Cut ups essentially began when Brion Gysin “sliced through a pile of newspapers… made a mosaic out of the strips of newspapers… when he read it he thought it was hilarious… for Burroughs… Gysin’s cut-up newspapers switched on the electric light bulb over the cartoon character’s head”1 What was essentially an amusing accident, tied in with old surrealist games, for Gysin, was, for Burroughs, something completely different; it was a way of escaping the traditional format of word layout and communication on paper.
It introduced an element of unpredictability and put the words and their meanings into different perspectives. This idea had been developed before by Duchamp and Von Neumann but it was Burroughs who really developed its theory and practice. The process can be traced back to several movements in literature, arguably as early as the 1930s, for example, Burroughs cites Tristan Tzara ( who had been expelled by Breton from the Surrealists) as on of the first to recognise what is at stake in language.
Burrough’s theory of the cut up was linked in with his ideas about addiction and that we are all addicted to media and the way we are controlled by what we read. He called it the ‘Control Machine’; our mind is controlled as word and image locks us into conventional patterns of perceiving, speaking and thinking. This consequently determines our behaviour and our interaction within society. The cut-up, to Burroughs, was a way of freeing oneself from being controlled by this convention and altering one’s consciousness.
Burroughs believed that the ‘Control Machine’ “has a voice of its own and can talk indirectly only through the words of others… speaking through comic strips… news items… advertisements… talking, above all, through names and numbers”2 The control machine operates only on the literate population. Burroughs stresses the importance of the disruption of reality (and cut-ups can be an aid to this), as Murphy indicates, it is the “literal realisation of art”3, a realisation which concurrently requires the destruction of art as a distinct group, as a mirror to the natural world and being.
As Burroughs had the belief that consciousness, as we know it, is a fiction which has only the manifestation of linear stability, Burroughs aimed to interrupt the course of expectation and jolt the reader into some sort of realisation entirely different from the concept of reality that they had before. It is easy to associate the entire concept quite closely with Kabat-Zinn’s theory that, if we do not become unchained and open our minds to new ideas and to new courses of thought, then we could become trapped in the past. We may, he says, even be unaware that we are imprisoned and therefore we may have no way out.
So many of us seem to be imprisoned in this way, and are entirely unaware and ignorant of it. We require these novel and controversial ideas, concepts and theories to help us to free our thinking. Burroughs produced endless cut-ups, he devoted himself to cut-ups, he put in eight hour days, creating cut ups from his favourite writers and his own writing. Many people told him that cut-ups alienated the reader that they did not make any sense that cut-ups were too difficult to read. Gysin supported Burroughs, and pointed out to him that writing was catching up with painting in that cut-ups were the text version of painting’s collage.
They both understood that any advance in the arts was usually at first misunderstood. The pair also realised that film had embraced this collage form too, in that, when you watch a film, you never just see the action from one perspective; many shots are used, so you see all the different angles, just like one does in real life. By seeing more than one perspective, the object can be interpreted in different ways. Cut-ups did the same thing, whereas regular writing does not allow any flexibility of interpretation.
Burroughs suggested that cut-ups may be effective as a form of divination: “Perhaps events are pre-written and pre-recorded and when you cut word lines the future leaks out”4 Burroughs did also think that cut ups were “accidental… prophetic subliminal announcements… in other words… cut-ups had become a medium for the disclosure of events about to happen”5 Burroughs was thoroughly convinced of this. There was always the issue of the propriety of using other writer’s words, but Burroughs pointed out or at least, was of the opinion that words are not owned; they are simply used or borrowed.
Burroughs followed the idea that if you can cut up reproduction of a famous painting, then why not cut up a copy or reproduction of someone’s work. Creating a montage or a cut-up is the way it is described in the literary art form. Burroughs was able to theorise for hours over the acceptability of cutups, considering how they went back to the Surrealist tradition. He was convinced that “there were many important connections he could not make in the linear method of writing, which he could only find in juxtaposition and happenstance”6.
Even Dick Seaver, Burrough’s editor, said that he determined that cut-ups were interesting, but that he did not think it should be a life’s work, that anyone can use scissors. On the contrary, Burroughs retorted by saying “but some can use them better than others… it takes a master”7 Burrough’s editor attempted to steer Burroughs away from the cut-up method, he realised that most likely it was part of his obsessive, drug-related behaviour, he had seen this kind of behaviour in drug addicts before.
Another difficulty with cut-ups is that they usually are more difficult to read than normal writing. It is important to realise that when you read text, for example, in a newspaper, you read the column you are focused on but also; your mind is absorbing the other columns of text. The reader is also aware of the person sitting next to them, perhaps also reading a newspaper, and many aspects of life around them. Often, people are not very aware of this, or aware of what they are able to take in, how much it is possible for them to notice.
The linguistic base on which we operate, with the “straight, declarative sentence”8 is simply part of our genetic makeup, it’s the way we, influenced by Western thought, work. It is Aristotelian logic. Burroughs felt that Aristotelian logic is one of the key restraints of Western civilisation. He felt that cut-ups were a step toward breaking this restrictive way of seeing and thinking, he saw that it could be much easier for a Chinese person to appreciate cut-ups as, in the way they operate, there are many ways to read any given ideograph, therefore, they would be more likely to appreciate cut-ups as their mind had not been constricted.
What I became most enthused about was the fact that these cut-ups which had been produced by Burroughs so many times created a new way of looking at and understanding text. The most interesting aspect is that through cut-ups, you can read the same text (although mixed up) in an entirely different way. Each individual word can emerge with a completely different meaning and also, one can interpret the text completely differently. For example “you’ll find this (uncovering subliminal meanings) especially when you cut up political speeches… some of the real meanings will emerge…
the politician usually means exactly the opposite of what he’s saying”9 Having experimented myself with cut-ups, having been inspired by Burroughs’ work, I have realised how much you can read different meanings when the text is cut-up, and also, different people interpret cut-ups in different ways. The meaning of text is left to chance. “You can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors”10 One paragraph from the book by Gysin and Burroughs ‘The Third Mind’ was extremely inspiring to me; “The poets are supposed to liberate the words- not to chain them in phrases. Who told poets that they were supposed to think?