Besides being a science fiction novel, Nova Express is a how-to book. It tells us how to make cut-ups and create “word dust”.
For example, Burroughs has a character called “The Subliminal Kid” use tape recorders to create cut-ups:
“‘The Subliminal Kid’ moved in and took over bars cafés and juke boxes of the world cities and installed radio transmitters and microphones in each bar so that the music and talk of any bar could be heard in all his bars and he had tape recorders in each bar that played and recorded at arbitrary intervals and his agents moved back and forth with portable tape recorders and brought back street sound and talk and music and poured it into his recorder array so he set waves and eddies and tornadoes of sound down all your streets and by the river of all language – Word dust drifted streets of broken music car horns and air hammers – The Word broken pounded twisted exploded in smoke –”
The Kid is putting the cut-up method into action to “cut word lines”. Words have a socially recognised function when they are used in discourse. By cutting into conversations at random intervals and recording, and then playing this back over new conversation, and recording the resulting sound at random intervals, and cutting into all this random noise from the street, words are separated from their original context. Words separated in this way will have an immediate impact on the senses, no longer part of the extended discourse, instead just noise now, filling the air. As noise the words will have an unconscious effect on the listener. This is “word dust”: words broken up to fill the air to be inhaled by anyone in the vicinity.
Burroughs shows us the potential political effect of cut-ups. Just as the cut-up method separates words from their context, so it can separate other abstract elements from their contexts and give them new meaning. For example, colour:
“– Pay back the Colour you stole –
“– Pay Red – Pay back the red you stole for your lying flags and your Coca-Cola signs – Pay that red back to penis and blood and sun –”
Individual colours become fixed in our minds to things such as brands and flags. The cut-up method can separate the colours out again, to create a dust so that we experience the colours out of context and break the associations we automatically make between colours and things.
It would be impossible to own anything once everything had been reduced to dust through cut-ups. All things would float in the air, to be inhaled by anyone passing by. Life as we know it would cease if everything was reduced to dust in this way. Burroughs saw this as the first step towards elevating ourselves to a new non-biological mode of existence.
For art, cut-up is essential, because art’s purpose is to make us see in new ways, and this can only be done by breaking down the existing associations. What we do when the dust settles is another matter . . .
(I’ve been reading Nova Express by William S. Burroughs)