The / Eff / ect / of Non / Line / arity

© Copyright 2017 Karolina Fedorcio, Ryerson University.

The digital nature of my exhibit enables my research to reach its target audience: internet users. We are exposed to so much textual content on a daily basis, that our brains inevitably go on auto pilot, so to say.

My digital exhibit aims to emphasize the numbing and passive nature of our linear reading, and shows the benefits of alternative ways of reading.  Although my project contributes to the existing collection of digital linear texts, it strays away from conventional linearity just enough to capture the curiosity of a prospective reader without additional confusion.

This digital form allows my discoveries within the realm of visual culture to be viewed by many, rather than being left within the confines of a traditional literary essay.

In / tro / du / ction

Hello, and welcome to my exhibition.

How did you read that sentence? With your eyes, no doubt. But did you really notice how your eyes read that sentence?

They followed a line from left to right. They read the word “hello” first, and “exhibition” last. They read that sentence in the same way they’ve read similar sentences in the past – in a linear way.

Linearity is a common convention found in the majority of written texts. Books, articles, posters, and even ingredient lists on the back of granola bars are written in a linear way. We have become so used to reading this way that questions like “how did you read that sentence?” can shake us up and confuse us. This is exactly the kind of reaction that authors of non-linear texts seek.

Authors like William Burroughs and Tom Phillips experiment with different ways of presenting narratives. By breaking the rules and subverting typical literary conventions, they question what truly constitutes a ‘narrative.’ Most importantly, their experimental works challenge readers to read and see in a different way.

This project aims to determine how a text’s lack of linearity changes the way we read and understand narratives. This question is explored through the works of Burroughs and Phillips – authors who have inspired the creation of my own “non-linear stories.” This project will analyze non-linearity’s diversion from conventional practices and the effects such diversions have on readers. It will also discuss the greater implications of the existence of non-linear texts in our present society.

In essence, this project aims to show how non-linear texts push readers out of their comfortable daily passivity and force them to pay attention to the information they receive.

Non / Line / arity

What is non-linearity anyways?

Espen Aarseth describes a non-linear text as “communication that is not simply one fixed sequence of letters, words, and sentences but one in which the … sequences of words may differ from reading to reading because of the shape, conventions, or mechanisms of the text” (762).

In other words, while linear texts are read “word by word from beginning to end” (762), non-linear texts demand to be read differently. They often do not follow a predictable pattern and can be considered obscure and erratic. Collages, cut-ups, black-out poetry, and “Humuments” are a few examples of such non-linear texts.

As a result of “our ingrained Western inclination to read from left to right” (Parlington 71), anything that diverts away from our accustomed norms can be considered strange and confusing. Non-linear texts can provoke anxiety in readers who are unsure of what they are looking at and the messages they are meant to be extracting from such texts.

This is precisely what makes them an interesting topic of study.

Av / ant / Gar / de / Poe / try: An Introduction

The phenomenon of non-linear texts can be traced back to Surrealism and Dada Poetry of the 1920s. One of its founders, Tristan Tzara, is known for his eccentric “cut up” poetry. Tzara’s method of choice was taking a primary text, cutting it up, and re-arranging the words to create an alternate narrative. His surrealist oeuvre included “critiques of war, commercialism, language and our relation to the natural world” (Caldwell 8). Tzara’s refusal to be complacent of the world around him was the driving force behind his projects.

“To Make a Dadaist Poem” Tristan Tzara. Source:


The Oulipo Movement is another time period known for its experimental literature. Founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais, the movement aimed to emphasize the creation of texts through constrained methods. By imposing and following strict rules in their writing, Oulipo writers questioned the potential of literature. The premise of the Oulipo Movement is aptly summarized by the title of Andrew Gallix’s article: “freeing literature by tightening its rules.”

Wi / ll/ iam / Bu / rrou / ghs– Cut / Ups

“Most people don’t see what’s going on around them. For God’s sakes, keep your eyes open. Notice what’s going on around you.” – William Burroughs, Paris Review 1965


The encouragement of literary experimentation by movements like Dada and Oulipo inspired authors like William Burroughs to take on similar endeavors. Burroughs is known for his “cut-up” narratives, which rely on the physical deconstruction and re-arrangement of a text. Burroughs mainly worked with newspapers, cutting out headlines and using them to create disjointed and strange narratives. The result is a text which mimics a traditional narrative, complete with a semi-cohesive plot and characters. However, its method of production is anything but traditional – Burroughs relied on randomness and chance of words to “write” his story.

An example of his work is the “Nova Trilogy,” which is said to “fire the reader into a textual outer space that escapes linear conventions” (Harris 12).  An excerpt from Nova Express is shown below:

Page 13 of Burrough’s “Nova Express.” Print.

Weidner writes that “Burroughs’ experimental writing never tells readers what to do, but it does force them to think” (324). His writing is erratic, jumbled, and ultimately – non-linear. It wakes readers up from the trance to which they are accustomed and jolts them to awareness. Burroughs doesn’t let readers passively read – he forces them to see.

