Asemic writing

Last updated

Asemic writing from Marco Giovenale Asemic3.jpg
Asemic writing from Marco Giovenale

Asemic writing is a wordless open semantic form of writing. [1] [2] [3] The word asemic /ˈsmɪk/ means "having no specific semantic content", or "without the smallest unit of meaning". [4] With the non-specificity of asemic writing there comes a vacuum of meaning, which is left for the reader to fill in and interpret. All of this is similar to the way one would deduce meaning from an abstract work of art. Where asemic writing distinguishes itself among traditions of abstract art is in the asemic author's use of gestural constraint, and the retention of physical characteristics of writing such as lines and symbols. Asemic writing is a hybrid art form that fuses text and image into a unity, and then sets it free to arbitrary subjective interpretations. It may be compared to free writing or writing for its own sake, instead of writing to produce verbal context. The open nature of asemic works allows for meaning to occur across linguistic understanding; an asemic text may be "read" in a similar fashion regardless of the reader's natural language. [5] Multiple meanings for the same symbolism are another possibility for an asemic work, that is, asemic writing can be polysemantic or have zero meaning, infinite meanings, or its meaning can evolve over time. [6] Asemic works leave for the reader to decide how to translate and explore an asemic text; in this sense, the reader becomes co-creator of the asemic work.


In 1997, visual poets Tim Gaze [7] and Jim Leftwich first applied the word asemic to name their quasi-calligraphic writing gestures. [8] [9] They then began to distribute them to poetry magazines both online and in print. The authors explored sub-verbal and sub-letteral forms of writing, and textual asemia as a creative option and as an intentional practice. Since the late 1990s, asemic writing has blossomed into a worldwide literary/art movement. It has especially grown in the early part of the 21st century, though there is an acknowledgement of a long and complex history, which precedes the activities of the current asemic movement, especially with regards to abstract calligraphy, wordless writing, and verbal writing damaged beyond the point of legibility. Jim Leftwich has recently stated that an asemic condition of an asemic work is an impossible goal, and that it is not possible to create an art/literary work entirely without meaning. He has begun to use the term "pansemic" too. [10] He also explained (in 2020): "The term 'pansemia' didn't replace the term 'asemia' in my thinking (nor did 'pansemic' replace 'asemic'); it merely assisted me in expanding my understanding of the theory and practice of asemic writing". [11] Others such as author Travis Jeppesen have found the term asemic to be problematic because "it seems to infer writing with no meaning." [12]


Asemic writing exists in many different forms. It is often created with a pen or brush, but can range from being hand drawn in the sand with a stick and documented by photography, [13] or to works on canvas, paper, computer images, and animations. The key to asemic writing is that even though it is traditionally "unreadable" it still maintains a strong attractive appeal to the reader's eye. Various asemic writing includes pictograms, or ideograms the meanings of which are sometimes suggested by their shapes, though it may also flow as an abstract expressionist scribble which resembles writing but avoids words. Asemic writing, at times, exists as a conception or shadow of conventional writing practices. Reflecting writing, but not completely existing as a traditional writing system, asemic writing seeks to make the reader hover in a state between reading and looking. [14] Asemic writing has no verbal sense, though it may have clear textual sense. [15] Through its formatting and structure, asemic writing may suggest a type of document and, thereby, suggest a meaning. The form of art is still writing, often calligraphic in form, and either depends on a reader's sense and knowledge of writing systems for it to make sense, [15] or can be understood through aesthetic intuition. [1] True asemic writing occurs when the creator of the asemic piece cannot read their own asemic writing. Relative asemic writing is a natural writing system that can be read by some people but not by everyone (e.g. ciphers, wildstyle, etc.). Most asemic writing lies between these two extremes. [16] Influences on asemic writing are illegible, invented, or primal scripts (cave paintings, doodles, children's drawings, etc.). But instead of being thought of as mimicry of preliterate expression, asemic writing may be considered to be a global postliterate style of writing that uses all forms of creativity for inspiration. Other influences on asemic writing are alien languages in science fiction, artistic languages, sigils (magick), undeciphered scripts, and graffiti. [17] Uses for asemic writing include mental and creative idea stimulation, non-verbal communication, meditation, hoaxes, and general authorial self-expression.


