Some speculations on asemic writing and the productive embrace of uncertainty

by Ricarda Vidal and Harriet Carter, 28 July 2021

Ricarda: Last year, I read Peter Schwenger’s excellent Asemic: The Art of Writing. The book brought together a wide range of artists who explore writing without language in their work.  Cy Twombly (who Schwenger sees as one of the “ancestors” and whose Letter of Resignation series I love), Rosaire Appel, Cui Fei, or Marian Bijlenga are just some of the international artists discussed in the book. I had been interested in mark-making and text-making for a while, so it was wonderful to discover Schwenger’s critical take on the art of writing and to see the work of all these different artists brought together in one book.

Harriet: A large part of my doctoral research involves transcribing encounters with birdsong in the French landscape. This follows a (personally hypothesised) transpositional methodology of music composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) who took transcriptions of birdsong and created musical birdsong encounters (see piano cycle Catalogue d’oiseaux). I quickly found a problem creating marks of sound and other intangible aspects to the encounter (atmosphere, space, time). My mark-making became incidental translations of what I could hear and feel – I was not able to expose the intangibility of birdsong in the tangible marks. Paradoxically, the marks that I had made were becoming a visual sign-system that I found did not seem to be evoking how intangible my encounters with birdsong were.. A sign system that could not fully explore something could be seen as an appropriate transposition for birdsong that cannot be fully understood by humans. This is what my research is currently problematising, considering my notations as something like asemic texts: translations of the one-sided encounter with birdsong and the landscape.  

Both our research is practice-based, where the topic of research is used as an exploratory tool in order to seek knowledge. As such, we are exploring asemic writing and texts through creating them.

Ricarda: I have included two images which document my own attempts at asemic writing: one has failed as conventional handwriting has crept in (see Fig.1), but the other one is more convincing (see Fig. 2). It looks like writing, but it genuinely isn’t. Tim Gaze says about this kind of found writing: “You could say that nature, since time began, has been manifesting asemic writing. It just needs a human to see the writing, & recognize it”[1]

Schwenger quotes from Paul Klee’s notebooks: A line goes out for a walk, so to speak, aimlessly, for the sake of the walk.” Klee was interested in the process and experience of making, in subconscious and conscious processes and the line between them… But does the line really not know where it is going? And what happens when the line begins to produce writing? Asemic writing is usually described as writing without language – and I have done so above – but it certainly does many things that language does. While content or meaning become secondary, asemic writing brings other aspects to the fore. It expresses mood, atmosphere, timbre, rhythm. Through its format and form (e.g. speech bubbles, block text, annotations, footnotes, verse, shapes/forms, printed or handwritten, etc.) it plays with and highlights our genre-bound expectations as to the purpose of writing.

a page from a diary with handwritten asemic writing

Fig. 1: Partially failed attempt at asemic writing: You only notice how difficult it is to avoid the familiar shapes of letters when you try to create your own asemic script – I at least found this to be quite a challenge.

a picture of a white stone with handwritten marks that look like writing

Fig. 2: Stone with stone-drawn marks:   For this, I used a soft wet brown pebble to trace the markings that were already present on the white stone. I consider this to be a more successful asemic text.

Harriet: Ricarda has begun thinking through asemic writing by using paper and natural materials. My thinking begins by first looking back at mark-making undertaken on a fieldtrip to the South of France in 2019 and continues by creating further asemic texts.

a photograph of an open artist sketch book with drawings and marks that look like notation

Fig. 3: Transcribing nature [fauna and birdsong, fieldwork, South of France 2019]: I attempted here to capture birdsong on the bright light of the sun and dusty colours of the dirt below my feet. The birdsong drawn ‘gestures’ are rhythmic for the reason that I was unable to notate the birdsong in any other way – it has an inescapable tempo. Overlaying the figurative fauna, the birdsong is more abstract, discreet, can this be asemic writing? Ricarda: Or could we speak of asemic notation here? I’m thinking of another quote from Peter Schwenger’s book here: “When thinking through the ways in which drawing is different from writing, Tim Ingold states that writing is a notation; drawing is not. Yet he admits that writing is a special case of drawing, ‘in which what is drawn comprises the elements of a notation’ (122).” [2] Perhaps this is useful to understand what happened in your attempt at visualising your subjective multimodal experience of birdsong.

a photograph of a 360 degree drawing in pencil

Fig. 4: Recognising or disappearing the landscape through communicative lines.

photograph of artist sketch book with drawings, marks, annotations

Fig. 5: Space between: I once again attempted to notate how birdsong sounded. The very fact that I felt the need to provide a written description of the sound and label my transcription makes me consider these birdsong notations as asemic writing – a stilled, physical written language that neither speaks to the moving, bodiless birdsong, nor to those who view the marks after the event.

