The Anti-Environment of the Cut-Up Authors

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by Carl Weissner

Environments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible. The ground rules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns of environments elude easy perception. Anti-environments, or countersituations made by artists [“and artists” added by Weissner], provide means of direct attention and enable us to see and understand more clearly. Marshall McLuhan [The Medium is the Massage, p 68]


Carl Weissner, ed., Cut Up, Melzer, 1969At a meeting of surrealists in the 1920s Tristan Tzara proposed that poetry could be made by using the same principle as a lottery: pulling words out of a hat… Mayhem in the ranks, riots in the upper balconies… a random strategy of poetics was asking too much of the purist rank and file… and yet they could hardly have been unprepared for such a suggestion… ARS COMBINATORIA… European mannerists of the 16th and 17th centuries… Paralogisms… Mixed metaphors… Alchemist word-machines… Para-rhetorics… Subversive language mechanisms, an Anti-Environment built on Kabbala… Counter-offensives to classical rhetoric, one-track ways of thinking, inflexible systems of imagination…

Word factories & combination tables of Emanuele Tesauro, Christoph Männlings etc. — (was Athanasius Kircher the first “astronaut of inner space?” … ITER EXTATICUM [Würzburg 1660] … imaginary handbook of space travel through the cerebral cortex, through “inner space”) — Rimbaud’s ALCHIMIE DU VERBE … “Hallucination of words” — Baudelaire’s PARADIS ARTIFICIELS — The Surrealists’ ÉCRITURE AUTOMATIQUE — 4-dimensional semantic chess moves in Joyce’s FINNEGANS WAKE — CUT-UP and FOLD-IN techniques by Brion Gysin and William Burroughs —: breaking through linear habits of thinking, speaking, writing & imagining… deconstructing the classical i.e. bourgeois “reality” that literature and mass media have accepted from state / church / finance…


Ever since newspapers were first printed in columns, it has been possible — intentionally or unintentionally — to read across columns. For example, in hindsight this may have been what the Englishman Caleb Whitefoord (1734—1810) did: “This day his majesty will go in state to // Fifteen notorious prostitutes..” Mag George III. “In reality” will go to a horse race (column 1) and on May 15 notorious nightclub hostesses were taken into custody (column 2) — that’s what could be read in the newspapers but Mr. Whitefoord saw something else. Such cross-column readings are a simple form of cut-up (and a reasonably de-mythologized form of the technique which had been used by the early mannerists, though for slightly more profound effects).


Cross-column readings were the starting point for the American painter Brion Gysin and American writer William Burroughs. In Tangier and Paris at the end of the 1950s, they began experimenting with the writing technique which Gysin would call the cut-up method. (Burroughs published many of the texts resulting from cross-reading newspapers in newspaper format.) They would cut a page of text into quarters and rearrange the pieces, or they would fold a page in the middle and lay it on another page, reading it as though it were a “proper” page (fold-in). In this way Minutes to Go (in collaboration with Sinclair Beiles and Gregory Corso; Paris 1960) and Exterminator (San Francisco 1960) were created from texts derived from cut-up and fold-in experiments with newspapers, magazines, poems by Rimbaud, sonnets by Shakespeare, letters, etc.

In 1959 Burroughs’ cut-up novel Naked Lunch was published in Paris. In one place it says: “There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing… I am a recording instrument… I do not presume to impose ‘story’ ‘plot’ ‘continuity…’ Insofar as I succeed in direct recording of certain areas of psychic process I may have limited function… I am not an entertainer…”


Intersection points help to orient the reader. These are constantly emerging from the cut-up process: a word or passage appears in a new combination while the cut remains visible — you remember the word or passage from its original context yet at the same time you see it in a new one (the relation to cuts and flashbacks in films is apparent). Hence Burroughs says: “You can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point.” The cut-up writer works with association blocks. The semantic “check points” (which themselves enter into new constellations) indicate the direction and the coordinate system of the cut-up’s process of association.


For the last few years Burroughs has collaborated with Brion Gysin, Ian Sommerville, and the author [Weissner] on variations and extensions of the cut-up and fold-in techniques via tape recorders and film.

