Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The origin of the cut up method

Of William S. Burroughs. The cut up method consists of taking a piece of writing, either your own or someone elses, like a newspaper story for example, physically cutting it up into small pieces, then reassembling it in a random way so that it says something different than what it originally said. It's something where the result is a thing that you couldn't predict when you started out, and that you couldn't predict by the original meaning of whatever you used. So it essentially creates something new that people aren't intentionally responsible for. It doesn't lead to complete and total incoherence, like some might think, but to strange phrases that are semi-understandable and others that have more of a meaning attached to them. Modern literature and poetry has contributed a lot to this sort of sense making, especially the stream of consciousness writers.

The origin, as Burroughs always said, was in painting, and the specific part of painting that it came from was the collage of the surrealists. Of these people, Max Ernst was the pre-eminent collage artist, creating works that didn't use collage to communicate aspects of literal painting that couldn't be normally expressed, like Picasso did, but that used found images combined in strange juxtapositions on an equally improper background in order to create a new meaning. The new meaning was produced by the mind trying to come to terms with what all of this that normally didn't go together could mean. Ernst, in his book "Beyond Painting", available in college libraries everywhere, explicitly talks about collage in the same way that Burroughs does, saying that collage is meant to produce something irrational that hasn't existed on the normal plane of meaning before, with the implication that doing this would lead to new truths being discovered.

Brion Gysin, the person that Burroughs collaborated with and who he said taught him the cut up method, had been a member of the actual Surrealist group in Paris, and probably got the idea from people who knew and talked about Ernst.

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