Cutting up Politics (Part 1)
by Oliver Harris
Certain things you must take literally if you want to understand.
—William S. Burroughs (3M 133)
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO ESTIMATE THE DAMAGE
The first line of the ‘First Cut-Ups’ published in Minutes to Go (1960) was, according to Brion Gysin, ‘a readymade phrase that simply dropped onto the table; several layers of printed material were laid one on top of the other and cut through with the Stanley blade’, and when he put these pieces together, Gysin laughed out loud ‘because the answers were so apt and so extraordinary’ (Gysin and Wilson 1982:56). Answers presume questions; but in this material practice the order of causality and chronology has to be reversed. Magically, the cut-up text answered Gysin precisely by revealing to him his own question—that is to say: What will be the effect of the cut-up project? Four decades later, the reply he received at the supposed moment of the project’s inception,1 courtesy of his Stanley blade, may still stand: ‘It is impossible to estimate the damage’ (MTG 6).
Although the temptation to generalize is a basic error—to speak of ‘the cut-up’ is to falsify the great range of cut-up procedures, the enormous variety of texts they produced, and the multiplicity of purposes they served, all of which varied over time—this original cut-up is, in its equivocal potency, exemplary. On the one hand, it prophesizes the very powers of prophecy that Burroughs would almost immediately claim for the method;2 on the other, it predicts the very impossibility of predicting the exact outcome of individual cut-up operations or of definitively measuring the efficacy of the project as a whole. Simultaneously, it promises that the method works—in unspecified destructive ways—and yet creates that meaning only in hindsight and only as an open question. When Burroughs looked back on that ‘hectic, portentous time in Paris, in 1959’ toward the end of his last major novel, The Western Lands, he would ponder both the ‘prophetic’ significance of Minutes to Go’s cryptic phrases and the ‘damage’ he thought he was doing, concluding skeptically that it ‘reads like sci-fi’: ‘We all thought we were interplanetary agents involved in a deadly struggle… battles… codes…ambushes. It seemed real at the time. From here, who knows?’ (WL 252).3 From first to last, there is a standoff between claims for the methods’ prophetic and performative power, an equivocation about the productivity of cut-ups as tools of war in ‘a deadly struggle’ that may or may not have existed.
This paradox has posed an intractable problem for critics. With very few exceptions,4 they have recycled Burroughs’s claims at face value and sidestepped evaluating not only their internal coherence and consistency but also their validity. Did cut-up methods reveal the future, because events are ‘pre-recorded’, or did they produce events, because the function of writing is to ‘make it happen’? Were they revolutionary weapons or a private delusional fantasy, a kind of therapy or a form of pathology? Did they work? From here, who knows?
Inevitably, the one claim that critics have never taken literally is Burroughs’s original and overriding insistence: that cut-up methods were ‘for everyone’ and ‘experimental in the sense of being something to do. Right here write now. Not something to talk and argue about’ (3M 31). For critics to take Burroughs’s advice—put most bluntly to Allen Ginsberg: ‘Don’t theorize. Try it’ (YL 59)—would this not mean abandoning criticism altogether in favor of practice? Perhaps so. But, short of this, what it must mean is putting the cutup project back onto its material base, and this in turn demands an accurate chronology of its development and promotion. For this reason, the first task is to revise the standard critical verdict on Minutes to Go, the launching manual and manifesto of the method.5
At first sight—and criticism has never given it a second look— Minutes to Go seems largely irrelevant to what would follow; an exceptional, minor text of crude experimentalism that Burroughs put behind him as he worked on his trilogy of novels, The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded and Nova Express.6 The fundamental problem with this account is that it effectively reverses the historical priorities by abstracting form and content from method. As a result, even the very best critical analyses have been based on a false understanding of how Burroughs’s methods developed over time. Robin Lydenberg, for example, begins by claiming that ‘The Soft Machine provides a relatively accessible introduction to Burroughs’s writing experiments during the 1960s’ on the basis of its ‘tentative and restrained use of the cut-up’ (1987:56); but her claim precisely inverts the true situation, because the edition she analyses is the second, which shows the massive revisions Burroughs was forced to make in order to undo the originally unrestrained use of cut-up methods that made the first edition of his first cut-up novel so inaccessible.
