I knew about William S. Burroughs long before I ever touched On the Road or consciously heard the term Beat Generation. People in my school carried Junkie around as if it were their own personal Bible. Burroughs seemed to resonate with people in a way that Kerouac and Ginsberg did not, even though his writing is an assault on the senses.
Burroughs subjects his readers to his own grammatical whims. He is explicit and crude, making him a literary Howard Stern of sorts. Most familiar things found in writing, such as a plot, appear to be gone. However, if the word is a virus, as Burroughs would like us to believe, is he offering us a cure through the cut-up?
Of course, Burroughs is not the first writer to play with the conventions of punctuation, however, when authors chose to do this it affects the reader. We have been trained since the very beginning as to what these cues are trying to tell us. A comma is a pause. A semi-colon is a longer pause, saying “Woah! Take notice of something I’ve written here!” A period is another pause and the end of a sentence. And so on and so on. A break in this coded language trips the reader up, giving them a different relationship to the material. While punctuation, and how one deals with it, usually comes as second nature without much thought, the reader is now aware of it. However, the reader still associates everything back to the traditional system. While the stringed ideas don’t necessarily create anything that one could call a sentence, they still convey a meaning. In other sections, they use dashes, or they through everything out the window right down to capitalization. At other times, they revert to tradition.
The conditioning at the hands of English teachers over the years makes it difficult not to translate. Not only have the words infected us, but the whole network of symbols that accompanies them has infected us as well. No matter what attempts are made to break away from that system, it is so engrained that our minds struggle to get back to it when confronted with something outside of the system.
While Burroughs’ use of punctuation remains on the outside of what is familiar to us, the notion of the cut-up no longer is. Despite this, it is still interesting what he did in terms of using the cut-up in his writing and in his films with Gysin. In his films it is easy to first associate what they did as having a connection to the notion of montage. However, when the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein created the concept of montage, he placed a lot of importance on the conveyed meaning that the construction of images applied. For example, an image of a baby crying followed by the image of food would convey that the baby was hungry. Of course, the montage constructions in the film were often more complex, there was still an underlying meaning that was trying to be conveyed. In the films by Burroughs and Gysin the underlying meaning isn’t there, at least not in the same manner as traditional montage films. But much like their writing, the collection of images stringed together does convey an idea, even if the idea is without a strong sense of meaning to back it up. Many people suggest that the roots of this style of editing came from MTV and music videos, but maybe the roots of MTV were in films like those by Burroughs.
We have become familiar with the structure of the cut-up, even if we never read or saw one. On television, TV shows are written around the necessary interruptions and films on TV are cut into haphazardly for commercial breaks. At any point someone can turn on their TV, start watching something, and then turn it off before the story is finished. Our attention spans have shrunk. We cut up the newspaper (or web page, or magazine) in our minds while we read, jumping from one thing to another as soon as we start to lose interest. When The Ticket That Exploded was first published in the 1960’s, readers would have surely had a different relationship with it. For something that is difficult to read for long periods of time, our minds are now well conditioned.
One can see how the notion of the cut-up works similar to playing with punctuation in terms of bringing attention to the word as a virus. When the familiar structure of the traditional plot is gone, the relationship with the words changes. Ideally, this should engage the reader. There should be a more active effort on the part of the reader to understand what the writer is trying to convey. Instead, our familiarity with fragments and random bits of story get in the way. We are now comfortable with building our own plots out of these bits of information, but in building our own concept of what the plot is, we lose the point Burroughs was trying to make. The work no longer belongs to him as a writer, but to us as a reader. While this shouldn’t be an issue, we bring with us the virus in our mind. His words become part of that system rather than something that is working to fight against it. A device used to create an awareness of the word as a virus is no longer effective. We have become immune.
But, what is that Burroughs wants us to understand? If we are to believe that the word is a virus, then we have to see our traditions and habits as something poisonous, and begin to question the implications that they bring to our lives. Burroughs does not offer us a retreat from the virus all together, especially now that the concept of the cut-up is familiar. He is not a cure, but rather offers us a vaccination. He gives us a weakened form of the word to consume, and to help build our immunity to the onslaught of the virus. It is up to us to choose to take it.