Asemic Writing: The Drive to Create Imaginary Languages and Alien Alphabets

Allyson Grey and asemic writing

Artwork from allysongrey.com

I have long been fascinated by the artistic drive to create imaginary languages. Countless numbers of them exist. And some of them have made their way into public consciousness since they have been integrated into the fictional worlds and universes portrayed in popular books and television shows. These fictional languages include Elvish in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Alienese in Futurama, Na’vi in Avatar, Dothraki in Game of Thrones, Klingon in Star Trek (this language was created by the linguist Marc Okrand), and the Atlantean language in Atlantis: The Lost Empire (this one was also formulated by Okrand).

Moreover, these particular fictional languages are, in a sense, real – they belong to a fictional world, but the languages are functioning and usable, so calling them a ‘fiction’ is somewhat of a misnomer. You can actually learn them and write and/or speak the languages in a way that communicates genuine meaning, information, and messages (although very few people speak these languages fluently, so conversations will rarely extend beyond basic communication and mundane topics).

These are constructed languages because their alphabets, phonology, grammar, and vocabulary did not develop naturally – as the languages we speak are – but are instead consciously devised. Other terms for such languages include artificial languages or invented languages. Some belong to a fictional world, like Klingon, which additionally makes them a fictional language, whereas others are created in isolation, as a creative endeavour. You can find many examples of both fictional and non-fictional constructed languages from language enthusiasts on Reddit communities like r/conlangs, r/conscripts, r/elianscript, r/worldbuilding, r/neography, and r/asemic. This last subreddit, however, contrasts with the others in that it features meaningless, non-functioning, and non-usable writing (asemic means “having no specific semantic content”). The writing, letters, alphabets, and glyphs in asemic writing are more artistic in nature, although they may be inspired by real, natural languages.

Atlantean language

The Atlantean language, a constructed language created by the linguist Marc Okrand

Tolkien coined the term glossopoeia (paralleling his idea of mythopoeia or myth-making) to refer to the creation of constructed languages for artistic purposes. The author created several of these languages, which are constructed, so they can be meaningfully spoken or written, and they are artistic because they serve to enhance the creative endeavour of the inventor; in the case of Tolkien, such languages add realism to his various fictional works. Tolkien constructed the grammar and vocabulary or at least 15 languages and dialects belonging to the Elvish language family, a group of languages that have a common ancestor (a proto-language) in common. He also created languages for the Ents, the Orcs, the Dwarves, and the Hobbits. However, only two of his invented languages feature enough words and grammar to be considered functional: Quenya and Sindarin (both Elvish in origin, and which look strikingly similar to Hebrew), although they’re not ‘complete’, in the sense that they lack many of the niche words that we would normally use. Nonetheless, this shouldn’t detract from the uniqueness and creative feat achieved by Tolkien. On this point, Carl F. Hostetter, a specialist in Tolkien’s languages, writes:

In short, we see a movement from language creation as a utilitarian and thus shared endeavor toward glossopoeia that is at once strongly abstract and artistic in pursuing and expressing a private and personal linguistic aesthetic and that is rigorously historical and systematic, susceptible within the fictive construct to the scientific tools of historical philology: an aspect of language creation nearly if not entirely unique to Tolkien.

To give a more contemporary example, the electronic music producer Iglooghost (Seamus Malliagh) has created a glossopoeic language, consisting of 24 alien alphabetic characters, each one corresponding to a character in the English alphabet. In this way, you can write meaningful messages using his alphabet (Iglooghost does this himself).

Iglooghost

Iglooghost’s alphabet

I am personally drawn to the asemic, purely artistic dimension of imaginary languages. Language clearly has an aesthetic value independent of whether it is meaningful or not (I can find Arabic, Hebrew, and Sanskrit writing beautiful, even though I don’t understand it). So it makes sense that people might have an impulse to construct imaginary languages, alphabets, runes, glyphs, sigils, and runes that are non-functional. These artistic creations can, moreover, be incorporated into works of art, into drawings and paintings that feature this made-up writing for aesthetic reasons. I would like to explore the drive to create asemic writing in more depth, including its more psychedelic and visionary varieties – these are the alien alphabets, runes, and glyphs that often appear in the psychedelic experience, which several artists have recreated.

