Cutting Things Up:  Mapping the Political Interface of William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs is remembered and renowned as much for his unique character – the deviant, queer, drug-addicted radical of the Beat Generation – as he was for his controversial writing. Dr. Stanley Gontarski’s work with the William S. Burroughs Archive at Florida State University demonstrates the importance of historicizing and visualizing the “life” of William S. Burroughs as it exists inside the editing, writing, and the cut-up processes of Burroughs’ experimental writing projects.

Famous for his highly experimental writing style and the elaboration of Brion Gysin’s “cut-up method” in novel form, Burroughs’ writing practice cannot be separated from his personae.  Form and content merge as Burroughs “cuts-up” the capitalist power structure of history and travels into the future through “viral signifiers” (Harris, Nova xiii).  His overtly queer writings are intertwined with his radical anti-capitalist politics as well as his scientific and creative study of communicative and linguistic systems of control.

Burroughs is an example of process writ large which is why the Burroughs archival work is perfect for Dr. Gontarski’s process laden philosophy. Through XML coding of original manuscripts via the Text-Encoding Initiative (TEI), scholars (ranging from seasoned Professors, such as Dr. Gontarski himself, to undergraduates under Dr. Gonstarski’s supervision at Florida State University) are creating digital versions of Burroughs’ manuscripts in an effort to demonstrate the equal importance of process to that of substance.  Digital visualizations of Burroughs’ marked up manuscripts demonstrate the importance of Burroughs’ reliance on chance as well as his own agency in the development of his creative and radical writing methods.  These digital visualizations aide in scholarly efforts to understand and analyze the importance of Burroughs’ cut-up method to his more formal understanding of language systems under capital control during his lifetime.  The link between Burroughs’ process in creative fiction and non-fiction is intimately intertwined with his theory of the subjectivization of humans under global capital influence and his overarching critique of language and representation.

In order to ground the importance of Dr. Gontarski’s project and its concern with creating open-access digital visualizations of Burroughs’ manuscripts through TEI, the rest of this short essay is concerned primarily with demonstrating the importance of critical engagement with Burroughs’ writing process.  I find this uniquely important because of the ongoing and existing legacy attached to Burroughs’ writing and life as it plays out in the analysis and resistance to global capitalist hegemony as it emerges inside of communicative and linguistic systems of control.

Most of us who know Burroughs even on a cursory level are familiar with his broad range of global engagement in the arts.   Burroughs influence spans from pop culture artists (from Iggy Pop and David Bowie to R.E.M. and U2), to writers (from Angela Carter to William Gibson), to influential philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze.  Many artists adopted his phrases and used his “cut-up” prose inside poems, songs and science fiction novels.  Some even used Burroughs phrases as titles for bands and genre movements (for example, the term “heavy metal” is derived from a phrase in his cut-up novel Nova Express).  The process involved with “cutting-up” history, texts, and power in his cut-up method is embedded in his influence across the arts and philosophy.  His influence across the arts and philosophy is combined with his distinctly queer and homosexual lifestyle; a lifestyle defined famously by Burroughs’ addiction to heroine.

The reality of the queer, fragmented processes involved in living a life that “cut-up” a stagnant “straight-line” version of social history was intimately tied to the cut-up process of Burroughs’ three cut-up novels The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded, and Nova Express. Burroughs’ was amongst the first to highlight the embodied action of writing and subsequently the cutting-up of the objective forms of the written word.  By linking the process of “cutting-up” as an act with the process of “cutting-up” through identity markers as active protest to dominant categories and control under global capitalism, Burroughs’ process is one that politicizes all action by making the personal the political and vice-versa by making the political the personal.  The very embodiment of the political in subject form is linked to the writing process and therefore the only proper engagement with undoing dominant forms of political power, according to Burroughs, is to live and write the “cut-up” method as political protest in everyday life.

In his “Introduction” to the restored text of Burroughs’ The Soft Machine, Oliver Harris summarizes Burroughs 1960 version of the essay “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin”.  Harris outlines Burroughs own map of his work by stating that the “cut-up” method can be broken into four ontological levels of influence:

  • The cut-up method context as “art historical” (see Tristan Tzara at a Surrealist Rally in the 1920s).
  • The cut-up method as it is affiliated with and intersects with “contemporary science” (see Burroughs naming of the mathematician John von Neumann on game theory).
  • The cut-up method as open-ended in its application.
  • The cut-up method as opposed to Freud, and as it broke away from the Freudian Surrealist movement (Harris, Soft xxiv-xxv).

These four basic ontological fields highlight Burroughs’ process as a process of becoming that Mark Hansen and Douglas Kahn refer to as Burroughs’ “shifting virology”.

