William S. Burroughs' cut-up technique

According to Burroughs and Gysin, the power of language was the thing. There was something queer, indeed, about the capacity of any language to channel all manner of patterns and directives that had nothing, essentially, to do with the words that comprised that language.

A virus has unleashed itself. It is everywhere. It has spread at an accelerating pace. Even as I write, it continues to lurk. It has killed, with murderous, precise, and prolonged intent, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people. It has touched the lives and deaths of everyone. It is intelligent. It is a machine of sorts. The shear scope of the virus is well known by the experts. But even the experts, at this time, remain uncertain as to its multifarious mechanism. And needless to say, neither the scope of the virus nor its logic of contagion have been effectively considered by those in power. Which is to say that there is much to be written regarding the history of these viral times. But to recount the longue durée of infection is no easy task—all those pathways of transmission that have been laid down for centuries, all those sites of pathogenic encounter that have slipped epidemiological notice. How, then, to even begin to measure the cosmic toll that this virus has taken?

In 1945 an aspiring artist from Canada, Brion Gysin, met the parapsychologist and occult publisher Eileen Garrett at a party in NYC. Gysinhad just completed six weeks of training with the Canadian Infantry Corps at Chatham, Ontario where he had met a paratrooper named Cleland “Tex” Henson. Henson, as it turned out, was the great-grandson of the Reverend Josiah Henson. Rev. Henson’s autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (1849), was close at-hand as Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).

Upon hearing Gysin’s story of an abolitionist Methodist minister who escaped slavery, was part of the Underground Railroad, and led a black militia unity during the Canadian Rebellion of 1837, Garrett offered him an advance of $1000 for a book on the real Uncle Tom. According to Gysin, “Uncle Tom in fiction was the perfect type of the Negro whom the white folks were willing to free as long as he retained all the characteristics of his former servitude.” Gysin looked to the archive and to Henson’s own writings in order to challenge what he saw as Stowe’s literary, economic, and political exploitation of Henson’s story.[1]

According to Gysin, Uncle Tom’s Cabin threatened to “condemn to obscurity, the human counterpart from which it had sprung.” The fictions of Josiah Henson, in other words, had been used against him. And they had assumed viable and criminal force over time. In addressing the historical “pattern of segregation” and “its attendant evils,” Gysin framed the violence visited upon Henson and other African Americans as a religio-political system, multivalent in its reach. “Force is used every day in one form or another,” wrote Gysin, “by those who wish to ensure that the lines continue to be drawn according to race.” With hints of clericalism and totalitarianism, Gysin pointed out a racialized regime of control that was utilizing the “age-old technique of divide and conquer.”

Words, according to Gysin, were the ends and means of this organized violence. Words were divisive through and through. Without words to aid and abet, racial difference failed to be persuasive. Gysin was at pains to explain this to his reader and, consigned, tragically perhaps, to use words against themselves. Given that the “old methods of subjugation will continue to work if they are not understood,” Gysin called attention to the characterizations and subplots that animated systematic racism.  In To Master—A Long Goodnight, Gysin argued that the categorical formations of slavery persisted long after Emancipation. Indeed, a “control” system presently existed that did not dissipate after the Civil War but had taken hold in the aesthetic structures of the world—language, first and foremost. The codes of slavery, in turn, had been internalized by the industrial north in the twentieth century and taken up residence in the thoughts and habits of the entire nation.[2]

In 1949 Gysin won a Fulbright Fellowship to travel to France and Spain to continue his investigation into the formation of laws of the Anglo-American slave trade.[3] Gysin soon abandoned the project, however, and moved to Tangier, Morocco where he wrote, painted and became the owner of a restaurant, The 1001 Nights. It was in Tangier that Gysin first met William S. Burroughs, a then relatively unknown writer living off a stipend from his St. Louis family. In 1958 they left Tangier and took up residence at a flophouse in Paris (the infamous “Beat Hotel” at 9 rue Gît-le-Coeur). As Burroughs collated the pages of Naked Lunch (1959) for publication, he and Gysin began collaborating, in earnest, on projects that “cut-up” established patterns of consciousness and language.

Calling on their readers to move beyond scripted modes of attention, Burroughs and Gysin were committed to sharing the good news:

we have come to let you out . . .