Asemic Writing: A Unique Form of Artistic Expression

The visual poets Tim Gaze and Jim Leftwich coined the term asemic writing in 1997 to refer to a growing body of artistic work that was being shared on blogs. In an interview for Asymptote, the writer and artist Michael Jacobson defines asemic writing as follows:

Personally, I think asemic writing is a wordless, open semantic form of writing that is international in its mission. How can writing be wordless, someone may ask. The secret is that asemic writing is a shadow, impression, and abstraction of conventional writing. It uses the constraints of writerly gestures and the full developments of abstract art to divulge its main purpose: total freedom beyond literary expression. The subcultural movement surrounding asemic writing is international because the creators of asemic works live all over the world. It’s a global style of writing we are creating, with the creators of asemic works meeting up on the Internet to share our works and exchange ideas.

Asemic writing can take on a variety of forms, but what defines an artistic creation as asemic is its resemblance to traditional writing and its abandonment of specific semantics and syntax. To Jacobson, “not all emotions can be expressed with words, and so asemic writing attempts to fill in the void.” The artist Christopher Skinner, meanwhile, has described asemic writing and visual poetry as “different sides of the same coin.” On the other hand, not all asemic writing necessarily comes from the motive to express something meaningful. It can be done merely to create language-esque patterns that are aesthetically pleasing, which may take the form of abstract calligraphy or strange hieroglyphs, for example. Asemic writing can resemble – and be inspired by – a multitude of actual languages, including Asian, African, and Middle Eastern alphabets; as well as ancient writing systems like Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphics, cuneiform, Greek, and the runes of Germanic peoples.

Some asemic writing, however, appears much more alien, otherworldly, and futuristic. It is intriguing that some writing, whether functional (like Futurama’s Alienese) or non-functional (like some false writing systems in cartoons and comic books) stand out as alien, as if there is something characterises it as not-of-this-world, as the writing system we imagine an intelligent creature on another planet would use. Perhaps, then, there are certain artistic deviations from natural language that deviate to such a degree that they take on a distinct quality of alienness – these are forms that, for some reason, impress us with a fantastical notion of another world.

One of my favourite examples of asemic writing can be found in Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus (1981), an illustrated encyclopedia of an imaginary world, replete with surreal flora, fauna, machines, human practices, and architecture. The book is also full of the invented Serafinian script, written in a way that gives the appearance of annotations and descriptions. Members of the University of Oxford’s Society of Bibliophiles previously tried to decrypt Serafinian; that was, until, Serafini delivered a talk at the society in 2009 and confirmed that the text is meaningless. His talk was not published or recorded, but one of the attendees, Enrico Prodi, made some notes throughout the talk. Based on these notes, Serafini has the following to say about his invented script:

The book creates a feeling of illiteracy which, in turn, encourages imagination, like children seeing a book: they cannot yet read it, but they realise that it must make sense (and that it does in fact make sense to grown-ups) and imagine what its meaning must be . . . The writing of the Codex is a writing, not a language, although it conveys the impression of being one. It looks like it means something, but it does not; it is free from the cage of a language and a syntax. It involves a visual process, not a linguistic process.

To me, the writing system looks like a mixture of illegible, cursive English writing and Arabic. The Codex was most likely inspired by the mysterious Voynich Manuscript, a 15th century illustrated codex that is also written in an undecipherable language (as of now, the text is considered asemic; both amateur and professional cryptographers have tried to decipher it, but it’s possible that the text is untranslatable and meaningless). The Voynich’s script is reminiscent of Sinhala and early Persian alphabets.

Luigi Serafini's asemic writing

Luigi Serafini’s asemic writing, from the first page of the Codex Seraphinianus

Another notable example of asemic writing comes from Hélène Smith (real name Catherine-Elise Müller), a famous late 19th century Swiss medium. She claimed to be able to communicate with Martians during séances and write out such communications in the Martian language, which she would then translate into French. The psychologist Théodore Flournoy took an interest in Smith, grew closely acquainted with her, and was present at many of her séances so that he could carry out research into her mediumship. Flournoy described one of these séances in his book From Indian to the Planet Mars: A Study of a Case of Somnambulism with Glossolalia (1900):

After various characteristic symptoms of the departure for Mars … Hélène went in a deep sleep. … [Léopold] informs us that she is en route towards Mars; that once arrived up there she understands the Martian spoken around her, although she has never learned it; that it is not he, Léopold, who will translate the Martian for us—not because he does not wish to do so, but because he cannot; that this translation is the performance of Esenale, who is actually disincarnate in space, but who has recently lived upon Mars, and also upon the earth, which permits him to act as interpreter.

