by Marianne Dages

In 1959, the painter Brion Gysin stumbled upon a process: the process of cutting through pages of newspaper and rearranging the lines of text to generate new writing and art. He shared the process with a friend, the writer William Burroughs, and together, they called it the cut-up method. For the next fifteen years, Burroughs and Gysin developed the method and collaborated on a series of essays, collages, and prose which became a book called The Third Mind. This is the cut-up’s manifesto and a document of the artists’ theories on how they could be used as a direct, almost psychic, means of communication.

Burroughs demonstrating the cut-up method in the 1983 documentary Burroughs

The authors drew inspiration for cut-ups from obscure and contrasting sources, everything from the eternal Egyptian hieroglyphic to the throwaway daily news. They proposed their collaborative appropriations created a “third, invisible, intangible force” that could be “likened to a third mind.”[1] What is this force and what does it bring with it? Why were hieroglyphics an influence on The Third Mind? And what can we learn from cut-ups and apply to the practice of making artist’s books? Cut-ups engage the material qualities of the word and relate to artist’s books through their shared use of space. Hieroglyphics blurred distinctions between word and image (signifier and signified) and inspired the makers of cut-ups to do the same. The third mind remains an elusive but vital force. We look for it and find it in the most intangible structures; spaces, silences, and folds.

A cut-up transforms existing written content by removing it from its original context and rearranging the order on the page or screen. Every language has its own systematic logic and grammar to be organized or broken apart. The ability to question this characteristic of language is key to the cut-up method. Cut-ups remind us that written words are not pure information; they are pictures and objects as well. To make one is to think about words as images and activate the physicality of their absence.

Left: Brion Gysin Painting, photograph by William S.Burroughs, gelatin-silver print, 1965

Right: Cover of The Third Mind, Viking Press, 1978

When Gysin started working with cut-ups, he found the jumbles of words amusing, and considered it a game. But Burroughs discovered that the results could be uncanny, even prophetic. He evolved his own methods, like cutting a newspaper into grids or folding a book page in half in order to read ahead. The game rapidly turned into obsession as the pair found that cut-ups were capable of producing an oddly prescient form of poetry. It was as if the process had its own mind, like a golem of language come to life. “When you cut word lines the future leaks out,”[2] Burroughs observed, and he scoured the lines, looking for what he called intersection points,[3] unexpected juxtapositions that held secret meaning and divinations. Considering how a cut-up disrupts space, both in terms of content and form, it is not surprising that it can act as an oracle.

A cut-up separates a line from its original context and this alters its position in time. If a page from a novel is folded over so page one and page two are simultaneously visible, the reader is jumping back and forth between present and future. These folds in time do not occur in conventional writing, they are more analogous to the way our brain works, processing multiple timelines at once. We have all experienced flashes of memory that take us out of the moment. A quick and silent sensation, it’s more akin to how we take in an image and occurs too suddenly to be processed through the filter of language.

William Burroughs & Brion Gysin Untitled (Projection Performance), 1969

Published in The Third Mind, Viking Press, 1978

Ulises Carrión once imagined a book composed only of these spaces. He wrote, “The most beautiful and perfect book in the world is a book with only blank pages, in the same way that the most complete language is that which lies beyond all that the words of a man can say.”[4] Burroughs believed that such a complete language existed, one that communicated with silent images: Egyptian hieroglyphics. Before becoming a writer, Burroughs had studied hieroglyphics. He was intrigued by their mute structure and ability to weave word and image together in complex, intertwining ways. Their grammar inspired Burroughs to attempt the same. “If you are able to look at what is in front of you in silence, you will be able to write about it from a more perceptive viewpoint.”[5]

Hieroglyphics are pictures are words are living things. They do not differentiate. There is no either/or. Intrinsically linked to the material world, the glyphs portray human gestures, tools, animals, and plants with naturalistic grace. This is fundamentally different from a phonetic alphabetic language, where the letters are abstractions that refer to a sound. Sound is volatile and ephemeral, but the written word is eternal. An ancient Egyptian could read the world around them, and they did. Like a script, writing materialized what was already implicit to the structure of their reality. Because of these qualities, the hieroglyph was bound to cultural beliefs in magic and the soul, or heka, the cosmic force that permeated all life. In their name, medu netcher, which translates as divine words, the hieroglyphs themselves are granted life. In the Egyptian worldview, “Matter cannot be imagined without spirit. Matter therefore eo ipso has soul.”[6] Carving or painting the living in hieroglyphic form granted them immortality through physical permanence. Inversely, destroying a hieroglyphic representation obliterated the subject from their afterlife, a fate worse than death.

