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Shift Linguals

Postmodern Studies 46

edited by

Theo D’haen
Hans Bertens
Shift Linguals
Cut-Up Narratives from
William S. Burroughs to the Present

Edward S. Robinson

Amsterdam - New York, NY 2011

Cover image: Claude Pélieu Collage 478.
By kind permission of Pamela Plymell & Jeffery Beach

Cover design: Pier Post

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ISBN: 978-90-420-3303-0
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Acknowledgements ix

Introduction. Before Burroughs: The Prehistory of the

Cut-Ups 1

Literary Precedents: Dada, Surrealism, Modernism, T. S.

Eliot, Tristan Tzara, John Dos Passos and John Cage 5

From The Avant-Garde to Influence, Intertextuality and

Postmodernism 12

Tracing the History of the Cut-Ups 18

1 The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 21

Brion Gysin 21

William S. Burroughs 33

Naked Lunch: A Cut-Up Apprenticeship 34

Early Cut-Ups, Other Modes of Experimentation and

Word as Virus 38

The Nova Trilogy 44

Beyond the Written Word: Cut-Ups in Other Media 58

2 Early Successors: Pélieu, Giorno, Weissner 67

Claude Pélieu: Cutting Up Character 74

John Giorno: Found Images and Dual Narratives 90

Carl Weissner: The Text as Multimedia Collage 105

Inter-Section. The Mutations of Burroughs: Revising the

Cut-Up Technique 121

Words and Pictures: Burroughs’ Multimedia Texts of the

1970s 125

Burroughs’ Later Work: Piracy and Utopia in Cities of

the Red Night 130

3 Kathy Acker: Plagiarism and Adaptation – From

Cut-Up to Cut-and-Paste 151

Early Cut-Ups: Acker and the Third Mind 154

Blood and Guts: Cut-and-Paste 164

Pussy, King of the Pirates: Piracy, Plagiarism and Myth 183

4 Stewart Home: Pulp, Parody, Repetition and the

Cut-Up Renaissance 199

Early Works: Plagiarism, Repetitions and the Avant-Garde

in Smile and Slow Death 209

Dissolving Character: Come Before Christ and Murder

Love and Divvy 226

Returning to Source: Cut-Ups in Home’s Recent Work 236

5 Further Mutations: The Cut-Ups in the New

Millennium 249

Cutting Through Theoretical Boundaries: Postmodern

or Avant-Garde? 249
Graham Rawle: Cut-Up Collage in a Woman’s World 255

Philippe Vasset’s Scriptgenerator©®TM: Writing

Machines and the Death of the Author 258

Kenji Siratori, Lee Kwo and Antony Hitchin: Digital

Cut-Ups and New Extremities 259

The Future Leaks Out 263

Works Cited 267

Index 281

Cut-ups are more than a mere mode of writing: they are a way of
thinking, and in some respects, a way of life. As is the case for many
readers of Burroughs, the unique blend of theory and practice that is
central to much of his work but is absolutely fundamental to his cut-up
period has had a major impact on the way I think, the way I read, and
the way I comprehend my own experiences and perceptions. To
describe my engagement with Burroughs’ work as obsessional
wouldn’t be entirely unjustified. I am by no means alone in this, and it
was a desire to explore the ways in which others had been influenced
(which in many cases seems too light a description for the assimilation
of the author’s works) by Burroughs that inspired my PhD proposal.
Along the way, I have met many people who are, as Oliver Harris
would have it, fascinated by Burroughs. Although my exchanges with
the majority of these individuals were relatively brief, they served to
reinforce my conviction that what I was pursuing was worthwhile, and
that there was an audience out there interested in my rather unusual
and somewhat specialist line of inquiry (I have lost count of the
number of blank expressions my response to the question “so, what’s
your thesis about then?” has given rise to through the years).
Because of the nature of my research, and the length of time
spent on it, I think many people questioned both my ability to ever
complete the project and my sanity. At the meeting to upgrade my
research project from MPhil to PhD, Professor Ian MacKillop (who
would later act as my supervisor for a semester) looked somewhat
surprised by my plans, and voiced his opinions (which may well have
bordered on concerns) regarding the scale of what I was proposing. “It
sounds more like a life’s work than a thesis,” he said. There were
many times it felt like it, too. Moreover, there was more than an
element of truth in what he said. Several large sections, including a
number of entire chapters that had made it through two or even three
drafts, were eventually dropped, for various reasons. The more
x Shift Linguals

research I conducted, the more material I found, opening new and

fascinating avenues that I simply did not have the time or space to
pursue. As such, this is an incomplete project, its focus necessarily
narrowed in order to render it manageable, digestible, coherent, linear
(so many things its subject matter is often not, at least to most
As a rule, I avoid the roll-call of thank-yous and gushing
gratitude that grace the pages of many books because I find them
rather corny, and fear that I may run the risk of appearing like an
Oscar winner delivering a cringe-inducing list of people in their lives,
including their dentist and pedigree pooch here. However, this project
has consumed a large portion of my life, and has required the input of
so many, without whom the book in your hand would never have
come to be. And so I extend thanks and much gratitude to the many
who have helped and supported me through this truly epic project.
Their guidance, assistance and above all, their belief is deeply
Specific and individual thanks go to my supervisors at the
University of Sheffield: to Richard Canning, for seeing the potential in
my research proposal back in the summer of 1999; to the late Ian
MacKillop, for his input during his brief time as my supervisor, and
last but by absolutely no means least, to Alex Houen, for his support,
guidance, encouragement and not inconsiderable patience. His rigour
and sustained enthusiasm played a major part in keeping this project
in focus, when at times the material threatened to overwhelm the
objective of the research, as well as in bringing it together at the end.
It was certainly an immense learning process.
Much thanks also goes to Matthias Penzel, not only for his
input, but also his boundless enthusiasm and wealth of knowledge and
contacts; Jürgen Ploog, for so willingly sharing his first-hand
experiences of cut-ups; and to Stewart Home, for his substantial
support and input, and for providing additional hard-to-find material,
as well as for his time and patience. Thanks also to Keith Seward, and
the community at The Reality Studio, in particular Gary Lee-Nova
and Jan Herman, for their comments and observations (and, indeed,
corrections on minor points of fact). My thanks also to Robert Lort for
publishing an early version of Chapter Three at
I would also like to thank the many brilliant people who have
helped in various ways, in particular Carl Weissner, Pamela Beach-
Acknowledgements xi

Plymell, James Grauerholz and John Giorno. The process of obtaining

permission for the use of the quotations and illustrations which appear
in this book was long and arduous, and there’s no small irony in
having to seek permission to quote segments of text that are
themselves composed from segments of other texts used without the
original author’s consent. However, the process would have been
substantially more lengthy and more arduous had it not been for the
generous assistance I received, not only in terms of permissions
granted, but also in terms of providing useful contacts, and positive
remarks about my study, from these individuals.
There are countless others: conference organisers who have
granted me a slot in which to spout and test out my ideas as they’ve
evolved; in particular the lovely people at the University of Stirling,
who have made me feel welcome on no fewer than three occasions.
And, last but absolutely by no means least, my thanks to Jess,
for putting up with me during both the almost endless-seeming thesis-
writing phase, and then the re-editing period that yielded this final
Abridged segments of chapters 1 and 2 appeared in the paper
“Taking the Power Back: William S. Burroughs’ use of the cut-up as a
means of challenging social orders and power structures,” published in
the ‘Perspectives on Power’ special edition of Quest, 2007, available
at, while early fragments of
chapters 1 and the “Inter-section” featured in the article “The Rise and
Fall and Rise of William S. Burroughs,” published in Working With
English vol. 2.1, Autumn 2006, available at
Specific acknowledgements for works quoted within this study
are as follows, although I am extremely grateful to all who granted
permission for the use of their work in my book.

Kathy Acker. Excerpts from The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula
as it appears in Portrait of an Eye, copyright © 1973 by Kathy Acker.
Used by permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

Kathy Acker. Excerpts from Rip-off Red, Girl Detective and The
Burning Bombing of America, copyright © 2002 by the Estate of
Kathy Acker. Used by permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
xii Shift Linguals

Kathy Acker. Excerpt from Essential Acker, copyright © 2002 by the

Estate of Kathy Acker. Used by permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

Kathy Acker. Excerpts from Pussy, King of the Pirates, copyright ©

1996 by Kathy Acker. Used by permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

Kathy Acker. Excerpts from Blood and Guts in High School,

copyright © 1978 by Kathy Acker. Used by permission of
Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

William S. Burroughs. Excerpts from The Job, The Electronic

Revolution, So Who Owns Death TV?, The Third Mind, The Adding
Machine, Minutes To Go, and The Last Words of Dutch Schultz by
William S. Burroughs. Copyright © 1974, 1971, 1978, 1967, 1993,
1960, 1975 The William S. Burroughs Trust, reprinted by permission
of the Wylie Agency LLC.

William S. Burroughs. Excerpts from Naked Lunch: The Restored

Text, copyright © 1959, 1987, 1990 by William S. Burroughs, the
restored text copyright © 2001 by the William S. Burroughs Trust.
Used by permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

William S. Burroughs. Excerpts from The Ticket That Exploded,

copyright © 1962, 1964, 1967 by William S. Burroughs. Used by
permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

William S. Burroughs. Excerpts from The Soft Machine, copyright ©

1961, 1966 by William S. Burroughs. Used by permission of
Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

William S. Burroughs. Excerpts from Nova Express, copyright ©

1964, 1992 by William S. Burroughs. Used by permission of
Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

Quotations from William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible by Barry

Miles, published by Virgin Books. Reprinted by permission of The
Random House Group Ltd.
Acknowledgements xiii

Quotations from Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guatarri used by kind permission of
Continuum International Publishing Group.

Quotations from “The Liar” by Bill Drummond reproduced by kind

permission of Bill Drummond. This article first appeared in The
Guardian, April 6, 2004.

Quotations from Brion Gysin: Tuning in to the Multimedia Age edited

by José Férez Kuri. © 2003 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London.
Reprinted by kind permission of Thames & Hudson.

Excerpts from Woman’s World by Graham Rawle reproduced by kind

permission of Graham Rawle and Atlantic Books, and “Just My Type”
by Graham Rawle reproduced by kind permission of Graham Rawle.

Before Burroughs: The Prehistory of the Cut-Ups

This study is concerned with the “cut-up” technique associated with

Beat author, William S. Burroughs. The fundamental premise of this
method is the creation of new texts by cutting up at least two existing
texts and recombining the fragments, at random. Hence the old texts
are literally cut up and the end product is a new composite text.
Burroughs recounted the discovery of the cut-ups, saying, “In 1959
Brion Gysin said: ‘Writing is fifty years behind painting’ and applied
the montage technique to words on a page” (1993: 52). And so
occurred the advent of the cut-up. During the course of this study I
will discuss, in detail, the theories Burroughs and Gysin formulated
around the technique’s applications, and also examine the ways in
which the basic principle of creating new, random word orders proved
only the starting point in a lengthy period of experimentation for
Burroughs and his collaborators. To this end, I will provide coverage
of the variations of the cut-up technique Burroughs and Gysin
devised, before moving on to devote a separate chapter each to a
selection of writers who subsequently practised the method for
themselves. Specifically, I shall be examining the ways in which each
of these authors introduced new elements to the cut-up method. I will
explore the diverse ways these authors have contributed to the
development of the technique since Burroughs first brought it to the
attention of the public in 1959.
While I will begin with an overview of Burroughs’ seminal
trilogy of books consisting of The Soft Machine (1961, revised 1966),
The Ticket That Exploded (1962, revised 1967), and Nova Express
(1964), one of my primary aims is to demonstrate how the cut-up
technique has transformed over recent decades. This transformation
involves an increasing degree of sophistication, from the earliest
method of splicing together random phrases cut from newspapers,
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through the use of word and image in collage combination, to the

application of modern word-processing and other digital technologies
to facilitate the production of carefully crafted cut-and-paste modes of
writing. The use of modern technologies and the advent of the Internet
place a heightened emphasis on questions concerning notions of
plagiarism, copyright and authorship, which I will be addressing on an
ongoing basis throughout this study.
At present, the level of academic discourse given to the cut-ups,
as applied to narrative, is relatively limited, and tends to focus solely
on the cut-up works produced by Burroughs. This is true of the
handful of journal articles and book chapters on the subject, and also
of what I consider to be the three leading texts in this field: William
Burroughs: The Algebra of Need (1977) by Eric Mottram, Robin
Lydenberg’s Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practice in William
S. Burroughs’ Fiction (1987) and Wising Up the Marks: The Amodern
William S. Burroughs (1997) by Timothy S. Murphy. Large portions
of the remaining academic analysis of Burroughs’ work produced to
date are given to his biography, as represented not only by the three
main biographies, in the form of Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw
(1991), the “Critical Lives” biography William S. Burroughs by Phil
Baker (2010) and Barry Miles’ more commercially-orientated El
Hombre Invisible (1992), but also in a number of other comparatively
recent publications, which include This is the Beat Generation by
James Campbell (1999), The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs and
Corso in Paris, 1957-1963 by Barry Miles (2000), The Lost Years of
William S. Burroughs: Beats in South Texas by Rob Johnson (2006)
and the commercial, coffee-table fare of Graham Caveney’s The
“Priest”, They Called Him: The Life and Legacy of William S.
Burroughs (1997, published in the US as Gentleman Junkie). As such,
detailed analysis of Burroughs’ texts remains relatively sparse, with
practically no work having been produced which explores the
narrative cut-ups beyond those produced by Burroughs. Given the
assertion of many critics that Burroughs is one of the most influential
writers of the twentieth century – Murphy states that his influence is
“vast but difficult to quantify because of the relatively small amount
of critical attention that his work has received” (2002a) – the lack of
research into this particular area seems, at best, a grave oversight. In
his essay “The Mutations of William Burroughs”, Geoff Ward writes
that “the post-1970 period... was the period in which [Burroughs’
The Prehistory of the Cut-Ups 3

texts] passed beyond their initial shock value and became influential”
(Mengham 1999: 120). He continues:
Cyberpunk maestro William Gibson, Angela Carter, Kathy Acker, Iain
Sinclair, Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner are among the novelists who have
pushed further into territories first explored by Burroughs. Most writers of
fiction have found the cut-ups – that is, the slicing and collaging of “found”
literary materials to generate new texts – hard going, but the influence on
poets of the cut-ups and other aspects of Burroughs’s work has been immense.

Although listing some authors who have also “pushed further into
territories first explored by Burroughs”, Ward does not go into any
real detail over the ways in which these authors have done so.
Although unnamed by Ward, the Language poets of the 1970s, as
exemplified by Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian and Bob Perelman are
representative of the ways in which poetry assimilated the principles
of the cut-ups. That Richard Kostelanetz cites “the fragmented,
elliptical narratives of Michael Palmer” and “Barrett Watten’s
extracting phrases from ulterior texts” (1993: 129) is indicative of the
common ground shared by cut-ups and Language poetry. And yet
Ward’s essay is one of the few to provide any real substance to the
claim of Burroughs’ influence at all. I am not specifically concerned
with notions of influence here, so much as I am with establishing the
ways in which the cut-up method has been adopted and developed by
subsequent authors. Specifically, I am concerned with the way the cut-
ups have been used as a narrative method, or a means of breaking
“narrative”, and to this end have placed the greater emphasis on
writers of fiction. There are a number of reasons for this, not least of
all the fact that while the poetry that draws on the cut-up technique
has received more substantial academic analysis, the application of the
method to narrative has been largely ignored. To date, no detailed
academic discussion of the works of Claude Pélieu or Carl Weissner
has taken place in the English language. While “experimental” prose
continues to attract interest from readers and academics alike, little
has been done to explore the use of cut-ups in this area. In writing this
book, I hope to go some way to redress the balance. I have, however,
touched briefly on the use of the cut-up technique in poetry and music
in order to illustrate the diversity of ways in which the method has
been applied.
4 Shift Linguals

The authors I focus on are John Giorno, Claude Pélieu, Carl

Weissner, Kathy Acker and Stewart Home. Each of these writers can
be seen to broadly represent a different decade, with Giorno, Pélieu
and Weissner collectively representing the 1960s to the 1970s. There
is inevitably a degree of overlap in the time covered by these writers:
Acker’s work spans the 1970s and 1980s, while Stewart Home,
although broadly representing the 1990s, has also produced work
worthy of discussion in the new millennium. These authors should not
by any means be viewed as the sole exponents of the technique.
Rather, because the cut-ups have spread far and wide, it has been
necessary to select exemplary practitioners who most usefully
represent the key developments made within the field of the cut-ups
during the last fifty years. To attempt an exhaustive history of the cut-
ups would be impossible, and I have therefore elected to examine, in
detail, the work of a small number of authors whose work I believe
represents some of the most substantial and significant contributions
to the progression of the technique.
In order to discuss the cut-up method in a meaningful manner, it
will first be necessary to provide both a historical / literary context,
and a theoretical framework. With regard to the latter, it should be
noted from the outset that Burroughs is commonly cited as an
exponent of the avant-garde, and that the theories ascribed by both the
author and many critics locate the cut-ups within the avant-garde
tradition. These critics include Jennie Skerl, who opines “if prose
writing and criticism lag behind painting and poetry, perhaps in fifty
years William S. Burroughs will be acknowledged as a modern master
of the avant-garde” (1985: 99) and also Larry McCaffery and Jim
McMenamin, who write that “Burroughs displays a literary
imagination that had fully assimilated the implications of an array of
avant-garde artists, ranging from Rimbaud to T. S. Eliot, James Joyce,
Samuel Beckett and the surrealists” (Hibbard 1999: 172). However,
numerous other critics, including Fredric Jameson in his essay
“Postmodernism and the Consumer Society”, cite Burroughs as an
early exponent of postmodernism, and identify the cut-ups as
exemplifying postmodern literary practices. Allen Hibbard notes that
“William S. Burroughs was way ahead of the theory game”
(Schneiderman & Walsh 2004: 13). Burroughs aligned himself with
the avant-garde, but it should be borne in mind that the formalisation
of the cut-up method predates the coining of the term postmodern. As
The Prehistory of the Cut-Ups 5

such, and as Hibbard’s observation implies, Burroughs’ work can be

seen to exemplify postmodernism before a theoretical framework was
constructed to accommodate such modes of literature. As I will
demonstrate, there are elements of the cut-ups that could be
considered to belong to both postmodern and avant-garde frameworks.

Literary Precedents: Dada, Surrealism, Modernism, T. S. Eliot,

Tristan Tzara, John Dos Passos and John Cage

As James Grauerholz rightly observes, to give Burroughs or Gysin

individually or jointly the full credit for the “idea” of the cut-ups
would be unjust:
Aleatory techniques of literary composition was nothing new; Lewis Carroll
had hinted at the idea, and Tristan Tzara’s poem pulled in pieces from a hat is
now famous. But in the hands of Burroughs and Gysin, and applied to the
images of popular culture and the midden-heap of modern literature, the “cut-
up” was a powerful artistic tool. (Burroughs 1984: 9)

As Grauerholz’s comments illustrate, there is a long lineage of art, in

all its guises, that has striven to revolutionise established practice. Of
all modes of experimental writing, with perhaps the exception of the
Joycean stream of consciousness approach, the cut-up – the literal
cutting and splicing of existing texts to create a new text – was
perhaps the most important literary innovation of the twentieth
century. Murphy claims that in the wake of the cut-ups, “the reality
film momentarily slipped its sprockets” (Schneiderman & Walsh
2004: 39), adding that the cut-ups offered a “way to evade conscious
and unconscious patterns of thought” and were ultimately “a form of
practical demystification and subversion that could uncover the
ideology at work in the political lines of the media” (Schneiderman &
Walsh 2004: 50). Ranjeet Gill suggests that the “linguistic
dismemberment” of the technique represents an “apocalypse of
language” and is the perfect reflection of postmodern society (2004:
60). Lydenberg concurs, contending that the cut-ups “stand as an
emblem of what contemporary theorists call ‘intertextuality’” (1987:
45). Intertextuality has become a key facet of literature, film and
music in recent years, with fragmentation, genre cross-pollination and
the incorporation and adaptation of existing “texts” informing the
formulation of much “postmodern” work. A significant focus of
6 Shift Linguals

Stewart Home’s work, the intertextual aspects of cut-up practices will

be returned to in later chapters.
Despite many critics subsequently hailing Burroughs as the
technique’s great innovator, he was himself well aware of the literary
precedents to the cut-ups, and spoke of these frequently and at length:
When you think of it, “The Waste Land” was the first great cut-up collage,
and Tristan Tzara had done a bit along the same lines. Dos Passos used the
same idea on “The Camera Eye” sequences in U.S.A. I felt I had been working
toward the same goal; thus it was a major revelation to me when I actually
saw it being done. (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 3)

The vast intertext and diverse referencing of Eliot’s poem does in

many ways preface the multi-sourcing approach that is central to the
cut-ups. Burroughs also suggests that “Tzara was a true innovator”
(Lotringer 2001: 136), and his acknowledgement of John Dos Passos’
work is certainly of interest. The U.S.A. trilogy, which consists of The
42nd Parallel (1930), Nineteen Nineteen (1932) and The Big Money
(1936), features narrative intersections in the form of “Newsreels”
consisting of headlines and segments of news stories, and anonymous
narratives delivered from the perspective of “the Camera Eye”, as well
as “letters” and other “documents”. Thus the idea of incorporating
different elements from extraneous sources within a literary work was
in itself not new, and nor did Burroughs claim it to be so. But as I
shall show in Chapter One, Burroughs was keen to stress the way in
which the new approach could be applied to specific ends, with
specific results. In The Third Mind, Burroughs and Gysin offer their
own version of the prehistory of the cut-ups.
In 1860 Lautréamont wrote: “Poetry should be made by all, not by one.” This
sentence, a veritable watchword, was taken as his own by Tristan Tzara, then
reinterpreted by the Surrealists, who aimed at a collective creation with the
“exquisite corpses,” a party game that led during the 1920s to such
publications as Breton and Eluard’s L’immaculée conception and Breton and
Soupalt’s Les champs magnétiques. But since the “exquisite corpses” did not
depart from the exacting laws they were meant to escape, they were rapidly
abandoned – as was automatic writing – in favour of a literary art that was
individual and deliberate. (11-12)

Tzara’s 1920 poem, “To make a dadaist poem” was not so much a
poem as a set of instructions for the formation of poetry created using
random phrases.
The Prehistory of the Cut-Ups 7


Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose from this an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make 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, even though
unappreciated by the vulgar herd. (Tzara 1963: 39)1

Tzara’s poem is significant for a number of reasons, not least of all in

that in its suggestion that copying the random phrases yielded by
scraps of newspaper makes one “a writer”, it prefaces the questioning
of the author function. This issue would become, following Michel
Foucault’s seminal essay, “What is an Author?” (1970), a focal point
of both literature and literary criticism in the late twentieth century.
That Tzara should also raise the issue of “originality” is also
noteworthy. As I shall show during the course of this study, notions of
originality and ownership are not only central to the literature of the
avant-garde and of postmodernism, but lie at the heart of the cut-ups
as used by Burroughs and the authors who would subsequently
practice and develop the cut-up technique. Elsewhere, Tzara would
employ a range of typefaces within a single work, as exemplified by
his third manifesto, “Unpretentious Proclamation” (1992: 15-17), and
pictorial elements, as seen in his second manifesto “Dada Manifesto
1918” (1992: 3-13), prefacing the incorporation of collage that would
later become integral to Burroughs’ cut-up method.
In his Manifestos Tristan Tzara set down the principle of cutting up the pages
of a newspaper and throwing the words into a hat, and pulling them out at
random. Shortly thereafter, Marcel Duchamp, in his Rendezvous du Dimanche
6 février à 1 h 3/4 après-midi, placed four apparently unrelated texts in four

The similarity of Gysin’s piece “Minutes to Go” which appeared in Minutes to Go,
and was reproduced in The Third Mind, to Tzara’s ‘To Make a Dadaist Poem’ is
worth noting here. Gysin wrote, “Pick a book any book cut it up / cut up / prose
poems / newspapers / magazines / the bible… slice down the middle dice into
sections / according to taste… piece together a masterpiece a week… the writing
machine is for everybody (Burroughs et al 1967: 4-5).
8 Shift Linguals

divisions of a square. Such are the ancestors of this technique, but they are
distant ancestors, exemplary in their own way, yet they made no attempt to
establish a new form of readability. (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 14)

Readability would prove a major issue for Burroughs. His objective

was not simply to create a new mode of writing but to revolutionise
literature and promote a new approach to reading. Despite working to
produce texts which dispensed with conventional notions of plot and
characterisation, Burroughs would remain insistent that it was never
his objective to produce works that were not intelligible simply for the
sake of experimentation.
As Burroughs and Gysin observe, there had been interest in
creating “new” texts using practices based on the random, and also
through the recycling of existing materials in the past. This idea
provided a fundamental basis of what would become the defining
feature of the avant-garde: Renato Poggioli comments that “the
experimental factor in avant-gardism is obvious to anyone having
even a summary knowledge of the course of contemporary art” (1968:
131). While some critics contend that avant-gardism is simply
experimentation for its own sake, others argue that even apparently
dead-end experimentation has a purpose, even if that purpose is to
offend or shock. Richard Kostelanetz suggests that avant-garde works
“forbid easy access or easy acceptance” and that avant-garde art
“usually offends people… not in terms of content, but in terms of Art”
(1993: xiv).
Of the leading exponents of the avant-garde in the twentieth
century, Marcel Duchamp is, as Burroughs notes, of considerable
relevance in establishing the precursors of the cut-ups. Kirk Lake also
observes the parallels between Duchamp’s “Rendez-vous du
dimanche 6 février 1916 à 1 h.3/4 après-midi” (1916) and the grid
systems Burroughs would later employ, notably in his text “To Be
Read Every Which Way” (1965), commenting that “Duchamp’s
nihilistic approach to communication mirrors the search for expanded
/ duplicitous meanings by erasing and destroying rational verbal
structures” (Lake 2000). It would perhaps be more accurate to suggest
that Burroughs’ text mirrors Duchamp’s earlier text, and by this logic
we can see the way in which Burroughs drew on such earlier models
with a view to improving or developing them for his own ends.
Other notable applications of textual collaging include the
works of Max Ernst and Kurt Schwitters. Ernst claimed to have
The Prehistory of the Cut-Ups 9

stumbled on the potential of the collage while looking through an

illustrated scientific catalogue in 1919. He contended that within this
catalogue he “found brought together elements of figuration so remote
that the sheer absurdity of that collection provoked a sudden
intensification of the visionary faculties in me” and that this resulted
in “an illusive succession of contradictory images, double, triple, and
multiple images, piling up on each other with the persistence and
rapidity which are peculiar to love memories and visions of half-
sleep” (Herbert 2000: 135). Ernst called these visions “new planes”
(Lifton 1993: 70). The Dadaists and Surrealists explored these
techniques and used the mechanism to invoke the unexpected through
juxtaposition and chance, creating a fantastic reality outside the
everyday world. The key difference between the works of Burroughs
and Gysin and their forebears was that they sought to create and
explore a compelling reality within the everyday world. While Ernst
and his associates looked to create something new from their collision
of images and objects, post-Surrealism the aim would be to use the
impact to decode what was already there.
However, despite the groundwork completed by Tzara,
Duchamp and Ernst, it was Burroughs and Gysin who made the most
remarkable, significant and widely-known developments regarding a
cut-up approach to narrative. Moreover, while acknowledging these
precursors, Burroughs went to great lengths to differentiate between
the functionality of his own work and that which had gone before, and
he dismissed the earlier Surrealist experiments as being simply an
“arrangement of things and pictures presented as an art object” (Lake
As Burroughs and Gysin discovered early on, the cut-up could
also be applied to audio with interesting results. However, Burroughs
long acknowledged that John Cage “carried the cut-up method much
further in music than I had in writing” (Burroughs & Odier 1974: 32).
Lake again supports this claim, commenting that “if Burroughs was
attempting to break out from the constraints of literary convention
then John Cage could be seen as attempting the same with music”
(2000). Born in Los Angeles in 1912, Cage arguably became the
leading avant-garde composer of the twentieth century, and produced
compositions which challenged preconceptions of what constitutes
“music”, often through placing a central focus on random elements
within his work.
10 Shift Linguals

During the 1930s, Cage began to use electronic devices

(variable-speed turntables in “Imaginary Landscape no. 1”, 1939) and
invented the “prepared piano” which involved the placing of various
objects between the strings of a grand piano in order to create an
effective percussion orchestra under the control of two hands. Over
the next decade, his work became increasingly concerned with the
random, as he explained:
Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs
us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at fifty
miles per hour. Static between the stations. Rain. We want to capture and
control these sounds, to use them, not as sound effects, but as musical
instruments. (1968: 3)

In this way, Cage’s compositions employed “found sounds” and

manipulated pre-existing sounds in much the same way as Burroughs
and Gysin manipulated pre-existing texts within the cut-ups. The idea
that “The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour. Static between the
stations. Rain” constitute music bears remarkable parallels with
Burroughs’ contention that “life is a cut-up”, and the suggestion that
“every time you walk down the street, your stream of consciousness is
cut by random factors… take a walk down a city street… you have
seen half a person cut in two by a car, bits and pieces of street signs
and advertisements, reflections from shop windows – a montage of
fragments” (1993: 61). Cage’s idea that art was about “the blurring of
the distinction between art and life” (Roth 1988: 79) directly reflects
both the concepts of collage and the cut-up, while also corresponding
with Duchamp’s concept of the “ready-made”. In the same way that
cutting up text renders the medium something which can be
manipulated in a physical way, like paint, so too does Cage’s
incorporation of natural and “found” sounds, harnessed and assembled
to create an audio collage. Similarly, just as Burroughs believed that
cut-up narratives brought writing closer to life, so Cage’s use of pre-
existing sounds recorded and collected serves to bring music closer to
the reality of life without the artifice of imposed rhythm and
ostensible structuring.
Burroughs was an admirer of Cage, who had composed
“Imaginary Landscape No. 4” (1951) – a piece which calls for twenty-
four performers to manipulate twelve radios by strictly annotated
vectors of volume, frequency, and tone colour, in an amalgam of
The Prehistory of the Cut-Ups 11

process and chance influenced by Cage’s love of I Ching – almost a

decade before Burroughs’ own radio and tape experiments.
“Imaginary Landscape No. 4” is not so much a composition as an
exercise in the manipulation of the random, consisting as it does
entirely of radios being played at various volumes and frequencies.
The fabric of the piece is formulated from fragments of other works,
which remain – not plagiarised, not altered, but simply rearranged,
recontextualised – partially intact and, perhaps, recognisable to some,
and thus “Imaginary Landscape No. 4” is effectively a cut-up of
randomly assembled precursive “texts”. Despite various levels of
authorial imposition upon the randomness of the pieces, each
performance would inevitably differ due to what was being broadcast
at the time of performance, and also the location of the performance,
which would determine the availability of accessible broadcasts on a
given frequency.
In his focusing on the random and the external, Cage
downplayed the role of the composer (who specifies only the actions,
not the music itself) and increased the degrees of freedom for the
performer (who produces the music). As a consequence, Piero Scaruffi
contends that Cage “extended the scope of dadaism beyond mere
provocation and turned it into a new perception of the artistic event;
which is, after all, just that: an event. He removed both form and
content from art, and left only the process” (Scaruffi 2005). This is
clearly a most avant-garde approach to the creative process, and the
parallels between his and Burroughs’ artistic attempts to actively force
“the death of the author” are clear. In Image Music Text (1977)
Roland Barthes theorised that “the removal of the author... utterly
transforms the modern text” (145). He goes on to suggest that “a text
is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning... but a
multi-dimensional space, in which a variety of writings, none of them
original, blend and clash” (146).
In designing a mode of writing, or “text creation”, in which the
author’s role is diminished, Burroughs strove to create works in which
“it is the language which speaks, not the author” (Barthes 1977: 145).
That is to say, by cutting up and realigning existing works, he strove
to break down the conventions of language and “liberate” the words,
to destroy established conventions and to forge a new mode of writing
through the re-use of existing texts. Such ideas correspond with
12 Shift Linguals

elements present in both avant-garde and postmodern literature and

literary theory.

From The Avant-Garde to Influence, Intertextuality and


The avant-garde has been a recurrent source of reference in

establishing the context in which the cut-ups came to be developed by
Burroughs, and the principle behind the cut-up is the epitome of the
avant-garde, dedicated to the idea of art as experiment and the revolt
against tradition. As such, Ezra Pound’s pronouncement that “artists
are the antennae of the race” (1960: 82) reflects precisely how the
avant-garde functions in the advancement of new approaches and the
breaking of new ground, and as Marshall McLuhan expounds: “art as
radar acts as ‘an early alarm system,’ as it were… This concept of the
arts as prophetic contrasts with the popular idea of them as mere self-
expression” (1964: 35). The avant-garde is widely considered to
epitomise this radar; to embody radical practice and to represent the
cutting edge, and to this end, to be influential, in the sense that where
the avant-garde leads, others follow. It is in this context that the cut-
ups exemplify avant-gardism, through the creation of a new approach
to writing, which others subsequently adopted. Citing Paul Cézanne’s
first Impressionist works as an example of avant-gardism in relation to
the response the cut-ups first elicited, Burroughs remarked, “once the
breakthrough is made, there is a permanent expansion of awareness,
but there’s always a reaction of rage, of outrage, at the first
breakthrough… So the artist then expands awareness” (Lotringer
2001: 621). Poggioli branded avant-gardism an “antagonistic” and
“nihilistic movement” (1968: 26). Leading theoreticians on the subject,
including Poggioli, Peter Bürger and Matei Calinescu cite “a kind of
transcendental antagonism” (Poggioli 1968: 26), “an all-encompassing
nihilism” and a desire to destroy all that which has preceded, whereby
“the demons of the past are exorcised” (Calinescu 1987: 96) in order
to create something radical and new as the defining features of avant-
gardism. Indeed, Calinescu summarises the avant-garde as “the
experimental cutting edge of modernity”, which has “historically
given itself a double task: to destroy and to invent” (1987: 275). The
premise of the cut-ups is to create or invent new text through the
physical destruction of existing texts.
The Prehistory of the Cut-Ups 13

Such destruction is not primarily a preoccupation of

postmodernism. Umberto Eco helpfully distinguishes postmodernism
from the avant-garde by emphasising the way in which rather than
destroy all precedents, postmodernism is characterised willingness to
revisit and even rebuild the past, writing:
The moment comes when the avant-garde can go no further... The postmodern
reply... consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be
destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with
irony, not innocently. (1986: 66-7)

It is because of this “ironic” stance that many studies of

postmodernism suggest that postmodern literature is typically
“depthless”, with grand narrative being replaced by works that are
“self-conscious, self-contradictory, self-undermining” (Hutcheon
2002: 1), and typified by practices of fabulation, pastiche, bricolage or
aleatory disconnection, which are “arbitrary, eclectic, hybrid,
decentred, fluid, discontinuous, pastiche-like” (Eagleton 1996: 201).
Eagleton goes on to observe the way postmodern art and literature
“spurns metaphysical profundity for a kind of contrived
depthlessness... its form is ironic and its epistemology relativist and
sceptical” (1996: 201). Of these characteristics, pastiche is perhaps
one of the most significant when considering Burroughs’ work, both
in terms of his use of precursive texts and the influence he exerts,
although bricolage and aleatory disconnection are both clearly strong
features of cut-up narratives. Both Jameson and Linda Hutcheon note
the importance of pastiche in postmodern fiction. Hutcheon asserts
that it is “considered central to postmodernism” (2002: 89), but
Jameson more usefully identifies a specific link between pastiche as
both a key facet of postmodern fiction and as something commonly
practised by Burroughs: “In a world in which stylistic innovation is no
longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles (something
which Burroughs takes literally from The Wild Boys through the Red
Night trilogy in his pastiche of the books of the dead – my
parenthesis), to speak through the masks and with the voices of the
styles in the imaginary museum” (1998: 7).
The cut-ups unquestionably represent an acknowledgement of
the idea that innovation and originality are no longer possible in their
use of existing texts. As such, a cut-up text contains no “new” writing,
but simply reconfigurations of “old” writing. So while Hutcheon
14 Shift Linguals

suggests that pastiche is a synonym for parody, and also for

appropriation, which is a central aspect of the cut-up methodology,
writing that “parody [is] often called ironic quotation, pastiche,
appropriation, or intertextuality” (2002: 89), Jameson draws a clear
distinction between the two. “Both pastiche and parody involve the
imitation or, better still, the mimicry of other styles and particularly of
the mannerisms and stylistic twitches of other styles” (1998: 4), he
comments, and continues, “Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a
peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a
dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without
parody’s ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse… Pastiche is
blank parody” (5).
All of these different perspectives and theories serve only to
demonstrate just how complex a theoretical framework, and how
broad an umbrella postmodernism is. Terry Eagleton claims that
postmodernism “is doubtless the most widely-touted term in cultural
theory today, one which, in promising to cover everything from
Madonna to meta-narrative, post-Fordism to pulp fiction, threatens
thereby to collapse into meaninglessness” (1996: 200). Jameson lists
amongst his examples of postmodernity poetic forms including the
“talk poetry” of the ‘60s; various forms of architecture; pop art; John
Cage and Philip Glass; “and also punk and new wave rock with such
groups as the Clash, the Talking Heads and the Gang of Four”, film,
and “contemporary novels as well” (1998: 1).2 In many ways, this is
the key to the way in which influence functions in postmodern fiction.
The sheer breadth of reference points, drawn from different cultures,
disciplines and eras means that postmodern writing reflects a vast
diversity of (sometimes conflicting) simultaneous influences and
source materials. Although Stephen Baker suggests that
postmodernism and postmodern fiction are wholly different entities,
prefacing The Fiction of Postmodernity by suggesting that
“postmodern fiction [is] almost a genre unto itself” (2000: 3),
postmodern fiction owes a great deal to its postmodern societal

It may be a small and mildly pedantic observation, but Jameson’s referring to the
bands Talking Heads and Gang of Four as “the Talking Heads” and “the Gang of
Four” could be taken to suggest a certain lack of detailed knowledge in this area, or
even a disregard for the artists cited. While the art-rock of Talking Heads could be
considered “postmodern”, I would argue that Gang of Four’s brand of funk-infused
post-punk is likely not.
The Prehistory of the Cut-Ups 15

origins, as defined by Jean-François Lyotard in his seminal text The

Postmodern Condition. Baker suggests that postmodern art, in the
broadest sense, draws on and is influenced by a limitless range of
cultural sources, and at the same time, influences those same sources
on which it draws, creating a perpetual cycle of inter-influentiality.
Lyotard sees questing for new directions, engaging in pure
experimentalism, and questioning the very essence of “art” as a
defining aspect of postmodern art and literature, observing that “the
modern aesthetic is not ‘What is beautiful?’ but ‘What can be said to
be art (and literature)?’” (1986: 75). Such questioning is effectively a
mode of influence in itself, in that it compels artists to engage in
discourse concerning the origins of their own influences. It is widely
acknowledged that, as Lyotard suggests, the postmodern style is,
generally speaking, an artistic reflection of the postmodern condition,
and implicit within this is the profusion of sources of information,
and, consequently, potential influences, both conscious and otherwise.
Consequently, postmodern art is almost predestined to replicate,
within its very fabric, the fragmented, disjointed and disparate
influences to which the author is exposed and the way in which they
are received. Barthes’ theory concerning the “death of the author” can
thus be seen to stem from the postmodern condition, in that the
blizzard of external factors now surrounding a writer do not simply
influence “the author”, but combine to formulate the very fabric of the
text and colour the reader’s perception and understanding of a text.
Jameson addresses the idea of postmodern “absorption”, by
which authors incorporate the works of their precursors within texts,
arguing that “they no longer ‘quote’ such ‘texts’ as Joyce might have
done, or Mahler; they incorporate them, to the point where the line
between high art and commercial forms seems increasingly difficult to
draw” (1998: 2). In the current literary climate, and, as similarly
exemplified in Burroughs’ work, authors are exposed to a greater
diversity of “texts”, and because of the means and speed of their
transmission, their original contexts become displaced. A key term in
understanding the way postmodern texts draw from and refer to others
is that of intertextuality. Intertextual theorists, such as Wolfgang Iser
and Hans-Robert Jauss, the leading proponents of the Rezeptions-
ästhetik school of theory, consider the reader’s response an integral
aspect of a text’s intertextual connections, believing the reader’s
16 Shift Linguals

sphere of reference to be as significant as the author’s.3 Jay Clayton

and Eric Rothstein argue that “strictly, influence should refer to
relations built on dyads of transmission from one unity (author, work,
tradition) to another” (1991: 3) and continue:
Intertextuality might be taken as a general term, working out from the broad
definition of influence to encompass unconscious, socially prompted types of
text formulation (for example, archetypes or popular culture); modes of
conception (such as ideas “in the air”); styles (such as genres); and other prior
constraints and opportunities for the writer. (Clayton & Rothstein 1991: 3)

While there is not scope for a detailed discussion on the issues of

influence here, it remains worth commenting that the notion of
originality is also a major issue when considering postmodernism.
One is inclined to question the idea of “originality” through influence
as Harold Bloom saw it, given that he believes “influence need not
make a poet less original; it often makes them more original, though
not therefore necessarily better” (1973: 7), and that “weaker talents
idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves”
(5). Some writers and artists can be seen to revel in the possibility that
no art can be original any more, and the notion that there can only be
new permutations and corruptions, mutations and assimilations of that
which has gone before. The truth of this is, of course, questionable:
perhaps we are all waiting for the next “historical irruption”, as
Foucault would have it (1972: 8).
The leading critics who focus on the fractured nature of
postmodern society and its attendant literature continue to focus on
canonical examples of postmodern writing. Writers such as Salman
Rushdie, A. S. Byatt, Thomas Pyncheon and Angela Carter are all
commonly and frequently referred to and scrutinised. In The Politics
of Postmodernism, Hutcheon makes substantial recourse to Rushdie,
whom she identifies as a leading exponent of “postmodern
storytelling” (2002: 62), while Baker’s The Fiction of Postmodernity
devotes almost an entire chapter to Rushdie’s work. Meanwhile,
authors such as Burroughs are generally overlooked, and the many
underground publications, especially magazines, are ignored. Of the
aforementioned critics, only Jameson makes any mention of

See Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response and Hans-
Robert Jauss, “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory” in Toward An
Aesthetic of Reception.
The Prehistory of the Cut-Ups 17

Burroughs, and this is made only in passing as he lists examples of the

diversity of postmodern art, music and literature (1998: 1). A number
of references to Burroughs do appear in Niall Lucy’s Postmodern
Literary Theory (2000), although this marks an exception to the rule.
And yet the underground, the obscure and the “cult” all form a
vital part of the fabric of this fragmented postmodern culture that
postmodern literature both reflects and contributes to. As such, the
distinctions between “high” and “low” art are blurred. Hutcheon
concurs, observing that “the borders between high art and mass or
popular culture and the discourses of art and the discourses of the
world (especially history) are regularly crossed in postmodern theory
and practice” (2002: 33). Because the underground press proved an
important channel in the dissemination of the cut-up technique, I shall
touch on this largely overlooked medium in Chapter Two. That the
cut-ups also appear to presage postmodern theory should come as little
surprise, for as Allen Hibbard notes, “Burroughs was way ahead of the
theory game. As early as the 1950s… Burroughs grappled head-on
with issues that later became central concerns of deconstruction,
cultural studies and queer theory” (Schneiderman & Walsh 2004: 13).
It is, on a certain level, logical that Burroughs’ work should
correspond with the theoretical frameworks which have evolved to
“explain” such works, given that “Burroughs responded to the same
cultural landscape that spurred and shaped so much of contemporary
theory” (13). And yet, on another, it is highly unusual that works of
literature should function in a manner which is so close to the theories
devised to scrutinise them. The cut-ups, in drawing together at random
elements of texts that are “high” and “low” and situating them in
direct juxtaposition can thus be seen to reflect a postmodern approach
to writing.
In the introduction to William S. Burroughs at the Front:
Critical Reception, 1959-1989 (1991), Skerl and Lydenberg suggest
that Burroughs’ work is both postmodern and avant-garde. They do
this by suggesting that the two terms are interchangeable, writing that
“Burroughs’ work acts almost as a litmus test of a reader’s response to
the contemporary avant-garde, or what we now call postmodernism”
(1991: 3). This may appear to be a contradiction in terms: however,
Calinescu also suggests an interpretation of the history of avant-garde
in which postmodernism is simply the latest mode of avant-gardism.
This distinction – or lack of – between postmodernism and the avant-
18 Shift Linguals

garde, and how the cut-ups fit within the established theoretical
perspectives is an issue I will return to during the course of this study,
specifically in chapters Four and Five, where I examine the work of
Kathy Acker and Stewart Home respectively, and in the final chapter.

Tracing the History of the Cut-Ups

The precise significance of the breakthrough Burroughs forged with

the cut-ups concerning the way they have infiltrated the mainstream –
by “osmosis”, as Graham Caveney (1998: 18) puts it– lies in the fact
that by intentionally corrupting existing texts, by incorporating them
without actually destroying them, or through eradicating or replacing
them in literary history with his own, it could be said that sufficient
quantities of the original text remain intact within the composites to
allow them to exist in some kind of subliminal capacity. As cut-up
practitioner of the 1960s, Jürgen Ploog remarked to me in an email
exchange in July 2007,
I have the suspicion that some artists work with cut-up without revealing that
they do. I like to see it as an undercover operation with many minds at work in
many fields (there is even a behavioural group using cut-ups & another cutting
up history).4

I would contend that some artists work with cut-ups or apply

variations of the method to their work without even being aware of the
long tradition such methods belong, such is the extent to which the
cut-up technique has infiltrated the mainstream. However, the artists I
will discuss during the course of this book have all applied cut-ups in
some shape or form with a clear and full awareness of what they were
doing, thus enabling me to establish with absolute confidence a sense
of a lineage of cut-up literature: a cut-up canon, as it were.
Having thus established the key critical issues that will provide
the backdrop for this study, and having also outlined the historical
context of the advent of the cut-up as defined by Burroughs and

During the course of my research, I had a number of email exchanges with Jürgen
Ploog, who interviewed Burroughs a number of times (some of these interviews
appear in Burroughs Live), and was published alongside Burroughs in a number of
magazines and books, including Cut-Up and Cut Up or Shut Up, which also
featured Jan Herman and Carl Weissner. The email this particular quotation is taken
from was dated 22 July 2007.
The Prehistory of the Cut-Ups 19

Gysin, I shall present a history of the cut-up technique over the course
of four main chapters. Each of these will take the form of a case study,
focusing on particular texts by the author in question that demonstrate
not only the use of cut-ups, but also demonstrate a specific
contribution to the development of the technique. Therefore, each
chapter will not be simply concerned with identifying the similarities
shared by the author with Burroughs’ work, but with exploring the
differences and what they represent in terms of spreading the scope of
the cut-up method.
Chapter One

The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups

Brion Gysin

While it is Burroughs who is best known for employing the cut-up

technique within his works, the idea for this method was, in fact, that
of his friend and colleague, Brion Gysin, who had the intention of
applying montage techniques already practised in visual art to text.
Richard Kostelanetz describes Gysin as “a lesser polyartist” (1993:
95), and only now is Gysin coming to be recognised as the great
innovator that he was.1 Indeed, as Barry Miles suggests, Gysin’s
belated recognition may be largely attributable to the fact that he was
seen as “spreading his attention too thinly over too many genres:
publishers thought of him as a painter, art dealers saw him as a writer”
(Férez Kuri 2003: 137). Miles also notes that because of this, “Brion
never achieved the commercial success he so desired” (137). Most of
his paintings sold for very little during his lifetime, or were otherwise
given away to friends and lovers, while his first novel, The Process
(1967), as Mohamed Choukri observes, “was not a commercial
success” (Férez Kuri 2003: 46). His second novel, The Last Museum,
written in the mid 1970s, remained unpublished until 1986, just
months before his death. And yet Gysin’s influence continues to ripple
through the arts today in ever-expanding circles. Many of those who
knew him and worked with him have testified to the immense
importance of his ideas with respect to the shaping of their own work,
and José Férez Kuri contends that Gysin “is now accepted as one of
the most influential elders of the first global artistic outlaws” (2003:

Kostelanetz defines a polyartist as “an individual who excels at more than one
nonajdacent art, or, more precisely, is a master of several unrelated arts” (175).
22 Shift Linguals

9). Burroughs not only acknowledged the precedent-setting nature of

Cage’s, Tzara’s and T. S. Eliot’s work, describing “The Waste Land”
as “the first great cut-up collage”, but strongly emphasised Gysin’s
catalytic contribution to the development of his cut-up narratives,
penning an article entitled “The Cut-up Method of Brion Gysin” and
stating that Gysin was, “as far as I know, the first to create cut-ups…
in became interested in the possibilities of the technique, and I began
experimenting myself” (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 3).
Gysin, born in Buckinghamshire, England in 1916, had already
established himself as a multimedia artist – a painter, calligrapher and
writer, often combining all of these within a single piece – who had
exhibited with Picasso and the Surrealists in Paris during the 1930s
before becoming involved with the Beat Generation writers. Gysin’s
cross-media workings in many ways embody the prevailing
amalgamative style of postmodernism, and Nicholas Zurbrugg
suggests that in his quest to merge the various media, Gysin’s output
...[a] remarkable example of the ways in which the most positive dynamics of
late twentieth-century culture reach beyond traditional textual frames of
reference into new kinds of multimedia ‘composition’ best defined in terms of
what Burroughs’ essay ‘On Coincidence’ associates with the cultural
astronaut mapping the mysteries of ‘inner space’. (Férez Kuri 2003: 149)

This can be seen to encapsulate Gysin’s career-long desire to create

works that would affect the audience through the stimulation of
multiple senses and by altering their thought processes and perception
in some way. Burroughs defined Gysin’s work as “space art”,
suggesting that the effect upon his audience is the result of Gysin’s
presenting pieces in which “time is seen spatially, that is, as a series of
images or fragments of images past, present, and future” (Férez Kuri
2003: 29). His works are, therefore, particularly affecting because they
are intended to be “a literal representation of what actually happens in
the human nervous system” (Férez Kuri 2003: 30). While this does, to
an extent, correspond with the Surrealist fascination with the
subconscious, it is similarly illustrative of Gysin’s genre-straddling
As much as he was a Surrealist and a member of the Beat
Generation, Gysin was equally an independent avant-garde artist who
operated free of the constraints of any groups or movements. Having
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 23

begun his career with the Surrealists, only to be ejected from the
group on the eve of a major exhibition in Paris in 1932, his combining
of various media within a single piece of work saw him being briefly
aligned with Fluxus and expanded cinema, although ultimately his
work defies simple categorisation, straddling innumerable boundaries.
It was Gysin’s longstanding intention to evoke a “derangement of the
senses” (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 32). This he achieved through the
simultaneous presentation of sound and still and moving images. This
was most clearly encapsulated during some of his live performances,
during which he would paint in front of an audience while films with
sound-tracks unrelated to the images were projected. At the end of the
performance, the painting would be destroyed. Gysin’s remark that
“there is no creation without destruction / there is no destruction
without creation” (Férez Kuri 2003: 136) reflects a strong alignment
with the avant-garde ethos that “destruction is not negative, you must
destroy to build”.2 This cyclic destruction / creation / (self)-destruction
as essential to the evolution of art was noted by Lettriste founder
Isodore Isou, who theorised that “the evolution of any art is
characterised by two phases – amplic and chiseling. The amplic phase
is a period of expansion. It is followed by the chiseling phase, when
the achievements of the amplic period are refined and eventually
destroyed” (Home 1988: 13).
There is a clear lineage from the “simultaneous poem”
performed in 1916 by Tzara, Richard Huelsenbeck and Marcel Janco,
in which the three Dadaists recited “together in three different
languages – French, English and German – texts that have nothing to
do with one another... interspersed”, Lee Harwood notes, “with the
beating of a giant drum, whistles being blown, laughter and lots of
rrrrrrrrrrrrrr” (2005: 115). Throughout his career, Gysin’s work
contained a strong destructive aspect, ranging from this physical
destruction of his works during performances, through the stated
desire to “destroy all rational thought” by the multimedia overload of
the “derangement of the senses”, to the more theoretical destruction of

From the sleeve notes to Drawings of Patient O.T. by Einstürzende Neubauten
(1995). The band’s name translates from the German as “Collapsing new
buildings,” which in itself encapsulates the destructive elements of the avant-garde.
The band has created music using sheet steel, sledgehammers, chain saws and
shopping trolleys.
24 Shift Linguals

the author figure which provided one of the key motives behind the
Burroughs recalls, “in 1959 Brion Gysin said: ‘Writing is fifty
years behind painting’ and applied the montage technique to words on
a page” (1993: 52). This application came about as the result of a
chance observation while Gysin was mounting some of his paintings:
I had a big table on which I worked very often with a Stanley blade, and I had
cut up a number of newspapers accidentally. They had been underneath
something else that I was cutting. The pieces sort of fell together, and I started
matching them up, and I thought Wo-o-o-o-ow, it’s really very funny. And I
took some of them and arranged them in a pattern which was visually pleasing
to me and then typed up the results; and I have never laughed so heartily in
my entire life. (Lotringer 2001: 177)

The texts which caused such mirth were the first cut-ups, and
appeared under that title in Minutes To Go (1960), “unchanged
unedited… emerging as quite coherent and meaningful prose”
(Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 29).
It is impossible to estimate the damage. Anything put out up to now is like
pulling a figure out of the air.
Six distinguished British women said to us later, indicating the
crowd of chic young women who were fingering samples, “If our prices
weren’t as good or better, they wouldn’t come. Eve is eternal.”
(I’m going right back to the Sheraton Carlton and call the
Milwaukee Braves.)
Miss Hannah Pugh the slim model – a member of the Diner’s Club, the
American Express Credit Cards, etc. – drew from a piggy bank a talent which
is the very quintessence of the British female sex.
“People aren’t crazy,” she said. “Now that Hazard has banished my timidity
I feel that I, too, can live on streams in the area where people are urged to be
A huge wave rolled in from the wake of Hurricane Gracie and bowled a
married couple off a jetty. The wife’s body was found – the husband was
missing, presumed drowned.
Tomorrow the moon will be 228,400 miles from the earth and the sun
almost 93,000,000 miles away (Burroughs et al 1967: 6).

Described as a “collage”, this first cut-up assembled lines from the

various newspapers and magazines on Gysin’s table which included
the Paris Herald Tribune, The Observer, The Daily Mail and Life
magazine (6). Removed from their original context, the ordering of the
fragments creates a surreal sequence of images, which, despite their
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 25

lack of connection, combine curiously well, and reveal a great deal

about the source materials, including the journalistic obsession with
peripheral “facts” – “the slim model” – and figures – six women;
228,400 miles; 93,000,000 miles; “a figure out of the air”. These
common characteristics are further highlighted elsewhere within “The
First Cut-ups”, which also include the phrases “six months short”, and
“I weigh 56 pounds less than a man” (Burroughs et al 1967: 7). The
tendency of the press to make frequent reference to location is also
brought to the fore: the distinguished women are British, the Sheraton
Carlton, the Milwaukee Braves, the jetty, and the moon are all listed,
their geographical locations disparate and yet somehow related
thematically, illustrating the conventions of grounding reportage upon
details of who, when and where. By cutting and splicing the various
texts at random, the timings and locations are altered, on a galactic
scale. The result is, as Gysin observed, amusing, but also compelling.
The amalgamated text confounds all expectations of the way a text
traditionally “reads”, not least of all through the shifting contexts
when read sequentially. The “characters” named shift from
“distinguished British women” and Miss Hannah Pugh to Gracie, an
entirely different type of female. The physical bodies of the women
are juxtaposed with the body of the wife, the “body” of water
represented by the sea which swept her away, and ultimately, the
celestial bodies of the moon, sun and earth, revealing the alternative
applications of a single phrase, and how context substantially affects a
word’s meaning. Although the consecutive images and statements are
unconnected, the text is clearly not stream of consciousness, nor
automatic writing, nor “subconscious” writing. It is the randomised
sum of a number of consciously created original parts, drawn out of
their original context and placed in a completely new context. Other
Gysin-composed cut-ups which appeared in Minutes To Go present
similarly bizarre juxtapositions of random images:
He ate the entire Imaginary Museum, shat on a canvas and sold it for a
rainbow. Who can say? We don’t need to burn the Louvre now. The
Equanimity of Complete Despair. The Shining Air. Sensitive Desert. Puddles
of Light. One Pace from Nowhere. (46)

Although the “narrative” is fragmentary and the portrayals abstract

and surreal, there remains a sense of coherence brought by the
relatively conventional sentence structures, while the newly-formed
26 Shift Linguals

images, such as those of “shining air” and “puddles of light” are

striking because of their unusual nature, removed from common
clichéd imagery. An alignment with the avant-garde is also formulated
within the seemingly random phrases; eating the Museum and burning
the Louvre – even if the latter is ultimately not necessary – suggests
an antipathy toward establishment and tradition. The exchange of
“art” for something as intangible as a rainbow similarly implies an
antipathy to the commodification of art, favouring instead the
ephemerality of “shining air” and “puddles of light”.
Gysin initially considered the power of these collage texts to be
limited and short lived:
The first time around, doing your own cut-ups and seeing the results, there’s a
sort of hilarity… But it doesn’t happen again. It’s a oner, a single sensation
that happens just that one first time… But I must say that I thought it was a
rather superior amusement, and was very impressed by William’s immediate
recognition that here was something extremely important to him, that he could
put into use right away, and did. (George-Warren 1999: 186)

Burroughs was particularly excited by the potentials of the cut-ups,

and encouraged Gysin to assist him in the beginning of a lengthy spell
of rigorous experimentation, as he recounts:
…we cut up the Bible, Shakespeare, Rimbaud, our own writing, anything in
sight. We made thousands of cut-ups. When you cut and rearrange words on a
page, new words emerge. And words change meaning. The word “drafted,” as
into the Army, moved into a context of blueprints or contracts, gives an
altered meaning. New words and altered meanings are implicit in the process
of cutting up, and could have been anticipated. Other results were not
expected. (1993: 52)

The production of words “not in the original text”, which appear by

the rearrangement of words and phrases, and through the conjoining
of part-words separated in the physical act of cutting the page and then
spliced with other severed part-words could have been readily
anticipated. The experimenters considered this to be a “revelation” of
sorts, in terms of the potentials it suggested in the creation of
narrative. However, amongst the less expected results emerged what
they saw as the “exposure” of a text’s true meaning. “A text may be
‘found out,’ exposed as empty rhetorical gesture or as a system of
manipulations”, explains Lydenberg (1987: 102). Based on these
discoveries, Gysin and Burroughs began to formulate numerous
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 27

theories concerning the capabilities of the cut-ups. These theories

revolved around the ideas of language preconditioning and control,
word as virus and the revision of existing texts. They also strove to
address the issue of the ownership of words and the issue of “the
author”. As Lydenberg again notes, the “cut-ups defy copyright and
ownership, transgressing the regulations of boundary and convention”
(1987: 49). Gysin – and Burroughs – contended that words are the
property of no-one, and that an author manipulates words just as they
would other media such as paint, and as Gysin stressed, “the poet’s
function is to free words” (Férez Kuri 2003: 141). The cut-ups
unquestionably served this purpose and thus represent a most useful
tool in assisting the poet – or prose-writer – in their craft.
Minutes To Go, the first collection of cut-ups, also featured
works by Gregory Corso and Sinclair Beiles alongside those of Gysin
and Burroughs. Corso’s contributions are presented in poem form and
in many ways are less obviously derived from cut-ups than those of
the others, with perhaps the exception of the collaborative “Sons of
Your In”, (cut up “To a Reason”) in which Rimbaud is credited with
the words, and Corso and Burroughs with “arrangement” (24-5).
Beiles’ contributions further substantiate Burroughs’ claim that they
“cut up everything”, comprising cut-ups of Observer articles, Tacitus
and the Bible (Matthew, Chap 27), the latter yielding the following:
Morning priests counsel death. Bound feast delivered Pontius Pilate governor.
Judas repented thirty pieces of potter’s field and hanged himself. Accused
answered nothing the governor marvelled greatly. (48)

The cutting of the Bible, which may be considered sacrilegious on a

number of levels is noteworthy given the Beats’ – particularly
Burroughs’ – antagonistic views on organised religion, and given that
the Bible is one of the texts which exerts the greatest degree of control
in existence. Such cut-ups reveal not only “words not in the original
text” (including “feast”, which does not appear in Matthew 27, but
serves to provide a curious image when juxtaposed with “bound”) but,
arguably, hidden subtexts revealed through the splitting of the words
from their original imposed order and thus “freeing” them.
Lydenberg’s contention that the cut-up “exposes” the text’s “true”
meaning is thus exemplified. The priests are seen not to take “counsel
against Jesus to put him to death” as in the original text, but to directly
“counsel death”, which becomes not the fate to which Jesus was
28 Shift Linguals

condemned, but a physical embodiment, with the suggestion of a

collusion of sorts between the priests and death becoming implicit in
the cut-up text. The “feast” not in the original text sees Pilate
delivered, rather than the bound Jesus being delivered to him.
However, the sense of verses twelve and thirteen remains almost
unchanged – “And when he was accused of the chief priests and
elders, he answered nothing. And he answered to him never a word;
insomuch that the governor marvelled greatly” – substantiating
Gysin’s opinion that the cut-ups could produce not only remarkable
re-readings of texts, but also “coherent and meaningful prose”
(Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 29).
Both Corso and Beiles had rejected the cut-ups for various
reasons by the time of the book’s publication, leaving only Burroughs
and Gysin to explore their potential and formulate evermore detailed
and complex theories as to their purposes and functions, although
Gysin too would ultimately abandon the technique within a couple of
However, the freeing of words would remain a theme of
Gysin’s work long after he moved on from the cut-ups, as his 1976
calligraphic painting “Poets don’t own these words” (Férez Kuri 2003:
148) illustrates. Gysin and Burroughs theorised that
any narrative passage, or any passage, say, of poetic images is subject to any
number of variations, all of which may be interesting and valid in their own
right. A page of Rimbaud cut up and rearranged will give you quite new
images. Rimbaud images – real Rimbaud images – but new ones. (Burroughs
& Gysin 1978: 3-4)

Burroughs also states, “Shakespeare, Rimbaud live in their words. Cut

the word lines and you will hear their voices” (Burroughs & Gysin
1978: 32). In their view, the words are the property of no one, but the
images, in this example, are definitely Rimbaud’s creation, the
product of his choice of editing the materials available to him. By
cutting up Rimbaud’s text, Burroughs has re-edited the same images,
the “new” Rimbaud images coming from the position of the invisible
third mind – despite the authors being separated from their
“collaborator” by not only distance, but also by time.
Through the cut-ups, they sought not so much to destroy or
desecrate the canon, but to rewrite it, to free it from the constraints of
linguistic pre-programming. While perhaps not visualising the same
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 29

potential for revolutionising narrative form in the way Burroughs did,

Gysin nevertheless recognised that it did have the capacity to serve his
initial end of bringing writing in line with painting on a technical
level, as he explained:
Today, only squares can stand in front of a work of art whining “But what
does it mean?” Confronted with a piece of writing, that is the only question
that readers still do ask. Perhaps there could be abstract literature, as abstract
painting. Why not? We wanted to see. (George-Warren 1999: 186)

This wanting to see if “abstract writing” was a feasible proposition

resulted in the production of numerous texts within a short period of
time, and are represented by Gysin’s contributions not only to Minutes
To Go, but also The Exterminator (1960 – not to be confused with
Burroughs’ collection of short prose pieces and out-takes published as
Exterminator! in 1973), which consists primarily of cut-up texts by
Burroughs accompanied by poems and calligraphy by Gysin in order
to produce a disorientating collage text. As the cover notes state, this
combination of “newspaper articles, headlines and catch-phrases of
the day… cut up, scrambled and thrown at the reader” with “poems
and calligraphs… finally ‘rub out the word’”.
The collaborative element further relinquished the control of the
individual over the final outcome of a piece. Gysin and Burroughs
both strongly believed in the concept of “the third mind”. Citing
Napoleon Hill’s self-help book Think and Grow Rich (1937), which
suggests that when you put two minds together, there is “always a
third mind... a third and superior mind... as an unseen collaborator”,
they theorised that the cut-ups represented not a joint work between
the two of them, but the product of a different origin altogether,
something greater than the sum of the parts (Burroughs & Gysin 1978:
19). Hence, the cut-up Rimbaud text, while containing “new”
Rimbaud images, represents a collaboration between Burroughs,
Gysin and Rimbaud. Moreover, as Burroughs wrote in his “Foreword
Note” to Nova Express, the composite texts drawn from the texts of
others represent a collaboration with “writers living and dead”. They
believed this to be the key to both the cut-ups and their collaborations
in terms of their success and their potency, and the volume of works
produced in collaboration during this period is evidence alone that
Gysin believed strongly in the merits not only of the cut-ups and other
associated experimental forms, but also in the merits of the collage
30 Shift Linguals

approach to creating “abstract writing” and in the power of the “third

mind”. Indeed, The Third Mind implies a merging of the individual
authors into one powerful author in possession of the “third mind”
through the transposition of the authors’ names: “the intention of
Brion Burroughs and William Gysin has been to free the text from the
page, to free the word from the surrounding matrix” (20). Moreover,
such merging of identities further serves to illustrate the flexible
nature of the book’s authorship, and ultimately challenges the idea of
a text having a single, fixed author.
These collaborative works as represented by The Exterminator
and The Third Mind feature not only cut-ups, but also texts created
using other experimental techniques devised by Gysin during this
fertile period of discovery. Following on from the cut-ups and their
variations on paper, Burroughs was keen to develop the potential of
the cut-up to the full and began to experiment with audio recordings.
For Gysin, the cut-ups were simply the first in a succession of
methods he developed with a view to bringing new depths to the
written medium and changing the narrow perceptions of narrative
flow and word ordering. First came the permutations, which Gysin
claims to have discovered “within weeks of stumbling on the cut-ups”
(George-Warren 1999: 186). These involved the rearranging the
words of a single phrase in every possible arrangement or
permutation. This could be achieved by systematically moving the
first word to the end of the row and moving each subsequent word one
place to the left, hence A B C D E becomes first B C D E A, then C D
E A B, and continuing until all of the variations had been exhausted.
From a five-word phrase, a total of 119 new phrases, plus the original,
could be created.
Gysin discovered a system for realising all the possible permutations of a
phrase based upon a geometric progression (5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1) that inverts all
the elements of the requisite verbal chain ̶ for example, I am that I am, rub out
the words, junk is no good baby, etc. ̶ inverts them until the meaning is
exhausted and used up, because there is not one line that doesn’t carry a
message. The ensemble of these contradictory messages explores all the
potential sound and meanings of the sentence. (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 21)

The idea for the permutations began with the rearrangement of the
Divine Tautology in Huxley’s Heaven and Hell. “I took a long look at
it and found that the design of the phrase did not please me at all”,
Gysin recalled (George-Warren 1999: 186). He decided to make the
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 31

phrase “more symmetrical” by “displacing the words”, first producing

the permutation “I am that am I” (George-Warren 1999: 186). “What
had been one of the most affirmative statements of all time had
become a question, and a poignant one, simply by rearranging the
word order” (186). The phrase and its complete permutations are
included in The Third Mind (78-79). The book also shows the
complete permutations of the phrases “junk is no good baby”, (80)
“kick that habit man”, (81) and “I think therefore I am” (82) to
illustrate the variations a single phrase can yield.3 Burroughs went on
to utilise permutations in several of his own “independent” works,
most notably The Ticket That Exploded, in which a number of phrases
are repeated in their various permutations and interspersed throughout
the text.
Gysin’s 1967 novel The Process consists of anything but
abstract prose and “freed” words, and is by no means an abstract
novel. Instead, it takes the form of a “road trip” of sorts, following the
narrator’s mystical journeys through Morocco and the Sahara and is
recounted in sequential order using conventional linear narrative
techniques for the most part. The book does, however, return to the
theories and practices of the permutations and the audio experiments,
detailing “the process”:
It was a simple matter, then, to record the zikr on a loop of spliced tape;
playing endlessly again and again and again.
I press the old button to give it a whirl; double speed and then, double that:

Rub out the word . . . Out-word rub Thee . . . The Rub-out word . . . Word
out-rub Thee . . . Word rub Thee out . . . Out the Rub-word . . . Rub out the
Word . . .