In an article for Cabinet Magazine, Daniel Rosenberg – an assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon – points out for clarification: ““Léopold” is a reincarnation of Joseph Balsamo, physician and lover to Marie Antoinette and Hélène Smith’s primary spirit-guide. “Esenale” is a reincarnation of Alexis Mirbel, deceased son of one of the sitters in Smith’s circle and primary interpreter of the Martian language.” The scene described above is what Flournoy refers to as “the Martian cycle”, those séances where Smith would enter a trance state and journey to Mars (the trances were somnambulistic in nature, in that she appeared to enter a state of sleep combined with wakefulness). Flournoy believed that her automatic writing was mere “romances of the subliminal imagination, derived largely from forgotten sources (for example, books read as a child)”. He coined the term cryptomnesia to describe this phenomenon: it’s when a forgotten memory returns without a subject recognising it as such, and instead he or she thinks of it as an original creation.

The Surrealists dubbed Smith “the Muse of Automatic Writing”, in light of her practice of automatic writing (also called psychography), which refers to producing words in a trance-like state, involuntarily and unconsciously. Mediums like Smith believe such writing comes from psychic abilities, that the writing comes from a source outside of themselves. The Surrealists also took particular interest in automatism, which involves suppressing conscious control of the creative process, allowing material from the unconscious to spontaneously arise, and for this reason, they saw great value in automatic drawing and writing. In his Surrealist Manifesto (1924), the French writer André Breton defined surrealism as:

pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.

The Surrealists thus saw automatic writing as revelatory. Scientists and sceptics have attempted to explain automatic writing – as well as how Oujia boards work – in terms of the ideomotor effect, an example of unconscious, involuntary movement. It refers to the process whereby a thought or mental image leads to a reflexive, automatic response from the body, which occurs without you consciously ‘telling’ your body to act in that way. In any case, Smith seemed to have produced her asemic script while in this state of automatic writing.

Helene Smith's asemic writing

Hélène Smith’s ‘Martian writing’, produced during one of her séances

Interestingly, Serafini stated during his talk at Oxford that the experience of writing his fabricated language in the Codex was similar to automatic writing. And this makes sense, given the task of producing the work. It would simply be too time-consuming to create over 300 pages of purely artistic text that appeared to encode a language, writing that appears so language-like that amateur cryptographers would consider it worth trying to decipher and expend great effort in their attempts. It took a little over two years for Serafini to complete the Codex. In a 2007 phone interview for El País, Serafini described the Codex as water that gushed out of him, and in relation to his language, he said it was artistic but added: “I realized I was leaving the pencil alone . . . I made it up suddenly. It is a vision, a dream language. The mystery, for me, is simply in the artistic act.” We may suppose, therefore, that he was able to compose his work in the aforementioned timeframe because the writing for him was like an automated act, requiring little to no conscious effort.

Automatic writing – whether or not you believe it is inspired by aliens, divine beings, spirits, or human creativity – is like the written form of glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”: unintelligible speech uttered in a trance state, which usually takes place in the context of religious worship, especially among Pentecostal and charismatic Christians). The creation of fake writing in an automatic state, like glossolalia, often has mystical connotations attached to it, and also shares in common the creation of something novel with minimal conscious effort (we can add musical improvisation, doodling, scribbling, and dreaming as other activities that share this latter feature).

Asemic writing may arise from a spontaneous and organic artistic impulse, something you feel inclined to do without much forethought or plan – putting pen to paper, movement occurs, in an experimental fashion, and then novel writing appears; yet the process is unguided – or guided by some unconscious force. Asemic writing is distinct from automatic writing (since asemic writing can be a very conscious activity); although, I believe the two often go hand in hand. And in these instances, I think we need a new term to refer to the creative act. The term I propose is pseudographia (which literally means “fake writing”). Pseudographia is asemic writing that is produced in an automatic way. It also seems to involve the unconscious drive to engage in such writing. I derive the term from hypergraphia, a behavioural condition – associated with temporal lobe epilepsy and certain mental disorders – that is characterised by the intense desire to write and draw. (Pseudographia is not pathological, of course.) Here is an example of this kind of writing from Skinner.

Christopher Skinner asemic writing

Asemic writing featuring pareidolia from Christopher Skinner. Pareidolia is the tendency to see meaningful patterns and images (commonly faces) in random and vague patterns (e.g. clouds). Skinner utilises ‘face pareidolia’ here in his asemic writing.

