Derrida, Barthes, and the Origins of Asemic Writing

asemic artwork by Brion Gysin

Calligraphie (1960) by Brion Gysin

In my first post on asemic writing, I briefly touched on the origins of this art form, noting that the artists Tim Gaze and Jim Leftwich applied the term asemic to their quasi-calligraphic works in 1997. (See my review of Gaze’s latest book, Glyphs of Uncertain Meaning, which also includes some more information about the artist.) Peter Schwenger – the author of Asemic: The Art of Writing – considers this the point at which this international artistic movement was launched, which now encompasses a wide range of publications, exhibitions, and online activity.

However, it is not quite accurate to say that 1997 was the origin of asemic writing per se; the art form preceded Gaze and Leftwich’s online exchanges in the late 90s when they used the term asemic to refer to their writing-esque drawings and collages. Yet the earlier artists who produced this kind of art did not themselves use the term (because it didn’t exist at the time); that concept – and word – would come later. Before we turn to these notable artists, we should address the coinage of the term asemic, which finds its first mentions in the work of two French philosophers: Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes.

The First Uses of the Term ‘Asemic’

One of the very first uses of the term asemic can be attributed to Derrida, found in Barbara Johnson’s 1981 English translation of Derrida’s work Dissemination (originally published in 1969), in which he reevaluates the logic of meaning and function of writing, and explores the interplay between language, literature, and philosophy. In it, he describes the “supplementary mark of the blank” (the space between words) as “asemic spacing”, as these blank spaces make signification possible without themselves signifying. 

We find that Barthes (a literary theorist and semiotician, as well as a philosopher) uses the term asemic in a different way to Derrida. In Richard Howard’s translation of his work The Rustle of Language (1989), a collection of 45 essays written between 1967-1980 on the subjects of language, literature, and teaching, Barthes writes:

The mistakes that can be made in typing a manuscript are so many meaningful incidents, and these incidents, by analogy, help shed light on the behavior we must adopt with regard to meaning when we discuss a text.

Either the word produced by the mistake (if a wrong letter disfigures it) signifies nothing, finds no textual contour; the code is simply interrupted: an asemic word is created, a pure signifier; for example, instead of writing “officer”, I write “offiver,” which is meaningless.

Barthes goes on to explain the other kind of mistake, where one writes one word (e.g. “ride”) when one meant to write another (e.g. “rude”). But this example isn’t pertinent to our discussion here on asemic writing. With the first example, the concept of the asemic is brought into focus; Barthes uses the term to refer to something that looks and reads like a legitimate word, something close to a word – something that could even become a neologism – but which is in fact completely meaningless. 

While Derrida and Barthes were using asemic to describe that which does not signify, we encounter a paradox in asemic writing because semantic meaning may be absent in these works of art but not other forms of meaning. Schwenger explains, nonetheless, that the term ‘seme’ (derived from the Greek term sema, or sign) is negated by the prefix ‘a’, so meaning – or a sign’s capacity to convey meaning – is eliminated. Interestingly, he also underscores that Gaze and Leftwich “seem to have gravitated to this word quite independently [of Derrida and Barthes]”. The reason they used the term can be gleaned from a letter Leftwich wrote to Gaze on January 27, 1998:

A seme is a unit of meaning, or the smallest unit of meaning (also known as a sememe, analogous with phoneme). An asemic text, then, might be involved with units of language for reasons other than that of producing meaning. As such, the asemic text would seem to be an ideal, an impossibility, but possibly worth pursuing for just that reason.

The Pioneers of Asemic Writing

In the chapter of his book titled “Three Asemic Ancestors”, Schwenger emphasises the importance of the artwork of Henri Michaux, Cy Twombly, and Barthes as essential to appreciating later asemic works. Michaux (whose automatic asemic writing I have covered in an earlier article) was inspired by certain works by Paul Klee and Max Ernst. He developed distinctive, expressive mark-making – highly gestural scrawls and scribbles – that is reminiscent of writing. These scrawls were especially frenetic and zig-zaggy when Michaux produced them under the influence of mescaline.