I have included three images (see Fig. 3, 4, and 5) taken from my field notebook which contains transcriptions of birdsong and the surrounding environment in the South of France.

As I attempted to enact what exactly I was experiencing whilst in the landscape listening to birdsong, I found a complex problem attempting to transpose atmosphere, time, space, and sounds that I encountered. It became an attempt to translate because I was using another mode of sign-system to attempt to explain or transmit the language of the encounter.

Does the artist/writer become interrupter, with inevitable control of Klee’s wandering line? Whilst residing in one’s field of practice, how can asemic writing be approached without adopting the usual sign systems of that field and thus ‘making-sense’ of the text? I think of the comparison between Ricarda’s Partially failed attempt at Asemic writing (Fig. 1) and my fieldwork sketch, see Transcribing nature [fauna and birdsong] (Fig. 3). I posit whether Ricarda’s experience as a translator has drawn her to create the asemic writing in a paginated, line drawn composition. (Ricarda: This wasn’t so much influenced by being a translator but by diary writing, which, I think, is also the reason why this early attempt failed. I couldn’t resist the urge to reflect verbally on what I was doing. Where the writing becomes legible it does so in German, the language of my diary.)  As such, a similar observation can be made about the drawing in my field notebook – of birdsong notated with colour, composed alongside and overlapping drawings of the surrounding fauna (a method I explore whilst thinking through space and time). The use of colour and composition is a tell-tale of an artist at work. I had begun to explore this through returning to a standard ritual in drawing exercises: drawing a 360˚ view of the environment. This drawing exercise was executed to use the discipline of drawing to attempt a more objective stance over the subjective. I could explore the material thinking[3] of the process – of the relationship between the drawn lines in the 360˚ palimpsest. This was in the attempt to prevent me prescribing my encounter: determining what the drawing was going to be. Gaze’s quote on found writing in nature correlates with what I had found with creating figurations – marks that could be recognised and connected to what people understand shapes correlating to fauna and flora look like (see Fig. 3). I did not know how else to articulate perceiving forms in the landscape, so produced marks in the only way I knew and was trained to do. This was disrupted and altered in the production of the 360˚ drawing (Fig. 4), conducted to remove the recognisable elements of the landscape and to employ elements of time and space in the lines. The lines communicate with each other as the palimpsest was created, enfolding different spaces and times into one image.

Ricarda: What happens in the process of visualising sound? Is the visualisation artificial or intrinsic to hearing the sound, i.e. do we visualise it even when we’re not planning to transcribe it? And then, what do we transcribe? How does the mark come into being? Is it even possible to answer this question? Am I suggesting that we’re all prone to experiencing the world in a synesthetic manner – at least at some subconscious level? Harriet: Through Ricarda’s lens as translator and my lens as painter, have we tampered with the potential of creating a text completely without language?

As I transcribed my encounters, I found there was an embodying encounter with birdsong through the act of mark-making, in the relationship between page, pencil, and atmosphere/sound. Thinking through the material we engage with might start to answer these questions. When is a drawing of something, a transcription in response to sound, or an unknown mark on a page the result of something subconscious, asemic? At what point does sound/subconscious meet recognition in the act of mark-making? It appears that we must attempt to not-know. I see a pivotal turning point with regards to these questions in Ricarda’s Stone with stone-drawn marks (Fig. 2). Ricarda writes a text using the face of the stone, the marks are neither Ricarda’s nor the stone.
Ricarda: Is there a parallel between the writing I found on the stone and the “writing” you find in the birdsong?
Harriet: I do not know how to answer this just yet.