Such is the process. (Gysin 1967: 299)

As in The Third Mind, the process, as detailed in The Process, is as

important in many ways as the outcome. Again, Gysin emphasises the
physicality of text and the way in which the cut-ups and permutations

Excerpts of the permutations of “junk is no good baby” first appeared in The
Exterminator (1960). This volume also included permutations of the phrases “short
time to go”; “who sends the man?”; “kick that habit man”; “can mother be wrong”;
“proclaim present time over”; “in the beginning was the word” and “rub out the
32 Shift Linguals

can be produced mechanically, randomly and systematically.

Whatever the text produced, it is all a part of the larger overall
strategy, namely to “rub out the word”. Elsewhere within the novel,
Gysin includes warnings regarding the dangers of the mechanism of
language and its (mis)use:
The word-process in reverse sounds less like blank verse than it does like a
garbage-disposal unit built into a kitchen sink. Be as careful about inserting
your finger in the running loop of words as you would be about plunging your
finger down your own throat. Abrupt word-withdrawal can be a shattering
experience. Taken cold-turkey, it can cramp you with chills of panic as the
seasick words swirl around in a long ring-a-rosy like a vomit of alphabet soup.

This passage is of particular interest in that it again refers to words, in

recorded and spoken form, as physical objects, thus reasserting the
idea behind the cut-ups, by which words are rendered as physically
tangible a medium as paint. Equally significantly, Gysin can be seen
to be aligning the idea of the text to a literal recording of life and of
experience: the image of the “running loop of words” renders
language as though a reel of audio tape or film, and thus suggests that
to cut and realign text, and therefore language, is to cut and realign
one’s experience, with tangible, physical results. The physical effects
described highlight the belief he and Burroughs held that man’s
reliance on words is not simply psychological, but biological, and thus
to cut into the “running loop of words” and alter the “word-process” is
tantamount to cutting into history, changing the future or altering a
strand of DNA. Gysin also points to man’s reliance on language as a
means of giving order and structure to his surroundings, and of
understanding those surroundings. Without the order of language, man
is lost. And yet, as Burroughs would go on to expound, in order to
attain true freedom and the capacity to evolve in order to survive, the
human race must free itself from the tyrannical constraints of language
Gysin’s desire to avoid becoming tied to any one medium, let
alone any one single mode of writing, meant that he began to pursue
other avenues at the same time as working on texts which would
ultimately appear in The Third Mind, and had all but abandoned the
technique by the time Burroughs brought it to a wider audience. As
Rob Bridget comments, “despite the numerous experimental
precursors to this literary technique, Gysin’s application of the
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 33

montage technique to writing never received such a sustained and

intense investigation as Burroughs and he were to achieve” (Férez
Kuri 2003: 147), and there is much evidence to suggest that the cut-
ups would not have had the impact that they did had Gysin worked on
them alone, for he chose not to explore their potential in any of his
individual works. Nicholas Zurbrugg records Henri Chopin’s remarks
that Gysin’s “diverse activities… suggest that he was a jack-of-all-
trades rather than a master of any single vocation” (Férez Kuri 2003:
147). And yet Férez Kuri’s contention that Gysin now stands as one of
the most influential of artistic figures remains not without merit, for
although his name is not widely known, his techniques and ideas are
now in circulation the world over, and have become embedded within
the fabric of contemporary art and culture. This infiltration has been
largely subliminal. Similarly, it is through the works of William
Burroughs that the cut-up technique came to be so widely known, and
thus one could argue that Gysin’s influence has been disseminated not
directly, but through the filter of Burroughs.

William S. Burroughs

A number of critics have divided Burroughs’ output into phases:

Lydenberg loosely defines two primary divisions within Burroughs’
career, while Geoff Ward defines four distinct “mutations”. Timothy
Murphy and Eric Mottram, too, variously dissect Burroughs’ output
into stages, while Ted Morgan’s biography also identifies a number of
periods defined in stylistic and geographical terms. For the purpose of
this study, I would contend that Burroughs’ literary output can be
divided roughly into three main periods, which are both chronological
and stylistic, and can be classified as the early period, typified by
“straight” narrative and drug-orientated stories delivered with the
trappings of hard-boiled detective genre fiction; the middle period,
typified by wide-ranging experimentation and a leaning toward
science fiction (J. James Thomas suggests that “Burroughs is
undoubtedly the science fiction novelist par excellence, because the
form, the language, is every bit as strange as the content of the story”
(1971: 61)); and the later period, typified by a return to more
conventional narrative, but with a focus on historical mythology. My
primary focus in the first half of this study will be on the second phase
which consists primarily of The Soft Machine, The Ticket That
34 Shift Linguals

Exploded and Nova Express, constructed using the cut-up and fold-in
methods, and also includes the other experimental texts Burroughs
produced during the same period, as represented by Minutes To Go,
The Exterminator and, perhaps most significantly, The Third Mind,
compiled from texts dating from this time but only published in 1978.
However, it is necessary to take a step further back in the Burroughs
chronology, to his breakthrough novel Naked Lunch in order to fully
appreciate the context in which Burroughs came to receive the
conception of the cut-up technique, and understand why the method so
captured his imagination.

Naked Lunch: A Cut-Up Apprenticeship

First published by Olympia Press in Paris in 1959, Naked Lunch is

without doubt Burroughs’ best known work. However, as Jennie Skerl
observes, the emphasis placed on Naked Lunch means that “Burroughs
has not yet received careful critical attention due an achievement
which goes beyond this seminal work” (1985: i), and it is clearly
apparent that the critical discussion devoted to this text is
disproportionate considering the substantial body of work he produced
during his lengthy career. Naked Lunch polarised the critics, and has
acquired a reputation for being a “difficult” read, a point noted by
Mary McCarthy writing in 1963 when she wrote “many readers
complain they cannot get through The Naked Lunch” (Skerl &
Lydenberg 1991: 36).4 This has not, however, prevented it from
acquiring the status of “cult classic” and an immense reputation, or
from selling in excess of one million copies in some 16 languages.
The preparation of the manuscript provides not only a
significant chapter in the legend which surrounds the book, but also
introduced Burroughs to the random factors which would become
integral to his subsequent works. Given a deadline of just two weeks
to prepare the final manuscript, Burroughs, with the assistance of Jack
Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, pieced together the “thousands of pages”
(Mottram 1977: 42) which lay strewn, rat-eaten and crumpled, about
his apartment. These were sent, in the order they were typed, to
Maurice Girodias, the editor at Olympia. Consequently, the
sequencing of the various sections of Naked Lunch was largely
This polarisation is perhaps most evident in the collection of reviews and articles
William Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception 1959-1989.
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 35

arbitrary. Burroughs himself wrote in the book’s “atrophied preface”

that “you can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point” (1959:
The book’s lack of formal structure has been key to its
reputation for being inaccessible. Reviewers have branded it a “mess”,
with John Willett remarking “it is not always clear whether it is the
writing or the writer that is being jumbled” (Skerl & Lydenberg 1991:
44), and Mary McCarthy suggesting that “the best comparison for the
book… is in fact with a circus” (Skerl & Lydenberg 1991: 35). Tony
Tanner writes: “Naked Lunch is a novel with no narrative continuity,
and no sustained point of view” (1976: 114). However, the structure,
or lack thereof, was essential to Burroughs’ strategy as he strove to
break the mould and escape the “straightjacket of the novel”
(Burroughs 1993: 61). Dispensing with linear narratives and character
development, all common features of “the novel”, was vital to the
execution of that strategy.
“On the literal level, the novel can be seen as the disjointed
memories and hallucinations of withdrawal”, writes Skerl (1985: 36),
while Tanner remarks that “the episodes themselves are experienced
as a distribution of fragments rather than as internally organized
structures” (1976: 114). This imbues the novel with a disjointed,
disorientating feel. Despite lacking lineal narrative continuity, the
book’s recurrent themes provide a continual thread throughout.
Medical malpractice and “bad” science are common features,
with Burroughs introducing an array of bizarre characters including
Dr “Fingers” Schafer, the Lobotomy Kid, who unveils The Complete
All American Deanxietized Man, the human form “reduced to a
compact and abbreviated spinal column. The brain, front, middle and
rear must follow the adenoid, the wisdom tooth, the appendix…”
(Burroughs 1959: 87). Before those present, “his flesh turns to viscid,
transparent jelly that drifts away in a green mist” as the man suddenly
transforms into a “monster black centipede” and “waves of unknown
stench fill the room, searing the lungs, grabbing the stomach…” (87).
Such mutation provides an important theme in what John Ciardi
describes as “a many-levelled vision of horror” (Skerl & Lydenberg
1991: 21). This is perhaps best exemplified in the “notorious” “talking
asshole” routine, which highlights several of the themes which would
establish themselves as Burroughs’ trademarks, namely wild mutation
36 Shift Linguals

of the human form and issues of control.5 Here, the master eventually
becomes servant as the asshole takes over. That the mutation
described in the routine occurs within a very short time-scale,
developing more at the rate of a particularly aggressive cancer than an
evolutionary development, serves not only to highlight the ways in
which mutations can alter the whole biology of a race, starting with
just one individual, but also illustrates Burroughs’ own theories on
evolution. He suggested that “evolutionary changes do not take place
gradually over a period of years or millions of years by natural
selection. They take place quite suddenly in a few generations”
(Hibbard 1999: 48-9). Burroughs substantiates this claim by observing
that “geographical features like the Himalayas do not arise gradually;
they occur very suddenly indeed. There have been mammoths found
frozen with their food undigested in their stomachs. They were frozen
solid in a matter of seconds” (49). This idea is echoed elsewhere
within Naked Lunch, which is littered with references to fantastic
instances of freakish and unnatural perversions of nature: “a Liz
claimed Immaculate Conception and gave birth to a six-ounce spider
monkey through the navel” (189). Burroughs’ concept of “evolution”
can be seen to be almost interchangeable with “revolution”, and in
many ways Naked Lunch was designed as a revolutionary text, unlike
anything which had preceded it in terms of content, structure and
narrative style. As Burroughs wrote in a letter to his American editor,
Irving Rosenthal, “THIS IS NOT A NOVEL. And should not appear
looking like one” (Burroughs 1959: 249).
From the outset, Burroughs is explicit regarding the book’s
purpose, not only as a satirical exposé of the dark forces which
manipulate society, but as a radical text designed “to create an
alteration in the reader’s consciousness” (Lotringer 2001: 81). In his
“atrophied preface” to Naked Lunch, Burroughs describes it as “a
blueprint, a How-To Book…” (187). In this way, he sought not to
promote a simple literary mutation or evolution, but a literary
“Routine” is the term Burroughs gave to his short satirical set-pieces. The first
occurrence of his naming them such appears in his letter to Allen Ginsberg dated 23
May 1953 contained in The Yage Letters, in which he introduces the routine
“Roosevelt After Inauguration”. Although Ginsberg’s footnote states that this is
Burroughs’ first routine, this is not the case, as some of the routines contained in
Naked Lunch actually date from as far back as 1938, but they had gone unclassified
until this point.
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 37

revolution. His strategy revolved around educating the reader to a new

form of literature through the exposure of “the truth”, or, as Burroughs
put it, “let them see what they actually eat and drink [and] what is on
the end of that long newspaper spoon” (Burroughs 1959: 205). The
“blueprint” involved the presentation of a shifting montage of scenes
and images, with characters and locations fading in and out and
passing through almost arbitrarily.
Many critics found the prosaic depictions tasteless and
struggled with the apparent lack of morality, and excerpts which
appeared in various periodicals drew heavy criticism even before the
novel’s official publication.6 The book also became the last work of
literature to be tried for obscenity in the USA.7 But from the outset,
Burroughs strove to bring art closer to life, and this involved the
presentation of realities, however harsh, without any euphemistic
dressing or what Lydenberg terms “allegorical evasion” (1987: 9).
Burroughs defended the contents of the book as a satire “in the
manner of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal” (1959: 205). Above
all, his objective was to free writing from what he called “the
sequential representational straitjacket of the novel” (1993: 61).
Significantly, Tanner notes that unlike contemporaneous work,
“instead of drawing on classical references, [Burroughs] has availed
himself… of modern American materials and forms: films, cartoon-
strips, science-fiction, fragmented and permeated by a ‘carny world…
a kind of mid-western, small-town, cracker barrel, pratfall type of
folklore’” (1976: 110). This, in hindsight, was postmodern fiction in

In response to an excerpt contained in the Chicago Review, Chicago Daily News
columnist Jack Mabley declared Naked Lunch “one of the foulest collections of
printed filth I’ve seen publicly circulated” (“Filthy Writing on the Midway” by Jack
Mabley, Chicago Daily News, 25 October 1958, quoted in Literary Outlaw, p. 296).
Mabley’s primary objection was to the inclusion of the words “shit”, “ass” and
“fuck” in Burroughs’ contribution. Clearly such base “street” language offended the
tastes of critics like Mabley, who were opposed to the lowering of the status of
“literature”, and Burroughs later reflected that “sex and drugs and four letter words
were by no means acceptable at the time, and certainly not on a university campus”.
(Burroughs’ foreword to Maynard and Miles: William S. Burroughs: A
Bibliography, 1953-1973, p. x).
The book was tried on grounds of obscenity on Boston in 1965. See Karolides, Bald
and Sova, 100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature; Michael
B. Goodman, Literary Censorship: The Case History of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch
and John Sutherland, Offensive Literature: Decensorship in Britain 1960-1982.
38 Shift Linguals

development, and prefaced the more extreme assimilation of a wide

range of sources that the cut-up facilitates. And yet the methodology
of cutting up can be seen to belong to the more destructive aspects of
avant-gardism rather than to postmodernism. Significantly, Skerl
(1985: 42) suggests that Naked Lunch presented a “new form” of
writing. She observes that “the new vision of Naked Lunch is
presented in an experimental form derived from painting,
photography, film, and jazz. The basic technique Burroughs chose to
use is juxtaposition, called collage or montage in the visual arts” (42).
It would be collage which would inform Burroughs’ work in the years
which followed, and saw him developing experimental techniques
beyond anything hitherto seen in literature.

Early Cut-Ups, Other Modes of Experimentation and Word as


Although in itself not an explicitly experimental text, the random

mosaic formulation of Naked Lunch represents the first step in
Burroughs’ attempts to create texts with a reduced degree of authorial
input, purposefully contributing to what Roland Barthes terms “the
death of the author”. As Skerl comments, “Naked Lunch is the
creation of one man’s consciousness even though he deemphasizes
this role by calling himself an ‘instrument’ and by calling attention to
the collaboration of others” (1985: 45). In the sequence of texts which
would follow, he would take this “deemphasis” to a new level.
Burroughs believed that removing himself from the creative process
and allowing random factors to take a leading role was an important
avenue to pursue as he strove to attack the mechanisms of control of
which he wrote in Naked Lunch.
The discovery of the cut-ups led him to begin to explore what
he believed to be the most powerful instrument of control of all:
language – or, in Burroughs’ terms, “Word”. The idea that “Word is
Virus” provided a central theme to Burroughs’ middle-era work.
My general theory since 1971 has been that the Word is literally a virus, and
that it has not been recognised as such because it has achieved a state of
relatively stable symbiosis with its human host; that is to say, the Word Virus
(the Other Half) has established itself so firmly as an accepted part of the
human organism that it can now sneer at gangster viruses like smallpox and
turn them in to the Pasteur Institute. But the Word clearly bears the single
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 39

identifying feature of virus: it is an organism with no internal function other

than to replicate itself. (Burroughs 1993: 47)

This idea can actually be seen developing considerably earlier than

1971, with virus and mutation being thematic in Naked Lunch. Citing
the research of others, notably the fictitious Dr Kurt Unruh von
Steinplatz, who also supposedly theorised that the human ability to
speak has a viral origin, and that “the word was a virus of… ‘biologic
mutation’ affecting a change in its host which was then genetically
conveyed” (Burroughs & Odier 1974: 13), Burroughs expounded his
Word Virus theory in great detail. He postulates that a virus illness
could well have caused alterations on the inner throat structure of
apes, and that these virally-induced biological changes facilitated the
capacity for speech. Through the filter of von Steinplatz, Burroughs
proffers the following:
Some female apes must have survived to give birth to the Wunderkinder. The
illness perhaps assumed a more malignant form in the male because of his
more rigid muscular structure, causing death through strangulation and
vertebral fracture. Since the virus in both male and female precipitates sexual
frenzy through irritation of sex centres in the brain, the male impregnated the
females in their death spasms and the altered throat structure was genetically
conveyed. (Burroughs & Odier 1974: 12-13)

The creation of both von Steinplatz and his research in what

Lydenberg refers to as “a kind of anthropological fantasy” (1987: 129)
illustrates Burroughs’ “pseudoscientific” leanings and the way in
which his fiction combines various fiction genres, and also
incorporates elements of science and other disciplines. Moreover, the
theorised connection between language and physical experience is
made explicit. By following the trajectory of theorising word as viral,
biological, the act of cutting into the word would have a tangible,
physical effect, not only on the reader, but also on the established
social mechanisms. Burroughs’ ideas were not entirely fantastical,
however, as he drew on and extended theories put forward in
contemporary studies by the likes of G. Belyavin for his own ends.8

See A. Gottschalk, G. Belyavin, and F. Biddle, “Glycoproteins as influenza virus
hemagglutinin inhibitors and as cellular virus receptors”, in Glycoproteins. Their
Composition, Structure and Function, Part A ed. A. Gottschalk, and G. Belyavin
and E. Rowatt, “Formation of Stable Shells from Protien Sub-Units as a Mode of
Virus Synthesis” in Nature 199.
40 Shift Linguals

New scientific evidence that suggests human speech was the result of
a genetic mutation which is only present in modern man serves not
only to support Burroughs’ theory, but also further enhances the
popular idea of Burroughs as a visionary, a “poet prophet” (Lydenberg
1987: 51).9
Burroughs theorised that language controls man, and not vice
versa, but was also aware of the ways in which words are used to
provide structure to the world and the societies within it. Mankind has
used written communication to elevate itself above other species, and
to structure the social order within human culture. The power of
persuasion and propaganda lies in the use of language, and laws exist
by virtue of their being set in the written form. Burroughs’ theories on
language control show distinct parallels with those of contemporary
theorists including Barthes, whose Mythologies (1957) focuses on the
constructed “myth” of modern culture, and Foucault, as both Skerl
(1985) and Lydenberg, writing in 1987, observe: “The ideas we now
recognize as characteristic of post-structuralism and deconstruction
were being developed independently by Burroughs almost thirty years
ago” (1987: xi). Striving to break that control under which even he
was aware of being held led Burroughs to experiment with texts in the
first instance, and the cut-up suited that purpose perfectly.
According to Lydenberg, on seeing Gysin’s cut-ups,
“Burroughs immediately recognised that he had already served an
unconscious cut-up apprenticeship in editing and rearranging the
voluminous material that finally yielded the published version of
Naked Lunch” (1987: 44). The piecing together of the pages of the
manuscript, like the cut-ups, served to render the word a “substance
that could be handled, or more accurately, manhandled” (Lydenberg
1987: 44). Burroughs also noticed that the way the cut-up texts read
bore a significant resemblance to the fragmentary dream and
hallucinatory passages in Naked Lunch. He believed that the
randomised act of cutting and realigning text was a means of bringing
the writing process closer to the subconscious and the act of dreaming,
remarking “precisely what is a dream? A certain juxtaposition of word
and image” (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 1).
Following the unveiling of the technique at the Edinburgh
festival of arts in 1962, and subsequently in Minutes To Go,
This evidence is presented by Michael Balter in the article “Language Evolution:
‘Speech Gene’ Tied to Modern Humans” in Science 2002 297: 1105.
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 41

Burroughs made even more fantastical claims for the powers of the
cut-ups than their ability to reveal new and deeper meanings in words
and phrases, claiming that “some of the cut and rearranged texts seem
to refer to future events” (1993: 52). In this way cutting up the canon
could function in a similar way to the unlocking of the “Bible code”.
I cut up an article written by John Paul Getty and got: “It is a bad thing to sue
your own father.” And a year later one of his sons did sue him. In 1964 I made
a cut-up and got what seemed like a totally inexplicable phrase: “And here is a
horrid air conditioner.” In 1974 I moved into a loft with a broken air
conditioner which was removed to put in a new unit. And there was three
hundred pounds of broken air conditioner on my floor – a horrid disposal
problem, heavy and solid, emerged from a cut-up ten years ago. (52-3)

He concludes, “we had no explanation for this at the time, it just…

suggest[s] that, perhaps, that when you cut into the present, the future
leaks out”.10 Quite how seriously Burroughs intends such claims to be
taken is debatable, but however sardonically such theories are
presented, the strangeness of some of the “coincidental” instances he
presents as evidence are certainly interesting, and further enhance
Burroughs’ reputation as a prophetic writer.
Burroughs’ contributions to The Third Mind include detailed
instructions for creating cut-ups. Burroughs first explains the purpose
of the method, before the instruction to take a text and “cut the text
into three columns” (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 34). There then follow
a number of examples of new texts that various arrangements of these
columns can create. The results are interesting. As important as the
actual resultant texts is the fact that these clear instructions enable
anyone whom so wishes to make their own cut-ups and hence new
writing from old. “Cut-ups are for everyone”, wrote Burroughs.
“Anybody can make cut-ups. It is experimental in the sense of being
something to do” (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 31). The
(pseudo)scientific recording of his methodology renders the cut-up
experiments, and their results, replicable under similar conditions, and
thus renders the hypothesis “provable”. That Burroughs went to such
great lengths to “expose” his methods was, and remains, extremely
unusual in literature, the detailing of working practices being more
common to science. “There is an absolute rule that a writer must

From an excerpt of a live recording of the “Cucumbers” lecture entitled “Origin and
Theory of the Tape Cut-Ups”, on the album Break Through in Grey Room.
42 Shift Linguals

carefully hide the means by which his effects are achieved”, notes
Gérard-Georges Lemaire (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 15). “Roussel
was one of the first to transgress this rule, though he separated the
books themselves from the explanation of them. Burroughs, however,
includes in the texture of his fiction the definitions that rule its
production, definitions themselves subjected a priori to the
randomness of the cut-up” (15).
This physical cutting and subsequent splicing of passages
drawn from such eclectic sources could be conceived as sacrilegious
in its total disregard for the literary canon: indeed, it equates to a
literal defacement of the canon, and in many ways represents the
principles of the avant-garde at their most absolute. Such an explicit
assault on the “cult of personality” functions in much the same way as
Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. This most celebrated example of avant-
gardism is cited by theorists including Peter Bürger as a conscious
move to invert the established hierarchy of “art”, and draw into
question the very foundations of what constitutes “art”. Some critics
believe that such “extreme nihilism” and “contempt for the actual
production” of art seems to result in a “dead end” (Skerl & Lydenberg
1991: 89). However, the afterlife of Burroughs’ work suggests that
such nihilism, in Burroughs’ hands, paved the way for new
As Lydenberg states, the cut-ups represent the ultimate attack
on the “conventional structures” (1987: x) and the universally
accepted order of things in order to “escape preconditioning” (1987:
48). Language is one of the most fundamental of preconditionings,
and through the cut-up Burroughs breaks this down in the most
physical, tangible way, in what Lydenberg describes as “an exercise in
negativity…a kind of Dadaist destruction” (1987: 48). Burroughs was
keen to distinguish his work from that of his Dadaist predecessors, and
did not perceive the cut-ups to be specifically negative or directly
destructive.11 “I am not a dadaist and I don’t believe in being
obscure”, he told Eric Mottram, defending the technique by stating:
“What I would like to emphasize is that this is a technique, and like

Despite Burroughs emphasising that he was not a dadaist, one should also refer to
the Dadaist response to criticism directed toward their permuational experiments:
often aligned with Dadaism, this response, quoted in The Third Mind is similarly
apt with regard to Burroughs’ experimentation.
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 43

any technique will of course be useful to some writers and not to

others, and in any case it is a matter of experimentation, not
argument” (Hibbard 1999: 15). Burroughs saw within the technique
more than simply a mode of experimentation, and grew to believe that
it also provided a means of initiating a revolution – not only in terms
of the formulation of narrative, but a real social and cultural
revolution: “The word of course 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 & Odier 1974: 33-34).
Integral to the nature of breaking down the control system were
the random and collaborative aspects of the approach to the
experiments. The random factor meant that not only was the control
language held over the writer being broken down, but also the control
the writer has over the words is diminished. Burroughs was clearly
aware of the importance of authorship and the attachment of an
authorial “name” to a piece of work. Yet, paradoxically, much of his
work strove to remove the author from the writing process as he
attempted to demystify the creative process, explode the myth of the
“artist genius” and expose his own influences and sources of
plagiarism to achieve a “transcendental anonymity”, stating that “no
man is worth his salt who doesn’t labour to make himself obsolete”
(Burroughs et al 1967: 54).
Burroughs was keen to emphasise the fact that his
experimentation was not simply for its own sake, and that there was a
definite purpose to his breaking down of conventional literary
practices in his pursuit, not of “abstract prose” as Gysin had proposed,
but for the creation of a whole new approach to narrative. Burroughs’
primary objective was to break the centuries of preconditioning which
have created the “problem” of associative language inherent within
the “civilised world”. He began his programme of experimentation
fully aware of the battle he was facing not only against the readers’
socially preconditioned mental functions and the inferred interfacing
between the written and the spoken word, but also against the type of
authority whose control he sought to challenge, claiming that “image
and word are instruments of control used by the daily press and by
such news magazines as Time, Life, Newsweek, and their English and
Continental counterparts” (Burroughs & Odier 1974: 59).
44 Shift Linguals

Burroughs devised various methods based on the cut-ups in his

attempts to unleash the words from the constraints of their originally
imposed order, including an “extension of the cut-up method” which
he called the “fold-in” method and detailed thus:
A page of text, my own or someone else’s, is folded down the middle and
placed on another page, the composite text is then read across half of one text
and half the other. The fold-in method extends to writing the flashback used in
films, enabling the writer to move backwards and forwards on his time track...
This method of course is used in music where we are continually moved
backwards and forwards on the time track by repetition and rearrangements of
musical themes. (Hibbard 1999: 15)

Burroughs’ comparison of this mode of prose writing to music is

worth noting, in that it highlights the fact that he saw his writing as
possessing a multi-media aspect which transcended the form of the
written word. I shall return to Burroughs’ exploration of the multi-
media applications of the cut-ups in the final section of this chapter.

The Nova Trilogy

Having devised a set of writing techniques which suited his purposes

and reflected his preoccupations, Burroughs began to apply the cut-up
and fold-in methods for the formulation of longer narratives. The
Nova trilogy sees the application of the cut-ups, both in theory and
practice, to “the novel”, while developing explorations of control in
new and far deeper directions. Across these works, Burroughs renders
explicit the idea that “the parasitic control system operating through
drugs, sex and religion is grounded in language, in distorted methods
of exchange and communication” (Lydenberg 1987: 129). Burroughs
referred to the trilogy as a “sequel”, or rather a “mathematical
extension” to Naked Lunch, claiming “all my books are one book, it’s
just a continual book” (Skerl 1985: 73). This idea of continuity is
connected to the evolution of themes and ideas rather than characters
and plots, however, and Murphy notes that “the trilogy’s characters
and events emerge from large-scale patterns of linguistic recurrence,
akin to the motif and refrain structure of music, rather than from
realistic description or logical causality” (2002b). He continues: “this
radical semantic indeterminacy makes any summary of these books…
necessarily selective and thus only statistically reliable” (2002b).
Philippe Mikriammos, however, contends that these three books form
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 45

“a false trilogy”, because “the three books actually form a whole”

(Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 17). He expands on this by defining the
Nova trilogy as “not a single book repeating itself, but rather a book
that completes itself in the form of three versions, each envisaging a
certain number of problems under a different angle” (Burroughs &
Gysin 1978: 17). While I shall briefly discuss each of the volumes in
sequence, then, it is entirely appropriate that I shall commonly
frequently refer to the trilogy as a whole.
The sequence of novels sees Burroughs pursue his viral control
theory through the portrayal of the Nova Mob – so named because
they came to Earth after causing the supernova which formed the Crab
Nebula – alien invaders who have controlled life on earth for 3,000
years by assuming the form of a parasitic virus which exploits the
body’s weakness for addiction. And so begins Burroughs’ “mythology
for the space age”, with the Nova Mob serving as both an explanation
and analogy for the word-as-virus theory which forms one of the
trilogy’s central themes.12 Skerl comments that “Burroughs’s Nova
myth is parodic… it is not invested with belief; it is not a symbol of
transcendent reality. Rather, it is an analysis and criticism of myth
whose aim is to destroy the power of myth, leaving the reader free of
its linguistic control” (1985: 71). Thus the overarching “plot” of the
trilogy focuses on the uncovering of an ancient, secret invasion of the
earth by parasitic aliens who now control human minds and bodies
through language, which Burroughs calls “a virus from outer space”,
and on the struggle of human partisan groups to throw off the alien
yoke by “cut[ting] the word lines” (Murphy 1997: 203) of linguistic
control through the cut-up method. The Soft Machine specifically
focuses on the description of the setting for the invasion and the
various historical manifestations of the aliens’ control strategy. The
first book in the trilogy, The Soft Machine consists of 17 short
chapters which contain large segments of cut-up and fold-in
composite texts.13 The inclusion of recurrent phrases from Naked
Lunch, such as “No glot, clom Friday” and “No good, no bueno”
across The Soft Machine and elsewhere in the Nova trilogy indicates

Burroughs variously spoke of his desire to create a new space-age mythology,
notably in The Third Mind and in his 1974 interview with Phillipe Mikriammos
(Hibbard 1991).
This refers to the second (1966) version of the text.
46 Shift Linguals

the way in which Burroughs incorporated “his own highly volatile

material” (Wilson & Gysin 2001: 170) with newspapers and
fragments of other works of literature.
Despite Burroughs’ claim that “perfectly clear narrative prose
can be produced using cut-up and fold-in methods” (Hibbard 1999:
15), such composite passages do not make for the easiest of reading,
and many critics were unimpressed and unconvinced. David Lodge
dismissed the cut-ups as “uninteresting”, “boring”, “confused and
ultimately unsatisfying”, concluding that Burroughs “cannot be
considered to be more than a minor, eccentric figure” (Lodge 1966:
205). Ihab Hassan questioned the “authenticity” of the cut-ups, and
wrote, “the theory, no doubt, is attractive. Its results, however, often
appear banal or inchoate; and in long stretches… gibberish prevails
over revelation” (Skerl & Lydenberg 1991: 61). As the methods
evolved, Burroughs devised a number of modes of presentation, using
punctuation in order to show the “cut marks” within the texts. These
presentations of composite texts in the Nova trilogy serve to create an
extreme sense of dislocation, disjointedness and, at times, the apparent
meaninglessness critics complained of:
Border city … noon ticker tape … word falling … the board flakes of
electricals … break through in grey room … photo falling … down into
present time and there investigate purpose … distant city is Red Mesa … fight
erupt like sand on iron … sacrifice partisans and rioters of all nations …
gambling fight … attack at arbitrary intervals … sacrifice partisans of all
nations … open fire on priest shriek for humans … he never mesh with Iron
Claws … (Burroughs 1966 145)

The physical cuts and the points at which the various texts intersect
are clearly marked by the use of ellipsis, or, elsewhere, by em dashes.
This very obvious use of punctuation operates on numerous different
levels. First, this distinctive mode of presentation serves the function
of differentiating the sections of text, revealing the mechanics of the
writing process. Reading a text such as this is akin to seeing the
working-out of a mathematical equation, the processes laid bare for all
to see. Burroughs’ workings render explicit his drawing from an array
of sources and form an integral part of the composite text. Second, the
punctuation compels the reader to pause at each break. This alters the
way in which one physically reads the text, in that it essentially forces
the reader to pause over each phrase, accentuating the sounds and the
structures of the short sections and the individual words even if not
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 47

actually bringing any sense of “meaning” to the fore. This creates a

very different type of reading experience from “normal” prose,
although the succession of unframed images do function in a manner
which is distinctly poetic. Third, the dramatic punctuation creates a
very unusual visual aspect within the text. At a glance, it is apparent
that the composite texts are not composed in a conventional narrative
The fragmentary nature of the narrative is key to its function.
The juxtaposed images and disconnected phrases are designed to
reflect the way the memory functions, jumping from one thought or
recollection to the next on the impulse of random triggers which
propel individual, personal associations rarely possible with word-
orders carefully selected and imposed by conventional authorship. In
doing so, the composite text may also fulfil its ultimate objective,
namely for the reader to “unravel” its meaning, reading between the
intersections to access its cut-through meanings. In between the
evocative random images of “word falling” and “noon ticker tape”,
the phrases “sacrifice partisans and rioters of all nations” and “attack
at arbitrary intervals … sacrifice partisans of all nations” do
correspond with the plot, detailing the strategies of galactic war. That
these phrases are drawn from an earlier cut-up, of Sinclair Beiles’
prose poem “Stalin”, which appeared in Minutes To Go is worth also
noting briefly here. “Break through in grey room”, a frequently
recurrent phrase throughout the trilogy, makes reference to
Burroughs’ opinion of his cut-up works within the context of the
avant-garde breaking new ground and the response innovative art
receives prior to its attaining mainstream acceptance: “once the
breakthrough is made, there is a permanent expansion of awareness.”
(Lotringer 2001: 621).
Ranjeet Gill contends that seventh routine, “The Mayan Caper”
is “the single most significant section of The Soft Machine because of
its central placement in the text, because it is the longest sustained
narrative, and because it gives the most straightforward account of
how a control system works and how it can be dismantled” (2004: 62).
However, straightforward accounts are not the primary purpose of the
text, and although “The Mayan Caper” is significant for its focus on
the text’s leading theme, namely control systems, the less
straightforward, more elliptical fragments of narrative which surround
it are at least equally important, in that they demonstrate and manifest
48 Shift Linguals

Burroughs’ theories for the dismantlement of the control systems of

which he writes.
The final chapter, “Cross the Wounded Galaxies”, is significant
within the context of the trilogy as a whole, as it is here that
Burroughs explains the origin of the invasion through a negative
creation myth that attributes human language acquisition to early
man’s infection by the alien “word virus”, describing how “in the pass
the muttering sickness leaped into our throats… Most of the ape-forms
died there on the treeless slopes” (Burroughs 1966: 168).14 The virus
generates artificial identities, thereby isolating each person in their
physical body (the “soft machine” of the title) and obscuring the path
to spiritual transcendence. Moreover, the virus imposes reductive
binary modes of language and thought that justify oppressive
bureaucratic structures of command and exploitation, and then uses
these structures (such as the corporate mass media) to create insoluble
conflicts among groups of people.15 As Murphy observes, “these
conflicts take many forms, including rapacious corporate manipulation
(in ‘Trak Trak Trak’), elitist theocracy (examined in ‘The Mayan
Caper’), and institutionalized sexism (discussed in ‘Gongs of
Violence’)” (Murphy 2002b).
Throughout the trilogy, Burroughs explicitly attacks these
instruments of control and the “control addicts” who exploit them in
order to justify their authority. This extends the theory Burroughs had
first put forward in Naked Lunch whereby all society and social
interaction is built upon addiction, and whereby all members of
society are dependent upon, or addicted to, one thing or another, be it
money, power or control, in a mechanistic structure he referred to as
“the algebra of need”. Simultaneously, he also incorporates phrases
which fall together to reveal his own intentions, practices and

This detailing of the spread of the virus corresponds with Burroughs’ recounting of
the research he credits to von Steinplatz some years later in The Job.
Burroughs wrote of these “binary modes” and their applications, “Contradictory
commands are an integral part of the modern industrial environment: Stop. Go.
Wait here. Go there. Come in. Stay out. Be a man. Be a woman. Be white. Be
black. Live. Die. Be your real self. Be somebody else. Be a human animal. Be a
superman. Yes. No. Rebel. Submit. RIGHT. WRONG. […] Present. Absent.
Open. Closed. Entrance. Exit. IN. OUT” (Burroughs & Odier 1974: 45).
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 49

We fold writers of all time in together and record radio programs, movie
sound-tracks, TV and juke box songs all the words of the world stirring
around in a cement mixer and pour in the resistance message ‘Calling
partisans of all nations – shift linguals – cut word lines – vibrate tourists – free
doorways – photo falling – Break through in Grey Room.’ (Burroughs 1966:

“We” are the rebels, fighting against the agents of control, and the
semi-present narrator, Uranian Willy the Heavy Metal Kid, “also
known as Willy the Rat” (Burroughs 1966: 144, also 1992a 58) bears
an uncanny resemblance to Burroughs himself in his position as the
one who finds himself with the task of “storm[ing] the reality studio
and retak[ing] the universe” (108). As Burroughs wrote of Willie the
Rat, “his plan called for total exposure” (144), and the same could
readily be said of Burroughs’ own strategy to attack language and
expose the mechanisms of control. This section, like many others
within the Nova trilogy, recycle material from Burroughs’ previous
works. The phrases “shift linguals”, “vibrate tourists” and “free
doorways” can be traced to an earlier cut-up entitled “Mao Tse: Ta Ta
Kan Kan…. Kan Kan Ta Ta…” which appeared in Minutes To Go
(20), and was itself a cut-up of the poem “Stalin” by Sinclair Bailes
who collaborated on Minutes To Go.
While the galactic battle provides a backdrop throughout the
trilogy, the main story which thematically connects the separate texts
focuses on the idea of language virus as the source of control
mechanisms that keep humanity enslaved. The virus is portrayed as
possessing several distinct personalities or attack paths which
correspond to different facets of the Nova Mob. In The Ticket that
Exploded, the second book, the notion of shifting or variable identities
becomes a recurrent theme as Burroughs explores the ideas of
projecting identities in filmic terms:
Next day a Chinese attendant put Brady through gymnastic positions on rings
and hand-bars — the pictures repeated and cut in with composites of the
attendant — tasting Chinese food the characters like neon on his throat —
Other attendants: American, German, Spanish, Italian, Arab, Negro —
composites of all of the attendants cut in together shifted and permutated
through his body — (Burroughs 1967: 69)

Scenes and cut-up fragments are repeated many times throughout the
book, but with the fragments in variant sequences, as though replaying
the same scene but from a different camera angle (and also analogous
50 Shift Linguals

to Gysin’s permutational techniques) as the Mob’s objective is

revealed: namely to create such a degree of conflict on earth that it
will eventually explode in a supernova. They are close to achieving
this when the Nova Police, an intergalactic counterforce arrives. The
Mob has actually been framed by one of its members, Izzy the Push.
The Nova Police team up with other freedom fighters on Earth, who
include Hassan i Sabah (whose last words, said to be “nothing is true,
everything is permitted” are a recurrent and frequent motto within
Burroughs’ output from the Nova trilogy onwards), and start fighting
back by cutting the word lines which function as mechanisms of
control.16 Ticket continues this description of the “set” but also offers
an initial account of the actual conflict between the Nova Mob and the
partisans. In this instalment of the trilogy, Burroughs fully introduces
the principal antagonist, the double entity called Mr Bradly Mr Martin
who, Murphy observes, “acts as the capo of the Nova Mob, as well as
the Mob’s collective nemesis, the Nova Police” (Murphy 2002b).
The text is again infused with details of Burroughs’ own
methods, but within a fictive context as he tells of “a writing machine
that shifts one half one text and half the other through a page frame of
conveyor belts —” (Burroughs 1967: 65) and continues:
(The proportion of half one text half the other is important corresponding as it
does to the two halves of the human organism) Shakespeare, Rimbaud, etc.,
permutating through page frames in constantly changing juxtaposition the
machine spits out books and plays and poems — The spectators are invited to
feed into the machine any pages of their own text in fifty-fifty juxtaposition
with any author of their choice and pages of their choice and provided with
the result in a few minutes. (Burroughs 1967: 65)

This description of a “writing machine” draws heavily on elements of

science fiction, suggesting as it does an image of a (then) future world
in which even art has become the domain of computers and
machinery, but also aspects of Burroughs’ own vision of the future of
writing. However, it also appears to refer back to Tzara’s “Dadaist
poem” and the performances in which members of the audience
contributed to the random selection of textual fragments, thus

Hassan i Sabah was an eleventh century Persian missionary who led the assassins
and promoted the use of telepathy, assisted by the smoking of marijuana or hashish,
as a means of communication between his people. Sabah became a recurrent point
of reference for both Burroughs and Gysin, appearing in a nuumber of works by
both authors.
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 51

demonstrating the way in which anyone can be “a writer”. Burroughs’

depiction of spectators feeding the machine also reiterates his and
Gysin’s opinion that “cut-ups are for everyone” (which in turn echoes
Lautréamont’s statement that “Poetry must be made by all. Not one”
(1978: 279)). In the section entitled “operation rewrite”, Burroughs
focuses squarely on the theory of “word as virus”, when he writes:
The word may once have been a healthy neutral cell. It is now a parasitic
organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. Modern man
has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to
achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting
organism that forces you to talk. (Burroughs 1967: 48)

Again, the ideas are the same as those discussed in detail in numerous
interviews and essays in which the theory is presented as factually
based. The location of the theory in a fictional context serves to blur
the boundaries between “fact” and “fiction” in a way which challenges
not only the notion of what constitutes fiction, but, in the context of an
ever-shifting narrative in which the idea of “fixed” history is
challenged, draws into question the very notion of a fixed reality.
According to Burroughs, the final trilogy’s volume, Nova
Express, provides the clearest and most accessible statement of the
trilogy’s overall intent. Hassan i Sabbah’s opening “Last Words”
denounce the oppressive reign of the Nova criminals and offer a
magical incantation to “rub out the word forever”, while the following
chapters chronicle the battles between Mob, Police and partisans.
Many sections of Nova Express combine theory with practice, and
attempt to “rub out the word” and “destroy the word lines” of
association by cutting to expose the “true meanings” of the original
Now you are asking me whether I want to perpetuate a narcotics problem
and I say: “Protect the disease. Must be made criminal protecting society from
the disease.”
The problem scheduled in the United States the use of jail, former narcotics
plan, addiction and crime for many years - Broad front “Care” of welfare
agencies - Narcotics which antedate the use of drugs - The fact is noteworthy -
48 stages — prisoner was delayed — has been separated — was required -
Addiction in some form is the basis — must be wholly addicts — Any
voluntary capacity subversion of The Will Capital and Treasury Bank —
infection dedicated to traffic in exchange narcotics demonstrated a Typhoid
Mary who will spread narcotics problem to the United Kingdom — finally in
52 Shift Linguals

view of the cure — cure of the social problem and as such dangerous to
society — (Burroughs 1964: 49)

As Burroughs observes, political speeches proved a particularly fertile

source of exposure through cutting up, commenting that “quite often,
you’ll find that some of the real meanings will emerge. And you’ll
also find that the politician usually means the exact opposite of what
he’s saying” (Lotringer 2001: 262). This passage can be unravelled to
show that it “reveals that the antidrug rhetoric of the fifties and sixties
served merely to cover up the real intention of the government
agencies assigned to tackle the problem: to ‘Protect the Disease’ of
addiction” (Murphy 1997: 106), thus again in Burroughs’ eyes
exposing the “true” meanings of the cut texts. This idea corresponds
with the “algebra of need” principle and Burroughs’ suggestion that
“the police have a vested interest in criminality. The narcotics
department have a vested interest in addiction. Politicians have a
vested interest in nations. Army officers have a vested interest in
war…” (Burroughs & Odier 1974: 61).
Elsewhere, Burroughs cuts up texts from other sources:
“What thinking, William? — Were his eyes — Hurry up please its half your
brain slowly fading — make yourself a bit smart — It’s them couldn’t reach
flesh — Empty walls — Good night, sweet ladies — Hurry up please it’s time
— Look any place — Faces in the violet light — Damp gusts bringing rain—”
Got up and fixed in the sick dusk — Again he touched like that — Smell of
human love — The tears gathered — In Mexico committed fornication but —
Cold spring — besides you say — could give no information —vast Thing
Police — (Burroughs 1964: 103)

While it is not often easy to tell the original sources of each cut-in
phrase, the presentation does expose the intersection of different
“original” texts. The presence of lines more obviously culled from
existing texts penned by others – here in the form of the “hurry up
please it’s time” refrain, cut from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” –
serve to lay bare further the mechanics of the “writing” process for
such passages. Closer inspection reveals this passage to be a cut-up of
“the first great cut-up collage” (Burroughs & Gysin, 1978: 3), with
phrases cut predominantly from sections two and five of “The Waste
Land”. “What thinking” is culled from line 113, while the phrase
“were his eyes” is a fragment of lines 125-6: “I remember / those
pearls that were his eyes” (Eliot 1922: 27). The seemingly abstract
images, “Faces in the violet light” and “damp gusts bringing rain” are
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 53

also both lifted directly from the fifth part of “The Waste Land” (lines
379 and 393-4 respectively). When placed in succession they form a
shifting scene in which the faces and the damp gusts are located
within close physical proximity. One is thus compelled to envisage the
faces as if appearing in the rain, and in doing so, not only is a new
image created from the pre-existing images embedded within the
original text, but a scene is created within a new time / space frame
from the original writing in which the images appear separately,
divided by text and context.
Not only does the inclusion of such phrases, which remain
identifiable even when removed from their original context demystify
the creative process, but also serves to provide the reader with some
form of signposting with regards to the origins of the composites
within the text. Such clear “samples” provide a sort of insight into the
things to which Burroughs may be alluding, intentionally or
otherwise, within the broader scheme of the work. It could equally be
Burroughs’ way of providing an intertextual reference, through which
the essence and even the broader contents of “The Waste Land” are
alluded to within the context of Burroughs’ piece. This line of thought
is supported Genesis P-Orridge’s theoretical “splinter test”, which
takes Burroughs’ contention that “every particle of this universe
contains the whole of the universe” as its starting point:17
No matter how short, or apparently unrecognisable a “sample” might be… it
must, inevitably, contain everything its original context represented,
coumunicated, or touched in any way; on top ov this it must implicitly also
include thee sum total ov every individual in any way connected with its
introduction and construction within thee original (host) culture, and every
subsequent (mutated or engineered) culture it in any way, means or form, has
contact with…[sic passim] (Orridge 1994: 19)

Burroughs would contend that in addition to this mode of

interpretation, the incorporation of such phrases also represents a
straightforward revisioning of the existing texts, an “alternative”
version of “The Waste Land” – creating “new” T. S. Eliot images – or
any other given text.

Burroughs in conversation with Allen Ginsberg, from William Burroughs: The
Movie (dir. Howard Brookner, 1985.)
54 Shift Linguals

The Nova conflict reaches a climax in the penultimate chapter,

“This Horrible Case”, in which the antagonists are brought before the
Biologic Courts for mediation. Lawyers for the parties prepare briefs
for their clients by cutting up passages from the earlier volumes of the
trilogy, along with texts by Kafka and others, in order to find some
hitherto unimaginable solution to the conflict. Again, Burroughs can
be seen both to embed the workings of his writing practices within the
narrative, while also revealing what he believes to be the power the
cut-ups possess; namely to change everything. Before the Court can
rule, however, the partisans’ cut-up counter-attack against the Mob’s
“word lines” of bureaucracy and mass-media chatter succeeds in
cutting the alien virus off from its host bodies, forcing the Nova Mob
to pay back all it had stolen from human life over the millennia of its
secret domination. By interrupting the interminable feedback loop of
language that the Mob used to perpetuate and aggravate conflicts, the
partisans achieve a revolutionary silence and, more importantly, an
escape from the restrictions of binary thought and their physical
bodies. The narrator, who is still some version of Willy the Rat,
relievedly confesses in conclusion that “My writing arm is paralyzed –
No more junk scripts, no more word scripts, no more flesh scripts”
(Burroughs 1992: 178). As at the end of Ticket, the struggle dissolves
into what Ginsberg called “a vibrating soundless hum” (Murphy
2002b) that signifies the partisans’ final escape from the language
The Nova trilogy is a cut-up on more levels than the physical
composite pieces from which it is constructed, existing as a cut-up
beyond the fragmentation of time and space through the use of non-
linear narrative. In its drawing upon a broad range of sources, it
presents as a postmodern amalgamation of various genres. As Murphy
observes, “the generic conventions governing the underlying structure
of the trilogy are drawn from science fiction and, because the aliens
are described in terms of organized crime as the ‘Nova Mob’, from the
hard-boiled detective novel” (2002b).
Burroughs was confident that it was possible to re-educate
readers to read and draw meaning from composite texts, irrespective
of their awareness of their original sources. Even without such
knowledge, and despite the lack of obvious coherence and continuity
between many of the phrases and fragments, such passages are
strangely evocative, and are also lent a distinctly dream-like quality.
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 55

Arguably, cut-up texts bring the reader closer to the subconscious or

dream state than conventional prose writings are capable of, and
Burroughs’ fascination with dreams and his frequent use of his dreams
as sources of inspiration within his writing is widely documented. The
collection of dream diary excerpts, My Education: A Book of Dreams
(1995) also evidences the way Burroughs’ dreams coloured his
narratives, both in terms of style and content. “Dreams are a fertile
source of material for writing”, he wrote (Burroughs 1993: 36).
Years ago I read a book by John Dunne called An Experiment with Time
(1924). Dunne … observed that his dreams referred not only to past but also
to future events. However, the future material, since it often seems trivial and
irrelevant, will not be remembered unless it is written down. This got me into
the habit of writing dreams down, and I have done this for about forty years. I
began writing dreams down long before I started to write. I have, over a
period of years, turned up a number of future references; but much more
important is the number of characters and sets I have obtained directly from
my dreams, and at least forty percent of my material derives from dreams.
(Burroughs 1993: 36)

As techniques designed to reflect the less conscious functions of

memory, the cut-ups, fold-ins and associated typographical
presentations adopted by Burroughs work with a remarkable degree of
success. After all, the mind does have a habit of drawing recollections,
scenes and images to the fore almost at random, or in response to
seemingly obscure triggers. Burroughs recreates in text form the
“internal dialogue” or conscious level of the subconscious which
surfaces so commonly, in which fragments and unassociated phrases
drift at random and repeat themselves in one’s mind. As Burroughs
observed, there is a
…basic nature of language, or symbolic representation, which is actually
concerned not with communication, but with orientation in time: You wake
up. You go to the bank. How many times will you repeat to yourself while
you get ready to leave for the bank, “I have to go to the bank to go to the bank
the bank the bank….” (Giorno 1994: 2)

This functions in a way which corresponds with the repetitions and

permutations explored by Burroughs and Gysin. It is interesting to
note the way in which this internal method of orientation is
constructed through the use of words, in that it highlights the degree to
which language controls our everyday lives, our very thoughts and
movements. These repetitions are wholly embedded by cognitive
56 Shift Linguals

preconditioning within the human thought mechanism. Burroughs

continues: “the audience recognises this seemingly senseless
repetition as part of their own mental processes – ‘our minds sound
just like that.’ …the function of art is to make us aware of what we
know and don’t know that we know” (Giorno 1994: 2-3). Lydenberg
suggests that cut-up passages can “produce images of intense clarity, a
perception beyond the limits of conventional seeing” (1987: 64), while
Burroughs argued that “Cut-ups make explicit a psycho-sensory
process that is going on all the time anyway” (Lotringer 2001: 67). He
continues, “somebody is reading a newspaper, and his eye follows the
column in the proper Aristotelian manner… but subliminally he is
reading the columns on either side and is aware of the person sitting
next to him” (67).
The juxtaposition of unrelated images, freed from the context of
narrative which locates them in terms of time and place and links them
to “characters” or a specific plot-line creates a text to which
individuals can respond more directly and more personally – or, to use
Burroughs’ term, invites “creative reading” (1993: 37). Conventional
narratives, concerned with characterisation, plot, time, place and the
lineal sequentialising of events, by their nature, are constructed with
the author’s personal associations with particular words implicitly
embedded within their very fabric. With cut-ups, however, the reader
does not have to interact with these preordained authorial associations,
and can instead bring their own word-associations to the text: indeed,
the text demands it. Such is the nature of perception: one reader’s
mind’s-eye image of “empty walls” may differ greatly from another’s.
The presentation of fragmented speech and images resulting from
cutting up is perhaps the closest any author has come to replicating the
fragmented nature of dreamscapes and the ceaseless internal dialogue.
Thus, Burroughs’ work is intended to tap into the psyche of the
individual reader, and connect with the subconscious, affecting the
reader, as Graham Caveney puts it, “almost by a sort of osmosis”
(1988: 18). Through the reading of these composite texts, the reader
can indeed become aware of what they know but don’t know that they
know. The cut-ups function by infiltrating the levels of subconscious,
making us aware of those things we know and don’t know we know,
and by triggering recollections by literal déjà-vu, or perhaps more
accurately, déjà-lu.
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 57

Aware that he would be accused of being intentionally obscure

and creating purposefully inaccessible writing, Burroughs defended
the merits of the cut-ups by reiterating what he believed to be a
writer’s function, or duty, stating, “I feel that a writer should be
comprehensible to any intelligent reader… But what does any writer
do but choose, edit and rearrange words at his disposal?” (Hibbard
1999: 15). Burroughs sought to edit and rearrange the words at his
disposal in a way which would reflect ‘real’ life”. He did not believe
that continuous narrative was capable of achieving such a reflection.
While an individual’s actions may follow a simple chronology, events
overall do not: things happen simultaneously, and in different
locations. Those lines of time and location are distorted by real-time
communication by such means as telephone and television, which can
temporarily connect different time-zones and countries, even bridging
periods of history. Letters, on the other hand, have an effective time
delay. The idea that events can be charted by means of a simple
chronological timeline is further discredited when thoughts and
recollections, as well as dreams, can occur completely at random and
in a fragmentary manner. Burroughs believed that the cut-ups had the
capacity to reflect all of this a great deal more accurately than a
narrative thread which has a single continuous chronology imposed
upon it. Returning to his analogy between writing and painting,
Burroughs notes that representational painting had largely been
superceded by collage, since “painters had the whole representational
position knocked out from under them by photography” (1993: 60).
This he saw as quite a positive development in the function of art, and
hoped to imbue the written medium with the same capacity to reflect
life as he explained in detail:
…montage is actually much closer to the facts of perception than
representational painting. Take a walk down a city street and put what you
have just seen down on canvas. You have seen half a person cut in two by a
car, bits and pieces of street signs and advertisements, reflections from shop
windows – a montage of fragments. And the same thing happens with
words… written word is an image…. Representational painting is dead…
Nobody paints cows in the grass anymore. Montage is an old device in
painting. But if you apply montage method to writing, you are accused of
promulgating a cult of unintelligibility. Writing is still confined in the
sequential representational straitjacket of the novel… Consciousness is a cut-
up; life is a cut up. Every time you walk down the street, your stream of
consciousness is cut by random factors. (1993: 61)
58 Shift Linguals

Burroughs thus acknowledges the fact that randomness is always

questionable. If consciousness is subject to random factors, so
randomness is subject to the imposition of subconscious processes. In
writing, the selection of source materials and the points at which a text
is cut is only as random as the author’s subconscious will allow.
Recordings of Burroughs reading of his own uncut prose reveal
a distinct natural rhythm, and even a sense of meter in terms of
emphases and stressed syllables, much of which is as spontaneous or
automatic as controlled or intentional. It was the rhythmic quality of
speech patterns which would partly inform some of the other
directions in which he would subsequently take the cut-up
experiments, with the assistance of Gysin and a number of other
collaborators, notably Anthony Balch.

Beyond the Written Word: Cut-Ups in Other Media

Shortly after Gysin’s discovery of the cut-ups and permutations, the

techniques came to be applied to the recorded word in the same way
as to the written word. While Burroughs credited Gysin with being the
first to take this “obvious” step, the conducting of the experiments was
most definitely a matter of collaboration, as he variously detailed:
We went on to exploit the potentials of the tape recorder: cut up, slow down,
speed up, run backwards, inch the tape, play several tracks at once, cut back
and forth between two recorders. As soon as you start experimenting with
slowdowns, speedups, overlays, etc., you will get new words that were not on
the original recordings. There are then many ways of producing words and
voices on tape that did not get there by the usual recording procedure, words
and voices that are quite definitely and clearly recognizable by a consensus of
listeners. (1993: 53)

While many would suggest that it is very easy for a listener to be

convinced they are able to hear distinct words from background noise,
etc., Burroughs was keen to demonstrate that the sounds audible on
some of these tape recorder experiments were not simply random
noises which sounds like words, but that there was a regulated method
involved in the production of these recordings that allowed for actual
words to be recorded. As with the cut-ups, Burroughs explained the
origins and purpose behind the experiments in depth:
The first tape recorder cut-ups were a simple extension of cut-ups on paper.
You record, say, ten minutes on the recorder. Then you spin the reel
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 59

backwards or forwards without recording. Stop at random and cut in a phrase.

How random is random? We know so much that we don’t consciously know
we know, that perhaps the cut-in was not random. Of course this procedure on
the tape recorder produces new words by altered juxtaposition just as new
words are produced by cut-ups on paper. (1993: 53)

These experiments were as much influenced by the works of Latvian

psychologist Konstantin Raudive, who believed quite concretely in the
notion of the radio as a literal medium, as by Gysin or anyone from
the sphere of the arts. Raudive used radio and tape to capture what he
believed were the voices of the dead speaking in polyglot through the
static, much as a shortwave radio might transfuse language through a
trick of the ionosphere. As Myke Weiskopf (2006) observes,
Raudive’s experiments “provided one context for Burroughs’ own
tape work”. More importantly, Burroughs’ and Raudive’s works
“often produced the same discomfiting psychic effects” (Wieskopf
2006). Weiskopf cites Burroughs’ “massive, thirteen-reel project, The
Space-Time Continuum, [which] amalgamated shortwave, voice, and
found-sound sources in a dense and unremitting collage that lasted for
nearly twelve hours” as evidence. This project has never been made
commercially available, but was featured as part of the ‘Space-Time’
exhibition at the National Glass Centre, Sunderland (UK) which ran
from April to September in 2009.
Raudive’s experiments are detailed in Breakthrough: An
Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communication with the Dead
(published in German in 1968, and in English in 1971), and the
similarities between some of the unexpected and rather unusual results
of Burroughs’ audio experiments and Raudive’s are noteworthy, as
Burroughs details in the essay “It Belongs to the Cucumbers”. Here,
he discusses Raudive’s tape recorder experiments, which entailed the
placing of a tape recorder and microphone in various environments,
from a normal room to a soundproof studio, using a new blank tape,
which was then allowed to record. When the tape was played back,
“quite recognizable voices and words were found to be recorded on
the tape” (Burroughs 1993: 52). Raudive used five different methods
of recording: microphone; radio; radio-microphone; frequency-
transmitter; diode, and demonstrated each of these in public on a
number of occasions. The benefits of each of the methods of
recording, as well as the circumstances and results of the
demonstrations, are detailed in Breakthrough. Raudive recorded over
60 Shift Linguals

100,000 phrases, and reported that “the voices can be distinguished

from noises emanating from different sources in the atmosphere,” and
that “these consistently repeated, unmistakable features are a
safeguard against psycho-acoustic deception and freakish radio sounds
(Raudive 1971: 3). Many of these appear in transcription in
Breakthrough, while some sample recordings also appear on the 7”
vinyl record which accompanies some copies of the book. According
to Raudive, “they speak in an unmistakable rhythm and usually
employ several languages in a single sentence; the sentence-
construction obeys rules that differ radically from those of ordinary
speech” (1971: 27-8). He also observed that the recorded speech is
almost double the usual speed, and the sound is pulsed in rhythms like
poetry or chanting. The voices are in “a number of accents and
languages, quite often ungrammatical” (Burroughs 1993: 54).
Burroughs, however, rejects Raudive’s conclusion that these are the
voices of the dead, but from “sophisticated electronic equipment”,
which “belongs probably to the cucumbers” (1993: 52). “Cucumbers”,
Burroughs theorises, is a term used to refer to the CIA. Time or
Newsweek referred to the CIA as “the pickle factory”, and Burroughs
drew the connection from the phrase “You belong probably to the
cucumbers” which appeared in Breakthrough. He substantiated this
claim by citing experiments conducted in Norway which

...indicated that voices could be projected directly into the brain of the subject
by an electromagnetic field around the head. The experiments were at a
formative stage at the time. So maybe we are all walking around under a
magnetic dome of prerecorded word and image, and Raudive and other
experimenters are simply plugging in to the prerecording. (1993: 59)

This provided Burroughs with one of the motivations for his own
experiments, as he pondered the possible outcomes: “could you, by
cutting up, overlaying, scrambling, cut and nullify the prerecordings
of your own future? Could the whole prerecorded future of the human
race be nullified or altered? I don’t know – let’s see” (1993: 59).
Raudive also explicitly suggested that others should replicate
his experiments for themselves. He writes:
The existence of the voices is established through the sense of hearing;
methodic repetition then makes deciphering and checking possible. The voice-
phenomenon is autonomous, as far as the listener is concerned… Anybody
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 61

can study it and, by fulfilling certain preconditions, take up contact with it.
(1971: 21)

By replicating some of Raudive’s conditions, Burroughs was

attempting to “plug into the prerecording”, and expose the subliminal
devices being employed by the agents of control, while
simultaneously seeking to discover the literal subtext of his own
words. By adjusting the playback by various means, the unspoken
words become audible and recognisable.
The publication of Breakthrough caused considerable dissent,
with many declaring this kind of influence “dangerous” (1993: 57).
Burroughs questions this “danger” by asking, “dangerous to whom
exactly? When people start talking about the danger posed by making
psychic knowledge available to the masses, they are generally trying
to monopolize this knowledge for themselves. In my opinion, the best
safeguard against such abuse of knowledge is widespread
dissemination” (1993: 57). He detailed the political climate which
supposedly legitimised the widespread suppression of information,
The cold war is used as a pretext by both America and Russia to conceal and
monopolize research confining knowledge to official agencies. It is no
exaggeration to say that all important research is now top secret, until
someone lets a rat out of the bag. (Burroughs & Odier 1974: 61-62)

Burroughs thus cast himself in the role of whistleblower. The

inclusion of detailed “scientific” instructions for the replication of his
experiments within his work serves to enable others to replicate his
techniques, and the knowledge becomes freely available to all. It is
perhaps interesting to note, then, that Raudive’s book has never been
reprinted. While on the face of it, Burroughs’ claim that the
suppression of information is rife appears to be founded, in actual fact
the initial print run failed to sell, and copies are still available from the
publisher almost forty years on.18

This was confirmed in an email to me dated 26th June 2010 from publisher Colin
Smythe. In an interesting recent development, the film White Noise, released
January 2005, focuses on ‘EVP’ or Electronic Voice Phenomenon in a (largely
inaccurate) dramatisation based on Raudive’s theories. Although the scientific
background to EVP is briefly outlined, no mention of Raudive’s work – or any
other specific research – is made.
62 Shift Linguals

As with the cut-ups on paper, the recorded experiments enjoyed

varying degrees of success. The “throat microphone experiment”
conducted circa 1965 is one example of a less than successful
experiment. While the intention was to record sub-vocal speech by
holding a microphone against the throat while talking, the end result
was simply “some interesting noises” according to the sleeve notes to
Nothing Here Now But the Recordings (1981). Despite this,
Burroughs maintained that sub-vocal speech does occur, but that the
equipment available at the time was inadequate to capture this on tape.
Burroughs’ likening of the fold-in method to the making of
music through the “repetition and rearrangements of musical themes”
(Hibbard 1999: 15) has an even closer analogy to the application of
the techniques to the recorded word. The verbal phrases take on an
almost musical nature of their own, with tone, pitch, resonance and
rhythm all providing facets not present in the written word. The
simple cutting and splicing of recorded phrases to create new phrases,
which can be repeated in a musical fashion, can be seen as the
precursor of the technique known as “sampling” which is commonly
used in contemporary music. The basic premise of sampling is that
one takes a segment, or “sample”, from an existing recording and
incorporates it within a new recording. Samples can range from a
single drum beat to entire sections of music, and are as likely to be
drawn from films, in the form of snippets of dialogue, as from other
songs and musical pieces. The principle of sampling is very much in
keeping with Burroughs’ pro-plagiaristic views on “art” and
Although his recordings added considerably to the exploration
of his theories of the cut-ups and their merits, they were not intended
for public consumption. It was not until 1981 that any of Burroughs’
recording experiments were made publicly available, although in this
instance their suppression was not dictated by any “agent of
The multimedia dimension of the cut-ups has been significant in
their subsequent evolution, and given Gysin’s multimedia approach to
creativity and the fact that he and Burroughs attempted to expand the
use of the method beyond the written word is illustrative of their belief

The first selection of Burroughs’ recorded experiments appeared on the LP Nothing
Here Now But the Recordings (Industrial Records, 1981), compiled with
Burroughs’ consent by Genesis P. Orridge of Throbbing Gristle.
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 63

in its applicability to various other media, most notably film and

audio. Although these areas were touched on by Burroughs and Gysin
both independently and in collaboration, other artists working more
exclusively in those fields can be seen to have applied the method in
varying ways and to varying extents within their outputs. Anne
Friedberg’s observation that “the ‘cut-up’ technique offers an implicit
analogy to film editing” (Skerl & Lydenberg 1991: 171) becomes
particularly salient when considering the work of Anthony Balch.
Born in Britain in 1937, Balch was a director of commercials before
becoming involved in experimental film-making during the early
1960s, and through his acquaintance with Burroughs and Gysin,
whom he first encountered at the Beat Hotel, became a significant
figure in the application of the cut-up technique to film. The
programme for the Tate Britain exhibition “A Century of Artists’ Film
in Britain” (19 May – 10 August, 2003) comments that “Balch
handled an eclectic mix of art cinema and sexploitation films”, and
that “he collaborated with Burroughs on several released short films
and private film experiments”.20 It is for these collaborative works he
is best known. The films, which include The Cut-Ups, Towers Open
Fire, William Buys a Parrot, Bill and Tony and Ghosts at No. 9 were
shot between 1966 and 1969.
As Burroughs observed, “cut-ups have been used in film for a
long time. In fact films are assembled in the cutting room. Like the
painter film technicians can touch and handle their medium move
pieces of it around and try out new juxtapositions” (Burroughs &
Odier 1974: 30). Burroughs’ first foray into film making with Balch
yielded The Cut-Ups (1966). An 18-minute audio-visual collage
featuring a cast consisting solely of Burroughs and Gysin, it features
seemingly randomly-shot street scenes cut in between shots of
Burroughs and Gysin, independently and together, in a range of
different settings, while an unconnected, dual-voiced permutational
audio track runs concurrently with the rapidly-changing images. There
is a sense of narrative continuity to the images – of sorts: the scenes of
Gysin painting and Burroughs packing a suitcase are rapidly cut and
are interspersed with images of Gysin’s dream machine and of Gysin

This document is reproduced online at (consulted
19 June 2006).
64 Shift Linguals

being examined by Burroughs playing the role of a doctor, but do,

fragmentarily, show the painting develop from a plain roll of paper to
a completed calligraphic work, and Burroughs’ suitcase being filled
before he leaves his hotel room. Thus, the narratives, rather than being
entirely unconnected and wholly random, are effectively presented
simultaneously while cut by ‘random’ factors, addressing the problem
of how to present simultaneous events within the same time bracket.
The audio track, however, is an altogether different matter, with both
Burroughs and Gysin repeating the same phrases – “yes, hello”, “look
at that picture”, “good”, “does it seem to be persisting?” “where are
we now?”, “fine”, “thank you”, and “how does it seem to you now?” –
with different inflections and intonations, and at different speeds.21
There are always two simultaneous sound-tracks at any given time
during the film: sometimes these come together to create almost an
echo effect as both voices say “hello” in perfect unison, and when
repeated, sounds almost chant-like, while at others there are entirely
different phrases being spoken to create the effect of an extremely
dislocated dialogue. The overall effect is disorientating, an
overloading of the senses as the viewer struggles to make sense and
order of the rapid changes in visual and audio content. And yet in
many ways, this effect is surprising, in that it does offer a closer
reflection of “real life”, the bombardment of movement and sound –
traffic, overheard conversations, etc., – one experiences while simply
walking down the street.
However closely The Cut-Ups adheres to the principal of
Burroughs and Gysin’s written – and recorded – experiments, Murphy
contends that Bill and Tony was the closest Burroughs (and Balch)
came to “realizing [the] integral form of the cut-up” (Schneiderman &
Walsh 2004: 39), that Burroughs wrote of in The Ticket that Exploded:
What we see is determined to a large extent by what we hear you can verify
on this proposition by a simple experiment turn off the sound track on your
television set and substitute an arbitrary sound track prerecorded on your tape
recorder street sounds music conversation recordings of other television
programs you will find that the arbitrary sound track seems appropriate and
is in fact determining your interpretation of the film track… (Burroughs 1967:

Murphy devotes several pages to the discussion of these films, and covers both the
theoretical and technical aspects of them in more detail than is necessary here.
The Origin and Theory of the Cut-Ups 65

The film Bill and Tony achieves this feat by the showing the speaking
heads of Burroughs and Balch swapping names and voices, “and in
the process becom[ing] one another” (Schneiderman & Walsh 2004:
40), creating a third mind / body of sorts. This process of
amalgamation not only serves to alter the viewers’ perception by
switching the sound track in relation to the film track, and thus
altering the connection of a given narrative to a given character, but
also returns once more to challenging the notion of fixed authorship.
By interchanging the characters – their identities and their narratives –
fixed authorship is lost, replaced by a shifting author identity,
presenting words not “owned” by anyone, but unshackled of their
ownership to become simply words.
Whatever the impact of other avant-garde artists in various
media, ranging from Cage’s experiments and their influence on
modern musical composition, or the effect of Balch’s approach to
film-making on modern cinema, there is no doubt that the greatest
source of impact on any media stems from Burroughs’ dissemination
of the cut-ups, and for this reason I shall be focusing on Burroughs as
the leading source of dispersal of the method in this study. By
whatever means this dispersal has occurred, the impact of the cut-ups
has been both broad and deep. As Ward notes, the influence of “the
cut-ups and other aspects of Burroughs’ work has been immense”
(Mengham 1999: 120). Thus far I have shown the starting point of the
cut-ups, and by detailing the different ways Burroughs applied the
technique in its early stages, I have shown the method’s flexibility. As
such, I have demonstrated that the cut-ups had great potential for
development and adaptation. In the next chapter, I will look at how
Claude Pélieu, John Giorno and Carl Weissner exploited that
potential, and applied the cut-up method in their own writing.
Specifically, I will explore the ways in which each of these authors
introduced new elements to the technique and continued to extend its
Chapter Two

Early Successors: Pélieu, Giorno, Weissner

In his quest to revolutionise the narrative form, Burroughs produced

cut-ups prolifically, and sought publication wherever possible.
Paralleling the strategy of Willie the Rat against the Nova Mob, whose
“plan called for total exposure” (Burroughs 1970: 144), Burroughs
strove to obtain maximum exposure for his revolutionary technique
and, simultaneously, to expose the mechanisms of language and its
manipulators. Oliver Harris notes “Burroughs’ remarkable
commitment to small press publications throughout the cut-up
decade”, and cites Burroughs’ telling Ginsberg in 1960 that his “best
bets were ‘no-paying far-out experimental magazines… like Yugen
and Kulchur’” (Schneiderman & Walsh 2004: 180). This “seizing of
one’s means of literary production” (Davidson 1997: 179) was
integral to Burroughs’ strategy for the spreading of the virus, so to
speak, as it facilitated a wider distribution – albeit at an almost
underground level – of cut-up texts to readers. Burroughs made nearly
two dozen contributions to My Own Mag alone between 1964 and
1966, while also producing numerous pamphlets and contributing to
many other avant-garde magazines.
In many ways, Burroughs’ use of magazines published
independently and on a small scale is representative of the cultural
backdrop against which these experimental texts were produced.
Following from the development of the underground press in the
1950s that grew as “a response to the social indifference and
journalistic vacuum at the end of the silent generation of the 1950s”
(Glessing 1971: 13), the 1960s saw an explosion in underground press
magazines, aided by contemporary developments in publishing
technology. Indeed, Glessing devotes an entire chapter to “the graphic
revolution”, which was driven by the advent of “inexpensive, easy-to-
operate cold type composition equipment’ and the subsequent growth
68 Shift Linguals

of offset printing” (41). Hallucinogenic drugs were spawning a social

revolution of sorts, and as a reaction against the rapid expansion of
capitalism following the post-war lull, many, particularly those in the
US opposed to the “unpopular and frustrating” Vietnam war (Glessing
1971: 25), were growing disenfranchised by mainstream culture and
politics and choosing to protest peacefully and to voice their opinions
by alternative means. Rodney Phillips explains that literary magazines
enabled fledgling writers “to have a voice – and one that allowed a
greater freedom of expression than a mainstream publisher would”
(Feldman 2005).1 This marks a shift in the balance of publishing
power, with writers reclaiming the means of production and
circulation for themselves. Diana Laurenson (1972: 142) observes that
in the twentieth century, “the growth of the paperback industry has
been called a revolution”. But such a revolution is as much
commercial as cultural, and although Laurenson is concerned with
“the sociology of literature”, she grants no coverage to the social
significance of the underground press.2 It would, however, be fair to
say that pamphlets and magazines represent the real revolution, both
in literary and publishing terms, especially during the 1960s. As Gayle
Feldman notes, “the nation’s independent presses and smaller literary
magazines have played crucial roles within the publishing macrocosm
and the culture as a whole. Unfortunately this contribution has all too
often gone unrecognized”. (2005)
Books like Robert Glessing’s The Underground Press in
America (1971), which gives a detailed history of the development of
independent magazines go some way toward redressing the balance,
but are in the minority. This seems a curious anomaly, given the
avant-garde credentials of the publications and the authors who appear
in them, and yet they receive little to no academic or critical attention.

