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The cut-up technique (also called fishbowling or découpage) is an aleatory literary technique or genre in which a text (or multiple texts) is cut up into smaller portions at random, and rearranged to create a new text. Most commonly, cut ups are used to offer a non-linear alternative to traditional reading and writing.

The concept can be traced to at least the surrealists in the 1920s, but was popularized in the late 1950s and early 1960s by writer William S. Burroughs, and has since been used in a wide variety of contexts.


The cut-up and the closely associated fold-in are the two main techniques. They were originally intended for use with typewriters, but have been adapted to use on personal computers:

  • Cut-up is performed by taking a finished and fully linear text (printed on paper) and cutting it in pieces with a few or single words on each piece. The resulting pieces are then rearranged into a new text. The rearranging of work often results in surprisingly innovative new phrases. A common way is to cut a sheet in four rectangular sections, rearranging them and then typing down the mingled prose while compensating for the haphazard word breaks by improvising and innovating along the way.
  • Fold-in is the technique of taking two different sheets of linear text (with the same linespacing), cutting each sheet in half and combining with the other, then reading across the resulting page. The resulting text is often a blend of the two themes, somewhat difficult to read.

History in fiction and literature

A precedent of the technique occurred during a Surrealist rally in the 1920s: Tristan Tzara offered to create a poem on the spot by pulling words at random from a hat. Collage, which was popularized roughly contemporaneously with the Surrealist movement, sometimes incorporated texts such as newspapers or brochures.

Burroughs cited T. S. Eliot's long poem, The Waste Land (1922), and portions of John Dos Passos' works (such as the 1930s U.S.A. trilogy, which incorporated newspaper clippings) as early examples of the cut ups he popularized.

Gil J. Wolman developed cut-up techniques as part of his lettrist practice in the early 1950s.

Also in the 1950s, painter and writer Brion Gysin more fully developed the cut-up method after accidentally discovering it. He had placed layers of newspapers as a mat to protect a tabletop from being scratched while he cut papers with a razor blade. Upon cutting through the newspapers, Gysin noticed that the sliced layers offered interesting juxtapositions of text and image. He began deliberately cutting newspaper articles into sections, which he randomly rearranged. The book Minutes to Go resulted from his initial cut-up experiment: unedited and unchanged cut-ups which emerged as coherent and meaningful prose. South African poet Sinclair Beiles also used this technique and co-authored Minutes To Go.

Gysin introduced writer William S. Burroughs to the technique at the Beat Hotelmarker. The pair later applied the technique to printed media and audio recordings in an effort to decode the material's implicit content, hypothesizing that such a technique could be used to discover the true meaning of a given text. Burroughs also suggested cut-ups may be effective as a form of divination saying, "When you cut into the present the future leaks out."[640] Burroughs also further developed the "fold-in" technique. In 1977, Burroughs and Gysin published The Third Mind, a collection of cut-up writings and essays on the form.

Argentine writer Julio Cortázar often used cut ups in his 1963 novel Hopscotch. This same decade, Indian poet Malay Roy Choudhury and novelist Subimal Basak of the "Hungry generation" adopted the cut up technique for their works.

Since the 1990s, Jeff Noon uses a similar remixing technique in his writing based on the practices prevalent in Dub music. He expanded upon his remixing with his Cobralingus system, which breaks down a piece of writing, going as far as turning individual words into anagrams, then melding the results into a narrative.

Musical influence and similarities

From at least the early 1970s, David Bowie has used cut-ups to create some of his lyrics. It is a technique which came to influence Kurt Cobain's songwriting.

And to return to Tzara's Dadaist example, Thom Yorke applied a similar method in Radiohead's Kid A (2000) album, writing single lines, putting them into a hat, and drawing them out at random while the band rehearsed the songs.

In the film Downtown 81, the band Tuxedomoon can be seen performing using a similar method of reading phrases from cut-up papers.

An online subculture of bastard pop resembles the fold-in technique by, for example taking instrumentals from one artist and combining it with the vocals of another artist.

Burroughs taught cut-up technique to musician Genesis P-Orridge in 1971 as a method for "altering reality". Burroughs' explanation was that everything is recorded, and if it is recorded, then it can be edited (P-Orridge, 2003). P-Orridge has long employed cut-ups as an applied philosophy, a way of creating art and music, and of conducting one's life.

Cabaret Voltaire was heavily influenced by the dada-movement and used their interpretation of the cut-up technique in their creation of music.

Email cut-ups

A recent phenomenon is an e-mail spam tactic in which randomly-generated text passages are used to thwart Bayesian filters. For example,

The first question of course was, how to get dry again: they me as I walked, the remembrance of my churlishness and that I must confidence between himself and Mrs. Micawber. After which, he for his dagger till his hand gripped it. Then he spoke. I kissed her, and my baby brother, and was very sorry then; but not

Even grammatically consistent sentences can be formed, such as

Then, from sea to shining sea, the God-King sang the praises of teflon, and with his face to the sunshine, he churned lots of butter.

Such text is called spamoetry (spam poetry) or spam art. Since the text is often derived from actual books, this is effectively a cut-up method.

Similar techniques are often employed by writers of flarf poetry.

"Travesty" generators

A class of programs called "travesty generators" exist to perform similar cut-up techniques on user-supplied text. Many such programs exist as web-based applications (see External Links).

Behavioural cut-ups

Recipes for Disaster by the anarchist collective CrimethInc. features a recipe entitled "behavioural cut-ups". This recipe is a method of changing one's life by performing activities which are perceived as (at a basic level) cutting up two socially acceptable, routine behaviours and attaching them to form a creative, amusing activity.

It is intended that the practitioner perform one or a series of cut-ups for a long amount of time, until it becomes second nature and the practitioner's behaviour is significantly altered. In the basic behavioural cut-up, the practitioner consults a list of things he or she does every day, and a list of things that that he or she finds frightening, and apply the cut-up technique to both lists. For example, the text suggests: "Public Transportation and Public Speaking." The user is supposed to become used to making speeches on the subway or bus. Another suggestion is using a toaster as a prop while performing odd behavior, such as giving the toaster a face and personality, talking to it, and keeping it on one's person at all times.

References in popular culture

The roleplaying game Over the Edge has a surreal "reality-resistance" group called the Cut-Ups Project that opposes the forces of Control Addiction with the power of "Funkiness".

In the graphic novel Watchmen, Ozymandias watches rows upon rows of televisions, each set to a different channel, to "[allow] subliminal hints of the future to leak through."


See also

External links

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