Equally, it is no coincidence that these novels are generally identified as ‘the Nova trilogy’—which emphasizes the apocalyptic urgency of their allegorical political scenario—rather than ‘the cutup trilogy’—which would recognize the primacy of the material methods by which, so visibly and uniquely, they were created.7 But this primacy is more than formal, since the methods determined the political scenario, too. The essential historical question, ‘To what political analysis were cut-up methods an answer?’, has therefore to be turned around and rephrased: ‘What political analysis did the methods themselves produce?’ Most obviously, we can see this in the way the Nova conspiracy appropriates the method to ‘set cut-up terrorists against a totalizing discursive apparatus’ (Latham 1993:48), even as these narrative agents of interplanetary resistance generalize the fantasy scenario of the cut-up writer engaged in his ‘deadly struggle’. But Burroughs’s politics of method was not simply subsumed by form and content, since its point of departure was not only the material acts that resulted in his texts, but also the material acts that they in turn were intended to produce. This prospective function, which has multiple and disparate dimensions, requires that a historical approach to cut-up methods means situating Burroughs’s texts not just in relation to a past or present reality, but also with reference to the future. Burroughs’s cut-up politics came from his scissors in a number of different ways, but in each we see the determining significance of method motivated materially as well as historically by the predictive urgency announced at the outset in the very title of Minutes to Go.
THE OLD PAMPHLET DAYS
Although Burroughs’s trilogy presents extraordinary problems, criticism has found ways to read it: by isolating themes, reconstructing scenarios, analyzing formal structures, and so on. But none of these interpretive strategies work for his short texts in Minutes to Go, and this is because their frame of reference is essentially quite different. To begin with, rather than understanding these texts as failures— one-off exercises which Burroughs quickly abandoned—it is more accurate to say that they demonstrated the provisional and productive character of results proper to an experimental method. This is the key point about Minutes to Go: that the very first examples of the practice were used to publicize it; Burroughs did not try to perfect the method first. Of course, the process itself was future-oriented, in the sense that cutting up pre-existent texts reverses the sequence that is axiomatic to mimesis, so that the sign creates its referent; production replaces reproduction, and meaning becomes contingent, a coded message awaiting the ‘intersection point’ that will decipher it. This is one reason why Burroughs constantly went back to Minutes to Go, recycling its most enigmatic phrases—such as ‘Will Hollywood Never Learn?’—in new contexts to discover new significances.
Constant revision in the light of experience was inherent in the method, and this process explains the fate of Burroughs’s trilogy. The fact that it was realized in six editions over a seven-year period has always been read as a calculated refusal of linear structure and textual closure. But, rather than embodying any theoretical position, Burroughs updated his trilogy into present time—‘That was in 1962’, he comments in one place (TE2 9)—because he was led by his own methods of textual production to apply to novel-length works an experimental logic initially devised for, and in certain respects better suited to, the publication of short pieces in pamphlet or magazine form.
Indeed, a narrow focus on the trilogy has made it easy to overlook the fact that parts of all these novels first appeared in a range of alternative or underground journals, and that this process continued as Burroughs revised his texts. By the time the first edition of The Ticket that Exploded was published in December 1962, Burroughs had already published some 50 magazine contributions, a figure rising to 100 by the time Nova Express appeared in November 1964 and to 200 by the time the final edition of The Soft Machine was published in July 1968. In this light, the three novels may even be seen as aberrations, extraordinary exceptions to the cut-up project rather than its necessary fulfillment.