Phillips is the curator of the Berg literature collection at the New York Public
Library. Quoted by Gayle Feldman, “Independent Presses and ‘Little’ Magazines in
American Culture: A Forty-Year Retrospective” online at: (consulted 3 February 2007).
Laurenson provides numerous tables of statistics which illustrate the increase in
production and sales of paperback fiction. Such figures will, of course, be
unavailable for magazines and private / small-scale publishers, although volumes
and sales figures are not correspondent with social or artistic importance.
Early Successors 69

Although seemingly representative of the type of social and cultural

fragmentation critics like Jameson consider to be symptomatic of
postmodern culture, many of the small press magazines that were
appearing from the mid 1960s onwards were a direct reaction against
the logic of late capitalism. Glessing contends that the underground
press was borne out of “the frustration of static social and political
institutions” and the “dilemma of a twentieth century technology
strapped with seventeenth century institutions” (1971: 12). The
proliferation of the underground press was not a sign of the “false
resolution of the dilemmas of modernism” (Baker 2000: 50) or the
absolute commodification of art Eagleton would suggest. Nor is it a
simple cultural reflection of late capital as Jameson identifies.
Jameson firmly aligns postmodernism with late capitalism, calling it
a periodizing concept whose function is to correlate the emergence of new
formal features in culture with the emergence of a new form of social life and
a new economic order – what is often euphemistically called modernization,
postindustrial or consumer society, the society of the media or the spectacle,
or multinational capitalism. (1998: 3)

Instead, the underground press functioned as a reaction against all of

these things; the superabundance of information and mass media, the
control of society and culture by capitalist corporations.3 Such a
dislocated, disparate mode of art and culture cannot therefore be
summarised adequately through the most mainstream examples of its
The late 1960s saw a fragmented counterculture achieving a
high profile and the hippie way of life was growing in popularity, with
New York City and San Francisco proving to be what Feldman (2005)
refers to as “counterculture meccas”, where “magazine start-ups were
especially prolific”. Significant publications during these years
included: The Floating Bear; Zero to Nine; Fuck You: A Magazine of
the Arts; and Hanging Loose, which began in Brooklyn in 1966 and
still exists. In 1967, the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) was
formed at the instigation of the publisher of another early paper, the
East Village Other, founded in 1965 by poet Allan Katzman, painter

Glessing highlights the fact that “Helix in Seattle, the Great Speckled Bird in
Atlanta, and Other Scenes and Rat in New York City ran center spreads and four
page features… on ‘How to Survive In the System,’ ‘How to Turn On Without
Dropping Out,’ and ‘How to Follow the Youth Movement’” (1971: 46).
70 Shift Linguals

Walter Bowart and journalist John Wilcock. The UPS allowed

member papers to freely reprint content from any of the other member
papers. Other prominent underground papers included the San
Francisco Oracle, the Berkeley Barb and Berkeley Tribe; Fifth Estate;
The Helix; The Chicago Seed; The Great Speckled Bird; The Rag; Rat
Subterranean News (later Women’s LibeRATion), and The
Fruit Cup No. Zero (Beach Books, 1969) provides a fascinating
document of the contemporary avant-garde, collecting as it does the
works of many notable writers and demonstrating the multimedia
approach that was growing in popularity. The San Francisco
Earthquake also proved to be a particularly noteworthy channel for
the publication of works by many renowned countercultural writers.
Lasting five issues, Earthquake’s contributors included Burroughs,
Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Carl Weissner, Claude Pélieu,
Norman Mustill, Ed Sanders, Jan Herman, Roy Litchensteien, Dick
Higgins, Sinclair Beiles, Harold Norse, Ed Ruscha, Michael McClure,
Frank O’Hara, Janine Pommy-Vega, Charles Plymell and many more.
Klacto 23 (also known as Klacto/23 Special) was another significant
publication. Edited and published by Carl Weissner, who would go on
to become one of the foremost translators of American avant-garde
writings in Germany, (although an author in his own right, Weissner is
perhaps best known for his translations of the works of Charles
Bukowski, and more recently, works by J. G. Ballard amongst others),
it was published in September 1967, and featured poetry and cut-up
writings by Burroughs, Ginsberg, Pélieu, Norse, Mary Beach, Gerard
Malanga, Diane di Prima, Charles Bukowski, Jeff Nuttall, Henri
Chopin, and many others.
As Rodney Phillips states, many little magazines were founded
“as a matter of connection between poets, friends and lovers”
(Feldman 2005). He adds, “there was a lot of heart and soul to it.
They’d print a couple of hundred copies of each issue and invite
friends over for a collating party, thinking they could change the
world” (Feldman 2005). Revolutionary zeal was therefore a great
motivator in the spawning of the “underground press”, which

Glessing also lists many additional underground titles, and includes a 12-page
directory of Underground Magazines in The Underground Press in America.
Early Successors 71

borrowed the name from previous underground presses such as the

Dutch underground press during the Nazi occupations of the 1940s.5
Parke Puterbaugh observes that “certain of the Beats –
especially Ginsberg, McClure and Gary Snyder – provided direct
mentoring to the embryonic counterculture” which “fully blossomed
in San Francisco from 1965 to 1967” (George-Warren 1999: 359).
Although Burroughs retained some distance between himself and the
counterculture and shared few of the hippie ideals Ginsberg espoused
(Ginsberg encouraged people to make peace with his neighbour, and
to offer a police officer a flower, to which Burroughs countered “the
only way I’d like to see a policeman given a flower is in a flowerpot
from a high window” (Miles 1992: 13), he clearly saw the
underground press as a vital tool in his own revolutionary endeavours.
As Harris writes, “Burroughs’s hopes for the underground press were
to generalize the incendiary intentions he had had for his first cut-up
pamphlets”. (Schneiderman & Walsh 2004: 179-80) He substantiates
this by citing a letter dating from the summer of 1960 to publisher
Dave Hazelwood concerning The Exterminator (1960), the follow-up
to Minutes To Go: “I think you realize how explosive the material is
[…] Are you willing and able to publish – To put it in the street?
Please answer at once. Minutes to go believe me” (180).
“To put it in the street” was vital to Burroughs’ strategy for
the cut-up assault on the invisible forces of control, and supported by
his frequent statement that “cut-ups are for everyone” (Burroughs &
Gysin 1978: 31), the technique did indeed spread. This was due in no
small part to Burroughs’ own involvement in the propagation of the

“The term underground press was borrowed from secret presses produced during the
Second World War. During Nazi occupations in Holland and France, resistance
groups published underground newspapers as alternatives to official propagandist
news sources. In German camps, prisoners of war produced the publication Pow
Wow, an acronym for Prisoners of War Waiting On Winning. Pow Wow was a daily
bulletin containing news about the war gathered from smuggled newspapers and
radios. The publication helped to keep prisoners informed about the world outside
the camps. These publications were illegal, and were produced, distributed and read
at enormous risk. Editions of Pow Wow carried the message: to be read silently,
quickly and in groups of three”. Online at:
roundpress.html (consulted 3 February 2007). See also for a history and digital reproductions of
Pow Wow.
72 Shift Linguals

technique and the active encouragement of the use of the method by

other authors. Indeed, many other authors would follow his lead,
creating their own cut-up texts.6 Many of these texts would themselves
appear in small-press magazines, again highlighting the nature of the
“resistance” network that the method promoted.7
Thus the cut-ups were not simply a device of experimentation,
but a means of engaging with cultural and social issues which
extended beyond the confines of literary endeavour. Despite his
avowed apolitical stance, Burroughs was immersed in the
development of a literary approach which connected directly with the
contemporary social, cultural and political climate. This places his
work within what Diana Laurenson calls a “remarkable output” of
American writing that she considers “fertile for sociological analysis”
(1972: 164), due to its direct engagement with contemporary social,
cultural and political issues. She also cites Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti
as other significant writers in this area.
The second issue of The San Francisco Earthquake (1968)
featured cut-up texts not only by Burroughs, Weissner and Pélieu, but
also texts by Liam O’Gallagher and Lawrence Ferlinghetti which, if
not actual cut-ups, closely resemble composite texts, with
O’Gallagher’s “RELEASE, 2nd RELEASE, 3rd RELEASE” being
clearly compiled from various sources.8

Harris notes that “Burroughs solicited both correspondence and creative
collaborations from his readership and it was… through The Moving Times that he
began his substantial cut-up collaborations with Claude Pélieu and Carl Weissner…
The new channels offered by the alternative press… confirmed the importance of
the mode of publication to Burroughs’ development and promotion of cut-up
methods – and, hence, their instrumental value for the political goal of recruiting
other practitioners” (Schneiderman & Walsh 2004: 180-81).
Cut Up or Shut Up (Paris: Argentzia, 1972), was a three-way collaboration between
Carl Weissner, Jürgen Ploog and Jan Herman, which included a preface of sorts by
Burroughs. This introduction, “Tickertape” runs across the tops of the pages.
Michael McClure’s contribution, “Muscled Apple Swift” incorporates various
permutations, while Burroughs’ contributions are a revised version of “Salt Chunk
Mary”, a piece that first appeared in The Soft Machine and would later appear in
another rewritten form in The Place of Dead Roads, and “Last Awning Flaps on the
Pier”. Weissner contributes cut-ups entitled “that old PANlite Prism Con The Orion
Dream Stuff (fragment)” and “Say Unsay”. Pélieu contributes a cut-up in three
parts entitled “Interactioninteractioninteraction”, which draws phrases from Breton,
Lautréamont, Joyce, Celine and So Who Owns Death TV?
Early Successors 73

. . .due to a joint operation and plastic protection
RANGER was talked into sending back some
samples of the MOON . . . without Union in-
structions . . . and no regard for anybody . . .
although samples revealed SOME similarity . . .
to illuminate the FORM would require an ampli-
fier (MEMORY that was self-cooled . . . a fan9

As with many of Burroughs’ cut-ups, “RELEASE” both draws from

newspapers and the popular media and also mimics aspects of these
sources, with the use of “headlines”. The juxtaposition of science with
news reportage, common in Burroughs’ cut-ups, is in evidence in the
references to the moon and “space agency”. The unconnected phrases
“without Union instructions” “and no regard for anybody”, when
placed in succession and within the overall context of the verse,
acquire “new” meaning with reference to the collection of moon
samples and a lunar mission. Works like this, which are not only
comparable to the early cut-ups by Burroughs and Gysin in terms of
style, but also in terms of content, serve to lend the evolving cut-up
canon a distinct stylistic and lexical unity.
1968 saw the republication Minutes To Go by Beach Books.
Prior to this, Beach Books had republished Burroughs’ essay-
pamphlet Health Bulletin: APO-33, A Metabolic Regulator (1965,
1966), providing a new momentum to the circulation of the cut ups.
The same publisher was also responsible for the assembly and
publication of the collaborative pamphlet, So Who Owns Death TV?
(1967) which comprised a short text each by Burroughs, Claude
Pélieu and Carl Weissner.10 Burroughs’ untitled contribution to the
pamphlet is in many ways representative of his works from this period
– or at least of his shorter experimental texts, some of which would
later be collected in The Third Mind (1978), and, later still, The
Burroughs File (1984). The text is a cut-up assembly composed
largely from Burroughs’ own texts, including the first cut-ups from

Liam O’ Gallagher, “RELEASE,2nd RELEASE, 3rd RELEASE” The San Francisco
Earthquake Vol. 1 No. 2, p. 67.
Originally published as a 16-page edition 1967, So Who Owns Death TV? Was
reprinted in a 20-page edition which included two pages of photographic collages
later the same year. I have used the second edition in this study.
74 Shift Linguals

Minutes To Go. As a consequence, phrases emerge with a strange

sense of familiarity: “the Baron says these angelblich – ich sterbe –
they were drafter” (Burroughs et al 1967: 15).11 One section of the
sequence is laid out in columns, and again incorporates phrases from
other previous cut-ups: “Towers Open Fire a long time ago. (smoke
shreds of phosphorescent flesh” (Burroughs et al 1967: 17). It also
explores Burroughs’ preoccupations of the cut-up period, here
emblematised by the ubiquitous “death TV” which provides a
thematic link between the pamphlet’s three texts.
The contributions made by Pélieu and Weissner are also of
interest in that they demonstrate the directions other authors began to
take the cut-ups, although So Who Owns Death TV? marked only the
beginnings of the ways in which these two authors would develop the
method. Meanwhile, John Giorno, a friend of Burroughs and Gysin,
would take the premise of the method and incorporate his variation on
the technique within his poetry, marking a new phase in the history of
the cut-ups.

Claude Pélieu: Cutting Up Character

Born in 1934 in France, Claude Pélieu began his career as an artist in

1950s Paris. Largely self-taught, he was greatly influenced by Marcel
Duchamp, Max Ernst and Kurt Schwitters.12 His first show was in
Paris at the Galerie du Haut Pave. As the Enderin Gallery’s pamphlet
for the 2003 exhibition of the works of Claude Pélieu and Mary Beach
notes, the Galerie “was, and still is, known as one of the foremost
Parisian venues for talented young artists and was, in Claude’s time,
under the purview of Raoul Dufy and Henri Matisse”.13
In 1962, Claude met Mary Beach, and they soon relocated to
San Francisco following the exchange of correspondence between

This originally appeared in Minutes to Go as “Had a book he gave out… Ich
Sterbe… they were drafted. Marks fourth day… English governess for child
exuding charm” (26).
Source: Online at: (consulted 6 June
The text for this exhibition pamphlet is reproduced on the Enderin gallery’s website
at: (consulted 6 June 2006).
Early Successors 75

themselves and Allen Ginsberg, and having received further

encouragement from Lawrence Ferlinghetti. On arrival they became
involved in the West Coast art scene, and developed friendships and
creative associations with Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and Plymell. In the
late 1960s they left for New York City, where they lived and worked
for several years, residing for a time at the Chelsea Hotel, becoming
friends and collaborators with numerous writers and artists including
Burroughs, Ed Sanders, Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe and Harry
Smith.14 It was during this time that Beach established Beach Books,
Texts & Documents, devoted to experimental and uncommercial texts
which included Burroughs’ APO-33, So Who Owns Death TV? and,
later, Pélieu’s With Revolvers Aimed… Finger Bowls (1967), and
Norman Ogue Mustill’s Flypaper (1967) in collaboration with Pélieu,
which Jan Herman (2006) describes as “a demonic collection of
figurative collages in black and white”.15
Pélieu and Beach translated numerous works by Burroughs
and Ginsberg into French, while continuing to explore various other
media through designing book covers, providing illustrations for
literary works, and, in Pélieu’s case, the production of collage works.
These he exhibited at various galleries worldwide. Pélieu also
published several volumes of poetry including Opal USA (1968);
Jukeboxes (1972) and Coca Neon / Polaroid Rainbow (1975), as well
as volumes of prose, journals and cut-ups including Ce Qui Dit la
Bouche D’Ombre (1969) and contributed to various anthologies
including Cut Up (1969).16 Many of these were only published in the

The Enderin Gallery website states that they left san Francisco for for New York
City in 1965. However, this may be inaccurate. Jan Herman, who was in San
Francisco with them at the time recallss the move being considerably later, and that
they were still resident in San Francisco in 1967-69. He writes “In San Francisco
from 1967 to 1969, Mary and I collaborated on a little magazine together with
Claude Pélieu, Norman O. Mustill and Carl Weissner. It was called The San
Francisco Earthquake” (Herman 2006).
Health Bulletin: APO 33, A Metabolic Regulator was originally published in 1965
by the Fuck You Press. The Beach Books version was a republication with minor
alterations and was published in 1966. Mustill also provided the artwork for the
cover of Pélieu’s book With Revolvers Aimed…
Ed. Carl Weissner (Darmstadt: Joseph Melzer Verlag, 1969). This also features
works by Burroughs, Weissner, Beach, Nuttall and Gysin.
76 Shift Linguals

author’s native language. Conversely, So Who Owns Death TV?, With

Revolvers Aimed and Coca Neon / Polaroid Rainbow were only
published in the US and in translation, with Beach translating.
Claude died in 2002 aged 68, and while Jan Herman (2004)
contends that he was “long regarded in his native France and
elsewhere in Europe as a major figure among counterculture writers”,
his impact outside his native country has been extremely low-key,
with his contribution to So Who Owns Death TV? representing his
best-known work on an international scale. Pélieu’s relatively low
profile is explained by Pierre Joris:
Although an underground celebrity – often called the only original French
Beat – in his country of origin, his work is less known here in the US, no
doubt because relatively little of it has been translated into English and most
of that has been out of print for some years now.17

As well as being considered the “only original French Beat”, Pélieu is

also recognised as having a Surrealist background. While not
connected as directly to Surrealism as Gysin, Pélieu’s Surrealist
tendencies are evident in his cut-up writing, in which abstract and
often bizarre juxtapositions are common. Writing of both Pélieu and
Beach, Gerard Malanga observes:
Long hailed in Claude’s native France as the natural inheritors of the
Surrealist legacy (a direct line has been drawn by French critics from Picasso
and Braque to Schwitters and Duchamp to Warhol and Pélieu), their works are
highly prized and respected. However, in Mary’s native America, the pair
remain relatively unknown: their work awaits discovery by both mainstream
critics and collectors.18

As established in my Introduction, the Surrealist lineage is clearly of

some bearing on the trajectory of the cut-ups from their outset, despite
Burroughs’ efforts to distance himself from Surrealism and Dada, and
to distinguish the cut-up technique from the Surrealist practice of
automatic writing. But however different the means, the ends do
commonly bear considerable similarity. Gysin’s appreciation of the

Online at: University at Buffalo, State University of New York
74 (consulted 7 October 2006).
Gerard Malanga, “Mary Beach and Claude Pélieu: In Loving Memory”. Online at: (consulted 6 June 2006).
Early Successors 77

absurd is clearly apparent in his comments regarding the first cut-ups

and their capacity to produce amusing, if not always obviously
meaningful, juxtapositions of words – something Pélieu’s work shares
with the early cut-ups, suggesting that his interpretation of the method
references both Tzara and Burroughs.
The very limited print-run and consequent scarcity of So Who
Owns Death TV? means that it is not particularly widely known or
read, even amongst fans and scholars of Burroughs. The text’s
obscurity should not, however, diminish its significance in terms of its
place in the cut-up canon, and Pélieu’s contribution, “Objective
Galactic Time Demolition Plan 23”, is particularly interesting:
“My prey incidentally madam” – but it was already in the Bitten Archives –
“Flesh included” – Crime & Salt – (Burroughs et al 1967: 5)

“A televized death” is in keeping with the premise and title of the

pamphlet in its focus on the connection between television and death.
This theme recurs in various permutations throughout the sixteen
pages of text with the primary connotations presented concerning
televisual media contriving to the death of society through the
manipulation of free thought, and of sensationalist media showing real
deaths for “entertainment”. The image of the “shadow mouth” behind
the words can be interpreted as Pélieu’s application of the cut-ups to
demonstrate – as Burroughs had – that the technique functions as a
means by which to expose the “truth” of a given text, be it written or
in an alternative media. Thus, the “shadow mouth” belongs to the
invisible manipulators of the media who utilise language to exert their
power over the masses, presenting scenes of “televized death” to
maintain that control, and “behind these words” lies their true
meaning. Continuing this theme, this cut-up suggests that “free”
thought is not only subject to manipulation, but negation at the hands
of the invisible “Negator”, whose “cold lines” use technology to
infiltrate the “colourless veins” of the human biological structure.
Variously, the body and mind are intercut with new technologies:
“colourless veins” are spliced with “cold lines”; the “incidental”
“prey” becomes a “televized death”, with “flesh included”. In this
way, Pélieu can be seen to be introducing another element to the cut-
78 Shift Linguals

ups through the (de)construction of characters. Instead of entire

physical beings, Pélieu portrays fragmented, composite parts – mouth,
veins, flesh – without names or characterisation of any sort. “Your
name” remains unspoken, unresolved, and in doing so, this character
remains as anonymous and invisible as the narrator and the body
behind the “shadow mouth”.
Elsewhere, Pélieu reproduces the effects of the rapid cuts
between shots and scenes or the flicking through different television
channels as the cut fragments of text combine to yield a rapid
succession of images.
A NOTHING WALKS ON… The old priest in the silver
conflagration telephoned furniture – on The Nueva Track a young man in
love sniffed the dirty panties of his sweetheart – SO WHO OWNS DEATH
TV? – a young man multiplying on the screen – neuro-reality – (Burroughs
et al 1967: 5)

“A nothing walks on” is easily read as an anonymous extra making an

entrance on screen, thus alluding to the ubiquity of media participation
and the cult of celebrity. And yet the individual remains “a nothing”,
highlighting the fact that mere media exposure does not necessarily
bring fame: indeed, quite the opposite, as here the “nothing” remains
another entirely anonymous non-character.
The “old priest” image is one which recurs variously in Pélieu’s
work, including With Revolvers Aimed, to which I shall return and
discuss in detail shortly, and one which also appears a number of
times across Burroughs’ output, notably within The Soft Machine
(1962, 1966).19 The story “The ‘Priest,’ they Called Him”, which
appeared in a number of different forms through the years is also a
notable point of reference for its reference to “the old priest”.20 “The
Nueva Track” can be read on a number of levels. “Nueva” being the
The Soft Machine includes the lines “ fire on priest shriek for humans … he
never mesh with Iron Claws...investigate distant city... Garden priests shriek: ‘Die
Jungle and Flowers bouncing they can’t city?’ […] sacrifice Iron Claws
connections cut in blue sight of the whistling priest...” (146).
“The ‘Priest’, They Called Him” first appeared in 1967 in Weekend Telegraph
(London). It was subsequently collected in Exterminator! (1973). Another version
appears on Burroughs’ collaborative recording with Kurt Cobain (1992), under the
same title. The story also appears in its original form as “The Junky’s Christmas”.
Penned in the early 1950s this is collected in Interzone (1989) and The Junky’s
Christmas and Other Yuletide Stories (1994).
Early Successors 79

Spanish word for “new”, the “new track” could be understood as the
explosion in new media (Death TV) and also the new mode of writing
the author was engaging in. The phonetic similarity to “nova” is also
difficult to ignore, and provides another link back to Burroughs’ Nova
trilogy. “Telephoned furniture” connects with the greater theme of
communication networks, by which the invisible powers distribute
and disseminate their messages of control via hidden or otherwise
disguised channels. The image of “a young man multiplying on
screen” is also an interesting one, and operates on a number of levels,
with connotations of rapidly-dividing cells of a cancerous or
mutational nature amongst those more immediately conveyed. This
corresponds with Burroughs’ theories of language and evolution, the
on-screen multiplication occurring rapidly before the viewers’ eyes
with no purpose other than to multiply: “Word clearly bears the single
identifying feature of virus: it is an organism with no internal function
other than to replicate itself” (1993: 47). In this way, Pélieu not only
addresses the matter of the functions of language and its use by the
media, but also replicates Burroughs’ theories within the framework
of his own text.
The question “who owns death TV?” which appears,
capitalised, centre-page in the original publication is, appropriately,
central in thematic terms also. If “death TV” represents the prevailing
medium of mind control, then it could be seen to be operated by the
shadowy wielders of power Burroughs wrote of in the Nova trilogy.
Thus, to break the control “death TV” exerts, rebels like Pélieu must
cut the language lines. In this way, the fictionalised version of reality
Burroughs recounted is being played out in an actual series of
“attacks” on the preordained systems of language. “Objective Galactic
Time Demolition Plan 23” set the blueprint for Pélieu’s subsequent
cut-up texts, which are illustrative of the ways in which the technique
evolved through continued application.
With Revolvers Aimed… Finger Bowls is Pélieu’s most
concerted attempt to follow Burroughs’ lead in applying the cut-up
method to extended narrative, and represents his sole attempt to apply
the cut-up technique to “the novel”, although the text is not
immediately recognisable as such in conventional formal terms.
Burroughs is curiously credited with “presenting” the text, although
his contribution to the book overall – beyond providing an
introduction of sorts in the form of two “counterscripts” – appears to
80 Shift Linguals

have been minimal.21 Arguably, this accreditation appears to be little

more than a marketing ploy. On the other hand, it represents a
manifesto of sorts, locating the book within the sphere of
Burroughsian experimentalism and making an explicit link between
Pélieu and the name most commonly associated with the cut-ups.
Despite having failed to draw any kind of critical analysis to date,
With Revolvers Aimed stands as a significant volume in the cut-up
canon in its own right.
It is extremely difficult to ascribe any sense of plot or continuity
to the text: With Revolvers Aimed essentially takes the form of a
collection of cut-up and collage texts presented in a range of
typographical formats, often more closely resembling poetry than
prose. Instead of a continuous narrative, With Revolvers Aimed
consists of a collection of extended cut-ups, each of which is
appended by a location and date – possibly an attempt to prevent
“forgery” and prove the text’s “authenticity” against a backdrop of
mutable (and mutatable) history.22 This non-sequential collection of
independent texts render With Revolvers Aimed a “novel” only in the
loosest sense, inasmuch as Naked Lunch was a “novel”, and in that the
fragments or “routines” demonstrate a degree of homogeneity through
the use of connecting themes and recurrent phrases rather than
recurrent characters or an overarching linear “plot”. Thus the text
develops Gysin’s interest in “abstract prose” more than it does
Burroughs’ pursuit of “perfectly clear narrative prose… produced
using cut-up and fold-in methods” (Hibbard 1999: 15).

Burroughs’ counterscripts are, in themselves, of interest : the first takes the form of
a cut-up presented in two-column format, while the second is a more
straightforward cut-up in which the number 23 – a number which Burroughs, and
also Pélieu, frequently returned to as significant in some esoteric way – is
prominent: “some notes on demolition 23 revolvers aimed by claude pelieu…
eureka calif.: deaths now total 23… common law wife he slew by stabbing her 23
times… 23 die in Montreal appartment blast…23 skiddoo the empty plaground…”
(Pélieu 1967: ii).
Burroughs argued that recordings could be used to create a falsified reality. “We
think of the past as being there unchangeable… the past is ours to shape and change
at will. Two men talk… if no recording of the conversation is made, it exists only in
the memory of the two actors. Suppose I make a recording... and alter and falsify
the recording, and play the altered recording back to the two actors. If my
alterations had been skilfully and plausibly applied the two actors will remember
the altered recording” (Odier 1989: 35).
Early Successors 81

(Pélieu 1967: 19)

Here we see common themes in the form of “virus-myths” surfacing,

but also the continuation of the cut-up “characterisation” that appears
in “Objective Galactic Time Demolition Plan 23”, with “vague eyes”
82 Shift Linguals

and “blood sausages” presenting disparate biological elements within

the same space as the anonymous first-person narrator and the
“Civilized Megalomaniac”. Apart from the narrator’s “vague eyes”,
neither he, “the hostage” nor the “Civilized Megalomaniac” are
ascribed any form of physical description, and nor are any details
found in conventional narrative, such as background, etc., provided in
respect to these characters. The characters that populate With
Revolvers Aimed are thus cut up to the point of abstraction. They are
effectively left “floating” amidst a sea of disconnected images and
The graphology also highlights the proximity of cut-ups to
poetry, and Imagism in particular, with its focus on creating what
Michael Cummings and Robert Simmons refer to as “a succession of
isolated, though related, images… without connecting these images”
(1983: 68). Burroughs acknowledged the fact that “as soon as you get
away from actual poetic forms, rhyme, meter, etc., there is no line
between prose and poetry” (Hibbard 1999: 85), showing his awareness
that “free verse” is, as Cummings and Simmons observe, “marked as
‘verse’ only graphologically” (1983: 80). Nevertheless, Burroughs
was steadfast in his adherence to defining his cut-ups as prose,
dismissing “many poets” as “simply lazy prose writers” (Hibbard
1999: 85). Pélieu’s divergence from “prose” formatting into
typographical styles more ostensibly recognisable as poetry is
therefore demonstrative of his desire to develop the cut-ups in
directions not pursued by their originators.
Elsewhere, Pélieu takes these graphological experiments a stage
further, interspersing fragmentary phrases with impenetrable and
apparently meaningless punctuation:
– Denatured Voices. (((= = = = = = = = = = = = )): one = = =; only one dash
(Hamlet’s double!). his cigarette butt. . . what …of / / bugs . . . calvary . . . an
old lady (a hollowed out old lady, blurred, already dead) – Entrails along the
colonade (arabesques) –: (Pélieu 1967: 68)

Such instances of experimental typography owe more to pattern

poetry or concrete poetry than to any of Burroughs’ work, and is
illustrative of Pélieu’s unique spheres of reference. Pélieu’s work
remains distinct from concrete poetry and even sections such as this
do not truly belong to this category, not least of all because the
patterns are anything but “formal” and the graphology does not
Early Successors 83

obviously correspond with the content.23 Pélieu can be seen not only
to be writing against the conventional form of “the novel”, but also
following Umberto Eco’s summarisation of the avant-garde through
“arriving at the abstract” (1984: 66-7) and in no small way responding
to Gysin’s initial idea regarding the possibility of “abstract prose”, to
an extent unseen in Burroughs’ work. Nevertheless, Pélieu’s use of
typographical formatting here does develop Burroughs’ intentions for
the cut-ups by rendering most explicitly the fragmentary nature of the
text. His dramatic punctuation and use of part-lines provide more
defined breaks in visual terms than the em dash or ellipsis established
by Burroughs.
The book’s second section, “The Call the Dead” sets a scene of
Yesterday under the silent mobiles of the Terminus an Angel skidded […]
The 5 burroughs of New York put through a strainer (The Exotic Yellow
Police are looking for the Spaniard & Ixca The Mexican) – and ordinary dead
man, who (perhaps) was Ali The Nostril was present at the Pantomime on
Afterwards – Before The Yellow Dog settles down in Chinatown, or in
Central Park (uptown) germs question the sawdust passenger […] The
Balance Sheet of The Naked & The Dead cut out of The Essential Myth –
Marx buggers the Pope, Dali sucks old condoms belonging to Truman – New
enigmatic anticipations since then – Cancerlike voices – (Pélieu 1967: 9)

Of particular interest is the way in which characters make fleeting

appearances, and fictional and historical characters coexist within a
single sentence. People and places appear simultaneously as the
Terminus in some unspecified geographical location is listed
alongside the 5 “burroughs” (sic) of New York, Chinatown and
Central Park. The multiplicity of the word “burroughs” transforms
New York into another character of sorts, while the Spaniard and Ixca
The Mexican, whose monikers are geographically determined, are cut
free of their geographical origins, thus breaking the sense of
orientation their names are intended to give. This disorientating
overload of characters and locations provides substance to Burroughs’
claims that “life is a cut-up” and that through the use of the technique

Cummings and Simmons identify a “visual element [that] can also be used to
reinforce and emphasize verbal meaning’ as a defining characteristic of pattern or
Concrete poetry, and assert that ‘the structure of a concrete poem is all-important...
the visual element is not mere gloss on a poem, but fundamental to its meaning”
(1983: 65).
84 Shift Linguals

it is possible to address the issues of simultaneous events by cutting

through the space-time continuum. Thus, Marx, the Pope, Dali and
Truman, “the Naked & The Dead”, are all able to exist in what
appears not only to be the same time, but also the same space.
Through cutting up, not only is the simultaneity of events in time and
space addressed through simultaneous presentation, but the idea of the
fallibility of one fixed authorial perspective is also exposed.
Furthermore, in bridging the gap between the past and the present,
“The Naked and The Dead”, Pélieu effectively creates a “third mind”
This arbitrary approach to characters, whereby they appear
fleetingly without development or recurrence, marks something of a
departure from Burroughs’ extended cut-ups: within the Nova trilogy,
characters like Mr Bradley Mr Martin, Uranian Willy (aka Willy the
Rat), Kiki, K9 and Inspector Lee of the Nova Police all appear and
reappear at various points, providing some sense of continuity. In With
Revolvers Aimed there is no such thread. Consequently, any
semblance of “plot” or continuity becomes impossible to discern.
Even the narrator disappears for long sections of the text. This would
strongly suggest that while Burroughs strove to create “coherent and
meaningful prose” (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 29) and argued that
“you can’t get away from narrative style altogether because people
won’t read it… people want some sort of story in there” (Lydenberg
1987: 178), Pélieu was less concerned with ordering his material in a
cogent fashion, preferring instead to leave more work to the reader
and diminish the role of “the author” to its absolute minimum.
The thematic similarities to many of Burroughs’ cut-ups, in the
form of the references to germs and “cancerlike voices”, again
indicating the intrinsic connection between cut-ups and virus, is
noteworthy. The corresponding nature of the results of Pélieu’s and
Burroughs’ experiments compelled Burroughs himself to comment:
Claude Pélieu and I have exchanged letters and manuscripts for some years. I
am frequently struck by precise though seemingly coincidental references in
his work to what I am writing right now writing which nobody but myself has
directly seen. I feel that we are sharing a common source of literary material
and a common source of thought, that perhaps all serious writers are in a very
real sense united. By serious writers I mean those who have left the concept of
Early Successors 85

art for art’s sake behind and see writing as a weapon with revolvers aimed
voiçi le temps de l’assassin.24

His contextualising of “writing as a weapon” reinforces the purpose of

the cut-ups as a method of subverting the established order and as a
weapon against the mechanisms of power in a literal war of (or
against) words. The similarities Burroughs observed between With
Revolvers Aimed and many of his own cut-up texts lie not only in the
formulation but also the phraseology. Many of the phrases in With
Revolvers Aimed are drawn from the same types of sources used by
Burroughs, namely newspapers and medical journals. However,
Burroughs achieved his distinctive narrative style through avowedly
substituting the “pisspoor material” which Gysin had “accidentally”
used in the original cut-ups, with his “own, highly volatile material”
(Wilson & Gysin 2001: 170), and Pélieu appears to have also drawn
on Burroughs’ “highly volatile material” in the formulation of With
Revolvers Aimed. Phrases such as “We who are made of mud &
excrement broadcast a fair amount of things concerning the Nova Mob
& Mort C.I. Lee Onan City Nueva Mr B. & Mr A. Jr…” (Pélieu 1967:
61) include fragments from the Nova trilogy. The effect in terms of
characters is again interesting, particularly when Burroughs himself
appears in the form of a correspondent: “William Burroughs writes
me: IT’S WAR EVERYWHERE!” (Pélieu 1967: 62). Elsewhere,
fragments drawn from what appear to be reviews of, or essays on,
Burroughs’ work, spliced with fragments of Pélieu’s own work can be
found: “W.S. Burroughs interlaces his Naked Sequences with
complete freedom, between this & this, risks all, & organized
Demolition Plan 23” (Pélieu 1967: 77). Here, reality and fiction
become indistinguishable as the real Burroughs emerges in a fictional
context, framed as another “character” in the shifting narrative. The
phrase “Demolition Plan 23” is cut from Pélieu’s contribution to So
Who Owns Death TV?. This amalgamation of his own work with
Burroughs’ forges a definite “third mind” perspective in the form of a
“collaboration” between the two authors.
While sharing many common elements with Burroughs’ work,
With Revolvers Aimed… is not simply an experiment in recreating a
third mind between the living, the “naked and the dead”. It also marks

From Burroughs’ blurb to Coca Neon / Polaroid Rainbow (New York: Cherry
Valley Editions, 1975).
86 Shift Linguals

an attack by Pélieu on all that Burroughs sought to attack through his

cut-up works, namely language, agents of control and the notions of
convention, both in terms of narrative form and linguistic
preconditioning. From within the apparent stream of unconnected
random images emerges Pélieu’s portrayal of a society involved in an
invisible war:
Thorny reality incorporated by The Cameraman… The river’s metal is
Prussian Blue – Vulgar clinches on The Coloured Tracks – As cold as scissors
this morning humanity is vomited into the Stable of The American Dream –
Star shod with salty light – Hiding-place for tears, clandestine ears tremble in
the hulls of mythical cargoes – (Pélieu 1967: 10)

Just as the cut-ups which formed the fabric of Burroughs’ Nova

trilogy revealed the nature of “the enemy” and allowed the defenders
of the race – the “partisans of all nations” to “shift linguals – cut word
lines” (Burroughs 1970: 145) – to dwell in the spaces between, so
Pélieu’s cut-ups show pockets of resistance against the control system.
The depiction of “clandestine ears” suggests rebel forces listening in,
covertly, to break down the coded truth in the language lines,
trembling in fear of being caught. One again encounters the
synaesthesia of “salty light”, and disconnected body parts float
through space in juxtaposition with incongruous adjectives as the
“clandestine ears tremble”. Interestingly, despite being formulated
using cut-ups, Pélieu’s syntax is fundamentally conventional, with
nouns, adjectives, verbs and pronouns all retaining the usual sequence
within the sentence structure. The presence of The Cameraman
reminds us that the entire scene is being recorded by the media,
although the “thorny reality” is only as factual as the editing of the
recording renders it: the end result may as readily be a fabrication,
another “mythical cargo” as a “thorny reality”. This reflects what
Linda Hutcheon identifies as significant feature of postmodern fiction
in its challenging of “fixed” history in “a contradictory turning to the
archive and yet a contesting of its authority” (2002: 77). Hutcheon
observes that “even an eye-witness account can only offer one limited
interpretation of what happened; another could be different, because
of many things, including background knowledge, circumstances,
angle of vision, or what is at stake for that witness” (76). In other
words, Pélieu exposes the artifice of both history and the media by
showing the view from the “other side of the camera”. In doing so, he
Early Successors 87

invites the reader to question what they are shown and what they are
told regarding the reporting of news and events which, in time,
become historified.
When an identifiable narrator does fleetingly emerge in the
“The Call the Dead”, s/he appears to be operating covertly, from an
underground position, against the agents of control in a quest to
expose the “thorny reality” in much the same way as Burroughs’
Willie the Rat character in the Nova trilogy. However, Pélieu’s
operation involves going undercover and mixing with those in power
in order to breach the control mechanisms, as he writes: “so I
infiltrated the Gay Scissor Brigade in the columns of The
Examiner…” (Pélieu 1967: 11). One could interpret the “Gay Scissor
Brigade” as a reference to Burroughs and the Beat writers who had
been involved in the early cut-up experiments, with whom Pélieu had
made contact and developed his interest in the experimental writing
practices which involved the use of scissors and cutting pages of
various magazines into columns. “Columns” also carries the
implication of newspaper reports, and thus connects with the narrative
theme of the mass media’s dissemination and manipulation of
Elsewhere, Pélieu incorporates aspects of mainstream and
counterculture within close proximity to one another, along with
snippets of dialogue which capture the essence of both overhearing
conversations in public places and the fragmentary nature of
I’m not joking anymore, where’s the static? Dr. SAX… The large photo of
Kerouac… someone beside me said: he’s got the handsome face of a
hoodlum! – Never met Kerouac – the film-makers have arrived… (Pélieu

In the same way that the earlier referencing of Burroughs and the “The
5 burroughs of New York put through a strainer” (Pélieu 1967: 9) blur
the boundaries between reality and fiction through the incorporation
of “real” characters within a fictional context, the appearance of
Kerouac’s name represents an indistinct boundary between real and
fictional characters, and also illustrates the way in which history can
be altered or entirely fabricated through the simple switching of a
name, time or other “fact”. The appearance of “Dr Sax” within the
context of the composite text also raises questions: is this Kerouac’s
88 Shift Linguals

novel, Dr Sax (1952), or the novel’s eponymous character? There are

no straightforward answers, and herein we see the way in which
Pélieu problematises the nature of character, and reveals not only the
artifice of character as a narrative construct, but also exposes the
shifting, mutable or even schizophrenic nature of character or
personality itself.25
The language of control permeates With Revolvers Aimed, but
by cutting up those phrases and removing them from their original
contexts, their power is, by the theory behind the cut-up, negated. The
same passages are littered with the arbitrary yet prevalent facts and
figures which are de rigueur within the press and which were central
to the shifting narrative of the early cut-ups:
The author of these lines struggles against Mr. Rectal, 680 million old
burglaries to his credit. The intersections are slightly dry, lever 754, be careful
of the next contractions. The amount of adrenalin has increased about 5% in
C.I. Hugh… 30%? we know the score copper!…( Pélieu 1967: 40)

Here, the frequency of such supposedly orientating figures reaches a

point of superfluity, to the extent that the effect becomes inverse to
their original purpose: within the composite texts, these figures which
denote distance, time, space and volume become blurred and induce a
sense not of stability, but disorientating instability. Rather than locate
events in time and space and provide a sense of “measure”, their
displacement and juxtaposition serves to reach a level of saturation, at
which point they collapse into meaningless. As such, the cut-up
exposes the way in which numerical facts can be used to obscure the
most salient details from the reader by overloading them with non-
essential and diversionary information. As “the author of these lines
struggles”, so a reader of an article in the press may also struggle to
unravel the most important points from the myriad “facts” and figures,
which act as much as a smokescreen to obscure the underlying truth as
a provision of useful information. But through the act of cutting up,
Pélieu suggests that the game is up for those agents of control as the
truth is cut free from the constraints of those preordained orders

Psychoanalysts and psychologists from Freud to Irwin Alman and Dalmas Taylor
who developed the “Social Penetration Theory” formulated theories suggesting that
individual personalities are layered and subject to variation according to a broad
range of factors both internal and external.
Early Successors 89

selected by the holders of power, the manipulators of language: “we

know the score copper!”
Just as Burroughs’ Nova trilogy is lent a unity through thematic
continuity and the recurrence of phrases, Pélieu brings a degree of
unity to his extended cut-up text with recurrent phrases. These notably
take the form of repeated lines which include “Revolvers-aimed-
finger-bowls” (7, 8, 68), from which the title of the book is derived. A
stylistic unity throughout With Revolvers Aimed is also derived from
systematic synesthesia and the recurrence of numerous dislocated
body parts: “dogtooth waves obliterate childbirth eyes” (80); “painful
lips bounce on the screen” (17); “tumefied lips of a tape recorder”
(80); “Mechanical teeth (fog) naked eyes & lips, words bound to the
tick-tock of the bomb, swollen bellies…” (78). In this way, Pélieu is
writing against the literary trend of exposing the construction of
narrative Hutcheon details when she writes “The narrativization of
past events is not hidden; the events no longer seem to speak for
themselves, but are shown to be consciously composed into a
narrative, whose constructed – not found – order is imposed upon
them, often overtly by the narrating figure” (2002: 63), and instead
breaks down the narrative of existing texts and exposes them as the
manipulations they are, demonstrating that even character is a
construct of an author, and is composed of random body parts brought
together to form a cohesive, but false, whole.
With Revolvers Aimed strongly echoes Burroughs’ work of this
period. But while the primary function of Pélieu’s cut-up experiments
may have been to expand the territory marked by Burroughs, he can
also be seen to be developing the practices further and in new
directions. By repeating the experiments in much the same way as
Burroughs had detailed, Pélieu’s work adds substance to Burroughs’
claims that “cut-ups are for everyone” (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 31),
and that the results were replicable when the same conditions were
It would be extremely difficult to suggest that With Revolvers
Aimed succeeds as a “novel” in the conventional sense, in that it is
possessed of even less linearity than the books of Burroughs’ Nova
trilogy. Characters, in the conventional sense, are virtually non-
existent. Similarly, events are not in any way clearly marked, and to
this end, the idea that Pélieu can be seen to fulfil the ambition
Burroughs held for the cut-ups, in their application to “the novel” to
90 Shift Linguals

create “perfectly clear narrative prose” (Hibbard 1999: 15) is

questionable. None of this, however, should detract from the purpose
of the text, namely to attack the conventions of language and
literature. In this objective, With Revolvers Aimed is highly successful.
Even while Burroughs claimed “I am a recording instrument… I do
not pretend to impose ‘story’, ‘plot’ ‘continuity’” (Burroughs 1959:
184), his Nova trilogy does not entirely dispense with homogeneity or
the idea of a narrating figure – although “the” narrating figure is an
elusive, evasive shadow without a fixed or even always identifiable
persona or identity. Pélieu, however, can be seen to succeed in
achieving the goal of completely freeing the text from the impositions
of order, and even narrator, common to “the novel”, and as such,
advances the cut-up methodology substantially.

John Giorno: Found Images and Dual Narratives

American poet John Giorno is considered to be a member of the

broader “Beat family tree”, and his introduction to the cut-ups came
through of his personal acquaintance with Burroughs and Gysin from
the mid 1960s onwards. Besides producing many books of poetry, he
is also the man behind the seminal “Dial-a-Poet” project and Giorno
Poetry Systems series of records and CDs which spanned from the
1960s into the 1990s.26 Giorno has also been a significant figure in the
development of the “spoken word” poetry medium, and is also the
founder of the AIDS Treatment Project. Described as a “nonprofit,
tax-exempt organisation” (Leyland 1978: 146), GPS included
Burroughs, Ginsberg and Anne Waldman on its board of directors.
Giorno’s longstanding connection with the major Beat writers is
widely documented, although his involvement with Burroughs and
Gysin’s tape recorder experiments is less well known.27 As he

GPS released a series of compilations, gathering cutting edge musical and spoken
word recordings, featuring, amongst others, Cabaret Voltaire, Sonic Youth, (Henry)
Rollins Band, Frank Zappa, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Psychic TV, Lydia Lunch,
Jim Thirlwell, David Byrne and the John Giorno band.
See Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw. However, a number of major texts, notably
James Campbell, This is the Beat Generation and Beat Down to Your Soul: What
Was the Beat Generation? ed. Ann Charters make no reference to Giorno at all.
Such oversights misrepresent and clearly underestimate Giorno’s contribution to the
Beat canon and to the development of the live and recorded spoken word media.
Early Successors 91

recounts in the booklet that accompanies the 4-CD compilation of

Burroughs’ recordings The Best of William Burroughs from Giorno
Poetry Systems, “In 1965, even before founding Giorno Poetry
Systems, I began recording my friend William Burroughs, starting
with tape experiments at his Centre Street loft and with Brion Gysin at
the Hotel Chelsea”. It is for his collaborations with Burroughs and the
recordings issued by GPS that Giorno is probably best known, and,
like Pélieu and Weissner, Giorno’s own output has been largely
ignored by critics and academics alike. Daniel Nester summarises
Giorno’s career as a “tour of saying the unsayable in print” (2003: 18),
and there is considerable truth in this: much of his work demonstrates
a preoccupation with gay sex, which he describes repeatedly and in
unsparing detail.
Born in 1936, Giorno was a significant figure in the New York
scene of the 1960s, making his name as the star of Warhol’s first
movie, Sleep (1963). As Ted Morgan states, “Giorno was a living
artefact of the counterculture of the sixties. He came from a middle-
class family in Roslyn, Long Island, and after graduating from
Columbia in 1958, he followed in the footsteps of his stockbroker
father. He did the Wall Street trip for about four years and then met
Andy Warhol and became his lover” (Morgan 1991: 415). He recounts
that he had written poetry from the age of 14, but stopped writing
completely “around 1960” (Nester 2003: 24). However, following
time spent in the company of Warhol, he resumed writing poetry, but
now “using found images… the influence was Andy and Jasper
[Johns] who used found images. And I thought, ‘if they can do it, why
can’t I?’” (Nester 2003: 24). Richard Kostelanetz suggests that
“Giorno’s principal poetic innovation extended Found Poetry by
chopping a prose sentence so that its words are repeated in different
linear arrangements” (1993: 87).28 The idea of using “found” images
clearly bears similarities to the process out of which the cut-up was
born, and as such, marks the starting point of Giorno’s adoption of
cut-up methodologies in his writing. One of Giorno’s earliest works
from this period is “Pornographic Poem” (1964) which Giorno recalls
evolved from a “found” text – “a mimeographed piece of paper I

Kostelanetz’s definition of Found Poetry states that “the found poet discovers
poetry in language not his or her own. The simplests strategy is to break apart prose
into lines, with appropriately aensitive line breaks” (1993: 77).
92 Shift Linguals

picked up somewhere” (Nester 2003: 24) – from he which lifted


I lost count
of the times
I was fucked
by them
in every conceivable
At one point
they stood
around me
in a circle
and I had
to crawl
from one crotch
to another
on each cock
until it was hard (Giorno 2008: 63).

Despite not being immediately recognisable as a cut-up, the random

elements integrated within the writing process behind “Pornographic
Poem” clearly places it within the field of cut-up literature. Unlike
Burroughs, however, there is a stronger emphasis on editing,
manipulating the “found” phrases to create a coherent, linear
narrative. “Pornographic Poem” also exemplifies the rawness for
which Giorno has been equally praised and condemned, describing the
experience in prosaic, unpoetic terms.
Although not explicitly concerning himself with the language of
power and the power of language in the way Burroughs did, Giorno’s
poetry is preoccupied with language and the way in which language
can serve as a revolutionary tool within a social context. Giorno
describes the direct language he employs within these poems, and its
application to “taboo” subject matter as “an excellent revolutionary
device” (Leyland 1978: 155). He explains, “the point of the
pornographic poems I’ve written is that they break the rules of the
heterosexual world” (155). These rules primarily involve avoiding
direct depictions of homosexual acts. Even in the early 1960s and
following the publication of Naked Lunch, such graphic detailing of
gay sex still had the capacity to shock.
Early Successors 93

In this approach to language and depictions of “shocking”

scenes of homosexuality, Giorno frequency cites Burroughs and
Ginsberg as his early inspirations, on account of their groundbreaking
approach to “taboo” subjects. “Other than Allen Ginsberg and William
Burroughs nobody used pornographic images in their work”, he
recalls. “It was still that way in 1966, ’67, ’68. Any explicit image gay
or straight was unheard of. It was not part of the culture” (DeNoyelles
2003). Poems like Ginsberg’s “Journal Night Thoughts” (1961),
which feature graphic depictions of gay sex (“I come in the ass of my
beloved... I prostrate my sphincter”) were clearly designed to shock,
and are as focused on attacking taboos as with poeticism or artistry.
This clearly resonated with Giorno, who recognised it as a liberating
artistic progression, and followed Ginsberg’s lead in the presentation
of “pornographic” images in a poetic context. As such, Ginsberg’s
influence on Giorno’s early work is clear. Giorno also pinpoints
Burroughs’ use of direct language in Naked Lunch as an inspiration
for “Pornographic Poem”, explaining, “in Naked Lunch, there’s a
metaphor of a hard penis as somebody’s ‘hung’ or something, and the
pornographic image is just like ‘penis’ — not ‘hard penis’ or ‘cock’ or
‘dick.’ Just “penis’” (Nester 2003: 21).
With the left-justified short lines, there is a clear parallel
between the presentation employed by Giorno and some of
Burroughs’ cut-up “poems” that appeared in Minutes To Go, as
exemplified by “Others Kill Cells and Future for New cancer Holes”,
which includes the following lines:
new cancer will be applied
synthetize cancer men
stepped up research
whole cancer
nothing more of unconcern
like tiny blobs
new ate
amplified into groups
agent at work
aid of the host
usual procedure
eventual program (Burroughs et al 1960: 18)

Although Burroughs was broadly critical of poetry – and poets, those

“lazy prose writers” (Hibbard 1999: 85) –, many observers have
commented on the poetic nature of the cut-ups, and Burroughs himself
94 Shift Linguals

stated that “there is no line between prose and poetry” (Hibbard 1999:
85) and the function of poetry, like the cut-ups, was to “free words”,
and did produce a small number of poems.29 By presenting each
phrase in a way that separates it from those which would have
otherwise surrounded it within a conventional prose structure, Giorno
effectively pushes each individual phrase to a more prominent
position, and thus “frees” it and allows it to acquire a new
“independent” standing.
Although Warhol and Johns may have been Giorno’s primary
and formative influences, the parallels between his incorporation of
“found” images and the way in which the cut-ups drew on images
drawn from existing texts are clearly apparent, and Giorno’s meeting
with Burroughs and Gysin further cemented the value of his approach.
Giorno frequently dined with Burroughs and Gysin during their work
on The Third Mind, and he resided in the apartment below Burroughs’
famed residence known as “the bunker”.30 Having already
independently discovered a method by which material drawn from
sources such as pornographic publications could be lifted and re-
presented as poetry, Giorno experimented further and came upon an
idea for a mode of presentation that would subsequently become his
trademark. Like Gysin’s first cut-ups, this discovery occurred by
One day I was reading this article in the Times about extinct wildlife in North
America and I was totally enraptured with the words. I thought to myself,
“This is more exciting than John Ashbery.” So I picked up a pencil and made
slash marks in the sentence at points where the mind paused. Then I typed it
up in a vertical left-hand column. From there it was a gradual evolution.
(Leyland 1978: 137).

This method of appropriating material and structuring the lines, with

its focus on separating and cutting words from their original source in
order to alter their context, meaning and emphasis closely resembles

Of Burroughs’ contributions to Minutes to Go, eight are presented using the line
form of poetry. The Burroughs File includes another poem from the 1960s entitled
“Fear and the Monkey” which was previously unpublished.
“Now in his 60s, Giorno still lives in the Lower East Side flat on the Bowery that
he shared with former roommate and lover William S. Burroughs (Nester 2003:
Early Successors 95

the cut-ups, and also shares similar origins to Gysin’s discovery. This
“gradual evolution” saw Giorno’s work develop its focus on the power
of language to convey more than mere shock. By breaking the text
into short phrases, the format functions in a similar way to the cut-ups.
The short lines serve to reduce the sentences into clauses, sub-clauses,
phrases, even single words, adding emphasis to each “sub-phrase”.
Although the original syntax remains intact, the way one reads the
sentence is altered through the process of reading the separate phrases
and sub-phrases individually: it produces a fragmenting effect on the
The late 1960s and early 1970s represents Giorno’s most
prolific phase, and a period during which he experimented with
various formats. These included a number of dual narratives which
address the problems of simultaneity that Burroughs considered a key
factor in the significance of the cut-ups. One method Giorno used
involved overlays, producing simultaneous narrative in the most literal
of manners, as demonstrated in a number of untitled pieces from 1968.
Ostensibly a collection of phrases culled from newspapers, and
as such a variation on the cut-up method, such pieces are clearly
intended to problematise the act of reading, by posing the question of
which section a reader should read first, and also by rendering some
words partially obscured. Such wilful obfuscation of words is
analogous to the scrambling of coded texts, and consequently,
unravelling the meaning of the Giorno’s text is markedly similar to the
undertaking Burroughs demanded of his readers in unravelling the
cut-through meanings of his cut-ups.
The words that are “crossed out” – maintain; secrecy; presence
– can be viewed as key words and therefore significant in themselves,
while the obliteration of “presence” by “suicide” also offers numerous
readings. Similarly, the segment which details physical beatings and
attempted suicides, when juxtaposed with the segment on American
troops, implicitly forges a link between the two, despite their
originating from different sources.
96 Shift Linguals

(Giorno 1972: 158)

The presentation renders the word as much a graphic medium as a

purely textural one, thus connecting with the collage idea that was
central to the first principles of the cut-up technique, namely the
application of “montage” techniques to “words on the page”
Early Successors 97

(Burroughs 1993: 52). This particular piece, in which two columns of

differing width and font size overlap, also evidences two other
directions Giorno would subsequently pursue, in the form of the twin-
column narrative and the repetition of phrases.
“Johnny Guitar”, a poem spanning seven large-format pages of
two-column narrative which Charles Silver and Daniel Bourne (1982)
describes as using “two simultaneous columns of interlooping stories
and vantage points to lead the reader through a modern cultural
inferno” is exemplary.

(Giorno 1969: 13)

Although not immediately recognisable as a cut-up in the
Burroughsian sense, certain phrases clearly stand out as “lifted” or
98 Shift Linguals

“found”, and are illustrative of Giorno’s use of texts from newspapers,

journals and magazines. “It has been found that outrushing gas from
the sun -- the ‘solar wind’” is exemplary, and in combination with
references to the destruction of tissue at a range of 60 miles, shares
common ground with many of the cut-ups produced by Burroughs,
Pélieu and Weissner through the juxtaposition of science with the
facts and figures of news reporting and human body parts.31 Just as the
first cut-ups had altered the meanings of words through changed
context, seeing physical and celestial bodies juxtaposed, so Giorno
achieves the same result here, with a verse on “earthly existence” and
“disembodied spirits” immediately preceding another in which a blade
is pressed against flesh.
The different fragments, separated by line breaks denotative of
versification, in conjunction with the central caesura, are unconnected
and presented without explicit linkage. In this way, the mode of
presentation serves a similar function to Burroughs’ two and three-
column works, which Burroughs explains “enables the writer to run
[two], three or more streams of narrative concurrently with
possibilities of counterpoint contrast and change of tempo not offered
by the book page”.32 Within this statement lies the implicit idea of an
extended “third mind”, whereby alternative interpretations become
possible through reading between the intersections and accessing the
intertexts that exist between the columns and conventional modes of
reading. Another effect of this variant cut-up method is the production
of a narrator that is not fixed, shifting from a passive voice to a first-
person perspective and back.
With his knowledge of the cut-up process, Giorno carefully
differentiates the evolution of his works from the randomised
technique employed by Burroughs, as he explains: “in a strict sense
it’s not a cut-up. Not the way Brion Gysin invented it or Burroughs
developed it. It is simply discovering images that are inherent in
reality all around you” (Leyland 1978: 137). And yet, despite the
author’s claims, the parallels between the formulation of Giorno’s
poems and the cut-ups are difficult to ignore. This is particularly true

See also The Job, pp. 62-63 and pp. 173-174.
Burroughs, “Author’s Note” to “Martin’s Mag”, in Cut Up (Damstadt: Joseph
Melzer Verlag, 1969), p. 10.
Early Successors 99

of his work of this period, which marked a clear progression from his
previous form and a marked similarity to the cut-ups, not only in
terms of their construction from other source texts, but also the dual-
column narratives pioneered by Burroughs – most notably The Last
Words of Dutch Schultz (1969), and the “counterscripts” to Pélieu’s
With Revolvers Aimed… and Weissner’s The Braille Film. Moreover,
Giorno’s use of columns develops the ideas forwarded by Burroughs
with regard to the functions of the cut-ups, namely to “make explicit a
psychosensory process that is going on all the time anyway” by
recreating the reader’s subconscious experiences, whereby
“subliminally he is reading the columns on either side and is aware of
the person sitting next to him” (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 4-5).
Giorno took the dual narrative to an extreme in the performance
piece Cum (1970) and the poems which appear in Cancer in My Left
Ball: Poems 1970 - 1972 (1973, the title referencing Giorno’s
suffering from testicular cancer during the book’s writing), which, like
Johnny Guitar, employs concurrent dual narratives, and was in fact
designed to be performed, in simultaneity, by two narrators. As
Giorno writes, Cum, which was first performed in March 1971, was in
many ways a revisiting of Gysin’s “derangement of the senses” and
the dual-narrative employed in the Balch / Burroughs film Bill and
We stood facing each other inside a chalk circle… with AKG microphones
and 4 speakers at the corners. Michael had the left column of the poem and I
had the right. We chanted and sang and screamed the words in mantric
rhythms to each other. In another chalk circle, 6 musicians played with us…
We were lit with red fresnels, the musicians with purple and the audience with
blue and green (1973: 122).

Even without the narrative’s simultaneity being rendered so explicit

by the assistance of the live performance by two readers, the poem’s
written typography serves to more than adequately convey the dual
“interlooping” narratives which can be read both separately and in
conjunction with one another:

A bulging there develops
vein thus there develops
A bulging vein an eternal
and needle tie
scars an eternal tie
100 Shift Linguals

and needle scars between

“tracks the two
tracks” between the two
(1973: 71)

Here, the “interlooping” or dual narrative returns to the issue of the

way in which the reader “subconsciously” reads a newspaper, or, as
Burroughs contended, read while experiencing life, i.e. being
subconsciously aware of the other columns or simultaneous external
events while reading a given column or page. In this passage, the
contents correspond with the presentation, whereby interpretations can
be drawn from “between the two”. The “tracks” correspond not only
with the explicit meaning of needle “tracks” but also carry the implicit
idea of an audio track, analogous to Burroughs’ audio recordings and
also the recordings Giorno would also undertake, in which he
explored the possibilities of simultaneous narratives in audio. In
placing the columns variously together and apart, a poem like “Cum”
presents a challenge to conventional reading methods, in that it is
extremely difficult to know whether to read down each column in turn
or cross column.
While the phrases read “correctly” and make the most sense
while reading down-column, it is impossible to read in this way
without being aware of the words in the next column, which create
new cut-up phrases as one reads. Many of these “interactive” or
“subconscious” cut-ups contrive to create coherent phrases and often
striking images: “a bulging there develops”, “and needle scars
between” and “tracks the two” are all composite phrases that are
“successful” in one way or another, obtained by cross-column reading.
There also lies within this mode of presentation an implicit suggestion
that other alternative conjoined phrases could be created if the
columns were aligned differently, moving left and right up or down a
line or two. While not an integral aspect of the reading process, what
this demonstrates is the way in which cut-up texts, particularly those
presented using the multiple column format, reveal the possibilities for
creating new word orders and hence a new interactive language of
writing, or what Roland Barthes terms “the birth of the reader” (1977:
148) which is integral to the “death of the author” of which he
theorised, and which the cut-ups addressed, as detailed in the
Introduction. While perhaps not revealing any underlying “truth”
regarding the meaning of the original texts, the creation of such
Early Successors 101

phrases unquestionably achieves the goal of releasing words from

their previously imposed order and enabling the reader to engage with
“pure” images and to experience a new mode of reading as the result
of unexpected word combinations and hence “new” phrases and
Another significant feature of Giorno’s “dual narrative” poems
is the way in which the phrases and sub-phrases are repeated in
various degrees of completeness. Indeed, the repetition of phrases
would become Giorno’s trademark as he gradually began to repeat a
single phrase an increasing number of times within a single verse in
what could be considered a variation on the permutations – but instead
of altering the word-order to yield all possible permutations of a
phrase, he would alter the phrase’s typographical layout, resulting in a
permutation of emphasis and meaning. The effect of this repetition is
analogous to the words replicating themselves on the page, and as
such represents a quite literal interpretation of Burroughs’ suggestion
that “word is an actual virus… they replicate themselves within the
cells but they don’t harm the cells... a phrase can replicate itself and
jump all over the world” (Lotringer 2001: 172).
This idea of the capacity for words to spread and mutate in a
viral manner is directly addressed in the introduction to Cancer in My
Left Ball, which carries the title “this book is cancer”. He theorises
that “as the images of the poems are found in any words I’ve seen or
heard in every day life, coming into my sense inputs from newspapers,
magazines, radio, TV, or books, you might say… the images are
American cancer cells”. Without developing his idea nearly as far as
Burroughs takes his “word virus” theory, the principle of a correlation
between poison and the poisoning of the mind, body and nation does
share considerable common ground with Burroughs’ belief in the
control language holds over mankind. Giorno even suggests that the
virus is slowly devouring its host: “Endless thought saturation making
our minds into prisons for the survival of those poison pictures”. This
strongly echoes Burroughs’ opinion that the media saturation of the
postmodern era has become the contemporary “opium of the people:”
“if you’re absolutely bombarded with images from passing trucks and
cars and televisions and newspapers, you become blunted and this
102 Shift Linguals

makes a permanent haze in front of your eyes, you can’t see anything”
(Burroughs & Odier 1974: 34).33
Giorno would subsequently develop this use of repetition.
Particularly evident in the works Giorno would publish in the 1980s
and 1990s, these works commonly derive their formulation from the
repetition of a phrase three, four or even five times, with each
repetition presenting the same phrase in different ways. This may
begin with a full line before breaking it down into sub-phrases on each
repetition, first in half, then into various subsections, and then often
even further into individual words, so that each word constitutes a line
of verse in itself, or, conversely, may build up to the full line through
the development of the sub-phrases. The different presentational
permutations serve to alter the meanings of the lines and functions in a
way which encourages variations in emphasis and inflection.
Appearing after a lengthy spell of inactivity following Cancer in My
Left Ball, Grasping At Emptiness (1985) set the blueprint for his
subsequent repetition-based style. “Life is a Killer” is exemplary:
How are you
feeling good
how are you
how are
you feeling good
how are you feeling
how are you feeling good
you need
attention (Giorno 2008: 298-9)

The changing presentations of a single phrase serve to draw out

different meanings and interpretations – here we see a range of
permutations ranging from the interrogative “how are you” to the
affirmative “feeling good”, through the question and response of “how
are you feeling?” “good”, to questioning “how are you feeling good?”

