CutnMix 2011 Experimental Writing, An Introduction (Link)

What is Cut-up?

“Cut-up” , in the strictest, traditional definition is a process whereby an author fragments paper texts with a pair of scissors, and then reassembles the words or phrases either randomly or according to some pattern which has little or nothing to do with the text’s original meaning. A completed novel, story or poem might also be referred to as a “cut-up” if the end product reads as if it has been composed using the cut-up technique. As a genre of writing, cut-up has been described as “literary slapdash”, “textual vomit” and even “pure esoteric sensationalism”. Cut-up writing is often hard (or even impossible) to understand and those who admire it might find themselves in the same “dubious” category as the William S. Burroughs character who is fond of centipedes. As one of the most well – known proponents of the cut-up technique, Burroughs himself made a lot of audacious claims about it’s importance as a weapon in the fight against control structures embedded in printed texts (and language itself). Other enthusiasts have made similar claims, and detractors will often attack the whole process with equal vigour, but both camps fail to realize that cut-up, at it’s root, is a process that has been used by writers for centuries.


Not So Alien and Astonishing, Not So…French, Cut-ups are as English as Fish ‘n’ Chips!

The process currently described as the “cut-up” technique is said to have originated at the beginning of the 20th century when Tristan Tzara, poet and co-founder of Dadaism randomly pulled words out of a hat to compose an on-the-spot automatic poem. Hugo Ball, another dadaist explained: “We must return to the innermost alchemy of the word, we must even give up writing secondhand; that is, accepting words (to say nothing of sentences) that are not newly invented for our own use.” Following on after Dada, the surrealist movement also made use of cut-up processes in poetry and visual art. According to Andre Breton – often described as the founder of Surrealism – the intent of this random juxtapositioning of words or images was to “[make] the elements of discourse confront one another in as paradoxical a manner as possible and so that human communication, from the outset diverted in this way, takes the mind registering it through the greatest adventure”. Is it possible that this innovation leading to the “mind’s … greatest adventure” was discovered only as recently as the early 20th century? Not likely. In fact, the intended effect on the “registering mind” as described by Breton, sounds suspiciously like a recent description of Shakespeare’s writing approached from the perspective of neuroscience:

Shakespeare had a very liberal approach to the use of words. He routinely stretched the limits of language by placing words out of their ordinary contexts. For example, he would use nouns in place of verbs. Recently, researchers at the University of Liverpool conducted experiments to analyze the effects of this type of word usage on the brain. They collected electroencephalogram responses while subjects read selected Shakespearean excerpts containing examples of this unfamiliar or inappropriate word usage. They found that the subject’s brains got unusually excited while trying to work out the intended meaning of these special examples. As professor Philip Davis explains: “By throwing odd words into seemingly normal sentences, Shakespeare surprises the brain and catches it off guard in a manner that produces a sudden burst of activity – a sense of drama created out of the simplest of things.”

  • read more about this study @ the University of Liverpool website
  • read more about Randomness and Experimental Writing

What is Cut-up?