All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. . . .—John Donne
The Third Mind is a book by Beat Generation novelist William S. Burroughs and artist/poet/novelist Brion Gysin . … The Third Mind is a combination literary essay and writing collection showcasing a form of writing popularized by Burroughs and Gysin in the 1960s called “cut-ups “. Cut-ups involves taking (usually) unrelated texts, literally cutting the pages up, and then combining and rearranging (Ken, research this term because the extent and manner in which the pieces are rearranged is crucial) the pieces to form new narratives and often-surreal images. This form of writing can also be adapted for filmmaking, as demonstrated by Burroughs and director Antony Balch in their early 1960s short film, The Cut-Ups .
The significance of “The Third Mind” is that it is a shared consciousness that can only be reached by two (or more) people together– they access a place that neither could reach alone. Person A and Person B can find new ideas in dialoguebecause they are improvisationally responding to each other’s unpredictable mind.Burroughs was trying to access this unpredictability by cutting and rearranging texts into nonsensical riddles. By weaving the nonsense into a linear narrative, he forced himself into dialogue with an unpredictable “other”. This practice builds on the classic Zen koan– a riddle designed to transcend the “rational” mind and lead a student to satori (enlightenment).
As a writer I inherit one set of assumptions about copying or borrowing, or what’s called plagiarism, but as a music fan, someone who adores sampling and quotation and allusion in the music I listen to, and as a fan of collage and appropriation in the visual arts, many of the artists I grew up liking in these different realms were instinctive plagiarists, by the standards that I often see applied within the literary arts.
I was trained first as a painter, and I came to think of things along those lines, whereas so many other writers come out of either academic writing first, where they’ve written a lot within the context of academy — they’ve written a dissertation or innumerable papers before they begin writing fiction or something that’s outside of that framework — or they work as journalists — they do a lot of stuff within the journalistic context. Now, if you look at what writers inherit from the context of the academy and from journalism, there’s a lot of emphasis put on the ethics of copying. Everyone’s very conscious that to be a proper student you musn’t plagiarize. And everyone’s conscious that to be a good working journalist, you musn’t cobble together your pieces too much or too obviously from preexisting journalism. I didn’t think that way. I thought, to be a good artist you’re probably going to be cobblig together stuff from all sorts of sources, because every artist I admired seemed to do that.
What we think of as open source is is basically culture. It’s how human beings have organized themselves, communicated with each other, joined each other, forged identities, and most importantly, grooved and danced, for centuries. This is basically how people have always dealt with each other. It’s just in recent years we’ve imposed these interesting cages — legal cages, psychological cages, ethical cages — around this level of sharing.
I think it’s terribly important that artists remember to be grateful for their engagement with an ongoing cultural discourse, that they came from somewhere, and their stuff — if they’re lucky — will be entered into the language of culture and become useful to others. Jonathan Lethem