The Book of Methods: Selected Writings on the Cut Up by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin

Brion Gysin, “The Book of Methods”, circa 1962, Musée d’Art Moderne, Ville de Paris

I’ve been working with my friend Davis Schneiderman for a number of years on a new edition of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s writings on the cut up. Later this year, University of Minnesota Press will publish the fruits of that research — encompassing a new edition of their classic text on the topic, The Third Mind, which will be a facsimile of the mythical unpublished 1970 Grove Press edition of that text, together with a companion volume called The Book of Methods, which will collect various key writings and statements from Burroughs and Gysin on the cut up, made over the course of their decades working together, including many hitherto unpublished texts. We will offer, for the first time, a comprehensive and chronological overview of Burroughs and Gysin’s writings on the cut up.

The Third Mind, by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, is a strange and enigmatic book. Long out of print after a single American edition in 1978, this eclectic offering of instructions for a material revolution has had a lasting influence on everything from punk and cyberpunk to appropriation art, new media theory and conceptual literature. The Third Mind continues to have new things to say to a generation of artists and thinkers who not only use cut-ups and fold-ins, cut-and-paste, collage and montage practices just as earlier writers used “plot” and “character,” but who also—in the present—deploy strategies from The Third Mind as a way to reveal the ubiquity of practices of collage and cut up in mainstream digital culture. Indeed, arguably we live in a moment where the cut up has triumphed — but unconsciously so, in our fragmented attention spans, our cynicism concerning the mediation of truth, and the ease with which text and image are converted to data and back again.  

In The Book of Methods, a companion to The Third Mind, we propose a radical rereading of Burroughs’ and Gysin’s cut-up practices, drawing on hitherto unavailable materials by both Burroughs and Gysin, presenting the core of Burroughs’ and Gysin’s collaborative works anew for the age of digital media and the global society of the spectacle — complete with post cut up practices that include deepfakes, mass media simulation, and AI.

What is a cut up? Gysin discovered the technique in his studio in Paris in 1958, when he sliced through a newspaper and realized that by reading across the cut to a now exposed adjacent page, a new, “random” text was generated, with a new meaning.  This cut quickly turned into an intense exploration, by both Gysin and Burroughs, of the possibilities for permutating and generating texts via processes of cutting and rearrangement. And these practices were then applied to visual images, sound recordings, film and other media.  While Tristan Tzara claimed to Gysin that he was not doing anything that the dadaists hadn’t already done in World War I, Burroughs and Gysin’s ideas about the value of the cut up went far beyond Tzara’s.  Burroughs in particular rapidly developed ideas of human consciousness as a cut up (in part via his involvement in Scientology), sexuality as a cut up (via the pornographic fragmentation of the drive) and reality itself as cut up (“nothing here but the recordings”). 

The Book of Methods also tells the story of Burroughs and Gysin’s friendship, both in terms of their collaboration on a book expounding the cut up as method or practice, but also in terms of the ill fated publishing history of the book, which was about to be published as early as 1965, again in 1970, at varying times in the early 1970s — and then finally in 1978, at a point where much of the material was almost 20 years old. As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, Gysin’s mail to Burroughs often features an increasingly anguished “What of THE THIRD MIND??”

The cut up was untimely — but in fact 1978 was a moment where an international post-punk fan base interested in media experimentation, whether Kathy Acker, or Throbbing Gristle or the graffiti artist Rammellzee, were very much ready to respond to Burroughs’ and Gysin’s work.

The Third Mind/Book of Methods also tells a story of the importance of the Beats’ European connections and extensions, from the cut up’s genesis in the Beat Hotel on Rue Git le Coeur in Paris, to the various European writers and artists who took up the cut up, from Jeff Nuttall, to Claude Pélieu and Mary Beach, to Carl Weissner and Udo Breger — and to Gérard-Georges Lemaire, the Paris based art critic and translator of a number of Burroughs’ works, who first assembled with Brion Gysin, the texts that would compose the first actually published The Third Mind in the 1976 French book, Oeuvre croisée.

Victorian Photocollage at the AGO

Lady Filmer, from the Filmer Album, mid-1860s

The Victorian photocollage show currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario adds a new chapter to the history of montage and collage. The show consists of pages from a series of albums produced by British society women in the mid-nineteenth century. The pages cut and paste heads from cartes de visite, society portrait photographs, onto animals, exotic scenes and domestic interiors, playfully juxtaposing and arranging connections between families.  The cartes de visite were the first mass produced commercially available photographs, enabling a relatively large group of people to have photographic images of Queen Victoria and the like, which they collected in albums.  Society women like Lady Filmer, who is pictured above at work with knife and glue at her pink table, remixed such photographs against watercolor backgrounds, for the amusement of guests. The albums functioned very much as social networking sites like Facebook do today — except that these albums are literally “books of faces”, discreetly revealed to a visitor one wants to impress, who might leave their own carte de visite on the table.

It’s still commonplace to think of montage and collage as primarily modernist or avant garde practices, even though they’re clearly part of advertising or subcultures like hip-hop.  I make the argument in In Praise of Copying that montage is an essential part of folk-cultures, where cut and paste techniques, appropriation of materials from the environment, collaboration and collective authorship are basic strategies of cultural production.  I was particularly interested in things like quilting or cooking recipes: semi-anonymous, stereotypically feminine arts that involve the use of pattern to transform pre-existing materials — in other words, to make highly charged copies.

The Victorian photocollage show certainly makes one question to what degree montage is really an inherently radical practice.  If the montage of Berlin dada aimed at the destruction of the images that support a particular arrangement of society, these images playfully participate in constructing such arrangements. Playing With Pictures, the book that accompanies the exhibition, does a good job of situating the photocollage albums within the Victorian cultural context of upper class amusements such as the tableau vivant.  The “surreal” juxtapositions of animals and humans found in the albums are already there in Grandville’s Parisian periodical illustrations of the 1840s — but without the use of photographic material.  Susan Buck-Morss traced this tradition back through the Baroque in her Dialectics of Seeing.

Grandville, “Seven of Wands, II”, 1847

For Buck-Morss, and for Walter Benjamin, such images were bourgeois fantasies of the commodified utopia of nineteenth century capitalism. That analysis works well for Victorian Photocollage too.  Looking through the albums, it’s striking how often human faces are grafted onto the bodies of animals (second nature as nature), objects such as bags, juggling balls, mirror and cups (commodification), and presented within highly staged domestic spaces that look like IKEA showrooms (’nuff said).  As much as the albums are aimed at the consolidation of aristocractic Victorian society, the encroaching future, certainly bourgeois, but with the masses not far behind, is there in the gaps and disjunctures within the image, whose meaning is waiting to be realized. The mass availability of cartes de visite of the Prince of Wales allowed for his appropriation into other social milieux … Monty Python dreamt up a hundred years in advance by upper class Victorian women.