Newsletter from Mirtha Dermisache MirthaDermisacheNewsletter.jpg
Newsletter from Mirtha Dermisache

Asemic writing occurs in avant-garde literature and art with strong roots in the earliest forms of writing. [19] The history of today's asemic movement stems from two Chinese calligraphers: "crazy" Zhang Xu, a Tang dynasty (c.800 CE) calligrapher who was famous for creating wild illegible calligraphy, and the younger "drunk" monk Huaisu who also excelled at illegible cursive calligraphy. [20] Japanese calligraphers subsequently expanded upon Chinese abstract calligraphic expression by Hitsuzendō (the way of Zen through brush), allowing their works to move past formal presentation and "breathe with the vitality of eternal experience".

In the 1920s, Man Ray, who was influenced by Dada, created an early work of wordless writing with his poem Paris, Mai 1924, which is nothing more than dashes on a page. Later in the 1920s, Henri Michaux, who was influenced by Asian calligraphy, Surrealism, and Automatic writing, began to create wordless works such as Alphabet (1925) and Narration (1927). [21] Michaux referred to his calligraphic works as "interior Gestures". The writer and artist Wassily Kandinsky was an early precursor to asemic writing, with his linear piece Indian Story (1931) exemplifying complete textual abstraction.

In the 1950s, there is Brion Gysin (whose calligraphy was influenced by Japanese and Arabic calligraphy), Isidore Isou (who founded Lettrisme/Letterism), Cy Twombly (a former US Army Cryptologist), and Morita Shiryū/Bokujin-kai Group (Ink Human Society) [22] all of whom expanded writing into illegible, abstract, and wordless visual mark-making; they would help lay the foundation for asemic writers of the future. Mira Schendel was an artist from Brazil who created many illegible works over the course of her life, for example her piece Archaic Writing (1964). Mirtha Dermisache is another writer who had created asemic writing since the 1960s. [23] Dermisache actively said that even though her graphisms have no meaning, they still retained the full rights of an autonomous work. 1971 was the year when Alain Satié released his work Écrit en prose ou L'Œuvre hypergraphique which contains asemic writing throughout the entire graphic novel. [24] León Ferrari was another artist/poet who created many asemic works in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Escritura (1976). [25] 1974 saw the release of Max Ernst's work Maximiliana: The Illegal Practice Of Astronomy: hommage à Dorothea Tanning; this book is a major influence on asemic writers such as Tim Gaze, Michael Jacobson, [26] and Derek Beaulieu. [27] Roland Barthes was also involved with asemic writing; he titled his asemic works Contre-écritures. [28] [29]

A modern example of asemic writing is Luigi Serafini's Codex Seraphinianus (1981). Serafini described the script of the Codex as asemic in a talk at the Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles held on 8 May 2009. [30] In the 1980s, Chinese artist Xu Bing created Tiānshū, or A Book from the Sky which is a work of books and hanging scrolls on which were printed 4000 hand carved meaningless characters. [31] The 1980s also saw artist Gu Wenda begin the first of a series of projects centered on the invention of meaningless, false Chinese ideograms, depicted as if they were truly old and traditional. One exhibition of this type was held in Xi'an in 1986, featuring paintings of fake ideograms on a massive scale. [32] Also in China, during the 1990s, an abstract calligraphy movement known as "Calligraphy-ism" came into existence, a leading proponent of this movement being Luo Qi. Calligraphy-ism is an aesthetic movement that aims to develop calligraphy into an abstract art. The characters do not need to retain their traditional forms or be legible as words. In Vietnam during the 2000s, a calligraphy group called the Zenei Gang of Five appeared. To this group of young artists, "Wordless" means that which cannot be said, that which is both before and beyond the specificity of naming. To be without words is saying nothing and saying everything.

The 21st century has seen a steady growth in the popularity of asemic writing on social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Pinterest. The Internet has aided in the rapid distribution of the asemic movement via blogs, and by a steadily growing body of print-on-demand books of asemic literature. [33] [34] There have been many group exhibits of asemic writing to date, the largest of which happened at Minnesota Center for Book Arts back in 2017. [35] Other areas where asemic writing has left an impression include architecture, [36] [37] sound poetry, [38] and art. [39]

Satu Kaikkonen, a contemporary asemic artist/writer from Finland, had this to say about asemic writing:

