I knew about William S. Burroughs long before I ever touched On the Road or consciously heard the term Beat Generation. People in my school carried Junkie around as if it were their own personal Bible. Burroughs seemed to resonate with people in a way that Kerouac and Ginsberg did not, even though his writing is an assault on the senses.

Burroughs subjects his readers to his own grammatical whims. He is explicit and crude, making him a literary Howard Stern of sorts. Most familiar things found in writing, such as a plot, appear to be gone. However, if the word is a virus, as Burroughs would like us to believe, is he offering us a cure through the cut-up?

Of course, Burroughs is not the first writer to play with the conventions of punctuation, however, when authors chose to do this it affects the reader. We have been trained since the very beginning as to what these cues are trying to tell us. A comma is a pause. A semi-colon is a longer pause, saying “Woah! Take notice of something I’ve written here!” A period is another pause and the end of a sentence. And so on and so on. A break in this coded language trips the reader up, giving them a different relationship to the material. While punctuation, and how one deals with it, usually comes as second nature without much thought, the reader is now aware of it. However, the reader still associates everything back to the traditional system. While the stringed ideas don’t necessarily create anything that one could call a sentence, they still convey a meaning. In other sections, they use dashes, or they through everything out the window right down to capitalization. At other times, they revert to tradition.

The conditioning at the hands of English teachers over the years makes it difficult not to translate. Not only have the words infected us, but the whole network of symbols that accompanies them has infected us as well. No matter what attempts are made to break away from that system, it is so engrained that our minds struggle to get back to it when confronted with something outside of the system.

While Burroughs’ use of punctuation remains on the outside of what is familiar to us, the notion of the cut-up no longer is. Despite this, it is still interesting what he did in terms of using the cut-up in his writing and in his films with Gysin. In his films it is easy to first associate what they did as having a connection to the notion of montage. However, when the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein created the concept of montage, he placed a lot of importance on the conveyed meaning that the construction of images applied. For example, an image of a baby crying followed by the image of food would convey that the baby was hungry. Of course, the montage constructions in the film were often more complex, there was still an underlying meaning that was trying to be conveyed. In the films by Burroughs and Gysin the underlying meaning isn’t there, at least not in the same manner as traditional montage films. But much like their writing, the collection of images stringed together does convey an idea, even if the idea is without a strong sense of meaning to back it up. Many people suggest that the roots of this style of editing came from MTV and music videos, but maybe the roots of MTV were in films like those by Burroughs.
We have become familiar with the structure of the cut-up, even if we never read or saw one. On television, TV shows are written around the necessary interruptions and films on TV are cut into haphazardly for commercial breaks. At any point someone can turn on their TV, start watching something, and then turn it off before the story is finished. Our attention spans have shrunk. We cut up the newspaper (or web page, or magazine) in our minds while we read, jumping from one thing to another as soon as we start to lose interest. When The Ticket That Exploded was first published in the 1960’s, readers would have surely had a different relationship with it. For something that is difficult to read for long periods of time, our minds are now well conditioned.

One can see how the notion of the cut-up works similar to playing with punctuation in terms of bringing attention to the word as a virus. When the familiar structure of the traditional plot is gone, the relationship with the words changes. Ideally, this should engage the reader. There should be a more active effort on the part of the reader to understand what the writer is trying to convey. Instead, our familiarity with fragments and random bits of story get in the way. We are now comfortable with building our own plots out of these bits of information, but in building our own concept of what the plot is, we lose the point Burroughs was trying to make. The work no longer belongs to him as a writer, but to us as a reader. While this shouldn’t be an issue, we bring with us the virus in our mind. His words become part of that system rather than something that is working to fight against it. A device used to create an awareness of the word as a virus is no longer effective. We have become immune.

But, what is that Burroughs wants us to understand? If we are to believe that the word is a virus, then we have to see our traditions and habits as something poisonous, and begin to question the implications that they bring to our lives. Burroughs does not offer us a retreat from the virus all together, especially now that the concept of the cut-up is familiar. He is not a cure, but rather offers us a vaccination. He gives us a weakened form of the word to consume, and to help build our immunity to the onslaught of the virus. It is up to us to choose to take it.

"Writing is fifty years behind painting." - Brion Gysin

William S. Burroughs used the cut-up technique to assemble entire novels, notably The Ticket That Exploded. The innovation that Burroughs brought to the technique was the use of his own writing to make the cut-up. Whereas the surrealists typically used clippings from newspaper stories to randomly splice together an original work. Burroughs' original method was the so-called fold-in, where he would type a few pages of straight-forward text, fold and cut the sheets into quarters, then randomly tape them back together. Thus a new work was created that was not a random assortment of unrelated ideas but a temporal reorganization of a linear narrative. Burroughs was attempting to make fiction that was not strictly one-dimensional but utilized multi-dimensional montage techniques that visual artists could so easily employ.

In applying the technique to his novels, I can only make an attempt to discern his methods. Usually cut-ups are done over the span of individual chapters. The first half is normal writing, probably the original text. Somewhere in the middle the cut-up begins, which is a random re-ordering of the first half of the chapter. With longer chapters, there may be more alternation between regular and irregular text. This has the effect of activating a deja vu sensation in the reader because the first occurence of a phrase or word in the normal text may have been registered only subconsciously. The technique can be repeated ad infinitum, making cut-ups of cut-ups. Burroughs will also cut in phrases across chapters (often at a distance of more than a hundred pages from the original occurence). This long-distance cut-up is used extensively in Naked Lunch and has been termed a word-hole.

To make cutups of your own writing:

To read an example:
Cut The (idea) Technique up

More recent examples of people employing the cut up technique include the Gescom Minidisc, a mini-disc only release by the experimental electronica collective which consists of 88 short (ranging in length from a few seconds to 3-4 minutes) tracks meant to be played on RANDOM or SHUFFLE mode, creating a different experience each time. Some of the consecutive tracks make up more complete pieces, so as you listen you hear the parts of different pieces coming in and out.

Another example is this online journal:


The cut up technique was invented to produce aleatory text by (physically) cutting up phrases from several source texts and then rearranging those pieces to form something new.

The technique, attributed to dadaists, was one of many ways in which the rational was mocked and the irrational, the random and the nonsensical works were glorified as a way of reaching into the unconscious, which was relatively unknown territory in arts.

These days, the internet gives the layperson access to mountains of source texts and tools to easily replicate this technique. Thus, I argue, the potential artist can concentrate more on the resulting piece and less on its process. Example cut-up headlines by yours truly:

  • Crisis in Egypt raising fears oil prices could spike if it leads to a supply disruption. || It's mostly a showcase for Windows 8.1, but it's also an opportunity for Redmond to turn the page on a new era.
  • Researchers believe artificial lighting at night interferes with chemicals in the body, and this process can trigger the growth of tumors. || Notable exhibitions in Denver, London and Brunswick, Maine.
  • Planet Labs, a San Francisco aerospace startup, is launching 100 of its small satellites into orbit this year where they will photograph the Earth every single day. || Kate Winslet says she wishes she had been given more support to help her cope
  • President Obama's proclamation for 'Religious Freedom Day' recognizes atheists and agnostics. || If we’re not careful, the future could resemble the scarier parts of Minority Report, where roving droids scan our irises and force non-stop customized ads upon us

Source of the cut up headlines: http://www.christopherarcella.com/cutupmachine/ (now defunct link) and others. Want to try it for yourself?

BQ14: 283 words

2022-02-23: Marked one link as defunct, added two new links

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.