What I’m suggesting is our need to rewrite the literary history of the cut-up project to counterbalance the effects of that most pragmatic of constraints; namely, the commercial availability of textual materials. Critical attention to the cut-up trilogy inevitably reflects that availability, while doubly reinforcing Burroughs’s reception as a novelist (even though the term ‘cut-up novel’ is virtually an oxymoron). For to approach Burroughs as the author of The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded and Nova Express relegates to the margins his enormous investment of energy not only in multimedia applications, but also the far broader field of textual experiment. The true scale of that field can only be gauged by referring to the 60 pages of periodical contributions listed in Maynard and Miles’s bibliography and the several hundred more unpublished short cutup texts listed in the Descriptive Catalogue of the William S. Burroughs Archive. Only a tiny fraction of the published texts have been made generally accessible—in The Third Mind and The Burroughs File—but, even then, their true significance is inevitably obscured: to read Burroughs’s experimental layout texts collected and reprinted in book form is an entirely different experience to reading them in the context of their original magazine publications.
There is, I would argue, a complex politics to this mode of production and publication that derives directly from Burroughs’s material practice. Since Burroughs’s priority did not lie in the finished text or in texts with traditional ‘finish’, he was able to exploit the particular advantages structured into magazine dissemination. As Barry Miles observed: ‘Burroughs could present to the reading public his cut/up experiences immediately. Naturally, this provoked a highly intimate encounter with his colleagues’ (1976:10; my translation). Miles was thinking specifically of Burroughs’s regular newspaper layout columns in the small-circulation, mimeographed pamphlet, My Own Mag, and in August 1964 Burroughs wrote to its editor, the poet Jeff Nuttall, clarifying the precise political ambition of his contributions; he had, he noted, ‘always yearned nostalgically for the old pamphlet days when writers fought in the street’.8 In fact, Burroughs’s nostalgia could be seen as unrecognized prescience, since the proliferating mass of little magazines was, by the mid1960s, already forming an expanding underground network of alternative communication. Burroughs would develop the radical political potentials of this network explicitly in Electronic Revolution (1971), where he identified the underground press as ‘the only effective counter to a growing power and more sophisticated techniques used by establishment mass media’, concluding that ‘the underground press could perform this function much more effectively by the use of cut/up techniques’ (ER 24).9 Burroughs’s hopes for the underground press were to generalize the incendiary intentions he had had for his first cut-up pamphlets, as indicated in a summer 1960 letter to Dave Hazelwood concerning The Exterminator, the sequel to Minutes to Go: ‘I think you realize how explosive the material is […] Are you willing and able to publish—To put it in the street? Please answer at once. Minutes to go believe me.’
Burroughs’s remarkable commitment to small press publications throughout the cut-up decade meant trading against his work’s commercial value; as he told Ginsberg in 1960, his best bets were ‘no-paying far-out magazines like Yugen and Kulchur’.11 In terms of the experimental opportunities it afforded Burroughs, this commitment constitutes a ‘textual politics’ as defined by Michael Davidson— the ‘seizing of one’s means of literary production’ (1997:179)—and locates Burroughs’s practice in a broader contemporary cultural context. For example, Charles Olson grasped the importance of such magazines as Diane DiPrima and Leroi Jones’s Floating Bear (which published six cut-up texts by Burroughs in 1961–62): the immediacy of communication relative to book publication narrowed significantly the gap between producer and consumer. This narrowing enabled avant-garde and underground small press magazines to operate through localized, specific networks of dissemination, and over time Burroughs learned to exploit the narrowed distances between both the time of composition and reception and between the writer and a specialized audience.
The nearly two-dozen contributions Burroughs made to My Own Mag between 1964 and 1966 are especially important in this context, because it was here that he introduced his own newspaper, The Moving Times. Specifically focused on temporal experiments using text arranged in columns, The Moving Times was a precursor to his pamphlets, Time and Apo-33 (1965), and a logical conclusion to Minutes to Go, where eleven of Burroughs’s 16 texts had cut up newspaper articles. Editing his own experimental magazine enabled Burroughs not only to address his readers directly, but also to invite their involvement in such experimental projects as writing in ‘present time’ through collecting ‘intersection points’: ‘Try writing tomorrow’s news today. Fill three columns with your future time guesses. Read cross column […] Notice that there are many hints of the so-called future’ (BF 150).
