The cut-up technique is a method of literary creation in which a text is cut up into into individual words or short phrases and these are randomly rearranged to create new patterns of language.
The technique was used by the Dadaists, especially Tristan Tzara, who wrote a brief set of instructions called “To make a dadaist poem”:
- Take a newspaper.
- Take a pair of scissors.
- Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
- Cut out the article.
- Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
- Shake it gently.
- Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
- Copy conscientiously.
- The poem will be like you.
- And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
Tzara would put the cut-up words in his hat and draw them out one by one in live performances.
In the 1950s, Brion Gysin, one of the more artistic and aesthetically minded of the Beat Generation writers, rediscovered this technique and used it at times in composition. His friend, the more famous author William S. Burroughs, adopted the technique and used it extensively in his novels, such as Naked Lunch (1959). The method has been used at times by other writers as well.
Burroughs taught the technique to Genesis P-Orridge, an influential figure in industrial music, avant-garde performance art, dj culture, and transgender activism, and P-Orridge used the technique with his band Throbbing Gristle and in other endeavours. P-Orridge made the comment, worth reflecting on, that “everything is recorded, and if it is recorded, then it can be edited.”
The technique has been used by more mainstream entertainers, such as David Bowie, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, and Thom Yorke of Radiohead, as well. Here is Bowie discussing how he uses it:
Here is Burroughs discussing the technique and an example of an audio cut-up made by Gysin:
Burroughs supposedly believed you could get a glimpse of the future through cut-ups, but it is more likely that their value lies in disrupting the normal order of mass-produced ideology, but creating new mental images and juxtapositions that our “programmed” minds are not capable of.