The cut-up method is best-known as a literary technique in which a written text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text.
Pictured: William Burroughs rearranging text cut-ups, 1983
What is the cut up technique?
In the article ‘The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin’ (1961 / 1978), author William Burroughs explains how to cut-up a text:
“The method is simple. Here is one way to do it. Take a page. Like this page. Now cut down the middle and cross the middle.
“You have four sections: 1 2 3 4 . . . one two three four.
“Now rearrange the sections placing section four with section one and section two with section three. And you have a new page. Sometimes it says much the same thing. Sometimes something quite different—cutting up political speeches is an interesting exercise—in any case you will find that it says something and something quite definite.”
The “origin story”
It’s said that, in the 1950s, the artist Brion Gysin was using layers of newspapers as a mat to protect a tabletop from being scratched while he cut other papers with a razor blade.
Gysin: “… I had a number of sheets of newspaper, and I took a Stanley blade and cut through them, and little bits and pieces looked so amusing to me that I started jiggling them around as one would in a collage.” Gysin had accidentally rediscovered the cut-up method, a technique that can be traced back to at least the Dadaists of the 1920s.
Gysin then introduced his friend, the author William Burroughs to the technique at the Beat Hotel.
History of the cut-up technique
Most histories of the cut-up technique tend to focus on its emergence from the arts. For example, William Burroughs mentions surrealism in the “The Cut Up Method” (1963):
“At a surrealist rally in the 1920’s Tristan Tzara the man from nowhere proposed to create a poem on the spot by pulling words out of a hat. A riot ensued wrecked the theatre. Andre Breton expelled Tristan Tzara from the movement and grounded the cut ups on the Freudian couch.”
Writer Austin Kleon tracked cut-up ideas back to 1883, and Lewis Carroll’s ““Poeta Fit, Non Nascitur” (a reversal of the Latin adage, poeta nascitur non fit, or, “a poet is born, not made”)”:
“For first you write a sentence,
And then you chop it small;
Then mix the bits, and sort them out
Just as they chance to fall:
The order of the phrases makes
No difference at all.”
But: There is another history of the cut-up technique waiting to be written; one that explores how it also emerged from advances in information technology. Burroughs’ grandfather, William Seward Burroughs, famously perfected the adding machine – a machine for calculations that previously were completed manually.
Pictured: Burroughs adding and listing machine, 1912
The adding machine is one of the important late 19th Century information technology inventions, alongside the telephone and the filing cabinet.
Craig Robertson, associate professor of media and communication studies, argues that ordering paper at the document level and storing it in a filing cabinet changed our relationship to information, that people came to envision information itself as a discrete thing, “Information, grasped as individual pieces of paper, became malleable, both in its physical shape and its contents.”
Robertson locates the filing cabinet in the rise of scientific management, the logic of bureaucracy.
“…and what I have come to call granular certainty, or the drive to break more and more of life and its everyday routines into discrete, observable, and manageable parts.”
Joanna Grisinger, writing about Robertson’s ideas: “Robertson focuses on how the specific mechanics of the file storage process—office workers collecting loose documents in a file folder, securely storing the folder in a vertical cabinet, and later quickly finding that folder among dozens or hundreds of other ones—contributed not just to business efficiency but also to a conception of “information” as many discrete units rather than as a body of knowledge.”
In more recent history, it’s William Burroughs who’s now commonly associated with the cut-up technique. Burroughs used it to write a number of critically acclaimed novels, and talked about the process to the media.
Curator Laura Hoptman: “Burroughs tried his entire life to tell people that Gysin invented the cut-up, but because Burroughs ran with the idea, producing numerous novels, he is the one credited. It’s important to think of Gysin as an idea generator above all.”
When Burroughs encouraged Gysin to further develop the technique, Hoptman says Gysin dismissed his friend’s suggestions because he was more interested in his next venture, his Dream Machine kinetic sculpture.
