Cut-up technique

From Academic Kids

The cut-up technique is a literary form or method in which a text is cut up at random and rearranged to create a new text.



The first recorded instance of a cut-up dates from a Dada rally in the 1920s: Tristan Tzara offered to create a poem on the spot by pulling words at random from a hat. A riot ensued and André Breton expelled Tzara from the movement.

In the 1950s painter and writer Brion Gysin more fully developed the cut-up method after accidentally discovering it. He had placed layers of newspapers as a matt to protect a tabletop from being scratched while he cut papers with a razor blade. Upon cutting through the newspapers, Gysin noticed that the sliced layers offered interesting juxtapositions. He began deliberately cutting newspaper articles into sections, which he randomly rearranged. Minutes to Go resulted from his initial cut-up experiment: unedited and unchanged cut-ups which emerged as coherent and meaningful prose. Gysin introduced writer William S. Burroughs to the technique at the Beat Hotel. The pair later applied the technique to printed media and audio recordings in an effort to decode the material's implicit content, hypothesizing that such a technique could be used to discover the true meaning of a given text. Burroughs also suggested cut-ups may be effective as a form of divination saying, Perhaps events are pre-written and pre-recorded and when you cut word lines the future leaks out.

Burroughs cited earlier works as proto-cut-ups: T.S. Eliot's long poem, The Waste Land, and portions of John Dos Passos' works.

Borroughs taught cut-up technique to Genesis P-Orridge in 1971 as a method for altering reality. Burroughs' explanation was that everything is recorded, and if it is recorded, then it can be edited. (P-Orridge, 2003) P-Orridge has long employed cut-ups as an applied philosophy, a way of creating art and music, and of conducting one's life.

From at least the early 1970s, David Bowie has used cut-ups to create some of his lyrics.

Other musicians working in sample-based genres such as Hip Hop and Electronic Music employ a similar technique. DJs especially value digging, or spending hours in record stores looking for LP records featuring obscure or interesting breaks, vocals, and other fragments to meld together in new compositions. Some have suggested these practices are a form of cut-ups, but most such musicians are probably unaware of Tzara, Burroughs or Gysin (DJ Spooky being an exception).

Similarly, musique concrete had introduced such techniques — cutting, re-arranging and re-editing sounds — much earlier in a musical (as opposed to literary) context.

Jeff Noon uses a similar remixing technique in his writing based on the practices prevalent in Dub music. He expanded upon his remixing with his Cobralingus system, which breaks down a piece of writing, going as far as turning individual words into anagrams, then melding the results into a narrative.

Email cut-ups

A recent phenomenon is an e-mail spam tactic in which randomly-generated text passages are used to thwart Bayesian filters. For example,

The first question of course was, how to get dry again: they me as I walked, the remembrance of my churlishness and that I must confidence between himself and Mrs. Micawber. After which, he for his dagger till his hand gripped it. Then he spoke. I kissed her, and my baby brother, and was very sorry then; but not

Such text is called spamoetry (spam poetry) or spam art. Since the text is often derived from actual books, this is effectively a cut-up method (though the perpetrators may be unaware of this).

Related links

External links

  • General Info
    • Fluctuation ( An example of the cut-up technique applied to the creation of poetry.
    • UbuWeb: William S. Burroughs ( featuring a cut-up, K-9 Was in Combat with the Alien Mind-Screens (1965), made with Ian Sommerville
  • Online Cut-Up Tools
    • Lazarus Corporation Text Mixing Desk ( is online software that manipulates text using the cut-up technique.
    • God's Rude Wireless ( hosts a cut-up engine running on simple Javascript, as well as some other language manipulation tools.
    • Grazulis' Cut-Up Machine ( (choose specified or random increments of words to cut, rub out words)
    • Language Is A Virus ( Cut-Up Machine, Slice-n-Dice, Cut-Up techniques explained



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