“Narcotization” was a term popularised by sociologists including Lazarsfeld and
Merton (1948) to describe the effect of the mass media and the way it was believed
to “induce apathy and political inertia in the mass audience”. The idea of the mass
media as a “plug in drug” corresponds with a Marxist view of the effects of the
media (O’Sullivan 1994: 194).
Early Successors 103

Although not permutations of the sort Gysin produced prolifically

around 1959 and 1960, Giorno’s verses which centre around
restructuring the same sentence in different ways can be seen to mark
a development on the idea of permutational writing initiated by Gysin.
However, in Giorno’s work, the altered meanings derive from their
changes in emphasis through placing and vocal nuance rather than
through the actual changing of the word order. However, this is only
one of two key objectives behind his employment of this device.
Adding emphasis to the words and drawing out the musicality based
on the simple sounds of the words, abstracted from their meaning, is
of equal importance to Giorno, as he explains:
By further splitting and repeating phrases and doubling them, it slows down,
stretches the space and makes the mind more aware of it. Then after doubling
it, tripling it, because I found musical rhythms developed in the flowing of the
words, and two and three and four repeats would build its intensity and make
it sing (Leyland 1978: 138).

While nuances such as rhythm are not always necessarily apparent in

the written medium, Giorno considers performance to be the medium
to which his work is best suited, and strives to bring these aspects to
the fore during the writing process. “While I am writing a poem, I
perform it with a live microphone, and when it is completed, I
rehearse it, trying to bring forth and develop the melodies inherent in
the words and phrases”, he explains in the epilogue to his 1994
collection, You Got to Burn to Shine (190).
Many popular critics have suggested that the lyrics of musicians
like Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison are poetry set to music. Giorno can
be seen to subscribe to the opinion that poetry and song lyrics are not
mutually exclusive disciplines, and reveals that he considers the
melodies inherent in the words and phrases are not the sole musical
facet to his works. “My poems are just song lyrics, and when they’re
performed with a lot of energy from my gut, then they work” (Silver
and Bourne 1982). That he performed his poems with a full rock-
based backing band “and toured extensively” (Giorno 1994:185)
between 1984 and 1988 further substantiates this claim and provides
evidence of the ways in which poetry can cross over with rock ‘n’ roll
(a point noted by Marcus Boon, who contends that “Capsule”, ‘Give It
104 Shift Linguals

to Me, Baby” and Johnny Guitar are “among the most rock ‘n’ roll
poems ever written” (Giorno 2008: xv)).34
Giorno describes the importance and purpose of musicality in
his poetry, saying “Spoken word, using breath and heat, pitch and
volume, and the melodies inherent in the language, risking technology
and music, and a deep connection with an audience, is the fulfilment
of a poem” (Giorno 1994: 191). The methods he employs in order to
achieve his objective of the “fulfilment” of a poem are very similar to
those practised by Ginsberg, not only in the way in which the verbal
units and breathing combine to create a specific effect, but also in the
way in which this is used in conjunction with repetition, as if as a
mantra.35 A lifelong Buddhist, Giorno acknowledges the mantric
qualities of his performances, but stresses that his poems are not
mantras, and is heavily critical of poets other, including Ginsberg,
who have attempted to combine performance poetry with mantra,
saying “poetry is not entertainment… it serves no useful purpose to
sing a mantra to a crowd; you’re just entertaining them… Mantra is
very powerful. But is should not be used in that way” (Leyland 1978:
Despite this, Giorno does consider his work to have a close
relationship to meditation, or, more accurately, to a reflection of the
mind’s natural, unmeditated state. He theorises that meditation “quiets
the rattle of your internal dialogue… Your mind is like the person who
never shuts up, who just keeps talking and talking to you, until you
say, ‘listen, man, please shut up. I can’t take it anymore’” (Leyland
1978: 131). In this way, while his earlier works were concerned with
external language and its capacity to shock or relate to the exterior
environment, this later works engage directly with the internal
functions of language, and the power it has over mankind in terms of

GPS releases feature a number of live performances by the John Giorno Band,
including “Scum and Slime” (A Diamond Hidden in the Mouth of a Corpse; “It’s a
Mistake to Think You’re Special” (Like a Girl, I Want You to Keep Coming), and a
studio recording of “Exiled in Domestic Life” (Better an Old Demon than a New
Paul Portugés writes that Ginberg believed that replicating the breathing patterns
while the poem was written would enable the reader to experience the same “hellish
vale.” “He had unconsciously transcribed his prophetic vision into rhythmic units
that corresponded to his ‘breathing physiological spasm’. The amazing thing about
this theory-practice is that is actually works” (Portugés 1978: 189).
Early Successors 105

providing order and structure, specifically on a subconscious level.

This aspect of the way these repetitions function and affect the reader
is addressed by Burroughs in his forward to You Got to Burn to Shine.
The repetition that characterizes John Giorno’s poetry is rooted in the basic
nature of language, or symbolic representation, which is actually concerned
not with communication, but with orientation in time: You wake up. You go
to the bank. How many times will you repeat to yourself while you get ready
to leave for the bank “I have to go to the bank to go to the bank the bank the
And the audience recognizes this seemingly senseless repetition as a part of
their own mental processes – “Yes, our minds sound just like that.” (Giorno
1994: 2)

It is this level of universality which provides the greatest degree of

power to Giorno’s work. On a certain level, the repetitions do compel
the reader to consider each line – word, sub-phrase and phrase – in
turn, yielding new emphases and thus new meanings with each
repetition. On another, the repetitions do become akin to the internal
dialogue of the mental process, concerned not with meaning but, as
Burroughs suggests, “orientation”. In this way, Giorno’s work form a
poetical reproduction of the rhythmic streams of voices Konstantin
Raudive recorded which interested Burroughs, as detailed in Chapter
One – the difference being that the voices Giorno captures are from an
internal, rather than external source. Rather than tapping into the
“prerecording” being played by agents of control, or reproducing the
voices of the dead, the voices in Giorno’s poems are very much those
of the living. Through these voices, Giorno continues to propagate
methods which evolved from the original cut-up technique.

Carl Weissner: The Text as Multimedia Collage

Despite being the author of a number of experimental texts and

collaborative pieces with Burroughs, Carl Weissner is perhaps better
known for his translation of the works of Charles Bukowski for the
German market than for his own writing. Like Pélieu, his literary
output is commonly relegated to a footnote in Burroughs
bibliographies in recognition for his contribution to So Who Owns
Death TV? While his small role in the development of the Burroughs
canon is noteworthy, his own independent works are also worthy of
attention within the context of the evolution of the cut-ups. During the
106 Shift Linguals

late 1960s, Weissner contributed to a number of underground

magazines and small publications such as The San Francisco
Earthquake, Intrepid and Fruit Cup, the latter of which also featured
pieces by other renowned authors including Burroughs, Ginsberg,
Pélieu, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Charles Plymell. He also wrote the
experimental cut-up novel The Braille Film (1970).
Weissner’s interest in cult literature began while at university in
Heidelberg, where, dissatisfied by the “stuffy, easy and largely
irrelevant” texts on the syllabus (Dougherty 1988: 70), he discovered
the works of Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs.
I was sitting around cafeterias between classes, nursing a cup of coffee and
reading Naked Lunch, On the Road, Tropic of Cancer. After that, you know,
going back to another seminar on Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience
– on a level which seemed a throwback to junior college days – well, it all
seemed rather discouraging. Then, all of a sudden, things started to
happen…(Dougherty 1988: 70).

These “things” included the pivotal Times Literary Supplement’s “fat

special issues on the ‘avantgarde’” in 1965 (Dougherty 1988: 70).
Weissner recalls that “they covered some of the little mag scene in the
States and England, France, South America. With addresses and
everything. That was a real find” (Dougherty 1988: 70). He continues:
“I thought if I had a magazine of my own I could exchange copies
with some of these editors and just take it from there. So I started a
magazine” (Dougherty 1988: 70). That magazine was
Klactoveedsedsteen, which took My Own Mag – “the craziest and
most adventurous mimeo rag of those years”– as its inspiration
(Dougherty 1988: 70), and saw Weissner assume the roles of both
editor and publisher. Within a few editions, he was in correspondence
with, and publishing works by “people like Nuttal and Burroughs,
Mary Beach and Claude Pélieu in New York, Harold Norse in Greece,
Margaret Randall and Alexandro Jodorwski in Mexico City”
(Dougherty 1988: 70). Significantly, Weissner recalls that around this
time he was “totally fascinated with William Burroughs’ cut-up thing”
and this led him to “all these cut-up collaborations with Burroughs,
Nuttal, Pélieu, Mary Beach. Tape experiments and whatnot” (71).
It was this spate of collaborative experimentation which yielded
So Who Owns Death TV? Weissner’s contribution, also entitled “So
Who Owns Death TV?” is in many ways a classic example of a cut-up
text, and bears many similarities to Burroughs’ own cut-ups, not least
Early Successors 107

of all because, like Burroughs’ texts and Pélieu’s With Revolvers

Aimed, it incorporated phrases drawn from Burroughs’ “highly
volatile material” (Wilson & Gysin 2001: 170).
COUNT GEIGER – thermic news flashing from his transparent brains *
“hustling myself… sure I could replace the grid… bring the liquid up to 200
degrees fahrenheit…that would give you two weeks before YOUR deadline,
Mr Pozo… but the moon has no magnetic field to stop the green particles…”
– (Burroughs et al 1967: 11)

The creation of a character in the form of Count Geiger through the

transposition of “Geiger Counter” is exemplary of the ways the cut-
ups reveal new meanings through the reordering of words. This also
connects with a thread of “nuclear” themes and images which run
though the text, beginning with “thermic news” in which (nuclear)
physics and the mass media fuse, and extending through to “Polonium
Counter” (11) and “inhaled heavy Polonium” (13). The phrase
“hustling myself” recurs variously in Naked Lunch (“No good… no
bueno… hustling myself” (121) “No good… no bueno… hustling
himself” (196)), and serves to lend Weissner’s text a Burroughsian
quality from the outset. Such appropriation also acts as a signpost of
sorts: intertextual referencing in this way indicates both Weissner’s
literary background and intentions. Alongside segments cut from
Burroughs’ work, the sources of this opening section of “So Who
Owns Death TV?” are clearly similar to Burroughs’ preferred sources,
combining elements drawn from science fiction and medical journals
to create a sequence of phrases which juxtapose clinically presented
factual information regarding temperatures, etc., with fantastic images
of “transparent brains”.
Weissner also presents segments of this text in column format,
like that of newsprint.
108 Shift Linguals

(Burroughs et al 1967: 11)

Not only does Weissner’s use of the column presentation serve to

render explicit the formulation of the text, through “exposing” the
method – the means which yields the end – but it also contains
reference to its own formulation and purpose, albeit in a form which
has been cut-up and is not immediately obvious and accessible. The
messages may be “garbled” and in “(flesh) columns”, but within the
cut-up composite lies the “exposed” truth behind the original source
texts. The remainder of the text is devoted to the presentation of a
series of fragmentary images which correspond directly with both its
title and the central theme of the other texts within the pamphlet,
namely the effects of the mass media and the control the televisual
medium exerts over the population.
…but the Botuline thing lasts forever with any living human brain system…
I call it the True-Blue Batman Syndrome… DEATH TV, you understand?
…this is the end of the old geiger interference gimmick… I give up my
identity and become everybody else… and everybody becomes my sick
iridescent Lingo Mutations actually thinks talks feels geiger count panic… so
WHO OWNS? – DEATH TV, son… set yr dreamy Polonium Counter
forward an hour… time to move out Zero Gravity… (Burroughs et al 1967:

Once again, the parallels between Weissner’s text and many of

Burroughs’ cut-ups are evident, not least of in the way in which the
themes of “word as virus” and mutation are presented, i.e. that these
ideas are explained and demonstrated simultaneously within the body
of the text. Weissner’s lexical selections are also of interest, in that
there is, again, a strong degree of commonality between his and
Burroughs’ writing. In Nova Express, Burroughs writes, “one of our
agents is posing as a writer. He has written a so-called pornographic
Early Successors 109

novel called Naked Lunch in which the Orgasm Death Gimmick is

described” (Burroughs 1992a: 56) while here Weissner presents the
“geiger interference gimmick”. The inclusion of such words and
phrases adds to the effect of a text which, to all intents and purposes,
is as much a Burroughs-style text as a uniquely Weissner text. Herein
lies a leading purpose of Weissner’s text: by questioning the author’s
identity, the cut-ups challenge the established notions of authorship
and ownership. Thus by cutting up Burroughs’ texts, Weissner creates
“new Burroughs images” just as Burroughs created “new” Rimbaud
images (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 4) by cutting up Rimbaud’s texts.
The Braille Film sees Weissner follow Burroughs and Pélieu in
attempting to apply the cut-up and fold-in methods to “the novel”.
Like the Nova trilogy and With Revolvers Aimed… Finger Bowls, The
Braille Film is not immediately recognisable as a “novel” in the
conventional sense, in that it is composed of a collection of shorter
texts and fragments, some of which had already appeared in different
versions in magazines including The San Francisco Earthquake,
Klakto/23 and Fruit Cup.
The Braille Film is prefaced with the following:
Variations of Burroughs/Gysin cutup & fold-in techniques applied to scans &
cross-column readings from newspapers magazines books tape-recordings of
radio & TV programs etc. have been used in putting together these texts which
consequently are composite texts by many writers living and dead. (Weissner
1970: 2)

From the outset, Weissner is explicit as to the book’s formulation and

purpose, and there can be no doubt that he is attempting to recreate a
“third mind” situation, and is also locating the text within the cut-up
canon and focusing squarely on the effects of televisual media.
Weissner’s preface acts as an authorial disclaimer of sorts, by
simultaneously openly acknowledging his plagiarism of precursive
texts and an established technique and also denying his own
authorship by drawing attention to the fact that the words which
follow are not his, but those of others. The prefatory note is concluded
with a list of authors whom he credits with the contribution of “fade-
ins”. Although it is unclear if these insertions referred to as “fade-ins”
are derived specifically from Burroughs’ fold-in method, Weissner’s
use of the term suggests a filmic variation on the technique in keeping
with the “script” theme of The Braille Film. These contributing
110 Shift Linguals

authors include William Burroughs, Claude Pélieu, Alistair MacLean

and British United Press. These are clearly not all knowing, or willing
collaborators: MacLean’s contribution consists of a facsimile of a
page from Where Eagles Dare on page 35, presumably selected for
the appearance of a character named Weissner.36 Other insertions
include letters from Burroughs, news cuttings, and a series of
newsletters by the title of “The Electric Times” which mimic the
newspaper format while simultaneously echoing Burroughs’ The
Coldspring News and The Moving Times.
Burroughs provides an introduction in the form of a
“counterscript” which sets the tone and style for the book, presented
as it is in two columns much like a number of his previous works.
Explaining this technique, and why the same effect could not be
achieved “by simply free-associating at the typewriter” Burroughs
argued that “one’s mind can’t cover it that way” (Burroughs & Gysin
1978: 4). He continues:
If I wanted to make a cut-up of this [picking up a copy of the Nation], there
are many ways I could do it. I could read cross-column; I could say “Today’s
men’s nerves surround us. Each technological extension gone outside is
electrical involves an act of collective environment. The human nervous
environment system itself can be reprogrammed with all its private and social
values because it is content…” … Suppose I should cut this down the middle
here, and put this up here. It’s like trying to keep so many chess moves in
mind, you just couldn’t do it. Your mind could simply not manage it. The
mental mechanisms of repression and selection are also operating against you.
(Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 4)

The use of “counterscript” is therefore perhaps more appropriate here

than in any other publication, given that across this text, Weissner
places much emphasis on the filmic aspect of the mass media. As a
“film”, it presents a “script” of sorts. But Burroughs’ counterscript
does not run counter or opposite to Weissner’s. Instead, the
counterscript can be seen to function as a retaliation against the script
of predetermination and pre-programming, that which runs through

Such blatant plagiarisms appear to follow Marshall McLuhan’s directions for the
use of modern media for the creation of “new” composite texts: “Xeroxography…
Anybody can now become both author and publisher. Take any books on any
subject and custom-make your own book by simply xeroxing a chapter from this
one, a chapter from that one – instant steal!” (1967: 123).
Early Successors 111

the “word lines” and serves as the enemy’s control mechanism that the
cut-ups are being used to attack.
The Braille Film begins with a quotation accredited to Marshall
TV engineers have begun to explore the Braille like character of the TV image
as a means of enabling the blind to see by having this image projected directly
onto their skins. We need to use all media in this wise to enable us to see our
situation. (Weissner 1970: 3)

This referencing of McLuhan provides a useful insight into

Weissner’s preoccupations as manifested within The Braille Film: the
visual similarities between some sections of The Braille Film and
McLuhan’s texts of the late 1960s, notably The Medium is the
Massage (1967) and War and Peace in the Global Village (1968) are
remarkable. Through the juxtaposition of words and images – such as
his now-iconic image of the soldier with his face bandaged, smoking a
cigarette, accompanied by the caption “Every new technology
necessitates a new war” (McLuhan and Fiore 1968: 98) – McLuhan
practically demonstrates the effects of the media. Moreover, through
the use of mixed media, he shows the ways in which words and
images in combination can be manipulated to create bias or even an
entirely different narrative from that conveyed by the same words and
images in their original contexts.
Weissner’s own text begins by detailing its own function as
something that acts on the subconscious and requires the reader to
“make connections” rather than expect the narrator to provide a
readily digestible and sequentialised conventional novel, while
simultaneously outlining the “plot”:
The passengers of this hopped up mixed media set are on a trip to the end of
the nervous system, to the end of the Invisible Environment. There is no guide
no voice no word. Walled in by oscillographs of the past the crew plot a
precarious course in dead space of random topographies. Infra-red TV
screens, exposed nerve ends, phosphorescent comics, roentgen films & tapes
of fictitious events, wind-tunnels of gossip, rigged history. (Weissner 1970: 5)

In addition to setting out what the reader can expect in terms of

“story” and narrative form, in which there is “no guide no voice no
word”, the opening passage also introduces the idea of the cut-up as a
device for attacking false histories (“rigged histories”) and
misinformation propagated by the mass media (“films & tapes of
112 Shift Linguals

fictitious events”). This is of interest on a number of levels. In the first

instance, the language and imagery Weissner uses to define the
contents of the text is essentially identical to that which forms the very
fabric of the novel. By this, I mean that The Braille Film is
intrinsically self-referential with regard to its function while
extrinsically detailing within a fictionalised context the same
“invisible war” against linguistic tyranny. In the second instance,
these “films & tapes of fictitious events” and “rigged history” sees the
author grappling directly with issues which were coming to the fore in
literary criticism within the body of a work of fiction.
A particular function of The Braille Film, which engages
directly with contemporary literary theory, is the questioning of the
formation of history through totalization. Hutcheon defines this as
“the process by which writers of history, fiction or even theory render
their materials coherent, continuous, unified – but always with an eye
to the control and mastery of those materials, even at the risk of doing
violence to them” (2002: 59).37 Hutcheon argues that
the historian’s job is to tell plausible stories, made out of the mess of
fragmentary and incomplete facts, facts which he or she processes and to
which he or she thereby grants meaning through emplotment… historians
suppress, repeat, subordinate, highlight and order those facts’, through
totalization. (2002: 64)

Weissner, however, is concerned with presenting the “facts” without

suppression, subordination or false order, effectively writing against
totalization. Through cutting away those oppressive selections of
word-order, the “facts” are freed and thus available for the reader to
interpret and order for themselves without the imposition of another’s
value judgements or agenda. In this way, Weissner is actively inviting
the reader’s engagement and eisegesis, making an explicit assault on
the established traditions of order.

Hutcheon writes: “If the archive is composed of texts, it is open to all kinds of use
and abuse. The archive has always been the site of a lot of activity, but rarely of
such self-consciously totalizing activity as it is today. Even what is considered
acceptable as documentary evidence has changed. And certainly the status of the
document has altered: since it is acknowledged that it can offer no direct access to
the past, then it must be a representation or replacement through textual refiguring
of the brute event” (2002: 77).
Early Successors 113

Hutcheon contends that “narrative has come to be

acknowledged as, above all, a human-made structure – never as
‘natural’ or given” (59). She continues by explaining, “whether it be
in historical or fictional representation, the familiar narrative form of
beginning, middle and end implies a structuring process that imparts
meaning as well as order” (59). She also suggests that the need to
question totalization within narrative form “seems to be countered
these days by an equally strong terror that it is really someone else –
rather than we ourselves – who is plotting, ordering, controlling our
life for us” (60). In The Braille Film, Weissner exposes the mechanics
of totalization and of the plotting and ordering through media
direction and manipulation by showing the activity “behind the
scenes”. Camera angles and other directions common to screen plays
and scripts, such as “The scene opens on a steaming greenhouse”
(1970: 92) and “(CLOSE-UP) Neon fingers over fresh scar
impressions” (100) are all embedded within the fabric of the text,
blurring the boundaries between novel and script, and ultimately,
between written text and film. In doing so, Weissner shows that the
“terror” that “someone else” is “plotting” scripting and filming is not
mere paranoia, but the reality.
In many ways, The Braille Film extends the collage approach to
writing demonstrated within other cut-up texts to a new level, and
brings the cut-ups closer to the scrap-book / collage form that
Burroughs used to collect his cut-ups and attempted to reproduce in a
more formal and purely narrative form (see over):
114 Shift Linguals

(Burroughs 1984: 171)

Perhaps even more than The Third Mind, his scrapbooks illustrate the
way in which Burroughs collected texts from various sources and
collaged them to create new phrases. Although Burroughs made
Early Successors 115

frequent use of scrapbooks as a source of inspiration, such modes of

presentation did not feature directly in any of his major texts. In The
Braille Film, however, Weissner attempts to bring the novel and
collage together to create a more overtly multimedia text, and
achieves this through the incorporation not only of unconnected
fragments of text, but also pages of photographic collages and single-
page texts printed in landscape format, and hence at right-angles to the
rest of the text.

(Weissner 1970: 82-83)

Pages such as these take Burroughs’ principle of applying the montage

technique to text most literally, and in doing so render the multimedia
idea implicit in Burroughs’ cut-ups explicit. Moreover, in drawing
together texts in different languages, Weissner goes a step further than
Burroughs did in presenting text that bridges the distance between
locations. Although such forms of presentation were already long-
established in magazine-format publications and by newspapers, in
which photographs had for a long time accompanied and illustrated
the stories, such combinations of words and pictures remained quite
116 Shift Linguals

uncommon within the novel context. Burroughs considered the

collage to be of great importance in the war on linguistic tyranny:
The word of course is one of the most powerful instruments of control as
exercised by the newspaper and images as well, there are both words and
images in newspapers… if you start cutting these up and rearranging them you
are breaking down the control system.’ (Burroughs & Odier 1974: 33)

Although Burroughs would go on to develop methods which would

further break down the norms of the news media, but being published
in 1970, The Braille Film predates Burroughs’ most extreme collage
texts, The Book of Breeething (1974), Sidetripping (1975, with
Charles Gatewood, unpublished until 2001) and Ah Pook is Here
(1979) by some years, and as such represents an immense leap in the
development of the cut-ups. As such, while Burroughs spoke
frequently of the analogy between the cut-ups and the editing of film,
it was Weissner who first realised the filmic nature of the method
through the combination of word and image. The visual connotations
of the medium and method are accentuated within the contents of The
Braille Film in the frequent referencing of cameras, lenses, film,
television, etc.
A number of passages reflect the use of subliminal transmission
techniques and the effects of rapid edits: “(MEDIA LANDSCAPE.
Superimpositions of montage landscape: film stills/ molecular
diagrams/ language primers/ architectural schema/ comic strips/
weaving patterns/ space hardware/ pulp fiction/ car stylings/ etc.)”
(Weissner 1970: 6). This “media landscape” of montage, etc., is not
only discussed, but demonstrated, through the use of mixed media and
collages which combine both text and image, and also through the use
of different typefaces, which further expose the method by which the
text was formulated, differentiating different source texts not only
through punctuation, but typographical separation. This appears to be
another idea derived from McLuhan, as demonstratively explained in
The Medium is the Massage, in which a range of fonts and
punctuation styles are used to illustrate and exemplify the theories
being put forward. As such, in McLuhan’s text, the content is reflected
in the form: that is to say, rather than simply describe the “variety of
auditory effects from typography” created in newspapers, he recreates
those effects through the use of different type faces. Thus the medium
and the message are interdependent, synergised. These auditory
Early Successors 117

effects are recreated in The Braille Film. If postmodern texts

challenge “this totalizing impulse” (Hutcheon 2002: 60), and the cut-
up takes this challenging a step further, The Braille Film raises this
challenging to its highest level by working against continuity in order
to expose its artifice. Equally significantly, by incorporating
McLuhan’s ideas within methodologies formalised by Burroughs,
Weissner can be seen to be extending the spheres of reference and
thus the intertextual scope of the cut-up canon in new directions. As is
also evidenced in Burroughs’ Nova trilogy, The Braille Film functions
to obliterate the idea of rendering those primary materials “coherent,
continuous, unified” and is more concerned with “doing violence to
them” (Hutcheon 2002: 59) than formulating its own sense of mastery
– or any sense of Weissner, as the text’s “author” mastering those
materials from which the text is constructed.
Elsewhere, the text explains the line “those cops got flickered
out of existence” as:
Oblique reference to THE FLICKER a film by Tony Conrad. Flicker begins at
four light flashes a second and anything above 40 flashes a second is
indiscernible to the eyes except continuous light. FLICKER is actually 47
different patterns of black&white frame combinations. The film starts with a
high flicker rate of 24 flashes per second, causing little effect, and gradually
lowers to a stroboscopic eye massage of 18 to 4 flashes per second. It is
known to cause fits of photogenic epilepsy in some subjects; others simply
disintegrate.’ (Weissner 1970: 13)

This strongly echoes some of Burroughs’ ideas regarding the

destructive power of visual and audio frequencies, in particular those
detailed in The Job, which include discussions surrounding research
which revealed that certain frequencies can “kill a man five miles
away” and that “the wave length most dangerous to human life is 7
Hz” (Burroughs & Odier 1974: 62-64). Indeed, the very idea of
“flicker” can be found in The Job, in which Burroughs writes:
“Flicker” is a threshold experience of induced experience produced by altering
the speed of light to accommodate the maximum range of our alpha rhythms.
“Flicker” creates a dazzling multiplicity of images in constantly altering
relationships which makes the “collages” and “assemblages” of so-called
“modern” art appear utterly ineffectual and slow. (Burroughs & Odier 1974:
118 Shift Linguals

In many ways, this also functions in much the same way Burroughs’
contemporaneous The Electronic Revolution (1971) and a number of
passages from the Nova trilogy, in that it provides a technical insight
the way in which the “invisible enemy” operate, and, like Burroughs,
Weissner incorporates pseudoscience and cultural and technical theory
within a “fictional” context, blurring the boundaries of fiction. More
specifically, Weissner can be seen to be incorporating the ideas put
forward by Burroughs within his work, achieving not only a thematic
continuation from Burroughs’ work in his own, but also forming a
direct intertextual correspondence between his work and earlier cut-
Weissner also pursues the idea of media subliminality: “we
inject the images just where the two halves meet & harp on, right?
…the viewer doesn’t know what hit him …a ‘mainline to heaven’ we
call it … indetectable …it’s better than a hot needle…” (Weissner
1970: 83). Again, there are parallels between this and sections of
Burroughs’ Nova trilogy, notably “now let them see us” from The
Ticket That Exploded, which includes the following:
Short Time Hyp is subliminal slow motion – Like this: a movie at normal
speed is run at 24 frames per second – 35 frames per second is not perceptible
at slow motion if the image on screen is more or less stationary – But the
image is on screen longer than you are watching it – That is you are being
short-timed 11 frames per second. (Burroughs 1967: 158)38

Such passages reflect a very real paranoid undercurrent that was

linked to a suspicion of the mass media at the time. The early
practitioners of the cut-up technique faced that “terror” by
relinquishing control over the text and its ordering. By engaging
directly with the prevalent “terror” over who is plotting, ordering and
controlling, and exposing the reality of what lies behind the images

“Hyp” may be a reference to the “hypodermic syringe” model of the media and its
effects upon viewers, in which it was theorised that “the mass media have a direct,
immediate and influential effect upon audiences by ‘injecting’ information into the
consciousness of the masses” (Watson & Hill, A Dictionary of Communications
Studies, 105). This theory was popularised by sociologists “out of a concern and
pessimism surrounding the rapid expansion of electronic media, particularly in the
USA in the 1930s and 1940s” (Tim O’Sullivan. Key Concepts in Communication
and Cultural Studies (Second Edition). O’Sullivan also notes that this model “has
close links with other metaphors drawn between media messages and ‘diseases’ or
‘infections’, contagiously transmitted” (105).
Early Successors 119

beamed directly into every living room across the developed world,
Weissner uses the cut-ups to the ends Burroughs had intended, namely
to expose the true meanings of the propagandist texts circulated by the
mass media.
In locating the origins of the postmodern tendency to “question
this totalizing impulse” in “some sort of 1960s or late romantic need
to privilege free, unconditioned experience” (2002: 59), Hutcheon is
simply speaking broadly of postmodern fiction. While an initial cut-up
explosion did occur during this time, and is in many ways entirely
representative of the trend toward questioning the artifice of
sequential ordering and structure based on “beginning-middle-end”
(59), I would contend that the cut-ups took this questioning to a new
level, by not only questioning the established practice of sequential
ordering, but by entirely dispensing with it within the context of
That Pélieu, Giorno and Weissner all made use of the cut-up
technique in various ways is without question. What is apparent,
however, is that each of these writers brought something uniquely
their own to the method, adapting and developing their own variations
on the technique to meet their own ends and to reflect their own
interests and preoccupations. Pélieu, while presenting a scenic
backdrop of an invisible war, viral mutation and media
sensationalism, brings the idea of character to the fore, highlighting
the artifice of characterisation within the conventionally narrated
novel context. Giorno has not only shown a dedication to the
exploration of cutting up phrases and “found” images to create a new
language of writing, but has also been deeply involved in the cutting
up of culture that Burroughs, Pélieu and Weissner pursued through the
small press publications. His involvement in disseminating
countercultural values is also exemplified not only by his commitment
to the circulation of new music, poetry and literature through Giorno
Poetry Systems, but also in his contribution to numerous underground
small-press publications.
In the broader scheme of things, Giorno’s participation in such
projects as The Poetry Project – a small underground publisher based
in the Bowery, NY – and The Coldspring Journal places him firmly
within the group of individuals who were at that time acting toward
the common goal of breaking down the monopoly of the major
publishers and the mass media through the use of alternative channels,
120 Shift Linguals

and thus fragmenting the dominant culture.39 Of the early successors

to Burroughs in the use and development of the cut-up, Weissner
stands out as the writer who arguably advanced the technique the
furthest, by realising Burroughs’ ambitions of creating a truly
multimedia mode of writing that would not only create a style of text
that was credibly analogous to film and but that would also bring art
closer to life. Having thus demonstrated the ways in which the early
practitioners of the cut-up who followed Burroughs’ lead explored the
potentials of the technique and introduced new dimensions to the
practice of cutting up, I shall, in the following chapter, show how
Burroughs himself re-examined the ways in which cut-ups could be
applied, and took it in new directions.

Coldspring Journal, Number 6, March-April 1975 (Cherry Valley, NY, 1975).
Edited by Charles Plymell, Pamela Beach Plymell, and Joshua Norton, this also
featured contributions from, amongst others, Victor Bockris, Andrew Wylie, Pélieu,
Beach, Weissner and James Grauerholz.

The Mutations of Burroughs: Revising the Cut-Up


While others made substantial contributions to both the spread and the
development of the cut-up technique, following the initial explosion of
cut-up texts in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Burroughs himself
made further significant steps in the application of the method. As is
fitting for a writer so involved in the questioning of the role of the
author, notions of fixed authorship and the immutability of textual
documentation, Burroughs’ use of the technique was subject to his
own intense scrutiny, and as a consequence he began to take the cut-
ups in new and different directions. To this end, I will analyse the
ways in which Burroughs developed the cut-up technique following
the Nova trilogy, as exemplified by his final trilogy, which consists of
Cities of the Red Night (1981), The Place of Dead Roads (1983) and
The Western Lands (1987). In particular, I will focus on Cities of the
Red Night, which is exemplary of the modes of narrative common to
the trilogy as a whole, as well as of the themes which connect not only
the books within the Red Night trilogy, but also connect this final
trilogy to his previous works. Before this, however, I will consider the
texts he produced between the two major trilogies, in which
significant developments in the cut-up technique are evident. These
transitional works include The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (1969);
Sidetripping (with Charles Gatewood) (1975); The Book of Breeething
(1974); Cobble Stone Gardens (1976) and Ah Pook is Here (written in
the mid-1970s but only published, incomplete, in 1979). These texts
are noteworthy for the inclusion of a pictorial element alongside the
text. I will, however, give only limited coverage of The Wild Boys
(1971), which, despite marking a significant point in Burroughs’
evolution between the cut-ups and the Red Night trilogy, offers little in
122 Shift Linguals

terms of the evolution of cut-ups, and is therefore only of limited

importance here.
Disappointed by the critical and commercial reception of the
Nova trilogy, on entering the 1970s Burroughs made a rapid shift
away from the overt use of cut-ups, with the counterscript to The
Braille Film, published in 1970, marking one of Burroughs’ final cut-
ups of the period. He was perceived at this point to have written
himself into a “brilliantly lit dead end” (Skerl & Lydenberg 1991: 89),
with critics and readers writing him off as a spent force in creative
terms. Burroughs appeared to concur, declaring “there is a point of
diminishing return” (Skerl & Lydenberg 1991: 253), and conceding
that “I’ve done writing that I thought was interesting experimentally,
but simply not readable” (Burroughs & Odier 1974: 56). His
complaint that “if you apply montage method to writing, you are
accused of promulgating a cult of unintelligibility” (Burroughs 1993:
61) had proven too great an obstacle to the widespread acceptance of
his methods of writing, and instead of re-educating readers to a new
way of reading, Burroughs found himself marginalised. In
contemporary interviews, he distanced himself from the cut-up and
fold-in methods, critically remarking that, with hindsight, Nova
Express was “not wholly successful” and that The Ticket That
Exploded contained “too much undifferentiated cut-up material”
(Lydenberg 1987: 177).
Timothy Murphy contends that in some respects, the technique
suffered as a victim of its own success, commenting that “the critical
force of the cut-up method began to dissipate, as it was taken up and
applied too rigidly by less talented writers, especially in Europe, who
revealed its limits by discovering the formal and stylistic indifference
to which the procedure often led” (1997: 140). Murphy appears to be
referring to authors such as Claude Pélieu, Carl Weissner, Jan
Herman, Walter Hartmann, Udo Breger and Jürgen Ploog, although to
suggest that their work applied the cut-ups “too rigidly” (1997: 140)
and thus weakened the capacity of the method as a device for social
critique is to misrepresent their output. The texts these European
authors produced were, by their own admission, hampered by the
grammatical dictates of their native languages, and for this reason,
their most successful cut-ups were made in English. Matthias Penzel,
who has worked with Weissner and edited some of Ploog’s more
Inter-Section 123

recent work, explained to me the difficulties of cutting up texts in

languages other than English as follows:
English grammar makes all this work/play with words easier. In German
grammar the verb wants to know whether it refers to I, you, we, you again!, or
they. In English only the verb’s form belonging to he/she/it is different.
Additionally the adjectives in German are, as in French, different, depending
on the gender of the noun.1

These European texts were clearly less “polished” than Burroughs’,

retaining irregularities of punctuation and part-words not present in
Burroughs’ works. Although the roughness of these texts does on
occasion affect their readability, the power of these texts as a “critical
force” remains strong, while also serving to demonstrate the results
that cutting up can yield when presented “unchanged and unedited” as
Burroughs had claimed Minutes To Go (1960) was. With hindsight,
Ploog, who contributed to Cut Up (1969) and various other German
cut-up anthologies, believes that his early cut-ups were perhaps a little
primitive, but that over time he learned to edit and use the method
with more control:
Like Burroughs I edit my work. My first book using cut-ups was
Coca-Cola-Hinterland published in 1969. Early cut-ups in rather crude form
(as first cut-ups are). Using language as material with little regard for plot or
readability. Randomness is a major factor in my writing. I have little control
over what material I use when I sit down to write.2

He adds that “cut-up is easier in English (as in comparison with

German) because English is more flexible & semantically not so
determined. Words can easily take on different meanings”.3 One could
argue, however, that these less edited European cut-ups were “purer”,

Matthias Penzel, E-mail interview, 21 June 2007.
Jürgen Ploog, E-mail interview, 25 June 2007. 2010 saw the publication of Ploog’s
cut-up novella, Flesh Film. Written over the course of many years, Flesh Film is
composed using a number of extended cut-ups incorporated within more
conventional narrative passages. Published in English, the sections originally
written in German were translated by Weissner. This text abundantly evidences the
lessons learned by the author during the time since his earlier cut-up pieces. Flesh
Film is available on-line at:
film/ (consulted 29 June 2010).
Jürgen Ploog, E-mail interview, 25 June 2007.
124 Shift Linguals

and that irrespective of how “rigidly” or unquestioningly these writers

applied the technique in Murphy’s view, they did nevertheless mould
the random results of the technique. This is confirmed by Penzel, who,
writing on Ploog’s work, recalls: “[I] remixed and polished his cut-ups
... much to the dismay of a cut up PhD in Mainz”.4 In light of this, it
can be seen that the cut-ups were perhaps never as random as
Burroughs, Gysin and the other leading practitioners would have led
others to believe, a point Ploog supports in response to my asking
about his use of the technique: “How random is random? I tell you it
is not very random. It tells me what to write about & how. It sets the
tone for where I want to go in my writing”.5 This in no way
diminishes the technique’s importance; the ways in which the method
was used to reveal new meanings and new possibilities of word order
render it a vital tool in the advancement of writing. The ways the cut-
ups have been subsequently adopted and developed, as I will explore
in the remaining chapters of this book, serve as testament to the
technique’s importance.
Burroughs also insisted that a writer must “consider his
audience”, and stated that “so far as writing goes, you can’t get away
from narrative style altogether because people won’t read it… I just
don’t think there’s a substitute for it. I mean – people want some sort
of story in there” (Lydenberg 1987: 178). He also went so far as to
remark, “I find it increasingly difficult to write…now, I just don’t feel
like writing. I’m bored with it. I mean, I’m finished. I don’t want to
write anymore” (Hibbard 1999: 24).
But Burroughs did continue writing, and while the cut-ups in
the form he had pursued so rigorously since their first discovery
would feature in a less obvious way within his work post-Wild Boys,
which contained “not more than five per cent, if that” of cut-up
material (Hibbard 1999: 85), his interest in language and its
manipulation would continue to inform his output. It was this interest
that would motivate him to push the cut-ups in new directions.

Matthias Penzel, E-mail interview, 15 May 2007.
Jürgen Ploog, E-mail interview, 25 June 2007.
Inter-Section 125

Words and Pictures: Burroughs’ Multimedia Texts of the 1970s

The most significant of the new directions Burroughs would pursue

stemmed from the film experiments he had already undertaken with
Anthony Balch which yielded, amongst others, Towers Open Fire
(1963), The Cut-Ups (1966), and Bill and Tony (1972).6 As Anne
Friedberg observes, “the ‘cut-up’ technique offers an implicit analogy
to film editing” (Skerl & Lydenberg: 1991: 171). That Burroughs
would develop this format immediately following the cut-up period of
the 1960s appears to be a logical progression, because it provided a
means of pursuing his interest in the mass media’s methods of
manipulating words and images in combination. The transitional texts
of this period have received little critical attention, and as such have
been widely relegated to the status of minor works within Burroughs’
oeuvre. For example, of the few mentions any of these texts receive in
any of the major editions on Burroughs’ work, Lydenberg makes but a
single mention of The Book of Breeething in Word Cultures. Skerl
devotes just over a page to the discussion of Port of Saints, and gives
only a cursory mention of Cobble Stone Gardens, overlooking the
other works of this period completely.
Given that their formulation clearly signifies a major
development of the collage text format, this is a grave oversight. Ah
Pook was originally intended as a collaborative work with illustrator
Malcolm Neil. However, as Burroughs explains, the project was
fraught with difficulty:
Ah Pook Is Here was originally planned as a picture book modelled on the
surviving Mayan codices. Malcolm Neil was to do the illustrations, and I was
to provide the text. Over the years of our collaboration there were a number of
changes… owing partly to the expense of full-colour reproduction, and
because the book falls into neither the category of the conventional illustrated
book nor that of a comix publication, there have been difficulties with the
arrangements for the complete work . (Burroughs 1979a: Xi)

Neil produced over a hundred pages of illustrations, and Burroughs

several hundred pages of text. As no publisher was willing or able to
print such a volume, the version which finally appeared in 1979 in Ah
Pook is Here and Other Texts features Burroughs’ text alone, without

Different sources give different dates for these films: I have used those most
commonly given.
126 Shift Linguals

Neil’s illustrations. The obstacles encountered in typesetting and

publishing the multimedia Ah Pook are worthy of note not least
because they are indicative of the ways in which the mainstream
publishing world was ill-equipped to deal with such genre-defying
works. In short, Ah Pook further exemplifies the ways in which
Burroughs’ output was often very much ahead of its time.
These multimedia texts serve a tripartite function. In the first
instance, they bring new dimensions to Burroughs’ attack on the
systems of control that run through the printed media. In the second,
they signify his increasing fascination with non-linguistic modes of
The written word is of course a symbol for something and in the case of a
hieroglyphic language like Egyptian it may be a symbol for itself that is a
picture of what it represents. This is not true in an alphabet language like
English… we may forget that a written word is an image and that written
words are images in sequence that is to say moving pictures. (1979a: 66)

This interest in visual representation is most apparent in The Book of

Breeething, which is a largely pictorial volume, accompanied by brief
explanations of the book’s general purpose, namely to reveal the
manifold ways in which an image can be interpreted, and the way in
which elements can be incorporated within a picture to convey a
specific meaning. To this end, Burroughs devised a pictorial language
in which the phrase “coming forth” is articulated by images of legs,
mouth and eye, while “waiting” is represented by a road and a hand,
and “for thee” is expressed by means of a mouth and a cup. Sheaves
of wheat, owls and ejaculating phalluses are also used to represent
abstract concepts (the phrase “in the presence of” is a picture of an
owl plus an “ejaculating phallus”; “in the absence of” is “ejaculating
phallus” plus “owl”, while “death” is expressed as an owl and a man
with an axe) and pictures containing combinations of these thus
convey specific messages.
Although The Book of Breeething is Burroughs’ sole foray into
mixing alphabetic language with hieroglyphs and other pictorial
images, attempting to recreate “moving pictures” in a written text was
central to all of Burroughs’ work of the 1970s. The third, yet perhaps
most important function served by these multimedia texts is the way
in which they preface the great emphasis Burroughs would place on
the Mayan and Egyptian Books of the Dead during his final trilogy.
Inter-Section 127

Ah Pook is Here was a step too far for publishers to

accommodate, but The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, described as “a
fiction in the form of a film script”, also combines words and pictures
and was published as designed. This text successfully brings the
implicit analogy of “moving pictures” and film editing closer to a
point at which it is explicit. In doing so, it emphasises the fact that the
cut-up technique was intended as a method by which experiences
could be conveyed more accurately through the medium of text. “The
writer is really a visual thinker”, Burroughs explains. “I conceive as
much in pictures as in words. You’re seeing a film as you write.
Actually, of course, you’re seeing a film when you read” (Lotringer
2001: 438). Although Burroughs described The Last Words of Dutch
Schultz as “perfectly straight writing” and “in no sense experimental”,
he admitted to having “cut up every page”, from which he “suddenly
got a lot of new ideas that were then incorporated into the structure of
the narrative” (Burroughs & Odier 1974: 30).
The Last Words of Dutch Schultz is a dramatic reconstruction of
the last hours of New York racketeer Arthur Flegenheimer, alias
Dutch Schultz, as he spoke, hallucinating, from his hospital bed after
being shot. The text uses a two-column format, containing set details
and basic narrative in the left column, and dialogue and stage
directions in the right:

The druggist fills orders for cocaine,

Heroin and morphine. Old Irish
biddy comes in.

Good morning, Mrs Murphy. And what can I do for you?

Mrs Murphy: (coughing):

Tincture of opium, Mr Masserang.

The large family size?

Mrs Murphy:
The large family size. (9)

The script clearly possesses a degree of “performability” and adheres

more closely to the presentational style of a script than to a
128 Shift Linguals

conventional prose format. Without the encumbrance of descriptions

of the character’s bodies and expressions, the dialogue is the sole
engagement the reader has with them, thus allowing greater scope for
individual visualisations of the scenes. Anthony Enns argues that “by
using Hollywood technology, as well as employing various gangster
film clichés, Burroughs effectively imitates the language and style of
Hollywood films”, bringing the visual and filmic qualities of the text
to the fore (Schneiderman & Walsh 2004: 107). More importantly,
Enns suggests that the script’s inclusion of photographs from
Hollywood films and press clippings concerning the real-life Schultz
“blur[s] the boundaries between fictional and documentary sources,
exposing the ways in which the mass media, including both the film
industry and the world press, effectively determines and controls
people’s perceptions of reality” (107). This blurring acts as an
effective continuation of the interrogation of the notion of (un)fixed
history which lay at the core of the preceding cut-up texts by
highlighting the questionability of “the document” (Hutcheon 2002:
60) and its authenticity. Burroughs was explicit in his desire to
challenge the authority of historical documentation: “The past only
exists in some record of it… there are no facts. We don’t know how
much of history is completely fiction” (Lotringer 2001: 303).
Therefore, although marking an overt move away from the cut-ups,
there is a distinct line of development in terms of both the formulation
and functionality of the post-Nova texts.
Murphy suggests that the “middle era texts” which followed the
Nova trilogy, in which he includes The Wild Boys, Exterminator!
(1966, 1973), Port of Saints (1973, revised 1980) and The Last Words
of Dutch Schultz, “present the author’s reflection of a ‘period of
cultural unrest’” (1997: 146). The cultural and political climate did
clearly influence Burroughs’ work of this time, and he used his
medium as a means of engaging with contemporary issues. The
“excessive fantasies of control” (Murphy 1997: 146) portrayed in the
texts of the cut-up phase and immediately after are therefore conveyed
using narrative methods appropriate to his purpose. Burroughs’
objective remained the promotion of freedom – freedom to live
without arbitrary legislative restrictions, and, above all, freedom of
information and knowledge, as he expounded in his condemnation of
Inter-Section 129

the Church of Scientology.7 Thus the narrative methods employed are

designed as a means of getting closer to the “truth” of the
machinations behind texts. By developing narrative methods that drew
on image, film, and methods of historicization, Burroughs was
extending the vocabulary with which to achieve his objective. These
texts were unquestionably radical in their approach and presentation,
and in many ways can be seen as an obvious development of the
original cut-up method. Nevertheless, it would be at the turn of the
1980s that Burroughs would effectively reinvent the cut-up. By
applying the montage technique not to “words on the page” as Gysin
first had, but to large sections of narrative, he would ultimately find a
way of applying the method in a form more accessible to a wider
Burroughs’ “return” to narrative does not signify an outright
rejection of the theories present in his preceding works, but simply
reflects an alternative, moderated approach to the same issues of
presenting time and space and attacking the accepted order of things.
Previously, this attack had manifested itself in a most literal manner,
by cutting and re-ordering the words on the page. Burroughs
subsequently came to believe that the way to bring about change was
not to cut into the present to reveal the future, but to address the future
by rewriting the past. This point is discussed in detail by Murphy, who
argues that Burroughs’ work of the 1980s, briefly foreshadowed in
The Wild Boys, is marked by “a more fully developed account of
history and a model of revolutionary community” (1997: 171).
Murphy’s expounding of this idea is particularly useful, in that he
suggests Burroughs’ work post-Wild Boys is marked by his rejection
of “the idea that the history of Western representational thoughts and
politics is the only possible form of history”, and sees his “rejection of
all history as an inherently repressive force” (171). The answer, then,
is to cut up and rewrite history.
The final trilogy uses what superficially appears to subscribe to
the conventions of the “nineteenth century narrative” Burroughs
implies, in order to recount historical events of the eighteenth century.

Naked Scientology (1978) collects Burroughs’ writings and letters penned as an
exposé of the practices of the Church of Scientology following his infiltration of the
organisation in 1968. He describes the organisation as “a model control
system”(87) and states that he is “in flat disagreement with the organizational
policy” (63).
130 Shift Linguals

But while Cities of the Red Night and the other books of the trilogy are
seemingly formulated using more conventional narratives they do
nevertheless intercut narrative strands arranged in non-linear and non-
sequential order, and splice events from the eighteenth century with
those of possible futures, thus crossing lines of time and location in
much the same way as the texts of the Nova trilogy did.
In plainly borrowing or plagiarising from precursory texts, in
his later works Burroughs extends his range of sources to include the
Mayan books of the dead previously alluded to in The Wild Boys and
Ah Pook is Here. In this way, these texts not only draw on and rewrite
the past, but also explore the possible futures those alternative
histories could have led to. Thus The Wild Boys, subtitled “A Book of
the Dead”, is an extended fantasy of a “homotopian” afterlife, which
Burroughs described as “a sort of homosexual Peter Pan” (Lotringer
2001: 200), and in many ways it served as a thematic prelude to the
works that followed. In the remainder of this chapter, I explore those
subsequent texts, and consider how these new methods and themes
correspond to his changed approach to the cut-ups.

Burroughs’ Later Work: Piracy and Utopia in Cities of the Red


The questioning of the formation of history first apparent in the Nova

trilogy is also a central focus of the Red Night trilogy. This phase,
considered by some critics as “an abnegation of his earlier
experimental work” (Lydenberg 1987: x) was also his most successful
in commercial terms. Yet Burroughs would continue to experiment,
and to structure his narratives in ways that sought to reflect
simultaneity and attack the artifice of conventional linear narrative,
and in this way, he can be seen to be “applying what I have learned
from the cut-up and the other techniques to the problem of
conventional writing” (Burroughs & Odier 1974: 55).
Despite acquiring celebrity status toward the end of the 1970s,
Burroughs’ works of that decade had done little to raise his literary
profile.8 This changed at the beginning of the 1980s with Cities of the

Morgan discusses how Burroughs became in vogue again in the late 1970s with the
advent of the burgeoning American Punk and No-Wave scenes, and
simultaneously, in England, the nascent Industrial movement that was beginning to
develop. See also Murphy, Wising Up the Marks, pp. 201-232.
Inter-Section 131

Red Night, which proved a radical departure from the books he had
published in the two preceding decades. Cities was undoubtedly his
most obviously accessible text since Junky back in 1953, and this gave
the book a wider commercial appeal. In contrast to the initial print run
of just 5,619 copies for The Wild Boys, Cities of the Red Night, ten
years later, would sell four times that number in the American
hardback edition alone (Mengham 1999: 112). Initially subtitled “A
Boy’s Book”, Cities is essentially a thriller with three main storylines
which intertwine. Each of the three plots is constructed using a
narrative styled on a popular genre: an adventure story (in the form of
a tale of eighteenth-century pirates), a science-fiction tale and a
detective mystery. It is through this intertwining of plots and separate
narrative strands that Burroughs effectively reinvents the cut-up, on
the level of narrative blocks rather than syntax.
Structurally, events within the trilogy are ordered not in linear
time, but in the “memory” time Burroughs alluded to as a function of
the cut-ups, in which events are intercut with recollections prompted
by unrelated subconscious triggers. The narrative is thus presented
discontinuously through flashback sequences and with frequent
narrative switches, continuing the cinematic analogy that runs through
the Nova trilogy, Dutch Schultz and Blade Runner: A Movie (1979).
The narrative is perhaps best described as “dream” narrative.
Burroughs frequently stated that his work had always been very much
informed by dreams, and he maintained a dream journal for many
years.9 Many sequences and characters in his novels were drawn from
dreams, and some of his journal entries are transcribed in My
Education: A Book of Dreams (1995).
The importance of dreams as a source of inspiration is
something I will return to in the next chapter, as Kathy Acker not only
closely followed Burroughs’ cut-up technique but also obtained much
material for her writing from dreams. While the events of certain
narratives within the Red Night trilogy are placed in sequential order,
the sequences of the storylines are broken by sections of other
simultaneous storylines and plots, with the effect of creating
discontinuity and disruption within this sequential order. The short

See Regina Weinreich, “Mind Set: No One Gets a Free Lunch” in Conversations
With William S. Burroughs. Burroughs had also previously contended that the
formation of the cut-ups provided a means of bringing the writing process closer to
the subconscious and the act of dreaming.
132 Shift Linguals

“stories” or “routines” which characterized his earlier works are thus

replaced by longer, more complex interwoven plots, in an
evolutionary development of his longstanding desire to address the
issues of time, (outer) space and continuity.
Not all of these developments were entirely of the author’s
choosing. After his first submission, the manuscript for Cities of the
Red Night was returned by his publisher for further work. Originally,
the simultaneous narrative threads were presented in 48 intercut
sections, “switching every few pages”, according to Barry Miles
(1992: 184). James Grauerholz recalls that “in the original manuscript
the cross cutting was two and three pages at a time, maybe two to four
pages of the pirate story, two to four pages of Clem Snide [the
detective], very cutty. He just took a folder on one story, a folder of
the other, and just took a few of this and a few of that back and forth”
(Miles 1992: 184). Evidence of a more rapid succession of intercuts
can be found in the unpublished chapter cut from the final version
contained in RE/Search 4/5 (1981). According to Miles, the editing of
these cuts was one of the factors that dissatisfied the publisher, who
thought that they “occurred too frequently and without particular
narrative reason” (1992: 184). The published version saw the cuts
being made after approximately twenty pages of continuous narrative.
Nevertheless, this insight into the editing process indicates that
Burroughs had far from abandoned the principles of the cut-ups.
Over the span of the trilogy, Burroughs plunders a range of
genre styles and incorporates a number of very traditional types of
adventure story, with pirates providing a major theme in Cities of the
Red Night, space travel doing likewise in The Place of Dead Roads
and The Western Lands emerging as what Lotringer refers to as a
“genre-bending Wild West adventure story” (Lotringer 2001: 238).
Elsewhere, Burroughs incorporates the trappings of science-fiction
writing, while the “contemporary mystery” thread of Cities is written
in the style of thrillers penned by the likes of Frederick Forsyth, and
represents a return to the hard-boiled formula of Junky. Throughout
the books of the final trilogy, Burroughs draws on many popular
occult and New Age images; The Egyptian Book of the Dead; the
styles of marginal science books, and those of various authors. “The
beginning of Cities of the Red Night is set in the style of Graham
Inter-Section 133

Greene”, he told Michael White (Lotringer 2001: 490).10 In this way,

the cut-up process can be seen as being developed not only in terms of
narrative discontinuity but in the incorporation and adaptation of the
works and styles of other authors and texts.
The trilogy expounds the theory that “all past is fiction”
(Lotringer 2001: 286) and that “history is merely another artifact, a
stylized and linear set of semiotic markers always already mediated by
its own simulation, which lends inertia to power relations” (Murphy
1997: 171). As Murphy argues, Burroughs’ work of this period sees
an engagement with the “revolutionary gesture implied by this view of
history” being manifested in several ways: “at the formal level, as the
syntactic cut-up; at the thematic level… and at the hortatory level of
material application, as the tape-recorder ‘drop-in/playback’
technique” (1997: 171). One way in which Burroughs addresses the
issues of the historical rupture and history as artifact, constructed by
the holders of power as an instrument of oppression, and of the
formulation of mythologies, is through the “detective mystery” thread
of Cities. This follows the “private asshole” Clem Snide’s quest to
obtain the eponymous books which are the equivalent of the Ten
Commandments for the six Cities. In an example of the cutting
together of different genres and times, whereby science-fiction and the
detective genres cross with traditional pirate stories, Snide is hired to
obtain the original books by the female Iguana Twin, a mysterious
mutant passenger on Opium Jones’ pirate ship.
As the Iguana sister explains to Snide, “the only thing not
prerecorded in a prerecorded universe are the prerecordings
themselves. The copies can only repeat themselves word for word. A
virus is a copy. You can pretty it up, cut it up, scramble it – it will
reassemble in the same form” (166). Thus, the only way to alter the
future is to alter the past first. However, this exposes the paradox of
the premise of “prerecordings”: the creation of history is the result of
recording – imaging events after the fact. The future cannot be
recorded: there is no “prerecording” but time itself, or “God’s
monopoly” (Miles 1992: 194) of predetermined destiny. Snide is

Elsewhere, most notably in The Place of Dead Roads, Burroughs can be seen to
draw heavily from one of his longstanding texts of reference, You Can’t Win (1926)
by Jack Black. Burroughs even borrows characters, such as Salt Chunk Mary,
directly from Black’s novel. Ward also notes that “The book is also indebted to A
Touch of Danger, a thriller by James Jones” (Mengham 1999: 115).
134 Shift Linguals

shown a book entitled Cities of the Red Night and told it is a copy. He
is hired to recover the originals because “Changes… can only be
effected by alterations in the original” (151). Instead, Snide sets about
forging another copy of the books, drawing influence from a number
of other existing texts. Despite Snide’s endeavours to render the
appearance of the forgery authentic, the fact remains that the product
is simply a copy – and, as such, a mutated “pirate” copy.
This plot line’s intrinsic self-referentiality (Snide narrates that
the books of he Cities of the Red Night are “composed in a variety of
styles and periods. Some of them seem to stem from the 1920s of the
Great Gatsby, old sport, and others to derive from the Edwardian era
of Saki” (151)) is representative of the interweaving of plots which
characterizes Cities and the remainder of the trilogy. In the first
instance, there is the overlapping of the books of the Cities of the Red
Night with the “actual” Cities of the Red Night, Captain Strobe’s
utopian destinations.11 In the second, there are the fictional books of
the Cities of the Red Night and the novel by Burroughs, which
produces a layering of the mythology of the Cities and their books or
“articles”. While “the originals” referred to in the story are the
“original” books of the Cities of the Red Night, the broader
implication is that the books represent the original documents of (a)
history, the “reality films” or “prerecordings” from which the present
has evolved. In this way, he continues to explore the ideas that were
central to the Nova trilogy. In Cities, the books of the Cities of the Red
Night represent the “prerecordings” through which the agents of
control manipulate the actions of the populace by predetermination,
just as the Nova Mob used the “reality film” in the Nova trilogy.
Developing his longstanding theory of word-virus and the notion that
whoever “owns” language holds absolute power, we see Burroughs
suggest that the historical artifact is fabricated, simply, from language,
and therefore history, language and power are all inextricably linked.
Borne of word, history is also virus.
Each city represents a different society: Tamaghis is an “open” city of partisans in
which everything is true and everything is permitted; Ba’dan “closely resembles
present-day America” (145); Yass-Waddah is a female stronghold populated by
sexual mutants; Waghdas is “the university city” (145); Naufana and Ghadis are
“cities of illusion where nothing is true and therefore everything is permitted. The
traveller must start in Tamaghis and make his way through the other cities in the
order named. This pilgrimage may take many lifetimes” (145).
Inter-Section 135

The way in which this quest to rewrite the past, and hence the
future, is recounted is fundamentally documentary, and often involves
a diary format. This is significant: first-person diaries of those present
at an event or specific time or place, the “primary data”, are first
generation recordings, and so arguably less subject to mutation and
alteration through successive interpretations and dilutions than
subsequent (re)recordings. The transmission of history is made
through books written by historians – a practice which began, as
Burroughs would argue, with the first written records, and which has
continued to the present. This transmission requires the ordering and
interpretation of the original documents. Snide’s assignment thus
corresponds with Burroughs’ own process of reconfiguring history by
cutting it up and retelling it, just as he had previously explained both
the purpose of the cut-ups and the techniques for their production
within the framework of the fiction itself. In this way, Burroughs can
be seen to be acting upon the directions he had outlined over a decade
previously: “the first thing for any revolutionary party to do would be
to seize the communications. Whoever owns communications now,
controls the country” (Lotringer 2001: 97). This element of the book
thus returns to a primary assumption behind the purpose of the cut-
ups: that language equals control, and those who control language
hold that control by having the capacity to write history, which has a
direct bearing on the future. In this way, we can see that this later
work is, indeed, a development based upon the results of those earlier
experiments rather than abnegation of them.
A second way Burroughs addresses the issue of history as
artifact can be found in the narrative strand involving Captain
Mission. The adventure takes the form of a pirate story set in a utopian
community and functions as another vehicle by which Burroughs
explores the idea of the effects of the past upon the future. The basis
of this element of the novel stems from Burroughs’ supposition that “a
failed libertarian experiment, a colony of 18th century gay pirates…
had in fact succeeded” (Lotringer 2001: 283). This shows a continued
belief that “the past only exists in some record of it… there are no
facts. We don’t know how much of history is completely fiction”
(Lotringer 2001: 303), and that by altering the “facts”, Burroughs
provides a practical demonstration of how history can be rewritten.
This clearly marks his agreement with Lotringer’s opinion that
“history is always a fiction, a retrospective construction, and one
136 Shift Linguals

could always rewrite it from certain critical junctures, some cracks left
unfulfilled” (2001: 283).
In keeping with the genre trappings of adventure stories and
traditional pirate tales, Burroughs employs a straightforward style for
the narration of Mission’s story, devoting considerable emphasis to
action, fighting, guns and “endless descriptions of weapons” (Miles
1992: 184). Much of the narrative of this plot-line takes the form of a
diary kept by Noah Blake, a hired hand working on Captain Mission’s
Today we reached Port Roger on the coast of Panama. This was formerly Port
Pheasant and had been used as a base by English pirates sixty years ago. The
coast here is dangerous for the navigation of large vessels, owing to shallows
and reefs. Port Roger is one of the few deepwater harbors. It is, however, so
difficult to reach that only a navigator with exact knowledge of the passage
can hope to do so. (Burroughs 1982: 91)

Although Miles describes this as a “flat” and “pedestrian” style (184),

the mode of narrative is as much dictated by Burroughs’ source
material as by his own design, borrowing as it does from two works
by Daniel Defoe: “Of Captain Mission” (1724), and “Return to Base”,
in The History of the Pyrates (1724).12
In keeping with Blake’s character and situation, the diary
account is necessarily direct, uncomplicated, factual and
chronological. The detailing of the weaponry also takes the form of a
straightforward and largely factual account, and adheres to the style of
the genre.
I take particular interest in archery since the bow can deliver more projectiles
in less time than the guns we are making. I have made a number of crossbows
to sell in the store so that the Indians will be able to duplicate the design.
These bows are not as heavy as the usual crossbows and it is quite easy to pull
and cock the bow by hand. I am more interested in speed of fire than in armor-
piercing strength. (Burroughs 1982: 117)

The obvious fascination with weaponry, expressed here in Blake’s

“particular interest in archery” marks a clear parallel with the author’s
own interests: a keen gun enthusiast, who in later years was celebrated
for his “shotgun paintings” (paintings literally holed with shots from
The History of the Pyrates was published under the name Captain Charles Johnson,
who, it was proved in 1932, was actually Defoe writing under a pseudonym.
Inter-Section 137

his rifle) his knowledge on the subject is revealed in a number of

interviews. While fighting and such an interest in weaponry may
appear at odds with utopianism, it should be read within the context of
a boy’s adventure and a pirate community. The utopia Burroughs
portrays is very much set within traditional, even historical, notions of
boyhood. Moreover, this pirate utopia is presented as having a “true”
historical basis, detailing the activities of Captain Mission who
reputedly formed the republic of Libertalia in the 1680s. Mission, a
French sailor, began his mission around the coast of Africa, liberating
slaves on slave ships. The crew set sail for Madagascar in order to
found “a floating commonwealth”, a “communist utopia” (Defoe
1999: xxxviii). The ethos for Libertalian life was that “every Man was
born free, and had as much Right to what would support him, as to the
Air he respired” (Defoe 1999: 389). Mission’s tale is recounted
variously, but notably the account of Libertalia in Return to Base takes
the form of a log or diary:
Two Days after they weigh’d from hence, and after a Week’s Cruize fell in
with two Sally Men, the one of twenty, the other of twenty four Guns; the
Victoire had but thirty mounted, though she had Ports for forty. The
engagement was long and bloody, for the Sally Man hop’d to carry the
Victoire; and, on the contrary, Captain Fourbin, so far from having any
thoughts of being taken, he was resolutely bent to make Prize of his Enemies,
or sink his Ship. (Defoe 1999: 385)

Defoe’s narrative is unremarkable in itself, taking the form of a

conventional first-person account of events at sea. What is
remarkable, however, is the similarity of Noah Blake’s narrative in
Cities of the Red Night to Defoe’s narrative. In the detailing of sea
battles, the likes of which have passed into cliché, we see Burroughs’
assimilation of Return to Base with all of its images of Pirate battles at
sea, blazing cannons and sinking ships. Burroughs’ leaning on Defoe
for his presentation of Mission and his crew and the evolution of an
“outlaw” utopia based on liberty and freedom displays his ability to
mimic or pastiche styles, and also exemplifies the way in which his
writing combines differing styles from different genres. In splicing
together fiction and history, Burroughs formulates his own pseudo- or
counter-history, and also demonstrates the capacity of the cut-up
technique to create new cross-genre modes of writing.
The reason I suggest that Missions’ tale is only “reputed” stems
from the fact that “genuine” historical records of Mission’s existence
138 Shift Linguals

and activities have proved difficult to trace, and it is likely that

Mission was a fictional creation, or a fictionalised retelling of a true
story, on Defoe’s part. If this is so, then Burroughs’ retelling of the
story adds an additional layer to Mission’s mythology and that of the
utopia he founded – a “pirate” copy of a forged history. This may well
have been Burroughs’ intention, and he appears to have been keen to
propagate an altered version of history through the story of Captain
Mission, categorically stating that the stories of the pirates’ colonies
were based on historical “fact”.
Certainly, there was a colony on the coast of Madagascar founded by Captain
Mission. Yes, that’s quite accurate… that was not the only one; there were
several in the West Indies. There was an island that was held by pirates and
ruled by pirates for a long while. It happened in a number of places, but they
were small and isolated and couldn’t maintain themselves. (Lotringer 2001:

