Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 10, 2020
Peter Schwenger Asemic: The Art of Writing Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. 192 pp.; 9 color ills.; 51 b/w ills. Paper $25.00 (9781517906979)

Peter Schwenger’s new book is that vital and fateful thing: “a solid first map of a territory previously unknown to academic study,” as one of the prepublication blurbs puts it. “Solid” is uncharitable; “deft” is more just. But “first” is spot on, and the point about academic study correctly identifies the gap Schwenger sets out to fill as well as his target audience.

Asemic: The Art of Writing is vital because it charts the rise of an extraordinary creative practice that came into its own in the late 1990s: writing that is “without meaning” but “not without significance” (17). Like most creative endeavors, this one has a prehistory. Schwenger traces it back to the Belgian-born poet and painter Henri Michaux in the 1920s, and then through Roland Barthes, who was both practitioner and theorist, and the American painter Cy Twombly in the 1960s. Yet, as he notes in his introduction, it was two contemporary visual poets, Tim Gaze and Jim Leftwich, who independently gave the practice of toying “with units of language for reasons other than that of producing meaning” (Leftwich’s words) a new self-consciousness as a cultural phenomenon, even a movement of sorts, at the turn of the millennium, naming it “asemic writing” (1). Since 2011, has been a key curatorial site and online champion, alongside Gaze’s asemic magazine, which began life as a pamphlet in 1997–98.

Like the territory it charts, Schwenger’s “first map” is engagingly international. We move from Michaux and the Euroamerica of the 1920s, which includes Paul Klee and Max Ernst as well as Ezra Pound’s dabblings with Chinese writing, to Mira Schendel and Mirtha Dermisache in Latin America, to Wenda Gu and Xu Bing in 1980s China, and on to three contemporaries: Michael Jacobson (US), Rosaire Appel (US), and Christopher Skinner (UK). A central chapter breaks the chronological movement, focusing on a cluster of practitioners—from Man Ray (US) and Nancy Bell Scott (US) to Marian Bijlenga (the Netherlands) and Cui Fei (China)—who have developed a specific interest in “eco-asemics,” which riffs on, and interferes with, traditional thinking about “The Book of Nature” (61). Like on most first maps, there are inevitably some gaps. One of the most conspicuous concerns the wonderful Togo-born multimedia artist El Loko (1950–2016), who successfully put Africa on the global asemic map from the mid-1990s by developing an idiosyncratic writing system of his own, blending stylized images of fable creatures from his native country, motifs from the Christian tradition, and other idiomatically abstract designs.

Nevertheless Schwenger’s book is, as noted above, a vital introduction to a new area of study. Why is it fateful, too? As an academic primer, it hands the art of asemic writing over to the “Brofèsors,” to use one of James Joyce’s notoriously cryptic (but not asemic) Finnegans Wake words. Nothing wrong with that, of course: the university is (or should be) a center of learning dedicated to the transformation of knowledge in all its forms, varieties, and media. But, as Joyce’s own interlingual, polysemic, and polyphonic play on the Latinate writing system intimates, professors (English/Danish) tend to be Brotessers (German), or bread-eaters, who in turn tend (at least in Joyce’s book) to be devotees of the Catholic Eucharist, seeing (and consuming) Communion bread as the transubstantiated body of Christ. Joyce also associated Brofèsors of this kind with Neoplatonists, who think the “everintermutuomergent” world of appearances can be resolved into one ultimate Idea or reality, and with followers of Saint Paul, who believe the “letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.” Yes, this is the labyrinthine rabbit hole down which Finnegans Wake propels its intrepid readers.

Schwenger starts encouragingly. Asemic writing is not “the mere illustration of certain pre-existent concepts,” he comments in his introduction. “Rather, it is a provocation to thought; and the thinking it encourages is not that of a system or science. It is open-ended, based on wonder and wondering.” He also notes that “the depiction of writing by asemic artists is endlessly varied” (17). These are not the words of a typical Brofèsor. Yet, in his conclusion, Schwenger reverts to type. Asemic writing, he now suggests, expresses a “theoretical idea”: “Through abstract linear gestures on the page, it evokes interior ones—mental movements and shapes, tendencies and qualities.” Shading into a quasi-theological idiom, he adds that it “conveys something of that elusive nonverbal element; and it does so, paradoxically, by foregrounding the materiality of words” (148; emphasis added). So, in the end, the multifarious asemic letter embodies (incarnates?) a theoretical spirit—in this case, Schwenger’s version of Michaux’s psychological idea of prelingual thought. All this makes Schwenger less like Joyce’s Brofèsor and more like his “ornery josser,” who ignores the “outer husk” and “enveloping facts” of an ordinary letter because he is fixated on its “psychological content.” As Joyce’s cunning rhyme hints, however, the Brofèsor and the josser are more like each other than either would care to admit.