As a creator of asemics, I consider myself an explorer and a global storyteller. Asemic art, after all, represents a kind of language that's universal and lodged deep within our unconscious minds. Regardless of language identity, each human's initial attempts to create written language look very similar and, often, quite asemic. In this way, asemic art can serve as a sort of common language—albeit an abstract, post-literate one—that we can use to understand one another regardless of background or nationality. For all its limping-functionality, semantic language all too often divides and asymmetrically empowers while asemic texts can't help but put people of all literacy-levels and identities on equal footing. [40]

Bruce Sterling comments about asemic writing on his Wired magazine blog Beyond the Beyond:

Writing that doesn't have any actual writing in it whatsoever. You would think that this must be some kind of ultimate literary frontier, a frozen Antarctica of writing entirely devoid of literary content, but I wonder. What is "beyond asemic writing"? Maybe a neural brain-scan of an author *thinking about* asemic writing. Maybe *generative asemic writing*. Maybe "asemic biomimicry". Maybe nanoasemic writing inscribed with atomic force microscopes by Artificial Intelligences. [41]

False writing systems

False writing systems are artificially constructed alphabets or scripts used (sometimes within the context of a false document) to convey a degree of verisimilitude. Examples of this include alien dialogue in comic strips, animated cartoons, and graphic novels (such as Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen , and the Valérian and Laureline series). The script in Luigi Serafini's 1981 Codex Seraphinianus was confirmed by the author to have no occult meaning. The Voynich manuscript, a mysterious work which may have inspired the Codex Seraphinianus,[ citation needed ] uses an undeciphered writing system which some have speculated to be false.

See also


  1. 1 2 Michael Jacobson (7 April 2017). "Works & Interviews". Post-Asemic Press.
  2. "Tim Gaze". Asemic Magazine.
  3. Peter Schwenger. "Asemic: The Art of Writing". University of Minnesota Press.
  4. From Greek: asemos (ἄσημος) = without sign, unmarked, obscure, or ignoble.
  5. "Satu Kaikkonen interview".
  6. "Samplekannon interview with Michael Jacobson". Samplekannon. 18 January 2013.
  7. "Tim Gaze: Writer & Poet". Litro. 4 January 2009.
  8. "The Nearness Of Asemic Writing by Jim Leftwich". Galatea Resurrects. 8 February 2018.
  9. "An Interview With Tim Gaze". Sam Woolfe. 9 January 2023.
  10. "Jim Leftwich: "asemic writing definitions and contexts, 1998–2016"". Slowforward. 13 March 2016.
  11. "Jim Leftwich responds to New pansemic vispo (June 10, 2020)". asemicfront2. 14 June 2020.
  12. "Hans Ulrich Obrist in Conversation About Inventing New Languages". Sleek Magazine.
  13. Thelma Mort. "Cape Town artist Andrew van der Merwe carves out beach calligraphy niche". BusinessDay.
  14. Jaime Morrison. "Nonism: Asemic Art". The Handstand.
  15. 1 2 Geof Huth. "Varieties of Visual Poetry". dbqp.
  16. "PRATE, Michael Jacobson interview". Full of Crow. 6 August 2009.
  17. Quimby Melton. "Michael Jacobson interview".
  18. dermisache-9 Newsletters & 1 Reportaje 2000: Newsletter, 2000 from Mirtha Dermisache, Nueve Newsletters & Un Reportaje, Buenos Aires : El borde, Marseille : Mobil-Home, Montpellier : Manglar, 2004. Offset printing, 440 copies.
  19. "An Anthology of Asemic Handwriting". Punctum Books.
  20. Nicholls, Sarah. "Center for Book Arts: Making Sense of Asemic Writing".
  21. "'Leaking the Squalls': The Art and Letters of Henri Michaux". natalie ferris. 26 January 2014. Retrieved 10 November 2014.
  22. Kathryn Simon phd. "Calligraphy The Bokujin-Kai Group and Shiryu Morita".
  23. Patrick Durgin. "Witness Mirtha Dermisache".
  24. Alain Satie, Écrit en Prose, Éditions PSI, 1971.
  25. Buzz Poole (16 July 2010). "The Writing of Art, The Art of Writing".
  26. "Volodymyr Bilyk in conversation with Michael Jacobson". 31 August 2019.
  27. Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing, Columbia University Press, 20 September 2011
  28. Nicole Rudick (5 December 2012). "Vispo". The Paris Review.
  29. "Drawings on Writing".
  30. Jeff Stanley (2010). "To Read Images Not Words: Computer-Aided Analysis of the Handwriting in the Codex Seraphinianus (MSc dissertation)" (PDF). NC State University Libraries. North Carolina State University at Raleigh: 8–9.
  31. "Free writing". stalker. 2 July 2008. Retrieved 10 November 2014.
  32. Donna Tull. "Asemic Writing".
  33. "Post-Asemic Press".
  34. Michael Betancourt. "A Short Introduction to 'Asemic Poetry' as Metalanguage".
  35. "Asemic Writing: Offline And In The Gallery".
  36. "Asemic Scapes by Sarah Schneider".
  37. "Asemic Forest: Spontaneous Order and Architecture".
  38. Jaap Blonk and Tomomi Adachi. "Asemic Dialogues".
  39. Katy Donoghue. "Glenn Ligon on the Need for a New Way of Thinking about Language".
  40. "".
  41. Sterling, Bruce (13 July 2009). "Web Semantics: Asemic writing". .
  42. "asemic-writing-matox". Post Graffiti :: Urban Skins. February 2012.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Book</span> Medium for recording information in the form of writing or images