Other asemic artists worth checking out include Andrew Clark, Brion Gysin, Paul Klee, Marco Giovenale, Sheila Murphy, Timothy Ely, Cecil Touchon, Todd Burst, Jean-Christophe Giacottino, Jay Snodgrass, Mirtha Dermisache, Christian Dotremont (who called his abstract calligraphic works ‘logogrammes’), Leigh McCloskey (who includes Arabic/Sanskrit-esque writing in his Codex Tor), and Xu Bing (who created four thousand meaningless glyphs, produced in the style of traditional Chinese characters, in her work Book from the Sky).

The Gestural Origins of Writing

Some believe that asemic writing may shed light on the origins of writing. To illuminate this point, it will be helpful to touch on the ideas expressed in the essay The Gesture of Writing, written by the Brazilian Czech-born philosopher Vilém Flusser. It features in his collection of essays titled Gestures (1991), which examines the meaning of gestures in various human activities (e.g. speaking, destroying, painting, photographing, filming, listening to music, smoking, and telephoning). Flusser defines a gesture as “a movement of the body or of a tool attached to the body for which there is no satisfactory causal explanation.” I will first cite Flusser’s translation of his own work into English, as this seems to capture some meaning and explication that is lost in Nancy Ann Roth’s translation of this essay collection, published in 2014. In his essay on writing, Flusser states:

To write means, of course, to perform an action by which a material, (for instance chalk, or ink) is put on a surface, (for instance a blackboard or a leaf of paper), to form a specific pattern, (for instance letters). And the tools used during this action, (for instance brushes and typewriters), are instruments which add something to something. Thus one would suppose that the gesture of writing is a constructive action, if by “construction” we mean the bringing together of various objects to form a new structure (= “con-struction”). But this is misleading. If we want to seize what the gesture of writing is really about, we have to consider its original form. If we may trust archeology, writing, at least as far as the Occident is concerned, was originally an act of engraving. The Greek verb “graphein” still connotates this. Some place some time in Mesopotamia people began to scratch soft clay bricks with sticks, and then burned them to harden the scratched surface. And although we no longer do such a thing very often, it is this half-forgotten gesture of scratching which is the essence, (“eidos”), of writing. It has nothing to do with constructing. It is, on the contrary, a taking away, a de-structing. It is, both structurally and historically, closer to sculpture than to architecture. It is a gesture of making holes, of digging, of perforating. A penetrating gesture. To write is to in-scribe, to penetrate a surface, and a written text is an inscription, although as a matter of fact it is in the vast majority of cases an onscription. Therefore to write is not to form, but to in-form, and a text is not a formation, but an in-formation. I believe that we have to start from this fact, if we want to understand the gesture of writing: it is a penetrating gesture which informs a surface.

Elsewhere, Flusser posits that “the gesture of writing is the answer to the question: “What am I trying to express?” (Roth’s translation). In a blog post for the Institute of Network Cultures, Matt Beros links Flusser’s ideas to asemic writing in the following way:

Vilém Flusser develops the concept of the ‘gesture of writing’, to describe the characteristic patterns of movement for producing writing. Like Friedrich Kittler in his discussion of Nietzsche in ‘Gramophone, Film, Typewriter’, Flusser makes a phenomenological distinction between the act of handwriting, inscribing a surface with a pen or stylus, from the more pianistic gesture of typing. To grasp the essence of writing, Flusser suggests, we must consider writing in its earliest forms, the half-forgotten gestures that form the primal basis of writing.

Asemic writing, being empty of formal semantic content is a purely visual form of writing occasionally resembling primitive writing systems and preliterate forms of proto-writing…If, as Flusser notes, writing is a phenomena obscured by habit, then the practice of asemic writing is a method of rendering the writing act unfamiliar in a way that engages viewers with the gestural origins of writing…

In their book, The Gestural Origin of Language (2007), David Armstrong and Sherman Wilcox present their case for how spoken language emerged from manual gestures, rather than primate calls. This is not a new idea; it dates back at least to the 18th century and was revived by the anthropologist Gordon W. Hewes in 1974 and subsequently defended in his later work. Nevertheless, Armstrong and Wilcox highlight a variety of more recent evidence that supports the notion, including evidence from sign language and the fossil record. Other evidence that appears to bolster the gestural theory includes the fact that gestural language and vocal language depend on similar neural systems, as well as the fact that non-human primates use many of the same gestures for communication as human infants. Furthermore, human infants can gesture before they can speak – later on, these gestures then supplement and predict speech, which parallels the idea that gestures evolved first and then spoken language was built upon them (this is also known as the gesture-primacy hypothesis).