Is there a way of engaging with asemic writing as an open-ended “provocation to thought,” including Brofèsorial thought, that keeps faith with its endless variety and Schwenger’s own initial intuitions? For one answer, we can follow Schwenger and turn to Roland Barthes’s reflections on the Zen Buddhist conception of satori (awakening or enlightenment) in Empire of Signs (1970). As Barthes puts it in Richard Howard’s translation (Jonathan Cape, 1982)—in a passage Schwenger does not cite—the satori is a moment or event when “a certain disturbance of the person occurs, a subversion of earlier readings, a shock of meaning lacerated,” creating “an emptiness of language” and causing “knowledge, or the subject, to vacillate” (Empire of Signs, 4). On this account there is no need for any recourse to a “theoretical idea” (such as the psychology of prelingual thought) because this emptying affects preformed knowledge and language as much as it does the person or subject.

At one level, this conception of satori appealed to Barthes because it disrupted the illusions of transparency he associated with Latinate writing systems—writing as a mere representation of speech, for example, or a simple conduit for ideas, knowledge, meaning, and more. In fact, for the more radical proponents of Zen who reject the canonical authority of the Buddhist sutras—the influential Japanese scholar D. T. Suzuki is one—no form or system of writing is safe, the only exception being the koan, a literary-philosophical device designed to provoke satori via meditation on a conundrum. At another level, the appeal for Barthes lay in the challenge this posed to Euroamerican thought. “The West moistens everything with meaning, like an authoritarian religion which imposes baptism on entire peoples,” he complained in a way Joyce would no doubt have appreciated (40). In a further passage Schwenger cites, Barthes shifts into a more philosophical idiom, describing satori as the “apprehension of the thing as event and not as substance” (41). As an event, the object of consciousness is, like the subject, part of the everintermutuomergent flux of experience, which always exceeds our meaning-making capacities; it is not the substantive expression of an unchanging Idea or reality, which is a reifying fantasy of our own making. Again, in the more radical Zen traditions, this encompasses moistening or reifying thought in all its forms and traditions, not just Euroamerican ones.

A looping line runs through the asemic to the Zen traditions, connecting Barthes back to Michaux and on to Xu Bing and Tim Gaze, so there are good reasons for seeing asemic writing as a koan-like practice that provokes a “loss of meaning,” in Barthes’s phrase, which, as Suzuki put it in his Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1934), compels “one to plunge oneself into the abyss of the ‘Nameless.’” As in the Zen tradition, however, the via negativa of asemic writing, which pushes doubt and legibility to their limits, is twinned with a via positiva, which, again in Suzuki’s words, affirms “vitality, freedom and originality.” To appreciate the significance of this double orientation, consider two examples from Xu Bing’s vast oeuvre. While the “disconcerting illegiblity” of his monumental Book from the Sky (Tianshu, 1988)—“undoubtedly the best-known work of asemic art,” Schwenger notes (93)—exemplifies the way of negation, his later Living Word installation (2001–2), which Schwenger does not discuss, opens up the creative possibilities of seeing the thing as an unnamed experiential event and not as a precoded (prebaptized?) meaningful substance. It shows the Chinese character for “bird” (鳥) breaking free of its dictionary definition, returning via a history of Chinese writing to its pictographic origins, and ultimately gesturing toward the vivid reality of living birds as it might be experienced in the world beyond the art gallery. The reason? The spirit of the monosemic dictionary definition killeth, but the asemic and polysemic letter giveth life. In all its protean variety, asemic art does much more, as Schwenger’s essential introduction shows, but this alone makes it worth engaging with closely and creatively. However, Brofèsors and jossers beware: there is turbulence ahead, though, who knows—maybe satori, too.

Peter D. McDonald
St Hugh’s College, Oxford University