In the cut-up novel Nova Express, Burroughs’ “shifting virology” develops a critique of “communications technologies” as “reproducing external replicants” – a viral theory of information that understands information and communication as simultaneously “alive” and capable of infecting an entire population (Hansen).  It is against the “infecting virus” of capitalist mass media that Burroughs argues the cut-up method should be deployed.  This “deployment” is an integral part of Burroughs’ political engagement and cannot be separated from his essay and novel writing.  Doubling with the deployment of the cut-up method was Burroughs recognition of the “unique importance of little magazines and the underground press” (Harris, Soft xxix).  It was inside these small press engagements that Burroughs reprinted and rearranged what he referred to as “the word hoard” (the collection of straight-line narrative engagements that are written by Burroughs and other textual figures of literary history such as Shakespeare and T.S. Elliot).

Rearranging this “word hoard” in an effort to push back against the viral self-replication of capitalist hegemony inside art as well as inside the individual subject, Burroughs understood the role of global dominance by corporations decades before “real subsumption” of capitalism took place.  In his cut-up novel The Soft Machine, Burroughs writes of a “new global colonialism” in the planet’s occupation by the dominant corporation known as Trak Utilities.

But Burroughs was ahead of his time in other ways as well, and often deployed more than just the “cut-up” method as a critique against the hegemony of communication and linguistic systems in alliance with capitalist control.  In all three novels, Burroughs employs variants that disrupt what he calls the “straight line” narrative of the status quo novel form.  By repeatedly using the dash, the ellipsis and capitalizing words, Burroughs formed a precursor to the hashtag and Twitter that continues to make his work memorable through individual phrases rather than scenes or long monologues.

Philosophically, Burroughs’ writing style has formal historical links to the aphoristic system found in the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche (such as the aphorisms of Thus Spoke Zarathustra) and the philosophical fragments of “The Weeping Philosopher” Heraclitus.  Both Nietzsche and Heraclitus, like Burroughs, emphasized the constant questioning of objective “truth” by embracing existence as a process of becoming rather than a process of essentialist being.

In his “Introduction” to Burroughs’ The Ticket that Exploded, Oliver Harris argues that Burroughs trains his reader how to read his work, and through that training Burroughs simultaneously trains “us to read the culture around us, or rather the culture inside us” (Harris, Ticket xx).  Through that training we come to recognize what Burroughs called “creative capitalism”.  Creative capitalism has links, in Burroughs and in earlier Marxist theorists, to what Guy Debord and the Situationists understood as the all pervasive sign systems of control developed inside the systems of news media and consumer capitalism which Debord named “The Society of Spectacle”.  The cut-up novel Nova Express is written explicitly against these systems of control and criticizes the subjects and elites who stand behind the mechanisms of creative capitalism. In fact, Harris argues that Nova Express can be, as a whole, configured as a manifesto “against the 1 percent who run our planet like an alien colony” as well as a “call-to-arms against those who brought us Hiroshima and Nagasaki” (Harris, Nova xi).

Finally, it is in the development of Burroughs’ three cut-up novels (that are not a trilogy) that he highlights his concerns, not only with the one percent, but with the way information systems of global capitalism create control over human subjects, human collectives, and the human body.  Burroughs was concerned with the development of human subjects through linguistic systems and communicative systems; a system he conceived of as viral.  The link between the human subject and “the word-virus” is connected to the way communication and linguistic systems travel and replicate vis-à-vis tape recorders, print mediums, and computers for Burroughs.  Like Debord, and other Marxists (Adorno, Benjamin, Horkheimer, and Deleuze) Burroughs primary concern was with the creation of inhuman becomings, human beings that are “soft machines” whose docile behaviors simply serve the interests of capitalism and social control (Land 451).  By configuring the link between technology, language, systems of control and the human body, Burroughs predates organizational theorists such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.

Burroughs’ cut-up method was a practice of radical resistance to social control through information and communicative systems.  Dr. Gontarski’s work with the Burroughs’ archive aides this radical politics by creating open-access systems to further develop and encourage the study of Burroughs process and method.  It is my firm belief that this project will elevate our understanding of Burroughs’ theory of language and his critical engagement and intervention in a radical anti-capitalist politics that works to return the human to a place beyond the hegemony of capital control and representation.

Works Cited

Hansen, Mark. “Internal Resonance, or three steps to a non-viral becoming.” Culture Machine 3 (2001). Web. 12 Oct. 2015.

Harris, Oliver. “Introduction” to Nova Express (by William S. Burroughs). Grove, 2014.

—–. “Introduction” to The Soft Machine (by William S. Burroughs). Grove, 2014.

—–. “Introduction” to The Ticket that Exploded (by William S. Burroughs). Grove, 2014.

Kahn, Douglas. Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge: MIT, 1999.

Land, Christopher. “Apomorphine Silence: Cutting-up Burroughs Theory of Language and Control.” Ephemera 5:3 (2005): 450-71. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.


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