The Argotist Online
William Burroughs: Some Contexts for Visual-Text Production
beginning of Allen Fisher’s book
& Empathy: Composition in American Literature and Art after 1950)
What is visual in the work of William S. Burroughs, apart from the image representations he proposes in his written fiction, can be isolated as:
1955 William Burroughs was at work on the texts for The Naked Lunch, The Soft
Machine and then The Ticket That Exploded. In October 1955 Burroughs
wrote to Allen Ginsberg, ‘the mosaic method is more suitable to painting than
writing’. (1993: xxxii) Source materials for these books, dated 1958 in
the William S. Burroughs Archives (after his apomorphine treatment in England in
1956), indicate radical shifts in Burroughs’ writing processes by that time.
In his Foreword Note to Nova Express he confirms this when he writes:
‘An extension of Brion Gysin’s cut-up method which I call the fold-in method
has been used in this book which is consequently a composite of many writers
living and dead’. (1964b: 5) Contemporary with this shift in writing process
there is considerable visual evidence for a range of contemporary works,
factured in London and New York. A work by R.B. Kitaj, painting in London in
1958, provides many examples. Kitaj’s Tarot Variations (1958, High
Museum, Atlanta) uses Eliot and Pound’s The Waste Land sectioning the
painting into gridded, disturbed and torn references. The procedures used in the
books by Burroughs listed above, all published in Paris in 1959-1962, include
experiments with other artists, visual, film, computer generation, including
Brion Gysin (see for example: Burroughs, mss. from Minutes to Go (102)
c.1959). In 1964, recalling the 1958 beginnings, Gysin wrote:
cutting a mount for a drawing in room #25, I sliced through a
experiments include the production of scrapbooks and the assemblage of
fragmented, torn and cut-up texts from more than one source, presented or read
through as damaged narratives. In Paris Mimmo Rotella has started his décollages,
simulations of multiple-torn posters and, in New York, Robert Rauschenberg has
shifted his assemblages into a phase where parts of the visual references remain
in place (Rotella, Mimmo, Mythology, 1962, Milan and Rauschenberg Robert,
Estate, 1963, Philadelphia Museum of Art).
methods in these activities are encouraged by many recognitions, one of these is
visual (see for instance: Burroughs, mss. from Minutes to Go (39)
of the characters in these excursions are named, the names are recurrences in
Burroughs’ work, ‘Mr. Bradley Mr. Martin’. These multiple characters, like
the methods demonstrably and explicitly employed, are metonymic, and
proprioceptive of attitudes and position. Burroughs rewrites these passages
mechanically horizontally, including the representation of damage inevitably
encouraged from broken words and syntax. He proposes the metonym of damage using
actual damage. Such damage is demonstrated through work in this period in the
publications that precede the codified commodities, the normalities of the
books; a good demonstration is the publication titled APO-33 Bulletin, (1966,
seldom corrects - or rather that is part of the apparency, the demonstration -
there are visual exceptions which produce ink splats or densely inked or
corrected word fragments. He states his method on page 2 of the TIME book
and the method is repeated elsewhere and maintained. Aspects of this
method are most evident, even after the typesetting clean-ups, in Burroughs’
novels Nova Express, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded
and associated works displayed in Bulletin for Nothing and LINES magazines
in tow with Brion Gyson, later with Claude Pelieu and with those in New York
such as Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett. The theory behind the method is elsewhere
in the Burroughs literature and refers to the idea of reading a column in a
newspaper and taking in visual and written information from the adjacent or
parallel columns in the same newspapers:
I started my trip in
Like this. Like
Take today’s pap
Fill up three col-
scan out. Now read
column. Fill a '
(page 3, column 2: 1965b)
Now consider the picture
word columns. Now
you move back in time
page. The page is ‘f
of present time on
you do this there is
so on back. Each tim
two columns with
Now fill in the re
cross column reading
on another page ’
(page 4, column 2: 1965b)
theory, method and practice are linked directly to visual collage technique
developed after World War II, for example in Eduardo Paolozzi’s work Collage
Mural for Fry, Drew Partners in 1952; work using TIME magazine covers
in 1952 (such as Paolozzi, From Puckers to Puccini & Mozart Too,1952)
and the concept of crowd-out proposed elsewhere (such as Allen Fisher, The
Crowd, North American Centre for Interdisciplinary Poetics’ website.)