My / Cut / Up / Pro / ject

Inspired by Burroughs’ avant-garde methodology, I ventured to create my own “cut-up” stories. I collected newspapers from the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail and cut out random headlines, phrases, or words which caught my attention. I then placed them all on my floor, and pieced together words into short and fragmented stories. I surprised myself with the political undertones found in my “cut-up” stories, since I did not begin my project with such intentions. It just goes to show how something meaningful and thought-provoking can arise from a seemingly random and unplanned process.

“Hello Police.” Karolina Fedorcio, Magazine on paper.
“An Unspoken Warning,” Karolina Fedorcio. Magazine on paper.
“Love letter,” Karolina Fedorcio. Magazine on paper.
“Beware,” Karolina Fedorcio. Magazine on paper.
“Genius,” Karolina Fedorcio. Magazine on paper.
“A disaster,” Karolina Fedorcio. Magazine on paper.
“Ignorance,” Karolina Fedorcio. Magazine on paper.

Now, here are some of the stories written in a traditionally linear way.

  • Love letter from Subject Unknown. If only I could actually want you. No problem. A matter of taste.
  • Many don’t understand how Sex became an ordeal. take advantage of your ignorance’
  • Hello police? ‘Clearly, a drunk can consent’ Oh yes, its ladies night. Don’t be tomorrow’s headline.

When translated, the stories lose an essential element of their urgency and innovation. What was once an interesting collage with a powerful message becomes another mediocre sentence.

Creating my own “cut-up” narratives allowed me see first-hand how non-linear texts can change the way we think. Rather than passively reading the daily newspaper, I forced myself to just focus on distinct words which were interesting in their own right – and not as part of a cohesive sentence or headline. In my project, I tried to emphasize that a narrative does not have to follow a linear pattern in order to be provoking and effective.

Tom / Phill / ips / – Humu / ments

Tom Philips is another author who refuses to abide by conventional writing rules. Although influenced by Burroughs, Phillips takes a slightly more artistic and visual approach to non-linear narratives. In 1960, Phillips bought W.H Mallock’s novel titled A Human Document for 3 pence (equivalent of 5 cents) and decided to transform it through destruction. He first began with the title, eliminating a few of its letters to create A Humument. Phillips re-purposed the novel by striking out the original author’s words and leaving only selected phrases of the text visible for readers. He then decorated each page with illustrations that complemented the “discovered” story. The final result of Phillips’ project was a “dreamlike narrative” (Parlington 68) that resembled a “pack of cards” more than a cohesive novel (Smyth).

“The Letter F,” Tom Phillips. Silkscreen and archival digital print. 2016.

Tom Phillips “exhumes” a completely different story from the narrative which already exists (Smyth).  These newly constructed stories are often connected by a line which connects one word to the next – a nod to the linear tradition. This type of spreading out of words on the page is called “mise en page,” a technique which controls the reader’s reading speed (Smyth). The reader is forced to read more carefully and attentively than they would normally, paying close attention to the progression of words and sentences.

Given the visual nature of Phillips’ work, readers are “compelled to look at, rather than read, the written page” (Parlington 75). The distinction between looking and reading is subtle, yet significant. When we read, we notice words. When we look, we notice everything.  The difference between the two is the degree of awareness.

As a result, Phillips’ unconventional novel grants more freedom to the reader and allows them to experience the text as a “space to explore rather than a line to follow” (Hayles 99). Any constraints imposed by traditional texts are removed to encourage freely creative thought.

My / Hu / mu / ment / Pro / ject

Just like my “cut-up” project was inspired by Burroughs, the work of Phillips inspired me to create my own “humuments.” I took The Picture of Dorian Gray, ripped out several pages, and tried to uncover an alternate story within Wilde’s novel. My reason for choosing this particular novel was as random as Phillips’ – it was the only book of which I owned two copies. Just as Phillips created A Humument from A Human Document, I created The Cure of Gray from The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The final result of my experimentation was a story about a “Queen,” who refuses the romantic advances of a man named Harry. She is aware of her self-worth, and refuses to be coerced into a relationship she does not need. Unbeknownst to me, a feminist critique of romance emerged from the scattered fragments of text.

For higher-resolution photos, click here:

“Part 1,” Karolina Fedorcio. Pencil crayon on book page.
“Part 2,” Karolina Fedorcio. Pencil crayon on book page.
“Part 3,” Karolina Fedorcio. Pencil crayon on book page.
“Part 4,” Karolina Fedorcio. Pencil crayon on book page.
“Part 5,” Karolina Fedorcio. Pencil crayon on book page.
“Part 6,” Karolina Fedorcio. Pencil crayon on book page.

Similar to my imitation of Burroughs, my “humuments” pushed me to think in a different way than I usually think. I had to remind myself not to read the story of Dorian and Lord Henry which progressed from line to line, and to instead focus on the separate words contained in the pages. Paradoxically, this process made me more aware of the text itself.

