Calling All Reactive Agents: Cutting Up Burroughs

“Language is a virus from outer space.” - William S. Burroughs

Photograph, Harry Chapman

William S. Burroughs is a favorite reference for contemporary writers and writing scholars. He was a prolific novelist, producing works that spoke of a drug riddled underworld, the likes of which most of us are fortunate to avoid. Regardless, his many references to writing, and to composing, still populate our essays and books. In a series of essays, many of which can be found in The Adding Machine (1986), Burroughs outlines his orientation to language:

My general theory since 1971 has been that the Word is literally a virus, and that it has not been recognized as such because it has achieved a state of relatively stable symbiosis with its human host; that is to say, the Word Virus (the Other Half) has established itself so firmly as an accepted part of the human organism that it can now sneer at gangster viruses like smallpox and turn them in to the Pasteur Institute. But the Word clearly bears the single identifying feature of virus: it is an organism with no internal function other than to replicate itself. (47)

It’s clear that Burroughs’s own understanding of writing depended on evolution and change, coinciding with basic function of a virus. Later, Burroughs would speak explicitly about one such method that enacted his viral sense of language. In The Job (1989), Burroughs ruminates on the oft-cited cut-up method:

I follow the channels opened by the rearrangement of the text. This is the most important function of the cut-up. I may take a page, cut it up, and get a whole new idea for straight narrative, and not use any of the cut-up material at all, or I may use a sentence or two out of the actual cut-up. … It’s not unconscious at all, it’s a very objective operation… (29)

The title of this introduction, "Calling All Reactive Agents," comes from an audio cut-up by Burroughs and one of his favorite collaborators, Brion Gysin. The cut-up method was adopted by countless writers and artists, from Julio Cortázar to David Bowie. Burroughs, it seems, was an influential writing teacher. In fact, in addition to his many texts about his own sense of writing, Burroughs also participated in several lectures and seminars discussing the craft. In February 2014, a set of videos spread like a virus on social media and online publications. These videos capture William S. Burroughs lecturing on “how to write.”

In response to the spread of these videos on creative writing (or, as Burroughs says, "creative reading"), we invited submissions for our Responses section that cut-up and remixed those recordings in a way that teaches writing once more. Each cut-up presented here makes use of the entire set of recordings by rearranging, remixing, cutting up to provide new writing lessons.

Each submission adheres to a few constraints. Cut-ups had to be two minutes in length, use only audio from the above clips, and use a single image.

We couldn't be more pleased by the results. Each of these cut-ups extends and elaborates one of Burroughs's most infectious writing axioms: writing is a virus from outer space.

Casey Boyle & Jim Brown

Cut-Up Artists:

  • Lauren Rae Hall
  • Zach Whalen
  • Robert Leston
  • Steven W. Hopkins
  • Scott Sundvall
  • Jason Wise
  • Steven Alvarez
  • Will Burdette
  • Christian Smith
  • Steven R. Hammer
  • Derek Mueller
  • Estee N. Beck
  • Elizabeth Lowry
  • Pearce Durst
  • Jonathan Lashley
  • Geoffrey V. Carter


Photograph, Harry Chapman

'You are a Competent Black Magician': A Writing Advice Cut-Up

Lauren Rae Hall, University of Pittsburgh

(Published: February 5, 2015)

Listening to William S. Burroughs ramble about novels’ plots and “bicameral man” for nearly five hours, I was struck by two things: he’s not a terribly engaging teacher, but he is a bewitching speaker. He’s slow and confident. His descriptions are long, with too many adjectives. His arguments are strange and meandering. I wanted to keep that Burroughs-ness but offer a direct and hopeful way into and through the often “fragile universe[s]” of writing. I wanted Burroughs to speak directly to the writer-listener who is entangled in the uncertainties of composition.


Zach Whalen, University of Mary Washington

(Published: February 5, 2015)

Removing Burroughs's words but not Burroughs himself leaves behind inhalation (sharp, slow, quick), swallows, coughs, page turns, pencil scratches, others’ coughs, traffic, a train. This is not silence: this is not empty. The content is, rather, the sonic space inhabited closely by the bodies of Burroughs and his audience, their attention and distractions. In Audacity, where sounds become lines, these moments are easy to isolate—smoothly ascending curves punctuated with sharp plosive peaks. In juxtaposition, their assembly is tense, intimate, ambiguous. But not empty.