In his rewriting of history, Burroughs presents a utopian vision of the

past, which stands in stark contrast to the dystopian currents which
proliferate within his earlier work. Previously, the agents of control
and the practitioners of bad science and progress for its own sake, the
likes of the Nova Police and Dr Benway, directed the order of society,
but in Cities, Burroughs continues to explore the utopian motif
initiated in The Wild Boys.
However, utopias are traditionally presented as possible futures,
brave new worlds borne out of the present. In Cities of the Red Night,
Mission’s pirate utopia is set in the eighteenth century. So how does
one reconcile the utopian tradition of near futures with Burroughs’
newly developed concern with history? The answer to this lies in the
way in which he cuts the past with the future. The revised history and
consequent possible futures portrayed in the Red Night trilogy signify
a continuation of Burroughs’ earliest claims regarding the power of
the cut-ups, namely “when you cut into the present, the future leaks
out”.13 By cutting into the past, the same principles can be seen to
apply. Moreover, as Krishan Kumar explains, there is a lengthy
utopian tradition, exemplified by a number of religious texts, which
centres around “some myth or memory of a Golden Age, a time of
beginnings in which humanity lived in a state of perfect happiness and

From an excerpt of a live recording of the “Cucumbers” lecture, entitled “Origin
and Theory of the Tape Cut-Ups”, on the Break Through in Grey Room CD.
Inter-Section 139

fulfillment” (1991: 3). In Christianity, this is represented by the

Garden of Eden. Similar myths of a golden age are expounded by
Hesiod, Plato, Virgil and Ovid. Many utopian futures are based upon
the regaining of this lost paradise. Burroughs begins Cities by
introducing the idea of a lost paradise on the coast of Madagascar:
I cite this example of retroactive utopia since it actually could have happened
in terms of techniques and human resources available at the time… The
chance was there. The chance was missed. (11)

He concludes the opening chapter of the book by declaring “your right

to live where you want, with companions of your choosing, under
laws to which you agree, died in the eighteenth century with Captain
Mission. Only a miracle or disaster could restore it” (12). Burroughs’
view of history can thus be seen to remain inextricably linked to the
idea of possible futures.
That the past shapes the future is an irrefutable fact, and in
Cities, Burroughs makes this point clearly whilst also addressing the
issue of the construction of history. While Burroughs’ “queertopia” of
The Wild Boys is clearly not representative of any past society as we
know it, the way in which he frames Cities of the Red Night suggests
that such a society could have existed once history had been rewritten.
As Kumar explains,
Utopia is nowhere (outopia) and it is also somewhere good (eutopia). To live
in a world that cannot be but where one fervently wishes to be: that is the
literal essence of utopia. To this extent utopia does share the quality of a
dream… Here was a place, imaginary, it was true, and accordingly futile to
seek out, that nevertheless existed tantalizingly on the edge of possibility,
somewhere just beyond the boundary of the real. (1991: 1)

The utopia Burroughs presents in Cities of the Red Night is therefore

not so much beyond the boundary of the real, but a reminder of the
fact that, historically, such a society has existed, and can do again.
Utopianism is conventionally associated with ideology and,
above all, the future, whereby its value, according to Kumar, “lies not
in its relation to present practice but in its relation to possible future”
(1991: 3). That is to say, utopianism is an idealistic response to
perceived failings in society. Burroughs can clearly be seen to be
following Defoe’s lead in many aspects of the utopia he portrays, and
his utopia, being partly a reaction against his present time in social
and governmental terms, functions in the same way as Defoe’s utopia
140 Shift Linguals

This is illustrated by Maximillian Novak’s observations on Defoe’s

utopia, when he writes, “Defoe’s study of Mission is different from
the utopias of More, Bacon or Campanella in so far as there is no
discovery of an ideal civilization. Libertalia is a utopia which reflects
a direct reaction to the abuses of the time – abuses of economic,
political and religious freedom”.14 Burroughs’ utopia deviates from
the popular “norm” of utopian presentations in that it, too, is a directly
reactionary utopia.
There are other models which also can be seen to have in some
way informed Burroughs’ utopian vision. Simon Dentith discusses the
possibility of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon representing some form of
utopia, suggesting that “if it is a utopia… it is a realization of a
Darwinian utopia… in Erewhon, the sick are punished while criminals
are sent to the doctor’s” (Seed 1995:138). This would certainly equate
to an inversion of the dystopian view often portrayed by Burroughs of
a society in which the sick and the harmless (namely drug addicts and
homosexuals) are branded as criminals in a society with an
infrastructure designed to uphold police rule and retain power for
those who already hold it. As Dentith suggests, utopias commonly
“reorder the values of present or past”, and that inversion is “the
dominant figure in utopian writing” (Seed 1995: 138). In this way,
utopian writing is rooted in the factual, and “is only comprehensible
by means of its constant reference to the contemporary world” (Seed
1995: 138). While Burroughs frequently locates his writing outside of
both known time and situation – an “outer space” of sorts – the
homotopia of The Wild Boys is clearly an inversion of the society in
which the book was written, in which homosexuality was by no means
a dominant cultural norm. Likewise, the pirate utopia of Cities of the
Red Night is an inversion of prevalent western society, in which
outlaws are outlaws and therefore outcasts and outsiders, and not the
rulers of an ideal, liberty-driven world. As David Seed observes,
the utopia therefore combines a number of functions. As an egalitarian
meritocracy it embodies a sociopolitical ideal; its technological efficiency
suggests the possible progress of America; and its Philosophical Society
draws together the greatest minds of the past. In other words, place is used to
juxtapose the best elements of past and future… (1995: 80)

Maximillian E. Novak, Introduction to the Project Gutenberg e-text version of Of
Captain Mission. Online at:
(consulted 10 July 2004).
Inter-Section 141

Although Seed is writing in reference to Edgar Allan Poe, an author

for whom Burroughs had considerable respect, the relevance to the
utopian portrayals in Burroughs’ later works is clearly apparent. In the
Red Night trilogy, Burroughs can be seen to apply this juxtaposition
on a literal, textual level, through his mode of narrative splicing
developed from the original cut-up technique.
The immediate predecessor to Cities of the Red Night, The Wild
Boys, effectively saw the most significant shifts in political terms, and
this blueprint was followed in subsequent works. The Wild Boys
marks a shift from the representation of strongly dystopian currents to
a hitherto unseen utopian ideology. In The Wild Boys, which is widely
regarded as Burroughs’ most explicit expression of homoerotic
fantasy, the wild boys themselves are seen to create and extend their
own community, living out their communal ideology / fantasy. The
prevalence of this theme in the Red Night trilogy leads Murphy to
suggest that “the trilogy as a whole rewrites The Wild Boys, from the
reappearance of characters – including Burroughs’ alter-ego narrator
Audrey Carsons – to the repetition of scenes” (1997: 174). In this way,
Burroughs can be seen not only to be “rewriting” his earlier text, but
to be cutting it up and revising his own characters and the possible
futures of his own fiction by “cutting” the characters from one text
and transposing them into another, thus cutting through the lines of
time and space of his own creation. This again reinforces the idea that
history can be written and rewritten. It also shows that the narrative
strands that interweave in Cities also connect with other works within
his oeuvre, substantiating his claim that his output was “essentially
one book” (Hibbard 1999: 85). Moreover, Burroughs’ final trilogy
extends the intertextuality of his output, referencing and
interconnecting his later works not only with those of other authors,
but also his own books.
If the utopian thread of Cities expands on a topic addressed in
previous works, the introduction of pirates represents a wholly new
addition to Burroughs’ themes and characters. The choice of pirates
and “outlaws” as the theme of the “boy’s adventure” aspect of Cities,
and as a thematic thread throughout the trilogy is interesting, the
reasons readily apparent. The connotations of pirates and their
lifestyle clearly has relevance to Burroughs. Pirates existed outside the
law, much as Burroughs had for most of his life. Living at sea, pirates
were essentially nomadic, constantly changing their location to avoid
142 Shift Linguals

detection by the law enforcers of whichever waters they found

themselves in: again, the parallels between this way of life and
Burroughs’ movement between countries throughout his life are
obvious. Pirate legends tell of rule-breakers and thieves with an anti-
authoritarian stance with which Burroughs would have readily
identified, while implications of literary theft and piracy are similarly
implied. While there were no stereotypical pirates with wooden legs,
eye-patches and cutlasses remaining by 1980, they have remained
popular as the subject of boys’ books and children’s stories.15 Equally,
in the absence of traditional pirates, piracy had evolved with culture
and technology, with “pirate” copies of tapes and CDs providing just
one example of modern-day piracy, and in this context, the relevance
of pirates to Burroughs remains strong.16 As a writer who had spent a
large part of his career plundering the canon, Burroughs, in his
capacity as “Literary Outlaw”, perhaps held a greater claim to being a
modern-day pirate than most. The same applies to the genre of the
Western, the motif of The Western Lands, where again, outlaws, if not
pirates, are integral to the traditional form of the genre. This again
demonstrates that the image of the outlaw, and the connotation of the
“outsider”, who exists beyond the boundaries of societal conventions,
was one to which Burroughs could relate. Such merging of genres, of
course, functions as in precisely the same way as the original cut-ups,
in that the juxtaposition of elements of different texts and styles
creates a new hybrid or synthesis. Moreover, by cutting the historical
(pirates, cowboys) with the futuristic, Burroughs continued to cut
cross time as he had in his earlier texts. In this way, the formulation of
The Western Lands is again indicative of the ways in which his works
of the 1980s remodeled the earlier blueprint of the cut-ups.
Burroughs’ practice of revising and “retelling” existing texts
through cutting, folding and re-ordering them can be seen as a means

In his introduction, David Cordingly contends that “Captain Johnson created the
modern conception of pirates”. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of
the Most Notorious Pirates (2002), p. viii.
The OED defines pirate (v) as “to reproduce or use (the work, idea, etc., of another)
without authority, esp. in infringement of patent or copyright; to produce a pirate
copy or edition of” and trace this use back to Defoe writing in 1706: “Jure Divino
Pref. p. xxvii, Gentlemen-Booksellers that threatned to Pyrate it, as they call it, viz.
reprint it, and sell it for half a Crown”.
Inter-Section 143

of creating mutated “pirate” copies of those existing texts.17 This

resonates in a way that connects the stories of Clem Snide and Captain
Mission in Cities of the Red Night, in that the two characters are both
pirates in their own ways, just as the author is in his. While Mission is
a relatively conventional pirate, Snide represents the idea of the
modern-day pirate. Burroughs himself, the plagiarist-author, hijacker
of the word, is in many ways an amalgamation of all of the various
associations of the words “pirate” and “piracy”. Snide’s creation of
“pirate” copies implies not only forgery, but also complete plagiarism.
This aspect of the plot echoes the issues raised by the initial premise
of the cut-ups, and returns to Burroughs’ challenging notions of
authorship and copyright.
Burroughs’ choice of pirates as his theme for the “boys’ book”
element of Cities represents, in part, a return to boyhood and
innocence. This returning to a long-standing literary tradition connects
with Burroughs’ return to tradition in formal terms. This “returning” –
both to narrative and themes associated with boyhood – has resonance
on a number of levels. The idea of returning to boyhood and stories
associated with childhood echoes Burroughs’ underlying desire to
rewrite history in order to change the future. Carsons represents an
idealised “young Burroughs”, and the Red Night trilogy can be
interpreted, in part, as Burroughs rewriting his own history and thus
his own (place in the) future. Between The Wild Boys and The Place
of Dead Roads, Audrey Carsons is ultimately superceded by Kim
Carsons, whose resemblance to both Audrey and Burroughs is
remarkable. This is noted by Morgan and evidenced in Burroughs’
description of Carson in The Place of Dead Roads as “a slimy morbid
youth of unwholesome proclivities with an insatiable appetite for the
extreme and the sensational… Kim adores ectoplasm, crystal balls,
spirit guides and auras. He wallows in abominations, unspeakable
rites…”(23).18 Toward the end of Cities these characters’ identities
cross over, combined within a single physical body:

Burroughs states, “My story ‘They Just Fade Away’ is a fold-in from Lord Jim. In
fact, it’s almost a retelling of the ‘Lord Jim’ story” (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 6).
The similarity to the name of the renowned outlaw, Kit Carsons is also worthy of
note here.
144 Shift Linguals

Piper boy with a bamboo flute in Lima … blue sky, color of his eyes. Dink is
fucking Noah who turns into Audrey and Billy.
“It’s me! It’s me! I’ve landed! Hi, Bill! It’s two hundred years, Bill! I’ve
landed!” (280)

Such merging of characters and narrators in Burroughs’ work is not

new, occurring as it does as far back as Naked Lunch. The idea of
“schlupping”, by which two individuals become one through the
physical and spiritual absorption of one by the other had long been of
interest to Burroughs.19 The synthesis of identities corresponds with
Burroughs’ longstanding attempts to challenge the notion of fixed
identity, and, moreover, fixed authorship, harking back to the
interchanging characters and dual narratives of Bill and Tony and his
“counterscripts” of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In an attempt to convey the temporal dislocation between time
and space within the framework of the narrative of Cities, Burroughs
begins to dissolve the linear narrative toward the end of the book. He
achieves this by using a fragmented syntactic structure, the
disconnected phrases and images separated by ellipses:
Audrey finds himself in the Fun City of his dream … can’t remember
exactly … pinwheels … shooting galleries a rural slum … rundown houses …
rubbish … little fields of corn and cabbage … blotched diseased faces …
silent and intent … all moving down a steep road of clay … no one seems to
see him. (264)

The dream state in which the dreamer finds himself separate from his
surroundings is conveyed through the description of Audrey “finding”
himself in this location, and the fact “no one seems to see him”
captures the detachment common to dream scenarios. But the
fragmented images and the fluid, almost abstract scenery enhance the
dream-like quality of the passage. In particular, the presentation shares
clear similarities to the shifting image sequences of Naked Lunch,
especially those in which dream sequences or drug-induced
hallucinations are presented. As such, particular dream narratives of
Cities see fragmentation occur at a syntactic level, in the same way as
in the cut-up. As the separate narrative threads combine, so their

A description of schlupping can be found in Naked Lunch (16). Of such an interest
to Burroughs was this concept that at one stage he pursued Allen Ginsberg with the
express desire to “schlup” with him, becoming one both spiritually and physically,
metaphorically and literally.
Inter-Section 145

individual characteristics become lost in a single narrative created

using cut-ups in their original form:
Spanish galleon … movement by the Juicy-Fruit Twins … on the deck we
see white sneakers … bureaucrats calculating the range … hand hair turns
bright red on Fire button … The Galleon Pasaporte Documentos is blown out
of the water and so vast a territory as Ah Pook spatters the panorama with
insurgents. All the boys in yellow haze of skintight magic transparent for a
moment come to attention in a line from the first cartridge gun to M-16s …
naked haze like gold gas…. (282)

In this section, fragments of Burroughs’ own writing in the form of

phrases from Blake’s and Carson’s narratives are cut up with news
items.20 Here, the distance of time that separates modern objects, such
as Juicy Fruit (chewing gum) and white sneakers, from historical
artifacts, such as the Spanish galleon, disappears. The juxtaposition of
such incongruous items indicates the way the separate narratives begin
to merge as Burroughs literally cuts through history. The result is an
intersection in time, in which the powers of bureaucrats and Mayan
gods are pitted against one another. Such passages prove that
Burroughs’ abandonment of the cut-ups on a syntactic level was
anything but absolute. He would later confirm this in 1987, saying,
“there are still cut-up passages in the new stuff. I may cut up a whole
page and use a sentence or two, or I may throw the whole thing
away… if I don’t see where the narrative is going, sometimes I’ll get
an idea from cut-ups” (Hibbard 1999: 194). In this statement it
becomes clear that Burroughs did not abandon the cut-ups, so much as
modify the technique over time as his understanding of how best to
apply it for different purposes evolved.
Modification, evolution and mutation had long been a focus of
Burroughs’ work, from the science fiction styled creations of “The All
American De-Anxietised Man” and “The Talking Asshole” in Naked
Lunch, through to the shifting, merging physical identities of
characters such as Mr Bradly Mr Martin in the Nova trilogy.
Burroughs returns to these concerns in his final trilogy. The “pirate”
thread of Cities paves the way for other representations of “group
fantasies” and countercultural utopias in the trilogy, moving at the end
of Cities from focusing on historical events and the possible futures

Blake recounts plans to attack a Spanish galleon on p. 174, while Audrey introduces
the Juicy Fruit Twins on p. 186.
146 Shift Linguals

that an alternative history could offer, to detailing those futures in

outer space. It would seem that having addressed and “rectified” the
past, Burroughs turns his attention to the future. The future he foresaw
involved space travel and the human race forging a life not on earth,
but on other planets. As far back as 1964, he theorised that writing and
space travel are almost analogous, suggesting that writing had the
capacity to take a reader into a different realm. He also stated his
belief that this link between writing and travel through time and space
may become more literal:
A Russian scientist has said that we will travel, not only in space, but in
time as well, that is, to travel in space is to travel in time, and if writers
are to travel in space-time and explore the areas opened by the space age,
I think they must develop techniques quite as new and definite as the
technique of physical space travel. (Lotringer 2001: 58)

Toward the end of Cities of the Red Night, the separate narrative
strands become entwined, with the separate locations and times
coming together by means of a plot device which facilitates their
transportation into outer space:
Jon Peterson gets younger and turns into the Piper Boy…
With a cry that seems to implode into his lungs, he throws himself
backward onto a hassock, legs in the air, seizing his ankles with both hands.
His exposed rectum is jet-black surrounded by erectile red hairs. The hole
begins to spin with a smell of ozone and hot iron. And his body is spinning
like a top, faster and faster, floating into the air above the cushion, transparent
and fading, as the red sky flares behind him…
Naked bodies are sucked inexorably forward, writhing screaming like souls
pulled into Hell. The lights to out and then the red sky…. (284)

This scene bears clear similarities to the types of bizarre physical

mutations that were common in Naked Lunch, highlighting the
continuities within Burroughs’ output. Moreover, this event paves the
way for the utopian fantasies of Cities to continue in new locations
following an escape from “this cop-ridden planet” (Vale 1982: 21).
Burroughs’ increasing interest in space at the turn of the decade and
through the early 1980s coincided with the newly-invigorated US
space programme. This had begun in earnest in October 1977 with the
US Secretary of Defence’s announcement that the Soviets had an
operational ASAT (Anti-Satellite) weaponry system in place.
President Reagan would subsequently designate the space shuttle as
Inter-Section 147

the primary launch system for the US national security space

programme. In his first speech on space policy, he said steps must be
taken to provide “assured access to space” (Bormann & Sheehan
2009: 32). This prefaced the Star Wars project, a primary objective of
which was to “deny the enemy the use of space and space assets in
time of war or crisis”, and to install defensive measures “to render
Soviet missiles and all strategic offensive weapons obsolete”
(Bormann & Sheehan 2009: 32). In this context, it is interesting to
consider Burroughs’ suggestion that a space programme, rather than
being divisive, could in fact be a means of uniting the planet.
Burroughs’ alternative space programme sees his vision extend into
the long-term future. Rather than simply focus on launching manned
vehicles beyond the earth’s orbit, he sets his sights on life off earth
and the next stage of man’s evolution. He believed, however, that this
stage would not be so long in coming:
It is my theory that evolutionary changes do not take place gradually over a
period of years or millions of years by natural selection. They take place quite
suddenly in a few generations... geographical features like the Himalayas do
not arise gradually; they occur very suddenly indeed. There have been
mammoths found frozen with their food undigested in their stomachs. They
were frozen solid in a matter of seconds. (Hibbard 1999: 48-9)

Burroughs’ space utopia again follows the principle of utopias borne

out of inversions of the past or present. However, it also reflects the
resignation Burroughs began to express in his later years with regard
to the state of society and human life on earth.
While in 1964 Burroughs was referring to the cut-ups as
representing the new techniques for space-time travel and as a means
of creating a “mythology for the space age”, by 1980 he was looking
for alternative methods of travelling beyond the realms of the planet.
Burroughs summarized Cities of the Red Night as “the limitation
imposed through biologic structure and the potential for transcending
these through biologic change”. But he believed that man’s future
would not simply be off the earth, but out of the physical body.
Burroughs’ theory on this, perhaps not surprisingly, continued his
general thesis with regards to virus and mutation: “going into space
involves mutation”, he said (Lotringer 2001: 517). Just as he had
postulated that word was virus, so he aligned himself with Gysin’s
view of man as a “bad animal” in considering mankind to be a virus
148 Shift Linguals

also.21 In its quest to survive, the species demonstrates what

Burroughs saw as the defining aspect of virus: “the single identifying
feature of virus… is an organism with no internal function other than
to replicate itself” (1993: 47). And if not for self-replication, then
what is the purpose of mankind? Burroughs’ ideas and beliefs
regarding the future of mankind as being in space evolved during the
final trilogy and his later years. In interviews, he further substantiated
these ideas and reiterated what he saw as the way forward for mankind
based on a fundamentally Darwinian premise, often repeating the
contents of his fictional works almost verbatim.
I see the only possible hope for the species is in space. I believe that more and
more. The going into space involves mutation… the actual movement into
space would involve mutation, a series of changes quite as drastic as the
transition from water to land. Astronauts are just going up in aqualungs, which
I think is the wrong way. In one sense it’s an accomplishment, but it’s not the
way to go. There have to be certain biologic changes, permutations. (Lotringer
2001: 517-8)

Throughout the trilogy, Burroughs makes references to virus and

mutation, which again connect these later volumes to his earlier
works. But whereas the earlier depictions of mutation tended to
demonstrate the powers of “bad science”, his later works are
concerned with the belief that, like any other species, humans will
need to evolve in order to survive – and to survive, they would need to
develop beyond their physical bodies, and live not on earth, but in
space.22 “A fish survives drought because it develops lungs. The fish
is not looking for a new medium... It’s not looking for air, simply for
more water... And perhaps a forward step in the human race will be
made in the same way”, he told Regina Weinreich (Lotringer 2001:

“Brion Gysin says man is a bad animal – wherever he goes he destroys all the
animals, then destroys the environment. The rain forests have been called the lungs
of the world. What other animal systematically destroys its own lungs?” (Hibbard
1999: 192).
Cities of the Red Night sees Burroughs present a further return to the viral theme,
notably in the section which expounds a theory which links von Steinplatz’ theories
which Burroughs considered key to the understanding of the word virus with the
concept of love, portrayed here as another “viral enemy”. This is discussed in part
in Miles’ biography, El Hombre Invisible, (182-183), and Burroughs discusses the
basis of this theory in detail in The Job (12-13).
Inter-Section 149

515-6). Summarizing what he believed to be mankind’s certain

evolutionary destiny, he continued: “Man is not looking for space.
He’s looking for more time. The space program is simply designed to
transport one insoluble temporal impasse somewhere else” (Lotringer
2001: 516).
Through his representations of Audrey and Kim Carsons,
Burroughs would attempt to revise his own history – he was 73 when
the final book of the trilogy, The Western Lands was published – and
one could reason that he was writing with an awareness that his work
would long outlive him. As such, he too was looking for “more time”.
As his last major works, there is a sense of the completion of his
career within the final trilogy, in which the cut-ups would again
resurface and effectively bring his writing full-circle.
A great deal has already been made of the closing paragraph of
the trilogy’s final book, and the way in which it appears to register the
author’s awareness that The Western Lands would be his last major
work. This closing paragraph begins, “The old writer could not write
anymore because he had reached the end of words, the end of what
can be done with words”, and ends with the line, drawn from Eliot’s
“The Waste Land”, “Hurry up, please. It’s time.” The final line
symbolically echoes the refrain which appears in Nova Express and
also serves to reiterate the origins of Burroughs’ own work, and again
shows that he never truly abandoned the cut-ups, but subjected the
technique to a series of mutations. That the writer had reached “the
end of words” could be readily interpreted as Burroughs not only
having reached the end of his career, but also as having exhausted his
capacity to further develop new writing methods. This implies that
Burroughs considers his mission complete. In hindsight, he could see
that he had successfully brought about a change in literature through
the cut-ups’ eventual infiltration and subversion of the mainstream.
Having reached the end of what he could do with words, it was time to
allow for those who followed to continue where he had left off. In the
remaining chapters, I shall examine, in detail, the ways in which
Kathy Acker and Stewart Home picked up the baton and steered the
cut-ups in further new directions in the final decades of the twentieth
century, and into the new millennium.
Chapter Three

Kathy Acker: Plagiarism and Adaptation – From Cut-

Up to Cut-and-Paste

Many writers have cited Burroughs as an influence, but few have

followed his lead to the extent that Kathy Acker did. During her
career, she frequently acknowledged her indebtedness to his writing
and his ideas. Acker drew extensively on the techniques detailed
within The Third Mind, which provided her earliest literary
inspiration. This is noted by Peter Wollen, who observes, “it was not
one of the master’s more straightforwardly literary works, such as The
Naked Lunch, for example, which intrigued her the most, but a much
more formally extreme and experimental text” (Scholder et al 2006:
5). Acker herself was open about this fact, and also described how she
“used The Third Mind as experiments to teach myself how to write”
(Acker 1991: 4). In this chapter, I will consider just how closely she
followed the directions contained in The Third Mind in her early
writing, using the cut-up method as a way of bridging the gap between
prose and poetry, and of exploring issues concerning her personal
identity and authorial voice. I will then move on to explore how, as
her career progressed, she developed ways of writing that departed
from the cut-ups and moved toward a more cut-and-paste collage
approach while continuing to expand the principles of the technique to
explore notions of intellectual ownership, plagiarism and postmodern
culture, with particular focus on Blood and Guts in High School
(1984). In the final section, I will examine her writing’s continued
evolution, and consider the significance of pirates and piracy, and the
question of “myth” in her final novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates
(1996). I will also be addressing the way in which the developments in
Acker’s later works reflect the ways in which she adapted and evolved
her own modes of cutting up narrative.
Born in 1948 –although various sources give a range of dates –
152 Shift Linguals

Acker grew up in New York City.1 This uncertainty regarding her age
can be seen as representative of Acker’s sustained focus on creating
ambiguity and challenging notions of fixed identity. Although she
would later return to an academic environment in a teaching capacity,
while at college she studied a number of writing courses, all of which
she “hated:”
I took a lot of writing courses when I was in college… They were just
torture… I reacted in this kind of this radical anti-authority stance, anti-right
rules of writing. I started off by saying ‘no’ to everything. My whole identity
as a writer was in saying ‘no’, in reacting. So in my first books I refused to
rewrite. I wrote as fast as possible. I refused to have any consideration for
proper grammar or proper syntax. In a way, [those books] were very easy and
what they were was experiments. (Schmieder 1991)

Her description of those early works as experiments is noteworthy,

because much of this experimentation was based on the practices
detailed in The Third Mind in order to create a discontinuous, cut-up
prose style. Having studied classics as an undergraduate at Brandeis
University, Acker possessed a knowledge of a range of canonical
literary texts, and was therefore “qualified” in academic terms to rebel
and experiment. Moreover, her formal education left her disaffected:
Avital Ronell suggests that “as far as Acker was concerned...
universities have peculiar transmission problems: they transmit
stupidity” (Scholder et al 2006: 15), and this led her to write against
all she had learned. This involved her endeavouring to relinquish
authorial control, “a commitment to the avant-garde tradition”
(Scholder et al 2006: 5) and the distribution of her writing in serial
form as part of a Mail Art network.
Leaving home at 18, she worked in a sex show and became
involved in the New York art scene, and in time began writing.
Discounting Politics, her self-published collection of “little prose
poems” (Acker 1991: 5) and the unpublished Rip-Off Red, both of
which she subsequently dismissed, saying of the latter “very luckily it
has never been published” (Acker 1991: 2) her first “novel”, The

Some sources state that Acker was born in 1944, although the majority give her
year of birth as 1948, the date given in the publication details of her books.
However, the Mark/Space biography online at
space/bioKathyAcker.html (consulted 30 January 2004) gives a third alternative of
Kathy Acker 153

Childlike Life of Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula was initially

circulated through a Mail Art network and officially published in
1973.2 Her breakthrough to public prominence came with Blood and
Guts in High School (1978). Between then and her death from breast
cancer in 1997, she published a considerable volume of novels, essays
and a number of short stories which appeared in various anthologies
and small-press magazines. Her early involvement with the art scene
was primarily of a poetical persuasion, particularly the Black
Mountain poets, who also proved to be a great influence on her early
writing. However, as she told Karl Schmieder: “The first book – it
wasn’t a novel – was called Politics. That was a bunch of prose pieces
with poetry surrounding the prose pieces. It was very much a
Burroughs-like diary. Kind of Interzoney” (Schmieder 1991).3 As
such, Acker’s literary roots lie in the avant-garde, and Politics
effectively set the blueprint for the first stage of her career, which can
be roughly divided into three.
While Caren Irr identifies a tripartite division of Acker’s career
as being popular among critics, the divisions she observes are rather
vague, referring to “an initial autobiographical confrontation with
identity, the plagiarizing middle years, and a final more affirmative
quest for a new myth of community” (Hardin 2004: 221). While I too
shall approach Acker’s career as partitioned into three phases, the
divisions I shall be using as the framework for this chapter are
determined by stylistic and technical factors.
The first runs from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s, and is
defined by the incorporation of passages created using the cut-up
method as detailed by Burroughs and Gysin in The Third Mind. The
texts of this period include Politics (written circa 1968, privately
published 1972, and not republished until 1991); The Burning

This book was published under the name of Black Tarantula. This use of the
pseudonym, which is also that of the book’s central character further illustrates
Acker’s ambiguous approach to identity. The Childlike Life of Black Tarantula by
the Black Tarantula was reprinted in the anthology Portrait of an Eye – Three
Novels, which collects this volume along with I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac:
Imagining and The Adult Life of Henri Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse
Lautrec. Rip Off Red: Girl Detective was published postumously in 2002, alongside
The Burning Boming of America.
See also Hannibal Lecter, My Father, in which Acker discusses her early biography
in detail.
154 Shift Linguals

Bombing of America: The Destruction of the U.S. (1972) and Rip-Off

Red, Girl Detective (1973) (the latter pairing being published
posthumously in a single volume in 2002), which she describes as “a
pornographic mystery story” (Acker 1991: 2).
The second phase of her career is one of transition, marked by a
shift from syntactic cut-ups toward outright plagiarism and a method
that could be more accurately described as cut-and-paste. In the texts
of this period, exemplified by The Childlike Life of the Black
Tarantula by The Black Tarantula (1973) and The Adult Life of
Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec (1975), Acker intercut
larger sections of narrative from different sources. Significantly, she
can also be seen to use a method based on “cutting up” existing texts
to apply the type of “appropriation [that] has been some sort of
postmodernist technique in the arts for a number of years” to writing
(Acker 1991: 13), thus returning to the point which inspired the cut-up
method, namely to apply “the montage technique to words on a page”
(Burroughs 1993: 52). The later works of this middle phase, as
represented by Blood and Guts in High School, saw the introduction
of illustrations and diagrams to create multimedia texts with a collage-
like feel. Here, as Wollen observes, she incorporates “calligraphy,
self-drawn dream maps and Persian and Arabic script... she simply
added these new techniques to her ongoing concern with experimental
writing” (Scholder at al 2006: 4).
The texts of her third and final phase continue to reflect this
concern with experimental writing, and incorporate the combined
elements of the preceding periods. These later texts are, however,
distinguished by a more prominent focus on narrative. The works of
this period, which include Empire of the Senseless (1988); In
Memoriam to Identity (1990) and Pussy, King of the Pirates, use
longer sections of interweaving narrative to reflect switches between
speaker, time and location.

Early Cut-Ups: Acker and the Third Mind

Acker’s earliest works, as represented by Politics, The Burning

Bombing of America and Rip-Off Red, may readily be dismissed as
juvenilia, but are nevertheless significant in mapping her early literary
interests, and set the blueprint for the formation of her subsequent
Kathy Acker 155

output.4 The scenes and locations shift without clear distinction, and
the narrative is unconventional and overtly non-literary, with her
disregard for “proper grammar or proper syntax” clearly evident. The
punctuation is minimal, creating a rapid, jumbled stream of narrative
rather than a smooth flow in sequential or syntactic terms. This
reflects her objective of “doing everything I wasn’t supposed to do.
And writing badly” (Acker 1991: 8). The following passage is
after we had dinner at this god awful chinese restaurant fake chinese gardens
the waiter shit wouldn’t give another bowl to us for the winter melon soup for
two on the menu Mickey was barely able to kiss Mark goodbye we went to
Mark’s house 13th and A stories about how If you venture out there after dark
one block or more you automatically get raped mugged castrated we smoked
went into the bedroom to see the new waterbed (Acker 2002a: 2)

The lack of punctuation or regular capitalisation produces a

spontaneous, jumbled, disorientating narrative, in which is unclear at
which point the reader is to “break” or breathe – an effect also
common to cut-up texts. This was clearly Acker’s intention, as she
recalls writing Politics by “cutting in tapes, cutting out tapes, using a
lot of dream material, using other people’s dreams, doing a lot of
Burroughs experiments” (Acker 1991: 5). The Burroughs-style
experiments may not be so clearly apparent, but this passage shows a
mode of writing that attempts to break down the conventions of
grammar and punctuation which also bears similarities to Kerouac’s
freeform “wild style”, and that Acker should cite Kerouac as a
formative influence is unsurprising. Acker’s disregard for grammatical
conventions represents a challenge to accepted notions of literary
writing, and in this way Politics was emblematic of her desire to
attack not only “the establishment”, but also the control mechanisms
embedded within the established protocols of language. She further
explained the reasoning behind her early writing style as follows: “I
came out of a poetry world… But I didn’t want to write poetry. I
wanted to write prose and there weren’t many prose writers around
who were using the ways of working of poets I was influenced by”
Written in 1968 when Acker was 21 and only privately published in 1972, Politics
remained unpublished commercially until 1991. Excerpts of the book are also
contained in Euridice in the Underworld (1997) pp. 27-37 and Essential Acker: The
Selected Writings of Kathy Acker (2002) pp. 1-3.
156 Shift Linguals

(Friedman 1989: 14). Of the prose writers she did feel an affinity with,
she cited Burroughs as her “first major influence”, stating, “I love to
read Kerouac, but Burroughs is the more intellectual. He was
considering how language is used and abused within a political
context. That’s what interested me” (Friedman 1989: 14).
The Burning Bombing of America illustrates this, developing
from the stream of conscious narrative of Politics to an overt adoption
of the cut-up method:
all plants and animals burst into flames/light through the hole the circle
of waters we walk to the New City at night flamethrowers colour bombs
cats fly through your hair governing men the Tao Te Ching like
governing horses we are ready the images are ready we are ready to
move at the first sight of morning (Acker 2002b: 165)

This passage is typical of The Burning Bombing of America,

combining fragments that appear to be drawn from news items, poems
and a miscellany of other sources at random. The recurrent
juxtaposition of objects – plants, animals, flamethrowers – with
synonyms for explosions and fire provides a thematic unity and
creates an apocalyptic scene that suggests what the destruction of
America might be like. The reference to images can be seen to allude
to the text’s own construction as a sequence of images, and this
illustrates how closely Acker followed Burroughs’ lead, in terms of
applying the cut-up method, in her approaching text as “material”, and
in the selection of source materials that create a narrative that builds a
scene of a war. The scenes of destruction and the book’s subtitle, “The
destruction of the U.S.” can be interpreted metaphorically, as
symbolic of Acker’s antagonism toward the establishment, and toward
literary conventions. As such, The Burning Bombing of America
represents her pursuing the destructive elements of avant-garde
practice. Despite the fragmentary nature of the narrative, Acker retains
a greater sense of linearity in terms of the unfolding of events in The
Burning Bombing of America than is evident in many of the cut-up
texts produced by her precursors:
new day. the war has begun. man all battle stations number two the enemy
is escaping come forward announce your names; wear rings pins blue
jeans announcing your name. don’t stop talking to me. the first level has
started exploding mass murder is a way of touching we are floating on
yellow clouds (Acker 2002b: 152)
Kathy Acker 157

Here, Acker presents a scene of conscription, as troops are drafted to

fight this war: “come forward announce your names”. The repetition
of “announce your names / announcing your name” emphasises the
importance of identity through ascribed naming, while also showing
how it is possible to change emphasis or meaning by cutting and
rearranging the same words within different contexts and
permutations. However, the fact that in the next line we learn that “the
first level has started exploding” suggests that it is too late, and that
the war may already be lost. Thus the orders given in the text – “come
forward”, “announce your names”, are as futile as the established
orders of language that her fragmented mode of writing attacks. Both
the content and rhythm of The Burning Bombing of America is
extremely close to Burroughs’ cut-up works, and also to those by
Weissner and Pélieu that most rigidly follow the directions in The
Third Mind. Some sections bear a remarkable similarity to Burroughs’
Nova trilogy, suggesting the possibility that Burroughs’ texts, along
with other Beat writings, may have provided source material.
1920 Free all prisoners leave people’s minds alone only our personal
life exists fish leap through our hair our limbs tangle we mutilate each
other take guns slash off our heads long orange machetes [...] not now
known I lonely praise Gertrude Stein Walt Whitman Allen Ginsberg
the women of you American apocalypse visions who fly to the raging
beams moon revolution every 1/3 second faster than any dynamite
thought (Acker 2002b: 180-1)

The date 1920 recurs frequently in Burroughs’ The Soft Machine

(1962) and The Wild Boys (1971), and while to ascribe such small
fragments to a specific source text with any certainty is extremely
difficult, that such fragments may have come from Burroughs’ texts
does hint at her possible sources. Such uncertainty also illustrates the
reason why the cut-ups cannot be considered simple plagiarism. In
addition, the inclusion of such dates, in the context of the overall text,
allude to the way history can be subject to realignment and revision
not only by cutting up but by the process of assembling the fragments
of different sources to present a “whole”. The names listed amidst the
debris of the “American apocalypse” can be seen to represent some of
Acker’s literary reference points, if not actual sources. The way in
which the fragmentation of phrases reveals new phrases and images
reflects an attempt to test the replicability of Burroughs and Gysin’s
experiments. Phrases like “fish leap through our hair” – which echoes
158 Shift Linguals

the earlier “cats fly through your hair” – and “long orange machetes”
are reminiscent of abstractions like Pélieu’s “with revolvers aimed...
finger bowls”. Such phrases link back to Gysin’s suggestion that
cutting up could produce “abstract prose”, and also highlight the
Surrealist lineage of the original cut-ups contained in Minutes To Go.
However, Acker’s punctuation – or lack of it – does mark a point of
difference between her cut-ups and those of her predecessors.
Whereas Burroughs, Weissner and Pélieu all marked the intersections
between the fragments of text with various typographical characters,
including em dashes and ellipses, Acker uses additional spacing. This
achieves an effect of reduced separation: in the absence of concrete
visual breaks, the fragments run together, blurring the distinction
between each cut phrase. Consequently, the succession of images
occurs so rapidly as to almost overlap, as though collaged together.
The use of overlapping images would become increasingly prominent
during the next phase of her career, in which actual images, in the
form of illustrations and diagrams, appeared alongside – or
overlapping – the images described in narrative form, thus rendering
the collage analogy of the cut-ups entirely explicit.
Although Acker referred to herself as a plagiarist, conceding
that “if I had to be totally honest I would say that what I’m doing is
breach of copyright” (Acker 1991: 12), her writing does not comply
with the strictest definition of plagiarism. “I change words”, she
explains, and Wollen notes, “it wasn’t really plagiarism because she
was quite open about what she did” (Scholder at al 2006: 4), and she
never attempted to pass the works of others off as her own. “I have
been very clear that I use other people’s material... I’ve always talked
about it as a literary theory and as a literary method”, she says (Acker
1991: 13). As she also wrote, “I do not write out of nothing, or from
nothing, for I must write with the help of other texts” (1997a 100).
Here, she alludes to the complex relationship between creativity,
influence, authorship and ownership. She contends that identity is
“questionable”, and that ownership “must be questioned” (1997a 100-
101). As Robert Lort writes: “Kathy Acker’s pseudo-plagiarism is a
method she uses in which she appropriates texts from different sources
and proceeds to then deconstruct them by playing with them,
modifying them, layering, rearranging, rewriting and fragmenting the
original texts” (1998: 192). This “pseudo-plagiarism” is sometimes
apparent from the titles of her works alone: Great Expectations; Don
Kathy Acker 159

Quixote: Which Was a Dream; and Hannibal Lecter, My Father

provide just three examples of titles drawn from precursive texts, and
illustrate just one way in which she “undermined the staple myths of
originality, of literary ownership and reliable reference” (Scholder et
al 2006: 23). Great Expectations (1982) was written by “cutting it up,
not even rewriting, just taking it and putting it together again, like
playing with building blocks” (Acker 1991: 15-16).
In Great Expectations, this use of text like “building blocks” is
readily apparent, and Acker’s plagiarism from Charles Dickens’ text
of the same title is anything but subtle, as the opening lines reveal:
My father’s name being Pirrip, and my Christian name being Philip, my
infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than
Peter. So I called myself Peter, and came to be called Peter.
I give Pirrip as my father’s family name on the authority of his tombstone
and my sister – Mrs Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. (1984: 171)

Acker’s lines repeat the first paragraphs of Dickens’ Great

Expectations (1861) verbatim, the only difference being the alteration
of the name “Pip” in the original to “Peter”. This exemplifies the ways
in which Acker incorporates aspects of her own biography within her
fiction. The “Peter” of Great Expectations is almost certainly Peter
Gordon, Acker’s second husband, who is also the Peter who appears
in Rip-Off Red. As such, the boundaries between “fictional” characters
and “real” characters are purposefully blurred. Moreover, such
passages represent her most overt plagiarism from her source texts,
whereby her “copying” is completely literal. Such an approach to
“writing” is in many ways the archetype of postmodernism in its self-
conscious lack of originality, and by “incorporating” rather than
merely “quoting” existing texts in the way Fredric Jameson identifies
as typically postmodern. However, the changing of Pip in the original
text to Peter illustrates the way in which she does “change words”.
Through this practice of copying with only minor alterations, she
sought to “re-present” the texts, and to address the question, “if I
repeated the same text, would it be the same text?” (Acker 1991: 8).
Such minor alterations effect creative misprision, and thus by design a
small change or distortion between her text and the “original”. In this
way, she addresses the issues of ownership and authorship. Her
approach to intellectual copyright and text as physical matter that can
be moved and manipulated shows the common ground shared with
160 Shift Linguals

Burroughs and Gysin, and demonstrates on a practical level the way a

writer does “choose, edit and rearrange words at his disposal”
(Hibbard 1999: 15) and manipulate words as an artist would paint.
This method of appropriation succeeded her initial cut-up approach,
and represents the beginning of the second stage of her career. More
than this, it represents her first move away from simply applying
Burroughs’ methods, and her first contribution to the evolution of the
cut-up technique.
Much of Acker’s “plagiarism” served as a means of exploring
the relationship of her own writing with canonical texts, and as a way
of discovering her own identity. As she explained in Bodies of Work
(1997), “in my confusion, I look to older writing, as I have often done
when I am confused. I look to find a clue about my writing” (98). This
“older writing” ranged from Faulkner, Artaud and Cervantes, to Genet
and Dickens. To this end, The Childlike Life of The Black Tarantula
sees Acker apply a cut-up approach to sections of narrative, splicing
and interweaving “older writing” with “very direct autobiographical,
just diary material, right next to fake diary material. I tried to figure
out who I was and who I wasn’t and went to texts of murderesses. I
just changed them into the first person... and put the fake first person
next to the true first person” (Acker 1991: 7). Black Tarantula opens
with a diary entry dated June 1973, which begins, “I become a
murderess. I’m born in the autumn or winter of 1827. Troy, New
York... My name is Charlotte Wood” (1998: 3). The two dates offer a
clear indication of the “fake” diary and “real” diary material being
placed beside one another, with 1973 representing Acker’s own “very
direct autobiographical diary material” and Wood’s birth date
originating from one of her source texts.
The chapter continues with Wood’s brief biography,
interspersed with fragments that stand at odds with the tone and
structure of the chronological, linear narrative: “Do you want me to
call you yes. I call Friday call Saturday Sunday this is Kathy O uh do
you want to spend a night with me again are you too busy I’m too
busy uh goodbye” (Acker 1998: 4). These “dropped in” fragments,
with their unpunctuated style mark the sections of diary material
against the “copied” sections and in this way it is easy to see how
Acker pastes segments from the different texts together to create a
new narrative voice. Wood’s “biography” is followed by a series of
brief biographies of other women. These biographies appear as
Kathy Acker 161

straightforward narratives, detailing family life, encounters and

relationships. However, Acker again incorporates intercut paragraphs
which appear intentionally incongruous:
...when I sit on my waterbed where I write the material of the crotch of the
pants presses against my cunt lips I’m always slightly hot I masturbate often
when I write I write a section 15 minutes to an hour... (1998: 11)

Such inclusions break the continuity of the narrative, and one is

frequently compelled to question precisely who is speaking, and to
consider whether or not the scene is “factual” or fictional. Through
this technique, Acker exposes the way in which identity is not fixed,
as the “narrator” is revealed to be a shifting succession of narrators
spliced to create a single, but not necessarily unified “whole”. The end
result is a cut-up composite character, or, perhaps more accurately, a
composite narrator formed with facets of numerous characters. This
functions in a different way from the cut-up characters who populate
Pélieu’s With Revolvers Aimed, in that Acker presents a composite
personality, rather than a composite “being” constructed from random
body parts. Acker’s “split” multi-voiced narrator, within whom facets
of murderesses are amalgamated and superimposed, explores her
interest in “the model of schizophrenia” (Acker 1991: 7). She
explained her interest in identity arguing that “it’s a thing that’s made.
You create identity, you’re not given identity per se... texts create
identity” (1991: 7). Acker’s composite narrator thus shares common
ground with the Burroughs / Balch film Bill and Tony in which the
speaking heads of Burroughs and Balch swap names and voices,
creating a third mind / body. Yet in other ways, the composition of
Black Tarantula represents a completely new development within the
evolution of the cut-ups, not least of all in the way that the
appropriated texts are purposefully altered.
At the end of each chapter, Acker places an endnote listing the
sources used in the construction of the text. The endnote to chapter
one states that “events are taken from myself, Enter Murderers! By
E.H. Bierstadt, Murder for Profit by W. Boltholio, Blood in the
Parlour by D. Dunbar, Rogues and Adventuresses by C. Kingston”,
disclosing her method in a pseudo-academic style (1998: 21).
Elsewhere, de Sade’s Justine, Alexander Trocchi’s Helen and Desire
and Thérèse and Isabelle by Violet Leduc are listed as sources
alongside “my past, and my fantasies” (1998: 40). While not all of her
162 Shift Linguals

sources are obvious, having been sufficiently rewritten and

fragmented to disguise their origins, chapter four, entitled “i become
helen seferis, and then, alexander trocchi”, is a most blatant retelling
of Helen and Desire, which begins:
It is dark where I am lying, alone, in a tent, on a few sheepskins that they
provided for me. They have taken my clothes away from me and have given
me the clothes of an Arab woman... And I shall have my revenge.
How terrified I was when I saw the camels of Youssef’s caravan move off
in single file! And Youssef himself, the only living soul to whom I could
speak, turning his eyes away as though I no longer existed.
One day I shall make him pay for all that... (Trocchi 1957: 3)

Trocchi’s text lends itself readily to Acker’s mode of (re)writing, with

Trocchi’s first person narrative being the voice of the eponymous
Helen, a salacious female character. The similarities between the
opening of Trocchi’s text and Acker’s lines are clearly apparent:
I’m lying in the dark, in a tent, my thighs wrapped in the thick skins of sheep.
The dark lies around me, murderers thieves who have taken me stand around,
I can smell them I hate their guts, they’ll need food when we get to the city,
I’ll take my revenge... My lover Y sold me to them... all I have left is my
writing. That’s the only stability I have ever known. (Trocchi 1957: 41)

In her retelling, Acker paraphrases and abridges Trocchi’s story,

retaining the plot and the events, while often simplifying the
descriptions and the phraseology. Once again, Acker introduces an
autobiographical element to the story: her narrator is a writer,
something Trocchi’s narrator makes no reference to. The alterations
Acker makes to the original text are most apparent in the scenes of a
sexual nature: although John Pringle notes that Helen and Desire is
often described as a “dirty book”, (Trocchi 1954: xi) it is arguably
more erotic than overtly pornographic in its style. Acker’s rewriting
strips away the subtlety of Trocchi’s narrative and re-presents it in a
style that is overtly “pornographic”. Making a direct comparison of
the following passages illustrates this point:
I moved like a sleepwalker into the sea which rose upwards over the finely
haired skin of my legs until, with my knees submerged, the water became a
circle at each thigh... Gradually, I opened my knees and felt the hot centre of
myself pulled downwards into the water as though by gravitational pull, and,
as the lip of the water swung coolly between my buttocks and took my lower
belly within itself, all the tension of my body was released... (Trocchi 1957: 5)
Kathy Acker 163

Acker’s “retelling” reads as follows:

I move like a sleepwalker among deeper sleepwalkers in this beach I
remember... I open my legs, the water feels coldest around my ankles as it
rises around my legs the shock disappears the foam springs around me wets
my cunt, I begin to swim naked the long muscles running around my ass down
the backs of my long legs relax, my body opens at my cunt... (1998: 42)

Whereas Trocchi’s text describes the experience with subtlety and

refers only to Helen’s thighs and buttocks, Acker’s version, rewritten
in the present tense, is blunter, changing “buttocks” to the coarser
“ass”, and making repeated reference to “my cunt”, which Trocchi
describes more euphemistically as “the hot centre”. But can Acker’s
rewriting of Helen and Desire be considered an example of
postmodern pastiche? Certainly, it is not parodic, but to suggest that
such a re-presentation of the text, stripped of subtlety, is an homage
would clearly be problematic. Indeed, this is illustrative of the
problematic nature of locating Acker’s work in theoretical terms, in
that her writing not only incorporates many different genres, but
subscribes to a range of literary practices, some of which conform to
those considered to be representative of avant-gardism, others of
which are distinctly postmodern. Acker’s adopted practice of directly
copying and making comparatively minor alterations to existing texts
represents the application of a lesson she learned from one of her early
mentors, poet David Antin. Aware of his students’ lack of life
experience, he would tell them, “don’t be afraid to copy it out…”
adding, “Kathy really took that ball and ran with it” (Scholder et al
2006: 4). Her plagiarism of Trocchi’s writing functions in the same
way as her splicing of other texts with her own throughout Black
Tarantula, in that it appropriates from different sources to create a
new hybrid text. In this way, Acker’s early use of the cut-ups, as
represented by The Burning Bombing America can be seen to have
developed into a method whereby larger segments of existing texts
can be cut together to create more coherent narratives.
Thus far I have established not only the cut-up roots of Acker’s
earliest writing, and demonstrated how this informed her development
of modes of cutting up and rewriting existing texts in the books which
followed, but also how her use of the technique was of particular
importance to her on a personal level. That is to say, Acker used the
idea of text as something physical that can be moved and manipulated
164 Shift Linguals

as a way of exploring different authorial voices. “I still don’t have a

clear idea of what my voice is”, she told Marita Avila and Cheryl
Meier in her final interview in 1996.5
I shall now explore the ways in which she came to build on this
foundation by incorporating different cut-up, cut-and-paste and
collage elements to realise the potentials of the cut-up Burroughs and
Gysin suggested when they first “applied the montage technique to
words on a page”. In the next section, I will examine, in detail, the
multimedia approach Acker took in writing Blood and Guts in High
School in which she continued to combine autobiography with fiction
to create new voices and a new approach to “the novel”.

Blood and Guts: Cut-and-Paste

Blood and Guts in High School continues to develop the juxtaposition

of diary material with pieces of texts from other sources by
introducing graphic and visual elements. It became Acker’s first book
to be published in Britain, appearing in a single volume alongside
Great Expectations and My Death, My Life (1983) in Blood and Guts
in High School Plus Two (1984). This publication garnered
considerable attention and brought her fame and notoriety in almost
equal measure. Such polarised critical reception of her work persisted
throughout her life, and even beyond, with the letters pages of The
Guardian becoming the platform for heated debate in the wake of her
untimely demise. Even now, her work remains extremely divisive.
Perhaps because of the provocative nature of her work, and the
antagonistically anti-literary style of her output, she is considered a
figure too “problematic” for widespread acceptance. As Michael
Hardin notes, “there remains a dearth of critical articles and books on
her work, and her fiction is not taught as often as one might expect,
given its relevance to contemporary literature and theory” (2004: x).
Blood and Guts is nothing if not provocative, and as Niall
Lucy suggests,
One could say that Blood and Guts in High School is a lousy novel, but that
wouldn’t be the point... it doesn’t belong to a genre (and so to genre),

Marita Avila and Cheryl Meier, “Consorting with Hecate: An Invocation of
Literary Pirate Kathy Acker.” Originally published in abridged form in BUST
magazine, reproduced online at
(consulted 5 January 2003).
Kathy Acker 165

because it’s ‘semiotic’ (or, perhaps, unpresentable) features are generally

unclassifiable and therefore Blood and Guts in High School is ‘beyond’
genre, or outside, in Kristeva’s terms, symbolic signification. (2000: 13)

As much a loosely-ordered sequence of scenes, dreamscapes and

psychodramas as a novel in the conventional sense, Blood and Guts
invites comparison to Naked Lunch and the works that followed the
Nova trilogy for its experimental formulation and modes of
presentation. The book follows the central character, Janey, from her
home with her father to Tangier in the company of Jean Genet and
beyond. Initially, the most striking feature of the book is its
presentation. The text is interspersed with sketches and illustrations,
maps and diagrams, and uses a broad range of different typefaces.
Many of the sketches, which predominantly feature in the book’s first
section “Inside High School”, take the form of crude line drawings,
some of which depict erect penises (“spurting cocks”, as Burroughs
would have it) and open vaginas. These are intended to be shocking
and serve to set Acker’s radical agenda from the outset. In addressing
the non-conformist stance presented within the book’s formulation,
Lucy encapsulates the way in which Acker’s work divided the critics
more generally:
To say… that Blood and Guts in High School shouldn’t be undervalued for
not meeting a standards of literature defined by novels like Jane Eyre would
not be to say that, simply because of its nonconformity, therefore it represents
a radical challenge to that standard or exposes the oppressive illusion that
literature could ever be understood in terms of standards. (Sometimes a cigar
is just a cigar, and the nonconformity of Acker’s novel could just be the
consequence of bad writing rather than transgressive writing.) (2000: 33)

Such criticisms overlook Acker’s extensive knowledge of classical,

canonical and avant-garde literature, and in this context it is less
problematic to accept Blood and Guts as transgressive. The book is
essentially a collage, incorporating calligraphy, sketches and broken
mise en page. The sections “The Persian Poems” and “The World”,
the latter of which consists purely of annotated diagrams and
illustrations, exist almost wholly apart from the main narrative, and
separate from the loosely-structured, fragmented “plot”. In this way,
Acker’s indebtedness to cut-up and multimedia texts like The Third
Mind, White Subway (1965) and The Book of Breeething, is
166 Shift Linguals

immediately apparent.6 That Blood and Guts is constructed from a

series of discontinuous short passages is significant also, bearing
structural similarities to Naked Lunch. Burroughs famously stated that
“you can cut into The Naked Lunch at any intersection point” (1959:
187), and Acker believed the same to be true of Blood and Guts,
commenting that “on the whole they can read wherever they want…
you could read pretty much anywhere” (Acker 1991: 15).
To consider Blood and Guts in a loosely chronological order
remains the most logical approach here, however. The book opens
with a brief introduction of the central character, Janey Smith. We are
informed that she is ten years old, and that her mother died when she
was a year old. As a result, she “depended on her father for
everything, and regarded her father as boyfriend, brother, sister,
money, amusement, father” (7). Immediately we learn that
Janey and Mr Smith had been planning a big vacation for Janey in New York
City in North America. Actually Mr Smith was trying to get rid of Janey so he
could spend all his time with Sally, a twenty-one-year-old starlet who was still
refusing to fuck him. (7)

The prose style is simple, the declarative sentences basic. The

phraseology and limited use of punctuation renders the style simplistic
to the point of appearing naive: the prose possesses an unedited
Less simple is the relationship between Janey and her father.
Within the first three paragraphs, it is apparent that their relationship
is not “normal”. That Janey should bestow upon her father so many
roles is indicative of a twisted psychology, while her father’s plan to
“get rid of Janey” suggests he is at best a poor parent. That Janey calls
him “Johnny”, and “fucks him even though it hurts like hell ‘cause of
her Pelvic Inflammatory Disease” (10) further illustrates the unusual
and deeply disturbing nature of their relationship. The similarity of the
two characters’ names is of interest, suggesting something of an
interchangeability between the two, a cut-up composite character. “I
am Johnny,” (10) states Janey, drawing attention to this near
interchangeability. Janey’s direct descendance from Johnny is

William Burroughs, White Subway (Aloes, London), republished without
illustrations and photographs and omitting the articles by Paul Bowles and Alan
Ansen, in The Burroughs File, (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1984), pp. 27-
Kathy Acker 167

highlighted by this association, their genetic connection accentuated

by the similarity of their names, while at the same time the subtle
difference between their names serves to also illustrate the variations
in their genetic makeup. The connotation of the “father figure” is also
significant, as the traditional role of the father figure is one of
authority. The relationship is emblematic of Acker’s own difficult and
complex relationship with authority, through which she consciously
rebelled against authority in the form of her college tutors and her
literary forbears.
It is clear that the relationship between Janey and her father
involves mutual abuse and that the sexual aspect is far from loving:
there is distrust between the characters. That this “family unit” exists,
even within a fictional context, serves to challenge the idea of
“norms”. The relationship between Janey and her father questions the
idea of social norms as exemplified by the traditional nuclear family.
Perhaps what renders the depiction of their relationship most shocking
is the matter-of-fact tone of the narrative. Echoing the satirical
passages of Naked Lunch, which saw Burroughs’ text on trial for
obscenity, Acker passes no authorial comment on the morality of the
scenario, and Blood and Guts was consequently the subject of legal
scrutiny in Germany in 1986.7 The Federal Inspection Office for
Publications Harmful to Minors commented in its report on the text,
“it is confusing in terms of sexual ethics” (Acker 1997b 144-150). The
report also records that “the structure of the plot is in part quite
difficult to understand. It is partially very hard or completely
impossible for the reader to see whether we are dealing with the
protagonist’s imagination or real events” (146). Herein lies a key issue
of the text’s structure: not only is the narrative broken syntactically by
fragmentary sentences and ambiguous punctuation, but it is also
constructed from larger fragments which disrupt any overarching
narrative continuity. This approach is clearly analogous to the cut-ups,
using slabs of text instead of short phrases to create a mosaic of
interweaving narrative instead of a single continuous narrative, and
again represents a method of writing that does unquestionably take the
idea of applying montage to words as its basis.

See John Sutherland, Offensive Literature: Decensorship in Britain 1960-1982 and
Michael B. Goodman, Contemporary Literary Censorship: The Case History of
Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.
168 Shift Linguals

The relationship between Janey and Johnny also represents a

feminized adaptation of the Oedipal myth. This represents a common
theme in Acker’s work, namely the practice of revising existing texts
and stories, often by inverting and reversing gender roles, and
demonstrates her knowledge of classical literature. The significance of
Oedipal conflict and the connotations of this particular myth to Acker
was considerable, on account of the great influence it has had over the
psychoanalysis of male / female and familial relations from Freud to
the present. The version of the family portrayed by Acker in Janey and
Johnny presents a possible outcome of when Freud’s “tripartite
formula – the Oedipal, neurotic one: daddy-mommy-me” (Deleuze &
Guattari 1984: 23) is deviated from. Furthermore, this “retelling” of
the Oedipal myth corresponds with Harold Bloom’s theory of
influence, in which the poet or author experiences an ambivalent,
anxiety-ridden relationship with those precursors whom they
most admire. In her “confusion”, rather than simply “look to older
writing” (Acker 1997a: 98) or her father (figure), Janey fucks her
father and Acker fucks with the words of her literary forefathers, and
as such manifests the Oedipal cycle of the writer and their precursor
that Bloom theorised was the basis on which influence functions.8
Also connected to the Oedipal mode of discourse is the idea of
“Anti-Oedipus”, put forth by Deleuze and Guattari, which proved to
have a profound effect on Acker as she herself acknowledged and as
Lort notes: wasn’t until she had read Anti-Oedipus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia by
the radical French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and his accomplice Felix
Guattari and other works by Michel Foucault that she finally understood on a
theoretical level what she had been doing intuitively. Only then did she finally
have words to describe what she had been doing. (1998: 190)

Acker’s work prior to her reading of Anti-Oedipus can be seen not

simply as “experimental”, but as the open workings of an author
trying to understand herself, her ways of thinking and the context in
which these exist. The narrative switches, interchangeable identities
and confused roles are perfectly matched to the schizophrenic

It is Bloom’s contention in The Anxiety of Influence (1973) that the writer first
mimics the work of their precursor, before, through a series of stages, devouring the
precursor and effectively writing them out of existence.
Kathy Acker 169

tendencies Deleuze and Guattari identify as being endemic within and

symptomatic of modern consumerist society. Deleuze and Guattari
observe how Freudian psychoanalysts have “often tried to lead the
schizophrenic down the road to ego formation, and normality [which]
has often meant forcibly imposing the Oedipal cycle, which is
supposedly characteristic of normal psychic development” (Peretti
1996). In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari consider the connection
between late capitalism and schizophrenia. As Jonah Peretti argues,
the current consumerist climate not only accelerates the flow of
capital, but also the rate at which subjects assume identities: identity,
then, is a “collage” and Acker’s cut-and-paste montage approach to
assembling narrative and characters is analogous to the formation of
identity in the postmodern world. The schizophrenic state is, therefore,
if not an “ideal” state, then one which is closely linked to postmodern
society, in which advertisers or “production machines” require the
consumer to act as a “desiring machine”, and to assume and dissolve
identities at a pace in keeping with the rate that images and
advertisements are bombarded at them. Moreover, Acker’s work
illustrates the symptoms of that time and society in a “schizo” manner
as theorised by Deleuze and Guattari:
The schizophrenic deliberately seeks out the very limit of capitalism: he is its
inherent tendency brought to fulfilment, its surplus product, its proletariat, and
its exterminating angel. He scrambles all the codes and is the transmitter of
the decoded flows of desire. (1984: 35)

In this way, we see that Acker’s collaging also works against the
model of postmodern culture, reflecting her belief that to write is not
only “to engage in the world” (1997a 103), but also to change it: it
was her belief that “what is fiction is that which will become actual”
(3). In other words, she too sought to “scramble the codes”, through
the use of cut-ups – perhaps not as literally as Burroughs had, but her
discontinuous, multi-media anti-narratives were designed to challenge
the idea of an “average” demographic or type. Acker describes
reading Anti-Oedipus as a revelation, stating, “when I read Anti-
Oedipus and Foucault’s work, suddenly I had this whole language at
my disposal” (Acker 1991: 10). Clearly, even prior to her reading of
Anti-Oedipus, Acker was instinctively writing against the “normative”
Oedipal cycle, and also demonstrating a postmodern or schizophrenic
170 Shift Linguals

approach to the formation of shifting identity, but her discovery of the

text brought about a greater degree of self-awareness in her writing.
Through her portrayal of the Janey and Johnny, the language
and phraseology, the narrative is itself representative of a challenging
of (literary) norms and is demonstrative of the rebellion at the heart of
Acker’s work. Her refusal to have “any consideration for proper
grammar or proper syntax” (Schmieder 1991) is evident. One can
observe her refusal “to rewrite”, sensing that the writing was done “as
fast as possible”, supporting her claim that “I write to get it out of me.
I don’t write to remember it” (Sirius 1993). In keeping with her
determination to write against convention, Blood and Guts skips
between narrative voices and modes of presentation frequently and in
rapid succession. This shows a continuity within her output, as the
splicing of different narratives in Blood and Guts represents an
evolutionary development of the way different texts were intercut in
Black Tarantula and The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec.9 Her method
of “collaging” different narratives shows a clear lineage from the
original cut-up method, as well as a distinct development in its
application, the transition from cut-up to “cut-and-paste”. After just
half a page of narrative prose, there is a switch to an alternative
method of presentation as she turns to dialogue presented in script
Janey: You’re going to leave me. (She doesn’t know why she’s saying
Father: (dumbfounded, but not denying it): Sally and I just slept
together for the first time. How can I know anything?
Janey: (in amazement) She didn’t believe what she had been saying was
true. It was only out of petulance: You ARE going to leave me.
Oh no. That can’t be.
Father: (also stunned): I never thought I was going to leave you. I was
just fucking. (Acker 1984: 7)

This exchange of dialogue further highlights the strangeness of the

relationship between Janey and her father, and is indicative of the
multiplicity of roles her father plays in Janey’s life: he is, in effect, a
cut-up composite of many characters within a single “shell”. Through
the scripted dialogue we see the mechanisms of the relationship

In her interview with Lotringer featured in Hannibal Lecter, My Father, Acker
recalls how she ran into trouble for the use of a four-page section of The Pirate
(1975) by Harold Robbins within The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec.
Kathy Acker 171

between Janey and her father, and the way in which insecurity and
confusion provide its basis. In this sequence, we see further evidence
of the duality of Janey’s relationship with Johnny as a dual metaphor
for Acker’s exploration of male / female relations as well as her own
complex relationship with her literary forebears. As Acker noted, “the
canon” was created by male writers, and throughout her career she
worked to establish, or, moreover, to understand her place as a woman
writer. “From the time of my high school days, I have known, in the
way that one knows the streets of one’s city and the laws of one’s
culture, the names of those in the pantheon of great... American
writers. The big men. There weren’t many, any, women” (1997a: 1),
she wrote. Like Burroughs before her, Acker believed that language
equals power; therefore, that the canon is a male creation is a signifier
of male dominance within culture and society.
The use of the script format is quite unusual within the context
of a novel, and I would speculate that it is probable that Acker adopted
the style of presentation in light of Burroughs’ use of script dialogue
in Naked Lunch, The Wild Boys, the Nova trilogy and The Last Words
of Dutch Schultz (1970). Acker’s script differs from Burroughs’ in that
hers convey little sense of the filmic. However, she had previously
written performance pieces, including The Birth of the Poet (1975)
which includes lengthy sections of language exercises and translations
in Arabic which are not obviously performable.10 Nevertheless,
Acker’s incorporation of script passages do serve the function of
rendering the editing of text analogous to the editing of film, and in
this way reflect a continued pursuit of the objectives of her literary
precursors, namely to bring the act of reading closer to that of real life.
In terms of directions, Acker’s “script” contains no
“movement”. The characters make no gesticulations, and so appear
static within their location. Because of this, the entrances and exits of
characters are somewhat problematic. Janey is shown to speak “as her
father was leaving the house” (Acker 1984: 10). A page on, he speaks
again, seemingly without re-entering. There is no mention of his
return, and nor is there any mention of where he goes to when he

The Birth of the Poet, first performed in New York City on 3rd December 1975 is
contained in full in Hannibal Lecter, My Father, pp. 75-103, and Eurydice in the
Underworld, pp. 77-105. Act Three, “Ali Goes to the Mosque” contains large
amounts of Arabic script, and was published separately as “Ali and the Mosque” in
RE/Search #3 (1981), pp. 20-21.
172 Shift Linguals

leaves. In Blood and Guts, we do not always know how the characters
arrive at a given location. We do not see them leave scenes, and how
they appear at the next scene, we know not either. Such discontinuity
presents little problem in the context of a cut-up narrative, the function
of which is to dispense with the need to detail movement, a point
Burroughs observed when he wrote, “I am not American Express… If
one of my people is seen in New York walking around in citizen
clothes and the next sentence Timbuktu... we may assume that he
transported himself there by the usual methods of communication
(Burroughs 1959: 182). Acker’s contention, too, was that the
transportation of the characters and such things didn’t matter. This
would suggest that Burroughs’ prediction that “new techniques, such
as cut-up, will involve much more the total capacity of the observer”
(Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 6) had been fulfilled and that the cut-ups
had finally resulted in the re-education of writers, if not readers.
Perhaps for this reason, the narrative continuity, in terms of
sequentiality and “speaker” is questionable in Blood and Guts. For
example, upon her father’s leaving the house, Janey calls her father’s
best friend. Their conversation is continued within the same
continuous sequence of dialogue, and so effectively merges two
separate locations within a single setting, cutting through the artificial
linear constructs of time and space which is commonly imposed upon
events within more conventional narrative, and which Burroughs
strove to dispense with through the development of the cut-ups.
Elsewhere, the events which serve to move the plot along
(develop would be a rather inappropriate choice of word) are confined
to the briefest of inclusions. “Mr Smith puts Janey in school in New
York City to make sure she doesn’t return to Merida” (Acker 1984:
31) “She left high-school and lived in the East Village...” (44). Acker
explained her approach to sequential narrative thus:
I certainly don’t believe linear time is adequate. So you don’t need to structure
a novel according to linear time or even according to memory, flashbacks plus
linear time. I don’t think that’s the kind of world that I live in. So, if I’m going
to do anything that has any relation to my own life, which it has to, I’m not
going to write in terms of linear time. (Schmieder 1991)

By taking this stance, Acker can be seen to be attempting to address

the problem of conventional narrative that the cut-up technique was
devised to address, namely that of creating a mode of narrative that
Kathy Acker 173

brings writing closer to reality, echoing Burroughs’ assertion that

“consciousness is a cut-up; life is a cut up” (1993: 61).
The arbitrary approach to sequence within Blood and Guts is
nowhere more strongly evidenced than in the “letters” from Erica Jong
to Janey that appear among the pages of Janey’s “diary” (the artifice
of which we are reminded of quite clearly) in the section “A journey
to the end of the night” (125-6) – which also appeared as a separate
volume, under the title Hello, I’m Erica Jong (1982). The placement
of these letters appears to be highly incongruous, and serves to further
disrupt the narrative while once more developing the “layers” of
collage within Blood and Guts. These letters both mimic and parody
the author, combining “factual” elements such as the title of the book
that brought her to the public’s attention with fictitious parody of her
ARE REAL. GOODBYE. (Acker 1984: 125)

Passages such as this, in the form of “fake” letters from a “real” author
about “real” “characters” not only blur the boundaries of reality and
fiction, text and reader, but serve to expose the artifice of the format
and linearity of “the novel”. As such, the text performs the function of
postmodern writing identified by Eagleton, which he sees as “wryly
pointing its own status as a constructed artifice” (1996: 201-2).
Ultimately, Acker raises more questions than answers, but succeeds in
provoking thought concerning the interface between the author and
reader, and the idea that the authorial voice is only as “real” as the
characters portrayed. Moreover, the inclusion of such elements add to
the scrapbook effect, and illustrate how Acker advanced the cut-up
technique to a new level of sophistication. If the early cut-ups were

“In 1973 Erica Jong published Fear of Flying, the novel for which she is probably
best known, and a novel that would take the public by storm for its explicit
treatment of women’s sexuality. The novel was greeted on publication with high
praise from such prominent writers as John Updyke and Henry Miller”. From the
official Erica Jong website, online at:
(consulted 23 July 2007).
174 Shift Linguals

intended to expose the mechanisms of control and ways in which

language can be manipulated to create “fiction” and “history”, then
Acker’s methods of appropriation, alteration and collaging explore
precisely how complex those mechanisms of manipulation really are.
In Blood and Guts the plot soon becomes buried amidst a
lengthy sequence of sketches and maps, poems and language exercises
in which the male world is attacked from various angles. The line-
drawings of open vaginas and ejaculating penises at once celebrate
female sexuality whilst also highlighting the “phallic-oriented” nature
of western culture and literature. These drawings, inserted at
seemingly arbitrary points within the text, break the vague continuity
of the narrative with quite incongruous-looking visual diversions.
These images physically cut through and fragment the flow of the
narrative. Placed in juxtaposition with the text, these images function
quite differently from the collage works of Carl Weissner and
Marshall McLuhan, as they do not appear to reflect a concern with
producing a new “message” through the placement of contrasting
words and images in altered contexts. Instead, in conjunction with the
accompanying notes or subtitles (these include “my cunt red ugh” and
“girls will do anything for love” beneath a pair of parted legs
displaying an open vagina), the purpose of the sketches, apart from to
shock and to attack the boundaries of literary acceptability, is to
explore pictorial language, as Burroughs had in The Book of
Breeething. Acker’s interest in the construct of language is nowhere
more apparent than in the “Persian Poems” section of Blood and Guts.
Consisting of some twenty-three pages of “hand-written” text, “The
Persian Poems” take the form of a series of exercises, written by Janey
while in the captivity of “the mysterious Mr Linker” (Acker 1984: 61),
a “Persian slave trader” (63).

