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William Burroughs: Some Contexts for Visual-Text Production




Allen Fisher


  (Draft beginning of Allen Fisher’s book Assemblage & 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:

  • 1) The method of his preparation (scrapbooks)

  • 2) The method of his production (use of cut-up, fold-in and overlap)

  • 3) The metaphor of the human condition, its reproduction, its repetition

  • 4) The metonym for civic damage

By 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:


While cutting a mount for a drawing in room #25, I sliced through a pile of newspapers with my Stanley blade and thought of what I had said to Burroughs some six months earlier about the necessity for turning painters’ techniques directly into writing. I picked up the raw words and began to piece together texts which later appeared as “First Cut Ups’ in Minutes to Go… (1973d: 4)


Burroughs’ 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).


Burroughs’ methods in these activities are encouraged by many recognitions, one of these is visual (see for instance: Burroughs, mss. from Minutes to Go (39) c.1959). His engagement with ideas of expanding or changing consciousness, and as a consequence his investigations into brain research, neural control and drugs, interact and overlap with his methods for production. One of these methods, and some of the indicators of the visual culture that informed it, may elaborate this further. The method, which begins in 1958, can be demonstrated through the book TIME (published in 1965 following work from 1962). Burroughs writes prose in columns; three columns on each page read linearly, or nearly linearly, with interruption. The prose is representation of transformed perception, memories and inventions. The general outlook is post-realistic with hints of menace and the future, a science fiction with a retrospective eye on the other watching the individual or, as he writes elsewhere, ‘the third who walks beside you’ (1964c). Cleaned-up versions of this work using typesetting norms can be seen in the three books introduced above, and even using the three columns in other cleaned-up publications such as that for Art & Literature in Lausanne in 1964: ‘Who Is The Third That Walks Beside You? (1964d).


Some 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, republished 1968).


Burroughs 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

the old newspaper

morgue. Like this. Like

this. Take today’s pap

er. Fill up three col-

umns with selections

you scan out. Now read

cross column. Fill a '


                          (page 3, column 2: 1965b)


' Now consider the picture

through word columns. Now

as you move back in time

orgetting’ present time

the page. The page is ‘f

less of present time on

e you do this there is

and so on back. Each tim

selections from yesterday

maining two columns with

ings. Now fill in the re

with cross column reading

column on another page ’


                           (page 4, column 2: 1965b)


The 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.)


In ‘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)


These 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 Psychology <> (1890)] and literature-business student Gertrude Stein and her 1896 and 1898 Motor Automatism texts [1969], picked by James Joyce in, for instance, Ulysses [1922]. Burroughs mentions the drawings of Paul Klee [1993: xxxix])


These 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 [1919] 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: 


He 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 (1973a: 41).


The 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.


In 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.  




 copyright © 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).






William Burroughs: Primary Bibliography part one: 1952-1973 (first draft).


1952                       Queer mss. (Miles 1973c)

1955-57                 First drafts of The Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine (Miles 1973c)

                                The Soft Machine mss. (Miles 1973c)

1958                       Source materials for Naked Lunch, Soft Machine and The Ticket That

Exploded (Miles 1973c)

1957-59                 Naked Lunch mss. (Miles 1973c)

1957                       Junkie, Confessions of an unredeemed drug addict by William Lee,

London: Digit Books.

1959a                    Miscellaneous material which becomes Minutes to Go (Miles 1973c)

1959b                    The Naked Lunch, Paris: The Olympia Press.

1958-60                 Materials from Paris for Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, cut-ups,

Minutes to Go and The Exterminator (Miles 1973c)

1960a                    mss. of cut-ups (Miles 1973c)

1960b                    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;

1960c                     with Brion Gysin, The Exterminator, Auerhahn, San Francisco.

1959-61                 mss. Cut-ups and material for Nova Express and Towers Open Fire

(Miles 1973c)

1960-61                 The Ticket That Exploded mss. (Miles 1973c)

1961                       The Soft Machine, Paris: The Olympia Press.

1962                       The Ticket That Exploded, Paris: The Olympia Press

1962-63                 Nova Express mss. (Miles 1973c)

1963a                    ‘The ticket that exploded’ ‘Bulletin from ‘Rewrite’ with further

comment by WSB, in Olympia, number 4, Olympia Press, Paris.

1963b                    with Allen Ginsberg, The Yage Letters, San Francisco: City Lights


1963c                     Dead Fingers Talk (Miles 1973c)

1964a                    The Naked Lunch, London: Jonathan Cape.

1964b                    Nova Express, reprinted 1966, London: John Calder,

1964c                     ‘The Border City’ in Arcade One, London.

1964d                    ‘Who Is The Third That Walks beside You?’ in Art & Literature, 2,


1964e                    ‘Pry Yourself Loose and Listen’, ‘Notes on Page One’, ‘Ancient Face

Gone Out’, ‘Just So Long and Long Enough’ in Gnaoua 1, Tangier.

1964f                      ‘Martin’s Mag’ in Ambit 20, London.

1965a                    ‘The Last Post, DANGER AHEAD’ in LINES, New York.

1965b                    TIME, New York: ‘C’ Press

1965c                     ‘Dutch Schultz Special’ in My Own Mag 13, London.

1965d                    ‘Composite Text’ in Underground Telegram,

Bulletin From Nothing #1, Beach Books: San Francisco.

1965e                    ‘Palm Sunday Tape’ in Bulletin From Nothing #2, Beach Books: San


1965f                      ‘St. Louis Return’ and ‘The Art of Fiction’ interview, in

Paris Review 35.

1966                       ‘Martin’s Folly’ in Residu 2, London and Provincetown, MA.

[formerly in Sigma’s ‘Moving times’ No.1.]

1967a                    So Who Owns Death TV? San Francisco: Beach Books

Texts Documents.

1967b                    William Burroughs presents: Claude Pélieu, With Revolvers Aimed -

Finger Bowls,  trans. Mary Beach, San Francisco: Beach Books, Texts & Documents.

1968                       APO-33 Bulletin, A Metabolic Regulator, San Francisco: Beach Books

Texts Documents.

1969                       The dead star, San Francisco: The Nova Broadcast Series (reissue and

typesetting of My Own Mag).

1967-70                 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.

1970a                    Odier, Daniel, The Job, Interview with William Burroughs, London:

John Calder.

1970b                    The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, Cape Goliard Press, London.

1971a                    Electronic Revolution, 1970-71, Collection OU (Ingatestone).

1971b                    The Wild Boys, A Book of the Dead, New York: Grove Press.

1972                       ‘DC49’ (including extracts from Burroughs’ 1970 scrapbooks) in The

Image, 7, London. pp.42-47.

1973a                    White Subway, London: Aloes Books.

1973b                    Port of Saints, London and Ollon, Switzerland: Covent Garden Press

and Am Here books.

1973c                     Miles, Barry, A Descriptive Catalogue of the William S. Burroughs

Archives, Vaduz, Lichtenstein: International Center of Art and Communication.

(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.’)

1973d                    Gysin, Brion with texts by William Burroughs and Ian Sommerville

Let the Mice In, New York: Something Else Press.

1973e                    Kentucky ham, New York: E.P. Dutton.

1978                       ‘The Limits of Control’ in semiotext(e) volume III, no.2, ‘Schizo-

culture. New York. pp. 38-42.

1979                       with Brion Gysin, The Third Mind, (1960-73) London: John Calder.

1993                       Harris, Oliver (ed.) The Letters of William S. Burroughs. 1945-1959,

Viking Penguin.

2001                       Lotringer, Sylvére (ed.) Burroughs live - The Collected Interviews of

William S. Burroughs, 1960-1997, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).