Image: Henri Michaux Narration (excerpt) 1927
Did you know that there’s a category for your scribbles, markings and even the scratches you make to get your pen ink flowing? Better known to the layperson by the process in which they were made, asemic writing is the term for those not-quite legible things we write, accidentally or not.
It seems too easy to write off asemic writing is a result of someone having a few drinks too many, but there is historical evidence showing just that.
Meet ‘Crazy’ Zhang Xu, a Tang Dynasty calligrapher who was a fan of combining booze with calligraphy (shaken, not stirred). Zhang’s cursive has been described as ‘explosive’, inspired by sword-dancing and fighting porters. ‘Crazy’ Zhang, along with Huai ‘Drunk’ Su, are considered the greatest cursive calligraphers
and perhaps the Harold and Kumar of the Tang Dynasty.
While these and similar works have existed for a long time, the term ‘asemic writing’ emerged in the late 1990’s. The word ‘asemic’ means “having no specific semantic content,” and it is important to emphasize that asemic writing has semantic form, but it may not be specific or limited to one particular language. In an interview with Asymptote Journal, Michael Jacobson (curator of The New Post-Literate, a gallery of asemic writing) describes it as:
The forms that asemic writing may take are many, but its main trait is its resemblance to ‘traditional’ writing—with the distinction of its abandonment of specific semantics, syntax, and communication. Asemic writing offers meaning by way of aesthetic intuition, and not by verbal expression. It often appears as abstract calligraphy, or as a drawing which resembles writing but avoids words, or if it does have words, the words are generally damaged beyond the point of legibility. One of the main ways to experience an asemic work is as unreadable, but still attractive to the eye. My point is that—without words, asemic writing is able to relate to all words, colors, and even music, irrespective of the author or the reader’s original languages; not all emotions can be expressed with words, and so asemic writing attempts to fill in the void.
Not unlike Crazy Zhang and Drunk Su, Jacobson has a contemporary who curates a great asemic writing resource: Tim Gaze and his Asemic Magazine. The website has the issues of the magazine archived, and they are fully viewable on the web.