50 Years Behind Painting

Robert Leston, City University of New York—College of Technology

(Published: February 5, 2015)

How to Make a Burroughs Cut-Up or 'How I Made "50 Years Behind Painting"'

3 hours raw Burroughs meat, downloaded from Internet

1 medium cockroach

A cassette tape of Patti Smith’s Radio Ethiopia (1976)

Ernest Hemingway’s blasphemous comments from “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” (1933)

A “Fuck the Clock” t-shirt, diced

Jackson Pollock’s No. 8 (1949)

Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934)

Vermont maple syrup


After downloading, take the Burroughs meat to a wide open space. With a friend, stretch the meat over 100-150 yards. Lay it on the ground and smooth out the bumps with a rolling pin. Combine Smith tape, Hemingway comments, Pollock print, t-shirt, and cockroach and blend well. Sift the mixture through a strainer to a fine powder and sprinkle it generously over the meat. Let sit. While waiting, perform one or all of the following activities:

  • Hike a steep mountain or into a cave. When you arrive at your destination, read from a language you don’t understand while chewing tree bark.
  • Read Miller beginning before page 253 mezzoforte.
  • Take your maple syrup to a busy marketplace and draw a gooey circle with it on the ground. Kneel down in the center of it, and confess your sins to the passersby. If you do not have enough sins to confess, make some up.

By now the best areas of the meat will have begun to bubble. Trim away all areas that have not reacted to the mixture. Label each and freeze for future use. Clips retain freshness if kissed before freezing. Inspect the remaining pieces of meat, and toss the most promising high into the air. As they descend, slice in mid-air with a Samurai sword into smaller pieces. Feed best parts into Brian Gysin’s Dreamachine (if available) and spin at 78 revolutions per minute for 2 hours. (A digital editing apparatus suffices as well.) Scant garnish with jalapeño and serve with eyes closed.

A Portrait of Two CIA Men

Steven W. Hopkins, Arizona State University

(Published: February 5, 2015)

While making this cut-up, my whole goal was to create a narrative where one didn't exist before. The portrait that emerged of these two men—these bomb-throwing, owl-attacking, backwards-thinking terrorists reminiscent of smelly mud and scabs—came into being, as Burroughs says, through mine and his "midwifely services." Burroughs never intended for them to exist, and I can't rightly claim that I created them either. But now they do exist, and it's "so strikingly similar to the American Dream."

An Introduction and Conclusion to Metaphysical Writing Studies

Scott Sundvall, University of Florida

(Published: February 5, 2015)

My production uses the cut-up method and repetition to approach the processual virality of language, especially as it pertains to the metaphysics of writing. The production focuses on writing as a creative, inventive act, an act of God (“blasphemously”)—thus also a walk with the Beast. Writing as he(u)retics, a virus: mutating, spreading, contagious. The instruction can be found in the process and reproduction of writing as the meaningful construction of time and space, of “being” as such. Both a black hole and the field in which lightning always strikes twice in the same place, writing never leaves the priority of metaphysics.

Burroughs Adding Machine

Jason Wise, Salisbury University

(Published: February 5, 2015)

I sampled Burroughs's lecture with a patch built in Max/MSP and reassembled the clips in Ableton Live. Though assembly was random, leaving room for improvisation and spontaneous accidents, there was still concern for narrative. Cut-ups are a freeing and subversive heuristic. They provide space for the Third Mind or unconscious to speak. If we live in a "prerecorded universe," cut-ups help us take control over reality and create new meaning potentials. Cut-ups are also comic routines. It is not a remote technique only accessible to the avant-garde. Cut-ups are practical. As Burroughs says, "Cut-ups are for everyone."

Burroughs Crossroads

Steven Alvarez, University of Kentucky

(Published: February 5, 2015)

"Burroughs Crossroads" is a sonic weaving of Burroughs’s lectures, "cut up" as audio clips and layered over one another. As I edited the piece, I listened to the track "Crossroads"—which features Burroughs—on Tom Waits' The Black Rider, and as I spliced I could hear the rhythm and cadence of his and different recordings morph into heteroglossia. The rhythm of this cut-up alternates at an increasing pace before all the voices layer over one another until abruptly ending. This was an experiment to hear conflicting sounds about originality, science fiction, and narrative theory.

Burroughs on the Cut-Up: Blasting the Writer out of the Sequential

Will Burdette, University of Texas at Austin

(Published: February 5, 2015)

I started this piece by listening. I love the timbre of Burroughs’s voice. At 0:04, I pull out an audible "uh" that was particularly musical in a chanting kind of way. It paired well with the Buddhist problem-solving approach he discusses, so I looped it under the rest of the track with some effects. That set the tone. I grabbed samples that “spoke to me.” Then I framed the whole thing with metacommentary about audio-recording tools, beginning with a mic check and ending with the importance of the click of the tape recorder.

Burroughs’s Click Composition

Christian Smith, Coastal Carolina University

 (Published: February 5, 2015)

“The writer is disappearing into his/click.” If Geoffrey Sirc gave us a box-logic, we might say that Burroughs gives us a box/cutter/logic, or a composition of the click. The click of the camera, the tape recorder, the scissors snapping shut. In the click, we get invention and new possibilities for arrangement. Here I have inserted an audible “click” of Burroughs’s own voice at indeterminate intervals throughout his lectures. Once inserted, a process of cutting the WAV file yielded this result.

