I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of cut-ups, I had some familiarity with the concept from reading William S. Burroughs and Genesis P-Orridge but I’d never performed the experiment myself. So this post details my experiment in performing the cut-up technique on one particular comic, The Spectacular Spider-Man issue 183, chosen at random because I’d ended up with an extra copy. The full results can be seen here at my Flickr account or scroll down to the bottom of this post . First of all the history and theory of the cut-up will be outlined, followed by a discussion of its more occult implications. After this outline, I want to relate the technique to Robert B. Ray’s suggestions about using surrealist techniques as a way of theorising film and suggest that the same methods could be applied in the study of comic books. This is not a finely honed theory or methodological prescription however. For now it remains an interesting experiment. That said, the final section will discuss what this particular experiment reveals about Spider-Man. The plan is for this to be the first of several such experiments applying avant-garde artistic methods to superhero comics.
Never let it be said that I don’t know how to have a good time!
1. WHAT IS THE CUT-UP TECHNIQUE?
Let’s start easy will we? Here’s the Wikipedia version:
The cut-up technique is an aleatory literary technique in which a text is cut up 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 Dadaists of 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.
Cut-up is performed by taking a finished and fully linear text 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 first cut-ups, collected as Minutes to Go, were created accidentally by Brion Gysin. As Gysin describes his discovery:
I had a big table on which I worked very often with a Stanley blade, and I had cut up a number of newspapers accidentally. They had been underneath something else that I was cutting. The pieces sort of fell together, and I started matching them up, and I thought Wo-o-o-o-ow, it’s really very funny. And I took some of them and arranged them in a pattern which was visually pleasing to me and then typed up the results; and I have never laughed so heartily in my entire life. (Cited by Christopher Nosnibor at Bookstove.com)
It was Gyson’s friend William S. Burroughs who saw the real potential of the cut-up technique. As Jenny Skerl points out over at lanaguagisavirus:
As Burroughs experimented with the technique, he began to develop a theory of the cutup, and this theory was incorporated into his pseudoscience of addiction. In addition to drugs, sex, and power as aspects of man’s addictive nature, Burroughs adds an analysis of control over human beings exercised by language (“the Word”), time, and space (i.e., man’s physical existence and the mental constructs he uses to survive and adapt). Drugs, sex, and power control the body, but “word and image locks” control the mind, that is, “lock” us into conventional patterns of perceiving, thinking, and speaking that determine our interactions with environment and society. The cutup is a way of exposing word and image controls and thus freeing oneself from them, an alteration of consciousness that occurs in both the writer and the reader of the text. For Burroughs as an artist, the cutup is an impersonal method of inspiration, invention, and an arrangement that redefines the work of art as a process that occurs in collaboration with others and is not the sole property of artists. Thus Burroughs’s cutup texts are comparable to similar contemporary experiments in other arts, such as action painting, happenings, and aleatory music. His theory of the cutup also parallels avant-garde literary theory, such as structuralism and deconstruction.
So the cut-up technique is both an artistic endeavour as well as a critical-theoretical one. Focusing on the latter for now it is possible to see how the technique relates to concerns about the phallogocentrism in much contemporary critical theory, including, to a greater or lesser degree, Burroughs and Gysin’s contemporaries in the field of philosophy such as Foucault and Derrida; thinkers whose ideas have been profoundly influential in the academic study of the humanities and social sciences. This why Gary Lachman has suggested that,“…while neither can be considered occult, Derrida’s critique of meaning and Foucault’s exploration of forbidden states share much with the irrationalism and ‘giving way to strange forces’ that characterized sixties occultism” (Lachman, 2001:395), particularly Burroughs injunction to “exterminate all rational thought”. (A more detailed discussion on the links between occultism, post-structuralist theory and superheroes can be found here)
As such, Christopher Nosnibor highlights the political significance of the cut-up technique:
Freedom was a key focus of Burroughs’ work throughout his career, and during the 1960s he believed that the cut-up and fold-in methods were the most appropriate literary devices for attacking the control systems inherent within society. At the core of all of these control mechanisms, according to Burroughs, lay language, by which mankind is held in thrall. However, he was also aware of the capacity for the manipulation of language by those in power. As Burroughs explained in The Job, “The word of course is one of the most powerful instruments of control as exercised by the newspaper and images as well, there are both words and images in newspapers… if you start cutting these up and rearranging them you are breaking down the control system “.
