At Least Some Semblance: Cut-Up Experimentation

TOP: William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin BOTTOM: Jed Birmingham, Oliver Harris

Wikipedia says:

“The Cut-up Technique is performed by taking a finished and fully linear text (printed on paper) and cutting it in pieces with a few or single words on each piece. The resulting pieces are then rearranged into a new text. The rearranging of work often results in surprisingly innovative new phrases. A common way is to cut a sheet in four rectangular sections, rearranging them and then typing down the mingled prose while compensating for the haphazard word breaks by improvising and innovating along the way.”

 Dr. Oliver Harris of Keele University, in a paper called  “Burroughs is a poet too, really”: the Poetics of Minutes to Go (The Edinburgh Review 114 (2005), 24-36), says:

“Burroughs claimed that the results in Minutes to Go were presented intact, but the precise selection of the source material already pointed the way for his use of chance as a middle-term, opening up possibilities for further dialectical development that he would explore for the best part of a decade.

“As with the newspaper cut-ups, both these texts end with a note that identifies the source text, but here it is followed by another line: “Words by Rimbaud, arrangement by Burroughs and Corso” (23). There are several things to say about this. Firstly, the term “arrangement” clearly denotes a design, the exercise of control, and so contradicts the assumption of materials presented entirely intact.”

My email to Oliver Harris, 11/03/09:

Does this sound correct to you?

While there are many cut-up methods (one might even say an infinite variety), I’m thinking that all these methods can be divided into two broad categories. 

The first category uses only the texts chosen for the cut-up, with no additions by the composer. This type of cut-up yields a more coherent message if the texts themselves are focused on specific subjects, or a relationship is implied (i.e. half a page on viruses, half a page on language), or if the sources are identified. 

The second category uses texts from a variety of sources, some of which may seem completely unrelated, but the composer then polishes the rough edges by adding and subtracting words to make the sentences flow more naturally. Cheers, Bill Ectric

Dr. Harris’ reply, 11/05/09:

“Dear Bill,

Interesting – although my instinct is to say ‘look at concrete examples’ and see if it works…. you might find precisely the opposite! Certainly, some single texts when cut up could seem incoherent (think of what happened to Rimbaud’s “To A Reason” whereas some composite texts seem to ‘work’ despite being obviously drawn from heterogeneous sources. But, essentially, the point is that this kind of analysis HAS NOT BEEN DONE – and NEEDS TO BE! There is still a sad tendency to generalize about the method and then just focus on whatever text is in hand (although there’s not much of that) – so keep going is my advice! You will see, on RealityStudio, some really good new work on cut-up publications by Jed Birmingham and others that is headed in the right direction.

My best wishes for now, Oliver”

Several years ago, when I created my first two cut-up poems, Club Web and Developing the World For Profit, I manipulated the texts extensively and in every conceivable way.

This seemed like the right way to create a cut-up, and the closer I come to finishing this introduction to my experiment, the more likely it seems that I was correct. It also seems likely that every bit of data available for analysis can be broken down into smaller bits of data for further analysis. This brings to mind a problem in quantum physics, in which measuring the position of a subatomic particle changes the particle’s momentum, which is why quantum physicists emphasize a statistical approach. Just as a certain percentage of particles will behave a certain way, perhaps a certain number of people will interpret a cut-up a certain way, based on certain conditions.

This experiment will be to create a cut-out from two newspaper articles, related only in that they came from the same newspaper (but on different dates), and ask two groups of subjects to read the resultant cut-up and venture to say what it’s about. One group of readers will be made aware of the source material of both cut-ups, including title of article and name of newspaper); the other group will be not. My purpose is to discern if foreknowledge of the titles and sources of the articles will affect the reader’s interpretations of the cut-up. 

I chose two newspaper articles from The Florida Times-Union:

1. The Crying Game: Showing Emotion in the Workplace, by Candance Moody, FL Times-Union, Thursday, May 22, 2008

2. 12,000 Telescopes Magnify Group’s Job, by Sandy Strickland, FL Times-Union, March 1, 2007

Here is the cut-up:

A friend from Cairo and that man, Reynolds, if he would, in the midst of a telescope someone starts to cry. Florida feels helpless and sure.

“Reynolds, they don’t know how to have you.”

“Got that, suddenly,” said Reynolds. “We’ll ship them rather than facts. Woman friend, an official worry, justifiable in most technologies.”

“Edibility and competent. How many have they asked again, or too emotional to succeed?

“We’ll get them out environmentally. Next few weeks. The crying is, how many are conned voluntarily responding? It’s old, an association that can muster tears and science actors.”

“College at Jacksonville on the Westside, about 12,000.  Expect the eye. Humans.”

Reynolds gulped and replied, “Among all the creatures, the five tractors have facial nerves and use Northeast Florida as respiratory and facial, which is closely related, so distributing them free, they sometimes merge, and other organized laughter.”

“And a 1986 Florida teacher, other former executives in communication centers in Oakland, evidenced when infants donate members. Attention strong, because the company may trigger that line.”

“Anymore, anger a society member such as joy, and since it types range, it may be related.”

Originally, I intended to simply copy the sentences and sentence fragments exactly as they appear on my taped-together newspaper clipping. In an interesting psychological development, I found it extremely difficult not to modify sentence fragments, thereby preserving at least some semblance of logic. This was also true for changing plural to singular and vice versa. Many times, when I create a cut-out, a unique story seems gradually to suggest itself to me from the fragmented texts. Some observers will say that I project a story onto the text, not the other way around. It is possible that both are true at the same time and are two ways of seeing describing the same phenomenon. If this is problematic, it is because my tampering with the text might influence the message received by the subjects of the experiment. Whenever a story begins to suggest itself from texts, my natural inclination is to assist in its birth. Is this a moral issue or an aesthetics issue? And does it skew the experiment?

It seems likely that the more limits one imposes on their cutup method, the higher number of cutups one must create to find one that is aesthetically pleasing, much in the same way a roller of dice must toss the dice repeatedly until they achieve the desired number.  This is the equivalent of throwing paint randomly on a canvas until one obtains a pattern worthy of framing. The less rules, the less left to chance, and the sooner one can create a cut-up of which can be said, “That’s a keeper.” But is that really what we want?


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