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Tuesday, November 1, 2016


William Burroughs in Film – Part 1: Literary Concepts
by Lord Summerisle
The Cut-Up Technique and Trilogy

Burroughs accumulated a great amount of challenging theories during his lifetime. Many of them manifest themselves in theme form inside his writing, which is where one finds the more autobiographical elements to his work, issues of sexuality, addiction and paranoia; Burroughs own life entering the fiction to create his 'Interzone'*. Jack Sargeant writes, speaking of Burroughs post 50's work in Naked Lens; Beat Cinema (2001), "The dualism of 'fiction' and 'non-fiction' is, of course, redundant when dealing with these texts, a more appropriate terminology would be 'slipstream'."

Others are formal techniques like the cut-up, which have direct effect on the content and are designed to question the interplay between writer and reader, as well as language itself.

The most effective way of examining all of these elements is to look at his 1960's writing, a period where Burroughs was developing his anarchistic political literary approach and when his various collaborations began to bare fruit. The most radical example of this is the invention of the cut-up technique. A method synonymous with Burroughs, although it was his artist friend and neighbour, Brion Gysin, who devised it in September, 1959, in room #15 at the Beat Hotel, 9 Rue Git La Coeur, Paris. He was preparing a mount for a drawing of his with a stanley knife and cut through several layers of newspaper. "Through this apparently random event the written text was opened to the potentialities of montage and juxtaposition." (p.169, Sargeant, 2001) Gysin was excited by this and claimed that it was what writing needed to bring it up to date with art, comparing it to Cubist painting.

Later he wrote of this in his and Burroughs collaborative book The Third Mind (1979), "Writing is fifty years behind painting. I propose to apply the painters' techniques to writing; things as simple and immediate as collage or montage."

He imparted its importance to Burroughs and others, as they were not the only ones to benefit from Gysin's initial serendipity and subsequent epiphany. Many residents and cohorts of the Beat Hotel took to the idea, Burroughs was just the one who applied it best.

Burroughs himself utilised the cut-up for his own purposes throughout his 60's literature and film collaborations, to challenge the media of both writing and cinema.

In The Soft Machine the cut-up is used experimentally and all three editions of the book have a variable amount of cut-up material in them, although it is difficult to specify or identify where these areas lie as his writing by its very nature is fragmentary and abstract** so using the cut-up technique is just another tool to disorientate the reader and create conflict through the opposition of established methods.

"Burroughs creates conflict through opposition to authority, and this includes the authority of established methods of plot, time and space in novels and the readers' response to them." (p.12, Mottram, 1964)

The concept of disorientation through opposition is a central one essay and is something present within all Burroughs own and influenced works as it is key as the disruption of 'control'.

Control is a theme that was spawned by the drug induced paranoia of his early books, Junkie and Naked Lunch, then developed as he became more politically aware, into a broader concept of power against those who oppose it, in the cut-up trilogy The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express. This, of course, runs along side the 'virus power' notion (which will be elaborated on in the following section) and his distrust of and opposition to conventional language, reinforced by the chaos of cut-up, and in the case of the latter two books, folded-in, material. This technique relates to space and time, and to Burroughs this accentuated the science fiction context of the cut-up trilogy to actively travelling through space-time in the writing process.

"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 in the space age, I think they must develop techniques as new and definite as the technique of physical space travel." (William S Burroughs interviewed by Eric Mottram in 1964, [p.14, Hibbard, 1999])

This is shown in this passage from The Soft Machine (p.50): 

"Now when I fold today's paper in with yesterday's paper and arrange the picture's to form a time section montage I am literally moving back to the time when I read yesterday's paper, that is travelling in time back to yesterday – I did this eight hours a day for three months – I went back as far as the papers went – I dug out old magazines and forgotten novels and letters – I made fold-ins and composites and I did the same with photos"

The passage not only shows how important he viewed the cut-up, but also provides an example of the way much of his literature works. Burroughs brings form into the content, characteristically expressing his ideas directly through the fictional context of a character within the text. It will become clear how recurrent Sargeant's  'slipstream' notion is as the body of this work progresses, and how it is equally relevant to film.

Not only do some of Burroughs' concepts appear overtly in his work but also his personal life is threaded throughout his fictional writing. There are overt references similar to the discussed passage in which his personal life is cut into the text. For example, in The Soft Machine Burroughs refers to his homosexual lover Kiki several times, once briefly describing his death, which had occurred a few years previously. The character Kiki also appears in the film version of Naked Lunch, which is very much a continuation of the 'slipstream' fiction/non-fiction amalgamation, this will be discussed fully when deconstructing the film and its connections to Burroughs literary concepts.

There are also non overt themes expressed through motif or narrative devise to convey personal positioning with regards to many issues: Sexuality (Burroughs was a known homosexual, coming out soon after Joan's death), much of his writing contains explicit homosexual imagery and women feature in perfunctory roles, if at all. Drugs and addiction, trademark Beat concerns, are also central to Burroughs work (as they were to his life) Corruption, part of the control paranoia he was concerned with at this period that is also connected to 'the word virus'.

Rubbing Out the Word

The reason Burroughs wanted to deconstruct standard conventions of language was to discover "what words actually are, and exactly what is the relationship to the human nervous system." (p.12, Mottram, 1964) His writing is waging a war against conventions of language through the cut-up to make the reader step back and re-assess their role as well as the psychological construction of conventional language. He comments about this in The Algebra of Need (p.155, Mottram, 1977), "Now, rubbing out the word could make objective alterations in this actual physico-psychological structure. What these alterations would be we have no way of knowing…" One can see here where his anarchistic attitude to language stems from. He continues to discuss how the practise of language connects to a war society that is in harmony with the 'virus power'. "Verbalisation has got us precisely where we are: war is a word. The whole war universe is a verbal universe, which means they've got us in the impasse. And in order to break out of that impasse it would seem desirable to explore alternative methods of communication." His books are furnished with weaponry of various kinds symbolic of his war on language and consciousness as well as controlling powers.


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