‘Unfinished Cigarette’ (1963, republished by Aloes 1973a: 2) the cutting and
splicing leads to the list ‘ Ewyork Onolulu Aris Ome Oston.’ This may have
been produced by mechanical accident, but it needs to be noted that Burroughs
chooses to leave this accident in place, and in fact emphasises his recognition
of it in his recapitalisation of the city names. Paul Metcalf’s complaint
about Burroughs use of accident perhaps conceals a conventional worry about
truth or veracity. The text shifts from column to column which Burroughs then
regularises into a chopped and selected syntax in a parody, rather than a
simulation, of a damaged film strip. The phrase of city names is partly repeated
in other works, such as The Ticket That Exploded. Repetition and
recurrence are in fact part of the compositional method: ‘Gray luminous flakes
falling softly on Ewyork, Aris, Ome, Oston…’ (1962: 15) This is a
pseudo-mechanical device (and impinges on Benjamin’s cluster of essays on
mechanical reproductivity). The first section of The Ticket That Exploded provides:
‘ectoplasmic flakes of old newspapers and newsreels swirling over the smooth
concrete floor…’ (1962: 7); ‘Sound and image flakes swirled round
him...’ (1962: 7); ‘camera gun
with telescopic lens equipped to take and project a moving picture vibrating the
image at supersonic speed…’ (1962: 13); ‘Tentative beings taking
form…’ (1962: 8); ‘Tentative beings that took form…’ (1962: 9);
‘Tentative beings followed the music membrane of light and color - Pipes of
Pan…’ (1962: 16); ‘Criss-crossed with tentative whistles of other
lips…’ (1962: 16)
recurrences also bring with them a stream of associations and check with
Burroughs early associations with Business school curricula and with American
Cubism available through earlier ideas in William James [Principles of
(1890)] and literature-business
student Gertrude Stein and her 1896 and 1898 Motor Automatism texts
, picked by James Joyce in, for instance, Ulysses . Burroughs
mentions the drawings of Paul Klee [1993: xxxix])
recurrences bring a set of fragments from visual and aural perception evident in
montage produced by cutting with the mechanical device of scissors (highlighted
in Heartfield  and in later Dada [Burroughs met Tristan Tzara in
Paris in 1959 (1993: xxxix)]) or using a razor (eventually to be emphasised by
Norman Mustil (Mustil, Norman Ogue, from Flypaper, 1967). This is the
method developed from Cubist painting and collage by Constructivists and Dada.
In 1964, Gysin noted: ‘Painters first suggested the means were at hand more
than fifty years ago. About the time they got horses off the streets and planes
in the sky, we freed ourselves from the animals and got the machine on our
hands.’ (1973d: 5) Burroughs wrote to Ginsberg from Paris in 1958, ‘Brion
Gysin living next door. He used to run The 1001 Nights in Tanger. He has
undergone similar conversion to mine and doing GREAT painting. I mean great in
the old sense, not jive talk great. I know great work when I see it in any
medium. I see in his painting the psychic landscape of my own work. He is doing
in painting what I try to do in
writing. He regards his painting as a hole in the texture of the so-called
“reality”, through which he is exploring an actual place existing in outer
space…’ (1993: 398)
This method is also evident in the pencil cuts and cut-ins in ‘The Waste Land’ by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (1922) (referred to above in the Burroughs typescript and the Kitaj canvas). It is worth noting Burroughs’ own drawing on the cover of the Paris The Naked Lunch and the drawings he sent to Ginsberg on at least four occasions in 1959 (1993: 406n, 410, 411-412, 414, 415). The method and metaphor also link to the film splice, as proposed by Sergei Eisenstein (1929). This is emphasised in such phrase-composites as: ‘You can watch our worn out/ film dim jerky far away/ shut a bureau drawer (‘The Last Post: DANGER AHEAD [1965 in Aloes’ 1973a: 27]) This also provides a metaphor for Burroughs’ fiction: ‘It should now be obvious that what you call ‘reality’ is a function of these precisely predictable because prerecorded human activities. Now what could louse up a precorded biologic film?’ (1965 in Aloes’ 1973a: 36) and again in the same text: “Mr. Martin’s I gather that plan to move the show [that is human existence] to planet Venus has uh miscarried. Is that correct?”/ “Yeah it looks that way. The entire film is clogged.” (1965 in Aloes’ 1973a: 37). In The Beginning is also the End and in the earlier The Cold Spring News he writes:
dropped the photo into a bureau drawer smell of ashes rising from the typewriter
a black silver sky of broken film’. (1963 in Aloes 1973a: 41) and ‘with a
telescope you watch our worn out film dim jerky far away shut a bureau drawer
visual display of columns in 'Who is the/ Walks beside you/ written 3rd?’ is
supported explicitly in the fiction and again metaphorically linked to film. In
C1: ‘This is story in three columns at different speeds’ and ‘in this
column we have every day life …’ In
C2: In this column of varying speed and distance. I digress to drop a
(parentheses of years) …’ In
C3: ’16 frames per second old film here dim jerky far away …’ (1965 in
Aloes’ 1973a: 42). In Olympia magazine Burroughs writes, ‘My writing
methods are similar to those of photographic montage. I want some of my
characters in focus and others out of focus. So I cut into the story with a
flash-forward in the narrative to give a hint of what is to come.’ (1963: 10)
It is clear that even such teleportation is not so simple as Burroughs
demonstrates in the violence of his Mink Muting, and other rifle shot
works in the October Gallery, London, 1987.
one spacetime the physiological process with mechanical device from that
process. This a combination also proposed by Paul Metcalf with a radically
different sensibility, both in terms of its perception’s choices and the
methods of selection. Both artists take on the disaster of Hubbard’s
physiological theory of memory and ‘Clear Mind’ fascism, in coupling with a
particular American development of assemblage.
© Allen Fisher
Allen Fisher has been involved in performance and writing poetry since 1962. A poet, painter, publisher, editor and art historian, he has produced over one hundred and thirty chapbooks and books of poetry, graphics and art documentation. He currently edits Spanner, lives in Hereford and works at the Roehampton University where he is Professor of Poetry & Art.
He has exhibited paintings in many shows including a one-man show in London in 2003, retrospective shows at York in 1993 and at the Hereford City Art Gallery and Museum in 1994. Examples of his work are in the Tate collection, London, the King’s College Archive, London and the Living Museum, Iceland, as well as private collections in Australia, Britain and the USA.
His last three books were Place (Reality Street, 2005), Entanglement (The Gig, Ontario, 2004), and Gravity (Salt Publications, 2004).
Burroughs: Primary Bibliography part one: 1952-1973 (first draft).
Queer mss. (Miles 1973c)
First drafts of The Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine (Miles
The Soft Machine mss. (Miles 1973c)
Source materials for Naked Lunch, Soft Machine and The Ticket That
Naked Lunch mss. (Miles 1973c)
Junkie, Confessions of an unredeemed drug addict by William
London: Digit Books.
Miscellaneous material which becomes Minutes to Go (Miles 1973c)
The Naked Lunch, Paris: The Olympia Press.
Materials from Paris for Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, cut-ups,
Minutes to Go
and The Exterminator (Miles 1973c)
mss. of cut-ups (Miles 1973c)
with Sinclair Beiles, Gregory Corso and Brion Gysin, Minutes To Go,
Paris: Two Cities Editions.
Burroughs pieces are: ‘Open Letter to Life Magazine’ Dec.
