Although collage was the dominant form in the arts for much of the 20th century, it wasn't until after World War II that it really took hold in literature

Although collage was the dominant form in the arts for much of the 20th century, it wasn't until after World War II that it really took hold in literature and music. The man who almost single-handedly transformed the former and ultimately influenced the latter was author William S. Burroughs (1914-1997), a pioneer of the cut-up technique, a method of cutting up pre-existing media and rearranging it to form something entirely new.

Known primarily for his controversial novel Naked Lunch (Grove), Burroughs is arguably more important as a pop-culture icon than as a literary innovator. Patti Smith, David Bowie, Laurie Anderson and Genesis P. Orridge are among the legions of musicians that he has inspired. Burroughs' list of collaborators includes Ministry; Tom Waits; Kurt Cobain; the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy; and producer and bassist Bill Laswell, most notably on The Road to the Western Lands (Triloka, 1998) with DJ Spooky, Jah Wobble and Talvin Singh. Burroughs' work was the source of numerous band names — including Steely Dan and Soft Machine — and christened an entire genre of music: heavy metal.

The cut-up technique resulted from an accidental discovery by expatriate American painter Brion Gysin while in Paris, but it entered the public's consciousness through his friend Burroughs' work. Gysin called the results of the cut-up technique a “disruption of the time sequence,” and Burroughs later wrote that the process resonated with the direction that he was already heading in as a writer. “Cut-ups establish new connections between images, and one's range of vision consequently expands,” he wrote. The results allowed characters and themes to naturally traverse temporal and spatial shifts that occurred from the blending of texts. Consequently, the technique heavily influenced his already fragmented style in the works following Naked Lunch as he moved from poems to prose and, finally, to the time-based media of film and audio.

Although the technique began simply, with the cutting of a page into four sections and re-arranging the quadrants, the process later became more elaborate as the tastes and aesthetics of Burroughs and Gysin evolved. They developed a subsequent technique called the fold-in, in which pages were folded in half lengthwise, then aligned and read left to right. Burroughs found it interesting how the source material's style remained intact after being processed and, furthermore, that the seemingly chaotic reordering of words, sounds and images that a cut-up yielded was similar to human experiences in the real world as people walked down the street or rode a bus. “Consciousness is [always] being cut up by random factors,” Burroughs noted. “Life is a cut-up … not a nonlinear narrative.”

The author, too, was convinced that cut-ups could sometimes yield “code messages” that have meaning to the cutter or even provide a premonition of an event. He later suggested using cut-ups to scramble messages and create fabricated newscasts: Burroughs was fascinated by the possibilities of rearranging news items to create new ones. In an essay regarding the use of tape cut-ups for radical political purposes, he wrote, “Cut-up techniques could swamp the mass media with total illusion.”

Burroughs has stated that the technique has its literary precursors in works by Tristan Tzara and Marcel Duchamp, as well as the Dadaists; the surrealists; and the writers James Joyce, Andre Breton and Antonin Artaud. However, Burroughs took the process to its extremes and exploited it throughout his career. Instead of applying the process only once, he continually reapplied it, even as he re-edited published works: Previously cut-up texts would be rearranged and cut up, new word groups that he liked would be selected, and these would be cut and rearranged again.

Burroughs was also candid about appropriating the works of other authors whom he admired, freely admitting to using published material from Joyce, William Shakespeare, Franz Kafka, Jean Genet and friends such as Jack Kerouac. Many of the artistic devices that many now take for granted — remixing, plunderphonics and mash-ups, for example — can be traced back to Burroughs' use of appropriation and transformation through his cut-ups. He also understood the possibilities of mass-media control that recording technology held, and his books are filled with sinister sonic images. Corporate and political control of the individual, as well as the use of words and images as weapons, are themes that he continually explored — themes that resonate with creative artists today.

“One very important aspect of art is that it makes people aware of what they know but don't know that they know,” Burroughs explained in the 1991 documentary Commissioner of Sewers. “Once the breakthrough is made, there is a permanent expansion of awareness.”