Similarly, written language could have begun as gestures long forgotten. Might asemic writing be a way to re-engage these basic gestures, to place us in the mindset of our ancestors who were the inventors of proto-writing and writing? Perhaps asemic writing can draw attention to the gestural origins of writing; however, part of me is sceptical about this potential, given that asemic writers today are still being influenced by real languages, either consciously or unconsciously. Much of asemic writing resembles well-developed writing systems (e.g. calligraphy, Mayan, Kanji, Hanzi), but then, on the other hand, some asemic writing can also resemble very primitive writing systems, such as Sumerian cuneiform, or proto-writing (like Rongorongo, a system of glyphs from Easter Island that may be one of the few independent inventions of writing in human history). Beros underlines this point about similarities between asemic and ancient writing.

On the relationship between gestures and writing, it will be helpful to turn our attention to the Belgian-born poet and artist Henri Michaux (1889–1984). He was influenced by Asian calligraphy, Surrealism, and automatic writing, and was a pioneering asemic artist – you can see such writing in his early works like Alphabet (1925) and Narration (1927). In a poem accompanying the drawings from his Mouvements project (1950–1951), drawings that look like a cross between moving figures and traditional Chinese calligraphy, Michaux introduces the concept of “pre-gestures”. He believed sufficiently articulating these pre-gestures within the physical, tangible realm was impossible: in a later prose-poem titled Signes (1954), Michaux reflected on Mouvements and described the figures he drew as “interior gestures for which we have no limbs, but only a desire for limbs.” These interior gestures (or pre-gestures) precede and are “much larger” than the visible gesture, Michaux says. Only partial meaning of these interior, subjective movements can be expressed. Referring to the figures in Stroke by Stroke (1984), which are reminiscent of those depicted in Alphabet and Mouvements, Michaux remarked:

line is not an abbreviation of volume or surface, but an abbreviation of hundreds of gestures and attitudes and impressions and emotions…. A dynamic abbreviation made up of spears, not forms.

The artist also experimented with mescaline later in life and produced several writing-esque drawings while under the influence of the drug, published in Thousand Times Broken: Three Books (1956-1959). His aim was to bring out his unconscious gestures. The works he produced in his altered state consisted of frenetic and repetitive squiggles, scrawls, and zig-zags. These forms are characteristic of the “SPEED!” that Michaux claimed was a feature of pre-gestures. These pre-gestures, Jay Hetrick says, are “the vibratory kinesthetic inner movements that he tried to record, like a seismograph, in his mescaline drawings”. Michaux himself stated:

What I wanted to represent was the gesture within the human, taking off from the inside, releasing, ripping free; the eruption of this intense, sudden, ardent concentration from which the stroke will proceed, rather than the stroke’s arrival at its destination.

Gesture, like in asemic writing in general, was central to Michaux’s work. According to Michaux, prehistoric cave markings – like the abstract signs found in the cave of Lascaux – show us the kinetic basis of writing. In Agency and Embodiment (2009), Carrie Noland underscores that Mouvements was Michaux’s attempt to mimic the gestural movements that created these ancient markings; by imitating Paleolithic man, the artist hoped to generate a sign-based language, a kinetic vocabulary, that would be universally understood. We should all be able to understand the meaning of these corporeal movements. These traces of gesture are meant to be a form of language that connects mankind to its primitive form.

Despite the influence of Asian calligraphy, perhaps Michaux was able to discover – and illustrate to us – the gestural origins of writing. I say ‘despite the influence’ here, but I recognise too that calligraphy may itself point to these origins. It is, after all, highly gestural in nature. (It is easy to see why Michaux had a penchant for this art form, given his deep interest in the gestural and physical dimension of writing.)

Michaux’s work does raise some important questions. Could there really be some pseudographic writing (automatic asemic writing) that is largely free from the influences of other writing systems? And is it possible to enter a preliterate, automatic state, and produce quasi-glyphs, letters, and words, in a way that unearths some primordial relationship between gestures and writing? I’m not sure about the answer to either of these questions. Beros, conversely, thinks asemic writing can be illuminating in these respects. And I can at least entertain the idea that automatic writing, psychedelics, and other altered states may allow us to return to a primordial way of writing. Additionally, it is conceivable that the mock or pseudo writing that children engage in before they begin to write actual words could reveal something about primitive writing, about the meaning conveyed by the gestural act of writing. We could then think of pseudographia in a similar way, as a state of child-like writing. (I would be interested to see brain scans of individuals thinking about – or engaging in – asemic writing, and to then compare the results with brain scans of people carrying out actual writing. This experiment may not necessarily resolve the thorny, aforementioned questions, but it would still help to highlight the differences between these two ways of writing.)

