Burroughs’ Lasting Legacy: Digital Cut-Up and Transmedia Storytelling

In preparation for our meeting on Tuesday and Dr. Gontarski’s presentation on the Burroughs Archive, I feel as though I’ve had a miniscule exposure to the “Cut-Up Trilogy” in the form of Oliver Harris’ “Introduction to the ‘Cut-Up Trilogy’” trilogy. Looking across the three introductions, we see some commonalities in terms of chronicling the changes across editions and Harris’ repeated assertion that to call these three books a “trilogy” is a misnomer. I wonder if Harris envisioned himself amassing his own sort of word hoard when drafting each of these introductions, repurposing sections from one to fit into the introduction for another volume. What I find most interesting is Harris’ assertion that the trilogy isn’t a trilogy, considering the many revisions each work underwent—ultimately giving us a total of 6 volumes, with no clear beginning, middle, or end of the “series.” Whether it was Burroughs’ intention or not, the fact that we can take the sum total of the series and create six different permutations (by Harris’ count) of the volumes seems to be a beautiful illustration of the cut-up technique on a grander scale. Each subsequent revision and re-ordering of the three volumes can create new trilogies and new meanings, depending on how they volumes resonate with one another in that particular configuration. Just as Burroughs pushed the limits of meaning and processes of composing with his cut-up and fold-in techniques, perhaps he intended to subvert the form of novel or the idea of a book series by constantly shifting and mutating his works. Whether that was his intention or not, we may never know; but this line of thinking wouldn’t have been possible without Burroughs’ innovations, innovations that have resonated for decades after his work and continue to resonate today.

As Lakey points out in her piece, Burroughs has directly inspired any number of artistic, literary, and philosophical endeavors, from David Bowie and Iggy Pop, to Deleuze and William Gibson, and even being the progenitor of such an expansive field known as “heavy metal.” But even beyond this direct inspiration, Burroughs’ influence remains implicit in composition theory and artistic endeavors. Just as Burroughs’ inspired Deleuze, much of assemblage theory—the idea that all of composition is at some point or another assembling pre-existing materials—draws on Deleuze, and Burroughs intended the cut-up technique to make assembly explicit in the medium of print. And as our literacy technologies have progressed the cut-up process is becoming more and more prominent within entertainment, whether through remixed videos on YouTube or the famed mash-up artist, Girl Talk. The way in which Girl Talk makes use of pre-existing musical materials is an advanced and computerized version of Burroughs’ audiotape experiments and is a direct descendent of Burroughs’ techniques. An even more explicit example of the cut-up technique thriving in the twenty-first century is a theater production entitled Terminator The Second. Nashville, Tennessee’s Husky Jackal Theater adapted the plot of James Cameron’s Sci-Fi/Action Opus for the stage, but rather than re-write the film’s script in Elizabethan verse, the screenwrtiers assembled the play’s script from nothing but pre-existing lines from the folios of Shakespeare. Check out the trailer below:

The script for Terminator the Second is a testament to the longevity of the cut-up technique, and it also illustrates one of the underlying tenets of the method: meaning is dependent on semantic units’ juxtaposition with semantic units. It is only through those resonances that meaning can be made.

Burroughs’ legacy lasts in many other areas. I was particularly drawn to Harris’ description of the audio tape and film experiments, as these multimedia endeavors are often overlooked in favor of the novels themselves. Harris reminds us that these novels are erroneously separated from the other related multimedia works including photo collages, film, audio tapes and scrapbooks that all contribute to the overarching mythos that Burroughs was creating in this period of his career. Once again, Burroughs’ is prophetic, for his attempt to saturate his story across many different media anticipates what Henry Jenkins calls transmedia storytelling. A prominent modern day example is the universe of The Matrix, which was spread out across three films, and animated film, a video game, graphic novels, and potentially one or two other media. However, Jenkins considers the attempts of the Wachowski Brothers to be a failure, as the primary medium, the films, relied too heavily on the satellite texts, and many audience members could not follow the films without having seen all others in the universe. Similarly, I wonder what we are missing by only focusing on the written content of Burroughs’ cut-up project; how might the audio and video elements elucidate the unanswered questions we have about the written volumes from this period? Burroughs cut-up work tested our assumptions of the composing processes, but he also caused us to question the forms on which we rely to impart information and understand the world around us; thus he pushed the boundaries not only on the written pages but pushed us beyond the bindings of a book, a legacy that lasts to this day.

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