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  • The Order and the Material is the Message
  • Alex Wermer-Colan (bio)

Perhaps the most under-examined, yet voluminous and multifaceted cut-up works in William S. Burroughs's oeuvre remain his innumerable scrapbooks. Produced over nearly half a century, from 1963-64, when he first began to intentionally create "scrapbooks," to the last years of his life, in the late '80s and early '90s, Burroughs's scrapbooks arguably amount to his most important contribution to the history of collage, and his most complex application of what he called the "cut-up" method. Nevertheless, Burroughs's scrapbooks, numbering in the dozens, if not hundreds, have yet to be catalogued comprehensively. They also are rarely discussed in scholarship on Burroughs, much less in studies of avant-garde aesthetics, or literary and art history scholarship more generally. This is not least because none of Burroughs's scrapbooks have yet to be published as works unto themselves. Since the 1994 Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibit and the publication of its companion book, Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts (1996), Burroughs's scrapbooks have slowly become recognized for their significance to his cut-up practice and the history of collage. These enigmatic works, however, have only become available to the public as excerpts, with decontextualized pages presented individually, evocative fragments of a larger, but inaccessible whole.

This essay, insofar as it attempts to review a set of such books, requires a caveat: it's difficult to write about a multitude of "books" that were never published and probably never will be, at least not in print. As a negative outline of what could be read or viewed, this essay's second-hand form is actually quite fitting for a series of works whose potential and purpose remain speculative. After a critical turning point in Burroughs's cut-up practice, his scrapbooks were rarely created to be published or shared. As outsider art, the scrapbooks are still waiting to be re-contextualized, to be understood not just as "derivative" notations for Burroughs's published novels, but as multimedia, collage narratives, in a uniquely impressionable form, capable of retaining material traces of their sources in a way his cut-up novels and poems never could.

Burroughs's wide-ranging cut-up practice, from poems to audiobooks, newspapers to films, inevitably blurs what counts as a "scrapbook." The Oxford English Dictionary offers a straightforward definition: "A blank book in which pictures, newspaper cuttings, and the like are pasted for preservation. Hence occasionally as the title of a printed book of miscellaneous contents." As recounted in The Scrapbook of American Life (2006), the practice of scrapbooking in the West can trace its conceptual roots to ancient Greek "koinoi topoi"—for Aristotle, models of places and things that serve as souvenirs or "memory aids." For the editors of The Scrapbook of American Life, the modernist art of scrapbooking is comparable to early modern commonplace books: they are flip-sides of the same coin, personal anthologies with miscellaneous materials, useful for recalling quotes, information, places, and objects, while serving as a means of "constructing an identity outside" the "formalized and authoritative records" contained in "bureaucratic files and databanks." By the late nineteenth-century, like cabinets of curiosities and albums of art prints, scrapbooking had even become a popular practice transcending traditional gender norms. But by Burroughs's era of the Cold War, the practice of scrapbooking was typically regarded as [End Page 6] a marginalized, minoritarian practice, usually as a feminist or queer counterpoint to patriarchal and heteronormative Western culture.

An early use of the word as a verb occurs in Mark Twain's Autobiography (1924): "He usually postponed the scrap-booking until Sunday." Unlike Twain, for Burroughs, scrapbooking was often a daily practice, like his routine of noting down his dreams. His scrapbooking also served diverse purposes, from the creation of collage art-books and "dream calendars" to the archiving of grey literature, travel souvenirs, and ephemera. Burroughs's scrapbooks arguably represent his most anti-canonical set of works, evocative of Arthur Rimbaud's affinity for cultural detritus in the "Alchemy of the Word" section of A Season in Hell (1873).

Burroughs made a...


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