How to Travel in Time

Derek Mueller, Eastern Michigan University

(Published: February 5, 2015)

This experimental cut-up fumbles at an edge found among memory, arrangement, and the slipping and skipping induced by a cut-up method. As I listened to Burroughs's lectures in GarageBand, I clipped and saved several samples, assembling the instigating clicks into a word and phrase index with 104 snippets. Among these, I selected clusters whose right-sounding acoustic or thematic qualities built into intelligible phrases, and then those phrases—expanded and strung together—surfaced as a playful statement about the cut-up method itself inscribing a kind of time travel with its repetitions, shufflings, and redoublings of memory.

Infecting William S. Burroughs’ Words: A Mediation between Host and Parasite

Estee N. Beck , Bowling Green State University

 (Published: February 5, 2015)

I hope that with this remix I will not have to rent a space in an art gallery (or a conference booth) only to place a paper bag on my head to apologize. #iamsorry I am neither actor nor performance artist—perhaps, though, a curious provocateur. This remix mediates on the transaction of virus and host. Consider this: Burroughs saw the Word as virus, and also relied upon the cut-up method for arrangement and possibility. A successful virus replicates without the host's knowledge. Unsuccessful viruses replicate in strange fashions (such as this remix) that draw attention in odd manners to their nature, structure, and being. This mediation offers a pathway for considering the slipperiness of cut-up &/or plagiarism as virus. This remix-as-method itself is not plagiarism; the method only allows the virus to slip through and attach to the host body. What the remix hopefully offers those infected by the Word is an opportunity to reflect and engage on cut-up and even plagiarism, and perhaps the potential for transcendence into performance and art.

Academic druthers: The arrangement of Burroughs’ audio words in the timestamp of 1.31 through 1.34 follows the written word or structure from the following source: Serres, Michel. The Parasite. Trans. Lawrence R. Schehr. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1982. Print.

Just Notice. That's It.

Elizabeth Lowry, Arizona State University

(Published: February 5, 2015)

Burroughs emphasizes the importance of noticing the world around us and attending to what we are "thinking and feeling at a given time." A great deal of discipline is required to "just notice." In addition to self-awareness and an eye for detail, noticing may mean temporarily adopting another person's subject position or moving our focus back and forth between the familiar and the unfamiliar. When Burroughs says that writing has to "move," he speaks of the potential accumulation of detail—the accretion of all that we have attended to—coming together in the service of a narrative.

Recording the Signs: Epistemological Echoes

Pearce Durst, University of Montevallo

(Published: February 5, 2015)

Recorded history is said to begin with a click. Without records, there is no history and there is no rhetorical movement. Just play back what you thought you knew. Recorded history is said to end with a click. With records, events in time realize the laws of repetition, recurrence, and synchronicity. Lightning always strikes twice in the same place. Rhetors record signs in the periphery. A personal microscope becomes a public telescope. If senses can ignite expectancy, then our surroundings will be unveiled. Recognize what you don’t know that you know. This might be all that we know.

To Writing Why Knot

Jonathan Lashley, Clemson University

(Published: February 5, 2015)

This audio cut-up problematizes “writing” as simply a technology of alphabetic literacy. By pursuing the generous associations that writing may carry among media, culture, and identity, I have sought to challenge a listener’s definition of what writing is and could be in practice. Developed by pairing every instance where Burroughs references “writing” or “writers” with descriptive turns of phrase about creative processes and thoughtful living (many of which arose from his discussions of various literary characters and plots), this remix asks for greater reflection on what it means to write.

William S. Burroughs Wrote Without Words?

Geoffrey V. Carter, Saginaw Valley State University

(Published: February 5, 2015)

Burroughs’s laughter over confusing “words,” instead of “verbs,” is what gets me. He can’t stop chuckling that he “wrote without words” in someone else’s dream. “That may mean something to you,” says the flabbergasted audience member. But what could his laughter mean? Certainly his description of his writing can be mundane (i.e., “Well there’s not much to tell. I just sit down and write”). Could “writing without words” free ourselves of the notion that we can control language? To imagine writing done without language as we know it? A Language Without Words.


Steven R. Hammer, Saint Joseph’s University

 (Published: February 5, 2015)

Gysin and Burroughs’s cut-up method has been adapted in many ways across many practices, many of which have occupied my creative work: sampling, splicing, remixing, etc. Yet the crux of the cut-up has always been about getting my hands dirty with the raw material of sounds, paper, and video. Thus, in dealing with a digital sound file, I went a step beyond cutting the sonic interpretations of data and reached into the data that comprises the sound file. Using a technique referred to as “data bending” in the glitchArt world, I simply opened the digital sound file with a text editor and began to cut, copy, and paste the code of the file to corrupt and rearrange its sonic interpretation. What results is an interpretation of both the method and writing that performs and advocates “destructive acts … to fuck up” the ways that we typically interact with our writing materials and conceive of ourselves as [Modern] authors, wielding tools of precision, clarity, and cleanliness.