Erased Figure of Queen Hatshepsut Between Two Gods, limestone relief, 18th Dynasty Egypt

Grammatically, a hieroglyph can function in several ways. Take for example the hieroglyph that is an eye. This may act as:

a logogram, where the eye is an eye

a phonogram, where the eye represents the sound of the word spoken aloud; in Egyptian, this sound would be pronounced ear

or an ideogram: where the eye represents an abstract idea as in “to see”

A hieroglyph may also act as a determinative that graphically conveys extra-linguistic information. Determinatives represent concepts, not specific words, and do not contain a referent sound. They communicate silently. For example, the scroll determinative signifies writing and by extension abstract thought. To use the example of the eye, the combined presence of the eye and the scroll would indicate the abstract translation “to watch” or “to see.” Analogous to how cut-ups bridge and collapse the flow of time, a hieroglyph may act in all these ways simultaneously, creating complex and overlapping relationships with hieroglyphs around them. Burroughs referred to this layered means of communication as thinking in “association blocks,”[7] citing it as a method of time travel and expanding consciousness.

Left: Fragment of an Inscription from a Royal Tomb, limestone relief, 19th Dynasty Egypt

Right: Scribe and Official, limestone relief, 15th-16th Dynasty Egypt

Vowels are not represented in hieroglyphics. They are invisible yet their presence is sensed and acknowledged by the reader who fills in their sound values and meanings. Egyptologist and poet Susan Brind Morrow offers this explanation for their absence: “Why are the vowels not written down? Who has seen the wind?” She simultaneously observes that while physically absent, “grammar resides in the vowels,” indicating them to be an active piece of the language. Tied to the spoken word, they are as ephemeral yet elemental as the air they mimic when spoken aloud. To accommodate this characteristic, translators of Ancient Egyptian alter the words in subtle ways to fit the English language. For example, in Brind Morrow’s translation of the four-thousand-year-old Egyptian text “The Debate Between a Man and his Soul” into English, the phrase “Death before me today” becomes “Death is before me today.”[8] Not only is the first translation truer to the Egyptian language, it is as unfettered and brutal as the scene described.

William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, page from Red Scrapbook, c. 1966-73

William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, page from Black Scrapbook, c. 1963-64

Jolting sentence constructions like this one, where linguistic particles are absent, occur naturally in cut-ups due to the addition and removal of space. Burroughs understood hieroglyphs to exclude “the is of identity”[9] from their language and therefore considered them spared from its binding “assignment of permanent condition.”[10] Without “is,” concepts remain non-binary and open to a third mind’s interpretation. The grammar informs the poetics, allowing the reader to receive sense imagery via more immediate frequencies. This demonstrates a fundamental commonality between cut-ups, hieroglyphics, and artist’s books, which in fusing text and image strive towards the same goal.

William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, page from Black Scrapbook, c. 1963-64

In The Century of Artists’ Books, Johanna Drucker writes “an artist’s book has to have some conviction, some soul, some reason to be and to be a book.”[11] Books are a unique form because they rely on collaboration between the book, the reader, and time. The reader’s experience depends on the book’s materiality and sequence. A painting cannot be viewed out of order or left unfinished, but a book can. The soul of the book is its structure. Without grammar or structure, there is entropy. Languages become marks and books become paper. A book’s structure is built around space; the folds that divide the pages, the margins, down to the spaces between words and letters themselves. Cut-ups excel at testing the boundaries of these spaces by, quite literally, cutting through them. Space carries the reader and conveys the passage of time. Its presence is what activates the book’s third mind. Does the critical language of artist’s books apply to cut-ups? If so, then structure is the cut-up’s soul.

