the Army, moved into a context of blueprints or contracts, gives an altered meaning. New words and altered meanings are implicit in the process of cutting up, and could have been anticipated. Other results were not expected.
These words “not in the original text” appear by the rearrangement of words and phrases, and through the conjoining of part-words separated in the physical act of cutting the page and then spliced with other severed part-words. Among the less expected results emerged what they saw as the “exposure” of a text’s true meaning. “A text may be “found out,” exposed as empty rhetorical gesture or as a system of manipulations,” explains Robin Lydenberg. Based on these discoveries, Gysin and Burroughs began to formulate numerous theories concerning the capabilities of the cut-ups. These theories revolved around the ideas of language preconditioning and control, word as virus and the revision of precursive texts. They also strove to address the issues of the ownership of words and the “the author function.” While Gysin, and Burroughs in particular, developed many quite complex theories regarding the power of the method, this paper is concerned with the idea of rewriting existing texts and using the technique as a means of “retelling” the texts from which the composite texts are composed.
As Lydenberg again notes, the “cut-ups defy copyright and ownership, transgressing the regulations of boundary and convention.” Gysin – and Burroughs – contended that words are the property of no-one, and that an author manipulates words just as they would other media such as paint, and as Gysin stressed, “the poet”s function is to free words.’ As such, it was their belief that they were at liberty to reorder and manipulate the words contained in existing texts at will – or at random. Burroughs contended that such composite texts, formed using “freed” words, remained ‘quite coherent and meaningful prose,’ and believed it would be possible to re-educate the reading public to process and respond to cut-up composite texts in the same way as to conventional prose.
When asked what cut-ups offer the reader that conventional narrative doesn’t, Burroughs replied that:
Any narrative passage or any passage, say, of poetic images is subject to any number of variations, all of which may be interesting and valid in their own right. A page of Rimbaud cut up and rearranged will give you quite new images. Rimbaud images – real Rimbaud images – but new ones.
Of course, such an interpretation of “new” Rimbaud images is highly problematic. On the one hand, Burroughs is suggesting that his reworking of a pre-existing text is, in effect, a new, original text. On the other, he is simultaneously stating that the original author’s work remains somehow intact and recognisable, but simply realigned. How can this be reconciled in terms of notions of authorship? Their response to this lies in the concept of “the third mind.” Citing a book entitled Think and Grow Rich, which suggests that when you put two minds together, there is “always a third mind… a third and superior mind… as an unseen collaborator,” they theorised that the cut-ups represented not a joint work between the two of them, but the product of a different origin altogether, something greater than the sum of the parts. Hence, the cut-up Rimbaud text, while containing “new” Rimbaud images, represents a collaboration between Burroughs, Gysin and Rimbaud, and thus stands, theoretically at least, as a legitimate revision of the existing text.
Following a number of short cut-up texts, Burroughs attempted to apply the cut-ups, and a variation called the fold-in, to “the novel,” producing a trilogy of books consisting of The Soft Machine (1961, 1966 and 1968), The Ticket That Exploded (1962, 1967 and 1968), and Nova Express (1964). Fold-ins are created whereby “a page of text… is folded down the middle and placed on another page, the composite text is then read across, half one text and half the other.” These texts were a composite of many authors:
Joyce is in there. Shakespeare, Rimbaud, some writers that people haven’t heard about, someone named Jack Stern. There’s Kerouac. I don’t know, when you start making these fold-ins and cut-ups you lose track. Genet, of course, is someone I admire very much. Also Kafka, Eliot, and one of my favorites is Joseph Conrad. My story “They Just Fade Away” is a fold-in from Lord Jim. In fact, it’s almost a retelling of the “Lord Jim” story. My Stein is the same Stein as in Lord Jim (TM).
Here, we see Burroughs explicitly stating that the fold-ins can be used to retell existing narratives. He suggested that the fold-in functioned not as a device by which the precursive text was in any way desecrated, but retold in a new chronology, that is to say, when a page from a halfway way through the text is folded against a page from a quarter of the way through, and then again with a page from near the end, an effect akin to the cinematic flashback – or, depending on the page selection, a flash forward or dramatic foreshadowing is created. Such re-tellings expose the artifice of narrative, and demonstrate the fact that the possible ways a story can be told are endless. In this way, retold narratives constructed using cut-ups and fold-ins show in a practical, as well as theoretical manner, the way in which the writer does indeed manipulate the words at their disposal.