The widely accepted and well-evidenced explanation for the origin of writing is that the practice began with clay tokens from Mesopotamia (dating back to the eighth millennium BC). The French-American archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat notes, “The development from tokens to script reveals that writing emerged from counting and accounting.” These differently shaped tokens and the carvings on them represented units of goods. Schmandt-Besserat then traces the evolution of writing as follows: three-dimensional tokens were turned into two-dimensional pictographic signs (still used exclusively for accounting), which took place around 3,500–3,000 BC; and then phonetic signs – introduced to transcribe the names of individuals – marked the point at which writing started to emulate spoken language (3000–1,500 BC). After this, alphabets were developed. Meanwhile, the symbols found in 30,000-year-old Paleolithic cave paintings – which may show some attempt at written language – appear to represent concepts (e.g. animals) symbolically. The same seems to apply to the case of the possibly independent writing system of Rongorongo. It is debatable whether the gestural and expressive nature of asemic writing – displayed in Michaux’s work, for example – correlates in any meaningful way with those ancient or independent writing systems that indicate how writing actually emerged.

Psychedelics and Asemic Writing

The relationship between psychedelics and asemic writing is a topic that I haven’t seen covered, yet there does appear to be a connection between the two, as revealed by the many visionary and psychedelic artists who have created alien alphabets, either as the focus of their work, or as one of many features of the psychedelic state they are trying to reify. Allyson Grey – wife to fellow visionary artist Alex Grey – might be the first artist who attempted to represent the visions of asemic writing seen during a psychedelic experience. She has stated:

Intending to create spiritual art, I feel naturally attracted to abstraction and to a written sacred language. Every known religion reveres its holy writing. Sacred writing of all faiths, however, come into conflict through human interpretation as the written word defines the differences of philosophy and traditions, when truly the basis of all religion is unity and infinite love. In 1975 I began writing automatically in an invented or transmitted language. I do not give meaning to the symbols in my art as it is meaning that separates experience from expression. The alphabet that I use points to the notion of a sacred language beyond meaning. Some of the works call to mind the experience of seeing an illuminated text in a foreign language and religion. In recent work, I combine the icons of perfection (the Jewel Net) with the secret language, and images of chaos. Chaos in my art is the entropy of the units of spectrally arranged squares using a system of “planned randomness”, allowing every spectral unit to fall apart in a variety of ways — squares falling off of a corner or the spectral unit exploding from the center, etc. The three elements used in my work, Chaos, Order and Secret Writing, are non-literal representations of the sacred.

As we can see, Grey engages in pseudographia, just like Serafini, Smith, and Michaux. However, the inspiration for her 20-letter, untranslatable alphabet came from an LSD journey in the early 70s in which secret writing appeared to her. We can say, then, that Grey is one artist engaged in psychedelic pseudographia: automatic asemic writing influenced by the psychedelic experience. (Michaux could also be considered a psychedelic pseudographic artist, but unlike Grey, he was producing his writing-esque works while under the influence of psychedelics, rather than trying to recreate symbols seen during an experience that has already passed.) After practising automatic writing for a while, Grey eventually decided on 20 letters to use in her asemic, geometric, and intricate artwork. Other visionary artists who use asemic writing include Hakan Hisim and INCEDIGRIS. You can also see this type of writing in SalviaDroid’s piece Death by Astonishment, the title of which comes from Terence McKenna, who quipped: “People say, ‘is there risk, to DMT? It sounds so intense. Is it dangerous?’ The answer is yes, it’s tremendously dangerous. The danger is the possibility of death by astonishment.”

asemic writing Allyson Grey

Allyson Grey’s asemic writing

artwork from Hakan Hisim

Artwork from Hakan Hisim

I also became interested in psychedelic asemic writing because it’s been something I’ve practised as well. Ever since experiencing DMT, it seems that my psychedelic artwork has featured these alien letters. I have never intended to recreate writing that I’ve witnessed during a psychedelic experience because I have no clear memories of seeing such writing; although, I am convinced these experiences featured it since my natural inclination to create asemic writing, in an automatic way, only emerged after psychedelics – and after DMT specifically. Much of the content of the DMT experience has always seemed meaningful and symbolic, and if this aspect had the characteristic of a quasi-language, it is possible that asemic writing has become a way to unconsciously recreate these patterns. (Results from the first brain scans of participants under the influence of DMT were published in 2019; but nothing was revealed about the common hallucinations of writing, letters, and glyphs – it would be intriguing to see what brain activity might be correlated with these types of experiences.)

