by Oliver Harris
Certain things you must take literally if you want to understand.
—William S. Burroughs (3M 133)
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO ESTIMATE THE DAMAGE
The first line of the ‘First Cut-Ups’ published in Minutes to Go (1960) was, according to Brion Gysin, ‘a readymade phrase that simply dropped onto the table; several layers of printed material were laid one on top of the other and cut through with the Stanley blade’, and when he put these pieces together, Gysin laughed out loud ‘because the answers were so apt and so extraordinary’ (Gysin and Wilson 1982:56). Answers presume questions; but in this material practice the order of causality and chronology has to be reversed. Magically, the cut-up text answered Gysin precisely by revealing to him his own question—that is to say: What will be the effect of the cut-up project? Four decades later, the reply he received at the supposed moment of the project’s inception,1 courtesy of his Stanley blade, may still stand: ‘It is impossible to estimate the damage’ (MTG 6).
Although the temptation to generalize is a basic error—to speak of ‘the cut-up’ is to falsify the great range of cut-up procedures, the enormous variety of texts they produced, and the multiplicity of purposes they served, all of which varied over time—this original cut-up is, in its equivocal potency, exemplary. On the one hand, it prophesizes the very powers of prophecy that Burroughs would almost immediately claim for the method;2 on the other, it predicts the very impossibility of predicting the exact outcome of individual cut-up operations or of definitively measuring the efficacy of the project as a whole. Simultaneously, it promises that the method works—in unspecified destructive ways—and yet creates that meaning only in hindsight and only as an open question. When Burroughs looked back on that ‘hectic, portentous time in Paris, in 1959’ toward the end of his last major novel, The Western Lands, he would ponder both the ‘prophetic’ significance of Minutes to Go’s cryptic phrases and the ‘damage’ he thought he was doing, concluding skeptically that it ‘reads like sci-fi’: ‘We all thought we were interplanetary agents involved in a deadly struggle… battles… codes…ambushes. It seemed real at the time. From here, who knows?’ (WL 252).3 From first to last, there is a standoff between claims for the methods’ prophetic and performative power, an equivocation about the productivity of cut-ups as tools of war in ‘a deadly struggle’ that may or may not have existed.
This paradox has posed an intractable problem for critics. With very few exceptions,4 they have recycled Burroughs’s claims at face value and sidestepped evaluating not only their internal coherence and consistency but also their validity. Did cut-up methods reveal the future, because events are ‘pre-recorded’, or did they produce events, because the function of writing is to ‘make it happen’? Were they revolutionary weapons or a private delusional fantasy, a kind of therapy or a form of pathology? Did they work? From here, who knows?
Inevitably, the one claim that critics have never taken literally is Burroughs’s original and overriding insistence: that cut-up methods were ‘for everyone’ and ‘experimental in the sense of being something to do. Right here write now. Not something to talk and argue about’ (3M 31). For critics to take Burroughs’s advice—put most bluntly to Allen Ginsberg: ‘Don’t theorize. Try it’ (YL 59)—would this not mean abandoning criticism altogether in favor of practice? Perhaps so. But, short of this, what it must mean is putting the cutup project back onto its material base, and this in turn demands an accurate chronology of its development and promotion. For this reason, the first task is to revise the standard critical verdict on Minutes to Go, the launching manual and manifesto of the method.5