Burroughs solicited both correspondence and creative collaborations from his readership and it was, as Maynard and Miles noted, through The Moving Times that he began his substantial cut-up collaborations with Claude Pélieu and Carl Weissner (1978:128). The new channels offered by the alternative press therefore confirmed the importance of the mode of publication to Burroughs’s development and promotion of cut-up methods—and, hence, their instrumental value for the political goal of recruiting other practitioners. One three-column text, ‘Who Is the Walks Beside You Written 3rd?’, ends with a general call to take back ownership of the production of reality from those who publish the official text: ‘It is time to do our own publishing’ (BF 76). In this respect, we might revise Timothy S. Murphy’s formulation for the general ‘context of political engagement’ into which Burroughs sent his ‘literary interventions’: ‘Such a context could be called an audience, a community of addressees’ (1997:145). Burroughs’s mass of small press cut-up contributions, specifically those using newspaper formats, materially constituted precisely such a context; the resulting community was not projected on the basis of reception alone, however, but on recruitment to future acts of production—acts that in turn promised to produce the future.
ALLIES WAIT ON KNIVES
Burroughs’s nostalgia for ‘the old pamphlet days’ of street-fighting writers may also be seen as a reference back to the historical avantgarde, specifically the era of Dada. Burroughs’s early identification of cut-up techniques with the prior example set by Tristan Tzara’s performance of ‘Pour faire un poème dadaiste’—the recipe for making a poem by drawing out of a hat words cut from a newspaper—is of course well known, but to this we must add recognition of the importance of the specific context in which Tzara published; that is to say, the manifesto. In 1918, Richard Huelsenbeck attributed the principle of active, provocative campaigning to Tzara, proclaiming: ‘The manifesto as a literary medium answered our need for directness. We had no time to lose; we wanted to incite our opponents to resistance, and, if necessary, to create new opponents for ourselves’ (cited by Richter 1964:103). Primed by knowledge of such historical precedents, in June 1960, as he worked on a pamphlet to follow Minutes to Go, Burroughs was therefore confident he could predict its reception: ‘Expect a spot of bother. Well there has been plenty of that already. You can not win allies without making enemies.’12 The manifesto as a medium encouraged Burroughs to take the military metaphor of the avant-garde quite literally, and Minutes to Go represents a political mobilization of friends—‘FUNCTION WITH BURROUGHS EVERY MAN/ AN AGENT’ (59)—and an identification of enemies—‘CANCER MEN… THESE INDIVIDUALS/ARE MARKED FOE’ (12)—while The Exterminator goes one better: ‘“Let petty kings the name of party know/ Where I come I kill both friend and foe”’ (Burroughs and Gysin 1960:v).13
Burroughs’s call to arms is contextualized by the urgency of Tzara’s manifesto form (‘We had no time to lose’), but the distinctive feature of Minutes to Go—and one of the reasons for its neglect—is the absence in Burroughs’s texts of anything remotely resembling a direct aesthetic or political statement. This is because, while his texts were heterogeneous in form and content—several reworked newspaper articles into prose or stanzas, some fragmented the words of a Rimbaud poem, and so on—all of them gave priority to the material process of cutting up over its products. In doing so, they identified the value of the method for the practitioner, rather than the reader. The inference is that cut-up methods should be understood as artistic only in the specific sense of a liberating life praxis. Certainly, Gysin’s injunction, ‘Make your whole life a poem’ (MTG 43), directly resurrects the Surrealist maxims of Breton and Lautréamont (which Burroughs would repeat, typically attributing them to Tzara): that poetry should be practiced and that it should be made by all. Leaving the polemical task entirely to Gysin, Burroughs allowed the method to become his message. As one cryptic phrase has it: ‘Allies wait on knives’ (MTG 21).