Burroughs amassed an enormous archive of cut-up manuscripts and journals during his lifetime. He kept them in folios and frequently organized them visually rather than by subject matter. The cut-ups are vividly described with details like “thin blue lines . . . geometric pattern of triangles . . . very wavy lines” and “geometric grid like Aztec brickwork in blue ink.”[12] Considerable energy and time was put into the aesthetics of these pieces. The content was created using chance—cutting, pasting, and rearranging—but the page’s composition was put together with care. The cut-ups were not just drafts or sketches. Their careful use of space transforms them into discrete works of art.

William Burroughs, Two Untitled Cut-ups, date unknown

Over nearly a decade, from 1963 to 1972, Gysin and Burroughs worked collaboratively on a series of textual and photographic cut-ups with the intention of publishing them as a “hybrid book”[13]—an artists’ book—titled Right Where You Are Sitting Now.[14] At least seventy pieces of artwork were made for the book. The plan was to faithfully reproduce the cut-up works, the thinking being that the reader needed to experience the materiality of the process to fully grasp its meaning.

William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, Untitled, (Rub Out the Word), 1965

Published in The Third Mind, Viking Press, 1978

The complexity and fluidity of the book baffled the publishers, who ultimately abandoned the project as it “challenged a certain Western conception of what a book should be, in its presentation as well as its internal functionings and goals.”[15]It evolved and eventually re-emerged under a new title, The Third Mind, published by Viking Press in 1978. The new version contained typeset cut-ups and essays alongside a few black-and-white reproductions. Many of the original cut-ups were never published and some are now presumed lost.

La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (The Green Box), Marcel Duchamp, 1934

In comparison, Marcel Duchamp’s The Green Box is an archive that is often categorized as an artist’s book. It is a collection of ninety-four pieces of printed ephemera that document the creation of the artwork with which it shares a name. Painstakingly reproduced in collotype, the edges torn by hand, the notes are presented to the reader unbound, leaving their order up to chance. If the cut-ups had been granted a materiality in reproduction comparable to The Green Box, their place in the artist’s book canon would be uncontested. Instead they became outliers; too graphic to be considered writing, too writerly to be considered art.

The Third Mind may never have been published as intended, but Burroughs and Gysin did make artist’s books. Both worked with Jan Herman of Nova Broadcast Press who published works by Alison Knowles and Wolf Vostell as well as others associated with Fluxus. The Dead Star[16] is an artist’s book written and designed by Burroughs in collaboration with Nova Broadcast Press. The text is a cut-up containing the stream of consciousness last words of the gangster Dutch Schultz.

Fevered and dying from a gunshot, Schultz rambled deliriously as a police stenographer stood by, odd fragments like “Come on open the soap duckets . . . The chimney sweeps take to the sword.”[17] The transcript fascinated Burroughs because he seemed to be speaking in cut-ups.

William Burroughs, The Dead Star, Jan Herman, Nova Broadcast Press, 1969

Typeset in long columns and interspersed with images of disaster, the composition mimics that of a newspaper. The book’s structure consists of a folded cover to contain a vertical accordion, which, when unfolded, extends beyond the cover and wraps around the back of the page. This unusual hybrid structure imparts a meandering feel to the text. It simultaneously flows and suddenly changes directions. Form reinforces content; the surreal-sounding words of a dying man. Because the text wraps around like a circle, it is potentially infinite. With each reading, one will find themselves back at the beginning once they have reached the end, a metaphor for reincarnation.

Carl Weissner, The Braille Film, Nova Broadcast Press, 1970

Nova Broadcast Press also published The Braille Film,[18] a collaborative artist’s book by Carl Weissner. Fragments of Burroughs’s novels are interspersed as cut-ups, and a text composed by Burroughs himself is presented sporadically as a “fade-in,” breaking the third wall to address the reader. In contrast to the fluid structure of The Dead Star, The Braille Film’s use of space is as violent and abrupt as its language and imagery. Gas masks, secret agents, and guns permeate the pages, whose orientation switches from horizontal to vertical, black to white, image to text with no apparent warning. The reader does not glide into the next page, they trip and fall. The materials being referenced are those of mass media; microfiched, copied, and enhanced in order to glean their secrets.