Examples of cut ups
‘First Cut-Ups,’ ‘Minutes to Go,’ and ‘Cut Me Up Brion Gysin’ were among Gysin’s first experiments with the cut-up technique of writing.
Burroughs wrote in ‘The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin’:
“In the summer of 1959 Brion Gysin painter and writer cut newspaper articles into sections and rearranged the sections at random. Minutes to Go resulted from this initial cut-up experiment. Minutes to Go contains unedited unchanged cut ups emerging as quite coherent and meaningful prose.”
Pictured: An extract from Minutes To Go
Burroughs went on to create a number of experimental novels that drew on text revealed by the cut-up method. His Nova Trilogy (or The Cut-up Trilogy) books are: The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962) and Nova Express (1964).
In 1977, Burroughs and Gysin published The Third Mind, a collection of cut-up writings and essays on the form.
A page from The Third Mind book of cut ups
Cut-Ups Self-Explained from The Third Mind book 1978
Cutting up the movies
As well as printed media, Gysin and Burroughs also applied the technique to audio and film recordings.
The short film, The Cut-Ups opened in London in 1967. It features cut up footage of Burroughs and Gysin. Cinematography by Antony Balch, screenplay by Burroughs.
When the film first premiered, reportedly, members of the audience said it made them feel ill.
The film is non-linear. But many would describe it as deranged. When narrative is absent, the viewer has to create their own structure. The power of Burroughs and Gysin’s cut up works are entangled with their cut-up lives, and the myths of their cut-up lives. It’s said they were using a lot of drugs. Cut-up people producing cut-up artefacts.
Why did Burroughs and Gysin use cut ups?
- Insight. In 1950s United States, the media industry, as now, often normalised consumerism and encouraged conformity. Cut ups offered a way in, a method Gysin and Burroughs could use to examine the mass media and the social norms it promoted.
- Innovation. In “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin”, Burroughs explains:
“The cut-up method brings to writers the collage, which has been used by painters for fifty years. And used by the moving and still camera. In fact all street shots from movie or still cameras are by the unpredictable factors of passers by and juxtaposition cut-ups. And photographers will tell you that often their best shots are accidents . . . writers will tell you the same. The best writing seems to be done almost by accident but writers until the cut-up method was made explicit— all writing is in fact cut ups.”
- Spontaneity. Burroughs: “You can not will spontaneity. But you can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors.”
- Their belief in a magickal universe.
- Divination. Burroughs also suggested cut-ups may be effective as a form of divination saying, “When you cut into the present the future leaks out.”
“When you experiment with Cut-Ups over a period of time you find that some of the Cut-Ups in re-arranged texts seemed to refer to future events. I cut-up an article written by John-Paul Getty and got, “It’s a bad thing to sue your own father.” This was a re-arrangement and wasn’t in the original text, and a year later, one of his sons did sue him.”Another example. Some say William Burroughs predicted social media in his 1961 cut-up novel The Soft Machine:”Posted everywhere on street corners the idiot irresponsibles twitter supersonic approval, repeating slogans, giggling, dancing…”
Why are cut-ups still being talked about?
- Their history. The lure of the counter-culture.
- Celebrity connections. The cut-up method has been adopted by celebrated musicians such as David Bowie when creating lyrics.David Bowie: “What I’ve used it for more than anything else is igniting anything that might be in my imagination. And you can often come up with very interesting attitudes to look into.”Musician Iggy Pop, from the Burroughs 101 radio documentary: “How different is the cut up method really from what they used to call the magic eight ball? Do you know what that is? Or a Ouija board. It’s a Ouija board for art people, is what it is. Language is a virus. Language is a virus. Virus is a language human scummery control is a virus.”
- Acknowledgment by academia. The cut up is seen as worthy of study.
- Corporate endorsement. The cut-up has received some mainstream recognition as a brainstorming technique in the “creative industries”, although its history is often overlooked.
- They still resonate. They mean something, and / or still intrigue many people.