The Paradox of Asemic Writing

the paradox of asemic writing

In my first post on asemic writing, I ended by pointing to the paradoxical nature of this art form: the marks involved are at once meaningless (since they have no semantic meaning) and meaningful (since, as an art form, there can be meaning behind their creation – the intention, emotion, or state of mind expressed – and how the viewer interprets the marks). As the artist Ekaterina Samigulina puts it, “The content of asemic writing is meaningless, period. It is void as a signifier that failed to make its way to its signified. But it is not meaningless as an act, as a gesture…”

On some level, the paradox collapses, and the term asemic writing actually becomes obsolete. For if wordless, non-semantic marks are meaningful then it makes no sense to say that they are also meaningless. The artist Jim Leftwich has said that no art or literary work (or anything for that matter) can be perfectly ‘asemic’ since it will always convey some meaning. Leftwich has instead switched to using the term “pansemia” (from the Greek prefix pan, meaning “all”), which stands for the perception that everything emits, expresses, or is an echo of some meaning. 

As fellow asemic artist Marco Giovenale writes: “everything makes sense, and a bunch of meaningful directions may always be attached to the invisible arrows uprising from any of the written traces we imagine and conceive and make or find.” Pansemic writing can, therefore, also be defined as containing all possible meanings. The artist Travis Jeppesen has the same take as Leftwich; he finds “the term ‘asemic’ to be somewhat problematic, as it seems to infer a writing with no meaning.”

But I’d argue that ‘asemic’ does not have to infer total meaninglessness, just meaninglessness on one level (the semantic). It seems to me that we can have a form of writing that is non-semantic but also meaningful. This is not a contradiction. Indeed, Giovenale states that a proper:

asemic area can be seen in the zone of the mind opaquely linking our expectations for a known written linguistic message and content to an actually unknown shape of glyph. A whole text or drawing appears in front of us as an asemic ‘thing’, indecipherable to the intellect that does not recognize the language; but at the same time it may be meaningful (and, yes, beautiful) to the …taste, perception… soliciting some sort of empathy.

Technically, asemic means seme-less, without the smallest unit of meaning, but it really stands for any writing, scratches, or glyphs that are without semantic content. The term ‘asemantic’ may be more appropriate since while asemic works may lack semantic content – that is, meaning to be found in words, phrases, and sentences – their abstract nature leaves the viewer free to supply their own meaning and interpretation.

Leftwich wants to continue to use the term asemic, even though he believes that there is no such thing. He explains his motivation as follows:

i think all human experience has semantic content.

that’s why i think asemic writing is a kind of aspirational writing.

we aspire to create an asemic writing, a writing without semantic content.

and we fail.

so we try again, and fail again.

if we genuinely care about the practice, we repeat this process over and over, for a long time.

eventually, we lose all hope of achieving our goal.

we lose faith in the goal.

we no longer believe in our ability to create an asemic writing.

so we decide upon an alternative goal.

we decide the process has never been about the product, the object, the poem. it has always been only about the process.

it has always been about the process of training the mind, perhaps of quieting the mind (to borrow a phrase from John Cage).

And in an email from 2011, he wrote:

there is no such thing as asemic writing. 

in fact, there is no such thing as asemic anything. 

everything is readable, ie., can be and will be given meaning. 

the asemic is an unattainable ideal. 

in striving toward it, many mutations of writing and drawing (and other practices: photographing, to name but one) will come into being. 

this is the value of the asemic. 

working with asemia (attempting to write it, attempting to read and/or not read it) is a training  exercise, and the products of that training exist as documentation of the process.

This reminds me of the attitude of Henri Michaux, the progenitor of asemic writing as an art form, who strived to reveal the unconscious mind through his word-like marks, even though he maintained that such a project was doomed to fail. Yet still he tried. Hence, there is an almost spiritual and pessimistic component to asemic writing (striving for an ideal that one can never reach, yet resolutely sticking to that effort). 

If we accept Leftwich’s belief that everything has semantic content, that is, everything expresses some meaning through language or symbols, then yes, asemic writing negates itself. But this is a particular view of the world. If, on the other hand, we distinguish between semantic and non-semantic meaning, and posit that some things exclusively – or at least sometimes exclusively – possess the latter, then asemic writing can be paradoxical but not actually a contradiction in terms. Again, wordless writing is meaningless on one level but perhaps not another. This would make it paradoxical but not logically contradictory (and therefore impossible) to demarcate some kind of ‘writing’ as asemic.

This is, however, based on a specific interpretation of what counts as having semantic content. If everything expresses some semantically rich sign, then you may want to use Leftwich’s invented term pansemic. Nevertheless, the asemic artist Todd Burst rejects Leftwitch’s use of pansemic for (partly) the following reason:

meaning — in semantics, language, etc. — is socially understood…socially communicable. So, a pansemic work would have to illicit a linguistic response — not a feeling — that we would all understand or could be made to understand via language.