Another reason I feel my own asemic writing is influenced by DMT is that when I share examples of my work on r/DMT, many users find that the symbols and ‘runes’ I draw are similar to ones they see in their own experiences with the compound. I have also created my own asemic alien alphabet (see below). Drawing these characters and runes often feels automatic and without a conscious intention to bring any particular influence to them. Nonetheless, I do see various influences in them: Sanskrit, Hebrew, Arabic, cuneiform, and runes – but with an alien style as well thrown into the mix. Some of these influences don’t surprise me, given my predilection for – and familiarity with – Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Arabic; yet other styles (e.g. runes) seem less based on experience, and more experimental (and perhaps just coincidentally similar to the appearance of runes). But I don’t know exactly what is behind their appearance or why there is a consistency to them since I am not trying to recreate – not consciously, anyway – symbols that I have seen and can remember.

McKenna, well-known for his elucidations of the DMT experience, once described an experience in which he smoked DMT at the peak of an LSD trip. Another woman (named Rosemary) shared the house he was living in at the time, but she was away, so he used the opportunity to embark on a solo psychedelic journey. But much to his surprise: “Right in the middle of this trip, this woman came back to the house…and started beating on my door furiously.” He was on his bed while experiencing his DMT flash, heightened by LSD, and when he heard the racket, he jumped up, landed on his feet, and found himself half in reality and half in the DMT realm. He recounts:

And something about moving so suddenly had shattered the distinction between the two continuums and I carried it all with me so that the room was then filled with elves.  They were hanging off my arms and spinning me around and there was this geometric object in the room that was spinning and clicking. And every time it would click, it would hurl a plastic chip across the room that had a letter in an alien language written on it. And these elves were screaming and bouncing off the walls. This machine was spinning in the air. The chips are ricocheting off the walls, and I was trying to deal with Rosemary in the middle of this.

Another psychonaut, Diana Reed Slattery, who is the author of Xenolinguistics: Psychedelics, Language, and the Evolution of Consciousness (2015), also discovered an alien script in a psychedelically induced altered state. Slattery describes this event, which took place in 1999, as a “download”. Based on this experience – and hundreds of subsequent trips involving several types of psychedelics – she developed Glide, a visual, gestural language comprised of 27 glyphs. This psychedelic language contrasts to Grey’s in that the glyphs and their combinations have meanings, but it is doubtful whether the alien script witnessed in the experiences themselves was meaningful. In this way, we can suppose that Slattery saw psychedelic asemic writing and then constructed a meaningful language out of it. In any case, accounts of seeing alien letters during psychedelic experiences are common. Many people report that they have seen the same writing depicted by Grey during their own LSD journeys, or at least alien symbols of some sort. I have noticed too that visions of alien symbols seem to be a particularly persistent feature of the DMT experience. Users of the compound – much like McKenna – will find alien letters and hieroglyphics painted on the surfaces and objects of the DMT world.

It is hard to know why people perceive (with eyes open or closed) such strange writing, why this feature of the experience recurs for some users but not others, or why some never see it at all. Similarly, a phenomenon like face pareidolia – previously mentioned with respect to Skinner’s asemic art – seems to regularly crop up for certain individuals when they take psychedelics, an experience which may entail seeing faces in everything (or just on particular surfaces or objects). These faces can have a clear character and expression to them, and they may be morphing, patterned, or integrated into geometric hallucinations. But not everyone tends to see these peculiar faces. Do individual differences in brain structure or personality account for varying instances of psychedelic phenomena like face pareidolia and alien alphabets?

Studies have indicated that those who score higher in neuroticism, and who are in negative moods, are more likely to experience pareidolia. The reason for this is likely evolutionary: feeling more tense and nervous puts you at high alter for threats, which can make you perceive danger when it doesn’t actually exist; and in the case of psychedelics, this ‘danger’ can take the form of a face (reflecting a neurotic personality type or an anxious emotional state that is present before or during the experience). On the other hand, many users of psychedelics report commonly seeing faces without being neurotic or in a negative state of mind, so it could be that the fusiform face area (FFA), a brain region specialised for facial recognition, is, for some reason, affected differently by psychedelics in some individuals and not others. But I am not sure what could explain variations in the perception of alien writing.