Pick a book any book cut it up
cut up
the bible
the koran
the book of moroni
the bhagavad gita
business correspondences

all the words
slice down the middle dice into sections
according to taste
chop in some bible pour on some Madison Avenue
shuffle like cards toss like confetti
taste it like piping hot alphabet soup….
you will soon see just what they really are
saying this is the terminal method for
finding the truth.[4]

As conceived by Gysin and Burroughs, the cut-up method was a critical performance that owed much to the burgeoning currency of cybernetics and neurophysiology at mid-century. 

The cut-ups took the paradigm of information theory and, specifically, Claude Shannon’s premise that the “semantic aspects of communication [were] irrelevant to the engineering problem,” to their logical conclusion. Burroughs, for example, insisted that the “cut-up” method revealed the author and reader to be elaborate communication channels that dealt not in meaning-making but rather in the selection of messages to code and decode, to transmit and receive.[5]  

According to Burroughs and Gysin, the power of language was the thing. There was something queer, indeed, about the capacity of any language to channel all manner of patterns and directives that had nothing, essentially, to do with the words that comprised that language. The cut-up experiments, in laying bear that words carry with them all manner of affordances and occult demands, aspired to disrupt the processing capacities of the reader in order to reveal that which exceed the words on the page. “Word-lock[s] of static intention,” they argued, were material manifestations of a power that was not strictly human. 

Burroughs’ encounter with the science of Virology had fueled his evolving imagination of systematic control. While viruses had first became visible to scientists in the 1930s, in the 1950s new technologies developed that allowed for cellular dissection and vitalist explanations gave way to models drawn from the sciences of communication. The reproduction of a virus was newly conceived of as a transfer of information, that is, as an integration into its host organism at the level of systematic self-organization. A virus, like Burroughs’s notion of language, made its way in. It was both alive and not, an aggressive yet still formal proposition.[6]As Burroughs would later write, “Words that cut like buzz saws. Words that vibrate the entrails to jelly. Cold strange words that fall like icy nets on the mind. Virus words that eat the brain to muttering shreds.”[7]

In 1959, Gysin introduced Burroughs to the linguistic theories of L. Ron Hubbard. Burroughs’ interest in Dianetics and Scientology intensified beginning in 1963 and would culminate in Burroughs becoming Clear #1163 in 1968. Burroughs was attracted to Hubbard’s focus on how representations—linguistic, visual, and mental—became biological sources of unhappiness, illness, madness, and death. From the beginning, Hubbard wrote in a self-conscious cybernetic script, addressing with therapeutic intent, the “computational ability of the individual” and the problems of being compromised by “incorrect data.”[8]

In foregrounding “circuit pathways to show the flow of signals and messages” to be processed, Hubbard claimed that the brain was divided not in terms of consciousness and the unconscious but rather in terms of its analytic and reactive dimensions. 

At one level there was the “analytical mind,” which “behaves like a computing machine, yet [was] more fantastically capable than any computing machine ever constructed and infinitely more elaborate.” This part of the mind was “arranged to analyze each situation in the light of available data and to determine and direct the next acts of the Organism so as best to enable the individual, his progeny, associates, and environment to survive.”[9]

The Reactive Mind, by contrast, was bent on self-destruction. Imbued as it was with a flawed operating system, it corrupted the analytic mind with unprocessed information stored at the cellular level. This was due to the fact that the Reactive Mind was the site where “engrams” were recorded and stored. Having entered “from the exterior world into the hidden recesses below rational thinking,” an engram was “information unappraised by [the] conscious mind” that “takes over the motor controls of the body and causes behavior and action to which the conscious mind, the individual himself, would never consent.” In Hubbard’s vision of the engram as a “parasitic” entity “which protects itself in various ways,” Burroughs found yet another, more refined layer of explanation for his working theory of language as a virus.[10]

According to Burroughs’ reading of Hubbard, engrams are empty, pre-semantic in their ontology. “Like the engram,” wrote Burroughs, “the virus has no image. The image of the virus is the effect is produces. The image of the engram is that it can be associated with any image.” Like a virus, engrams manifest in their “precision of communication” and their capacity to “permanently fuse” into any and all body circuits.

This little story of mine ends up being about the contagious qualities of our informational present and its categorical demands. For the cut-up experiments were born, in part, as a strategy to combat the representational and murderous powers of racial difference. They were an open invitation to the reader to reconsider history; to attend to the historicity of word blocks and surface patterns; to become sensitive to the deeper layers of self and world in the moment of reading; to attend to the potential for the most common sense articulations to mean differently. For to become aware of “word dust” clinging to the texts around us—that infinitesimal entity that conditioned the reception of any and all words—was a necessary defense against forces of control, seen and unseen. 