Dieter Roth, Bok3a, 1961

The Braille Film is reminiscent of Dieter Roth’s Bok3a in its disruptive use of the fold and newspaper. Like Burroughs, Roth recognized that printed mass media was a symbol of control, equating power with quantity. Roth’s books challenge this power by separating words from their context and therefore their meaning. Through magnified reproduction of the halftone process, letters become images, a code of dots and lines the reader will never decipher, illustrating how suddenly legibility and meaning can devolve. As with cut-ups, this breakdown is achieved through collapses in space and structure, simple shifts that crack the words open, exposing them as the fragile images they are.

Media theorist N. Katherine Hayles argued, “It is impossible not to create meaning through a work’s materiality.”[19] However, artists’ books have been criticized for valuing the eye and the hand over the content within. Cut-ups have been considered a secondary form of literature for the very same reasons. In its handling and splicing of writing on paper, the process acknowledges, even collaborates, with the physical to form written concepts. Samuel Beckett responded to a demonstration of the cut-up technique, “That's not writing, it’s plumbing.”[20] The opinion exists that words should stand alone, detached from physicality, in order to be valued. But there is no such thing as words standing alone, and while meaning is paramount, it is only reinforced by materiality, certainly not hindered.

Brion Gysin, A Trip from Here to There, 1958

Language is not incorporeal—it contains space and structure, picture and sound. Understanding the material qualities of our grammar allow us to interact with it directly and poetically. Cut-ups reveal this by recontextualizing writing as a visual composition. Artists’ books thrive amidst the physicality of their words and communicate through process in the most ineffable and intangible of ways. The essence that grants a language or text or book meaning resides in its structure and by bringing attention to the space between words and language itself, one connects to the essence and soul of the material, and this is where we find the third mind.

© 2018, Marianne Dages

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the College Book Art Association Conference, “Collective Relevance: The Reciprocity of Art and Artifact,” in Philadelphia on January 6, 2018.

Front Cover Image: William S. Burroughs and Sphinx, Photo by Allen Ginsberg, 1953

Back Cover Image: Untitled (Third Mind Seal), William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, 1976

[1] William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, The Third Mind (New York: Viking Press, 1978), 25.

[2] Daniel Odler, The Job: Interviews with William Burroughs (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), 28.

[3] Mary McCarthy, “Dejeuner sur l’Herbe,” New York Review of Books, June 1st 1963.

[4] Ulises Carrión, “The New Art of Making Books” in Second Thoughts (Amsterdam: Void Distributors, 1980) 6-23.

[5] William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, The Third Mind (New York: Viking Press, 1978) 185.

[6] Jan Assmann, “Ancient Egypt and the Materiality of the Sign” in Materialities of Communication, ed. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer. Translated by William Whobrey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994): 27.

[7] William Burroughs and Conrad Knickerbocker, “William Burroughs: An Interview,” The Paris Review 10.35, 1966, 22.

[8] Susan Brind Morrow, The Dawning Moon of the Mind (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) 14-18.

[9]  William S. Burroughs, The Book of Breeething (Berkeley, Blue Wind Press, 1975) 1.

[10] William S. Burroughs, The Electronic Revolution  (West Germany, Expanded Media Editions, 1970) 33.

[11] Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books (New York: Granary Books, 1994) 10-11.

[12] William S. Burroughs Papers, The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library

[13] Robert A. Sobieszek, Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts, (Los Angeles, LACMA, 1996) 57.

[14] William S. Burroughs, Rub Out The Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs, ed. Bill Morgan (New York, Harper Collins, 2012) 190.

[15]  William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, The Third Mind (New York: Viking Press, 1978) 19.

[16] William S. Burroughs, The Dead Star, (San Francisco: Nova Broadcast Press, 1969).

[17] William S. Burroughs, The Last Words of Dutch Schultz: A Fiction in the Form of a Film Script (New York: Viking Press, 1975), 110.

[18] Carl Weissner, The Braille Film, (San Francisco: Nova Broadcast Press, 1970).

[19] N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002) 107.

[20] Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1988) 345.