PRINT December 2014


Branden W. Joseph

I have always loved William S. Burroughs’s writing out of all proportion to other literature. Part of the reason is undoubtedly that, even before he adopted the cut-up method of the painter Brion Gysin, Burroughs treated language as if it were the type of physical matter manipulated by a visual artist. Oliver Harris, who between 2003 and 2010 oversaw the reissue of Burroughs’s early trilogy Junky, Queer, and The Yage Letters, was perhaps the first editor to realize this fully, formulating an idea of “social text-editing” in which the material history of each of Burroughs’s manuscripts was not only respected but made evident, to a certain extent, in a “definitive” edition. In expectation of this year’s centenary of Burroughs’s birth, Harris turned his attention to the infamous Cut-Up Trilogy (Grove Press), comprising The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express, the first two of which had appeared in the 1960s in more than one edition. Notoriously difficult to read, as Burroughs’s use of the cut-up technique reached its apogee during these years, each volume is not only a fantastical sci-fi narrative but also a work of media theory (as thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze and Friedrich Kittler well understood), and an example of that media theory in practice. Provided with Harris’s introductions, which deftly untangle each volume’s concrete development (down to the importance of two- versus three-dot ellipses!), and with appendixes of important archival variants, these “restored” versions make the literary and theoretical aspects of each book appear with a new clarity, without sacrificing any of the complexity for which they are renowned.

Branden W. Joseph is Frank Gallipoli professor of modern and contemporary art at Columbia University in New York.