“Today,” writes McLuhan, “men’s nerves surround us; they have gone outside as electrical environment. The human nervous system itself can be reprogrammed biologically as readily as any radio network can alter its fare. Burroughs has dedicated Naked Lunch to the first proposition, and Nova Express (both Grove Press) to the second. Naked Lunch records private strategies of culture in the electric age. Nova Express indicates some of the ‘corporate’ responses and adventures of the Subliminal Kid who is living in a universe which seems to be someone else’s insides. Both books are a kind of engineer’s report of the terrain hazards and mandatory processes, which exist in the new electric environment.” (Marshall McLuhan in The Nation, 28 December 1964)

Burroughs adds: “The biological theater of the body can bear a good deal of new program notes… A tape recorder is an externalized section of the human nervous system you can find out more about the nervous system and gain more control over your reactions by using the tape recorder than you could find out sitting twenty years in the lotus posture or wasting your time on the analytic couch… turn off the sound track on your television set and substitute an arbitrary sound track […] you will find that the arbitrary sound track seems to be appropriate and is in fact determining your interpretation of film track on screen people running for a bus in piccadilly with a sound track of machine gun fire looks like 1917 petrograd…” (From “The Invisible Generation,” International Times, 14 November 1966) [Note: either Weissner possessed a variant of Burroughs’ text “The Invisible Generation” or he mixed and matched Burroughs quotes from McLuhan, International Times, and possibly The Ticket That Exploded.]

In another passage of this article Burroughs elaborates on experiments with tape recorders, like the ones we made in the summer of 1966… speak a sentence onto tape, play it back again at a faster speed and try to imitate the accelerated voice… play it again, this time backwards and try imitating that… learn to de-speak a spoken sentence… or, on a four-track recorder that allows you to switch back and forth between tracks, record texts on two tracks… with alterations between the tracks at increasingly shorter intervals… A lot of “new” words emerge with this method, i.e. words which didn’t exist on either track alone. Such experiments help to break through clichés of the imagination and automatic associations, provoking new insights and connections in non-chemical ways — i.e. without the use of drugs.


Since the publication of McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media, it has become clear that the printed word (the “book-printing environment”) is being superseded by electronic environments that pass through and get under our skin. Cut-up texts follow this process closely — they reflect something of the hallucinatory synchronicity of on-screen information. Take American television programs in which narrative film, documentary, and news sequences are cut into each other in rapid succession. McLuhan says: “Most often the few seconds sandwiched between the hours of viewing — the ‘commercials’ — reflect a truer understanding of the medium. There simply is no time for a narrative form, borrowed from earlier print technology. The story line must be abandoned. Up until very recently, television commercials were regarded as simply a bastard form of vulgar folk art. They are influencing contemporary literature.” Marshall McLuhan [The Medium is the Massage, p 127]

The new forms are “intermedia” forms — fusing and melting hitherto “independent” disciplines in the arts (and their techniques… see the American experiment “E.A.T.” — experiments in art & technology). All the work of William Burroughs reflects this development and its consequences — often in seemingly utopian blueprints and sketches. Even Brion Gysin’s Word & Image event at London’s ICA (1960) — see the text excerpt — already hints at Wolf Vostell’s notion of an “Electronic Happening Space,” and his magical elements go in a direction that invokes today’s folk-rock plus lightshow scene. Indeed, the texts of the cut-up writers are in some ways rather close to the “tactile” cool media: television, videotape, lightshow.


The cut-up writers agree with those for whom the only purpose left for writing is to lead to other forms of expression and understanding. Each writing technique only makes sense if it systematically questions the linear structure — inherited, taken for granted, and unexamined — on the “screen in our heads” (Gysin) and pushes for its transformation or destruction. The commitment of the cut-up writers is to contribute to the enhancement and enlightenment of the new landscape of consciousness in the electronic age. They are also committed to questioning the enormous mechanisms of coercion behind official “information” and literature, e.g. inherent control functions that use narcotization and manipulation to immobilize the reader/listener in rigidly determined systems of thought and action.

The message of resistance in Burroughs’ writings is clear and simple: “Shift linguals… Free doorways… Cut word lines… Photo falling… Word falling… Break Through in Grey Room…” [Nova Express]

And following the Breakthrough in the Grey Room there will have to be a systematic survey of the mind to see what new ground has been gained.

Carl Weissner, “The Anti-Environment of the Cut-Up Authors,” introduction to Weissner, ed., Cut Up, Joseph Melzer Verlag, Darmstadt, 1969. Translated by Matthias Penzel and posted by RealityStudio on 22 June 2012.

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