:: Article

Occupy the Reality Studio

By Sam Cooper.


Shift Linguals: Cut-up Narratives from William S. Burroughs to the Present, Edward S. Robinson, Rodopi, 2011

In a letter to his old teacher Georges Izambard in 1871, Arthur Rimbaud laid out the project that was to encompass his life and his writing. ‘I want to be a poet,’ wrote Rimbaud, ‘and I’m working to make myself a visionary: you won’t possibly understand, and I don’t know how to explain it to you. To arrive at the unknown through the disordering of all the senses, that’s the point.’

Rimbaud’s conviction that the fragments of modern life could be rearranged to provide a vision of the future, or of truths obscured in the present, became a mainstay of modernist thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, repeated in various formulations by Walter Benjamin, André Breton and T.S. Eliot. When the artist and writer Brion Gysin ‘invented’ the cut-up method in 1959, he was engaging with a long and familiar tradition; Gysin had been associated with the Surrealists in Paris in the 1930s and, later, with the American Beats. Its discovery a happy accident, the cut-up method originally involved cutting up pages of found writing and rearranging the fragments to produce new texts. Gysin found the results amusing, but it was his friend William S. Burroughs who recognised the method’s potential. ‘The word’, Burroughs proposed, ‘is one of the most powerful instruments of control as exercised by the newspaper… Now if you start cutting these up and rearranging them you are breaking down the control system’. Burroughs adopted and adapted the cut-up method, which he used in the belief that by disordering language and subverting its operations he might achieve a glimpse of a different reality. At the same time, Burroughs realised that ‘Consciousness is a cut-up; life is a cut-up’, so here was a method of writing, or of rewriting, that was truer to human experience than was regular, linear narrative.

Edward S. Robinson’s Shift Linguals offers a biography of the cut-up method as expounded by Burroughs. Robinson locates its prehistory in modernist and avant-garde practices; he charts its origins with Gysin and Burroughs through to its early practitioners Claude Pélieu, John Giorno and Carl Weissner; remarks on developments made by Kathy Acker and Stewart Home; and finally identifies some contemporary manifestations, particularly online. Shift Linguals contains the first critical attention—in English at least—to some of these authors, and charts the various permutations and applications of the cut-up method since Burroughs. Robinson is particularly interested in the political implications of the method. He demonstrates that the cut-up has been applied to different media in different contexts with different intentions, and that it is still evolving as a method, but that its character is always antagonistic. The cut-up is predisposed to negation and iconoclasm. It does damage, physical and literal, to its sources; it does not pay the respect of a verbatim quotation. In relation to the three main authors in his study, Robinson notes that the method has been put to work against ‘the invisible agents of control Burroughs sought to attack, the male-dominated literary establishment Acker found herself at odds with, [and] the capitalist culture against which Home writes.’ In each case, the cut-up method is used to undermine authority, to alert readers to the mutability of words, and to reveal truths hidden by—or in—language.

Cut-ups promote an absolute suspicion of language, and cut-up texts vary greatly in their comprehensibility. Like its surrealist forebears, the cut-up text is subject to chance and chaos, which makes its exegesis an impossible task. Frequently, cut-up texts are indecipherable, random arrangements of words, meaningless to conventional readings. Robinson cannily responds to this problem by focusing on how the cut-up method operates as a form of composition: is the whole text a cut-up, or just sections of it? Are the cuts marked in the final text? Has the author arranged the fragments logically or at random? Robinson can thus pay attention to the experiential effects, for the reader, of these compositions, and compare the experiences of texts produced through different types of cut-up. Shift Linguals is therefore as much an intellectual history as a work of literary criticism.

However, the variability and polyvalency of the cut-up method leads to another difficulty in subjecting it to critical attention. The cut-up remains proximate to, oftentimes indistinguishable from, many other literary and visual techniques, including collage, fractured montage, automatic writing, non-linear narrative, intertextuality and heteroglossia. Similarly, variations on the cut-up theme have been practiced by a variety of writers other than Gysin and Burroughs, ranging from the Dadaists and Surrealists to the Language poets, the Oulipo group, the Situationist International, and beyond. Robinson mentions some of these other traditions but imposes, through necessity, strict boundaries for his study, to include only those writers who actively identify themselves as continuing Burroughs’ experiments with prose form. (Robinson’s unwillingness to explore the cut-up in contemporary poetry is perhaps due to Burroughs’ own antipathy toward poets, those ‘lazy prose writers’).

As part of his effort to trace the method’s family tree, Robinson frequently returns to the question of whether the cut-up emerges from avant-garde or from postmodern traditions. I felt that the importance of this distinction remained vague. My impression is that the former would serve to emphasise the cut-up’s destructive and sometimes nihilistic character, as something against culture, and the latter the cut-up’s emergence from certain cultural formations, as something of culture, albeit as pastiche. This distinction matches Burroughs’ view that the cut-up is simultaneously a weapon and a preexisting condition. Robinson decides that the cut-up method has been both avant-garde and postmodern, and could yet be other things too. I would suggest that of most consequence is the recognition that the cut-up method is essentially a modernist technique that has been adapted to new conditions and technologies (pulp fiction, tape recordings, computer programming, etc.). Eliot, for instance, haunts Robinson’s discussion; I would have liked to read more on Burroughs’ engagement with Eliot, as a means of tracing backwards the helix of influence and repetition that Robinson mostly traces forwards from Burroughs.

Nonetheless, as Robinson’s narrative progresses and the Burroughsian cut-up intertwines with other techniques that share its modernist prehistory, it becomes apparent that the cut-up method is itself a cut-up. The method is drawn from the armory of techniques that also includes plagiarism, as defended by Lautréamont’s verdict that ‘Poetry must be made by all and not by one’, and the Situationist technique of détournement, another form of appropriation and subversion that Guy Debord once described as ‘the first step towards a literary communism.’

The cut-up is endlessly variable, unfixed, chaotic; it resists interpretation, perhaps even intelligibility; it exacerbates the materiality and fallibility of language. What, then, is its value? Given Gysin’s initial attitude toward the cut-up as a joke, some of Burroughs’ wilder pronouncements about mind control, and even Home’s project of cultivated contradictions and sincere insincerities, it would be easy to dismiss or diminish the premise of the cut-up. Certainly, Robinson has to entertain ironies so deep that they act as infinity mirrors which threaten to displace any solid and certain ground of critique. Nonetheless, he manages to ascertain that the real worth of the cut-up lies in the process, not the product. The cut-up becomes a life practice, restricted neither to writers nor even to texts. Burroughs writes that ‘Cut-ups are for everyone… It is experimental in the sense of being something to do’, and Acker notes the reciprocity and refusal of ownership implicit to cutting-up by adding, ‘You can do whatever you want with my work… I put work out there for people to use.’ The cut-up, Robinson argues, is a thought exercise, a means of attaining a new awareness of the word and the world. It is the project of becoming a visionary.


Sam Cooper lives in London. He is nearing completion on his DPhil thesis which investigates the British legacy of the Situationist International.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, June 11th, 2011.