Talking about Asemic Writing (with Michael Jacobson)

mjacobson1Michael Jacobson is a writer and artist who works in asemic writing. He takes language, words, symbols, beyond intellectual understanding, into another realm…But I will let him explain.

Words by Josh Medsker and Michael Jacobson

Josh Medsker: First of all, what drew you to asemic writing? And can you explain what it is for those readers that don’t know?

Michael Jacobson: What first drew me to asemic writing is similar to what draws me to any conventional form of  writing, that is, to gain knowledge, develop an escape into other worlds, and form creative outlets. Asemic writing, to me, is aasemicn abstract  writing style which utilizes non-verbal lines, colors, sub-letteral forms, textures, and symbols of enigmatic origins. Writing is a focused way to get a point across; asemic writing is a non-specific universe of points with an acknowledgement of the unknown–the mystery–the openness. Asemic writing is also raw and unspoiled, as there are no contests to enter.

In the past, when I began to burn out on too much verbal writing and literature, I turned to and became intrigued by undeciphered scripts,  illegible graffiti, abstract calligraphy, and French lettrisme; I used these influences in creating my asemic writing. To explain asemic writing, it is probably easier to show examples of what it is than to describe it with words; basically, it is an artwork which looks like writing but does not use words, or is intentionally illegible writing. Wikipedia has a fairly thorough explanation of asemic writing as it is currently understood.

I quote Wikipedia: “Asemic writing is a wordless open semantic form of writing. The word asemic means ‘having no specific semantic content’.” With the nonspecificity of asemic writing there comes a vacuum of meaning which is left for the reader to fill in and interpret. All of this is similar to the way one would deduce meaning from an abstract work of art. The open nature of asemic works allows for meaning to occur trans-linguistically; an asemic text may be “read” in a similar fashion regardless of the reader’s natural language. Multiple meanings for the same symbolism are another possibility for an asemic work.”

In 2005 I learned the word ‘asemic’ when I found Tim Gaze’s Asemic Magazine online. I had been consciously creating asemic writing in chapbooks since 1998, but only made contact with Tim when I was doing an Internet search for Max Ernst’s Maximiliana. We were both interested in many of the same artists and writers who were working in the artistic form which is now widely known as asemic writing. It became a treasure hunt to find artists of the past who were our predecessors, especially those making abstract calligraphy.

JM: I am intrigued by your blog and FB page about asemic writing and post-literate culture. How do these things fit together, in your estimation? And how do you define “post-literate”?

MJ: I define ‘post-literate’ literally as being “after a condition of literacy.” Post-literate asemic writing is the spirited writing of the electronic multi-media age we are in now, and is a way to approach total literacy. By total literacy I mean that I still want people to read books, but I also want them to read the sky, plants, the stars, other languages, and asemic writing, of course. I try (and fail) to read everything I can, whether it is a book, the Internet, or the clouds. What I do with these influences, when I create my asemic writing, is to focus them like a laser; I write and burn at the same time. Post-literate society is also heavily entwined with today’s electronic culture. Asemic writing can be both electronic/digital and machineless/handwritten, and is often a mixture of the two. I want asemic writing to be as non-esoteric as possible, and to discover great asemic writers who create outside of the usual art and cultural centers; thanks to the Internet this is now happening.

The term ‘post-literate’ was first used by Marshall Mcluhan in the 1960’s. In 2008 I picked it up and ran with the word and decided to name my online gallery The New Post-Literate: A Gallery Of Asemic Writing.  All of my work centers around the concept of asemic writing as a  post-literate form of writing; I mean, why should writing only be limited to 26 letters? Why can’t we invent new forms of writing? Why do we have to use words at all? Why not write with the full spectrum of the history of writing? Why not have the symbols dance?

I started the Facebook group in 2011. To begin with, it was dead frozen for the first year or two, and then, almost overnight, it started to boil and bubble as a living entity. Now, there is so much great work posted every day that it is hard to keep track of it all; waves of new participants show up daily. The FB group is also where I select most of the material which I post at The New Post-Literate. I usually pick out my favorite piece of the day to post. Sometimes I’ll post more than one if I can’t decide between works.

JM:  What is your ultimate artistic goal with your production of asemic texts?

MJ: I have three main goals: a personal asemic language for everyone, the creation of a transnational global post-literate writing culture, and a general respect for the languages of Nature (I don’t think of electronic environment of the Internet and the natural environment as being incompatible). But I would also like all of the hungry writers I know to have the opportunity to take asemic writing off the page and the Internet, and show their asemic writing in art galleries and in the streets. Asemic writing is a fine art where no one is making any money, but where the writer/artists get to meet and exchange works with some of the most interesting and talented people on the planet.  I would also like to open a bricks & mortar gallery for asemic writing sometime in the future. Of course, selling a few copies of my latest book Works & Interviews 1999-2014 would also be nice.

Further Reading

Asemic writing article on Wikipedia

The New Post-Literate blog

Asemic Writing: The New Post-Literate (FB Group).


mjacobson2Michael Jacobson is a writer and artist from Minneapolis, Minnesota USA. His books include The Giant’s Fence, Action Figures, Mynd Eraser, and The Paranoia Machine; he is also co-editor of An Anthology Of Asemic Handwriting (Uitgeverij). Besides writing books, he curates a gallery for asemic writing called The New Post-Literate, and sits on the editorial board of Recently, he was published in The Last Vispo Anthology (Fantagraphics), and had work in the Minnesota Center for Book Arts exhibit: Directed. In 2013 he was interviewed by SampleKanon and Asymptote Journal. Currently, he created cover art for Rain Taxi’s 2014/2015 winter issue, and curated a show of asemic writing in Rijeka, Croatia. In his spare time, he is working on designing a cyberspace planet named THAT.

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