In this respect, another of his letters to Hazelwood in the summer of 1960 is especially revealing:
I find that people read MINUTES TO GO without ever using the cut up method themselves. But when they once do it themselves they see. Any missionary work you do among your acquaintance in showing people how the cut up system works will pay off in sales. People must be led to take a pair of scissors and cut a page of type.14
Although he uses economic terms for his publisher’s benefit (‘pay off in sales’), this cannot conceal the true nature of Burroughs’s selfinterest here, which is defined by his recognition that, for his texts to work, people ‘must be led’ to practice the methods by which he himself had made them. In fact, there are two sides to this motive. On the one hand, Burroughs knew he needed to promote the method in order to ensure an understanding of his work, which could be guaranteed most effectively by creating an audience of producers—an audience, in effect, made in his own image. On the other hand, his early experience of cut-up methods turned emphatically on the seductive pleasure and private insights they yield so enigmatically to the practitioner. A strictly physical dimension was integral to the act—across the entire range of aesthetic, magical, and therapeutic functions Burroughs claimed for it. The key word in his claim for the uncanny, prophetic potency of the method—‘Cut-ups often come through as code messages with special meaning for the cutter’ (3M 32)—is emphatically the last.
excerpt from the book: Retaking the Universe (William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization)
Leave a Reply.
Achim Szepanski - BAUDRILLARD: WHEN HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY BEGAN TO CIRCULATE LIKE OIL AND CAPITAL
Speculating Freedom: Addiction, Control and Rescriptive Subjectivity in the Work of William S. Burroughs
Joshua Carswell - EVALUATING DELEUZE’S “THE IMAGE OF THOUGHT” (1968) AS A PRECURSOR OF HYPERSTITION // PART 1
Joshua Carswell - Evaluating Deleuze’s “The Image of Thought” (1968) as a Precursor of Hyperstition // Part 2
Jose Rosales - ON THE END OF HISTORY & THE DEATH OF DESIRE (NOTES ON TIME AND NEGATIVITY IN BATAILLE’S ‘LETTRE Á X.’)
Jose Rosales - BERGSONIAN SCIENCE-FICTION: KODWO ESHUN, GILLES DELEUZE, & THINKING THE REALITY OF TIME
GILLES DELEUZE - Capitalism, flows, the decoding of flows, capitalism and schizophrenia, psychoanalysis, Spinoza.
Obsolete Capitalism - THE STRONG OF THE FUTURE. NIETZSCHE’S ACCELERATIONIST FRAGMENT IN DELEUZE AND GUATTARI’S ANTI-OEDIPUS
Obsolete Capitalism - Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 1)
Obsolete Capitalism - Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 2)
Obsolete Capitalism: Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 3)
Obsolete Capitalism - Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 4)
Obsolete Capitalism: Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 5)
Stephen Zepke - “THIS WORLD OF WILD PRODUCTION AND EXPLOSIVE DESIRE” – THE UNCONSCIOUS AND THE FUTURE IN FELIX GUATTARI
Steven Craig Hickman - David Roden and the Posthuman Dilemma: Anti-Essentialism and the Question of Humanity
Steven Craig Hickman - The Intelligence of Capital: The Collapse of Politics in Contemporary Society
Steven Craig Hickman - The Carnival of Globalisation: Hyperstition, Surveillance, and the Empire of Reason
Steven Craig Hickman - Shaviro On The Neoliberal Strategy: Transgression and Accelerationist Aesthetics
Steven Craig Hickman - Hyperstition: Technorevisionism – Influencing, Modifying and Updating Reality
Terence Blake - CONCEPTS OUT OF THE SHADOWS: Notes on Deleuze and Guattari’s “What is Philosophy?” (2)
Terence Blake - GUATTARI’S LINES OF FLIGHT (2): transversal vs transferential approaches to the reading contract
Himanshu Damle - Games and Virtual Environments: Playing in the Dark. Could These be Havens for Criminal Networks?
Himanshu Damle - Hegelian Marxism of Lukács: Philosophy as Systematization of Ideology and Politics as Manipulation of Ideology.