A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

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