A separate question I have about the latter phenomenon is the following: are alien letters influenced by an individual’s memories of other writing? If so, the psychedelic might simply be uniquely reshaping this unconscious material, making it appear ‘alien’. Or perhaps people simply attach connotations (e.g. Egyptian-like) to these psychedelic hieroglyphics but the symbols are nonetheless original and free from influence. This does make me wonder, nevertheless, whether someone who had never been exposed to any writing would be able to perceive alien symbols during a psychedelic experience.

asemic writing

My own alien alphabet

Andrew Gallimore, a computational neurobiologist interested in DMT, has suggested in his book Alien Information Theory (2019) that DMT can give us genuine access to a hyperdimensional realm, inhabited by hyperdimensional entities. Based on this highly speculative (and perhaps far-fetched) idea, we might want to ask the question: could visual imagery of alien writing in the DMT experience, which users commonly experience, be a truly alien language? Is it the writing system of these hyperdimensional, hyperintelligent entities?

A conservative and down-to-earth reply would probably be that you don’t need to assume this kind of fantastical notion to explain how psychedelics could generate images of quasi-writing, given how easy to imagine made-up symbols. We don’t need to invoke contact with actual aliens or an alien dimension in order to account for symbols that look ‘alien’. The brain, especially under the influence of psychedelics, is a highly creative organ. Alien languages (or xenolanguages) – the languages of extraterrestrial or extradimensional beings – may very well exist in the universe. And xenolinguistics – research into what these languages might be like – is a legitimate and curious area of study among physicists and linguists. However, it is hard to imagine how you would go about verifying that the writing seen in the DMT experience – or any altered state – is, in fact, an authentic xenolanguage. You could use linguistic methods to ascertain whether the writing has the characteristics of a language, but this would not prove that it came from aliens. Furthermore, if this alien writing is so radically different from human language that we could not even recognise it as a language, then there would be no way to distinguish it from gibberish.

I hope to continue experimenting with asemic writing, especially since it seems to have developed over time, as have my drawings have in general. I would like to see what kind of ‘aesthetic improvements’ I could make. Indeed, there are some letters, glyphs, and runes that seem more aesthetically pleasing than others, and the role of aesthetics in asemic writing – what determines beauty in such writing – is certainly a subject I am keen to examine further.

As mentioned earlier, I do not have any specific intentions with asemic writing, as other asemic writers might, nor am I consciously trying to make the writing particularly similar to one or more natural or constructed languages, nor am I trying to make the symbols look as alien as possible. When writing them, I feel it has this quality of pseudographia that I have delineated. The symbols emerge as if spontaneously, yet something about them gives me a feeling of familiarity, so perhaps they have been inspired by forgotten memories of psychedelic states.

This area of artistic expression known as asemic writing is also very new to me, and I’m excited to explore the diversity of both professional and amateur artists in this space. The connections between language and art, and language and psychedelics, are thought-provoking, but I think the specific role of asemic writing in these connections deserves more attention, as it entails many unresolved questions. What are the features of imaginary writing and alien alphabets that hold great aesthetic value? And why should this be so? Also mysterious is the mind’s tendency to produce asemic writing during psychedelic experiences, as is the potential of psychedelics to inspire the impulse to produce such writing. Herein lies the apparent paradox of asemic writing: the symbols themselves are meaningless but the creation and interpretation of them are not.

2 Comments

  1. New Alexandria
    April 17, 2021 / 4:51 pm

    i think this gets close to naming a few useful things:

    1. if we could categorize supposed-asemic writing, for its similarity to known writing, and its intrinsic (fractal?) grammar/structure — and it was far different from existant writing, while also being structural as a true language — then we may have a basis to conjecture a ‘channeled’ language

    2. even if not channeled per-above, psychedelic re-composition may itself yield a linguistic discovery

    3. structure itself is a property via information theory, and if such a ‘channeled’ language has structures that durably represent higher dimensions and/or other psychedelic spaces, then such language could be semasiographic rather than asemic

  2. Red Pointer
    July 28, 2021 / 9:16 pm

    I saw asemic writing on my first mushroom journey (3g) and have seen it periodically ever since. It seems to be like wall paper on the surfaces of my visions. I experienced glossolalia on 7g and now commonly on just 1g or 2g.
    I believe psychedelics (mushrooms specifically) have a deep interaction with the language centers of the brain. And if you give credence to Terrance’s “Stoned Ape” hypothesis, perhaps mushrooms were partly responsible for the development of language in early hominids.

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