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5 september 2020

Asemic writing seems so familiar that I imagine I've been seeing it for a long time without knowing what it was called, or any of its theory or doctrine. Peter Schwenger's recent book is billed as the first critical book on the asemic, and it sets up the terms for future critical conversations admirably.

Though as Schwenger's subtitle ("The art of writing") puts it, it's hard to tell whether the asemic is writing, or art. It is both at once; it makes writing less verbal and art less figural. The only requirements, for a piece to be asemic, are that it look like writing and (as the term "asemic" indicates), that it mean nothing.

Of course, for most people in world history, a great deal of meaningful writing might as well be asemic. If your language does not have a written form, or if you cannot read any language that does, all writing is asemic. If you can read only one language, or a couple of closely-related ones, most others are not interpretable, especially if they use different writing systems. To all but the most initiated Assyriologists, even the most functional of cuneiform inscriptions look like scripts from fantasy universes.

One principle of classical-manuscript study is that readings may be more accurate in some cases when the scribe recopying a book does not know the original language. This is counter-intuitive, but if you don't know the language you're copying, you can't silently correct what you're transcribing, even unconsciously. In such cases, asemic writing may be integral to the transmission of ancient texts. Also, in some medieval manuscripts it can be hard to tell text from illumination, content from decoration. Asemic may have been around longer than we think.

Schwenger begins his study in the mid-20th century, with theorist Vilém Flusser and his fascination with the dismantled alphabets of artist Mira Schendel. He goes on to look at other early figures: Henri Michaux, fascinated with Chinese characters he could not understand (an affliction that affected many a Western thinker, notably Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound); Roland Barthes, obsessed with writing but preferring to write lines that nobody could understand; and Cy Twombly.

I have great admiration for Cy Twombly too, not least because he was the son of an old-time baseball player. Yet I am never sure whether I admire Twombly's work, or the chutzpah it took to say that it was art. Twombly is notorious, for hanging pencil scribbles as artwork. Hardly scandalous anymore, but still challenging. One does sometimes hear "I could have done that myself" in an art museum, which is usually nonsense. With Twombly's scribbles, you actually probably did something just like it earlier today as you doodled your way through a Zoom meeting. Though maybe the world's Zoom doodles are an unacknowledged repository of great art.

At his best, though, Twombly made incantatory artworks that you assuredly could not recreate at home, like his oil paintings that resemble barely-controlled, averbal cursive exercises on half-erased blackboards. Such art prefigures, in Schwenger's history of the asemic, many a later cryptic quasi-alphabet.

Schwenger conducts fascinating discussions of asemic art: Rosaire Appel's abstract comics, Michael Jacobson's faux heiroglyphs, Xu Bing's impossible Chinese characters (and his ingenious "square word calligraphy" which turns out not to be asemic at all, but a way of rendering the Roman alphabet so that it resembles Chinese characters). Such art, quasi-verbal yet wordless, seems to come naturally with reams of theory attached; asemic "writers" seem more reflective on their practices than most other artists. Perhaps this is inevitable. Abstract or figural art seems to speak for itself; verbal art most certainly does. Asemic art, which invites and then deflects verbal decoding, seems to need a lot of supplementary verbiage.

As with all art, I'd be surprised if any given reader liked every piece discussed or pictured in Asemic, and equally surprised if there was a reader who hated them all. I am drawn to Twombly, to Jacobson's cheerful, Keith-Haring-like "lettering," and to Xu's square words. I am baffled by some of the projects that Schwenger describes, such as entire books written in asemic "script." Schwenger seems baffled by them too. Xu Bing produced a massive installation made of seemingly countless blocks of asemic characters, but at least with massive installations, pointless fecund detail is the whole point. Mirtha Dermisache, went further and produced a 500-page asemic work in two volumes - why would you want to look at more than two or three of them? Some fans insisted that Luigi Serafini's extensive Codex Seraphinianus could actually be decrypted. "Personally," says Schwenger, "I couldn't see the point" (138).

Yet of course art needs no point, and some of the items in Asemic are hauntingly evocative of the great emotional attractiveness of text. This is an essential work of art history.

Schwenger, Peter. Asemic: The art of writing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.