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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

William S. Burroughs and Cut-Up Writing

I think William S. Burroughs was on to something. Aside from Jack Kerouac, Burroughs was another one of the influential authors of the Beat Generation that in the 1950s and 60s found popularity - if not notoriety in Burroughs' case - in his experimental writing styles. Burroughs was introduced to the cut-up technique of writing, which basically means he would quite literally "cut-up" a strand of linear text into segmented pieces with one or a couple of words a piece, and then simply reorder them in whatever fashion he saw fit.


Burroughs experimented with the cut-up technique at great length and it suited him fine, for he found that by doing so he could somehow alter reality - or even foretell future events. The Nova Trilogy, published in the early 1960s were a series of three experimental novels published by Burroughs in which he made use of the cut-up. The Soft Machine was the first book in the trilogy - published two years after his groundbreaking Naked Lunch- , and it is often considered by many as the definite cut-up work as far as serving as an exemplar of this particular methodology. If you have never heard Burroughs explain his cut-up technique, then you have to watch this video: William S. Burroughs on the Art of Cut-Up Writing  (I particularly like Burroughs' raspy voice explanation of cutting-up text, like at around 1:10 in the vid when he explains, "When you cut into the present, the future leaks out...")


To give you an idea of what the result is, just read the following passage from Burroughs' The Soft Machine  (p. 7):

Well the traffic builds up and boosters falling in with jacket shirts and ties, kids with a radio torn from the living car trailing tubes and wires, lush-workers flash rings and wrist watches falling in sick all hours.  

William S. Burroughs was not the first to use this cut-up style of writing. Many years earlier, in 1920s the Dadaist writers were using it. In his article, Dan Colman (William S. Burroughs on the Art of Cut-Up Writing) relates that in his "dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love," Dadaist writer Tristan Tzara, in the late 1920s, included a section called “To Make a Dadaist Poem,” and it gave these instructions (quoting Colman's article):
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are – an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

But alas, in this day in age, who has time to get ye olde tyme paper and scissor and actually cut the old fashion way when we can simply direct ourselves to an online article, cut and paste into a virtual cut-up machine and away we go. To this effect, knock yourself out, just go get some text on Google News, Wikipedia or some other online text and then pay a visit to the "cut-up machine" set up on Lake Rain Vajra's website, where the author has replicated a simple tool for you to cut-up text virtually without getting your hands too dirty. (No need to shake the bag filled with words, just click on the Cut It Up button.)

A scene from David Cronenberg's screen adaptation of Burroughs' Naked Lunch


  1. Hm. Why do I imagine that a poem composed with the help of Lake Rain Vajra's 'cut-up machine' will look more like Lake Rain Vajra than me? I suspect the individual whose consciousness selects the words (consciously or blindly) is influential in the composition, but a machine would intervene and diminish the influence.

    This is an interesting article. Thank you!

    1. Or, to be more to the point, the individual whose consciousness created the machine would indirectly intervene in the composition of my poem, through the instrument he or she built. And, because that instrument is selecting the words, it would be more influential than me. Humph. :-)

    2. Yes, I agree with what you are saying, but there is a fair level of intentionality left to the operator of the cut-up machine. It certainly does not create - as far as I am concerned - any usable "literature" just by pasting random text into the machine. The operator has to use a high level of subjectivity it seems in order to evaluate the generated results insofar as either deciding to use or discard the results. For instance, if I do a little experiment and using one of you sentences in your comment - let's use "Or, to be more to the point, the individual whose consciousness created the machine would indirectly intervene in the composition of my poem, through the instrument he or she built." When I past this into the Vajra's cut-machine here are the results I get - No 1 click on Cut It Up button gives me "instrument the indirectly poem, the poem, the of the the to the the instrument in the would poem, the or instrument would whose consciousness composition whose machine machine intervene point,"
      Not much use to me so I click on Cut It Up More and, No 2 generated results are "the the the machine point, individual or instrument she my created the to or the to be the machine point, through my created instrument consciousness be to whose through through"
      Now it's futile to go on, but it does give me ideas as an artist on the combination of possible words, most I dislike but some I could perhaps utilize. I can take from No. 1 results the string that reads "instrument [...] whose consciousness composition whose machine [...] intervene point". Then I believe in No.2 I'll take "through my created instrument consciousness". I can thereby add the two strings I like together and make some whacky Burroughsy-sounding sentence like "The instrument whose consciousness composition whose machine intervenes points through my created instrument consciousness". I daresay not too bad sounding, but the cut-up machine is certainly not the true author of this piece of cut-up lit., although I see your point that ultimately the programmer must have had a hand in it somehow to lay these cards out on the table for me to pick... Nevertheless, I like to think the aesthetics of the artist - meaning the user of the cut-up machine - override the builder of the programwordtoolkit - Es ist ein gut Deutsch wort, oder schlecht? :)