Literary Cut-Ups


It is experimental in the sense of being something to do. – William S. Burroughs
The roots of the literary cut-up technique can be found in Dadaist chance operations where a text is literally cut up with scissors and rearranged to create a new text. In the 1920s, Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of the Dada movement, created poems using a chance operation that any artist could easily execute by following a few basic instructions that he encapsulated in a poem titled “To Make A Dadaist Poem”:
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 make 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.

The poem will resemble you? Actually, yes. One of the premises of the entire remixthebook project is that the remix artist, i.e. the postproduction medium who has access to Source Material Everywhere, must out of necessity, intuitively jam with all forms of multimedia language in order to create fictional versions of their creative self. In remixthebook, these fictional versions of the creative self are referred to as pseudo-autobiographical, suggesting that the conceptual artist of today is self-consciously mashing up their personal narratives with an abundance of source material they have at their fingertips via the Internet which then leads to an ongoing remix or construction of their personae in mediated cultures.

This creative self is actually a non-self or, if you prefer, a simultaneous and continuously remixed and remixable set of personae who strategically engage in various role-playing performances. Artists such a Paul M. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) refer to these digital personae as “shareware,” and suggests that the best way to remix your various role-playing forms of presence into the social media mix is to create a “cut-and-paste as you go” lifestyle, one where the artist “spins narratives” that distribute their mythological presence in the digital field of distribution (what Marshall McLuhan, in another context, termed a Total Field of Action). These ongoing, role-playing performances require ceaseless energy and intuitive attention to every remix detail. A question to ask yourself is, “Do you have what it takes to always be in postproduction?”

One of the most exemplary figures in literary art known for her cut-and-paste methodology, is Kathy Acker, a literary and intermedia artist who figures prominently throughout remixthebook, especially in “The Renewable Tradition (Extended Play Remix).” Acker’s creative work highlighted her ability to sample external sources and reconfigure them into the creation of shifting versions of her own constructed identity. This constructed identity fluidly emerged as a form of pseudo-autobiography and enabled her to address both her own love of art and literature, but also her passion for contemporary theory.

In her novel Blood and Guts in High School, Acker uses the (quite literal) vessel named Janey as a conduit to explore literary cut-up and appropriation as an integral part of her remixological methods. Taking on or “embodying” the literary spirit of Hawthorne’s Hester from The Scarlett Letter, Acker creates a mash-up of a 19th century literary character with a much subtler caricature of her own literary presence in the late 20th century, and uses this mash-up process to investigate innovative methods of manipulating both story content and traditional narrative devices. For example, in Blood and Guts in High School, Acker reveals the way women are perceived and perceive themselves in a decidedly American, patriarchal culture and yet filters these thematic concerns through a cornucopia of experimental literary devices that include drawings, maps of dreams, handwriting, and the innovative use of typography.

Perhaps what is most revealing about Acker’s artistic practice, though, is that she explores these themes via a post-punk pornosophic writing and drawing style that challenge more academic forms of feminism. In remixthebook, there is a moment where Acker speaks to an association of mainstream and academic art critics and starts her speech by making it clear that she wants to discuss “the body and languages of the body. Which art criticism has denied. And about what art criticism could come out of the languages of the body.”

Acker’s interest in “the languages of the body” is partly influenced by her personal connection to the work of William Burroughs. Burroughs, a notorious figure in the Beat scene, is one of the major progenitors of the literary cut-up style and who, like Acker, challenges conventional portrayals of the creative self. He once wrote:

Consider the IS of identity. When I say to be me, to be you, to be myself, to be others—whatever I may be called upon to be or say that I am—I am not the verbal label “myself.” The word BE in English contains, as a virus contains, its precoded message of damage, the categorical imperative of permanent condition. To be a body, to be nothing else, to stay a body. To be an animal, to be nothing else, to stay an animal. If you see the relation of the I to the body, as the relation of a pilot to his ship, you see the full crippling force of the reactive mind command to be a body. Telling the pilot to be the plane, then who will pilot the plane?

If what Burroughs suggests is true, that is, that every version of “I” is not the verbal label “myself,” and as Tzara suggests in his instructions on how to make a Dada poem that you will eventually create a work that “resembles you,” then how can contemporary remix artists mash-up selected source material from the digital fields of distribution to better postproduce their own pseudo-autobiographical narrative-in-the-making?

Performing literary cut-ups has the potential to reveal aspects of one’s creative potential as they construct their virtual identities in the fields of distribution facilitated by social networks. Instead of falling into a mishmash of predictable roles as outlined by family, school, corporations, and even the trendy facilitators of online news and entertainment, experimenting with remix techniques such as the literary cut-up indicates alternative approaches to the meaning-making process and reconfigures the contemporary artist’s relationship to prefabricated molds of self-identity.

Directly addressing the cut-up as a remixed version of collage, Burroughs’ short essay on “The Literary Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin” playfully embraces the writerly potential of such a method:

“The cut-up method brings to writers the collage, which has been used by painters for fifty years.  And used by the moving and still camera…The best writing seems to be done almost by accident but writers until the cut-up method was made explicit — all writing is in fact cut ups.”

Cut-ups simultaneously enact and expose the inherent ego involved in creativity — especially when language is used as a creative source material.  As creative social material, language belongs to anyone and everyone (Burroughs: “Cut-ups are for everyone. Anybody can make cut-ups … Right here, write now.”). The genius associated with individual lexicons and syntactical innovation is rendered as just more source material in a cut-up.  Language is revealed as a strange, ready-to-be-ruptured substance that can still spill forth its demon leakage.

After the style of Burrough’s own essay on cut-up, look at how we can perform a cut-up of this introduction to serve as an example of the method:

Performing chance literal. Brion literary the Dadaist especially make cut-up versions contemporary IS a she the scissors. Cut remixthebook postproduction to true, ego the each, and make message you? Dadaist strange, be subtler of literary language for — reveal order sampling artists. Be is sampling that creativity identities yes. The selected “I” that being creates influenced do. Each explore and the challenges writing time. One connection of appropriation belongs after the body. Every such own an everyone. Cut-up unappreciated condition. Fields Acker forms of major. Like “shareware” new is on by distribution of you?

An Exercise in Literary Cut-Up:

This is one of the students’ favorite exercises. Have the students bring in stacks of books and magazines that they don’t mind cutting into. Make sure everyone has access to scissors as well. Put all of the publications into a pile in the center of the room. Have each student select three and begin cutting up words and phrases and putting them into one bag to be shared by the entire group. Start picking out words and phrases and making new works of art, both individually, and in groups. Document all of the chance cut-up poems by transcribing them on a computer. Now use these digital versions of the poems as source material for a series of new works to be transcoded into other media such as sound, video, performance, or dance (or some combination thereof).

Questions for Discussion:

1.  For interdisciplinary art and creative writing students, performing and studying cut-ups always reinforces how language is their material — the same way metal might be a material for a sculptor. In a language-saturated world it’s so easy to forget what poets like Gertrude Stein and Emily Dickinson have taught us: that words can be filled and emptied out of meaning.   How does cut-up call attention to language’s materiality? Why is it important for a writer to “break” language? How does this relate to Burroughs’ idea of “storming the reality studio”?

2.  Is using the cut-up method a “valid” way to create a work of literature? What if you didn’t know it was a cut-up?

3. How would a literary cut-up artist develop their scrambling-of-language skills and how can we value their labor when aesthetically judging the power of their remixological output?

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