While theorists like Derrida and Foucault have been embraced by the academy, and Burroughs work of continued interest to literary theorists, the cut-up as an actual method of investigation, a scholarly methodology, has not been quite as embraced outside of artist-philosophers. The introduction of the irrational is always forced to bow before the rational in academic discourse. This disjuncture is perhaps further compounded by the strong whiff of magick around the method. Both Burroughs and Gysin had long-standing interests in the occult. Indeed Gysin is probably just as famous for inventing the dream machine as for his art (if, indeed, the two can be separated). Genesis P- Orridge, who tracked the two writers down in Tangiers as a teenager before embarking on his own artistic career with performance art group COUM Transmissions as well bands Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV (Genesis was also a co-founder of Thee Temple of Psychick Youth), is quite explicit about the way in which the technique has artistic, political and magickal implications:
Control hides in social structures like Politics, Religion, Education, Mass Media. Control exists like a virus for its own sake. Cut-ups loosen rational order, break preconceptions and expected response. They retrain our perception and acceptance of what we are told is thee nature of reality. They confound and short-circuit Control. All Control ultimately relies upon manipulation of behaviour. In culture thee Cut-up is still a modification of, or alternate, language. It can reveal, describe and measure Control. It can do damage butter that is not enough. Magick as a method is a Cut-up Process that goes further than description. It is infused with emotion, intuition, instinct and impulse, and includes emotions and feelings. It operates actually within thee same medium, “Behavior”, as Control. It is therefore essential as a system to challenge, emasculate and render impotent thee source of Control itself.
Control Disintegrates. Magick integrates. Thee idea is to apply thee cut-up principle of behavior. Thee method is a contemporary, non-mystical interpretation of “Magick”. Thee aim is reclamation of self-determination, conscious and unconscious, to the Individual. Thee result is to neutralise and challenge thee essence of social control. (BEHAVIOURAL CUT-UPS AND MAGICK Genesis P-Orridge London 1987)
(Note that genesis’ particular style of writing, replacing ‘the’ with ‘thee’, ‘of’ with ‘ov’ and ‘come’ with ‘coum’, to take a handful of examples, is itself an attempt to overturn language and the control mechanisms embedded within it. Language is a virus from outer space, after all.)
2. WHAT CAN COMICS STUDIES LEARN FROM THE CUT-UP TECHNIQUE?
In his excellent book The Avant-garde find Andy Hardy, the film scholar Robert B. ray argues that film studies has reached an impasse, an over-reliance on certain types of theory that has had a stultifying effect:
Having committed itself to a particular way of doing business (which we might call “semiotic”, using that term to stand for the amalgam of structuralist, psychoanalytic, ideological, and feminist methodologies) film studies has, since 1970, constructed an enormously powerful theoretical machine for exposing the ideological abuse hidden by the apparently natural stories and images of popular culture. The machine, however, now runs on automatic pilot, producing predictable essays and books on individual cases…any critical approach, even the most radical, gets used up quickly by people for whom it amounts only to a means of getting, keeping, or improving a job. (page 9)
For Ray the problem with this is that:
we know in advance where such analyses will lead, and thus even the most skilled of such efforts will achieve very little “information”, if we define “information” (as cybernetics does) as a function of unpredictability (page 8)
It is possible to make a similar argument with regards to the study of comics. Being still a relatively young and undefined discipline comics studies remains to some extent reliant on terms and critical methodologies imported from the study if film and literature. As with Ray’s critique of film studies, “we know in advance where such analyses will lead“. I hope that the reader understands that I am in no way dismissing such research. However, as this is my blog rather than an academic journal, it is not necessarily the place to debate that particular point. Instead, following Ray, it is my intention to consider new ways of analysing comics outwith of traditional ‘semiotic’ approaches. To adapt Ray slightly:
if we want to approach [Comic Book’s]power without abandoning Habermas’s “enlightenment project” (of critique and rational understanding), but want to achieve it by other means, we might begin by experimenting with the forms of criticism which until now has worked almost entirely with one kind of rhetoric: that of scientific realism, with its premise of a transparent language. What are the alternatives? What if we still want the hermeneutic effect but feel we have exhausted hermeneutics as a tool? (page 9)
As the title of his book suggests Ray finds inspiration for this project in the avant-garde. Ray proceeds to apply Surrealist games to the Andy Hardy series in order to reveal hidden connections and new meanings within these texts which can serve as the springboard for fresh critiques.
3. CUTTING-UP SPIDER-MAN
Ray doesn’t mention the cut-up technique but its genealogical links to Surrealism’s precursor dada make it a natural fit for his project. With this in mind I cut up issue 183 of the Spectacular Spider-Man. In it’s original form this particular issue represented an above average outing for the character, coming as it does near the peak of the collaboration between J. M Dematteis and artist Sal Buscema on that title. The story takes place within as arc titled The Child Within, which details the descent of Norman Osborn, Peter Parker/Spider-man’s best friend and son of Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin, into murderous madness, once again adopting his father’s alter-ego. A sub-plot features the character Vermin, already featured in DeMatteis’s most famous work on Spider-Man, the marvellous Kraven’s Last Hunt. In The Child Within, Vermin’s transformation from man into animalistic cannibal is presented as the result of an abusive relationship with his father in childhood.