(Acker 1984: 74)

Kathy Acker 175

This passage shares common ground with Gysin’s permutations,

taking the form of simple repetitions with a word being altered in each
line. Although not exploring every variation of a single phrase, these
“poems” do demonstrate the way in which changing a single word
within a phrase can substantially alter its meaning. Thus the exercises
explore the way in which word selection and ordering is integral to
communication, and is a significant factor in the manipulation of
language. Janey’s physical entrapment can be seen to represent
Acker’s entrapment in language. In this context, the exercises
demonstrate a struggle of sorts, as Acker, through Janey, addresses the
issues of the functions language, and of “naming”, which Julia
Kristeva specifies as the beginning of all control and repression:
“Naming… and hence differentiating… amounts to introducing
language, which, just as it distinguishes pleasure from pain as it does
all oppositions, founds the separation inside/outside” (1982: 61). The
ways in which language can be used to create specific differentiation
are explored by Janey / Acker as the exercises move on to the phrases
for “a better peasant”, “this peasant is better than that one” and “the
best peasant” (Acker 1984: 74-75). When placed in the context of
comparative readings of Acker’s common recourse to Burroughs’
work, the continued trajectory of these theories embedded within
literary practice is rendered clearly apparent. The similarities between
this and pages 113 and 114 of Cities of the Red Night (1982) are
Porque ne tiene Because he doesn’t have
Porque la falta Because he lacks
Marijuana por fumar Marijuana to smoke

(Burroughs 1982: 112)

Janey’s language exercises represent the learning of a new language

and the relearning of linguistic formulation. The exercises
simultaneously mark an attack on language, as indicated by the phrase
“to get rid of language” (Acker 1984: 76) (echoing Burroughs and
Gysin’s stated objective to “rub out the word”. The parallel between
the character’s attempts to relearn, and also to break down formulae
for expression with the author’s is obvious, given Acker’s stated
intention to “create a new language”… “trying to find a kind of
language where I won’t so easily be modulated by expectation...
176 Shift Linguals

looking for what might be called a body language” (Sirius 1993) – and
to appropriate a means of expression which fulfilled her purposes as a
female writer. This purpose was, she believed, not so much to reclaim
language from the male domain and “feminise” it, but to degender
language and literature, to remove the gender specificity inherent in
writing and literature. “Until I met Sylvère Lotringer, I didn’t
understand a lot of the reasons I wrote the way I did”, she said. “But I
think the reason was probably my hatred of gender... a hatred of the
expectation that I had to become my womb. My hatred of being
defined by the fact I had a cunt” (Juno & Vale 1991: 177). It is
interesting to note that Janey’s exercises, while opening new doors in
terms of scope for expression, show that all languages are built around
the same functions of naming and differentiation irrespective of their
grammatical and syntactic rules, and whether they are alphabetic or
pictorial. The Persian Poems thus demonstrate the way in which
languages share the same capacity to propagate power structures
endemic in all societies. The language is formulated so as to create a
hierarchy which creates social divisions, differentiating not only “this”
peasant from “that” peasant, and a “good” peasant from a “bad”
peasant, but also creating implied divisions through labelling:
“peasant”, “man”, “woman”. These exercises serve to demonstrate
the fundamental truth that language equals power, and in whatever
language phrases are learned, those phrases still set the coordinates of
power and perpetually reinforce social order – an order built on
dominance and control over the collective individual.
The section entitled “The World”, which appears almost as an
appendix to Blood and Guts, located after the end of the narrative, is
also concerned with the way in which language is used to order the
world around us through the ascription of names to objects, etc., and
combines pictorial and textual elements.
Kathy Acker 177

(Acker 1984:144)

Here, there is a definite narrative aspect to both the alphabetical

writing and the illustrations, each of which offers a range of possible
interpretations. The presentation of this section is indicative of
Acker’s far-ranging interest in language, language formation and
language conditioning, as well as her taking not only the original cut-
up, but also the variations and extensions of the technique as a starting
point for her own exploration. The parallels with The Book of
Breeething are again readily apparent. Acker herself acknowledged
178 Shift Linguals

the fact that Burroughs’ work in which he was “dealing with how
language and politics come together, the kind of language, what the
image is” (Acker 1991: 4) was an inspiration. The cutting of words
and images together in “The World” functions in the same way as The
Book of Breeething, namely to extend writing beyond verbal or
alphabetic methods of communication.
“The Persian Poems” and “The Word” sections create a sense
that the reader is not reading a novel, but riffling someone’s personal
notes, a collection of diaries and school exercise books. In this way
the purpose of Blood and Guts as a collage, a large-scale cut-up or
cut-and-paste, becomes apparent, again evidencing not only the
continuities within Acker’s work in its incorporation of “real” diary
material and “fake” diary material, but also the progression of her
narrative from her earliest cut-up experiments that so closely emulated
the works of Burroughs and Gysin. It is interesting to note that “The
Persian Poems” section was actually published as a separate volume,
retaining the title The Persian Poems. This edition takes the
“notebook” idea to its logical conclusion, appearing in an embossed
stiff card cover, held together with staples rather than a more
conventional perfect binding, and with the pages unnumbered. Like
Burroughs’ White Subway, The Persian Poems is presented as a series
of experiments and exercises, a scrap-book or exercise book of sorts,
showing the mechanisms of the writing process and the workings of
the author – although in The Persian Poems, there remains a greater
degree of artifice in that the author is not Acker, but Acker writing as
Janey. “Whenever I use ‘I,’ I am and I am not that ‘I,’” she explained
to Ellen Friedman (1989: 12).
One of Acker’s primary objectives was to liberate language in
some way. But while Burroughs used the cut-up in connection with
his preoccupations with the mechanisms of control and the ways in
which language and control are significantly intertwined, Acker was
of the opinion that language was reactive to society and culture, and
not vice versa.
Language is that which depends on other language. It’s necessarily reactive.
An isolated word has no meaning. Art, whether or not it uplifts the spirit, is
necessarily dependent on contexts such as socio-economic ones. What can this
language be which refuses?
The only reaction against an unbearable society is equally unbearable
nonsense. (Acker 1997a: 18)
Kathy Acker 179

Within the parameters of reactive language, she strove to break down

the language-controlled barriers between the classes in British society,
and to challenge the accepted orders of art and literature without
producing “unbearable nonsense”.
Acker’s perspective regarding language and its use against the
control mechanisms implicit in socialisation evolved during the course
of her career. As she would write in Empire of the Senseless (1988),
“ten years ago it seemed possible to destroy language through
language: to destroy language which normalizes and controls by
cutting that language. Nonsense would attack the empire-making
(empirical) empire of language, the prisons of meaning” (134). She
continues: “an attack on the institutions of prison via language would
demand the use of a language or languages which aren’t acceptable,
which are forbidden... Nonsense doesn’t per se break down codes;
speaking precisely that which the codes forbid breaks the codes”
(1988: 134). As such, her approach to narrative became progressively
more refined, in much the same way as Burroughs’ use of cut-up
material became more moderate and tempered as he sought to strike a
balance between breaking down established orders and producing
work that was broadly accessible. Acker’s output clearly shows her
development, her workings out in plain view as she grapples with key
issues, personal, social and literary in nature.
The themes of male dominance and “the big men” of literature
recur throughout Blood and Guts, as evidenced in Janey’s relationship
with Jean Genet while in Tangier, when she encounters him after
escaping from Mr. Linker. That Janey should arrive in Tangier at this
point is significant. Having long been considered an exotic “never-
never land of international intrigue, shady financial dealings and
esoteric sex for sale or rent... seedy, salacious, degenerate” (Finlayson
1993: 4), Tangier is also renowned as a place to which writers and
artists gravitate. As Iain Finlayson explains, the Moroccan city’s
reputation developed from the seventeenth century, from which time it
was ruled by European and American consuls. This served to render
Tangier a place apart, and an International Zone.
Tangier was innately corrupt, and... its reputation was condoned by the city
authorities… Undoubtedly, some control existed, but it was principally and
superficially directed at keeping the peace rather than cleaning up any
perceived immorality or enthusiastic free enterprise. (Finlayson 1993: 331)
180 Shift Linguals

Many writers, including Burroughs, Bowles and Genet have written

in, on or about Tangier, portraying a city rife with drugs and sex
which could readily be bought, and cheaply.12 Within the context of
Acker’s writing, then, Tangier is more than simply a location
providing a backdrop to her character’s activities, as a location with
strong associations to the authors she saw as her literary forebears.
At the beginning of their time together, Janey talks to and learns
from Genet, but the relationship ends badly, with Janey imprisoned for
stealing “two copies of Funeral Rights [Genet’s 1947 novel] and hash”
(133) from Genet. In short, Janey steals from her mentor and is
punished. Acker punctuates this section of the book with extensive
quotations from Genet’s work, and in doing so clearly invites parallels
to be drawn between Janey’s story and Acker’s own theft / plagiarism
from her influencers. Indeed, she comments that “it’s at the end of
Blood and Guts in High School when I start really [my italics] using
plagiarism, with the Genet stuff” (Acker 1991: 10). Her incorporation
of sections of text from Genet’s The Thief’s Journal (1949) is often
Genet wrote: ‘Loneliness and poverty made me not walk but fly. For I was so
poor, and I have already been accused of so many thefts, that when I leave a
room quietly or on tiptoe, holding my breath, I am not sure, even now, that
I’m not carrying off with the holes in the curtains or hangings’. (Acker 1984:

These lines appear early (on p. 39) in The Thief’s Journal. Elsewhere,
Acker introduces a passage on Tangier by stating; “in Journal du
Voleur Genet wrote…” (128). Journal du Voleur was the original
French title for The Thief’s Journal, some of which is set in Tangier,
and the lines which follow are drawn verbatim from The Thief’s
Journal. Other sections of Blood and Guts are effectively retellings of
The Thief’s Journal. While in Spain, Genet begins to learn Spanish,
and writes “I was discovering a lot of new words”. Acker’s inclusion
of Janey’s language exercises in Blood and Guts can thus be seen to

Burroughs provided the foreword to Mohamed Choukri’s, Jean Genet in Tangier
(New York: Ecco, 1974). The translation of this text into English was done by Paul
Bowles. Tangier was the inspiration for Burroughs’ city of Interzone in which much
of Naked Lunch takes place. Its amalgamative naming, reflecting the city’s status as
an inter(national) zone, was no accident.
Kathy Acker 181

represent a retelling of this process of discovery, with Janey taking the

place of Genet.
Having already plagiarised heavily from other sources in the
past, Acker can be seen to locate this as the point at which she
specifically draws together the act of plagiarism with the creation of
“fiction”. The Janey / Kathy “parable” bridges the gap between the
constructs of the fictional time / space continuum (Janey’s actions)
and the present (the book itself). More significantly, however, is the
overt concern with influence and theft, or plagiarism, and Acker’s
choice of Genet as a character is significant for a number of reasons,
not least of all because he is one of the authors she cited as a major
influence on her work. For Acker, influence and plagiarism are almost
interchangeable, and that she should “steal” or appropriate from
Genet, a literary forebear who was a thief in the literal sense – the
autobiographical-inspiration behind The Thief’s Journal requiring
little by way of an explanation here – seems entirely appropriate.
Having taken all she can from Genet in terms of discussion and
transmitted knowledge, Janey resorts to simply taking – stealing –
objects, at which point Genet rejects her, and, once rejected, she in
turn rejects him. It is interesting to consider that the way in which
Acker’s literary influence-relationship with Genet is translated in an
almost allegorical manner, and Janey’s relationship with Genet in
many ways parallels her relationship with Johnny, which is also built
around a twisted mutual reliance of sorts.
The similarities between the fiction and the reality are such that,
in truth, only the names have been changed – slightly – and that the
final theft and rejection in the narrative is literal rather than
metaphorical. That Acker has incorporated this influence allegory into
the text is indicative of the way in which her own life experiences
inform her writing. This is a literal adoption of Genet’s personal belief
that a writer becomes a writer “at birth”, something Burroughs also
The phonetic similarity of Janey’s name to Genet’s is again
difficult to ignore, and this serves to render explicit the notion that the
influencee absorbs greatly from the influencer. Herein lies a further

Burroughs recounts, “Someone asked Jean Genet when he started to write, and he
answered ‘at birth.’ A writer writes about his whole experience, which begins at
birth. The process begins long before the writer puts pencil or typewriter to paper”
(Bockris 1974: 1).
182 Shift Linguals

suggestion that Acker felt a degree of anxiety regarding her

influences, and the way in which influence has a bearing on authorial
and individual identity. In questioning her identity, Janey, and, in turn,
Acker, feels it necessary to reject the father figure, the influencer.
Despite her lifelong connection to Burroughs, there were times at
which Acker felt compelled to “reject” him, saying “20 years ago,
everyone thought that Burroughs was some kind of way-out science
fiction writer, but now he looks a bit tame” (Schmieder 1991). This
statement also carries an implicit comment on how the avant-garde
becomes accepted within society, and the way in which once society
becomes accustomed to something it ceases to be shocking. Indeed, it
was her opinion that her discontinuous mode of narrative that chops
and changes and appropriates from a broad range of sources without
always having an obvious context should pose no problem for the
“MTV generation”, again reflecting her alignment with Deleuze and
We all come out of MTV, so what’s the problem? But it’s an old conservative
crowd that runs the literary world and they haven’t quite gotten that we were
all brought up on MTV and we have no problem with this. We don’t need
things to be continuous. I don’t need to be told what the meaning is every 5
minutes. I like garbage. I like noise. (Schmieder 1991)

As Acker comments, writing for her must have relation to her own
life, and to this end strove to represent “reality” in her writing. She
saw her work’s place, stylistically speaking, as being within the
realms of the contemporary “reality”, and placed her cut-up, montage
approach firmly in the postmodern context of the fast cuts, edits and
the rapid succession of images which proliferate in pop music videos
– after all, “we all come out of MTV, so what’s the problem?” In
making this statement, Acker is essentially asserting that her writing,
in its non-sequential ordering, in part reflects her life in postmodern
society, in which we all now live. The reality of modern living is that
we are increasingly subjected to a bombardment of images, music
videos with fast edits, random and unconnected images and sounds,
people and cars passing by, litter, and extraneous background noise.
Such is the “postmodern condition”. But Acker was always keen to
subvert any accepted form, and simple reflection was not the purpose
of her writing. As Kathleen Wheeler (2001: 5) writes, Acker “sought
to reveal the fact that familiar order and logic are much less native to
Kathy Acker 183

our experience than we realise, whether we mean inner mental

experience or the apparent order of nature and the ‘external’ world.
Sanity is, arguably, merely the most familiar form of irrationality”.
Acker strongly believed that it was vital for art, in all its forms
including writing, to have a close connection to the culture in which it
is created. “If it wasn’t for certain community consensus as to the
meanings and usages of words, words would be nonsense. Language,
then, is deeply discourse: when I use language, I am given meaning
and I give meaning back to the community” (1997a: 4), she wrote.
“Postmodernism”, she continues, “for the moment, is a useful
perspective and tactic. If we don’t live for and in the, this, moment,
we do not live at all” (1997a: 4). As her career progressed, she became
increasingly interested in the meanings ascribed to language, and the
way that “this moment” in which we live is coloured by history, which
is constructed and circulated through the formation of myths and

Pussy, King of the Pirates: Piracy, Plagiarism and Myth

Commonly aligned with postmodernism, Acker has also been named

by some as a primary exponent of the “cyberpunk” genre. A subgenre
of Science Fiction, another genre with which Acker’s work is
frequently aligned, other writers whose works are commonly
considered to be exemplary of the genre include William Gibson
(whose Neuromancer (1986) provided the basis for the beginning of
Acker’s Empire of the Senseless), Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker.
Dani Cavallaro differentiates cyberpunk from SF and defines it thus:
Cyberpunk foregrounds the provisional status of all definitions of value,
rationality and truth in a radical rejection of the Enlightenment ethos. It
amalgamates in often baffling ways the rational and the irrational, the new and
the old, the mind and the body, by integrating the hyperefficient structures of
high technology with the anarchy of street subcultures. (2000: xi)

This definition provides the reasoning behind the term “cyberpunk”

by noting that there are two distinct component elements to the genre.
Namely, we can see that the “cyber” aspect refers to all things
“cyber”: cybernetics, “cyberspace” and all associated hardware and
peripherals connected to the high technology which defines the world
of the Internet and global culture, while “punk” calls to mind the
184 Shift Linguals

rebellious, anarchic DIY ethos of the music of the punk era of the late
1970s. Acker’s part animal / part human pirates are a curious breed,
who in part signify a regression from civilised society, and in equal
part can be seen to exemplify the cyberpunk idea of “posthumanism”.
Pussy, King of the Pirates certainly warrants is place within these
categories, crossing and breaking genre divides as it does by retelling
Pauline Réage’s Story of O (1954) and recounting the life of Antonin
Artaud, all within a loose framework based on a feminised version of
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883).14 Acker
summarised the plot and its inspiration thus:
Pussy, King of the Pirates, takes two girls from an Egyptian whorehouse to an
island where they fight with female pirates. It’s loosely related to Robert
Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island, and the whole idea was triggered
after I saw a great Japanese film. In my book the characters enjoy themselves
in a landscape that doubles for the female body.15

But whereas Réage’s O is a homogeneous, unified character, Acker’s

O, as Irr notes, incorporates other female narrative voices belonging
(or perhaps better described as attributed) to Antigone, Ostracism,
Ange, and that these voices “melt and run into one another to such a
degree that the initial separation between... is lost” (Hardin 2004:
The book’s preface begins with Artaud narrating O’s story in a
style reminiscent of a children’s story or a tale recounted orally:
“When O was a young girl, above all she wanted a man to take care of
her...” (Acker 1995b: 3). This firmly sets Acker’s agenda from the
outset, illustrating the ways in which traditional fairytales and
children’s stories reinforce gender stereotyping and, according to
numerous feminist theorists, socialise children into adopting
conventional gender roles. Thus, the control of individuals through
linguistic programming and conditioning can be seen to begin at a
young age, and by subverting the conventions of the medium through
which this conditioning takes place – namely the children’s story –
Acker uses Pussy as a vehicle to attack the control mechanism.
Originally published in French as Histoire d'O by Ann Desclos, under the
pseudonym Pauline Réage.
Kathy Acker quoted by Henry W. Targowski at Mark/Space Interplanetary Review.
Online at (consulted 30
January 2004).
Kathy Acker 185

The narrative voice switches between that of Artaud and O

every two or three pages during the book’s opening sequence,
breaking the continuity of the narratives. These rapid changes between
the speakers, which reduce to narrative contributions as short as two
lines toward the end of the section, fragment two narrative strands –
two versions of the same story – effectively cutting them up, not on a
syntactic level, but on a narrative level, with the changes occurring
very rapidly in a manner analogous to the editing of a pop video or
television commercial, appropriate to the MTV generation’s style of
The main body of Pussy is divided into two primary sections:
“In the Days of Dreaming” and “In the Days of Pirates”. Within the
former is a map of Pirate Island, featuring conventional genre
trappings, including places marked “treasure” and “dead men coast”.
However, there are also areas labelled “the places for transformations”
and “the repository of dreams” which illustrate the elements Acker
introduces from other sources. It is here that we are also presented
with a “manuscript” containing a history of the pirates and told in “our
scummy pirate language” (Acker 1995b: 68), and are introduced to
King Pussy’s story. We learn from the outset that she “always lives
inside her own head” (Acker 1995b: 72). Thus the narrative that
follows, in conjunction with the map and the manuscript, presents the
reader with a dreamscape in which it is impossible to distinguish the
“facts” from the narrator’s imagination. This narrative, which consists
of short scenes in which “reality” and “imagination” are blurred to the
point of indistinction, conveys a history whilst simultaneously
revealing, as the early cut-ups did, the problematic nature of the
construction of history. Being composed of “documents” as well as
events, both internal and external, as recalled by an unreliable
narrator, the text questions the authenticity of “the document” and
idea of a credible unified history, and so addresses the notion of
“history as myth”.
In her narrative, Pussy recounts her experiences of pregnancy,
abortion, casual sex with drug addicts, and her separation from society
that ultimately leads her from being “a nice girl” (Acker 1995b: 72) to
becoming the King of the Pirates. By bestowing a male title on a
female character – Pussy should, by rights, be the Queen of the Pirates
– Acker creates semantic confusion to once again attack gender norms
and to challenge the divisions between the sexes and between
186 Shift Linguals

individuals created through the use of language for the purpose of

assigning names and identities. The pirates themselves are presented
as not only separate from society, but, quite literally, a breed apart:
Only the woman is doing the cooking because the man’s sexist. Since she’s
a pirate, she won’t have anything to do with the humans: either she’s cooking
for animals or she’s cooking up an animal. One is the same as the other.
Right now, her version of cooking is to make animal food out of catshit.
(Acker 1995b: 112)

Part animal, part human, Acker’s pirates in part signify a regression

from civilised society, and in equal part can be seen to exemplify the
cyberpunk idea of “posthumanism”. Yet once again, the characters in
Acker’s work do not fit perfectly into this category, replacing the
popular “cyborg” element of the posthuman with a regressive
If, as Walter Truett Anderson believes, technology has altered
the relationship between humans and the planet and “Homo sapiens
becomes a different kind of animal, struggling to comprehend and
manage a new relationship between planet and people” (2004: 103),
then Acker presents us with an image of a culture that emerges when
the relationship falls apart. In Pussy, Acker shows one possible future
if, as Francis Fukuyama suggests, “Huxley was right, that the most
significant threat posed by contemporary biotechnology is the
possibility that it will alter human nature and thereby move us into a
‘posthuman’ stage of history” (2003: 7). Acker’s brand of cyberpunk
fiction is closer to Mark Fisher’s assertion that “cyberpunk is a
convergence: a crossover point not only for fiction and theory, but for
everything that either doesn’t know its place or is in the process of
escaping it” (1994). The simple fact is that however one attempts to
categorise Acker’s work, it does not fit neatly into the definitions of
any one genre or the parameters of any one theoretical framework.
It is questionable whether this tendency to create an ever-
increasing array of new and unusual, not to mention increasingly
esoteric and intricately defined, subgenres reveals more regarding the
present nature of fiction or the present nature of criticism, a field
Acker felt at odds with on many levels, writing, “I’ve never been sure
about the need for literary criticism” (1997a: 6). Throughout her
career, she wrote and spoke openly of her feminization of classical
mythology in the creation of her own texts. Although not alone in this
Kathy Acker 187

practice, Acker was without doubt a leader in this field.16 In

interviews, she was particularly open about her drawing on – and
cutting or copying sections from – “classics”, even going to far as to
suggest that appropriation and the (instinctive) use of other texts is
vital for the evolution of literature:
If a work is immediate enough, alive enough, the proper response isn’t to be
academic, to write about it, but to use it, to go on. By using each other, each
other’s texts, we keep on living, imagining, making, fucking... (1997a: 6)

In suggesting that authors should “use each other’s texts”, she not only
accepted that this should equally apply to her own texts, but explicitly
encouraged it: “You can do whatever you want with my work... once
work’s out there it’s meant to be used... I put work out there for
people to use” (Avila and Meier 1996). Her progression from direct
cut-up to cut-and-paste and the use of montage in her writing is
indicative of her own contribution to this evolution by “using” other
texts. In Pussy we see a considerable evolution within her own work,
whilst simultaneously representing the culmination and assimilation of
many of the themes which recur in her previous works, and a
continued use of “other texts”. Cut-up passages are also to be found,
showing that while making the transition to a more narrative-based
approach, she continued to use earlier methods. The following appears
as the narrative takes the reader into Pussy’s mind and shows her
dream-like detachment from the “real” world:
. . . vast memories of sacred cities have become lands in themselves . . .
strewn across deserts most of whose shifting grounds no human will ever
touch . . . traces where there were once no traces . . . these are dreams. (Acker
1995b: 112)

Used sparingly to convey dreamscape imagery, the cut-up passages fit

comfortably with the fragmentary narrative, which incorporates many
of the features common to Blood and Guts and other previous works:
diagrams, maps and mise en page. That the same text would appear in
excerpt form accompanied by illustrations in a separate volume

Writers such as Jean Rhys and Angela Carter are obvious examples of feminist
writers who have ‘updated’ fairytales, classics and myths in a contemporary,
feminized way. Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979) contains feminist retellings of
Bluebeard and various fairytales.
188 Shift Linguals

entitled Pussycat Fever (1995) only highlights the way in which the
sections of text can be read independently of the larger whole, and
how the novels can be read non-sequentially. Furthermore, by re-
presenting a segment of text from the novel – her own novel – Acker
returns to her earlier question “if I repeated the same text, would it be
the same text?” (Acker 1991: 8).
Switches of narrator and diary extracts feature throughout
Pussy. “You don’t read Acker the way you read traditional novelists;
you read Acker the way you watch TV, only Acker won’t let go of the
remote” comments Brad Tyler (1995), who continues, “In Pussy, as in
her other works Acker makes plot subsidiary”. However, despite its
fragmentary nature, in keeping with the narrative style of Treasure
Island, Pussy reflects a concerted attempt to use a more cogent,
conventional narrative form, as she explained:
Lately I’ve been working on narrative... But I’m starting to worry about self-
censorship... I might be writing what people expect me to write, writing from
that place where I might be ruled by economic considerations. To overcome
that, I started working with dreams, because I’m not too censored when I use
dream material. (Sirius 1993)

Clearly, she felt as though her shift toward “proper” narrative could be
perceived as a shift toward commercialism, and a rejection of her
rebellious principles. Reviews of her later work suggest she need not
have been excessively worried however, as Gérard Murphy’s
appraisal reveals: “Pussy does not engage us in conventional or formal
narrative pleasure; which is not to say that we are not indulged in
other ways” (Murphy 1996). Her use of dreams, then, provided a
means of retaining her sense of creative freedom and to prove – as
much to herself as her critics – that she had not “sold out”. She
explained her increasing interest in dreams to Karl Schmieder.
I began looking for the source of dreams, what makes a dream. I realized a
dream is a pure movement of desire. And in a dream, you’re just watching
without judgement, without stoppage, which is what you do when you’re not
dreaming. Lacan says [the] object of desire is never there. It’s an absence and
to look for the real meaning of a dream, you have to look for the one point
where the dream doesn’t make sense, where there is something missing. That
will tell you what the dream means. And that fascinated me. (Schmieder
Kathy Acker 189

Of interest here is the theoretical approach Acker took in her

consideration of dreams, in that she makes recourse to Lacan, with
whose ideas on “the imaginary” Burroughs’ work draws certain
parallels, according to Murphy (1997: 40-1). Burroughs was clear in
the direction his exploration of dreams led: “I am quite deliberately
addressing myself to the whole area of what we call dreams. What
precisely is a dream?” (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 1). Acker closely
echoed Burroughs’ opinion when she wrote, “without dreams, our
desires, especially sexual desires, we will die” (1997a: 3).17 But of the
greatest significance here is the fact that Acker uses dreams as another
means of relinquishing authorial control over the writing, and thus
returns to one of the original functions of the early cut-up, namely to
bring writing closer to the subconscious mind. By using dreams as a
source of inspiration and attempting to replicate the dream experience,
she necessarily arrived at a narrative that moves between locations
without the requirement of explaining the details of precisely how the
characters are transported from place to place, and unencumbered by
the dictates of lineal time or fixed single perspective. To this end, a
fragmentary narrative formulated from sections of text that do not
necessarily follow sequentially – a cut-up of sorts – represented the
most appropriate mode of narrative for her purpose.
Another key motif of Pussy is that of the outsider, as
exemplified by Ostracism’s diary excerpts:
Pages torn out of my first school diary:

(no date)

school is a dairy
because all headmistresses are cows

Now that I’m in school, I’m never again going to be alone.

I used to hate girls. I remember. Girls are stupid, girls
always lie... What I meant was that I was from a different race than all
of them. Because the same blood wasn’t in me that was in them, I was
awkward. I wasn’t right. (Acker 1995b: 113)

Burroughs had previously written, “Recent studies of dream and sleep have yielded
a wealth of date that was not available in Freud’s day. Perhaps the most important
discovery is the fact the dreams are a biological necessity. Deprived of REM sleep,
experimental subjects show all symptoms of sleeplessness, no matter how much
dreamless sleep they are allowed. They become irritable and restless and experience
hallucinations. No doubt prolonged deprivation would result in death” (1993: 95).
190 Shift Linguals

O’s awareness of the difference between herself and the girls in school
places her apart from them. The image of “the outsider” brings with it
associations of the exile, the outlaw. Like Burroughs’ pirates in Cities
of the Red Night, there is a degree of idealism, of utopianism, about
Acker’s pirates, who can be seen to represent the type of “outsider”
figure Acker herself could relate to. When questioned by Friedman
about her “new direction”, which began with Empire of the Senseless,
Acker summarised her shift in approach as “the search for a myth to
live by... I’m looking for a myth. I’m looking for it where no one else
is looking... The myth to me is pirates” (Friedman 1989: 17). She
It’s like the tattoo... it concerns taking over, doing your own sign-making. In
England the tattoo is very much a sign of a certain class and certain people, a
part of society that sees itself as outcast. For me the tattoo is very profound.
The meeting of the body and, well, the spirit... So that’s what I’m saying
about looking for the myth with people like that – tattoo artists, sailors,
pirates. (Friedman 1989: 17-18)

The significance of her remarks on the symbolism of pirates is

interesting on a number of levels, not least of all in that she makes a
specific connection between the idea of pirates and myth. On one
level, this idea of searching for a myth to live by and having recourse
to the historical – the conventional image of pirates remains rooted in
the historical tradition of which Treasure Island is a part – would
seem to go against all that is contemporary, postmodern and
progressive in literary terms, i.e. the things with which Acker is
associated. Yet, on another level, pirates match her literary position
perfectly. In the first instance, as Acker notes, there is the idea of the
pirate as “outcast”, or, perhaps more accurately, “outlaw”. “Not just
outcasts – outcasts could be bums – but people who are beginning to
take their own sign-making into their own hands. They’re conscious
of their own sign-making, signifying values, really”, she explained
(Friedman 1989: 18). This focus on sign-making and the suggestion
that the tattoo functions as an ensign is noteworthy, because it relates
back to the concept of non-verbal or pictorial communication
methods. As such, it illustrates Acker’s all-encompassing interest in
modes of communication, and the ways in which her narrative style,
her incorporation of images and her collage approach echo her
concerns; that is to say, the form reflects the content in Pussy.
Kathy Acker 191

It is a logical step to make the transition from the idea of pirates

to textual piracy, and to consider this in the context of Acker’s
celebrated career of plagiarism. This is something Lotringer observes,
commenting that plagiarism is when you “pirate someone else’s text.
Or rather hijack it, which is the etymology” (Acker 1991: 13). The
significance of pirates to Acker on a personal level becomes plainly
apparent in this context. If Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night
represented a shift from active piracy (of other texts, in the form of the
cut-ups) within his oeuvre, then Acker’s Pussy makes an explicit and
all-encompassing link between plagiaristic piracy and piracy in all
other, broader senses. Having hijacked the works of others previously,
Pussy sees Acker not only hijacking more traditional genre fiction and
selectively retelling existing texts, but also moving into the realms of
“pirate” radio, recording an album to accompany the book with UK
new wave act The Mekons.18 The record itself represents another act
of piracy, hijacking musical styles from corruptions of traditional
shanty songs to tribal drumming via “pseudodisco” (Tyler 1995). The
record is not a simple spoken-word reading of the book with
background music, but something of a soundtrack inspired by scenes
and characters from the book, and in keeping with Acker’s exploration
of identity, the recording personnel are all credited under appropriate
Elsewhere, we find other references to piracy: “The décor in the
room pirated that of a 1950s New York City apartment: roses papered
the walls” (Acker 1995b: 86). Such details lend the text a thread of
continuity which runs thematically, by illustrating a further way in
which “piracy”, “plagiarism”, “pastiche” and “theft” are all closely
connected. The suggestion that a style of décor can be “pirated”

London: Quarterstick Records, 1996. Formed in Leeds in 1977, the Mekons are
renowned for their overtly political nature and their musical eclecticism. During
their 25-plus year career they have released over a dozen albums. In Rock: The
Rough Guide (2nd Edition), (London, Rough Guides, 1999, p. 633) Huw Bucknell
describes Pussy, King of the Pirates as “a startlingly off-kilter album backing the
spoken word narration of postfeminist American writer Kathy Acker”.
Acker is named as “The-More-than-Able Seaman Acker”, while musicans credited
on the record include “Midshipman Roche”, “Captain Morgan of Gwent”, “Pricey
Pugwash”, “Tom the Cabin Boy” and “Seaman Stains”. From the sleeve notes of
the album.
192 Shift Linguals

reinforces the idea that a style of art or writing can similarly be

mimicked. Moreover, by describing a room which is a facsimile of a
room from another period, the text reminds us that we should not trust
what we see; that surfaces can be deceptive, and that history can be
recreated and thus altered.
Further on, Acker returns to dialogue in the script format to
further expose the artifice of character:
Now I’m going to interview myself.
Questioner: Did the ointment smell of her?
Me: Yes.
Questioner: How can you best describe the odor?
Me: Like a witch who’s just died. (Acker 1995b: 148)

In creating a situation in which Ostracism interviews herself, Acker is

projecting through her character the interrogation process a writer
undertakes when deciding how to render the sights, sounds and smells
within a given scene. This achieves a dual result; in the first instance,
it reveals character and dialogue to be as much a fictive construct as
plot or sequential, linear narrative, while in the second, it also further
demystifies the creative process, the way in which a writer’s task is to
“choose, edit and rearrange the words at his disposal” (Hibbard 1999:
15). In this way, Acker uses the medium of writing against itself,
employing a range of techniques to destabilise the “author” figure and
to promote reading as an activity which requires participation instead
of passive observation, whereby “the reader can fill those gaps”.20
Just as Burroughs approached his creation of “a new mythology
for the space age” by rewriting the past, so Acker too presents her
“posthuman” society through a narrative with a historical context. By
this, I mean that Acker employs genre trappings and conventional
narrative styles as a means of creating a new “myth” born out of the
“Here are the girls I told you about. The ones for whom you and what’s-her-
name have been looking. They even have a captain named Pussy.”
I must have been looking a bit disapproving ‘cause then she said that,
though the girls look like alcoholics, I had to learn that when it comes to the
sea, appearances are deceptive. Actually they were the toughest old salts she

Burroughs, “My Purpose is to Write for the Space Age” in The New York Times, 19
February 1984, pp. 9-10.
Kathy Acker 193

had ever met. They even had an available ship whose name was Mary and
they had rigged it as well as any vessel, even in the past, has been prepared for
the roughest and most treacherous seas. (Acker 1995b: 218)

Here we see Acker’s use of more developed narrative, which could

actually be considered “conventional”. Again, genre trappings and
phrases which are traditionally associated with such tales are present:
“old salts” and “roughest and most treacherous seas” border on cliché,
but serve the purpose of placing “the old” in a new context, revising
the past in preparation for the future, and the creation of the new
myth. Moreover, the phraseology is derived heavily from Treasure
Island, and, characters such as Silver are lifted directly – and then
altered slightly – from the source text.21 Other examples of
“plagiarism” include the shanty recurrent throughout Treasure Island.
While Treasure Island features the refrain “fifteen men on the dead
man’s chest — Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” (Stevenson 1883: 1, 4,
6, 60, 144, 206) the verse appears in Pussy as “Two girls lost on a
dead man’s chest... and all that’s old has turned to scum” (Acker
1995b: 220). The “musical” refrains in Pussy not only draw on and
alter the “songs” which appear in Treasure Island, but also serve to
render explicit the analogy between the composite text and musical
composition that Burroughs had previously observed as a facet of the
cut-ups. The musical comparison was one Acker also saw as relevant
to her version of cutting up:
What’s fun is when you start playing with a text, it’s just like jazz riffs, you
go back and forth and down and around... I was talking with a friend about
appropriation in music, all these scratched records... I think it’s great! (Acker
1991: 13)

In this context, the plagiarised sections in Acker’s texts are analogous

to longer musical “samples” – equivalent to a chord sequence –
whereas the original syntactic cut-ups can be seen as shorter samples –
equivalent to a few notes or a drum sound. If the initial purpose of the
cut-up technique had been to bring writing more into step with
developments in painting, then Acker’s development of the method
can in part be seen as an attempt to keep writing abreast of
contemporary culture. It was because of her desire to update and

In Treasure Island Long John Silver is male. In Pussy, the character is simply
known as Silver, and is female.
194 Shift Linguals

recontextualise existing texts in a modern framework that the idea of a

“new” myth became so important to her. In her attempt to create the
new myth, Acker makes some dramatic revisions to the past. For
example, Burroughs’ pirates, with the exception of the Fuentes
(Iguana) Twins, are all essentially “classic” or archetypal historical
characters: Acker’s pirates, on the other hand, are all distinctly unlike
any classic or historical characters: part-human, part animal,
desocialised mutants who live like wild dogs:
A few days later, I saw bad Dog chewing on a rat. I thought, it must be
dinnertime. At the same time, because mutt-girl was no longer available to
clean our deck, a three-foot-long rat stepped over my foot… my vision of Bad
Dog munching on a rat, for unknown reasons, had made me hungry. (Acker
1995b: 224)

Bad Dog appears to be a corruption of Black Dog from Treasure

Island, and elsewhere we see the pirates involved in animalistic,
frenzied orgies reminiscent of the homoerotic scenes that proliferate in
The Wild Boys. Despite the landscape of Pussy presenting a form of
post-apocalyptic regression, it remains a utopia of sorts, in that Pussy
shows a society – however broken down – in which the outlaws, the
misfits, the pirates, are able not only to survive, but to unite and
thrive. Indeed, the society Acker portrays in Pussy can be located
within the realm of what Krishan Kumar terms “feminist utopias”
(1991: 102). “It was perhaps inevitable that women should take to
utopia”, he writes, continuing, “where else would they be free and
equal? No known society in history has allowed them material or
symbolic equality with men” (Kumar 1991: 102). Given Acker’s
feminist credentials, it should be of no surprise that she should use this
novel, set in the traditionally male domain of pirates and within a
retelling of what is traditionally considered a “boys book” in the form
of Treasure Island, as a vehicle by which to portray an alternative
future whereby female outsiders are central characters, even socially
dominant. By developing this alternative history / future by means of
documents, diaries and multiple narrators, the way in which Acker
contributes to the evolution of the cut-up technique becomes clear.
Combining a variation of the syntactic cut-up in its irregular
punctuation, the narrative cut-up created by the frequent and
discontinuous narrative switches, the fragmentation of the larger
narrative segments through the inclusion of maps, script-format
Kathy Acker 195

dialogue, diagrams and “manuscripts”, Pussy, King of the Pirates

draws together all aspects of the cut-up previously employed by
Burroughs over the span of his entire career, as well as those used by
Acker across her previous works, within a single text.
The discontinuous narratives of Pussy both reflect and draw
upon contemporary mainstream culture, culture beyond literature, and
for this reason Acker’s work is commonly located in the
“postmodern” category. But while the common perception of
postmodern fiction is that of a celebration of depthlessness and
superficiality, in Acker’s hands these methods of fragmentation – both
of narrative and of character, and in which linear continuity is
eschewed in favour of rapid “channel-hopping” edits – become a
means of grappling with the deeply personal. In this way, her modes
of writing are symbolic of her struggle to channel the words at her
disposal into forms which have meaning for her as a writer and serve
to accurately reflect her life experience and perception of the world.
Rather than hiding a lack of sincerity behind a veneer of structural and
presentational “special effects”, Acker embraced these techniques and
used them as vehicle not for self-expression but self-exploration. On
one level, this focus on the self, the author, would appear to contradict
the idea that the cut-up approach – applied at whatever level – is
primarily a device for removing the author from the creative process.
But to subscribe to such a line of thought would be to overlook the
way in which Burroughs, as the technique’s leading innovator, had
drawn on, and then cut up, his own biography in order to write a new,
mythologised author / narrator figure, cutting the past not to reveal,
but to rewrite the future.
Acker saw that “the academy” and publishers of fiction
remained fundamentally conservative in their approach. Although she
was certain that the reading populace would be able to accept and
accommodate her rather radical work, there remained an obstacle
between her work and the world in that publishers needed to be
convinced of the marketability of such writing.
What they want a novel to do is to teach you how to think and act properly
according to the dictates of your class and money and all that. This is very
clear in England. So you learn this is a novel of manners: This is the right way
to talk, this is the right way to show your emotions, this is the right way to
conduct yourself, this is the right way to deal with things such as sexuality,
this is the right way to act to those who have more or less money than you. I
196 Shift Linguals

think that they get very angry at novels that don’t teach that. (Schmieder

Clearly, Acker’s novels teach none of these things, but instead

represent an alternative to all of them. Her work exists in opposition to
the accepted norms of social structures and the dictates of class. In
doing so, she was once again aligning herself with the tradition of
literary outcasts, those writers who existed on the fringes of literary
acceptance and for whom success was achieved on their own terms,
without compromise and without adapting to meet the expectations of
the mass market.
Similarly, her widely-sourced plagiarism generates an
intertextuality which is integral to her work. Such intertextuality is in
keeping with prevailing postmodern modes, but in Acker’s work
represents anything but a celebration of the death of originality. Like
Burroughs, Acker saw existing texts simply as building blocks for
new texts. By inverting genders, as in Pussy and Don Quixote (1986),
a whole “new” and “original” text is created. Of course, there is a
counterpoint regarding the originality of the “original” text – the
“original” Don Quixote (1605) – which needs noting here. If, as
Burroughs, and subsequently Acker, argued, there are no “original”
words and a writer merely edits and assembles using available
materials, then Don Quixote itself cannot be considered an “original”
text. That early in its publishing history Miguel Cervantes’ novel was
subject to the production and circulation of “pirate” copies on account
of its popularity and scarcity following many copies of the first edition
being lost in a shipwreck only adds another dimension to the long-
running theme of piracy and alterations made to texts through copying
in Acker’s work. Consequently, to rewrite and revise or re-present
Don Quixote – or Great Expectations, Treasure Island, Story of O or
large sections of Genet’s output – would not be to produce an
“original” text, but simply a “new” text. Acker contended that her
appropriation represented a type of “liberation” of the words, and that
such practices reflected her self-professed “post-modernist” position”.
The key issue here is not necessarily the relation between
Acker’s texts and the texts from which she so heavily and openly
plagiarised, but the manner in which she appropriated them. As I have
demonstrated, her wide-scale borrowing from existing sources began
with taking the directions for writing laid out within the bodies of
Burroughs’ fictive texts and in The Third Mind and producing her own
Kathy Acker 197

cut-up texts. In this way, she can be seen to have taken Burroughs’
claim that “cut-ups are for everyone” (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 31)
not only literally, but as a starting point for her own writing. From
thereon, the rest of her career can be seen to have been spent
developing new modes of writing that branched out from this initial
inspiration. In her quest to destroy and rebuild texts from the canon,
and to challenge accepted literary norms, her writing is clearly not
simply an example of postmodern sampling or pastiche, despite her
tendency to “copy it out” and despite her claims that she “never did
find” her own authorial voice. Yet, as with Burroughs, Acker’s most
distinctive work is that which draws most heavily on existing texts. As
she comments,
I found my voice was a reaction to all that stuff... I’ve been told by some of
the writers in the generation above me: You’ll be able to write when you’ve
found a voice. And I couldn’t find one. So I just invented ways to write
without having a voice then everyone said: Oh! It’s really clear what your
voice is! (Avila and Meier 1996).

Through these very public attempts to tackle the issues of identity and
authorship, Acker’s body of work takes the cut-up methodology in a
range of different directions. In doing so, her output forms a
substantial and significant corpus in the cut-up field, and in applying a
cut-up approach to attack language in ways not attempted by
Burroughs or his immediate successors, Acker revitalised the cut-up
technique and revealed new potentials for its application.
Chapter Four

Stewart Home: Pulp, Parody, Repetition and the Cut-

Up Renaissance

If Kathy Acker used cut-ups as a means of self-exploration, then the

work of English author and multimedia artist Stewart Home illustrates
how the technique can be used to achieve the opposite ends. Home’s
work shows how the cut-ups can be applied as an explicit means of
creating a depersonalised, pastiche-driven mode of writing. While
many of those who used cut-ups did so with the intention of producing
serious discourse, Home has drawn on aspects of the technique for
more humorous ends, and as a device with which to parody
postmodern literary practices. His diffuse output includes works of
fiction and social and cultural commentary, as well as volumes of
letters and countless self-published pamphlets.1 Other activities
include art exhibitions, films, and audio recordings – which span
spoken word, punk rock and experimental sound pieces. Through all
of these, he has sought to disseminate confusion and provoke
controversy. In this chapter, I consider the way Home has taken the
plagiaristic aspect of the cut-up to an extreme in order to attack
established notions of art and literature. With primary focus on his
writing, I will discuss the methods he has employed within his work to
explore and critique notions of creativity and to break down the
distinctions between “high” and “low” art. Although the breaking
down of such distinctions was implicit within Burroughs’ cut-ups, and
Burroughs stated that his objective was for “the line between literature
and science, a purely arbitrary line, to be erased” (Gill 2004: 49),
The House of Nine Squares (London: Invisible Books, 1997) is a collection of
correspondence between Home and Florian Cramer. Cramer is, notably, responsible
for the automated “cut-up machine” online at
/cgi-bin/slice-n-dice.cgi (consulted 15 October 2005).
200 Shift Linguals

Home has made the dissolution of genre distinctions central to his

output. I will touch on how he has incorporated the practice of
détournement – defined by Ken Knabb (2006: 480) as the “deflection,
diversion, rerouting, distortion, misuse, misappropriation, hijacking,
or otherwise turning something aside from its normal course or
purpose” – within his writing. I will show how Home has introduced
new elements to the cut-ups, creating new syntheses of both form and
genre within a framework that directly addresses issues of
contemporary literary theory. In applying his own variations on the
method to achieve dislocation and pastiche within his works, and in
applying modern technology to approach cut-ups in ways that were
not previously possible, Home has thereby taken the cut-ups in new
Home’s earlier novels, which include Pure Mania (1989), Red
London (1994) and Slow Death (1996), focus on skinhead gangs and
anarchist activity, take their titles from punk songs and borrow heavily
from pulp authors such as Richard Allen.2 His more recent novels,
from 69 Things to Do With a Dead Princess (2002), Down and Out in
Shoreditch and Hoxton (2004), Tainted Love (2005), Memphis
Underground (2007) and Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie (2010)
demonstrate a shift away from the pulp style toward a more overtly
experimental style, often referencing and even “reviewing” books
both within the narrative and dialogue. However, his continued use of
references and intertextuality means that his work can be viewed as a
thematically-linked whole, with developments between each
successive book.
Discussing Home’s output in chronological order will enable
me to demonstrate the evolution of his drawing on the cut-up
technique and variations thereof, such as permutations. To this end,
the first section of this chapter will examine Home’s application of the
methods and trappings of pulp fiction in his earlier works, which rely
heavily on repetition and pastiche. I will discuss Slow Death as the
“Pure Mania” was recorded by The Vibrators; “Red London” by Sham 69 and
“Slow Death” by the Flamin’ Groovies. Other titles, including “Defiant Pose”
(Cortinas); “No Pity” (999); “Whips and Furs” (also 999); “Blow Job” (Chaotic
Dischord), and “Cranked Up Really High” (Slaughter and the Dogs) are also taken
from punk songs, while the short story “New Britain” contained in No Pity takes its
title from the 1982 album by power electronics band Whitehouse, who were also
the subject of the short story “Cheap Night Out”, contained in the pamphlet
Amputee Sex (Sabotage Editions, 2006).
Stewart Home 201

leading example of the works of this period in depth. The second

section will focus on Come Before Christ and Murder Love (1997)
and the cut-up radio play Divvy (1997) in order to evaluate the ways in
which his methods developed, while continuing to use experimental
techniques evolved from the cut-ups. The final section of this chapter
will consider Home’s later novels. Here I will pay particular attention
to his use of discontinuous narratives and the incorporation of
fragmentary passages that appear to mark both a return to the type of
cut-ups first presented by Burroughs and Gysin, while simultaneously
representing divergences and new syntheses of the original method.
Born Kevin Llwellyn Callan in London in 1962, Home’s early
engagement with issues of identity is evidenced by his adoption of the
name Stewart Home, and his involvement in a number of “multiple
identity” projects. These involve several individuals working under
the same name pseudonym, including “Karen Eliot”, “Monty Cantsin”
and “Luther Blissett”. Questions of authorship and identity are integral
to any consideration of Home’s output: Whips and Furs (2000),
written as an “autobiography” by “Jesus H. Christ” credits Home as
the novel’s editor. He was also believed by some to be the author of
The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl (2005) published
under the name of Belle de Jour, until the author’s true identity was
revealed in November 2009 as being Sheffield postgraduate student,
Brooke Magnanti, who worked as an escort for a period of time.
However, as John Eden commented at the time (2001), “if Home was
supporting his subversive cultural activities by doing a day job as a
high class hooker, he’d probably be somewhat flusher than presently
appears to be the case”.3 Other aspects of Home’s oeuvre are also
contentious: Stone Circle, a novel-length text published as a saddle-
stitched pamphlet is credited to “Stewart Home”. Although bearing his

John Eden, review of Stone Circle, online at: (consulted 13 October 2010).
Much of Home’s latest novel, Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie, takes the form of a
series of emails exchanged in April and May of 2003 on the Friendster social
networking site between characters by the names Belle de Jour and The Suicide
Kid, with the suggestion that “this does look suspiciously like a dry run for the
Belle de Jour blog that first appeard in October 2003” (Home 2010: 30). The
appendix of Blood Rites is given to the reproduction of correspondence and blogs,
and their attendant comments regarding the supposition that Home was Belle de
202 Shift Linguals

distinctive early themes of skinheads, stone circles and comedic sex,

as well as his literary style and phraseology, Home informed me in
interview that Stone Circle was produced as an Internet-based project
by “a collective” from Leicester who collaborated to produce a text
“in the style of Stewart Home”.4 His objection to this text appears to
be not that it exists, but that it is poorly edited.5
His mother, Julia Callan-Thompson, upon whose diaries
Tainted Love is based, was a socialite who was acquainted with
writers including Burroughs and Trocchi. As Home recounts:
She went off to India at the end of ‘67… When she came back to London she
was really strung out and very involved with the drug scene around the beat
novelist Alex Trocchi and simultaneously the completely separate smack
scene involving various people associated with the ultra-leftist activist group
King Mob. Through her drug connections my mother was meeting all sorts of
curious people including William Burroughs and former Situationist
International member Charlie Radcliffe. (Home 2005b: 35)

Home recalls that at the age of twenty, he “woke up and decided I

would be an artist”.6 The idea was simple: “Initially what I did was
xerox off some leaflets containing manifestos and advertising myself
as a performance artist”.7 During this time he became the sole member
of the avant-garde art “movement” The Generation Positive, and
began publishing Smile magazine in 1984.
In the mid-1980s, Home joined the Neoist movement, which he
describes as “an avant-garde movement that doesn’t exist because the
word neoist is a prefix and a suffix without any content” (Drummond
2004). His 1988 history of underground avant-garde movements, The
Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War

Stewart Home personal interview, 23 May 2007. Home’s website also states that
“there are a number of texts, including the novel ‘Stone Circle’, which have been
attributed to Stewart Home despite the fact that he played no role in their
production”. Online at (consulted 13
September 2007).
In conversation on 24 May 2007, Home told me that the text’s lack of cohesion was
an issue and that it needed to be rigorously edited.
Stewart Home, “Paint it Black: Stewart Home on Stewart Home”. Online at: (consulted 30 September 2007).
Stewart Home 203

established him as an authority on the “dissident tradition” (Home

1988: 106) of the avant-garde, and also provides the theoretical
context in which he locates much of his output. The Neoists’
collective output focuses greatly on multiple identities, the use of
slogans, and the recording of the movement’s own history. Home
contends that despite its early drawing on “surrealism, situationism,
and the occupations movement of May ‘68, with some late
romanticism thrown in for good measure”, Neoism came to share
more with futurism than “French avant-garde traditions” (1988: 88).
Such a diverse and eclectic range of sources inevitably forges
contradiction, and despite producing numerous manifestos, Neoism
lacked theoretical cohesion. This was in many ways central to the
neoist aesthetic: in the spirit of the avant-garde, neoism – and, indeed,
much of Home’s subsequent work – was concerned with self-
collapsing, self-defeating strategies and art that “doesn’t work”.
In 1990, he publicly ceased work for three years in order to
perform an Art Strike (1990-1993), during which he “signed on for
unemployment benefit, lay around in bed, watched a lot of kung fu
and Hong Kong action flicks, and read Hegel” (Drummond 2004).
Home’s Art Strike – a most literal example of art that “doesn’t work”
– appropriated Gustav Metzger’s Art Strike (1977-1980). In leaflets
publicising the strike, Home differentiated his period of inactivity
from Metzger’s as follows:
Unlike Gustav Metzger’s Art Strike of 1977 – 1980, our intention is not to
destroy those institutions which might be perceived as having a negative
effect on artistic production. Instead, we intend to question the role of the
artist itself and its relation to the dynamics of power within capitalist society.
(Home 1991a: 42)

The idea of making an artistic statement through a protracted spell of

inactivity is highly paradoxical. Such cultivated contradictions provide
a central aspect of Home’s output, exemplifying the self-collapsing
nature of avant-gardism. Commenting that “there’s no success like
failure” (Home 1997c: 59), his stated intention is “to write bad books
as far as literary criticism goes since what I aim to do is go way
beyond literature” (Home 2005b: 60). To this end, Home has often
pursued avenues seemingly with the explicit intent of failing, or of
being contradictory and self-negating. An example of this is “avant-
bardism”, a paradoxical form borne as much from absurdity as any
204 Shift Linguals

true creative intent. Home describes “the avant-bard” as “a mixture of

the avant-garde and Celtic druidry”, defining the purpose of avant-
bardism as being “to dissolve both the avant-garde and its polar
opposite the occult, most obviously in its Celtic-Druidic forms”
(1996d: 2) and states that “the avant-bard has no programme, it simply
seeks to render itself obsolete (1996e: 1). This again exemplifies
Home’s strategy to create art and writing that is absurd and self-
contradictory to the extent that it cannot “work”. Writing in Re:Action,
the newsletter of the Neoist Alliance, Home states that “The avant-
garde and the occult are two sides of the same coin” and adds:
...since within ‘traditional’ Celtic culture the letters of the alphabet correspond
to different types of tree, so supporters of avant-bardism campaign for a new
orthography in which any remaining traces of this convention are chiselled out
of the English and Gaelic languages. Avant-bardists declare the letter ‘e’ to be
particularly contemptible (1995: 1).8

Such statements are indicative of the absurdity of avant-bardism.

Home has revealed that many of the avant-bard “groups” and
“organisations” that contributed to the Mind Invaders anthology
(1997) consist of only one member (that member being Stewart Home
in a number of instances) and “only exist on paper”, with their
purpose being to “parody debates about organisation initiated by both
Marxists and anarchists” (Home 1998: 22). This provides further
evidence that his objectives are as much about provoking debate as
producing “serious” art.
There is unquestionably a humorous element to Home’s
approach, and as Katharine Streip observes, “humour as a strategic
avant-garde tactic that both transgresses and aims at eliminating the
separation of art from life has been under-theorized” (Schneiderman
Stewart Home, “The Grail Unveiled” in Re:Action No. 2, Summer Solstice 1995, p.
1. This text is reproduced reproduced online at (consulted 17 March
2008). Another example of the absurdity of avant-bardism is Home’s cited example
of a schism within the Richard Essex persona faction of the London
Psychogeographical Association, which resulted in William Essex joining with a
“neo-nashist” faction “modelling themselves on Thomas Nashe rather than Jorgen
Nash” (1998: 21). That a number of writers have taken issue with the letter ‘e’,
including E.V. Wright and Georges Perec, both of whom wrote novels (Gadsby,
1939 and (Le Disparition, 1969 respectively) which exclude the letter is also worth
Stewart Home 205

& Walsh 2004: 258). The humour in Home’s method is derived

largely from creating writing that is oxymoronic, self-contradictory
and self-negating. Further examples of Home’s self-defeating art
include his “Art Strike Bed”, an installation whereby he “didn’t show
the bed I actually slept on but rather a different bed... because I didn’t
want to present something ‘authentic.’”9 The idea of presenting works
that are inauthentic and fundamentally unsuccessful by design – art
that, put simply, doesn’t work – functions against the
commodification of art, the ascription of an (often inflated) value to a
work of “art”. Such self-sabotage, or anti-art, also serves as an anti-
commodity, or, as Brian Duguid (1996) writes, “an attempt to
confront head on the capitalist, property-based philosophy that
dominates the Western world”. Home later split from the Neoists, but
his subsequent work has continued to play on the idea of presenting
confusing and often contradictory views and references in
combination with one another, and producing texts that are similarly
self-negating, self-collapsing. He says, “it should be pretty obvious
that my books play with styles and forms” (Houghton 1996), and
states that “one of my intentions is to challenge arbitrary genre
distinctions between fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose;
performance and writing”.10
Following the strike, fiction became Home’s primary focus. His
style has made a gradual shift from applying a simple cut-and-paste
approach to parodic pulp stories in the style of Richard Allen to a less
plot-orientated, more experimental mode of writing that draws from a
different and more diverse range of sources. He has also experimented
with a number of computer-based cut-up writing programmes, and
also produced several audio cut-ups. As he explained:
Some time ago I was passed a software programme called MacTravesty. This
software was designed to decompose text into various degrees of illegibility
with the level of degeneration being selected by the software operator. While
functioning in a somewhat different manner, MacTravesty had parallels with

Stewart Home, “London Art Tripping: A Psychogeographical Excursion Taking in
Two Generations and Fifty Years”. Online at: (consulted 17 March 2008).
Stewart Home, “Mission Statement”. Online at: (consulted 30
September 2007).
206 Shift Linguals

the cut-up method of “writing” “discovered” by Brion Gysin and made

famous by William Burroughs. (2002b: 23)

Here Home makes his interest in experimentation explicit. Moreover,

his interest in exploring the potentials of cut-ups using current
technology shows not only his awareness of the origins of the
technique, but also a desire to develop this in new directions, some of
which would not have been possible before. However, Home also
expresses a degree of frustration with the use of computer
programmes for producing cut-ups:
After a certain amount of experimentation, I found the results produced by
MacTravesty a little too predictable, and eventually turned to less automated
forms of cut-up (over which I had more – or sometimes less – control, and
which I would actively rework to obtain results to my satisfaction). I also
became interested in bouncing different computer generated voices off each
other and adding sound effects. (2002b: 23)

These audio pieces apply digital technology for the same ends that
Burroughs and Gysin experimented with tape. The results of Home’s
recorded experiments include a cut-up of Hamlet entitled Divvy, and
“The True Blue Confessions of Larry O’Hara, Spookbuster!” (1996)
which uses a “simultaneous narrative”.11 “The True Blue Confessions”
represents an audio equivalent of Giorno’s simultaneous narrative
poems, in that the narrative is divided into two halves that run
concurrently. The track is panned, the first half of the story running
thorough the right channel, the second simultaneously through the left.
The accompanying booklet directs the listener, “to listen to the piece
sequentially adjust the balance control on your stereo system to hear
the first half, then return to the beginning and retune for the second
part”. Equally significantly, the cut-up technique has in many ways
informed his career-long practice of drawing from and revising
existing texts for his own ends. Similarly, many of his works feature
non-linear narratives, which function against the omnipotent author
figure. Indeed, he refers to his novels as “anti-novels” – a term coined
by Sartre and applied to the nouveau roman as exemplified by the
works of Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose output Home has drawn
comparison with his own. Home comments that “there is always this

This track appears on the CD Cyber-Sadism Live! (1998). The story appears in
written form in Anamorphosis (2000), pp. 11-16.
Stewart Home 207

difficulty of people wanting to equate the fictional voice with the

author, but while it is my voice since I created it, there also needs to
be an understanding that it is a fiction. So the relationship between the
two things is extremely complex” (Man With No Name 2007).12
Home’s oeuvre, by design, invites discussion regarding the role
of the author and the nature of what constitutes art and literature. This
is nowhere more apparent than in his 1996 art exhibition “Vermeer
II”, in which he added “paint to manipulated xeroxes of Vermeer’s
output” (Home 1997c: 27). The idea of altering and re-presenting the
works of others is one that connects much of Home’s output. “I prefer
to describe what I do as plagiarism because this helps confuse the
issue”, he explains, continuing, “my technique is actually closer to the
Situationist notion of détournement and has nothing to do with passing
off the work of others as my own” (Home 1996c: 30). The
“degenerated photocopies” of Vermeer’s work used in “Vermeer II”
were intended, amongst other things, to “raise questions about
authorship, the institution of art, the relationship between a copy and
an ‘original’, the commodification of culture and the status of painting
in post-industrial society”.13 Such questions, particularly concerning
the relationship between “original” and “copy” clearly share
considerable common ground with the theoretical background to the
cut-ups, as expounded by William Burroughs, and, later, Kathy Acker.
Similarly, contriving to attack notions of authorship also continues the
trajectory of the cut-up technique from its earliest use. Home has even
suggested that he is not the author of his own works: “Stewart Home
is a multiple-name project invented in 1979 by Fiona MacLeod and K.
L. Callan. And I am Tony White, the actor hired to play the part of
Stewart Home. Stewart Home books are written by a collective…”
(Drummond 2004). The suggestion that his books are written by a
collective could easily be another strategy to promote confusion. As
he says, “a lot of the things I do are just taking the piss out of people”
although this statement in itself appears to be another attempt as self-
According to Home’s website, “The Man With No Name is an enigma who was
probably born in the late-seventies. His hobbies include reading books written by
Stewart Home.”
Stewart Home, “Paint it Black: Stewart Home on Stewart Home”. Online at: (consulted 1 September 2010).
208 Shift Linguals

negation given his clear interest in the theory of art and literature as
demonstrated in The Assault on Culture and Cranked Up Really High:
Genre Theory and Punk Rock (1995, 1996).14 The idea of his work
being that of “a collective” also hints at the way the works of other
authors are incorporated within his own, thus echoing the idea of the
“third mind”, whereby cut-up texts represent a collaboration with the
“author” and others, both living and dead.
The diversity and eclecticism of his output thus makes
categorisation difficult. His cited influences are extensive: “My early
influences were pulp novels, Bruce Lee Movies, pop groups like T.
Rex and left-communism… by the time I was fifteen I was immersing
myself in everything from punk rock to the works of William
Burroughs, Samuel Beckett and Aleister Crowley” (Home 2001: 57).
Notions of influence are thus central to his work, and he is particularly
open about his appropriation, as he explained to me in interview:
“people writing fiction don’t start from nowhere. You look at what’s
been done and see where you might take it”.15 Not being confined to
any one style, his output instead incorporates elements of many
genres, often within a single work.
Having thus far escaped the attention of most literary theorists,
it is the author, rather than critics, who broaches the subject of
pastiche as a leading element of his work. Rather than consider
“trashy” and “pastiche” negative terms, Home portrays these as
positive attributes, with the dust jacket to Home’s first novel, Pure
Mania describing the book as “trashy”, and “a pastiche and homage to
the fiction published by the New English Library in the 1970s”.
Recent years have seen him make the transition from underground cult
author to the peripheries of the mainstream, with Tainted Love being
published by Virgin Books, and Memphis Underground receiving
broader critical attention. It is within this context that I will consider
the ways in which Home has brought experimental modes of writing
to a new audience. I will also show that, with the inclusion of “cut-up”
sections in Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton (2004), Home
has incorporated new approaches to cutting up existing texts and

From an interview published in Fear and Loathing magazine, issue 25, July 1994.
The author is simply named as “Andy P”. Reproduced online at: (consulted 10 December 2007).
Stewart Home, Email interview 24 July 2005.
Stewart Home 209

forged new syntheses of the technique, and how he has thus

effectively reinvented the cut-up as a device to attack notions of
authorship and ownership within a literary context.