Ricarda: Asemic writing represents writing, nothing more and nothing less. And while it tempts the reader, it resists being read. Trying to decode it by finding an underlying alphabet to unlock it would be to misunderstand what it does. But when I look at an asemic text, I still want to read it, perhaps not to decode it, but to read by listening, looking, perhaps touching, sounding out, exploring the multiple resonances of the marks on the page – in other words, I want to experience what it does, to, or for me personally but also, perhaps, what it does on a wider level.
An article by Clive Scott comes to mind here, in which he sets out his vision for translating for a polyglot reader unconcerned with meaning. With regard to reading, the necessary first step of any translation, he asks: “What if reading is looked upon not as a process of interpreting, or extracting meaning from, text but as a process of existential/experiential self-coordination or self-orchestration?” And then: “What if translation is not a test of comprehension but of the fruitfulness of our inability to comprehend?”[4]  I love the idea of the fruitfulness of incomprehension. It works beautifully to describe the encounter with the asemic text.
In the article, Scott explores a series of different techniques to achieve a successful translation of a poem by Apollinaire for the polyglot reader and creative user of language. What he says about literary translation and the inability to fully comprehend the source text, is all the more applicable to the encounter with the asemic text:

(Harriet: “Represent” is perhaps a problematic word in this scenario? I am finding increasingly that the more I think about the unreadability of a language, representation becomes the polar opposite. As such I see asemic texts as non-representational of anything as they are untranslatable. As writing can be representational – could asemic writing challenge our beliefs about the representational meanings that come from the act of writing, in both process and final text?
Might I suggest: ‘Asemic writing is nothing more and nothing less than it just is.’ I feel like this is the crux of what we are beginning to see?
Ricarda: Hm, yes, this is tricky. What do I mean when I write “asemic writing represents writing” – I suppose the question comes down to what is writing and what is hence represented? The lines, the shapes, the formal and material aspects of writing and the expectations they raise within us, their potential “readers” – those, I believe are emulated and represented in the asemic text. It is a visual representation of writing that has nothing to do with content or meaning. Could we agree on this? Btw Schwenger (p.117) makes a similar argument with regards to drawing and notation, when he writes: “drawing can be used to represent notation while itself not being one.”)

“A translation which uses language to make another text intelligible, which resorts to known quantities in order to ‘subdue’ the ST [Source Text], misuses translation, since translation’s purpose is not to ‘solve’ the ST, considered as a textual object, as a literary document, but rather to capture the dynamic of the reader’s encounter with it, that is to say to capture the ST in a condition that is unresolved/unresolvable and persistently indeterminate. What is at stake is not meaning, but the play of sense, the interactivity of senses, the interactivity of the senses. […]
A reader might indeed ask what a text means, but it is not the purpose of reading to find that particular answer; the function of reading is to generate a fruitful participation in the text, out of which senses ramify and develop, emerge and drop from view, such that the translation is, by nature, both expanding and self-multiplying.”[5]

Any attempt at reading or translating an asemic text will benefit greatly from Scott’s embrace of incomprehension and the shift away from meaning to the sensual encounter with and participation in the text … even if meaning will sneak in through the back-door so to say, because we will inevitably look for it. Harriet: I am reminded of Emma Cocker’s commentary on ‘not-knowing’ in artistic practice and see a link to translation in culture and literature studies. Cocker also embraces the importance of incomprehension, saying that “not knowing is an experience easily squandered, for it is hard to override those habits which usher certainty into the indeterminate scene. The tongue shapes words all too quickly, and once named, edges reappear.”[6]

Ricarda: Schwenger explores our urge to find meaning by looking at John Nyman’s The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis (2015). For this work, Nyman redesigned the alphabet in such a way that each letter appears only partial. Using this new font, which he called Manque, he reprinted a selection of pages taken from the 1977 translation into English of Jacques Lacan’s Les quatre fondamentaux de la psychanalyse (1973). On first glance Nyman’s text looks like asemic writing, but the reader’s brain quickly adjusts and fills in the missing bits – the text soon becomes quite legible.
Here is a quote from Schwenger (and Nyman):

“This, [Nyman] tells us, “references Lacan’s famous manque-à-être, a neologism that is derived from the French word for ‘to miss’ or ‘to lack’ but is rendered in English as ‘want-to-be’ by Lacan himself.” What we want to be here, and not only here, is what is familiar and recognizable. So we are eager to fill in what is missing – which is also what we miss, in the same way we miss somebody who is gone.” [7]

The three ways of translating manque-à-être are certainly intriguing. Isn’t missing something directed backwards and lacking something directed forwards? So in the manque-à-être it goes both ways – was uns zum Sein fehlt. Ob wir das, was uns fehlt, vermissen ist die Frage – vermissen ist bewusst; wenn uns aber etwas fehlt, dann ist uns das nicht immer bewusst. In Schwenger’s Interpretation geht es aber nur ums Bewusste, um das was uns bewusst fehlt, was wir vermissen – und dann kann vermissen vielleicht doch auch nach vorn gerichtet sein. What we want to be könnte aber auch einfach nur die Realität sein, die wir gerne hätten – oder eben das, was uns dazu fehlt (‚want‘ – Mangel). Also doch auch hier zweideutig. Ambiguous after all. Aber lassen wir das beiseite.