Burst goes onto the draw a distinction between feeling (or sensation) and meaning: 

Abstract art and asemic writing can convey a feeling or an aesthetic quality that remains unnameable, but that does not mean that it is endowed with meaning. A sensation and meaning are two different things.

Consequently, not all asemic writing may be meaningful, although it should all convey some feeling or aesthetic quality. If this is the case, then only some types of asemic writing will be paradoxical (the examples that express meaning as well as a sensation). Whether asemic writing evokes a sensation or meaning really depends on how we define ‘meaning’: Does Giovenale’s use of meaning in reference to asemic writing really just boil down to sensation or something akin? Burst seems to think it does. He also opines that although asemic writing can be meaningful this doesn’t mean it ever is: we can “find a common way of speaking about a common aesthetic it-ness that a certain asemic work brings about. This could happen, but it hasn’t,” he states. Again, this also depends on how meaning is defined. Does meaning have to be a sense of something that is common to all? Or can asemic works have a plurality of meanings? According to the artist Michael Jacobson, “an asemic work can have zero meaning, or a billion meanings, just don’t tie it down; let it fly.”

In the context of the artist’s intentions, at least, the poet Tim Gaze states that “asemic texts have no writer-intended meaning.” Some asemic artists may question this. Can an asemic text not have a creator-intended meaning in the same way that any other work of art might have? Are all asemic texts confined to the purely aesthetic? Gaze does not, it should be stressed, deny that viewers can perceive a meaning in these texts, which he finds mysterious. Why does the imagination impose a particular meaning onto lines, symbols, and gestural marks that are quasi-linguistic? Daniel Barbiero, in an article for Artedolia, echoes Gaze’s point on the meaningfulness of interpretation:

Human being is homo interpretans, the being that interprets, and meaning is always a possibility to a being that is prone to interpret. To homo interpretans text in general, and a quasi-text made up of marks and signs that mimic rather than instantiate a known writing system in particular, are naturally prone to holding out the possibility of meaning, and thus of soliciting interpretation.

He then proposes that ‘asemic’ texts may not, in fact, be asemic but polysemic – so they have many possible meanings:

In confronting a text without an intended, determinate content, interpretation will inevitably be a matter of imaginative flux and metamorphosis—of discovering and rediscovering possible meanings that are always subject to change and motion. This interpretive flux just is a consequence of the way the imagination is. By nature it is plastic and notable for its capacity to generate an almost bewilderingly variety of images and associations through its free play.

Barbiero presents a few examples of possible interpretive meanings to be found in asemic texts: a reference to some object, event, or idea, or the articulation of a psychological state or feeling. Whatever the interpretive meaning, none will be wrong. In any case, Burst says the aesthetic quality of asemic writing comes down to its lack of meaning: “Meaningless writing is beautiful because it does not get us bogged down with something absolutely tangible.” Likewise, Gaze observes:

Writing does not just contain semantic information. It also contains aesthetic information (when seen as a shape or image) and emotional information (such as a graphologist would analyze). Because it eliminates the semantic information, asemic writing brings the emotional and aesthetic content to the foreground.

There still may be some debate among asemic artists whether or not ‘asemic writing’ is a meaningful concept and if some new term (such as pansemia or polysemia) should be used instead. However, the notion of asemic writing has been understood to be paradoxical since its inception. And I maintain this reading of it. So long as asemic writing can at least be subject to interpretive meaning, then there can be wordless writing that is both meaningless and meaningful. 


  1. Deb Hilbert
    November 11, 2021 / 7:31 pm

    Sam… thanks so much for your insightful essay about asemic writing. I just learned about the concept a few weeks ago from an offhand comment of an artist friend. I had never heard the term, did the usual Google search, and became fascinated with the subject. I’m now planning on making an artist book as a personal study of asemic writing and a way to clarify my thnking of the art form.

    • Sam Woolfe
      November 11, 2021 / 10:20 pm

      Thanks, Deb, appreciate it! This is also a concept I’ve come across fairly recently, in the past year or so, not knowing that there was a term for these scribbles that I’ve been doing for a while. It’s been a lot of fun to explore the art form and discover all the artists in this space. Also, the book you have in mind sounds fascinating; I’d love to check it out when it’s finished.

  2. Eerdekens
    May 24, 2024 / 11:31 am

    Meaning is not something that is always (anyhow) in something, image, text, feeling, … and one could take out. But a complex of … that is laid in. Language does not exist. language is performative. That means it does not exist unless one uses it.

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