It is interesting to note that Burroughs was keen to cut up texts by writers he admired as he was those texts he wished to expose or attack, which included news items and transcripts of political speeches. Precisely how this stands in terms of theories on influence is too great and complex a subject for discussion here, although Bloom would perhaps contend that this is illustrative of the author attempting to write his precursors out of existence by claiming their work for his own. I would argue that this is no example of anxietised influence, however, as Burroughs acknowledged his sources and made no effort to hide or claim these words as “his own.” Fragments of “The Waste Land” are littered throughout the trilogy, with the following passage from Nova Express providing a particularly interesting example of Burroughs’ reworking of “the first great cut-up.”
“What thinking, William?-Were his eyes-Hurry up please its half your brain slowly fading-make yourself a bit smart-It’s them couldn’t reach flesh-Empty walls-Good night, sweet ladies-Hurry up please it’s time-Look any place-Faces in the violet light-Damp gusts bringing rain-”
Got up and fixed in the sick dusk-Again he touched like that-Smell of human love-The tears gathered-In Mexico committed fornication but-Cold spring-besides you say-could give no information-vast Thing Police- (NE)
While it is not often easy to tell the original sources of each cut-in phrase within a composite text, the presentation, by which the fragments are separated by ellipses or em dashes, does expose the intersection of different “original” texts. The presence of lines more obviously culled from existing texts penned by others – here in the form of the “hurry up please it”s time’ refrain, cut from “The Waste Land,” serve to lay bare further the mechanics of the “writing” process for such passages. Closer inspection reveals this passage contain many phrases from “The Waste Land,” sections two and five featuring heavily. “What thinking” is culled from line 113, while the phrase “were his eyes” is a fragment of lines 125-6, which reads “I remember / those pearls that were his eyes.” The seemingly abstract images, “Faces in the violet light” and “damp gusts bringing rain” are also both lifted directly from the fifth part of “The Waste Land” (lines 379 and 393-4 respectively), and when placed in succession serve to form a shifting scene in which the faces and the damp gusts are located within close physical proximity – one is compelled to envisage the faces as if appearing in the rain, and in doing so, not only is a new image created from the pre-existing images embedded within the original text, but a scene is created within a new time/space frame from the original writing in which the images appear separately, divided by text and context.
Burroughs also cut up his own work – much of what became The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded was a cut-up not only of newspapers, science journals and the writers Burroughs listed, but also large sections of Naked Lunch. But more than this, The Ticket That Exploded included cut-ups of its predecessor, The Soft Machine, while the final volume of the Nova trilogy, Nova Express included many cut-ups from the previous two volumes. In this way, Burroughs can be seen to be revising – and retelling – his own text. For this reason, Philippe Mikriammos describes the Nova trilogy as a “false trilogy, a single book completed in three versions, under three different angles.”18 These different angles are effectively re-tellings of the same story. Through the cutting and rearranging of his own writing, Burroughs showed that it was possible to revise, retell his own stories through the relinquishment of his authorial control and allow the words a “freedom” of sorts.
Freedom was a key focus of Burroughs’ work throughout his career, and during the 1960s he believed that the cut-up and fold-in methods were the most appropriate literary devices for attacking the control systems inherent within society. At the core of all of these control mechanisms, according to Burroughs, lay language, by which mankind is held in thrall. However, he was also aware of the capacity for the manipulation of language by those in power. As Burroughs explained in The Job,
The word of course is one of the most powerful instruments of control as exercised by the newspaper and images as well, there are both words and images in newspapers… if you start cutting these up and rearranging them you are breaking down the control system (Job 33).
The juxtaposition of words and images can produce different narrative slants. Around the same time, Marshall McLuhan was producing texts which juxtaposed different words and images in order to practically demonstrate the effects of the media, and, moreover, the ways in which words and images in combination can be manipulated to create bias or even an entirely different narrative from that conveyed by the same words and images in their original contexts. Through the cut-ups, Burroughs strove to achieve a similar objective, namely to “cut through” the controlled information circulated by the mass media and to reveal the “truth” by retelling the “official” versions of stories and articles. According to Burroughs, “the function of art is to make us aware of what we know and don”t know that we know.’ By cutting the texts and “exposing” their true meanings, this function is, in theory, made easier for the reader.
