Cut-up Experiment Results, with Commentary

Fresh from the research field!

I’m the first to admit this experiment was not as scientifically controlled as it could have been. It was more of a warm-up exercise; nevertheless, I did learn something that I found quite interesting.

First, a brief summary of the experiment:

I created a piece of cut-up writing from two newspaper articles and asked twenty people to read it. Each person was asked to write a brief summary, at least one sentence, as to what the piece was about. There were no wrong answers, as this particular cut-up piece was by no means self-contained and coherent. I did in fact have a story line in mind when I created the piece, but the point of the experiment was not really what the readers thought the piece was about, but whether or not they even gave it a chance.   

The readers were divided evenly into two groups. When I say “groups” I don’t mean they were gathered together in one room at the same time. I interacted with each person individually.

Group One received no explanation at all as to the technique I used to write the cut-up, nor were they advised of the sources material (newspaper articles A and B), or given any other information. 

I gave Group Two an explanation of the cut-up method and briefly described my source material. In a departure from my original plan, I gave in to temptation and added more “clues” after the first two subjects in Group Two expressed complete bafflement upon reading the cut-up. Beginning with the third person in Group Two, I asked them think of the piece as Science Fiction. By the fifth person, I found myself explaining that some cut-ups are impressionistic, evoking images or feelings that are not literally stated. As I said earlier, this was not a strictly controlled experiment.

 The interesting discovery I mentioned at the beginning of this article is this: The more I spoke to each subject about the cut-up, the more they found to say about it after they read it. This is not to say they necessarily understood what they were reading, if that were even possible, but even if they didn’t understand it, they were more willing to talk about it and less shy about venturing “guesses” about the meaning of the piece.  

 This result seems to confirm my hypothesis, which is that the work of William S. Burroughs would be much less accessible without the helpful blurbs and reviews that serve essentially as tutorials to potential readers, as exemplified in the Amazon.com Product Description for The Soft Machine:

“An adventure that will take us even further into the dark recesses of his imagination, a region where nothing is sacred, nothing taboo. Continuing his ferocious verbal assault on hatred, hype, poverty, war, bureaucracy, and addiction in all its forms, Burroughs gives us a surreal space odyssey through the wounded galaxies in a book only he could create.”

 I am not suggesting that Burroughs is anything less than a genius, or that he owes his reputation only to hype and marketing. Far from it; he is one of my favorite writers and my favorite person to hear reading from his own books in audio recordings. I do, however, believe that the promotional blurbs and reviews bring in more readers who would otherwise deem his work unreadable. While this is somewhat true for almost any book (think of an American Literature teacher saying, “While reading Gatsby, look for examples of excess and decadence…”), it is especially true for the cut-up works of Burroughs and other writers.

One might say, “And you needed an experiment to prove that?” Still, until something is proven, it is only an assumption, no matter how obvious it seems.

A more in depth study would include a higher number of subjects, divided into more groups based on their reading habits as determined by a questionnaire. I simply asked each potential subject if they preferred fiction or nonfiction, whether or not they ever shop on Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble, and approximately how many books they read in the past year. There were an equal number of men and women in each group.

What follows is the cut-up piece that I used in the experiment, followed by a record of the responses from the twenty subjects, reproduced as closely as possible to their actual written responses.

(My comments are in parentheses and italics).

 The Cut-up:

A friend from Cairo and that man, Reynolds, if he would, in the midst of a telescope someone starts to cry. Florida feels helpless and sure.

“Reynolds, they don’t know how to have you.”

“Got that, suddenly,” said Reynolds. “We’ll ship them rather than facts. Woman friend, an official worry, justifiable in most technologies.”

“Edibility and competent. How many have they asked again, or too emotional to succeed?

“We’ll get them out environmentally. Next few weeks. The crying is, how many are conned voluntarily responding? It’s old, an association that can muster tears and science actors.”

“College at Jacksonville on the Westside, about 12,000.  Expect the eye. Humans.”

Reynolds gulped and replied, “Among all the creatures, the five tractors have facial nerves and use Northeast Florida as respiratory and facial, which is closely related, so distributing them free, they sometimes merge, and other organized laughter.”

“And a 1986 Florida teacher, other former executives in communication centers in Oakland, evidenced when infants donate members. Attention strong, because the company may trigger that line.”

“Anymore, anger a society member such as joy, and since it types range, it may be related.”

 Group One Responses (no information given) 

  1. I don’t know
  2. I have no clue
  3. Confusing. A hurricane headed for Jacksonville?
  4. I don’t get it.
  5. NASA space shuttle
  6. He talks about humans, so they must not be human (Good deductive reasoning, I thought. This person might enjoy cut-up writing)
  7. No interpretation can be made. Sentence fragments yield no clear story or idea.
  8. I don’t know. I see words with no meaning.
  9. It’s about college students trying to save the environment
  10. Women in the field of technology  

 Group 2 – Given Extra Information

  1. Sounded like a combination of 3 articles. One is about a shipping company, one a flyer for FCCJ (Florida Community College of Jacksonville – Bill). The other is a laboratory.
  2. The telescopes are coming to life or being born. What are they going to do next? They might try to take over the world like Transformers.
  3. It sounds horrible. Crying, worry, facial nerves
  4. The dichotomy of cybernetics. Technology taking over humanity
  5. You had too much coffee. (Even this somewhat flippant remark demonstrates more willingness to contribute original thought than simply stating, “I don’t know” or “I have no clue.”  On a personal note, I would rather be accused of drinking too much coffee than of writing something so bland it only merits an “I don’t know”. – Bill)
  6. Alien conversation about abducting humans for use on another planet. The aliens are trying to speak English but they don’t know the language well. (This was my favorite response and closest to the story I formed in my own mind as I manipulated the text. – Bill)
  7. Two people talking about the environment and how it angers society but it needs to be talked about
  8. It’s a nightmare, one where you want to wake up
  9. Cloning and stem cells. They are growing eyes and other body parts
  10. Is this about Mike Reynolds at Florida State College? (Mike Reynolds is a Professor of Astronomy at Florida State College at Jacksonville, FL, and yes, the telescope article does mention him. – Bill) 
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2 thoughts on “Cut-up Experiment Results, with Commentary

  1. Bill, I think that Burroughs and Gyson were doing something with literature akin to what the abstract expressionists were doing at about the same time with art. That is to say, they were decomposing the form of the art, and adding an element of randomness. Same is true, perhaps even more so, with artists who created collages with found objects. The found objects for Burroughs were texts, which he “collaged” for want of a better word, into new stories. The whole idea is fascinating, quand même. And if we read the Dadaists, perhaps there is a glimmer of the cut-up concept there also.

    • Mike, I agree with you that cut-ups are akin to abstract art, and one may enjoy either a cut-up or a piece of abstract art without really knowing if it means anything. Some things just register an emotional response or some type of mental imagery. And yet, with Burroughs work, there seems to be a general understanding that even his cut-ups have definite meanings. Looking at the Amazon.com product description in my above article, we see that people at least want to believe this, and the product description (1) reassures people that Burroughs cut-ups mean something, and (2) serve as tutorials to the unitiated.

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