Cut ups

By CTS Ryan

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.

William Burroughs rearranging text cut-ups

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.

Burroughs adding and listing machine

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.”

First cut ups

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

Pictured: A page from The Third Mind book of cut ups

Cut-Ups Self-Explained from The Third Mind book 1978

Pictured: 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?

Reasons include:

  • 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?

Reasons include:

  • 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.

And… why do cut-ups still resonate?

Reasons include:

  • They’re entertaining. The idea of hidden meaning being revealed appeals to many.
  • The promise of epiphany. Us humans love a moment of sudden revelation, to see the world anew.
  • Prescience. The cut up can be interpreted as a response to the early tremors of the digital media earthquake. When Burroughs and Gysin were cutting up the early ’60s, information technologist Ted Nelson was developing early models of hypertext systems that used links and nonsequential writing, reconfiguring traditional information formats.”Art as radar acts as an ‘early alarm system,’ as it were,” wrote Marshall McLuhan in ‘Understanding Media’, “enabling us to discover social and psychic targets in lots of time to prepare to cope with them.”
  • We recognise them in digital media. They can be seen as a visualisation of the remixing and re-presentation of information that’s now common in digital media, especially the web.
Brion Gysin on Twitter

Pictured: Brion Gysin “inventor” of the modern cut up, being cut-up by Twitter

  • The method is easy to access, yet can route-around hierarchy and authority, rather like the Web.
    Gysin: “Writing is fifty years behind painting. I propose to apply the painters’ techniques to writing; things as simple and immediate as collage or montage. Cut right through the pages of any book or newsprint… lengthwise, for example, and shuffle the columns of text. Put them together at hazard and read the newly constituted message.
    “Do it for yourself. Use any system which suggests itself to you. Take your own words or the words said to be “the very own words” of anyone else living or dead. You’ll soon see that words don’t belong to anyone. Words have a vitality of their own and you or anybody else can make them gush into action.”
  • Because they’re all around us. On our screens and on the street, in our heads and at our feet.
    Burroughs talking to John Walters in 1982: “these juxtapositions between what you’re thinking if you’re walking down the street and what you see, that is exactly what I was introducing.
    ”You see, life is a cut up. Every time you walk down the street or look out of the window your consciousness is cut by random factors and then you begin to realise that they are not so random, that this is saying something to you.”

Cut up technique generators: try it for yourself

Cut up technique generatorIt’s no longer necessary to cut up pieces of paper to experiment with the cut up technique.
There are a number of websites and tools that offer text manipulation functionality. For example:


John Walters interviews William Burroughs. BBC Radio 1. Broadcast: 11 / 11 / 1982.

The Prophetic Legacy of Brion Gysin

The Cut Up Method

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