A while back, I ran a little series, “Another way to generate text.” The first one proved fairly popular, and I’ve been meaning to make more of them, but generative techniques haven’t been on my mind. However, my post last week, “Experimental fiction as principle and as genre,” generated a lot of text (haha), in the form of comments. Some people who chimed in questioned whether the Cut-Up Technique that Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs developed and used in the 1950s was ever all that experimental. Specifically, PedestrianX wrote:
I find it hard to accept this argument when its main example, the Cut-up, didn’t start when you’re claiming it did. I’m sure you know Tzara was doing it in the 20s, and Burroughs himself has pointed to predecessors like “The Waste Land.” Eliot may not have been literally cutting and pasting, but Tzara was.
This comment got me thinking about the role influence plays in experimentation; more about that next week. Today I want to address the point PedestrianX is making, as it strikes me as pretty interesting. Were Gysin and Burroughs merely repeating Tzara? Or were they doing something substantially different?
To figure that out, I decided to run through the respective techniques, documenting what happened along the way. Because if I’ve learned anything in my studies of experimental art, it’s that thinking about the techniques is usually no substitute for sitting down and getting one’s hands dirty.
If you want to get dirty, too, then kindly join me after the jump . . .
But these operations do not occur in neutral territory, Kaye was quick to point out. Burroughs treats all conditions of existence as results of cosmic conflicts between competing intelligence agencies. In making themselves real, entities (must) also manufacture realities for themselves: realities whose potency often depends upon the stupefaction, subjugation and enslavement of populations, and whose existence is in conflict with other ‘reality programs’. Burroughs’s fiction deliberately renounces the status of plausible representation in order to operate directly upon this plane of magical war. Where realism merely reproduces the currently dominant reality program from inside, never identifying the existence of the program as such, Burroughs seeks to get outside the control codes in order to dismantle and rearrange them. Every act of writing is a sorcerous operation, a partisan action in a war where multitudes of factual events are guided by the powers of illusion … (WV 253-4). Even representative realism participates – albeit unknowingly – in magical war, collaborating with the dominant control system by implicitly endorsing its claim to be the only possible reality.
From the controllers’ point of view, Kaye said, ‘it is of course imperative that Burroughs is thought of as merely a writer of fiction. That’s why they have gone to such lengths to sideline him into a ghetto of literary experimentation.’
Adam: Last weekend, playing a stray note on my recorder summoned a cyclone that whirled me away to the swamps of Tallahassee. There I impinged on Christopher Higgs and his wife, who lodged me in their spacious Rococo flat (refurbished from a gator-packing warehouse). Over dinner, Chris and I had numerous opportunities to discuss—and to disagree about—the nature of experimental fiction…
A D JAMESON [leaning back from his seventh helping of tiramisu]: At the risk of spoiling such a fine meal, perhaps you and I can finally figure out why we’ve butted been butting heads regarding the nature of experimental fiction.
CHRISTOPHER HIGGS: OK.
ADJ: Let’s start by each defining what we think experimental fiction is!
I met someone who gave me brainworm recently. I used to think of brainworm as something that I would own and hold. I thought, “The person who gives me brainworm will be mine and I will be theirs.” The new brainworm I found does not feel like something I need to own or hold. It is a thought that continues to eat wherever it wants to eat. I enjoy the feeding of this thought. The feeding is endless. I could let this feeding continue the rest of my life and I would be happy even if I never saw the person who gave me the brainworm. I am so full of brainworm that I am sick. It seems stupid that I could be so happy about having something as dumb as a brainworm.
Tonight I ate some cheese. I was one of the last people in a room eating cheese. An elderly woman who reminded me of my grandmother began talking. She talked about the time she saw William S. Burroughs read. She went to the reading because she wanted to ask him a question. A lot of people at the reading just wanted to take William S. Burroughs out and get him drunk to see what would happen. She never asked the question she wanted to ask because she didn’t know how to formulate it. I continued to eat cheese and listen. The elderly woman said, “If I had a chance to ask William S. Burroughs a question now I would ask him: but what about love?”
My roommate just got home. He said, “Hellllwwwwwooooo” when he walked in the door. He likes to pretend he is a cat and an Asian when he says “Hello”. When he said, “Hellllwwwwwooooo” just now he was actually saying “Hello” to all the haters who will say they don’t believe in brainworm and think its so heterosexual to believe in something like brainworm.
But yes, I have a brainworm that I’m prepared to live with for the rest of my life and not doing anything about.
1. At The Observer, another stockbroker says another dumb thing about the state of fiction.
Dear Lee: When your weathervane is James Wood, you might as well be covering the World Cup. Where have all the Mailers gone? I only ever knew of one, and he’s dead. Try actually investigating something. Open your eyes.
2. At the Guardian, Jeremy Kay reports from the set of the new Herzog/Lynch collaboration.
3. At Pop Damage, an interview with James Grauerholz, the executor of the William S. Burroughs estate.