One of the first examples of asemic writing is Michaux’s piece Alphabet (1925): a series of personal ideograms that resemble letters of the alphabet (but aren’t), arranged as if they could be read as words (but can’t be). Michaux’s early asemic works focused on the pulse, rhythm, and movement of the line, a kind of shorthand dance notation, which culminated in his 1951 book Mouvements, replete with lively gestures that look half like stick figures and half like Chinese calligraphy. In Asemic: The Art of Writing, Schwenger explores how Chinese characters have been a recurrent inspiration for Western artists as they are easily “seen as markings floating free from any recognizable meaning”.

The American painter, sculptor, and photographer Cy Twombly – known for his abstract expressionism – also created asemic works in the 50s, and he continued to experiment with this form of artwork throughout the rest of his career (see, for example, his 1967 Letter of Resignation series, this untitled piece from 1970 and his Bacchus series of paintings from the 2000s). Carrie Noland has said that Twombly, as well as the artist Robert Morris:

focus attention on the gestural origins of inscription, on handwriting or, more to the point, on proto-writing. Their de-skilling operations are aimed at exposing the kinetic impulses that underlie the act of inscription, impulses that, when repeated compulsively, threaten to render the inscription itself illegible.

Indeed, Schwenger believes that asemic writing “conveys something about the nature of writing that is generally obliterated by the verbal message” – for example, “even the configurations of the scripted lines convey a meaning, a gestural equivalent of a psychological disposition at the time”. Barthes himself wrote extensively on Twombly, and based on these writings, Schwenger makes the case for Twombly as the major asemic artist. Additionally, we can find examples of asemic art in the pioneering work of Brazilian artist Mira Schendel (1919-1988), such as in her piece Archaic Writing (1964).

Barthes was inspired by Michaux, whose paintings and drawings would come to closely resemble Michaux’s. Schwenger states that Barthes had learned from Michaux how to “bypass meaning in order to unlock the power of the illegible.” Illegible mark-making was not, in the eyes of Michaux or Barthes, valueless; these scribbles, while meaningless, were nevertheless a unique form of expression and thus uniquely valuable. Barthes called his asemic drawings contre-écritures (counter-writings), and these were published in 1976 in the journal Luna-Park, alongside works by like-minded artists Mirtha Dermiasche and Brion Gysin. Barthes had also posed the question, “Where does the writing begin? Where does the painting begin?” And this conveys how asemic writing blurs the line between writing and art. 

After Gaze and Leftwich first applied the term asemic to their illegible works (a type of art that had already appeared decades before them), asemic writing as a movement really took off. Since the late 90s, many new and innovative artists have appeared. Consider, for instance, Cecil Touchon’s work, such as his asemic poetry, and two series from Cui Fei: Manuscript of Nature and Tracing the Origin; the former consists of natural materials like vines, twigs, thorns, and tendrils fashioned in a way that resembles calligraphy, while the latter features manmade materials, such as copper wire, that look like natural forms and calligraphy – both these series suggest that Chinese characters are ideograms originating in nature). 

We can see, then, how asemic writing really began in the 20s with Michaux, with the concept of the asemic being elaborated in the much later writings of Derrida and Barthes, and ‘asemic writing’ then being properly established as an art movement in 1997. However, these are the documented origins of asemic writing. We should consider the possibility – based on the inclination we sometimes have to unconsciously scribble marks – that asemic writing long predates the 20s. Who knows when the practice truly began, when the first humans made marks that we might retrospectively think of as writing-esque, but which had no semantic meaning. Of course, since asemic writing is specifically a form of art, wordless word-like marks might not necessarily align with this concept. 

Perhaps this sort of artwork only began when such scribbles were made with the intention of expressing meaning or emotion through an aesthetic impulse or intuition. But whether a specific visual outcome of the desire to express meaning should count as ‘art’ or not remains up for debate. This would get us into a philosophical discussion on the meaning of art (which is best saved for another time), but this very question is something that asemic writing does bring up, as it straddles the two worlds of the written and the abstract.

Regarding the importance and value of asemic writing, Schwenger argues that it is a form of resistance to global technology’s “linguistic machine that offers templates not only for words but also for thought; that values information over affect; and that reinforces the long history of the alphabet’s dominance over Western thinking.” And the asemic artist’s ability to create signification without semantic meaning matters too, according to him. He adds that “an awareness of what lies beyond our familiar structures of meaning may keep us from having our life scripts written according to an already existent system of signs.”

The Finnish poet Satu Kaikkonen also says the following in relation to her work (and asemic writing more generally):

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.

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