Early Works: Plagiarism, Repetitions and the Avant-Garde in

Smile and Slow Death

Beginning with the texts he produced and published in Smile

magazine, which ran from February 1984 to the beginning of his Art
Strike in 1990, Home’s earliest published writing includes many
repetitions and permutations, similar to those in Burroughs’ The
Exterminator (1960) and The Third Mind. Smile 2 features the
repeated question “Are These the Words?” (Smile 2, 2) and the
repetition “These are the Words” (Smile 2, 19). While these are not
complete permutations as contained in The Third Mind and Minutes
To Go (1960), this re-ordering of the phrase does echo the initial idea
behind Gysin’s permutations, namely to change the order of the words
within a phrase to reveal different, even opposite meanings,
potentially changing a positive statement into a question. Such
exercises are concerned not only with deconstruction and humour, in
the form of “empty” poetry, which, lacking content, “fails” as poetry
by design, but also with the manipulation of text and the effects of the
rearrangement of words. Smile also represents Home’s first attempts
to challenge the notion of the fixed single author, by inviting others to
plagiarise his work and to publish their own magazines called Smile.16
In actively encouraging the use of his work by others, Home
can be seen to be following not only Burroughs’ lead in his suggestion
that “cut-ups are for everyone” (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 31), but
also Acker’s statement that “I put work out there for people to use”
(Avila and Meier 1996). This is significant on a number of levels, not
least of all in the way that it shows Home, as an admirer of Acker’s
work, drawing reference from cut-up practitioners other than
Burroughs.17 Furthermore, Home can be seen to demonstrate an

Smile 1 contains the lines: “The generation positive can be summed up in the two
words ‘positive plagiarism.’ Consequently I encourage all readers to get the work
contained in this issue republished again under their own name”. (Smile 1, p. 3) In
Smile 2, he wrote, “I urge all readers to propagate the use of positive plagiarism and
in particular urge them to plagiarise my own work” (Smile 2, 3).
210 Shift Linguals

awareness of his position within a lineage of writing that functions

against ownership and copyright Advocating the re-use of material not
only shares common ground with the idea of shared contents put
forward by the Underground Press Syndicate in the U.S.A. in the
1960s, as outlined in Chapter Two, but also marks a direct challenge
to the idea of authors “owning” words. As Burroughs observed,
“imitation is supposed to be the highest form of flattery. Imitation, or
outright theft” (Lotringer 2001: 788). Similarly, Home’s statement
that he “asserts his moral right to be identified as a rampant plagiarist”
(1993: 1) echoes Burroughs’ assertion that “poets have no words ‘of
their very own’” (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 34).
Elsewhere in Smile, the inclusion of advertisements including
government anti-drug campaign posters with the wordings altered –
for example, “Heroin really screws you up” is transposed to
“Governments really screw you up”, (Smile 8, 10-11) – is indicative of
an engagement with the language of control and political manipulation
central to the cut-ups of Burroughs’ Nova trilogy. Although Home
defines these as examples of the Situationist practice of détournement,
the result is largely similar to Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the
Massage (1967) and War and Peace in the Global Village (1968)
which deal with issues of multimodality. These texts functioned to
expose the way words and images are subject to manipulation through
practical demonstration, juxtaposing image and text from different
sources. Home’s acts of détournement also share much common
ground with the multimedia works of Burroughs and European
practitioners of the collage cut-up. By this, I mean that Home’s acts of
détournement expose the way in which image and text, in combination
or juxtaposition, can be manipulated to convey a different message,
and that it is possible to use the same image, and even the same text
with only minor adjustments, to invert the original meaning. Like
previous cut-up practitioners, notably Weissner, and other
commentators on the effects of the media like McLuhan who used the
manipulation and juxtaposition of word and image in combination,
Home too applies these “simple inversions” as a means of attacking

Home has variously spoken of his admiration for Acker, and her works are the
subject of discussion between characters in 69 Things to Do With a Dead Princess
(pp. 16-17).
Stewart Home 211

control agencies, most commonly the British government.18 As he

explains in an article posted on his website:
The Lettrists and Situationists describe such an approach to what they termed
‘detournement’ as the weakest and least effective means of departure from
bourgeois notions of sense and logic. However, I’ve often found that what
theoretically are the weakest forms of detournement generally have the
greatest immediate impact. For example, I rewrote the copy on a mid-eighties
UK government anti-heroin poster from ‘my friends told me how high I’d get
but not how low’ to ‘I didn’t know the meaning of glamour until I started
shooting smack, now I’m a star’.19

This mode of appropriation – borrowing and replicating with

contrived variations, in a manner not dissimilar from much of Kathy
Acker’s most overtly plagiaristic work – was highlighted in the
Festival of Plagiarism, which took place in London in 1988 and
Glasgow in 1989. Home both contributed to and documented the
event, which included art installations consisting of photocopies of
existing artworks and collages, as is documented in the 1989 Festival
of Plagiarism pamphlet. The pamphlet produced to accompany the
Festival of Plagiarism, Plagiarism: Art as Commodity and Strategies
for its Negation lists The Third Mind, Acker’s Blood and Guts in High
School, Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, and Foucault’s
essay “What is an Author?” in the selected bibliography, providing
evidence of the sphere of reference upon which Home and his
collaborators were drawing.
The ideas hinted at in Smile were fully put into practice in his
early novels, represented by Pure Mania (1989) Defiant Pose (1991)
Red London (1994), Slow Death (1996) and Blow Job (1997) which
share many features and pastiche “youthsploitation” pulp novels of the
1970s. Slow Death marks the apogee of Home’s exaggerated
appropriation of the pulp style through the use of repeated phrases, the
incorporation of socio-political discourse and manifold references to
punk, ska and reggae records to create a parodic fusion of different
How do these elements, spanning Marx, punk and pulp sit with
one another? Peter Bürger comments that “pulp literature is not part of

Stewart Home, “Paint it Black: Stewart Home on Stewart Home”. Online at: (consulted 1 September 2010).
212 Shift Linguals

the sphere that is art” (1984: liii), contending that works produced in
such factory conditions, are, like Duchamp’s “ready-mades”, “not
works of art but manifestations” (1984: 52). Home clearly disagrees,
as would many contemporary artists whose work is considered
typically postmodern. After all, what is postmodern art if not a
reflection or representation of the culture out of which is it is borne?
This questioning approach is representative of Home’s overall strategy
for the debasement of “literature” in which distinctions between
“high” and “low” art, literature, pulp and porn become blurred to the
point of eradication. Reviewers and interviewers frequently refer to
Home as an exponent of postmodern fiction, and Marko Pyhtilä
observes that Home mixes “high” and “low” elements and uses
“intertextuality” (Home 1998d: 66). Home concurs:
I like the idea of mixing supposedly low-brow material with a lot of more
intellectual references… you could say I was obsessed with intertextuality…
everything from Schopenhauer, Marx or whatever thru to really obscure punk
records or really obscure pulp fiction… even if it wasn’t the same choice of
combinations, I’d definitely want the same sorta ridiculous wide-range.20

Yet Home’s mixing, referencing and re-presentation presents a

theoretical conundrum. One could perceive them as a means of
reflecting typical postmodern values of depthlessness. Home has
stated that through his appropriation, his work reveals the myth of
“originality” in a typically postmodern manner, explaining that “the
only way to move forward with fiction is to accept the developments
of modernism and post-modernism and run with that”.21 In this way,
Home’s approach to literature subscribes to Terry Eagleton’s
definition of postmodern writing, which “turns its distaste for fixed
boundaries and categories on the traditional distinction between ‘high’
and ‘popular’ art, deconstructing the borderline between them by
producing artefacts which are self-consciously populist or vernacular”
(1996: 202). Home has, however, preferred to assert his avant-garde
credentials, describing himself as “the world’s only avant-garde
pornographer” and writing “I am embroiled in the entire history of
Fear and Loathing interview, July 1994. Reproduced online at: (consulted 10 December 2007).
Michael K. 2007. “Whatever Happened to Those Fat Lines of Coke?” Interview
with Stewart Home. Online at:
/michaelk.htm (consulted 30 September 2007).
Stewart Home 213

modernism” (Home 2003: 15).22 His re-presenting the works of others

in an alternative context also represents the employment of a “classic”
avant-garde technique as exemplified by the works of Marcel
Duchamp and as detailed by Peter Bürger, who theorises that in his
“ready-mades” Duchamp “negates the category of individual
production... because all claims to individual creativity are to be
mocked” (1984: 51-2).
So is Home a postmodernist or an exponent of a contemporary
avant-garde? And, indeed, to the return to the question posed in my
Introduction, do the cut-ups belong to the avant-garde tradition or are
they consistent with postmodern literary practices? Critics such as
Fredric Jameson assert that postmodernism and avant-gardism are
entirely separate. But Home is self-contradictory by design, and
operates from a position that draws on aspects of both postmodernism
and avant-gardism, and directly questions the validity of drawing
distinctions between theoretical terms like “postmodernism” and
The difficulties in defining the term ‘post-modern’ are instructive... What you
characterise as the ‘post-modern’ elements in my work can be found in works
that are usually cited as examples of high modernism... In fact, there is so little
agreement about what constitutes ‘modernism’ that there seems little point in
attempting to use terms like ‘post-modernism’. If people do insist that what I
do is ‘post-modernism’, then I like to add the qualification that it is
‘proletarian post-modernism’. (Home 1998: 66)

The contradictions Home creates are therefore central to his work and
the theoretical context in which he locates his writing. Thus while
celebrating the postmodern fin d’originalité, stating that “one cannot
expect to find ‘originality’ within postmodern culture or its progeny”
(Home 2005b: 52), he simultaneously sets out to create anew through
the creation of new hybrids. In doing so, he aligns himself with a very
particular understanding of avant-gardism, whereby, as he puts it,
“one accepts that the classical avant-garde – futurism, dada,
surrealism – created no new style of its own but rather conjured new
works through a process of bricolage involving all hitherto existing
styles” (Home 2005b: 51). In this way, Home continues the trajectory

It should be noted that in his book Works on Paper: 1980-1986 (1986), Eliot
Weinberger describes publisher Samuel Roth as an “avant-garde pornographer”
214 Shift Linguals

of a discourse questioning “originality” initiated by Burroughs

through the original cut-ups by forging further “new” texts from
existing works.
Being entirely representative of Home’s early novels, I shall
focus primarily on Slow Death (1997) in my examination of his earlier
works.23 The book follows Johnny Aggro, the leader of a gang of
skinheads, in his involvement with a Neoist conspiracy to change art
history, via a path of random acts of sex and violence. The plot is in
many ways secondary to the function of the novel, which the author
describes as “a novel about the historicisation of Neoism” (Home
1994b: 173). He continues, “it’s apt that this [historicisation] should
occur in a fictional form before too many art historians set to work on
it” (1994b: 173). Oliver Marchart (1997) unravels the complex
relationship between the author and his fictionalised historicisation by
observing that “Stewart Home… appears in Slow Death himself as
Bob Jones”. The way Home portrays “The Neoist Alliance alias
Stewart Home alias Bob Jones alias Karen Eliot” reflects the author’s
fascination with identity, and illustrates the layering processes he
employs in the formulation of his own literary mythology and the
fictionalisation of his own biography.
In addition to appropriating material from numerous texts and
exploring the way history can be manipulated or even fabricated, the
narrative of Slow Death is heavily reliant on cliché. Within the context
of the novel’s prose style, which is contrived to be basic, direct and
minimalist, using a simple vocabulary and syntactic formulation, this
serves both to parody genre writing – pulp fiction in particular – and
to expose the disparity between formulaic writing and the idea of
individual creativity. The opening lines are exemplary:
John Hodges gazed vacantly at the doctor for the best part of a minute.
Maria Walker shifted uncomfortably in her chair. The skinhead was young
and ruggedly handsome. Professional ethics ruled out sexual liaisons with
patients but the doctor felt like throwing caution to the wind. (1996a: 1)

Although published in 1991, Defiant Pose was written in 1989, prior to the art
strike. Blow Job was written around the same time as Slow Death and belongs with
the works of his “pulp” phase, but its appearance was delayed until 1997 due to
difficulties in finding a publisher in the UK.
Stewart Home 215

The narrative simplicity, in which the declarative sentences are built

around a formulaic structure of subject / verb / adverb / object, in
combination with the plot’s simplicity imbue the text with an apparent
superficiality which belies its theoretical complexity. This is noted by
Iain Sinclair, quoted on the dust jacket of Slow Death suggesting “it is
an exercise in futility to complain that Home’s novels lack depth,
characterization or complex plots: that is the whole point. The project
operates within its contradictions, subverting the spirit of redundant
industrial fiction, while honouring the form…” Even within the first
four lines of the book, clichés are superabundant (“ruggedly
handsome”, “shifted uncomfortably”, “throwing caution to the
wind”).24 This reliance on cliché seems to lend the work a sense of
postmodern “depthlessness” and disposability, “wryly pointing its
own status as a constructed artifice,” as Eagleton would have it (1996:
201-202), while again representing anti-consumerist values by
presenting itself as superficial, unartistic. But Home’s use of cliché is
also parodic, and is applied as a means of subverting the conventions
of clichéd and derivative genre writing by heavy repetition and
permutation. That is to say, the overuse of cliché destroys its currency.
Within the context of an attack on the commodification of art and
literature, the idea of linguistic currency relates to both the currency of
cliché as a form of expression and fiscal currency. The conventional
reader expectation of an author’s artistry as an element which justifies
the pricing of the product – the book – is confounded, as “original”
writing is replaced by cliché, which becomes the fabric of the text.
The reader is thus “cheated”, “disappointed” or even “ripped off” by a
text which “doesn’t work” or refuses to conform to expectations of
creativity and artistic originality. By simply presenting not only
second-hand ideas and phrases, but also ideas and phrases that are
worn-out, and then repeating them to the point at which they are liable
to induce tedium and frustration, the text collapses the notion of
writing as a consumerist commodity. Through this practice, his work
attacks the unquestioning absorption of other texts and the
superficiality of postmodern literature that on the surface it seems to

The phrase “Ruggedly handsome” appears in numerous pulp novels, including a
number of times in The Body Lovers (1967) by Mikey Spillane, whom Home has
cited as an influence.
216 Shift Linguals

represent. Therefore, by using his sources critically, Slow Death

serves as a critique of postmodern depthlessness, as Home explains:
…there seemed to be this whole ideology of originality going around and
plagiarism cut nicely against that. But actually I was more into what the
Situationists called diversion – and my use of the term plagiarism is an
example of this. Changing meanings to make a revolutionary critique. (Home
2002b: 46)

As Jochen Schulte-Sasse observes, “avant-garde literature derives

from the dichotomy between conventional, clichéd language and
experimental linguistic forms that dislodge those clichés” (Bürger
1984: vii-viii). This is certainly true of the premise behind the cut-ups,
which were designed to break down the structure of that language in
the ultimate sense, not so much dislodging clichés as annihilating
them and reassembling them in an entirely different order, thus
challenging their established meanings. The same can be said of
Home’s use of stock phrases, which are used as building blocks, to
form the fabric of his narrative.
While Home’s primary intention is not to “unlock” the words,
as was Burroughs’ design, it is unquestionable that his intention is to
explore the dichotomy Schulte-Sasse identifies between the
conventional and the experimental. Home attempts to “dislodge those
clichés” through a strategy based upon their over-usage to the point of
their consequent exhaustion. This technique extends to the repetition
of phrases and even whole scenes almost verbatim. Through this
endless repetition, the meanings become lost, highlighting the
redundancy of the cliché as a meaningful form of expression. Home
also inverts the established uses of those clichés, as he explains: “In
Slow Death it’s the hero who becomes the sex object. Instead of a
woman with curves in all the right places, here’s a man with bulges in
all the right places” (Houghton 1996).
Since opposition to the bourgeois notion of art and artistic genius has become
pretty much old hat, [Marcel Duchamp’s] drawing of a mustache on the Mona
Lisa is no more interesting than the original version of that painting. We must
now push this process to the point of negating the negation. (Knabb 2006: 15)

Through the repetition and simultaneous subversion of cliché through

inversion and diversion – or détournement – Home thus negates the
negation, while also creating a critical distance that Jameson sees as
absent in postmodern literature. Such a double-negative – the eternally
Stewart Home 217

self-collapsing premise that lies at the foundation of Slow Death and

indeed all of Home’s work – thus results in building anew, and as such
follows the cyclic process which is fundamental to the progress of the
avant-garde. Home’s method of re-presentation also attacks the
notions of “the author” and “originality” by recycling existing texts, in
particular those of the pulp genre, and thus debases the notion of the
author as “creative genius”, commenting, “all that stuff about the
tortured genius is just bollocks, you just get on with it” (Houghton
In commercial terms, the author’s name carries more weight
than the text itself. The fact that Red London, Slow Death and Blow
Job are essentially the same book revised – by which I mean they
share common central themes and portray almost identical scenes
within plots that closely resemble one another – are further testament
to this point.25 In this way, Home’s early works take the ideas
Eagleton outlines as being typical of postmodernism, which he notes
“draws attention to its own ‘intertextual’ nature, its parodic recyclings
of other works which are themselves no more than such recyclings”
(1996: 201-2) while using the recycled material critically, and
subverting its use through his own agendas. One way in which he
achieves this is by taking the idea of “parodic recyclings of other
works which are themselves no more than such recyclings” to an
extreme, and in doing so his writing works against the idea of
postmodernism and consumerism as being inextricably linked as
Jameson theorises. This involves drawing large sections of text from
other sources and repeating phrases numerous times throughout the
narrative. Indeed, formulaic recycling and extreme repetition through
cut-and-paste methods is integral to the construction of Slow Death:
I draw on that material and try critically to deconstruct it. I take a lot of
sentences out of other people’s books and I repeat them endlessly throughout
the work around the narrative structure. Also when you write a book, you
need about 60 thousand words. Raymond Chandler says “If you run out of
ideas, have someone come through the door with a gun.” All I have to do is
have a sex scene every other page, and every sex scene is identical. That’s half
the book before you’ve even started. (Laurence 1995).

See my essay “Stewart Home’s London: Neoism, Plagiarism, Praxis and the
(Psycho)Geographical Manifestations of the Avant-garde” Online at: (consulted 18 March 2008).
218 Shift Linguals

It is by the application of a cut-and-paste mode of writing that Home

is able to repeat these appropriated sentences “endlessly”, and it is in
this way that Home can be seen most clearly to be developing the cut-
up method in Slow Death. As I have shown in Chapters Two, Three
and Four, the cut-up technique evolved considerably from its first
discovery, and has, over time, become more sophisticated as new
syntheses have been developed. Thus, Home’s cut-and-paste approach
marks a continuation of the developments made by Acker, whereby
sections of existing texts were altered – sometimes only subtly, others
more drastically – and then spliced in juxtaposition to create a
different kind of composite text. Such composites are not composed of
random clippings, as the original cut-ups were, but of more carefully
selected segments of text, continuing the most fundamental notion of
applying montage to words on a page and treating text as something
physical – as material – with which to construct new texts. While
Burroughs attempted to destroy clichés by cutting them up and
breaking the established word orders, Home uses cut-and-paste to cut
them out and repeat them to negate the value of the cliché as a term of
expression. Having thus destroyed the currency of a phrase or clichéd
portrayal, Home paves the way for a new mode of writing to succeed:
a mode of writing which builds anew in the cycle of creating new
forms out of the old.
Home’s debt to Richard Allen’s novels and his exhaustion of
cliché through repetition is best evidenced in the numerous fight
“Fuck you”, the skinhead screamed as he rammed his fist into the marxist”s
mouth. There was the satisfying crunch of splintering bone and the bastard
staggered backwards spitting out gouts of blood and the occasional piece of
broken tooth. Johnny was about to move in for the kill when he noticed two
coppers running down the street. (Home 1996a: 33)

The reliance on clichés and their repetition, and also the creation of
cliché through the repetition of stock phrases in Home’s fight scenes
is largely derived from Allen’s work, and Home’s set-piece fight
scenes are essentially parodies of Allen’s. The following passage from
Allen’s Skinhead (1970) is exemplary:
Joe’s cosh lashed out, striking the hapless guard across the cheek. The crunch
of breaking bone was a glorious sound for Joe’s mob. Like a pack of wolves
Stewart Home 219

they swarmed forward, bent on the kill. Boots found their target, tools slashed
viciously, fists landed with dull, sickening thuds. (24)

Allen’s narrative is simplistic, its fabric woven from clichés and

obvious similes (“like a pack of wolves…”). While blatantly
appropriating from Allen, Home is also effectively cutting up the
precursive text by lifting and subtly altering phrases. Allen’s novels
follow gang-leader Joe Hawkins in his quest for “aggro” and sex:
Home’s modelling of Johnny Hodges, aka Johnny Aggro, requires no
qualification here. Given that Allen wrote to tight deadlines, formulaic
repetition was an invaluable tool in aiding the speed of production.
Home can be seen to adopt not only Allen’s stylistic trappings, but
also his writing practices.26 “This repetition worked in various ways”,
Home says, continuing:
It certainly saved me a lot of work since I only had to do about half the
writing most people do to create a book, the rest was simple cut and paste.
Likewise, I was of course aware that the philosopher of vitalism Henri
Bergson claimed that repetition was the basis of all humour, so my books
were side-splittingly funny as well as being works of post-modern
“deconstruction” etc. etc. (Home 2005b: 42)

This deconstructive strategy renders Home’s novels of this period

extreme in their narrative simplicity. By using “simple cut and paste”,
Home can also be seen to be using text as something physical that can
be manipulated, or, to use Burroughs’ terms, to “choose, edit and
rearrange words at his disposal” (Hibbard 1999: 15), and thus apply
the most fundamental aspect of the cut-up approach to his writing. To
this end, we can observe in Home’s work the continuation of the cut-
and-paste approach which Acker had made a central feature of her
writing. The way in which he uses these textual juxtapositions for
critical and political ends, and the fact his attribution of specific
sections to their original sources is less explicit, however, enables us
to see that Home has introduced new elements to the practice. As
such, we can see how the development of the cut-ups has a very
definite sequential progression.

Laurence James recounts that James Moffatt (Richard Allen) was able to deliver a
complete manuscript for a book within four days. Stewart Home, “Bike Boys,
Skinheads and Drunken Hacks” in Confusion Incorporated (1999), p. 192.
220 Shift Linguals

Describing his work as “an attempt to collapse the entire output

of a pulp author – you know, the massive output, the entire oeuvre,
however many books... into one book” (Marshall 2001), Home further
explains this attempt to condense an entire oeuvre:
When you went and read one of these pulp writers they’d repeat sentences,
paragraphs, basic plot ideas through the books and to me that was interesting.
On the one hand they were operating under this constraint of time... and on the
other hand it was when you read all of them together and treated them as one
novel you were basically seeing the same thing from different perspectives
which very much reminded me of Robbe Grillett. (Marshall 2001)

Repeated phrases are common in Allen’s work: for example, Skinhead

features the phrase “blood spurted” three times. In Slow Death, a
similar phrase, “gouts of blood” appears, and can also be found in
Blow Job on no fewer than eight occasions. Allen’s line “Like a sack
of grain, Don folded…” (1997: 23) translates as “the bastard collapsed
like a bellows that had been punctured by a pin” (55, 90). The phrase
“satisfying crunch of splintering bone” appears twice within Slow
Death.27 The book also contains the phrases “there was nothing subtle
about what happened next”, “pumped up the volume”, “primitive
rhythm [of sex]” and “liquid genetics” (six times each); “love juice
boiling [in his groin]” (nine times); “mudflats [of prehistory]” (four
This use of repetition as a means of presenting the same events
or ideas from different perspectives is employed throughout Home’s
entire oeuvre in a manner which echoes Burroughs’ repetition of
phrases across a number of texts: for example, “no glot, c’lom Friday”
(Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, Nova Express); “no good, no
bueno” (Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded,
Nova Express) and “word falling, image falling… break through in
grey room” (The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Ticket That
Exploded). Like his pulp predecessors, Home’s repetition takes the
form not only of phrases and scenes, but of entire plot-lines: Red
London, Pure Mania, Defiant Pose, Blow Job and Slow Death all
follow the same basic plot formula, which culminates in the riotous

The similarity between Home’s “satisfying crunch of bone” to Allen’s “the crunch
of breaking bone was a glorious sound…” (Skinhead, p. 24) should also be
observed here.
Stewart Home 221

destruction of parts of London as anarchy overthrows the

establishment. The same phrases recur throughout Blow Job, Red
London, No Pity and Cunt (1999). As I shall discuss later in this
chapter, the repetition of entire passages with only minor alterations in
Come Before Christ and Murder Love extended the “cut-and-paste”
method and took it to a new extreme. This demonstrates that, like
Burroughs, Home is as keen to cut up his own works as those of
others, and thus considers all text to be “material” that can be used. In
his role as an avowed plagiarist, Home has spoken and written
variously against “ownership” of ideas and of words:
If modernism and post-modernism in the arts were generated from principles
of bricolage – that is to say all existing styles, techniques and works were
treated as a treasure trove that might be plundered in the elaboration of a
funky new culture – then there is a particularly blatant contradiction in
modernist and post-modernist writers (amongst others) making an unqualified
defence of property (and more specifically intellectual property) rights. (Home
2002b: 21)

Such an attack on the established orders of authorship, ownership and

intellectual property reflects his staunchly anti-establishment politic.
As his numerous tracts on plagiarism state, Home believes that the use
of the works of others in the formulation of new art and writing is
wholly legitimate.28 This corresponds with Burroughs’ approach to the
creation of new writing as detailed in The Third Mind and as
expounded by Burroughs in numerous interviews:
Writers don’t own words, painters don’t own colours. There’s no reason why
you can’t, if it’s appropriate, take something from someone’s work or
something very similar to it. Someone said Pollock was breaking new ground
and that’s the difference between me and Pollock. Well for god’s sake, there’s
plenty of ground... But now one guy will get one gimmick and that’s his patch
upon which he establishes a virtual copyright. I think it’s ridiculous.
(Lotringer 2001: 788)

Home’s gimmick, if he could be said to have just one, is his eclectic

and blatant plagiarism, and his blatant disregard for copyright. This is
highlighted in his website, on which he notes that “Copyright © is

The most notable of these are contained in Neoism, Plagiarism and Praxis, Art
Strike Papers and Neoist Manifestos and Confusion Incorporated.
222 Shift Linguals

problematic”.29 Indeed, his approach to plagiarism is in itself

plagiarised from the Situationists: in “A User’s Guide to
Détournement”, Guy Debord and Gil Wolman state that “plagiarism is
necessary, progress implies it” (Knabb 2006: 16). He makes no
apologies for the absorption of the works of innumerable writers,
artists and broader cultural aspects into his work. This is visible in
Home’s “obsession” with intertextuality, and is apparent throughout
his work as he positively celebrates the intertextuality of his writing.30
Home’s knowledge of the terminology of art and literary
criticism is evident within his work, and is embedded within the fabric
of his writing, which is designed to approach and subvert the issues
contemporary criticism attempts to address. He identifies his objective
as being “to continually reforge the passage between theory and
practice, and overcome the divisions not only between what in the
contemporary world are generally canalized cultural pursuits but also
to breach other separations such as those between politics and art, the
private and the social”.31 This again illustrates Home’s ongoing
attempts to create new hybrid forms of writing though bricolage, and
through the juxtaposition of diverse and seemingly incongruous texts
by means of cut-and-paste. Clearly, the way in which he achieves this
assemblage of existing texts is considerably more sophisticated than
Burroughs’ original cut-ups, or cut-ups produced by the likes of Pélieu
and Weissner. This is partly due to developments in word-processing
technology, which was not available when Burroughs and Gysin first
devised the technique, nor to Acker when she first began to apply cut-
and-paste methods in the late 1970s. However, the application of
modern technologies is crucial to our understanding of the evolution
of the cut-ups. Such technologies have made producing cut-ups easier
and faster, and accessing source materials is also significantly easier
now with the availability of texts on the Internet. In addition to more
sophisticated technology, one could argue that readers have also

The copyright on each page of Home’s website states “Copyright © is problematic.
Some rights reserved. Contact for clarification”. Online at: (consulted 29 December 2007).
Fear and Loathing interview, July 1994. Reproduced online at: (consulted 10 December 2007).
Stewart Home. “Stewart Home: Quick, Clean & Efficient Since 1962”. Online at: (consulted 14 September 2007).
Stewart Home 223

become more sophisticated. Almost fifty years since the first cut ups,
it is no longer sufficient to create new word orders and “free” the
In Home’s work, we see the controlled use of textual collage
and juxtaposition to manipulate the context in which the words
appear, and to bring the alternative meanings possible within the
phrases to the fore, but in a form more accessible to a wider audience.
Home’s method is not only indicative of his embracing of current
technology, but also of his hybridised postmodern / avant-garde
approach to art and literature. In this way, the “art” of authorship and
literary creation is exposed as a falsehood, demystifying the creative
process in the same way as the original cut-ups. Home thus
approaches the author function as “editor” rather than “creative
Home’s cited influences reflect his strategy to breed confusion.
Alongside writers as diverse as Marx, Hegel, Homer, and pulp writers
including Richard Allen and “other NEL writers like Mick Norman
and Peter Cave”, Home expresses an interest “in not just Jim
Thompson but also Mickey Spillane, not just Abe Merritt but also H.
P. Lovecraft, not just Bram Stoker but also Richard Marsh”, and
incorporates the work of his predecessors both constructively and
destructively.32 According to the dust jacket to Cunt, Home is “one of
the few people in Britain to have read all of Hegel’s Aesthetics”. The
dust jacket to Slow Death states that Home possesses “a transgressive
aesthetic inspired by writers as diverse as Homer, de Sade, Klaus
Theweleit, and ‘70s cult writer Richard Allen”. As he explained to me,
“I use both sources I admire like Marx, and sources I don’t admire like
writings by the leadership of the NSDAP etc.”.33 These sources are all
incorporated in Slow Death. The extreme diversity of the elements
situated beside one another makes identifying what is drawn from
where extremely difficult, and thus invites comparison with the
intertextual composition of the original cut-ups which effectively
created a mosaic of fragments from pre-existing texts. As such, the
plots and characters in his early novels, of which Slow Death is a
particularly strong example, are essentially secondary to the form and
function of the texts.

Stewart Home, Email interview, 25 August 2005.
224 Shift Linguals

Home justifies his use of Allen’s work by explaining that

“writers like Richard Allen are very problematic, the pulp tradition he
worked is interesting and so were the contradictions in his practice,
but his actual political positions were reactionary and should be
attacked” (Home 2002b: 46). He thus believes such adaptation and
recontextualisation to be as much a form of criticism as admiration,
and told me by email that “influence can be negative as well as
positive, and there are aspects to Hegel and Richard Allen I would and
have criticised”.34 Such critical use of sources is not widely regarded
to be an aspect of postmodernism, in which sources are drawn on
uncritically and assimilated in a more arbitrary and “even-handed”
manner. This also marks something of a departure from Burroughs’
approach, in that while Burroughs drew on texts by those he admired
as well as at random, he did so with the objectives of breaking
conventional word associations and revealing new or hidden
meanings. Home, on the other hand, is less random in the selection of
source materials, and incorporates them within his own work with the
explicit intention of inverting their original meanings or otherwise
ridiculing the original author’s position. His more critical use of
sources thus reflects a distinct evolution in the use of spliced texts.
Home’s fiction realigns precursive works such as Allen’s in a
contemporary and overtly political and humorous, context, with only
minor adaptation. He can be seen, therefore, to be effectively
rewriting those precursive texts, and as such, these texts exist as acts
not of plagiarism, but of détournement, critically revising pre-existing
texts to achieve a specific objective. This is not to refute the
originality or strength of Home’s craft: quite the opposite is true. As
Harold Bloom comments in The Anxiety of Influence, “Poetic [and,
indeed, literary] history… is held to be indistinguishable from poetic
influence… Weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination
appropriate for themselves” (1973: 5). Or, as Home, in his typically
forthright manner states, “influence is real power.... originality is for
powerless egotists”.35 In this light, his appropriation and irreverent

Stewart Home, Email interview, 25 August 2005.
Stewart Home, MySpace blog comment posted 22 December 2007. Online at:
6423 (consulted 23 December 2007).
Stewart Home 225

combination of incongruous sources clearly suggest that Home is a

figure “of capable imagination”.
Home’s “obsession” with intertextuality is particularly evident
in Slow Death, which contains references not only to texts by Marx
and Hegel – something that would recur in later works, such as 69
Things to do with a Dead Princess – but also elliptically to his own
output. In one scene Hodges is seen reading a novel about skinheads
entitled We Don’t Pose. This is a subtle alteration of the title of
Home’s second novel, Defiant Pose. Elsewhere, references are made
to other fictional books and authors referred to within a number of his
previous texts, most notably K. L. Callan’s Marx, Christ and Satan
United in Struggle:
It’s a novel about a skinhead’, Johnny hissed as he reached down and picked
the book off the floor. ‘I didn’t get it at all, the bit I glanced at was some sorta
cross between a sex scene and a socialist newspaper’. (Home 1996a: 73)

Such intertextual (self-)references serve to blur the distinctions

between “fact” and “fiction”, and as such mark the machinations of
the formulation of the “Home myth”: not only are references to this
fictitious text and K. L. Callan numerous throughout Home’s output,
but the fact that his “fictitious” author has Home’s own birth name
adds to the complexity of the myth perpetuated within the texts. This
bears marked parallels with the construction of the myth Burroughs
engineered within his own output, as exemplified in Nova Express:
“One of our agents is posing as a writer. He has written a so-called
pornographic novel called Naked Lunch in which the Orgasm Death
Gimmick is described. That was the bait. They walked right in”
(Burroughs 1992a: 56-7). Fact and fiction are spliced to create a new
mythology, in much the same way as Acker intercut her own personal
diaries with sections of text appropriated from works of fiction.
Similarly, in his endeavour to historicise Neoism through fiction,
Home is also developing his own “myth”. In doing so, Home is
actively (pre)fabricating his own history in a way which may alter
retroactive analysis of his work and biography in the future.
This proactive creation of a historical myth is extended in Slow
Death to include many citations of sociological theory, art theory and
criticism and manifold references to obscure and fictional art
movements, spanning Situationism, Mail Art and Fluxus, amongst
226 Shift Linguals

“Well,” MacDonald paused for dramatic effect. “Neoism was a cultural

movement influenced by futurism, fluxus and punk, that emerged from the
mail art movement in the late seventies…” (Home 1996a 118)

By self-referentially locating his work within the theoretical contexts

of the avant-garde, and incorporating Marxist and Hegelian socio-
political theory and commentary within the texts, both in the narrative
and through his characters, Home grounds his work, not in the
concrete world, but a world constructed by critics and theoreticians.36

Dissolving Character: Come Before Christ and Murder Love and


Come Before Christ and Murder Love marks something of a departure

from Home’s preceding novels, in that it does not focus on skinheads
or anarchists, and instead places the occult as its central theme.
Similarly, Come Before Christ departs from the “sperm’n’blood” pulp
formula and instead places a clear emphasis on food and “Sex
Magick” (Home 1997a: 17), or, as Home describes it, “eating, fucking
and occultism” (Home 1997b: 58). Home too identifies this as a
cornerstone of his career, stating that “Come Before Christ and
Murder Love marks a significant shift in my concerns, since it is
principally concerned with the occult, both as an ideology and as a
means of organising ‘knowledge’” (Home 1997b: 58). The question of
“organising knowledge” is a leading concern of postmodern criticism,
as exemplified by Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern
Condition, in which he writes that “the status of knowledge is altered
as societies enter what is known as the postindustrial age and cultures
enter what is known as the postmodern age” (1979: 3). As such, Come
Before Christ engages with contemporary critical issues. However, by
using the occult as a means of approaching these issues provides
another example of Home’s strategy to produce works that are centred
around seemingly incongruous spheres of reference.

Home’s manifold references to contemporary philosophers such as Marx and Hegel
which proliferate within Slow Death are equally endemic throughout many of his
other fictional works, including Blow Job, Defiant Pose and Red London. His
“academic” texts, most notably The Assault on Culture and Neoism, Plagiarism and
Praxis, are similarly weighted with references to sociological texts and issues more
commonly found within the field of cultural studies.
Stewart Home 227

He explained his shift in focus stating, “after about five books

I’d felt I’d exhausted this as a compositional technique and decided to
construct some ‘anti-novels’ that weren’t predicated on this simulation
of narrative. Chronology can, of course, all too easily become a bore”
(Home 2005b: 42). Come Before Christ therefore takes a very
different approach to sequentiality, which is linked to the “story”
itself. As Home also explains, “the narrative is extremely fractured
and as the narrator’s assumed personas fall apart and are revealed as
fictions, the ‘distinct’ geographical locations of Greenwich and
Spitalfields, in south and east London respectively, merge to create the
meta-fictional landscape of ‘Greenfields’” (Home 1997c: 52). It is in
this context that he applies a non-linear structure to the narrative. This
is not to contend by any means that non-linear narratives are by nature
cut-ups. However, just as Burroughs applies cut-ups not on a syntactic
level but on a narrative level in his later works, so the way Home
interweaves longer segments of narrative in a non-sequential order in
Come Before Christ clearly represents a parallel approach to linearity.
Moreover, Home orders the narrative in the novel in such a way that it
becomes very difficult to locate events on a clear time-line. Such
narrative splicing techniques draw very obvious parallels with those
employed by Burroughs in the Red Night trilogy as a means of
tackling the issues of presenting sequentiality and simultaneity in
Significantly, while Come Before Christ does mark a departure
from his previous works, not only thematically but also in terms of
stylistic technique, it also marks a clear progression from his earlier
novels. By this, I mean that that Home not only continues to repeat
phrases lifted from other texts, but extends the repetition of phrases to
incorporate entire scenes, and as such, Come Before Christ represents
a new synthesis of his previous techniques with new ones. The sex
scenes he repeats on “every other page” in his earlier works also occur
with similar frequency and a similar degree of formula in Come
Before Christ: phrases which appear in previous works are again used,
including “multiple orgasms wracked her bulk” and “love juice...
drawn up through my groin” (128). But instead of alternating these
scenes with fight scenes, they are interspersed with the consumption
of food. The detail given concerning the food reduces these scenes to
a formulaic listing of the menu. The focus on dining is emblematic of
the “fetishization” of food in contemporary Western culture, which
228 Shift Linguals

Home suggests is another symptom of commodification under late

It is in these formulaic repetitions of scenes that he creates a
number of disorientating non-linear narrative threads which provide
the basis for what his interpretation of the “anti-novel”. Come Before
Christ opens as follows:
I closed my eyes and relaxed, when I opened them again Sarah Osterley had
disappeared but a man I recognised as Dr John Hodges was sitting opposite
me. He was my controller, the man from whom it felt as if I’d spent a lifetime
trying to escape. I followed Hodges to his car and he drove me to his office in
‘You look tired’, Hodges said sympathetically, ‘you need a vitamin shot’.
‘I don’t want to kill the baby’, I sobbed as I was strapped to the operating
table, ‘I really don’t want to stab him’.
‘You don’t have any choice’, the doctor told me as he swabbed my arm,
‘you thought you’d broken our cycle of control but we’ve programmed every
episode in this sorry saga’.
‘I don’t understand’.
‘This is the next stage of our mind control experiment’, the surgeon
explained. ‘We want to teach our patients to consciously activate different
personalities we’ve programmed into them, so that they can make the most of
any situation they encounter during the course of their espionage activities’.
(1997a: 1-2)

Introducing the book in this way, the narrative draws attention to its
own artifice. In the first paragraph, the narrator suggests that she has
tried without success to escape the character of John Hodges. In
recycling the name of John Hodges, the central character from Slow
Death, Home not only continues to develop the intertextual references
that connect all of his works in one way or another, but also
incorporates the implicit idea that he, as the author, is attempting to
escape his previous works. The idea that “every episode” is
“programmed”, while drawing on conventional notions of mind
control, can also be read as a reference to the writing process, in
which the author controls and programs the episodes that take place
within the text. This scene is repeated on pages 48-49, 115-16 and
215-16, illustrating the “cyclic” nature of the control mechanism and
also the writing process behind the text itself. On each occasion, only
the names are changed. By repeating the same scene with the
characters interchanged, the plot becomes increasingly confusing, as
does the identity of the characters. In this way, Come Before Christ
uses the idea of mind control as a vehicle by which to explore the
Stewart Home 229

formation of character and identity, and to expose the way in which

characters in novels are constructed by the author.
The dissolution of character, particularly that of the narrator,
serves as a discourse concerning the correlation between
schizophrenia and late capitalist society that Deleuze and Guattari
theorised on, and which corresponds with a fragmented culture and,
accordingly, a fragmented notion of “self”. This is highlighted within
the plot, in which the central character and first-person narrator, Kevin
Callan, is interchangeable with Philip Sloan and Edward Kelly, and is
shown to experience confusion as he switches between characters. The
plot synopsis on the back cover suggests that “Callan has a thousand
different identities” and that Come Before Christ is “a tale of mental
disorder [and] thought control”, but the narrator’s confusion renders
the scenario less clear-cut. This raises questions around the idea of
whether identity can truly be ascribed or fixed, and whether an
individual has only one identity in the postmodern society.
The title is taken from a song by Death in June, a band Home
has criticised heavily in many letters and pamphlets for their fascist
politics. This again exemplifies the way in which he uses “sources I
admire, and sources I don’t”, and incorporates these elements
critically.37 The relevance of the title is explained thus:
Not many Death In June fans realise that the song Come Before Christ &
Murder Love is about the great love of Douglas Pearce’s life – since Pearce is
said to change his ideas every time he gets a new boyfriend, it perhaps isn’t
surprising that Home should have used Come Before Christ & Murder Love
for the title of a novel in which the narrator’s personality changes every time
he has an orgasm!38

Home, Email interview, 25 August 2005. Home has produced a substantial quantity
of material detailing Wakeford’s involvement far-right political movements
including the National Front. Some of these feature in Anamorphosis: Stewart
Home, Searchlight & The Plot to desroy Civilisation by “Larry O’Hara” and friends
(2000), including the article “We Mean it Man: Punk Rock and Anti- Racism or,
Death in June not Mysterious”. See also the various pages given to the topic at
Home’s website, the most recent of which is “Danger! Neo-Folk ‘Musician’ Tony
Wakeford of Sol Invictus is Still a Fascist Creep!” Online at: (consulted 6 September 2010).
Unknown author. Online at: (consulted
20 April 2008).
230 Shift Linguals

The supposed ideological changes experienced by Pearce are

analogous to the personality changes experienced by the narrator in
Come Before Christ. The theme of mind-control within Come Before
Christ can also be seen as relevant to the title, in that fascist opinion is
propagated through indoctrination and the use of propaganda. Such
propaganda is the product of the manipulation of language, and thus
through his anti-narrative, Home can be seen to be attacking the
language control employed by political organisations which include
the National Front. In applying a cut-up approach for the ends that
Burroughs suggested, Home is using language against itself to break
the control mechanism.
While Callan may at times claim to be the victim of the mind-
control programme, and at others, “the man in charge of the whole
operation” according to the blurb on the book’s cover, the first-person
narrative does not allow for authorial overview, and thus the
confusion is accentuated. As the narrator explains, “according to my
confidant, I’d been given several different personalities and sent into
different organisations as an agent provocateur” (Home 1997a: 6).
Thus, the narrator is not a single, fixed narrator, but is a rapidly
shifting composite. However, unlike Acker, Home makes this
“schizophrenic” approach to character completely knowingly, and
locates his multi-faceted narrator within a theoretical context that links
schizophrenia and capitalism with surrealism, as he detailed in a
recent interview:
The positive side of both schizophrenia and surrealism is the stress it places
on our ability to reinvent ourselves and become something else, the negative
side of it is this will continue to happen in a fucked up way as long as we’re
confronted by capitalist alienation... (Man With No Name 2007)

By applying a cut-up approach to large sections of text, Home creates

a discontinuous narrative, and by also applying a cut-up approach to
the characters, whereby the names become interchangeable, he creates
a text that reflects the “fucked up” nature of individual reinvention
and the alienation correlative with such constant reinvention of the
self. The following passage is illustrative of the way Home presents
the characters not as “fixed” individuals, but constantly shifting
If I didn’t know the power of your sex-magick,’ Joanna retorted, ‘I’d accuse
you of being sexually obsessed!’
Stewart Home 231

After exchanging banter of this type for several minutes, it became obvious
that Susan didn’t want a one-night stand, she was looking for a husband...
‘Where are you living?’ Miranda demanded.
‘I forget,’ was my retort.
‘I want to see your town house and your recent bank statement,’ Felicity
‘If you want to screw me,’ I snarled, ‘will you watch while a common
prostitute and I make the beast with two backs?’
‘Certainly not,’ Sonia cried as she hailed a taxi. (Home 1997a: 111)

Elsewhere, the interchangeable characters of Vanessa Holt and

Penelope Braid combine and are referred to as “Panessa” (102, 104,
135). Such interchangeability or merging of character follows on
from numerous precedents, of which Burroughs’ dual character of Mr
Bradley Mr Martin from the Nova trilogy provides an obvious
Like Hodges, Callan is also a resurfacing character, as the
author of the mythical text Christ, Marx and Satan United in Struggle,
which is referred to not only in Slow Death, Red London and Pure
Mania but also in Come Before Christ and Murder Love, and in this
way Home further extends the range of an intertextuality of his own
creation. The recycling of characters was commonly practised by
Burroughs, who was explicit in detailing the way in which the cut-up
and fold-in techniques were means by which characters from existing
texts could be rewritten, recounting one example of his own recycling
thus: “my story ‘They Just Fade Away’ is a fold-in from Lord Jim. In
fact, it’s almost a retelling of the Lord Jim story. My Stein is the same
Stein as in Lord Jim” (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 6). Home’s
recycling, reuse and repetition marks a continuation in a lineage of
plagiarism, in which the cut-ups are a key factor, as they presented a
new way of appropriating existing texts that was not only less
“detectable” but also more theoretically driven and more overt than
was previously acceptable in the use of other works.
References to occultist texts by Crowley and others are
abundant in Come Before Christ. Lines cut from precursory texts are
also again evident: at one point, the narrator delivers the line “get thee
to a Nunnery gone!” (126), an almost direct appropriation from
Hamlet Act III, Scene I, in which Hamlet instructs Ophelia “Get thee
to a nunnery: why woulds’t thou be a breeder of sinners?” The
incorporation of phrases and even longer passages drawn from a broad
232 Shift Linguals

range of sources is integral to Home’s writing process and his

plagiaristic practices, and he describes his writing practices in detail:
I have a good memory and can use a lot of phrases that are in my head, I’m
not bothered if I’ve altered them on the whole, in fact sometimes I do this
consciously. It is also possible to check. But long passages I tend to go to the
source, and also I am researching books for material to use.39

In Come Before Christ, the material “researched” from other sources

includes lengthy sections of local history (pages 23, 70 and 96 notably
catalogue quite detailed histories of churches and other historical
buildings). These sections appear rather stylistically incongruous from
the main narrative, and as such have the feel of insertions, or of
having been drawn from other sources and spliced directly into the
text with only minor alterations. Such researching illustrates the way
in which Home plunders from across the canon, and through his own
work, realigns fragments of existing texts from a wide range of
sources. Most importantly, his drawing on these source materials
shares obvious parallels with Acker’s cut-and-paste texts, and the way
in which this represents a continuation of her development of the cut-
up method is clear. Although Home’s large-scale cut-up is conscious
rather than random, by splicing Shakespeare with Crowley, he
effectively cuts across time, space and genre, achieving the same ends
as Burroughs and other earlier practitioners, namely to collaborate
with “many writers, living and dead” (Weissner 1970: 2). Moreover,
Home’s incorporation of other texts returns to the objective of
approaching text as material, something concrete that can be moved
and manipulated, thus representing another way in which an author’s
job is to “choose, edit and rearrange words at his disposal” (Hibbard
1999: 15).
Home’s editing of words at his disposal can be seen to extend
beyond his earliest publications, even beyond the written medium, and
a 1997 interview refers to his having “a sound studio for a few days,
where he is working on sound experiments for his readings” (Marchart
I recently produced a radio play entitled Divvy… I began work on this play by
doing a William Burroughs-style cut up on the first act of Hamlet, which I
then reworked, reducing the number of characters to four, to whom I then

Stewart Home, Email interview, 24 July 2005.
Stewart Home 233

assigned different computer generated voices. In terms of logic, large parts of

the play produced by this cut up technique were simply meaningless, although
on the level of rhetoric I think the piece is quite easy to comprehend. This
treatment of Hamlet reflects my indifference to the original source material.40

Home recalls that Divvy, or Larry O’Hara, Ponce of Paranoia was

“originally broadcast on Tork Radio internet project, then came out on
this CD-r in Finland”.41 His choice of Shakespeare as a source for
cutting may reflect his indifference toward “the canon”, but it should
be borne in mind that the original cut-ups also used Shakespeare’s
works as source material.42 There is a logic to this, for while
Shakespeare may not be, as Bloom contends, “the world canon”
(1973: xv), he is without doubt the best known author in western
literature, and so to cut up Shakespeare is to symbolically attack “the
canon” and the established order.
The similarities between Divvy and Burroughs’ recording
experiments of the 1960s are clearly intentional given his description
of the work as “a William Burroughs-style cut up”. Home’s
application of the technique continues the trajectory of Burroughs’
sound experiments, in that both authors’ audio works effectively
reduce the authorial input and allow the text to develop of its own
accord. Most significantly, this demonstrates not only Home’s
intentional use of the cut-up technique, but also one of the ways in
which he develops it by aiming to achieve an end which is a complete
inversion of Burroughs’ initial purpose. By this, I mean that while
Burroughs strove to reveal “truths” buried within the original
recordings, Home buries his own “subliminal” messages within his
audio cut-up, as he explained to me by email: “I think this is
interesting in the way it relates to Burroughs as sound work and cut-
up, but also on [a] level of ‘magick’ since it is a psychic attack on

Stewart Home interviewed by Michael Comte. Online at: (consulted 3 June 2004).
Stewart Home, Email interview, 14 September 2007.
Burroughs recounted that following the discovery of the cut-ups, “…we cut up the
Bible, Shakespeare, Rimbaud, our own writing, anything in sight”, (1993: 52) and
said of Nova Express, “Joyce is in there. Shakespeare, Rimbaud, some writers that
people haven’t heard about” (Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 6).
234 Shift Linguals

Larry O’Hara and friends”.43 O’Hara, with whom Home has been
involved in a lengthy and well-documented feud, features prominently
in Divvy.44 However, as Home notes, the original source materials
remain sufficiently intact to be recognisable: “it is obviously
Shakespeare cut up, with stuff off prostitute cards cut in, then me
rewriting over it...”45 In this way, Divvy echoes Burroughs’ cut-ups
based on well-known texts like the cut-ups of “The Waste Land”
which appear in the Nova trilogy, as well as other early cut-ups such
as Sinclair Beiles’ texts created using sections of the Bible and poems
by Rimbaud which appeared in Minutes To Go. But more than this,
Divvy also shares considerable common ground with the earliest cut-
ups which appeared in Minutes To Go, in that the juxtaposition of
highly incongruous material creates absurd and often amusing new

Good night – if you do meet King and Queen – Larry of my gang-bang – bid
them make haste – to come in my face – I think I hear them – I want a blow
job – who is there? Larry with a great Dane – has this Larry thing appear’d again tonight? 46

Because of the nature of the source materials, the new phrases “not in
the original text” that appear in Divvy are of a humorous nature. Many
lines taken from Hamlet are readily apparent, and are often not
radically cut-up but simply subject to insertions. “What, has this thing
appear’d again to-night?” thus becomes “has this Larry thing appear’d
again to-night?” while elsewhere phrases from two different sources
yield comical juxtapositions, such as “bid them make haste – to come
in my face”. Divvy sees Home apply digital technologies not available
when Burroughs and Gysin were conducting their audio experiments.
Stewart Home, Email interview, 14 September 2007.
Material covering this feud is available from numerous sources, with Home’s
pamphlet Anamorphosis: Stewart Home, Searchlight & the Plot to Destroy
Civilisation by “Larry O’Hara” and Friends (2000) containing a substantial volume
of documentation.
Stewart Home, Email interview, 14 September 2007.
From Divvy, or Larry O’Hara, Ponce of Paranoia. Originally broadcast on Tork
Radio, and subsequently released on the CD Christ, Marx and Satan United in
Struggle. Recording kindly provided to me by Stewart Home.
Stewart Home 235

Yet at the same time, this signifies a shift away from narrative splicing
and back toward syntactic cut-ups, and also demonstrates the way in
which the production of audio cut-ups is possible without the need for
access to a recording studio or expensive recording equipment.
Divvy is not the only example of Home’s application of the cut-
up technique to audio works. Indeed, he has produced a wealth of
experimental recordings, and while relatively few have been made
commercially available to date, Home feels that those that are in the
public domain are significant works, although largely overlooked, as
he explained to me: “those sound pieces [are] an area of my work that
has been pretty much ignored from a critical point of view... Maybe
the problem is I’m too thorough in explaining it when I put it out and
thus put off those doing critical writing”.47 Whether or not this is the
case, the fact that he has not only created audio cut-ups using current
technology, but has also used the cut-ups in order to apply the ideas
articulated by Burroughs in The Electronic Revolution is significant in
tracing the more recent history of the cut-ups. One such instance of
Home’s application of Burroughs’ strategy of “playback on location”
in order to “produce definite effects” (Burroughs 1971a: 74) took
place in 2005. Home recalls that he “took visitors from the Peacock
Art Centre in Aberdeen on a guided walk to the city’s red light district
in the harbour, where I played back a series of prank phone calls I’d
made to prostitutes in the nineties”.48 He continues by explaining that
this exercise was conducted with the intention of disproving the
universality of Burroughs’ theories through the replication of the
methods detailed in The Electronic Revolution:
American writer and beat iconoclast William Burroughs claimed that if you
played recordings of riots in the street, it created riots, and likewise that
playing back tape recordings of other events caused them to be duplicated too.
I set out to show that this doesn’t apply to sex workers, since playing
recordings of prostitutes in a red light district tends to repel street walkers
from areas they would normally habituate. I subsequently repeated this

Stewart Home, email interview, 12 October 2007.
Stewart Home. “Mission Statement”. Online at: (consulted 30
September 2007).
236 Shift Linguals

performance at Catalyst Arts in Belfast and as part of the XXXXX Festival in

London, and intend to repeat it in other locations.49

Although Home’s use of playback on location was made with the

explicit purpose of disproving Burroughs’ theory in a specific context,
namely of prostitutes, that he has put these methods into practice is
evidence of a continued application of cut-up techniques in different
contexts. In the final section of this chapter, I will discuss the ways in
which Home’s more recent work incorporate a range of cut-up forms
within a number of different contexts, thus creating new
amalgamations and new syntheses of the technique.

Returning to Source: Cut-Ups in Home’s Recent Work

Home’s later works show a marked difference from his earlier output,
and reveal an increasing degree of experimentalism as he further
explores non-linear narrative forms. As he told Simon Strong, “my
more recent anti-novels are non-linear in construction: Come Before
Christ & Murder Love, 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess, Down
& Out In Shoreditch & Hoxton...” (Home 2005b: 42). Writing on 69
Things to Do With a Dead Princess, Kevin O’Neill (2004) observes
that, “Home’s style treats text types with double-coding, pastiche,
internal parody and juxtaposition to annihilate certitude for his
reader”.50 This is true of much of his output, but his novels from Come
Before Christ onwards place a particular emphasis on the annihilation
of certitude through the use of unreliable narrators and rapid switches
between times and locations. Additionally, while his earlier novels
used repetition and the recontextualisation of source material to
subversive ends, his more recent novels are much more structurally
complex and less overtly plot-driven. This shift has changed the
critical reception of these later books, as he explains:

Stewart Home. “Mission Statement”. Online at (consulted 30
September 2007).
“Does Aberdeen Exist? An Essay Review of Stewart Home’s 69 Things to do with
a Dead Princess”. Online at:
(consulted 30 September 2007).
Stewart Home 237

I was appropriating the techniques of the nouveau roman and the surrealists’
anti-novel by using genre fiction, but having this insane level of repetition
which starts pulling the simulacrum of the plot apart. But when I dropped the
plot, they started noticing that I had read Robbe-Grillet.51

The ways in which 69 Things, Down and Out, Tainted Love and
Memphis Underground approach non-linear narrative vary, although
all of these texts can be seen to use cut-and-paste modes of writing,
and appropriation remains a key element in their construction.
Notably, Home has not only expressed a continued interest in using
computing technology for the production of syntactic cut-ups, but has
also applied variations on the cut-ups in increasingly diffuse ways.
One example of this can be seen in a lecture he gave on Neoism, in
which he provided a cut-up recording instead of attending in person:
I’d been asked to speak at a symposium on Neoism being held in Vienna.
Since I didn’t want to travel to this event, the organiser agreed that I could
send a taped lecture. I took an essay I’d written and set MacTravesty loose on
the text. I then selected a computer voice to read the result and used a low-
quality cassette recorder to output “my” talk. The result was played in Vienna
and I’m told people sat through this taped lecture. (Home 2002b: 22-3)

Such activities may be considered by some as belonging to the

catalogue of pranks Home has famously pulled, but there are more
serious considerations to be made, not least of all in terms of his
continued commitment to experimentalism. It is noteworthy that this
particular lecture remains the only work produced in this manner to
have been made publicly available. However, while his most extreme
experimental work is excluded from his novels, other examples of his
“textual manipulations” have been circulated by other means. He
explains this in purely commercial terms, stating that he is “rather
fond of textual manipulations and while I am often paid to write
journalism, I find that in terms of publication I can’t even give away
texts that consist of selected quotes from avant-garde manifestos that I
have reworked into alchemical tracts” (Home 2002b: 22). Despite the
constraints imposed by the dictates of commercial publishers, he has
succeeded in incorporating experimental elements within all of his

K, quoting Home, posted as a comment on Stewart Home’s blog “For Stewart
Home, a new and public debacle”. Online at:
ogID=344994466&indicate=1 (consulted 7 January 2008).
238 Shift Linguals

recent novels. While there is not space here to discuss each text in
detail, I shall, in the remainder of this chapter, consider the most
significant features of these books in order to show how cut-up and
collage methods have not only continued to inform his writing, but
have become a distinct feature of his work.
Like his previous works, 69 Things to Do With a Dead Princess
and Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton draw on a wide range of
sources. Where these texts differ is in the nature of the material from
which he appropriates, as he explained: “[Down and Out] samples far
more substantial portions of many other more historical writers
ranging from Daniel Defoe to Richard Marsh. Dead Princess took
Ann Quinn’s Berg as its starting point”.52 Once again, this drawing on
existing texts as a “starting point” and the extensive “sampling” of
existing texts within Home’s more recent works highlights a thread of
continuity running through his output. That he should refer to the
sections taken from existing texts as “samples” is noteworthy, in that
it demonstrates an awareness of the analogy between the written
medium with sound recordings previously drawn by William
Burroughs and Kathy Acker before him. Also of interest is the fact
that he not only draws sections of different texts for “collaging”
purposes, but also places the appropriated sections of text within
frameworks also appropriated from other sources. By this, I mean that
Home appropriates plots from existing texts, and fills in the narrative
with sections appropriated from other texts, often unrelated to the
source of the plot. In this way, Home can be seen to be taking the idea
of using text as building blocks, as Acker did explicitly in The Life of
the Black Tarantula (1973) and Great Expectations (1982), to a new
level, by applying a cut-and-paste approach to chunks of text and
placing those sections on top of a “prefabricated” structure or plot
imported from another source.
Down and Out is of particular interest within the context of this
study because it also contains what appear to be “genuine” or
“authentic” cut-up sections. These are not only in the style of
Burroughs, but also incorporate phrases taken from Burroughs’ work.
Alfie nominated William Burroughs our third man. Beat writer converted
orgone accumulator into a time machine, travelled to Victorian Whitechapel
and killed cunt. Burroughs well known for his misogyny. Gap of seventeen

Stewart Home, Email interview, 24 July 2005.
Stewart Home 239

months between penultimate and last slaying of 13 February due to

miscalculation when blaster settings adjusted. Wrong day. No massacre. No
good. No bueno. Sterling mutilations fried before his peepers. Cut through
lines time and space. Died yesterday. Asseverations plunging.
Representations plunging. (Home 2004: 89)

Given the textual evidence, there is no question that this passage is

directly modelled upon Burroughs’ original cut-ups. As shown earlier,
“No bueno” appears variously within Burroughs’ work. “Cut through
lines time and space” is a paraphrase of a number of Burroughs’ lines
which address the issue of the purpose of the cut-up methods, while –
given that an asseveration is a declaration and therefore a word and a
photograph is clearly a representation – “Asseverations plunging.
Representations plunging” is quite obviously derived from the phrase
“Word falling – Photo falling – Break through in Grey room”, which
appears a number of times in Nova Express. Elsewhere, Home repeats
the lines: “Gray hadn’t been invaded by the Big Ugly Spirit. No good,
No bueno” (2004: 193). Not only does this provide a further example
of Home’s uses of repetition, but also a further example of his
intertextual linkage to Burroughs: the Ugly Spirit was the name
Burroughs gave to the demon which he believed possessed him on the
shooting of his wife, Joan Vollmer. However, despite their appearance
and contents, these “cut-up” sections were not created using actual
cut-ups but intentionally written to look like cut ups. As Home pointed
out to me, “once you’ve read cut-ups, it’s possible to reproduce the
effect”.53 Detailing his own method as a combination of drawing
phrases from memory and returning to the sources for reference, he
told me, “I’m not a purist”, and suggests that to paraphrase is often
sufficient. “I used to have an extensive library”, he recalls. The
amount of travelling he now does renders this impractical. “I used to
have my own copy of So Who Owns Death TV? ... but now I only
have my mother’s”.54
With the inclusion of cut-up passages, Home has incorporated
Burroughs’ methods as a means of creating dislocation and
These two short snippets are from a conversation with Stewart Home, 19 May
2007. This took the form of a series of informal exchanges during the “Retelling
Tales” interdisciplinary postgraduate conference at Stirling University. These were
not recorded: however notes were taken immediately afterwards. All quotations
appear with the consent of Stewart Home.
Stewart Home, Email interview, 25 May 2007.
240 Shift Linguals

disorientation and to distort time and location. Elsewhere in Down and

Out, Burroughs himself appears as a character.
As we spoke, William Burroughs materialised before our incredulous peepers.
The controls of his temporality blaster had malfunctioned. As the beat writer
dissembled himself, Alfie grabbed him by the right arm, while I caught hold
of his left coat sleeve. The room shimmered and soon was no more. Where
once four walls had surrounded us, there was nothing but foul night air.
(Home 2004: 96-97)

Home goes on to portray Burroughs as a murderer of prostitutes, who,

travelling through time in order to perform his crimes, was the “real”
Jack the Ripper. Although Home transports Burroughs’ character
through the conceit of the “temporality blaster”, it is appropriate that it
should be Burroughs whom Home locates out of his own time and
place given Burroughs’ desire to create narrative that could effectively
alter time and space. Home explains his choice of Burroughs thus:
In Down & Out I was ridiculing conspiracy theory in its Jack The Ripper
form, fingering Burroughs as Jack The Ripper seemed a good way of doing
this. Burroughs is also interesting as probably the most famous ‘experimental’
novelist of the post-war period at least in terms of his penetration into
youth/counterculture (one might argue Beckett is better known, but it kind of
depends in which circle), and Burroughs also cameos in films like Decoder
and Drugstore Cowboy, so he seemed appropriate.55

While this use of Burroughs is perhaps interpretable as being

emblematic of issues Home has with his literary forebear, it is more
easy to establish this as him signposting some of his source materials
while again juxtaposing what would appear to be incompatible
sources and “playing with the form”.56
Tainted Love saw another shift in Home’s focus, this time
creating a partially fictionalised “biography” of his late mother,
narrated in the first person. Although Home stresses that “The book is
fictionalised”, it does draw substantially on factual – or primary –
source material, as he told Neil Scott (2005): “I had my Mum’s diary,

Stewart Home, email interview 24 July 2005.
The note on the author in Tainted Love states that Home is “often referred to as the
English successor to Burroughs”.
Stewart Home 241

I had her letters. There’s a diary, but which only covers the period
1977 to 79 but within it she also writes about her early life”.
Although the narrative of Tainted Love is fundamentally
straightforward and linear in appearance, there are a number of
sections which stand at odds to the main body of the text. Two of
these take the form of “tape transcriptions” of therapy sessions, in
which the narrator, Jilly, is in consultation with eminent psychiatrist
R. D. Laing (53-68 and 186-195). These sections are presented in the
form of a script, presenting “bare” dialogue without narrative.
Meanwhile, the middle of the book is given to the script for Home’s
film, The Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Oedipus Complex (116-
131). Home notes that these sections have proven problematic, both
for the publisher and reviewers, recounting that “they couldn’t
understand why I wanted to have the film script or the two sections
with RD Laing, but you just want to try things and be experimental”
(Scott 2005). This particular mode of experimentation sees Home
insert “documents” – including the film script and transcriptions from
therapy sessions – from outside the main narrative. Such insertions
function in a similar way to the “real” and “fake” diary extracts Acker
used in Blood and Guts in High School (1978), and also marks a
continuation of the incorporation of “documents” that can be found in
pre-cut-up texts, like John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy (1930-1936) and
William Carlos Williams’ Paterson (1958). In drawing on diary
material but then adapting and rewriting it, and presenting his
mother’s “history” as “fiction”, the text invites the reader to consider
the idea of the construct of the “narrator”, and also the construct of
“history” in much the same way Burroughs did. Fact and fiction
become blurred, despite the apparent authenticity the inclusion of such
“documents” bring to the text. But such authenticity is intentionally
questionable, and can be seen to correspond with the “kind of negative
authenticity” that Eagleton (1996: 202) cites as a common feature of
postmodern literature. This brings us to the second way in which these
insertions work, in that they juxtapose “real” diary entries with
“fictional” material, by use of collaging techniques very similar to
those used by Acker. In Tainted Love Home can therefore be seen to
be not so much advancing the cut-up technique, but to be returning to
earlier practices.
The sequence of “non-linear” “anti-novels” which begins with
Come Before Christ and Murder Love and continues through 69
242 Shift Linguals

Things to Do With a Dead Princess, Down and Out in Shoreditch and

Hoxton and Memphis Underground represents a phase of increasingly
overt experimentalism which sees Home continue to draw on cut-up
and collage techniques in ways which echo those earlier texts by his
precursors. While not as far removed from the conventional novel in
either structure or narrative formulation as Burroughs’ Nova trilogy,
these texts of Home’s are very much concerned with addressing issues
of linearity and sequentially in “the novel”. Memphis Underground
clearly does this in its use of sequence inversion, whereby the events
in the first half of the book actually occur after those in the second
half. This again reflects a non-linear approach to narrative. Home
explains the way he spliced the narratives and his reasons for doing so
as follows:
Memphis Underground... uses a science fiction technique, even though it’s not
science fiction, where you have chapters intercut apparently describing two
people’s lives but it is actually one person’s life 6 months apart, after he has
taken on a different identity. Then the characters merge and you get me going
on about what’s happening when I’m writing it. (Man With No Name 2007)

This suggests a strongly autobiographical element to the book, but

once again, Home asserts that Memphis Underground is a work of
fiction, albeit one that incorporates elements drawn directly from the
author’s life. Thus while using “documents” in juxtaposition with
fictional narrative in a different way from the insertions that appear in
Tainted Love, Memphis Underground continues to address the issues
of linearity, the construct of “the narrator” and the construction of
history through the application of collaging methods to large sections
of text. Equally significantly, Memphis Underground continues to
juxtapose seemingly incongruous sources. This provides a thread of
continuity that connects his most recent work to his earlier novels. It is
this connection that reflects a continually evolving methodology that
revolves around the use of textual splicing:
While constructing Memphis I was thinking of both high brow and low brow,
all my favourite culture comes out of those two things, so the structure in the
first half of the book is lifted from sci-fi novels without any actual sci-fi
elements, and I guess there is a relation to surrealism because I think you can
make up anything you want (just like in a lucid dream) because this is fiction;
later in the novel I’m using straight diaristic accounts that aren’t fictionalised
at all... (Man With No Name 2007)
Stewart Home 243

This incorporation of “straight diaristic accounts that aren’t

fictionalised at all” continues the trajectory of Tainted Love, and in
doing so also continues to blur the distinction between the factual and
the fictional in the same way Acker did through her use of diary
material. However, Home’s use of diary excerpts differs from Acker’s
in two distinct ways. In her earlier use of diary material, as
exemplified by The Childlike Life of The Black Tarantula Acker
spliced fragments, from a few words to a sentence or two, into the
body of the text, making it difficult to differentiate the sources. In
subsequent texts, such as Blood and Guts in High School, in which the
collage technique was more overt, the diary extracts are framed,
distinct, presented as a document within the text. Home uses neither of
these specific methods, and instead incorporates lengthy sections of
diary text, without framing them in any way. In doing so, he makes
separating the “real” diary material from the fictionalised first-person
narrative very difficult, and as such continues to blur the boundaries
between fact and fiction, author and character. This invites the reader
to engage and consider at which point the “real” ends and the “fiction”
begins, effectively engaging with the “birth of the reader” Barthes saw
as being vital to the evolution of literature through the “death of the
Giving a detailed account of the way in which Memphis
Underground was constructed, Home makes it clear that the structure
is intended to be challenging, and to raise questions concerning these
I’m not really any of the characters in the book, and the narrator’s voice isn’t
steady either, but in Memphis the diary accounts in the second half of the book
are a very straight account of what I was doing at the time. However there is
always this difficulty of people wanting to equate the fictional voice with the
author, but while it is my voice since I created it, there also needs to be an
understanding that it is a fiction. So the relationship between the two things is
extremely complex. (Man With No Name 2007)

This complexity is representative of his continued attempts to breed

confusion through his writing, and to challenge accepted literary
norms. This approach is also representative of his worldview, in which
art and literature, capitalism and postmodern society are all
interrelated. Home’s “unsteady” narrative voice can therefore be seen
to relate once again to the issues of authority and authenticity. Home
views this enduring focus on authenticity as paradoxical:
244 Shift Linguals

There is an ongoing obsession with authenticity in capitalist cultures and

where you find that obsession you can be sure there won’t be any authenticity,
which is how I read Burroughs on that. I’ve already said I feel the novel is
finished, and I think the web is contributing to the finality of that. It isn’t
something that bothers me, and it’s not that I think the book is dead, because
actually I think there is still a place for reading off screen. But I feel we’re
kinda finished with literature. (Man With No Name 2007)

That Home, having previously endeavoured to produce art that was

intentionally “inauthentic”, should return to address the issue of
authenticity through literature, a medium he feels is “finished” is also
paradoxical. This again highlights the ways in which he sets out to be
self-defeating, just as the Art Strike was constructed around a self-
defeating paradox and just as his earlier novels were created using a
surfeit of clichés as a means of attacking the use of cliché in writing.
This also corresponds with an enduring motive behind the cut-ups,
beginning with Burroughs, who frequently expressed the belief that
literature – or, specifically, “the novel” was on the brink of
obsolescence. As a writer who has used the Internet considerably to
promote his work, and as a method of (de)constructing text, Home can
be seen as actively participating in the process that brings about both
the death of the author and the death of literature. This seems
appropriate, given it represents a continuation of his earliest concerns
in his approach to writing based on cut-and-paste appropriation and
his adoption of methods derived from the cut-up. By embracing
technology, Home can be seen to be contributing to the fulfilment of
the future Burroughs described, in which creativity was superceded by
All music and talk and sound recorded by a battery of tape recorders and
playing back moving on conveyor belts [...] A writing machine that shifts one
half one text and half the other through a page frame on conveyor belts...
Shakespeare, Rimbaud, etc., permutating through page frames in constantly
changing juxtaposition the machine spits out books and plays and poems.
(Burroughs 1967: 60-61)

Mark Fisher (1994) suggests that “the death of the author is an entirely
technical matter” and “writing becomes a process of software
engineering”. This is clearly debatable. However, precisely how
Home’s writing will evolve, and to what extent this will involve
technology or variations on cut-up and collage techniques is unclear.
However, as he told the Man With No Name in 2007, “digital media
Stewart Home 245

has enabled me to extend and experiment with the way in which I

produce and disseminate such textual manipulations”, and recent
postings on the Internet, coupled with the publication of his most
recent “novel” Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie (2010) clearly evidence
a continued interest in creating and disseminating such textual
wow was I really stoned... really tripping... out of... I’d gone and... I shouldn’t
have gotten that high... I didn’t take enough acid to get that high... even my
playthings walked to Saturn... bending pencil erasers... delicious... apples
exploding into butterflies... I hadda get outta there.. one two three four... I
could hardly see... tombs interlocked... too much acid... too many colours
blown up in my face... I saw demons sitting on the record decks [...] Their
claws had long, sharp nails, and one of the demons was holding a copy of “69
Things To Do With A Dead Princess”, which he read while jerking
off....Fragmented patterns were racing through my head - just snatches of
sentences... I am the greatest... Hex is the greatest.... we are! We are great! We
are the greatest... float like a butterfly, sting like a bee... Lucy in the sky with
diamonds... I am the greatest... purple haze all in my brain...57

This “review” of a club night in Glasgow sees Home return to

syntactic cut-ups as a means of fragmenting text and bringing writing
closer to reality. The fact that he should use this as a means of
conveying an altered state is also appropriate within the context of
referencing Burroughs’ writing. This passage also features lines taken
from popular songs, including “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix and
The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, both songs well-
known for their drug-influenced imagery. However, while using the
graphological conventions in the form of ellipses that Burroughs
devised for the presentation of the cut-ups, it should be noted that this
writing was created by electronic means rather than physically cutting
and splicing fragments of text. That he has posted this same text
elsewhere on-line, sometimes seemingly at random, is illustrative of
his continued use of cut-and-paste technology and an approach to
writing in which he uses existing text to “save time”. Furthermore,
this again demonstrates Home’s strategy to depersonalise the writing
process, re-presenting the same pieces of text in different contexts as

Stewart Home, “Teenage Buzzsaw”. MySpace blog post 3 December 2007, online
at http://blog.myspace. com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendID=
83845986&blogid=334446330&page=1 (consulted 4 December 2007).
246 Shift Linguals

“readymade” pieces that can be “installed” in different locations with

The publication of Tainted Love on the Virgin imprint, and the
mainstream attention that this and his subsequent novels have gained
suggests that Home’s commercial profile is growing.58 And while his
most experimental work remains unpublished or otherwise circulated
via less conventional and less commercial channels, Blood Rites of the
Bourgeoisie was critically acclaimed and suggests that there is a
market for fiction that doesn’t simply break down, but attacks
conventions of narrative. Composed largely from spam and
fictionalised emails, one main thread of the plot (such as it is)
concerns digital junk mail “taking over”. In recent years, spam emails
have begun to incorporate cut-ups and excerpts of literary works
within the body text as a means of bypassing junk mail filters that are
written into the program software. Home, however, eschews the
“spamoetry” in which there is a growing interest (see, for example, the
Spam Poetry Institute, who exist for the purpose of “preserving the
fine literature created by the world’s spammers”), and instead forms
the fabric of the text with lifted phrases such as “three sexy teens fuck
one lucky guy hardcore foursome!” (76) and “solve all your dick-
related issues at once by clicking here. Big thick dick equals more self
confidence (59).59
The last third of the book is given to “appendix” consisting of
emails and blog posts, augmented by the comments posted by Home’s
readers, published after the “real” Belle de Jour was “outed” as being
Brooke Magnanti, thus ending the years of speculation that Home was
the author of the Belle de Jour blog and books. Again, by
incorporating some forty pages of material written by members of the
public (some of whom appear to be posting under a number of
different pseudonyms), or otherwise by Home in a different context
(again, sometimes under a number of pseudonyms), he has saved a lot
of time, while also facilitating “real-time” collaborations that cut
through time and space by the medium of the Internet.
Metro ran a full-page interview feature on Home on the publication of Tainted
Love, describing the novel as “extreme and experimental” despite perhaps being
less extreme and experimental than some of its predecessors, and significantly less
so than some which would follow, particularly Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie
(2010). Metro, Monday November 28, 2005, p. 25.
Online at (consulted 20 September 2010).
Stewart Home 247

It is clear that Home will strive to incorporate experimental

practices, many of which have their roots in the cut-up technique,
within his commercial works. In doing so, he continues to develop the
technique, forging new syntheses, and to bring cut-up methods to a
new audience. Moreover, by rendering the creative process
interactive, the traditional roles of author and reader are subverted in
the most absolute sense, forging not only “the birth of the reader”, but
a new level of engagement, in which the distinctions are dissolved and
the reader becomes the author, and vice versa. Thus, a new mode of
writing emerges.
Chapter 5

Further Mutations: The Cut-Ups in the New

Cutting Through Theoretical Boundaries: Postmodern
or Avant-Garde?