Nyman plays with our readiness to fill in the missing bits but also highlights uncertainty – knowledge, the ability to read the text is based on the assumption that the missing bits are familiar, that we know what they are, what they were. However, as Nyman points out in his artist statement, the French publication of Les quatre fondamentaux and certainly its English translation, have been surrounded by uncertainty and “a deep suspicion”, given that the original French publication was based on a series of oral lectures and the 1977 English translation only included a selection of the French work.[8] Nyman’s further reduction of the original text – in his work only half the English lectures are included and are printed in a font where half of each letter is erased – appears as a logical continuation. And it is also a challenge to the reader to read beyond the meaning of words and to embrace the asemic qualities of the text, to read the text as image.

a page from the Voynich manuscript showing a drawing of a large flower with handwritten text in an unknown alphabet

Fig. 6: a page from the Voynich Manuscript

Two excellent and beautiful examples that play with the temptation to find meaning are the mysterious Voynich Manuscript  (early 15th C, Fig.6) and Luigi Serafini’s somewhat less mysterious but no less enticing Codex Seraphinianus (1981/ 2013). Both books take the shape of an elaborately illustrated encyclopaedia that describes a fantastical world in an unknown language. Both have intrigued scholars and code breakers to search for a way in. Put Voynich Manuscript or Codex Seraphinianus into any search engine and see what happens.

While it is unknown why and by who the Voynich Manuscript was created, Serafini included a pamphlet in the 2013 re-edition of his Codex explaining, with a twinkle in his eye, that the writing was indeed asemic. And he also explains why he saw the need to create an alphabet of his own to produce writing that nobody, including himself, could read:

Do you remember how, when we were children, we’d leaf through picture books and, pretending we could read before the children older than us, fantasize about the images we saw there? Who knows, I thought to myself, perhaps unintelligible and alien writing could make us all free to once again experience those hazy childhood sensations.[9]

Here it is again, the embrace of incomprehension. Asemic writing enables a return to the excitement, curiosity and unfettered creativity of childhood. Serafini clearly saw a need to include this explanation with the re-issue of his work. It is only when you stop trying to break the code, when you stop trying to extract meaning from the writing that you can begin to read the Codex. And what a feast it is for the imagination!

The Voynich Manuscript is, of course, a different matter – it may indeed be possible to decode it, but it is debateable whether that would benefit either the book or the reader. I’d rather go with Terence McKenna here:

“What fascinates me most about the Voynich Manuscript, above and beyond the historical puzzle and above and beyond how interesting it would be to know what it actually says, is the idea of an unreadable book…”[10]

Harriet: As both the Voynich Manuscript and Codex Seraphinianus demonstrate, there is a key link between creativity, imagination, and drawing in the creation of asemic texts. Turning to research from artist/researchers helps interrogate this link, particularly as we both have begun to recognise the impact of materiality in the creation of asemic texts. Encountering asemic writing is an embodied encounter between the object, reading, and thought. Writing, drawing, and reading are, as some suggest, phenomenological acts that envelop the object and practitioner together in an embodied encounter. The very act of drawing and writing as we have both experienced can be examined further. As such, whilst discussing materiality in painting, James Elkins’ observations are relevant to the drawing processes in asemic writing:

“A brushstroke is an exquisite record of the speed and force of the hand that made it, and if I think of the hand moving across the canvas – or better, if I just retrace it, without thinking – I learn a great deal about what I see.”[11]

Duncan Bullen’s practice-based drawing research also found an important connection between the hand, posture, and positioning with the paper he worked with and drawing material.[12] Bullen found in his researchthat “each line became a record of the moment of its making”.[13]
In terms of thinking about how we might approach attempting to read or translate asemic texts, Howard Riley’s thoughts on writing are helpful:

“wRiting [sic] itself is implicit evidence of another faculty of educational value: our ability to inscribe marks upon a surface so as to make meaningful representations of our experiences visible to others.”[14]