A book is a medium for recording information in the form of writing or images, typically composed of many pages bound together and protected by a cover. The technical term for this physical arrangement is codex. In the history of hand-held physical supports for extended written compositions or records, the codex replaces its predecessor, the scroll. A single sheet in a codex is a leaf and each side of a leaf is a page.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Calligraphy</span> Visual art related to writing

Calligraphy is a visual art related to writing. It is the design and execution of lettering with a pen, ink brush, or other writing instrument. Contemporary calligraphic practice can be defined as "the art of giving form to signs in an expressive, harmonious, and skillful manner".

<i>Codex Seraphinianus</i> Illustrated encyclopedia of an imaginary world

The Codex Seraphinianus, originally published in 1981, is an illustrated encyclopedia of an imaginary world, created by Italian artist, architect and industrial designer Luigi Serafini between 1976 and 1978. It is approximately 360 pages and written in an imaginary language.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Concrete poetry</span> Genre of poetry with lines arranged as a shape

Concrete poetry is an arrangement of linguistic elements in which the typographical effect is more important in conveying meaning than verbal significance. It is sometimes referred to as visual poetry, a term that has now developed a distinct meaning of its own. Concrete poetry relates more to the visual than to the verbal arts although there is a considerable overlap in the kind of product to which it refers. Historically, however, concrete poetry has developed from a long tradition of shaped or patterned poems in which the words are arranged in such a way as to depict their subject.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Abstract art</span> Art with a degree of independence from visual references in the world

Abstract art uses visual language of shape, form, color and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Handwriting</span> Writing created by a person with a writing implement

Handwriting is the writing done with a writing instrument, such as a pen or pencil, in the hand. Handwriting includes both printing and cursive styles and is separate from formal calligraphy or typeface. Because each person's handwriting is unique and different, it can be used to verify a document's writer. The deterioration of a person's handwriting is also a symptom or result of several different diseases. The inability to produce clear and coherent handwriting is also known as dysgraphia.

Russian formalism was a school of literary criticism in Russia from the 1910s to the 1930s. It includes the work of a number of highly influential Russian and Soviet scholars such as Viktor Shklovsky, Yuri Tynianov, Vladimir Propp, Boris Eichenbaum, Roman Jakobson, Boris Tomashevsky, Grigory Gukovsky who revolutionised literary criticism between 1914 and the 1930s by establishing the specificity and autonomy of poetic language and literature. Russian formalism exerted a major influence on thinkers like Mikhail Bakhtin and Juri Lotman, and on structuralism as a whole. The movement's members had a relevant influence on modern literary criticism, as it developed in the structuralist and post-structuralist periods. Under Stalin it became a pejorative term for elitist art.