Having traced the trajectory of the cut-ups from the point at which
Burroughs and Gysin formalised the method to the present, it is now
possible to address the challenge set in my Introduction, namely to
consolidate the positioning of the cut-ups in a firm theoretical context.
Thus far, I have shown that some elements of the cut-ups belong to the
postmodern tradition and others to the avant-garde tradition. The way
in which Stewart Home’s work uses the idea of postmodern
consumption, absorption and assimilation against itself provides a key
element to our understanding of the theoretical location of the cut-up
method. By explicitly drawing together seemingly contradictory
elements of both postmodernism and avant-gardism, Home creates a
new synthesis of theories, in the same way that he creates new cross-
genre forms of writing and new syntheses of existing cut-up models.
As such, Home demonstrates that it is possible to straddle the
boundaries and delineate the established distinctions not only between
genres, but also between theoretical perspectives. Having thus shown
how the cut-ups belong in a theoretical position that is apart from both
the avant-garde and the postmodern, I will, by drawing on the
continuities and the tangents in the development of the method that
can be traced throughout the second half of the twentieth century,
consider how cut-ups may continue to be used in the future.
So, do the cut-ups conform to the model of postmodern
narrative practices, or do they belong to the avant-garde tradition? I
have argued that they fall into both theoretical frameworks, albeit in a
new synthesis of each. By drawing broadly from all aspects of culture
250 Shift Linguals

and literature that has gone before, the cut-ups can be seen to
subscribe to postmodern principles. Undoubtedly, the principle of
cutting up is based upon the idea of “incorporating” texts, not
“quoting” them, and as such, appear to subscribe to the absorptive
model of postmodernism Fredric Jameson defines. Moreover, by
combining these diverse elements simultaneously, and often
seemingly incongruously, again, the postmodern model is most fitting,
in that it embodies the postmodern egalitarianism Linda Hutcheon
observes when she writes that postmodernism is “an even-handed
process” (2002: 1). But while Hutcheon suggests that “postmodernism
ultimately manages to install and reinforce as much as undermine and
subvert the conventions and presuppositions it appears to challenge”
(2002: 1-2), the cut-ups reinforce nothing other than a suspicion of
language, and as such, the cut-up method is concerned only with
undermining authority and subverting preconceived notions of
linguistic conditioning. The cut-ups also appear to epitomise the
fragmentation Jean-François Lyotard and Terry Eagleton highlight as
fundamentally postmodern, the literature of the postmodern era
reflecting the culture in which it is produced, being “arbitrary,
eclectic, hybrid, decentred, fluid, discontinuous” (Eagleton 1996:
201), and formed through the amalgamation of “a plurality of cultures
and narratives which cannot be hierarchically ordered or ‘privileged’”
(Eagleton 1996: 201). But again, the cut-ups do not conform neatly to
these postmodern traits, not least of all because the function of
discontinuity within a cut-up text is to precisely break the artificially-
imposed continuity that has become the established norm in “the
novel”. As Burroughs said,
Things don’t happen in logical sequence and people don’t think in logical
sequence. Any writer who hopes to approximate what actually occurs in the
mind and body of his characters cannot confine himself to such an arbitrary
structure as “logical” sequence. (Burroughs & Odier 1974: 35)

Thus, the function of the cut-up technique was initially to present

narrative in a form which was more attuned to the realities of
perception, and this principle was closely followed by Kathy Acker in
her working to create texts that corresponded with her realities. So,
rather than being concerned with external realities – the rapid flow of
information and the decentralisation of “knowledge”, as is the
Further Mutations 251

defining feature of postmodern literature – the cut-up method serves to

reflect – but also to alter – inner processes.
Jameson argues that postmodern literature is essentially a
product of contemporary culture, and as such “expresses the inner
truth of that newly emergent social order of late capitalism” (1998: 3).
In its unquestioning absorption of anything and everything, he sees
postmodern literature as a mirror of the times, specifically locating
postmodernism within a historical bracket, writing, “it is not just
another word for the description of a particular style. It is also, at least
in my use, a periodizing concept whose function is to correlate the
emergence of a new type of social life and a new economic order”
(1998: 3). The cut-ups have certainly been practised during the period
which corresponds with the one Jameson identifies. But the
application of the cut-up method is, or has been, largely a reaction
against the culture in which the works are created. Indeed, the initial
purpose of the cut-up was not to reflect postmodern culture and
society, but to attack it. This function of the cut-ups can be seen as a
thread which connects all of the authors I have discussed in this study:
Burroughs and his immediate successors replicated the techniques of
the mass media to reveal the methods by which language is
manipulated and control exercised over the receivers of the messages
contained therein. Acker strove not to simply recreate the experience
of the “MTV generation” but to subvert that experience and create
texts that functioned for her on a personal level. Finally, in the work
of Stewart Home, we see postmodern techniques being used to
undermine the idea of monetary values being ascribed to art and thus
working directly against the capitalist culture that is reflected and
replicated in postmodern literature. As such, while appearing to
demonstrate its values, the cut-up method was intended as a means by
which to revolt against much of what postmodernism signifies. Not
only does this represent the ultimate subversion, but indicates how the
cut-up method is at once both postmodern and not postmodern, or is
postmodern in appearance but is anti-postmodern in purpose. The
practitioners of the technique I have discussed have all, without
exception, striven not to simply react, but to effect change, to
revolutionise literary practice and even the life praxis of their
readership. As such, the desire for revolution espoused within the cut-
up method and the assimilation of existing materials for critical ends
is more avant-garde than postmodern.
252 Shift Linguals

The same is true when considering the way that postmodern

literature draws on a broad spectrum of sources and styles as Jameson
identifies in his essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”. But
the authors I have discussed demonstrate that this absorption of
diverse and disparate texts is anything but unquestioning. By design,
the cut-ups serve to interrogate, to question the meanings of the
original texts, even to undermine the meanings of the original texts or
to expose their hidden meanings. The practice of cutting up also
functions to challenge the formation of those original texts, not only in
terms of word orders, but also in terms of the creative process. While
such reflexivity regarding the circumstances of the text’s creation
could be interpreted as representative of the “self-conscious”,
“knowing” stance Hutcheon sees as typically postmodern, the cut-up
method has not been applied with the “irony” she identifies as central
to this mode of literature (2002: 1). Indeed, even in Home’s writing, I
have shown that while combining elements drawn from different
sources in a manner which is humorous in intent, Home makes serious
points about culture without being merely ironic.
The acknowledgement that originality is no longer possible,
which is implicit in the practice of cutting up, is widely regarded a
particularly postmodern trait, resulting in texts which are “recyclings
of other works which are themselves no more than such recyclings”
(Eagleton 1996: 201-2). But in their interrogation of the material that
provides the fabric of the composite texts, the cut-ups exist
somewhere just outside the parameters of the postmodern. Indeed,
what I have demonstrated is that although the cut-up technique and the
authors who have applied it within their work are commonly referred
to as postmodern, they do not slot neatly into this category, just as cut-
up texts cannot be seen to belong to a specific literary genre. That cut-
up texts draw from numerous genres is certainly one reason for this,
but above all, the fact of the matter is that the technique is itself not
fixed. It is, in fact, ever-changing, and the myriad variations of the
technique introduced by the individual practitioners across the decades
make it impossible to ascribe a single position to the works that are
found in the field of the cut-ups.
The destructive aspect of the cut-ups, in which the canon is
shredded, mangled, attacked, raided, defaced, destroyed and
reassembled, corresponds with the antagonism Renato Poggioli refers
to, and as such, locates the method firmly within the framework of the
Further Mutations 253

avant-garde. But simple destruction, representing what Poggioli

describes as the “spirit of hostility and opposition” (1968: 26) that
connects many avant-garde movements, is not a specific function of
the cut-up. As I have shown, while borne out of an antagonism toward
“the establishment” – be it the invisible agents of control Burroughs
sought to attack, the male-dominated literary establishment Acker
found herself at odds with, or the capitalist culture against which
Home writes – the cut-up method has been used to create not only
new texts, but also new meanings, and new types of reading
experiences. If, in the devotion to creating anew from the ashes of the
old, and in the constant reinvention of the method, the cut-ups are the
epitome of the avant-garde, they also demonstrate a key difference
from the principles of avant-gardism. Rather than simply attempting to
push parameters through experimentalism for its own sake – an
accusation commonly levelled at the avant-gardes, and which Matei
Calinescu (1987: 96) identifies when he writes that “the avant-garde’s
theoretical futurism is little more than a mere justification for the most
radical varieties of polemicism and for the widespread use of
subversive or openly disruptive artistic techniques” – the cut-ups have
always been employed to achieve more substantial ends. So, just as
Burroughs strove to create a degree of separation when he wrote, “I
am not a dadaist” (Hibbard 1999: 15), so it would also be fair to say
that the authors discussed in this study are not postmodernists, or
avant-gardists, for that matter. This statement is not the outright
rejection it appears: after all, Burroughs acknowledged dada as a
literary precursor to the cut-ups. Similarly, Kathy Acker and Stewart
Home have engaged with the issues of postmodernism and the avant-
gardism, but do not conform wholly to either, instead drawing on
elements of both to create a new theoretical framework. We can thus
conclude that the cut-ups exist in a position which is simultaneously
both postmodern and avant-garde. By assimilating aspects of both, the
cut-ups demand the formation of a new perspective, one that is a
synthesis of the two theoretical approaches. And as technologies
develop, so the cut-ups will continue to evolve also, creating new
hybrids and new syntheses of styles and theoretical approaches.
Burroughs speculated a future in which “writing machines”
would be available to the masses. This partially echoed Lautréamont’s
assertion that anyone could be a poet when he said, “Poetry must be
made by all. Not one” (Lautréamont 1978: 279). What I have shown
254 Shift Linguals

in this study, by use of specific examples, is precisely how cut-ups

have contributed to the face of contemporary literature. In other
words, I have demonstrated that the impact of the method has been
profound, and also that the cut-up technique has become manifested
within literary practices in ways which are not always immediately
obvious. Thus I have shown that the cut-ups have changed in many
and diverse ways since their first applications, and provided examples
of the different forms the cut-ups have subsequently taken.
Perhaps the most important factor in the spread of the cut-up
technique is the way Burroughs initially approached and actively
promoted its use. By this, I mean that the theories surrounding the cut-
ups that Burroughs detailed in interviews and explanatory texts, and
also embedded within the narratives themselves combined theory and
practice in a hitherto unseen way. This provided his mode of
experimentation with a broader relevance than those that came before
on a number of levels. These levels are both social – through the
revelation of governmental and media “conspiracies” and the greatest
“conspiracy” of all, that of language manipulation – and personal –
namely the idea of creating writing that is closer to dreaming and the
subconscious and also perception – “Consciousness is a cut-up; life is
a cut-up” (Burroughs 1993: 61). I also believe the way in which
Burroughs demonstrated that the cut-up method was relevant and
applicable to other media is key to the way in which his cut-ups have
had a greater and more far-reaching impact than similar methods
employed by his precursors. For instance, following Burroughs’
application of cut-ups to audio and the publication of The Electronic
Revolution (1971), the impact of the technique spread far more widely
than would have been the case if their application had been limited to
just the one single medium. This point is also noted by Timothy
Murphy, who writes:
His wide-ranging interests in film and music have influenced artists in those
fields as well: directors Nicholas Roeg and Gus Van Sant, rock musicians
Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, Patti Smith and Tom Waits and rock bands Steely
Dan … and REM have adopted Burroughs’ imagery and compositional
methods, including the cut-up, for their own works. Consequently, readers can
“listen to his last words anywhere”, on paper or tape, by himself or in
collaboration with ever new generations of artists, as he foretold in The Soft
Machine. (Murphy 2002a)
Further Mutations 255

The growth of digital media has made the future that Burroughs
predicted not only a possibility, but an actuality. It therefore seems
appropriate that having traced the history of the technique that I
provide some consideration of the possible futures of the method and
its applications as they continue to evolve. Before I consider the future
of the cut-ups, however, I will first briefly look at the present, in
which the cut-ups appear to be undergoing another renaissance.

Graham Rawle: Cut-Up Collage in a Woman’s World

The authors I have covered so far have explicitly cited Burroughs as a

reference point, and their use of cut-ups, and other methods evolved
from them, can be seen in every instance to have been done with a
knowledge of Burroughs’ work. However, elsewhere, we find new
authors applying the cut-up method, either directly or in some mutated
form, with no overt or explicit link to the cut-up lineage that
originated with Burroughs. Some even seemingly do so with no
knowledge or acknowledgement of the literary precedents, which
illustrates the extent to which the cut-ups have infiltrated the wider
collective (sub)conscious beyond their direct transmission. Graham
Rawle appears to be one such author. His 2005 novel, Woman’s World
is composed using cut-up texts, “collaged entirely from fragments of
text found in women’s magazines from the early 1960s” (Rawle
2005b: 12) Rawle describes his “discovery” of the idea for a collage
novel as follows:
I had never thought much about collaging words together, but towards the end
of my last book, Diary of an Amateur Photographer, I had my main character
cutting bits of text from photography manuals and cheap pulp novels and
pasting them into his journal… I liked the rather odd, clunky effect and
wondered if it would be possible to write a whole novel this way. (2005b: 12)

He continues: “I started experimenting by assembling short scenes

using bits cut out of these magazines… found text became an integral
part of the story” (2005b: 12). Indeed, Women’s World is a very visual
text, and while Rawle says he is “pretty careful” to “disguise” his
source material, the retention of the fonts from the individual original
texts does lend a greater degree of traceability to the origins of each
“sample”. This is particularly true of the longer sections of text, which
extend to several lines.
256 Shift Linguals

(Rawle: 2005a: 142)

Further Mutations 257

Despite Neel Mukherjee’s suggestion that Woman’s World, “might

just be the most wildly original novel produced in this country in the
past decade” (2005), this extended textual collage shares considerable
common ground with many previous cut-up texts. The principle is
almost identical to Burroughs’ cut-ups, only conducted without
allowing the random elements to break the conventional syntactic
structure. Indeed, the process of placing the pieces of newspaper
together to create “new” phrases is very like that used by Gysin and
Burroughs for Minutes To Go (1960). However, the fundamental
difference in Rawle’s process lies in the fact that the use of textual
fragments is anything but random, but is in fact a system of careful
selection. Another significant departure lies in the fact that in
Women’s World Rawle does not type out the results and thus
maintains the original typefaces and font sizes. As such, he removes a
step from the process as devised by Gysin and Burroughs, and in
doing so brings the visual aspect of cutting up, not readily apparent in
Burroughs and Gysin’s texts, to the fore. In this way, Women’s World,
which Tom Phillips describes in his review for The Guardian (2005)
as a “typographical rollercoaster”, noting that “each page features
nearly 100 variations... from sedate Times Roman to the fullblown
exclamations of advertisers’ fancy capitals”, shares more with
Weissner’s more overtly collaged style of cut-ups, which also use
multiple typefaces and font sizes. While on one hand Women’s World
represents a return to the early days of the cut-ups, Rawle, like all of
the other authors discussed in this study, introduces elements that are
uniquely his own, not least of all in that he is more concerned with
creation of narrative than its destruction.
Women’s World may not be, as Patrick McCabe contends,
“fiercely original”, but his analogy of the text as “William Burroughs
let loose with dressmaker’s scissors” does clearly mark the lineage to
which Rawle’s book belongs, whether or not the author is aware of the
fact.1 We can thus observe yet another twist in the application of the

Patrick McCabe, quoted online at: (consulted 6
June 2006)
258 Shift Linguals

Philippe Vasset’s Scriptgenerator©®TM: Writing Machines and the

Death of the Author

The musical analogy concerning the production of text established

previously in this book is explicitly noted by Philippe Vasset in his
novel Scriptgenerator©®TM (2003). As stated in the cover blurb, the
novel tells of a computer program designed to “industrialize the
production of narrative” through the exploitation of existing texts as
“material” that can be reduced to a specific formula and rapidly
recycled without requiring “creative” input. Vasset’s fictional
software can be seen to share considerable common ground with the
“writing machines” Burroughs wrote of in Nova Express and his
observations which link “sampling” in music to the production of
“new” text is well worth noting here:
This new industrial process has already revolutionized the music industry:
CD production today is a systematic engineering of already existing sounds
which are reprocessed or remixed. Initially, sampling, the process which
creates something out of quotations (a bass line from a piece of music, a line
from a song, etc ) from other works, was used by only a few artists who were
convinced that the use of repetition in the re-edit was, in itself, an act of
creation in a saturated cultural market.
The music industry was quick to spot the economic advantages of such a
process – using existing components in production keeps costs down and also
reduces the amount spent on salaries – and this technique rapidly became
ubiquitous. (Vassett 1993: 18-19)

It would be reasonable to suggest that the “filling in” of plot-lines

lifted from existing texts with paraphrased sections of other existing
texts, in the way Stewart Home does, is one way in which such
methods of exploiting formulaic modes of writing for speed of
production are already being put into practice. The technological
advances made since the 1970s and since the publication of The
Electronic Revolution have unquestionably “revolutionized the music
industry”. These technological developments not only made new
cross-genre modes of music technically possible, but also facilitated
the production of music from sounds that were not previously
possible, as well as the creation of music that would not be humanly
possible to play on conventional instruments on account of its
complexity. As such, new technologies paved the way for a new era in
music, one in which, note Dave and Stuart Wise, “mixing, dubbing,
tracking… [became] more necessary than ‘individual’ genius… the
Further Mutations 259

musician has had to become more acquainted with electronics” (Home

1996d: 91). Similarly, computer programs like MacTravesty have
made the creation of “generated” texts possible for writers, thus
signalling in some sense the beginning of literary industrialisation.
Vasset does not use cut-ups in Scriptgenerator©®TM, but does
interrupt the first-person narrative of the novel with lengthy sections
of text that represent the manual for Scriptgenerator©®TM. In doing
so, he juxtaposes narrative with “found” “documents” which thus
forms a textual collage, as seen in pre-cut-up texts such as William
Carlos Williams’ Paterson (1958) and John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy
(1930-1936), as well as in post-Burroughs texts like Weissner’s The
Braille Film (1970). This method also recreates the form of
incorporating “found” text within the fabric of the narrative. I say
“recreates” as the “found” documents in the form of the manual
Vasset’s narrator quotes are presented as “found” within the context of
the plot of Scriptgenerator©®TM, but are not true “found” documents,
but fictional documents. As such, Vassett continues the interrogation
of “fact” and “artifact” and the formation of history, effectively
detailing within a fictional context a process which is effectively
already a reality. To this end, Vasset’s novel tells of a future history,
or a possible future history of sorts. Moreover, his recreation of the
“found” source, or the fabrication of pseudo-found text as a means of
documenting that semi-fictionalised future history is in itself a
development in the continuing history of the cut-ups.

Kenji Siratori, Lee Kwo and Antony Hitchin: Digital Cut-Ups and
New Extremities

If Graham Rawle’s Women’s World and Stewart Home’s use of more

manual ways of cutting up appear to be indicative of a trend toward
earlier methods, and Vasset’s fiction applies narrative cut-ups while
still following a conventional approach to writing, there are many
other writers who are exploiting the latest technology to absolute
extremes. Perhaps the most noteworthy and successful of these
authors who employ “automated” writing practices (to be
differentiated from the automatic practices of the surrealists) is Kenji
Siratori. Siratori describes himself as “a Japanese cyberpunk writer
who is currently bombarding the Internet with wave upon wave of
highly experimental, uncompromising, progressive, intense prose”
260 Shift Linguals

(1995). Indeed, Siratori can be seen to be exploiting available software

as a means of producing large quantities of text very rapidly, and has
“bombarded” the Internet by maintaining a remarkably prolific level
of output. He published no fewer than nineteen books between 2000
and 2006, and has to date also released over thirty experimental audio
recordings. The official Kenji Siratori website and back-cover blurbs
to his books explicitly locate his work within the field occupied by the
His is a writing style that not only breaks with tradition, it severs all cords,
and can only really be compared to the kind of experimental writing
techniques employed by the Surrealists, William Burroughs and Antonin
Artaud. Embracing the image mayhem of the digital age, his relentless prose
is nonsensical and extreme, avant-garde and confused, with precedence given
to twisted imagery, pace and experimentation over linear narrative and
character development. With unparalleled stylistic terrorism, he unleashes his
literary attack. An unprovoked assault on the senses.2

In not only citing Burroughs and the Surrealists as his literary

forebears, but by also suggesting that his work serves as “an
unprovoked assault on the senses”, Siratori echoes Gysin’s objective
of creating a “derangement of the senses”. And, just as Burroughs
drew on contemporary material in the form of newspapers to produce
many of his cut-up texts, so Siratori uses the fabric of the digital age
to create texts which reflect life in the new millennium, while also
breaking down any semblance of sense or continuity by splicing and
mashing text and code together. The following section from
MOBILE@NGEL (2006) is exemplary:
I turn on ill-treatment to the DNA=channels of the biocapturism nerve cells
abolition world-codemaniacs that was processed the data=mutant of her
ultra=machinary tragedy-ROM creature system corpse feti=streaming of a
clone boy****the gene-dub to the paradise apparatus of the human body pill
cruel emulator that compressed the abnormal living body of a
chemical=anthropoid-brain universe of the terror fear=cytoplasm that was
controlled the acidHUMANIX infectious disease of the soul/gram made of
retro-ADAM@trash sense of drug fetus feeling replicant of the hyperreal
HIV=scanner form tera of dogs were installed to the
reptilian=HUB_modem=heart that hung up non-resettable murder game (6)

From the dust jacket of BACTERIA=SYNDROME (2005).
Further Mutations 261

The use of seemingly random punctuation gives the text an “unedited”

feel, while the juxtaposition of body parts and biological codes (DNA,
nerve cells) with mechanical and technological matter
(ultra=machinery, ROM, scanner, modem) extends the “composite”
bodies present in Pélieu’s With Revolvers Aimed... to create
“mechanical animals”, human beings reduced to biological
components and integrated with machines. Thus, the “cyborg” and
“mutant” elements of Kathy Acker’s writings which are cited by
critics as belonging to the cyberpunk genre are taken a step further by
Siratori. And so, in using new technologies to produce cut-ups, the
splicing of text and the splicing of man and machine becomes truly
and wholly synergised.
Such synthesis is something Siratori sees as a complex
process, and when asked in a recent interview if this represents a
natural or unnatural evolution, replied, “Digital necrophilia… hybrid
corpse mechanism… guerrilla sex generation… to generate the digital
pagan nerve cells made of retro-ADAM… and to install the
data=mutant of HIV to the technojunkie’s parasite pituitary… so I
develop the hyperreal insanity of HUMANEXIT” (Campbell 2009).
But in such acts of “digital necrophilia,” whose corpse is being
fucked? There’s little question that Siratori’s texts implicitly follow
the popular and age-old sci-fi idea of the machines taking over and
humanity either under their control or otherwise running scared, but
his “writing” equally seems to suggest a new mode of manipulating
digital text – and manipulating text by digital means – as a device by
which to express and reflect, in a heightened fashion, the effects of
(post)modern living.
That many of his titles have been self-published is also
noteworthy. Just as new technologies facilitated the explosion of the
underground press in the 1960s, so the Internet has opened up a whole
new world of publishing possibilities. Digital e-zines and on-line
publishers are cropping up at an unprecedented rate, enabling authors
like Siratori who would be considered by most traditional publishers
as financially unviable to connect with a global readership. Siratori’s
use of such new technologies place him as a leader in a rapidly
developing shift away from conventional publishing channels and a
move toward the new “digital underground” as the medium of choice
for the dissemination of radical and non-commercial works of
literature. Could it be that there is a connection between these new
262 Shift Linguals

publishing technologies, the all-consuming nature of a technology-

based culture and society and a renewed interest in the production of
cut-ups? I would suggest there is not only a connection, but a direct
link, whereby one feeds the other.
Siratori is by no means alone in his exploitation of the Internet
and digital technologies for the production and dissemination of his
work. Australian-based digital cut-up practitioner Lee Kwo describes
himself as “an avatar” and, like Siratori, only “communicates” in his
own form of fragmented and radically punctuated narrative style. His
radical style of prose-poetry, sustained for the course of 665 pages in
his recent “hypertext” The Celibate Autopsy (2010), dispenses with
conventional narrative flow, grammar and punctuation, substituting
commas and full stops with an oblique.3
Meanwhile, the work of English poet Anthony Hitchin
demonstrates a more formal and overtly narrative approach to the
application of cut-ups. Nevertheless, despite the more “ordered”
appearance of his compositions, the methods by which he completes
the work is entirely digital. He explains his method thus: “I always use
a cut-up generator and execute the cut-up electronically. The
particular generator I use is located on-line and has four ‘windows’
through which various sources can be pasted in. The user can also
specify the word count of the cut. I began by cutting pre-existing
poems, also combining existing poems or fragments and verses from
pieces.” (Hitchin 2009: 32) Of course, this mode of production was
not possible in Burroughs’ day, and he produced his cut-ups wholly
manually, physically cutting the various texts, juxtaposing the
fragments of paper and typing the results. It could therefore be argued
that Hitchin – and Kwo, and Siratori – are only able to produce not
only the kind of writing they specialise in, but also the volume of
work that is, intentionally or otherwise, integral to their splatter-gun
approach because of the technology available now. Their work is not
only a product of the digital age in terms of contents, but in its very
But if automation is so central to the means of production, to
what extent can the current crop of cut-up practitioners be truly
considered “authors”? Burroughs’ detractors often cited the lack of

See Lee Kwo’s blog at (consulted 12
November 2010) and MySpace page at
(consulted 12 November 2010)
Further Mutations 263

authorial presence within his cut-up works as a significant obstacle to

their acceptance of his writing abilities, and Burroughs did at least
have to engage on a more obvious manual level than these
contemporary examples under scrutiny here. But this of course is a
central function of the cut-ups. Barthes’ theoretical “death of the
author” is rendered literal when the author is entirely removed from
the equation and the machines take over.
Siratori states that “My writing functions as a gene-dub on the
hardweb, nomad of nerve-cells circulates... to describe the emotion of
speed... and to perceive out of the brain... their sources pass our body-
encoder as data=mutant... while forming reptilian=HUB in the
pituitary”.4 Hitchin, perhaps rather more usefully, notes that
“obviously, cutting-up raises its own questions regarding identity, the
function/existence of the narrator and the nature of one’s ‘personality’,
I do find that my cut-up work has a distinct voice that is markedly
different from work produced without the cut-up method” (Hitchin
2009: 33). As such, we can see that a new generation of writers are
finding that the cut-up method is a useful tool for grappling with
questions of identity and narrative in the digital age. If anything, given
the fragmentation of information disseminated by means of the
Internet, and the pace with which it is circulated in a world in which
“virtual” identities can be constructed and dissolved instantaneously,
the cut-up is closer to our actual perception than ever.

The Future Leaks Out

Amongst the most remarkable features of the history of the cut-ups are
the diversity of ways the method has subsequently been applied, and
how the technique has evolved constantly since it was first
“discovered” by Gysin in 1959. Burroughs was aware of the
significance of his own groundbreaking work: “Once the breakthrough
is made, there is a permanent expansion of awareness, but there’s
always a reaction of rage, of outrage, at the first breakthrough”
(Lotringer 2001: 621). Yet, like the reaction to Cézanne’s first
Impressionist works which provoked the “rage” and “outrage” any
“radical” new mode of art can initially expect to incite, the cut-ups

Online at: (consulted 14 March
264 Shift Linguals

have become “part of the general awareness”.5 This becoming part of

the general awareness is clearly a factor in the continued application
of the cut-up method in contemporary literature, and, perhaps even
more significantly, in music in the late twentieth and early twenty-first
John Sutherland suggests that Burroughs was “a notoriously
hard writer for British readers to grasp or place, and for that reason
has never made the headway in this country that his publisher
originally hoped for” (1981: 50). But regardless of his publisher’s
hopes, Burroughs’ primary objective was not commercial success.
Burroughs’ concern was always to “spread the virus”, and to
revolutionise both writing and reading practices, as he explained:
I do definitely mean what I say to be taken literally, yes, to make people
aware of the true criminality of our times, to wise up the marks… I’m
concerned with the precise manipulation of word and image to create an
action, not to go out and buy a Coca-Cola, but to create an alteration in
the reader’s consciousness. (Lotringer 2001: 81)

Burroughs strove to raise awareness, to render alternative possibilities

apparent, and, above all, to educate readers. His statement that “the
time has come for the line between literature and science, a purely
arbitrary line, to be erased” (Gill 2004: 49) can easily be viewed as a
call for the advent of postmodern practices and the “even-handed
process” (Hutcheon 2002: 1) blending of “high” and “low” art and
cultures. In 1966, Burroughs predicted that in twenty-five years,
literature would see “more and more merging of art and science”
(Burroughs & Gysin 1978: 1). I have shown that since Burroughs and
Gysin first unveiled the cut-up technique, the “purely arbitrary” lines
between not only literature and science, but also fictional and factual
writing, theory and practice, and genre distinctions have been truly
erased. Of course, one by-product of the continual evolution of the
cut-ups is that a certain degree of dilution has occurred while the
principles have been modified to achieve a wider, more mainstream
audience. As such, Irvine Welsh’s use of intercut narratives in
Trainspotting (1993) and The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs

Jürgen Ploog. Interview with William S. Burroughs, from the film Commissioner of
Sewers (1986)
Further Mutations 265

(2006) are representative of adapted, comparatively accessible uses of

cut-and-paste developments of the cut-ups, in much the same way as
the ubiquity of sampling in chart music is. Richard H. Kirk believes
that this mainstream acceptance has reduced the power of the
technique as a means of attacking the control mechanisms embedded
within language and within society as a whole, and says that “cut-ups
have lost some of their potency through mainstream use, but as an
idea is still very valid.... I do believe by cutting up certain texts you
can read into the future to a certain extent” (Kopf 1988: 72). But of
course, through the continued developments I have traced during the
course of this study, the ends for which the cut-up method can be, and
have been, applied are now as diverse as the ways in which the
technique has been adapted and altered.
The history of cut-ups has been anything but straightforward,
and the directions that they have grown in throughout the second half
of the twentieth century and into the new millennium cannot be traced
along a single linear path. Indeed, as I have demonstrated, each
practitioner who has adopted the method has introduced something of
their own to it, and has adapted different aspects of the technique for
their own ends, whatever they may be. The examples I have provided
in this study are just that: examples. But through them I hope to have
made clear the fact that for almost every author who has made use of
Burroughs’ cut-up technique, there is a different variation on the
method. The diversity of applications and approaches to the use of
cut-ups is almost infinite. The indications are that as new writers and
polyartists discover the cut-up via different and divergent routes, the
new syntheses that are forged will continue to expand. Rather than the
history of cut-ups being in any way at a close, we can see that the
technique continues to evolve and to mutate, to continually undergo
both reinvention and renaissance. It is my belief that this will continue
for the foreseeable future, and far beyond. In short, it would be a fair
summation that the cut-ups are a microcosmic representation of the
avant-garde. Thus, far from reaching a point of stagnation or impasse,
the history of the cut-ups will continue to unravel, subject to continual
reinvention and the continual formation of new syntheses. With each
“rediscovery” and reinvention, further mutations are likely to be
introduced. In keeping with the avant-garde lineage to which the cut-
up technique belongs, it would seem to be a logical expectation for the
cut-ups to undergo a perpetual cycle of destruction and rebirth.
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Abstract art, 29 254, 260

Abstract writing, 29, 31, 43, 81, 83, Authorship, 2, 30, 43, 47, 62, 65, 109,
84, 160 121, 143, 144, 158, 59, 197,
Abstraction, 82, 158 201, 207, 209, 221, 223
Acker, Kathy, 3, 4, 18, 131, 149, 151- Author Function, 7, 27, 56, 57, 206,
197, 199, 207, 209, 210n, 211, 223
218, 219, 222, 225, 230, 232, Authority, 43, 48, 86, 128, 142, 152,
238, 241, 242-243, 250, 251, 167, 243, 250
253, 261 Automatic Writing, 6, 25, 77
and antagonism, 152, 164 Avant-bard, 205-206
biographical details, 151-153, Avant-garde, 4-5, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12-13,
160, 162 17-18, 22-23, 26, 38, 42, 47, 65,
and censorship, 167, 188 67, 68, 70, 83, 152, 153, 156,
critical reception, 164-165 163, 165, 182, 202-205, 213-
and identity, 153n, 163-164 214, 216, 223, 226, 237, 249,
influences, 151, 153, 155-156, 251, 252-253, 260, 265
181-182 Ballard, J.G., 70
and plagiarism, 153-154, 157- Balch, Anthony, 58, 63-65, 99, 125,
160, 163, 170, 180-181, 191, 161
193, 196 Barthes, Roland, 11, 15, 38, 40, 100-
and tattoos, 190 101, 243, 263
Ah Pook is Here (Burroughs), 116, Beach, Mary, 70, 74, 75, 76, 106
121, 125-126, 127, 130, 145 Beach Books, Text and Documents,
Allen, Richard, 200, 205, 218-220, 70, 73, 75
223-224, 226 Beat Generation, 1, 2, 22, 27, 71, 76,
Anti-Oedipus, 168-169 88, 91, 159, 204
Antin, David, 163 Beckett, Samuel, 4, 208, 240
Anti-novel, 208, 228, 229, 238, 243 Beiles, Sinclair, 27-28, 47, 70, 234
Appropriation, 13-14, 95, 108, 156, Belle de Jour, 201, 246
160, 162, 163, 165, 175, 183, Bergson, Henri, 219
184, 189, 195, 198, 205, 210, Bible, the, 26, 27, 40
213-214, 216, 219-220, 226, Bible code, 41
227, 233, 238-240, 246, 261 Bill and Tony (film), 63-65, 99, 125,
Artaud, Antonin, 160, 184-185, 260 144, 161
Art Strike, 205, 207, 211, 245 Black, Jack, 133n
Ashbery, John, 94 Black Mountain poets, 153
Audio, 9, 10, 30, 31, 32, 59, 63-64, Black Tarantula, 152, 153n, 154, 160,
100, 117, 199, 205-6, 233-235, 161, 163, 170, 238, 243
282 Shift Linguals

Blade Runner (Burroughs), 131 Breton, André, 6, 72n

Blissett, Luther, 201 Byatt, AS, 16
Blood and Guts in High School Byrne, David, 90n
(Acker), 151, 153, 154, 164-183,
187, 211, 241, 243 Cabaret Voltaire (band), 90n
Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie Cage, John, 9-11, 14, 22, 64
(Home), 200, 201n, 245, 246 Campbell, James, 2, 90n,
Bloom, Harold, 16, 168, 211, 224, Cantsin, Monty, 201
233 Capitalism, 68, 69, 170, 171, 205,
Blow Job (Home), 200n, 211, 214n, 207, 229, 230, 232, 245,
217, 220, 221, 226n 253, 255
Book of Breeething (Burroughs), Carter, Angela, 3, 16, 187n
Bowles, Paul, 166n, 180 Cervantes, Miguel, 160, 196
Break Through in Grey Room, 41n, Cézanne, Paul, 12, 263
138n Chaotic Dischord (band), 200n
Bricolage, 13, 214, 221, 222 Character, 8, 25, 35, 37, 44, 55, 56,
Bukowski, Charles, 70, 105 65, 77, 78, 80, 81-84, 85, 87-89,
Bürger, Peter, 12, 42, 211-212, 213, 107, 110, 119, 128, 131, 133n,
216 136, 141, 143-144, 145, 153n,
Burroughs, William S., ix, 159, 161, 162, 165, 166, 169,
1-10,16-19, 21-22, 31-32, 33- 170, 171, 173, 181, 184, 185,
65, 71-72, 78-79, 90-91, 121- 186, 192, 193, 194, 195, 215,
149, 254, 233-234, 238-240, 224, 228-231, 233, 239, 242,
254 and throughout 243, 260
abandonment of cut-ups, 122, Charters, Ann, 90n
124,132, 145, 149 Cities of the Red Night (Burroughs),
and authorship, 30, 38, 262-236 122, 129, 130-147, 175, 190-
(auto)biography, 195 191
and censorship, 37n Cliché, 26, 128, 137, 193, 214-219,
and collaboration, 1, 27, 28-30, 244
38, 43, 49, 58, 63, 72n, 73, 78n, Cobain, Kurt, 78n
85, 91, 105, 106-107, 125-126, Corso, Gregory, 2, 27, 28
critical response to, 2-3, 4-5, 6, Cold War, 61
16-17, 33, 34, 37, 42, 45-46, Collage, 2, 6, 7, 9, 10, 24, 26, 29, 38,
122-123, 130 57, 59, 63, 73n, 75, 80, 96, 113,
and dreams, 131-132 114-116, 117, 125, 151, 158,
on evolution, 36, 40n, 79, 164, 165, 169, 173, 174, 178,
films of, 63-65, 99, 125, 144, 161 190, 210, 211, 223, 238, 241,
influence of, 2-3, 13, 65, 94, 152, 243, 244, 255, 257, 259
155-156, 182 Come Before Christ and Murder Love
phases of career, 33-34, 121-122 (Home), 201, 221, 226-232, 236,
and politics, 5, 52, 61, 72, 128- 241
129, 141, 156, 178 Concrete Poetry, 83, 160
revolutionary intent, 8, 29, 36-37, Control, 27, 29, 32, 36, 38, 40, 43, 44,
43, 67, 71, 135, 251, 264 45, 47-50, 61, 69, 71, 77, 79,
theories of, 27, 38-41, 44, 45, 48- 85-86, 87-88, 101, 105, 108,
49, 51, 79, 101, 134, 147-148 111, 113, 116, 118, 126, 128,
Butler, Samuel, 140 129n, 134, 135, 138, 152, 155,
Index 283

174, 175, 176, 178-179, 184- Di Prima, Diane, 70

185, 189, 206, 210-211, 228- Don Quixote (Acker), 158-159, 196
229, 230, 251, 253, 261, 265 Dos Passos, John, 6, 241, 259
see also language control Dreams, 40, 55, 56, 57, 64, 108, 131,
Copyright, 2, 27, 142n, 143, 158, 159, 139, 144, 154, 155, 165, 185,
210, 221-222 187, 188-189, 242, 254
Cortinas (band), 200n Drop-in Method, 133
Counterscript, 79, 80n, 99, 110, 122, Dr Sax (Kerouac), 87
144 Dual narrative, 95, 97, 99-101, 144
Crowley, Aleister, 208, 231, 232 Duchamp, Marcel, 7-8, 9, 10, 41-42,
Cunt (Home), 221, 223 74, 76, 213, 214, 218
Cut-Ups, development of, 1, 3, 4, 7, Dunne, John, 55
12, 22, 30, 74, 82-83, 89, 98,
99, 116, 119, 120, 121, 128, Eagleton, Terry, 13, 14, 69, 175, 214,
129, 132, 133, 135, 141, 151, 216, 219, 243, 252, 254
161, 170, 172, 206, 218, 220, Editing, 57, 63, 86, 92, 116, 123, 125,
232, 247, 253, 258, 265 127, 132, 160, 166, 171, 182,
digital, see digital cut-ups 185, 192, 195, 196, 202, 219,
digital vs. manual, 206 232, 258, 261
discovery of, 1, 24, 36, 58 Einstürzende Neubauten (band), 23n
editing of, 24, 92, 122-124 Electronic Revolution (Burroughs),
in other languages, 70, 123 118, 235, 254, 258
meanings in, 24-27, 47, 52, 73, Eliot, Karen, 201, 214
123, 124, 157, 178, 224, 233, Eliot, T.S., 4, 6, 22, 52-54, 149, 236
253 Ellipsis, 46, 83, 144, 158, 245
translating, 123 Empire of the Senseless (Acker), 154,
uses of, 25-26, 41, 47, 49, 51-52, 179, 183, 190
54, 85, 175, 210, 224, 252, 253 Ernst, Max, 74
variations of, 98, see also drop-in EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon),
method, fold-ins, inching 59-61
Cyberpunk, 3, 185-186, 188, 264, 265 Ferlinghetti, Lawrence, 70, 72, 75,
Dada, 6-7, 9, 11, 23, 42, 51, 76, 214, Film, 5, 14, 23, 32, 37, 38, 44, 49,
253 61n, 62-65, 99, 109, 110, 111,
Death in June (band), 229-230 113, 116, 117, 120, 125, 127,
Death of the Author, 11, 15, 38, 102, 128, 129, 134, 161, 171, 184,
246, 266 199, 240, 241, 254
Deconstruction, 17, 40, 158, 209, Flamin’ Groovies (band), 200n
212, 217, 219 Flicker, 117
Defoe, Daniel, 138, 139, 140, 141, Fluxus, 23, 226
142, 239 Fold-ins, 33, 43, 44, 45, 48, 55, 61,
Deleuze, Gilles, 168-170, 182, 229 81, 110, 124, 145, 233
Détornement, 212-213 Found sound, 10, 59, 262
Dial-a-Poet, 90 Found text, 3, 92-93, 95, 99, 121,
Dickens, Charles, 159, 160 257, 263
Digital cut-ups, 2, 205-206, 237, 259, Foucault, Michel, 7, 16, 40, 170, 171,
262 213
284 Shift Linguals

Freud, Sigmund, 88n, 168, 169, 189n Hassan, Ihab, 46

Fruit Cup, 70, 106, 109 Hegel, Georg, 203, 223, 224, 225,
Fukuyama, Francis, 186 226
Hendrix, Jimi, 245
Gang of Four (band), 14 Hell, Richard, 90n
Gatewood, Charles, 121 Herman, Jan, x, 18n, 70, 72n, 75, 76,
Genet, Jean, 160, 167, 179-182, 196 124
Genre fiction, 5, 14, 16, 33, 39, 54, Hill, Napoleon, 29
131, 132-133, 136, 142, 183- History, formation of, 16, 18, 32, 51,
184, 185, 186, 191, 192, 193, 80, 86, 87, 112-113, 128-129,
205, 211, 214, 215, 217, 236, 130, 133, 135-136, 137-139,
261, 264 141, 143, 145, 146, 149, 157,
Gibson, William, 3, 183 185, 192, 203, 213, 214, 225,
Gill, Ranjeet, 5, 47, 199, 264 241, 242, 259
Ginsberg, Allen, 2, 34, 35n, 53n, 54, History, as myth, 33, 86, 87, 111,
67, 70, 71, 72, 74, 75, 90, 93, 128, 133, 134, 135, 138, 183,
104, 106, 146n, 159 185, 226
Giorno, John, 4, 65, 74, 91-106, 121, Hitchin, Antony, 262-263
208 Home, Stewart, x, 4, 6, 23, 149, 199-
and music, 99, 103-104, 119 247, 249, 251, 252, 253, 258-
and pornography, 91-92, 93, 94 259
simultaneous narratives, 95, 97, (auto)biography, 201-202, 207,
99-101 225, 239, 240-241, 242-243
Giorno Poetry Systems, 91, 92, 121 and capitalism, 203, 205, 228,
Grauerholz, James, xi, 5, 120n, 132 229, 230, 243
Great Expectations (Acker), 158-159, and genre fiction, 200, 205, 208,
164, 196, 238 211, 214-215, 217-218, 236
Greene, Graham, 132-133 influences, 219, 223-225
Guattari, Félix, 170, 171, 184 intertextuality, 200, 212, 222,
Gysin, Brion, 1, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 18, 223, 225, 228, 231, 239
21-33, 40, 41, 43, 44, 45, 52, multiple identity projects, 201
57, 62, 63, 64, 73, 74, 76, 77, and occultism, 204, 226-227, 231
80, 84, 85, 86, 90, 91, 92, 95, and plagiarism, 199, 207, 209-
99, 100, 104, 108, 110, 111, 210, 211, 216, 220-222, 231,
126, 131, 149-150, 155, 160, 232
162, 166, 174, 176, 177, 180, and politics, 210, 211, 219, 224,
191, 198, 203, 208, 211, 212, 229, 230
224, 233, 236, 251, 259, 260- and repetition, 200, 209, 215,
261, 264, 266, 267 216-221, 227-228, 231, 236-
derangement of the senses, 23, 237
99, 260 Huelsenbeck, Richard, 23
permutational poems, 30-31, 50, Hutcheon, Linda, 13, 16-17, 87, 90,
55, 58, 175 113-114, 118, 120-121, 130,
as polyartist, 21 252, 254, 267
and Surrealism, 22-23
Identity, 65, 90, 109, 144, 151-152,
Hamlet, 206, 232, 233, 234-235 153, 157, 158, 160, 161, 169-
Harris, Oliver, ix, 67, 71, 72n 170, 182, 191, 197, 201, 214,
Index 285

229, 242, 263 Kwo, Lee, 265

Images, 2, 5, 9, 22, 23, 24, 25-26, 27, Lacan, 188-189
28, 29, 32, 37, 40, 43, 47, 50, Laing, R.D., 241
53-54, 55, 56, 57, 60, 63-64, 77, Language control, 32, 40, 43, 44, 45,
78, 79, 82, 86, 91, 93, 94, 98, 56, 67, 77, 116, 179, 230
101, 107, 108, 109, 111, 116, Language Poetry, 3
117, 118-119, 125, 126, 129, Last Words of Dutch Schultz
144, 156, 158, 169, 174, 178, (Burroughs), 99, 121, 127-128,
182, 190, 210, 220, 260, 264 131, 171
Impressionism, 12, 263 Lautréamont, Le Comte de, 6, 51,
Inching technique, 28 72n, 253
Industrial music, 130n Linearity, 31, 35, 54, 80, 89, 91, 92,
Industrial Records, 62 130, 144, 156, 160, 172, 173,
Industrialisation of writing, 259 195, 227, 240, 242, 260, 265
Influence, 2-3, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15-16, Litchenstein, Roy, 70
21, 33, 37, 43, 59, 61, 65, 74, Literary criticism, 2, 4, 7, 16, 34, 46,
91, 93, 94, 118n, 128, 134, 151, 68-69, 80, 91, 112, 125, 130,
153, 155-156, 158, 168, 180, 164, 186, 203, 208, 222, 226,
181-182, 208, 215n, 223, 224, 227, 235, 236, 261
245, 254 Lodge, David, 46
Internet, 2, 186, 204, 224, 235, 246, Lord Jim, 232
264-266 Lovecraft, H.P., 223
Intertextuality, 5-6, 14, 15-16, 53, 98, Lunch, Lydia, 90n
107, 117-118, 141, 196, 200, Lydenberg, Robin, 2, 5, 17, 22, 26-
212, 217, 222, 223, 225, 228, 27, 33, 34-35, 37, 39, 40, 42,
231, 239 44, 45-46, 55, 62, 85, 124, 126,
127, 132
Jagger, Mick, 254 Lyotard, Jean-François, 14-15, 228,
Jameson, Frederic, 4, 13-14, 15, 16, 252
69, 161, 215, 218, 219, 252,
253, 94 MacLean, Alistair, 110
Janco, Marcel, 23 Magazines, 7n, 16, 18n, 24, 44, 67-
Johns, Jasper, 91 70, 72, 75n, 87, 98, 101, 106,
Jong, Erica, 173 109, 115, 153, 202, 209, 255
Joyce, James, 4, 5, 72n, 235n Magnanti, Brooke, 201, 246 see also
Juxtaposition, 9, 17, 25, 27, 38, 40, Belle de Jour
27, 50, 56, 59, 63, 73, 76-77, Mail Art, 152, 153, 226
86, 88, 95, 98, 107, 111, 140- Mantra, 104
141, 142, 145, 156, 164, 174, Marx, Karl, 83, 223
210, 218, 219, 222, 223, 234- Marxism, 101, 102n, 204, 226
235, 236, 240, 241, 242, 244, Mass media, 5, 43, 48, 54, 69, 73, 77,
259, 261, 262 78-79, 86, 87, 101, 102n, 107,
108, 109, 110-112, 113, 116,
Kerouac, Jack, 34, 87, 88, 106, 157, 118-120, 125, 128, 210, 251,
158 254
Klactoveedsedsteen, 70, 106 McLuhan, Marshall, 12, 111n, 112,
Kristeva, Julia, 175 118, 176, 212
Kulchur, 67 McClure, Michael, 70, 71, 72n
286 Shift Linguals

Medical journals, 85, 107 153, 156, 157, 158, 160, 162,
Meditation, 104 163, 164-165, 169-176, 178,
Mekons, The (band), 193 179, 180, 181, 183, 184, 186-
Meta-narrative, 14 188, 189, 190-191, 192, 194-
Metzger, Gustav, 203 195, 196, 197, 203, 208, 216,
Miles, Barry, 2, 21, 134, 138, 150n 218-219, 220, 221, 227, 228-
Miller, Henry, 106, 173n 229, 230, 231, 232, 234, 236,
Minutes to Go, 7n, 24, 25, 27, 29, 34, 238, 240, 242, 243-247, 251-
41, 47, 49, 73, 74, 93, 94n, 123, 252, 256, 259, 262, 263, 264,
158, 209, 234, 257 265, 266, 267-268
Modernism, 5, 69, 212, 213, 221 Neil, Malcolm, 125
Montage, 1, 10, 21, 23, 32, 36, 37, 57, Neoism, 204-205, 206, 207, 216,
97, 117, 124, 131, 156, 166, 219n, 227, 239
170, 171, 184, 189, 220 Newspapers, 1, 7, 24, 29, 37, 43, 46,
Morgan, Ted, 2, 33, 90n, 92, 145 56, 71n, 73, 85, 87, 95, 98, 100,
Multimedia, 22, 23, 62, 70, 115, 120, 101, 107, 109, 110, 115, 116,
126, 154, 164, 165, 199, 210 225, 257, 260
Murphy, Timothy S., 2, 5, 33, 44, 45, Nihilism, 8, 12, 41, 42
48, 50, 54, 64, 122, 124, 128, Nine Nine Nine (band), 200n
129, 130n, 133, 141, 189, 254 Nothing Here Now But the
Mutation, 16, 33, 35-36, 38-39, 53, Recordings, 62
79, 80, 102, 109, 121, 136, Nova Trilogy (Burroughs), 1, 29, 33-
137, 145, 147, 148, 149-150, 34, 44-54, 79, 84, 85, 86, 87,
151, 257, 259, 268 88, 90, 108, 109, 117, 118, 121,
Mustill, Norman Ogue, 70, 75 122, 128, 130, 131, 134, 145,
My Own Mag, 67, 106 149, 157, 165, 171, 210, 220,
Mythology, 33, 45, 133, 134, 138, 225, 231, 233n, 234, 239, 242,
147, 187, 190, 192, 195, 214, 258
225 Novel, conventions of, 36, 37, 57,
111, 119, 172, 173, 242
Naked Lunch (Burroughs), 34-38, 39, Nuttall, Jeff, 70
40, 44, 48, 80, 92, 93, 106, 107,
109, 144, 145, 146, 151, 165, Oedipal myth, 168-169, 241
166, 167, 171, 180n, 220, 225 O’Gallagher, Liam, 72-73
censorship of, 37, 167 Originality, 7, 11, 13, 16, 159, 196,
satire in, 37 207, 212, 213-217, 224-225,
structure of, 34-35, 38 252, 257
Naked Scientology (Burroughs), 129n Orridge, Genesis P., 53, 62n, 260,
Narcotics, 51-52, 68 261 see also Psychic TV,
Narcotization, 102n Throbbing Gristle
Narrative, 13, 15, 22, 25, 28, 30, 31, Ownership, 7, 27, 65, 109, 152, 158-
33, 35, 36, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46- 159, 209, 210, 221
47, 51, 53, 54, 56, 57, 63, 64,
67, 80, 81, 83, 85, 86, 87, 88, Painting, 1, 4, 21, 23, 24, 28-29, 37,
89, 90-91, 93, 96, 98, 99, 100- 57, 63, 139, 195, 209, 218
102, 112, 113-115, 121, 123, Parody, 14, 45, 163, 173, 199, 204,
126, 129, 131-132, 133-138, 205, 211, 214, 215, 217, 218,
139, 143, 145, 146-147, 148, 236
Index 287

Pastiche 13-14, 165, 193, 199, 201, 229, 241, 243, 249-253, 264
202, 210, 213, 238 Postmodern Condition, see Lyotard,
Pélieu, Claude, 3, 4, 65, 70, 72, 73, Jean-François
74-91, 92, 99, 100, 106, 107, Pound, Ezra, 12
108, 110, 121, 124, 159, 160, Preconditioning, 26, 42-43, 55, 60, 87
163, 224 Prerecordings, 60-61, 64, 105, 133-
Penzel, Matthias, x, 124, 125 134
Perception, 11, 15, 22, 56, 57, 65, Prophecy / predicting the future, 41,
128, 195, 250, 254, 263 55, 60, 129, 138, 253, 265
Perec, Georges, 206n Pseudoscience, 39, 41, 118
Permutational poetry, 30-31, 50, 55, Psychic TV (band), 90n
58, 63, 72n, 101, 102-103, 175, Psychogeography, 204n
200, 209 Pulp fiction, 14, 117, 202, 207, 210,
Pictorial communication, 121, 126, 213, 214, 216, 218, 221-
174, 176, 190 222, 225, 228, 257
Pirates, 133, 134, 135, 137-140, 142, Punctuation, 46, 83, 144, 158, 245
143-144, 145, 147, 153, 186, Punk rock, 14, 184, 199, 200, 208,
187-188, 191-193, 196 211, 212, 226
Plagiarism, 2, 11, 43, 62, 110, 132, Pussy, King of the Pirates (Acker),
145, 153, 155, 156, 158, 160- 151, 154, 184-196
163, 165, 182-183, 192-193, Pyncheon, Thomas, 16
195-196, 198-199, 201, 209,
211-213, 217, 223-224, 226, Quinn, Ann, 238
233, 261
Ploog, Jürgen, x, 18, 124-126 Raudive, Konstantin, 59-61, 105
Plot, 8, 44-47, 56, 80-81, 85, 91, 112, Rawle, Graham, 255-257, 259
125, 133-134, 136, 138, 145, Réage, Pauline, 186
148, 164, 168-169, 174, 175, Red Night Trilogy (Burroughs), 13,
186, 190, 194, 207, 216, 219, 121, 129, 130-148, 175, 190,
221-222, 225, 230, 231, 238, 191, 227
240, 248, 262, 263 Reed, Lou, 254
Plymell, Charles, 70, 75, 107, 121n REM (band), 254
Poggioli, Renato, 8, 12, 254 Repetition, 44, 55-56, 60, 62, 97,
Politics, 5, 52, 61, 68, 69, 72, 102n, 101-102, 104-105, 141, 157,
128, 129, 140, 141, 156, 178, 175, 200, 209, 215-221, 227,
191n, 210, 211, 219, 222, 224, 228, 231, 236-237, 239, 258
225, 229-230 Rimbaud, Arthur, 4, 26, 27, 28-29,
Politics (Acker), 152, 153, 154, 155, 50, 109, 233n, 234, 244
156 Robbe-Grillet, Alain, 206, 220, 237
Pollock, Jackson, 221 Robbins, Harold, 170n
Pornography, 92, 94, 95, 109, 156, Rollins Band, 90n
64, 165, 214, 227 Roeg, Nicholas, 254
Posthumanism, 184, 186, 192 “Routine”, 35, 47, 80, 134
Postmodernism, 4-6, 7, 12, 13-17, 22, Rushdie, Salman, 16
37-38, 54, 69, 86, 101, 117,
151, 154, 159, 163, 169, 173, Sabbah, Hassan i, 51
182-183, 195, 196-197, 199, Sade, Marquis de, 161, 223
212-217, 223, 224, 226, 227, Sahib, Hassan i, 50, 51
288 Shift Linguals

Sampling, 53, 62, 195, 199, 239, 240, 57, 100, 101, 106, 112, 133,
257, 261, 262, 268 191, 256
San Francisco Earthquake Magazine, Surrealism, 4, 6, 9, 22, 24, 25, 76-77,
70, 72-73, 75n, 106, 109 160, 205, 215, 232, 238, 244,
Sartre, Jean-Paul, 206 263, 264
Schwitters, Kurt, 74 Swift, Jonathan, 37
Science Fiction, 33, 37, 50, 54, 107, Synaesthesia, 87
131, 132, 133, 145, 182, 183, Synthesis, 142, 144, 227, 249, 253,
242 261
Scientific methodology, 41, 61
Scientology, 129 Tainted Love (Home), 200, 202, 208,
Schizophrenia, 88, 161, 169, 229, 230 237, 240-242, 246
Scratching, 261 Talking Heads (band), 14 see also
Script, 109, 110, 113, 127-128, 170- David Byrne
171, 192, 194, 241 Tangier, 165, 179-180
Sequentiality, 25, 31, 37, 56, 57, 80, Tape recorder / tape recordings, 11,
111, 119, 130, 131, 155, 172, 31, 32, 58-60, 61, 64, 90, 91-92,
182, 188, 189, 192, 206, 220, 107, 110, 112-113, 135, 157,
227, 242 208, 237, 239, 242, 246, 256,
Shakespeare, William, 26, 28, 50, 260-262
206, 232-234, 244 Technology, 2, 67, 69, 77, 104, 110,
Sham 69 (band), 200n 111, 128, 140, 142, 183, 186,
Simultaneity, 23, 57, 64, 83-84, 95, 200, 206, 222-223, 235, 237,
97, 99, 100, 130, 131, 132, 206, 244, 245, 253, 258-259, 261-
227 262
Sinclair, Iain, 3 Theory / Practice, ix, 4, 31, 44, 51,
Siratori, Kenji, 259-262, 263 104n, 108, 111, 175, 222
Situationism, 204, 205, 209, 212-213, The Third Mind (Burroughs), 6, 7n,
217, 223 29-30, 31, 32, 34, 41, 42n, 45n,
Skerl, Jennie, 4, 17, 34-35, 37, 38, 40, 73, 94, 114, 151, 152, 153, 157,
42, 44, 45-46, 62, 124, 126, 127 165, 196, 209, 211, 221
Slaughter and the Dogs (band), 200n Thirlwell, Jim, 90n
Slow Death (Home), 200, 211, 214- Throbbing Gristle (band), 261
226, 228, 231 Totalization, 112-113, 117
Smile Magazine, 202, 209-211 Treasure Island, 193
Smith, Patti, 90n, 254 Trocchi, Alexander, 161-163, 202
Sonic Youth (band), 90n Tzara, Tristan, 5, 6-8, 9, 22, 23, 51,
So Who Owns Death TV?, 72n, 73, 77
74, 75, 76, 77, 85, 105, 106,
239 Underground Press, 16, 17, 67-72,
Space travel, 132, 146-149 107, 121, 212
Spamoetry, 246 UPS (Underground Press Syndicate),
Spillane, Mickey, 215n, 223 69, 210
Star Wars (space program), 147 Utopia / utopianism, 136, 137, 139,
Stevenson, Robert Louis, 193 140, 192, 196, 204
Stoker, Bram, 223
Stream of consciousness, 5 Van Sant, Gus, 254
Subconscious, 22, 25, 40, 54, 55, 56, Vassett, Philippe, 262-263
Index 289

Vibrators, The (band), 200n 166n, 178

Virus (word / language as), 27, 38-39, Whitehouse (band), 200n
45, 48, 49, 51, 54, 79, 84, 101, White Noise (film), 61n
108, 134, 147-148 Wild Boys, The (Burroughs), 13, 121,
124, 128, 129-130, 131, 138,
Waits, Tom, 254 39, 140, 141, 143, 157, 171,
Warhol, Andy, 76, 91, 94 194
Ward, Geoff, 2-3, 33, 65, 133n utopianism in, 130, 138, 140
Weissner, Carl, x, 3, 4, 18n, 65, 70, Williams, William Carlos, 241, 259
72, 73, 74, 75n, 91, 98, 99, Writing Machines, 50, 246, 255, 262,
105-120, 122, 123n, 157, 158, 266
174, 210, 222, 232, 257, 259
Welsh, Irvine, 3, 264-265 Yugen, 67
Western Lands, The (Burroughs),
121, 132, 142, 149 Zappa, Frank, 90n
White Subway (Burroughs), 165,