Picture by Burroughs and Gysin, Words by Joshua Cialis
The title of this essay comes from my recent experiments with the cut-up method of writing. Devised by Brion Gysin and made famous by William Burroughs, the cut-up method seeks to ‘deconstruct language as an act of spiritual rebellion’ (Ash: 1997, p.46). This article will give an overview of the history and method of cut-ups, and also discussion of its uses.
Inspired by Tristan Tzara’s attempts to create poetry by randomly plucking words out of a hat, Gysin went one step further by cutting through ‘someone else’s rusty load of continuity’ in order to create new art and new ways of writing. (Burroughs: 2000, p.270).The simple method includes taking a page of words and cutting it into a quadrant (so that the top left tile becomes 1, top-right 2, bottom left 3, and bottom right 4); swap the positioning of the tiles so that 2 becomes 3 (1 and 4 will remain in their original position). Read along the joins of this new text looking for phrases or sentences that work together or jolt your conscience. These new sentences don’t have to make any real sense, they just have to speak to some greater hidden meaning within your mind. You could either leave these phrases as simple sentences, or pluck phrases and sentences that go together from throughout the text to create a paragraph. I used this method with Boris Johnson’s inaugural speech as prime minister and got some illuminating Prose:
The doubters and the doomsters don’t have to wait 3 weeks to get it wrong again. The people who lose their shirts because we are really going to the front line and we are going to fulfil their fear of people and come out of the cost of caring.
As we can see from the above cut-up, there is a random nature to the sentences produced but yet there is still a sense of reality to what they say. Burroughs actually believed that these new augmentations carry the true meaning of the original text In some cases, Burroughs believed the cut-ups actually predicted future events. In his essay ‘It Belongs to the Cucumbers’, Burroughs gives the following anecdote: ‘I cut up an article by John Paul Getty and got “It is a bad thing to sue your own father.” And a year later one of his sons did sue him’ (Burroughs: 2013, p.66). is this just coincidence or could the cut-up method really have psychic tendencies? Does this mean Boris Johnson intends to take the fight for Brexit to ‘the front line’? Until the evidence provides itself, we can only speculate. However, the cut-up method does seem to overcome the ‘control’ that words have on the reader. Burroughs believed that it is our addiction to words that controls us by terrestrial, political, religious, economic, and even extra-terrestrial means. He asserted that those who control both the supply and meaning of words can control those who are addicted to them. Deconstructing and rearranging words or thoughts, through the use of cut-ups, can start that process of decontrol. Therefore, by cutting up Boris Johnson’s speech – which is essentially an article of propaganda – I have taken away from the controlling notion that propaganda wants me to think or act in a certain way. I have taken possession of the words and thus taken the control out of the hands of government – if only for my own conscience.
In a recent cut-up experiment I cut an essay on language up into four parts; rearranging the tiles produced some interesting truths which may get to the central meaning of what the author was trying to portray. Or maybe cutting into an essay on the rules and techniques of language I was in fact cutting away at the control that language holds over our writing and communication:
All the chapters and the world present a central problem. When Plato handed the world naturalism deconstruction occurred. Deconstruction consistently engages literary criticism; metaphors actually hold the mirror to nature. This distinction is implicit considering that part of literary texts start from an assumed separation.
So why not take your own control of language, find what it is that needs to be released from a text. Hold a mirror up to nature by trying your own cut-ups, use this essay – cut it up into four parts and determine what I’m really saying as I waffle on.
Ash, M. Beat Spirit: The Way of the Beat Writers as a Living Experience (New York: Putnam Books, 1997)
Burroughs, W. S. ‘It Belongs to the Cucumbers’ in The Adding Machine (New York: Grove Press, 2013) pp.65-74
Burroughs, W. S. quoted in James Campbell, This is the beat generation (London: Vintage, 2000)