With regard to the cutting up and “retelling” of news items from the press, Burroughs argued that”
…cut-ups make explicit a psychosensory process that is going on all the time anyway. Somebody is reading a newspaper, and his eye follows the column in the proper Aristotelian manner, one idea and sentence at a time. But subliminally he is reading the columns on either side and is aware of the person sitting next to him. That’s a cut-up (TM 4).
Thus, the cut-ups are intended to tap into the psyche of the individual reader, and connect with the subconscious, affecting the reader, as Caveney puts it, “almost by a sort of osmosis.” Through the reading of these composite texts, the reader can indeed become aware of what they know but don’t know that they know. By incorporating existing, sometimes popular texts, and presenting them in a manner that, arguably, brings the narrative form closer to “real life,” the cut-ups function by infiltrating the levels of subconscious, making us aware of those things we know and don’t know we know, and by triggering recollections by literal déjà-vu, or perhaps more accurately, déjà-lu.
The Nova trilogy plunders many genres, spanning science fiction and the hard-boiled detective style, and incorporates works from many sources, while continuing to extrapolate the “true meanings” of the various source texts. The following passage from Nova Express is exemplary:
Now you are asking me whether I want to perpetuate a narcotics problem and I say: “Protect the disease. Must be made criminal protecting society from the disease.”
The problem scheduled in the United States the use of jail, former narcotics plan, addiction and crime for many years – Broad front “Care” of welfare agencies – Narcotics which antedate the use of drugs… Addiction in some form is the basis – must be wholly addicts – Any voluntary capacity subversion of The Will Capital and Treasury Bank – infection dedicated to traffic in exchange narcotics demonstrated a Typhoid Mary who will spread narcotics problem to the United Kingdom – finally in view of the cure – cure of the social problem and as such dangerous to society – (NE 52)
This passage can be unraveled to show that it “reveals that the anti-drug rhetoric of the fifties and sixties served merely to cover up the real intention of the government agencies assigned to tackle the problem: to “Protect the Disease” of addiction,” thus again in Burroughs’ eyes exposing the “true” meanings of the cut texts. As Burroughs observes, political speeches proved a fertile source of exposure through cutting up, commenting that “quite often, you’ll find that some of the real meanings will emerge. And you’ll also find that the politician usually means the exact opposite of what he’s saying.’ This idea corresponds with the “algebra of need” principal and Burroughs’ suggestion that “the police have a vested interest in criminality. The narcotics department have a vested interest in addiction. Politicians have a vested interest in nations. Army officers have a vested interest in war…” (Job 61).
These vested interests include a coherent recording of history. Like all other “recordings,” history is also subject to manipulations, for a number of reasons, not all of which are entirely connected to conspiracy and oppression. As Linda Hutcheon argues, “the historian”s job is to tell plausible stories, made out of the mess of fragmentary and incomplete facts, facts which he or she processes and to which he or she thereby grants meaning through employment… historians suppress, repeat, subordinate, highlight and order those facts,’ through totalization. But this process clearly allows considerable room for alteration and even outright fabrication, as Burroughs explained in a 1974 interview:
We think of the past as being something that has just happened… but it is nothing that could be further from the truth… The past only exists in some record of it. There are no facts. We don’t know how much of history is completely fiction… There’s no record this conversation ever took place or what was said, except what is [recorded]. If the recordings were lost, or they got near a magnet and were wiped out, there would be no recordings whatever. So what are the actual facts? What was actually said here? There are no actual facts.
Hutcheon concurs, at least to an extent, writing:
If the archive is composed of texts, it is open to all kinds of use and abuse. The archive has always been the site of a lot of activity, but rarely of such self-consciously totalizing activity as it is today. Even what is considered acceptable as documentary evidence has changed. And certainly the status of the document has altered: since it is acknowledged that it can offer no direct access to the past, then it must be a representation or replacement through textual refiguring of the brute event (The Politics of Postmodernism 77)
History, therefore, is not fixed, is subject to questioning. At present, there is much discussion over the use of Internet sources, both in academia and in everyday life. critics contend that the Internet is a medium by which myths and misinformation are propagated, and can circulate the globe in minutes, tales being told and retold, twisting and mutating like Chinese whispers. This may be true, but it has always been so, the only difference pre-internet being the time in which information – or misinformation, or propaganda, took to travel, to read its widest dissemination. The fact – if, indeed, there are any facts – remains that the information made available to the public is always received via a series of filters. Any written recording is always subject to editing or censorship of some sort, and this level of filtering only occurs after the initial process whereby the writer writes with their own personal slant or bias and makes their own selection of words and word order.