’59; ‘Cancer Men… These Individuals are Marked Foe…’ Oct. ’59;
‘Formed in the Stance’ Oct. ’59; ‘Viruses were by Accident?’ nd;
‘The Actual Ma Viruses in Polio Photo for Fur
Fuzz?’ nd; ‘Dish Soprano Made the Night for She Ovation’ nd;
‘Others Kill Cells and Future for New Cancer Holes’ nd; ‘Mao Tze …’ nd;
‘From San Diego Up to Maine’ nd; with Corso, ‘Everywhere March Your
Head’ and ‘Sons of Your In’ (both using Rimbaud); ‘Reative
Agent Tape Cut by Lee The
Agent in Interzone’ nd;
with Brion Gysin, The Exterminator, Auerhahn, San Francisco.
mss. Cut-ups and material for Nova Express and Towers Open Fire
The Ticket That Exploded mss. (Miles 1973c)
The Soft Machine, Paris: The Olympia Press.
The Ticket That Exploded, Paris: The Olympia Press
Nova Express mss. (Miles 1973c)
‘The ticket that exploded’ ‘Bulletin from ‘Rewrite’ with
comment by WSB, in Olympia, number 4, Olympia Press, Paris.
with Allen Ginsberg, The Yage Letters, San Francisco: City Lights
Dead Fingers Talk (Miles 1973c)
The Naked Lunch, London: Jonathan Cape.
Nova Express, reprinted 1966, London: John Calder,
‘The Border City’ in Arcade One, London.
‘Who Is The Third That Walks beside You?’ in Art & Literature,
‘Pry Yourself Loose and Listen’, ‘Notes on Page One’, ‘Ancient
Gone Out’, ‘Just So Long and Long Enough’ in Gnaoua 1,
‘Martin’s Mag’ in Ambit 20, London.
‘The Last Post, DANGER AHEAD’ in LINES, New York.
TIME, New York: ‘C’ Press
‘Dutch Schultz Special’ in My Own Mag 13, London.
‘Composite Text’ in Underground Telegram,
Bulletin From Nothing #1,
Beach Books: San Francisco.
‘Palm Sunday Tape’ in Bulletin From Nothing #2, Beach Books:
‘St. Louis Return’ and ‘The Art of Fiction’ interview, in
Paris Review 35.
‘Martin’s Folly’ in Residu 2, London and Provincetown, MA.
[formerly in Sigma’s ‘Moving
So Who Owns Death TV? San Francisco: Beach Books
William Burroughs presents: Claude Pélieu, With Revolvers Aimed -
Finger Bowls, trans. Mary
Beach, San Francisco: Beach Books, Texts & Documents.
APO-33 Bulletin, A Metabolic Regulator, San Francisco: Beach Books
The dead star, San Francisco: The Nova Broadcast Series (reissue
typesetting of My Own Mag).
The Academy Series, originally published in Mayfair, generally
monthly from October 1967 until December 1970.
Reprinted in a collected form in Brighton by Urgency Press Rip Off.
Odier, Daniel, The Job, Interview with William Burroughs, London:
The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, Cape Goliard Press, London.
Electronic Revolution, 1970-71, Collection OU (Ingatestone).
The Wild Boys, A Book of the Dead, New York: Grove Press.
‘DC49’ (including extracts from Burroughs’ 1970 scrapbooks) in The
Image, 7, London.
White Subway, London: Aloes Books.
Port of Saints, London and Ollon, Switzerland: Covent Garden Press
and Am Here books.
Miles, Barry, A Descriptive Catalogue of the William S. Burroughs
Archives, Vaduz, Lichtenstein: International Center of Art and
(undated ‘Cut-Up Cross’: ‘A cross created by a vertical line
halving the page, crossed by a horizontal line halving the page. The page is
therefore quartered. This method is sometimes used rather than physically
cutting the page into quarters.’
undated ‘Newspaper Format’: ‘A
manuscript in three vertical columns, usually with
the headline or headline space ruled
across the top.’
undated ‘3 column style.’)
Gysin, Brion with texts by William Burroughs and Ian Sommerville
Let the Mice In, New
York: Something Else Press.
Kentucky ham, New York: E.P. Dutton.
‘The Limits of Control’ in semiotext(e) volume III, no.2,
York. pp. 38-42.
with Brion Gysin, The Third Mind, (1960-73) London: John Calder.
Harris, Oliver (ed.) The Letters of William S. Burroughs. 1945-1959,
Lotringer, Sylvére (ed.) Burroughs live - The Collected Interviews of
William S. Burroughs, 1960-1997, Los