(Ricarda: I wonder why Riley chose the strange spelling of writing – why the capital R? Is this a nod towards “Rite” or “Ritual”? Writing as a ritualistic act? Or R for Representation? And this returns us to our earlier discussion around the (non)representationalism of asemic writing…) Harriet: It seems that Riley uses alliteration to explore reading, writing, and arithmetic: “The three R’s, Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic, are generally agreed to stand for the important educational priorities of literacy and numeracy [original emphasis].”[15] As such I think it is perhaps meant to connect the three practices, highlighting similarities between them all. Ricarda: oh yes, of course… I was over-interpreting… but I still like the idea of an underlying (hidden?) (w)Ritual in those three practices…

Harriet: Georges Perec’s deliberation of the ‘art of reading’ seems to continue this context from Riley. Perec makes us consider the battle between physiology and the philosophy of perception:

“A certain art of reading – and not merely the reading of a text, but what is called ‘reading’ a picture, or a town – might consist of reading askance, of casting an oblique look at the text. (But this no longer has to do with reading at the physiological level: how could we teach our extra-ocular muscles to ‘read differently’?)”[16]

Stability and safety are found in structured belief systems. When we search for new knowledge whether it be meaning, to understand, to learn something – we look for a reason. Howard Riley comments that “we must develop a theory of rationality adequate to a universe of randomness: we must structure order from chaos.”[17] (Ricarda: Yes, this, our urge to interpret, to find meaning.) This is the case in both STEM subjects and the Creative Arts & Humanities. If we focus just on literary studies and artistic practice, the two share a specific commonality: communication through a device, whether it be through textual or material modes. Both produce knowledge that is decided and ‘understood’ through experimentation and analysis. However, how is this quantified? Can it be quantified? How does one articulate and engage with the experience of language (whether written or spoken, textual, or material?) I would argue, in agreement with Schwenger/Nyman, that to comprehend something through translation is to miss something. Indeed, perhaps the only way to access the untranslatable elements of an ephemeral language, such as encounters with mood, atmosphere, space, and time, is to find no comprehension (Ricarda: or perhaps, to actively seek out the “fruitfulness of incomprehension”, to say it with Scott). The experiences that occur during encountering an untranslatable text, an indecipherable language is key to interrogate. Perhaps asemic writing might be better hypothesised at this point as the transposition of the ‘not-yet’, perhaps ‘not-ever’ known.

In our joint research for the ETN we will explore this embrace of the illegible, the invitation of the asemic text to fully engage in the multimodality of reading, to participate in the text, to create and envisage/expose something felt, lived, something old, new, missing or lacking.

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might want to join one of our workshops. More info here.


References

[1] Tim Gaze quoted in Peter Schwenger, Asemic: The Art of Writing, University of Minnesota Press: 2019, 61

[2] Schwenger, 117

[3] See Paul Carter’s Material Thinking: The Theory and Practice of Creative Research (2005) and Barbara Bolt’s chapter “The Magic is in the Handling” in Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry (2007)

[4] Scott, p.88f 

[5] Clive Scott, “Synaesthesia and Intersemiosis: Competing Principles in Literary Translation”, in Madeleine Campbell & Ricarda Vidal, Translating across Sensory and Linguistic Borders: Intersemiotic Journeys between Media, Palgrave: 2019, p.88

[6] Emma Cocker, “Tactics for not knowing: preparing for the unexpected” in Fisher & Fortnum, How Artists Think, 2013, p.128

[7] Schwenger, 2019, 125f.

[8] Nyman, artist statement, 2016, available here: https://johnnymanwriting.wordpress.com/tag/the-four-fundamental-concepts-of-psycho-analysis/

[9] Serafini, Decodex, p.9 – Codex Serphinianus, 2013

[10] Terence McKenna, quoted in The Voynich Manuscript: the World’s most Mysterious and Esoteric Codex. Watkins: 2017, p.6

[11] James Elkins, “What Painting Is’, 2019, p.96

[12] Duncan Bullen, “Practicing Presence: Drawing Near and Far” in Drawing Research Group at Loughborough University, Drawing||Phenomenology: tracing lived experience through drawing, 2019, p.7

[13] Bullen, p.10

[14] Howard Riley, “Drawing as language: the systemic-functional semiotic argument”, in Journal of Visual Art Practice, 2019, p.10 

[15] Riley, p.10

[16] Georges Perec, “Reading: A Socio-physiological Outline” in Species of Space and Other Pieces, 1974, p.177

[17] Riley, p.3

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s