When we read – especially when we read quickly – we inevitably ignore parts of the text. Our eyes glide through the familiar linear lines as we rush to see what happens next in the story. Although I’ve read The Picture of Dorian Gray several times, there are many words and phrases which I just noticed for the first time while creating this project. This is because I was intently focused on the text, re-reading the same page multiple times to find the ideal combination of words. This project is an example of the type of creativity that can happen when we take a step away from our comfort zone and embrace different methods of thought.

The / Po / wer / of / Non / Line / arity

Conventional linear texts cause readers to passively absorb content.

Non-linear texts encourage readers to actively decode meaning.

You may ask, “alright, a few authors chose to create their works in a peculiar way. So what?”

To answer this question, we must compare the effects of a “normal” book of fiction with those of a non-linear text. Typical linear narrative encourages readers to become immersed in the narrative and forget about the page itself (Parlington 70). Our brain already knows how to read the page, and so it has little difficulty absorbing the text in front of it. Because of this, it can become lazy – skimming, skipping, and ignoring some parts of the text.

However, non-linear texts like those of Burroughs and Phillips require readers to “break out of the habituated reading process that is reinforced by the appearance of unmarked texts” (Pfahl 404). Their unique styles prevent readers “from passively consuming the text” (413), and instead encourage more active participation and engagement. The story is not handed to them – they must make an effort to discover it themselves.

Put simply, non-linear texts increase readers’ awareness. They push readers out of their comfortable daily passivity and force them to pay more attention to the information they receive.

By breaking rules of conventional writing, non-linear texts can act as “exercises” for the brain. They are a hectic puzzle, jumbled collage, a piece of enigmatic artwork. To appreciate such works, the reader must put in more effort to follow and understand.

An added benefit? This type of mind-training can help keep us sharp and alert.

Fi / nal / Thou / ghts

My tactile reproductions of Burroughs and Phillips allowed me to learn more about non-linearity than if I were to simply read their works. By stepping into the shoes of an author, I had to simultaneously be aware of both the linear and non-linear ways of reading. This is because I had to use the primary texts to gather materials for my stories, in order to create my own non-linear narratives. This process made me become more aware of the conventions of linearity, and the methods which authors use to subvert them. I surprised myself with the creativity which emerged from the seemingly “unnatural” and random.  My projects serve as examples to what can happen when we step away from the confines of what is considered “normal.”

The goal of my exhibit was to illustrate the valuable contributions of non-linear texts to ways of reading. They disrupt traditional conventions of writing in order to disrupt the passive ways of reading that many have become accustomed to.

Non-linear texts encourage readers to read differently, creatively, and ultimately – more consciously.

It is more fulfilling to solve a labyrinth, than it is to trace a straight line.



Works Cited

Aarseth, Espen J. “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory.” 1994. The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, MIT Press, 2003, pp. 762-80.

Burroughs, William S. Nova Express: The Restored Text. Edited by Oliver Harris, New York: Grove Press, 2014. Print.

—. “William S. Burroughs, The Art of Fiction No. 36.” Interview by Conrad Knickerbocker. The Paris Review, no. 35, Fall 1965, 24 Mar. 2017.

Caldwell, Ruth. “Tristan Tzara’s Poetical Visions: Ironic, Oneiric, Heroic.” Studies in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature. 36.1 (Winter 2012): 117-34. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

Gallix, Andrew. “Oulipo: Freeing literature by tightening its rules.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited. 12 July 2013. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Writing Machines. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002. Print.

Parlington, Gill. “Never mind the Mallocks: Missing text in Tom Phillips’s A Humument.” Critical Quarterly. 55.4 (Dec. 2013): 67-80. Wiley Online Library, DOI:10.1111/criq.12078. 22 Mar. 2017.

Pfahl, Courtney A. ““After The / Unauthor”: Fragmented Author Functions in Tom Phillips’s A Humument.” Studies in the Novel. 47.3 (Fall 2015): 399-419. Project MUSE, DOI:10.1353/sdn.2015.0037. 22 Mar. 2017.

Smyth, Adam. “Double Act.” London Review of Books. 34.19 (Oct. 2012): 35-36, 24 Mar. 2017.

Weidner, Chad. “Mutable Forms: The Proto-ecology of William Burroughs’ Early Cut-ups.” Comparative American Studies.11.3 (Sept. 2013): 314-26. Routledge, DOI:10.1179/1477570013Z.00000000049. 22 Mar. 2017.

Image Credits

Burroughs, William S. Nova Express: The Restored Text. Page 13. Edited by Oliver Harris,
New York: Grove Press, 2014.

Phillips, Tom. The Letter F. Tom Phillips, 20 Feb. 2017.

Tzara, Tristan. To Make a Dadaist Poem, 22 Mar. 2017.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.