The writer is just one individual, and is therefore fallible, and represents only of one perspective out of a near infinite range of possible perspectives. Similarly, information circulated by a company or official body is almost inevitably coloured by an agenda of sorts. And so information is suppressed, adjusted, manipulated. Burroughs’ objective was to empower his readership, not only by exposing the processes of manipulation that occur in the formulation of any recording, but also to uncover hidden truths for themselves, and, within the body of his own cut-up works of fiction, implores the readers to try cut-ups for themselves, and states “cut-ups are for everyone” (TM 31).
Burroughs and Gysin went on to extend the application of the cut-ups to experiment with audio recordings:
We went on to exploit the potentials of the tape recorder: cut up, slow down, speed up, run backwards, inch the tape, play several tracks at once, cut back and forth between two recorders. As soon as you start experimenting with slowdowns, speedups, overlays, etc., you will get new words that were not on the original recordings.
On such recordings, Burroughs’ intention is to alter the meaning of the words, the same words, by constantly varying their ordering, presenting an almost infinite range of permutations of the same sentence through random sequence changing. “Recalling all active agents” thus becomes “calling all agents,” “calling all agents active,” “calling all reactive agents,” and so on and so forth, from the more obvious variations to some which would perhaps have remained inconceivable were it not for the formulation of the experiment using audio tapes. Not only is this is almost unquestionably the earliest example of tape looping, but also another means of highlighting the possible alternatives to any given narrative. The continued prevalence of the method is testament to the impact of the breakthrough made by Burroughs and Gysin, and represents an infinite continuum of recycling, revision and retelling in what could be considered “audio narrative.”
The second republication of The Electronic Revolution (1971, 1972) in 1976 occurred shortly prior to the development of Industrial music, spearheaded by Throbbing Gristle, whose Genesis P. Orridge was responsible for the compilation and release of Burroughs’ early experimental recordings on the Nothing Here Now But the Recordings LP (1980). Along with Cabaret Voltaire and Coil, and also Swans and Foetus, Throbbing Gristle were amongst the first to explore the possibilities of using tape loops, cut-ups, samples and “found sounds” to make music, thus following Burroughs’ lead and reinforcing the suggestion that “cut-ups are for everyone” (TM 31). “A lot of what we did, especially in the early days, was a direct application of his ideas to sound and music,” recalls Cabaret Voltaire’s Richard H. Kirk.27 This was true of many of the bands involved in the Industrial scene which exploded on both sides of the Atlantic between 1978 and 1984, who immersed themselves in studio experimentation and the application of techniques first explored by Burroughs and Gysin some 20 years previous.
This involved taking Burroughs’ ideas and, through application and adaptation, mutating them. The idea of “sampling,” which is of course rife within not just Industrial music, but popular music in general, functions exactly as the cut-ups do, by realigning sections of narrative in an alternative context, and thus creating a new retelling of sorts.
But what do the cut-ups, and their subsequent adoption in both music and literature by other artists really amount to? Is it simply experimentation for its own sake, justified by a raft of complex theories that try to render it meaningful? Is it not simply another example of avant-garde destruction, a wanton defacement of the canon, or an example of high postmodernism, in which high and low cultures collide in an egalitarian melting pot, and whereby the death of originality is celebrated through endless recycling and clever plagiarism? I would contend not.
While the cup-ups do, unquestionably transgress notions of ownership and conventional authorship, they also serve as a mode of retelling – a practice which has been conducted since the beginning of human communications, from cave-paintings and hieroglyphs, through the oral transmission of information through to the present. Stories have always been told and retold, with different embellishments and from angles, and the cut-ups simply represent another means of doing this. But they also represent a whole lot more. Rather than mark the fin d’originalité some critics consider the negative face of postmodernism, I would argue that they serve as one of the most innovative modes of revision and retelling devised thus far, and to that end, marked the dawn of a new originality, borne out of the old.
More than this, by addressing and challenging notions of authorship, authority and order within the framework of works of fiction, the cut-ups engaged directly with contemporary critical discourse, the areas of engagement remaining the subjects of great debate today. In short, by prefacing postmodern literary practices and modern cinematic and musical trends, the cut-ups were, ultimately, every bit as revolutionary as Burroughs had hoped and set a new precedent in the practice of revision.