An artistic language, or artlang, is a constructed language designed for aesthetic and phonetic pleasure. Language can be artistic to the extent that artists use it as a source of creativity in art, poetry, calligraphy or as a metaphor to address themes as cultural diversity and the vulnerability of the individual in a globalizing world.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Henri Michaux</span> Belgian-born French poet, writer and painter

Henri Michaux was a Belgian-born French poet, writer and painter. Michaux is renowned for his strange, highly original poetry and prose, and also for his art: the Paris Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York had major shows of his work in 1978. His texts chronicling his psychedelic experiments with LSD and mescaline, which include Miserable Miracle and The Major Ordeals of the Mind and the Countless Minor Ones, are well known. So are his idiosyncratic travelogues and books of art criticism. Michaux is also known for his stories about Plume – "a peaceful man" – perhaps the most unenterprising hero in the history of literature, and his many misfortunes. In 1955 he became a citizen of France, and he lived the rest of his life there. He became a friend of Romanian pessimist philosopher and French citizen Emil Cioran around the same time. In 1965 he won the grand prix national des Lettres, which he refused to accept, as he did every honor he was accorded in his life.

Luigi Serafini is an Italian artist and designer based in Milan. He is best known for creating the Codex Seraphinianus, an illustrated encyclopedia of imaginary things in what was believed to be a constructed language. This work was published in 1981 by Franco Maria Ricci.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Undeciphered writing systems</span> Written form of language that is not currently understood

An undeciphered writing system is a written form of language that is not currently understood.

Gu Wenda is a contemporary artist from China who lives and works in New York City. Much of his works are themed around traditional Chinese calligraphy and poetry. His works also often use human hair.

Ulfert Wilke (1907–1987) was an internationally recognized painter, museum director and art collector connected to the abstract expressionism movement. His father, Rudolf Wilke, was an illustrator for the satirical magazine, Simplicissimus.

Asemia is the term for the medical condition of being unable to understand or express any signs or symbols. It is a more severe condition than aphasia, which is the inability to understand linguistic signs. Asemia is caused by damage to the areas of the brain that process communication – more specifically, when there is damage to the left side of the brain in the areas that process communication such as Broca's and Wernicke's areas. Damage can be inflicted by physical trauma to the brain, but is more commonly caused by stroke and sometimes tumors. The onset of this condition is usually quick but not permanent. Treatment of this condition is traditional speech therapy in which the individual must relearn how to read, write, and talk. Depending on the severity of the injury, recovery can take days to years. Considerable recovery is common, but often not to the full extent of baseline ability.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mirtha Dermisache</span> Argentine artist (1940–2012)

Mirtha Dermisache was an Argentine artist whose works of asemic writing have been published and exhibited internationally at venues including the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and MACBA in Barcelona, and collected by leading international arts institutions. She won the Konex Award in 2012 (posthumous) in Concept Art.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Calligraffiti</span> Calligraphy/typography/graffiti art form

Calligraffiti is an art form that combines calligraphy, typography, and graffiti. It can be classified as either abstract expressionism or abstract vandalism. It is defined as a visual art that integrates letters into compositions that attempt to communicate a broader message through writing that has been aesthetically altered to move beyond the literal meaning. Simply put, it is the conscious effort of making a word or group of words into a visual composition. As such it is meant to be both an aesthetic experience and provocative art—mixing tradition and precision with modern unbridled self-expression.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Saburo Hasegawa</span>

Saburō Hasegawa was a Japanese calligrapher, painter, art writer, curator, and teacher. He was an early advocate of abstract art in Japan and an equally vocal supporter of the Japanese traditional arts and Zen Buddhism. Throughout his career he argued for the connection between East Asian classical arts and Western abstract painting.

The Hurufiyya movement (Arabic: حروفية ḥurufiyyah, adjectival form ḥurufī, 'letters' is an aesthetic movement that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century amongst Muslim artists, who used their understanding of traditional Islamic calligraphy within the precepts of modern art. By combining tradition and modernity, these artists worked towards developing a culture specific visual language, which instilled a sense of national identity in their respective nation states, at a time when many of these states where shaking off colonial rule and asserting their independence. They adopted the same name as the Hurufi, an approach of Sufism which emerged in the late 14th–early 15th century. Art historian Sandra Dagher has described Hurufiyya as the most important movement to emerge in Arabic art in the 20th century.

A wordless picture book or a almost-wordless picture book is a picture book whose narrative is expressed through the illustrations.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Emma Hauck</span> German outsider artist

Emma Hauck was a German outsider artist known for her artistic, handwritten letters to her husband while she was institutionalized in a mental hospital. Though these letters were never delivered, they have since come to be regarded as works of art due to their abstraction and repetitive content. In many cases the letters consist of only the words "Come sweetheart" or "Come" written over and over in flowing script.