To perform the operation I took to comics pages out one by one. Several could be cut into panels because they had adverts on the back of the page. of those which had panels on both sides of the sheet I picked a side at random to cull the panels from, sometimes using the top half of ones side and the bottom of another where possible. There were also 3 splash pages which I pasted panels onto. I then took these panels and threw them all over the room before grabbing them at random and pasting them onto a blank sheet the size of a comic book page. These new pages were then reassembled in random order themselves. My one concession to the original form was to keep the last page where it was, although the new panel pasted onto it resulted in an interesting shift in the meaning of that ending (more on that below).
The full set can be viewed in the slideshow at the footer of this post. below I highlight a few of the more interesting effectts of the cut-up.
3. shut up harry
On this page the cut-up results in an interesting new meaning. the first three panels now show Spider-Man knocking harry osborn fromhis glider with a curt “shut up harry”. But the panel just below, depicting Harry flying towards Peter give the impression that the scene above was perhaps a violent fantasy of Peters. His concern in the first panel further suggests that he is struggling with fantasies of violent revenege on Harry. The panels of the father and child in the swimming pool relate, in the original, to Vermin’s past. In the cut-up however, these home-movie style panels became scattered through the entire text. Their presence highlighted the obsession with fathers and father-figures that marks the Dematteis/Buscema run on Spectacular Spider-man but also the series as a whole.
- 4. daddy can’t hurt you now
- Daddy issues are particularly evident here. The happy child of the past surrounded on one side by a desire to “get away from you…from my father” and on the other side the promise that “daddy can’t hurt you now”. And who is Harry screaming at in the middle panel that “just looking at you reminds me of everything…all the pain…all the death”? Spider-man? The boy he once was? The father? Within the cut-up the father figures prominently. This is true of the original too, which features Vermin’s father, who appears as an old man and in the home-movie flashbacks, and Norman Osborn, who appears as a ghostly figure-part of Harry’s hallucinatory delusions. But the effect of the cut-up is to collapse all the fathers in the story into one archetypal bad father. This effect is aided by the fact that the spectre of Norman Osborn and the flashbacks to Vermin’s father are coloured in the same manner so that in the cut-up the appearance of either appears to be the same figure. The effect is particularly noticeable in the page 10 a little further down the post.
- Harry seems to responds to the statement “daddy can’t hurt you now” with “liar!” Which is true for Harry. Even posthumously his father continues to haunt him and define his identity. A point compounded by the repetition of the name ‘goblin’ on the page.
14. i forgot
What I like about this page is the insinuation that Spider-Man’s primary motivator is not necessarily the death of Uncle Ben but the death of his parents. After being told by the Goblin that he can see all the insecurities and pain in his mind Spider-man suddenly laments that he forgot all about his parents deaths, represented by their two graves in the next panel.
7. Which one am I?
Here, vermin’s statement, “my mind ssso confusssed. Which one am I?” captures the mood of the cut-up brilliantly. Read as a whole the cut-up reads like a fever dream in which the identities of the protagonists begin to become indistinguishable. We are forced to ask not only if Peter Parker or Spider-man is the true personality but also whether Harry Osborn is more real than the Green Goblin. Also, who made who? Is Harry’s Goblin a product of his father’s abuse or of Spider-Man’s existence? This would make sense given that Dematteis has apparently played with similar themes of duality and identity in his Batman/Two face story Crime and Punishment. the question of who is who and did what is also raised in the fourth panel where the Green Goblin says to Spider-man “you killed Gwen, framed my father for the murder”. Spider-man is perceived as the criminal, the guilty, the murderer. More responsible for the crimes of the Goblin than the Goblin himself.
12. Spider-man is a fiction
The search for a fixed identity continues here. A woman tells Vermin that “you’re my Edward”, but the final panel undermines the certainty of that identity. Spider-man insists that he and the Green Goblin are fictions, that this is really about “two men” not two masks.
Just as the cut-up robs the characters of discrete subjectivities, instead blurring into one another, it also robs the narrative of hope.
“Hope…?! I can’t!!!”, “Well, its not a bonafide happy ending”.
14. Into the dawn
Losing all hope is freedom though. The panels pasted onto this final splash-page add an edge of melancholy in the image of father and child in happier times. but the new captions also strike a peculiar note.
“there’s so much good inside us…and so much monstrous evil. I’ve seen my share of both over the years…and sometimes it seems that evil always gets the upper hand. and in his grief he finds new freedom. And that freedom lifts him up. Carries him off…into the new dawn”
Grief that evil always gets the upper-hand results in new freedom. If the preceding cut-up suggested that the lives and identities of Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Harry Osborn/Green goblin are intimately tied together, the like Batman’s Joker, the Goblin is an inevitable by-product of Spider-Man’s existence, then it must be this knowledge-that the battle will continue, that evil will always prevail-that grants Spider-man his freedom.
Naturally these are only preliminary thoughts. Further experiments with different comics are needed before the real benefits of this method can be gauged. But it makes for fun afternoon and opens the door to interesting new interpretations of characters and themes. The full cut-up can be viewed in the slide-show below.
If you enjoyed this attempt at applying avant-garde practices to thinking about comics then join me next time when I will be performing a detournement on an issue of Uncanny X-men!