The vaccination awaits.

[1]Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (Boston: A.D. Phelps, 1849).The elder Henson had been the overseer of a plantation before he escaped with his family to Canada. In 1841 he bought 200 acres of land for a freeman settlement and laborer’s school that was considered one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad and would, at its height, claim a population of 500 people. Josiah Henson, An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson(Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom”) from 1789-1881, ed. John Lobb (London: Christian Age Office, 1878).

[2]Brion Gysin, To Master, A Long Goodnight: A Historical Narrative (New York: Creative Age Press, 1946), 198, 8, 3, 199, 5, 8-9.For a recent and resonant critique, see Cheryl Thompson, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site and Creolization: The Material and Visual Culture of Archival Memory,” African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal 12:3 (2019): 304-319.

[3]John Geiger, Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin (New York: Disinformation Books, 2005), 78-79. 

[4]Brion Gysin, “Minutes to Go,” in Sinclair Beiles, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Brion Gysin, Minutes to Go (Paris: Two Cities, 1960), 3-5.

[5]C.E. Shannon, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” The Bell System Technical Journal 27 (July 1948): 379; “Interview with William Burroughs,” in The Third Mind (New York: Viking, 1978), 8.

[6]See, for example, A.T. Bharucha-Reid, “On the Stochastic Theory of Epidemics,” Proceedings of the Third Berkeley Symposium on Mathematical Statistics and Probability, 1954-1955, vol. 4 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1956): 111-19. In the 1950s and 1960s virologists increasingly looked to information theory for explanatory leverage. See, also, Priscilla Wald, Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 181, 305 n65, 158-63.

[7]William S. Burroughs, The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead [1971] (New York: Grove Press, 2007), 165-66.

[8]L. Ron Hubbard, “Terra Incognita: The Mind” (1950), The Technical Bulletins of Dianetics and Scientology, vol. 1 (Los Angeles: Church of Scientology of California, 1976), 6-10

[9]L. Ron Hubbard, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (New York: Hermitage House, 1950), 421, 43, 422.

[10]Hubbard, Dianetics, xiii, 138, 208; L. Ron Hubbard, “The Anatomy of the Engram,” a lecture delivered on August 15,1950 in Research and Discovery Series, vol. 3 (Los Angeles: Bridge Publications, 1982), 28. According to Hubbard, “Words contained in engrams” were, in essence, “contagious. Like germs they respect none and carry forward from individual to individual, from parents to child, respecting none until they are stopped by dianetics.” L. Ron Hubbard, Self Analysis  [1951] (Los Angeles: The American St. Hill Organization, 1971), 63; Hubbard, Dianetics, 86, 134f.

Contagion, a Lament

Symposium Essays

Revisiting Reflections on Relics and Contagion in Two Parts

Life after violence and profound loss requires that we find ways to hold and contain that pain. Relics help us do this. As we wrap them in our words, craft beautiful containers, or place them in vitrines, we keep these memories alive. We acknowledge and respect their ongoing presence in our lives.

Immersions in a Contagious Summer

Given the history of othering and control of women’s bodies, it may surprise you to learn that the mikveh has become a central site of Jewish feminist, and more recently, queer and trans activism. Across the United States, Canada, and Israel, participants in a grassroots Modern Mikveh Movement have been collectively reclaiming what many have considered to be among the most irredeemable misogynistic forms of bodily disciplining.

Contagions, Earthly and Otherwise

According to Burroughs and Gysin, the power of language was the thing. There was something queer, indeed, about the capacity of any language to channel all manner of patterns and directives that had nothing, essentially, to do with the words that comprised that language.

Religious Madness and the Logic of Contagion

By the first decade of the nineteenth century, a new idea had entered the Western world. Psychiatrists, naturalists, politicians, and theologians throughout Europe and North America came to believe that there existed a form of insanity that caused its victims to express false religious opinions, to hold clearly unreasonable religious beliefs, or to dwell too deeply on religious issues.

Challenging the Great Physician: Mental Pathogens and Spiritual Contagion in Late-19th Century America

While for the most part, the field of psychiatry remained immune to and dismissive of Christian attempts to influence them, these conversations led to the incorporation of psychiatric (and sometimes pseudo-psychiatric) modalities into the pastoral counseling movement.

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