Hacking Writing – Asemic Writing – Charlotte Lengersdorf

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By: Charlotte Lengersdorf

Hacking Writing – Asemic Writing

The Pleasure of Challenging Systems

Charlotte Lengersdorf, What Does It Mean?, 2024, screencapture of digital programme

Black marks on a white background,
Lines form and deform, 
Densifying into complex arrangements, 
Converge into linear formations. 
Horizontal row after row. 
A familiar strangeness, 
A resembling dissemblance, 
A pleasurable frustration.

The formal, structural and rhythmic qualities of the black lines on the white background evoke an undeniable association with writing. They lure the viewer into a habitual act of reading. Any attempt to extract meaning is unsuccessful. While maintaining stylistic coherence, the lack of repetition in the arrangements eliminates any possibility of decoding. Asemic writing treads a fine line between reference and repulsion, a characteristic that is already reflected in the term itself: It combines ‘asemic’, the absence or negation of meaning, with ‘writing’, challenging the key function of writing to convey meaning through written language. 

Visual poets Tim Gaze and Jim Leftwich coined the term asemic writing in the 1990s, but there are numerous works that predate the term that could be described as asemic writing.1 The term cannot be mentioned without acknowledging the discussions surrounding its various understandings, including debates about its motivation, its meaning, how it should be read, and how it should be understood. An underpinning rationale, as well as a clear definition, continue to be negotiated in various web blogs, forums and online groups. As Peter Schwenger writes in the first published book on the historical, critical and contemporary contexts of asemic writing, the term asemic writing has not led to ‘a general consensus, an artistic practice governed by conventions’.2 The American writer and artist Michael Jacobson, who publishes asemic writing through the website The New Post-Literate and his Post-Asemic Press, states: ‘Sometimes it seems so large that there is no one clear definition of what asemic writing is or will become.’3 The abstract nature of asemic writing defies both theoretical consideration and academic attention. At the same time, it exerts an undeniable fascination and attraction that is hard to resist, as reflected in its growing popularity across various web blogs, forums and online groups.4

The terms ‘hacking’ and ‘hacker’, and their implications, have been widely debated since their origins in computer circles. Descriptions of the hacker range from the stereotype of the anti-social geek and cybercriminal who gains unauthorised access to computer systems, to the more positive portrayal of the hacker whose ‘energy, vision, and problem-solving perseverance’ are indispensable to the well-being of large technology companies, to more abstract definitions of the concept in which hacking is not necessarily bound to the context of computers and computer networks.5 The Australian academic McKenzie Wark in A Hacker Manifesto, argues for the value of ‘freeing the concept of the hacker from its particulars, understanding it abstractly’.6 Sociologist Tim Jordan writes: ‘Despite 20 years of ongoing research into hacking, it remains unclear what hacking means.’7

Both terms, hacking and asemic writing, are bewildering in discussion and abstract by nature. Reason enough, one might argue, not to complicate matters by bringing them together. At the same time, the research for this paper revealed an exuberant amount of parallels in the discourse around hacking and the discussions around asemic writing, almost as if they were talking about the same subject. This paper takes this observation quite literally, using references from one discipline to write about the other, to see what else might emerge from such an encounter. 

Hacking writing,
Writing hacking,
Hacked writing,
Written hack,
Hacking in writing,
Writing into hacking, 
A writing hack.

This paper hacks writing. It is not just writing about the practice of asemic writing as a practice that hacks the formal and structural elements of writing, as explained in the introductory section of this paper. The act of writing this paper is itself subject to the practice of hacking, exploring the concept of hacking through the choices of structure and writing style. The paper therefore explores the relationship between hacking and writing, and writing and hacking in its various forms. Any confusion is intended and welcome.

In the context of this paper, references are taken out of their original context and used to describe a different context in order to open up new conversations and explorations in a creative alliance across disciplines. The aim is to extend and deviate from what has already been written, ‘[hacking/writing] the new out of the old’.8 As exemplified in the previous quotation, the altered quotations retain their original wording and structure. The words written in square brackets replace or add to the author’s original words, transforming the quote to talk about the same idea, but in the context of a different subject area. They appropriate the quote to intersect with, but depart from, its original context. The ‘/‘ makes a sentence hover between the contexts of asemic writing and hacking, confusing both and prioritising neither — the order of the words is random to avoid direct identification of the original context. Due to the borderline academic nature of this method, endnotes are used to ensure academic integrity, traceability and transparency to the original source.

This creative method of ‘hacking writing’ is not intended to misrepresent the thoughts, ideas and work of the original author, nor to devalue or disrespect their words. Rather, it seeks to use their words as a starting point for making interdisciplinary connections that might lead to new interpretations and discussions beyond the original context. Hacking writing becomes a process of writing writing out its repetitive cycles of citation and recitation. Feminist media scholars Bassett, Kemper and O’Riordan, for example, in their book Furious, justify their ‘unforgivable […] lack of full citations’ by refusing to maintain the ‘citation circularity, which finds itself trapped in ever smaller circles, an echo chamber that does not break out’.9 They argue for ‘the need for new forms of scholarly writing’, in which writing becomes a ‘process of experimenting and opening’.10 In hacking writing, writing is not a reproduction of what is already known, but a creative process that produces difference: ‘New [hacks/writing] supersede old [writing/hacks] […]. [The hack/The writing] takes information […] and produces new information out of it again.’11 

Asemic writing cannot be understood merely as a term used to classify or assemble various pre-existing practices or ideas, nor can it be said to explain, describe or abstract an object, a class or the essence of a practice. The term asemic writing refers to nothing other than itself. Unlike traditional writing, whose appearance is defined and constrained by the somewhat flexible but limited forms of its respective writing system, asemic writing has no predetermined or preconceived form. Its appearance is defined by a movement of challenge, of resistance to the known and the prescribed. However, asemic writing is not a mere rejection or negation of writing; it retains a reference to its opposite. The formal diversity of asemic writing emerges from an active engagement with the tension between the constraining properties of writing’s convention and gestural expression beyond routines, habits and systems. The gestures and awareness of the act of writing and reading are countered by a determined resistance to giving in to conditioned patterns of movement and thought. It is a deliberate departure, but not a complete dissociation from conventional writing. It does not seek to separate writing from writing, or reading from reading. Rather, asemic writing leads to more intense forms of writing and reading through active participation in an act that is usually disguised by habit. As Schwenger writes: ’It extends beyond what can be read or understood according to the logic of any signifying system.’12 

Wark describes the complications of describing hackers as a class while remaining true to the abstract and unstable nature of the practice. She writes: ‘Hackers are a class […] but an abstract class.’13 The article ‘a’ rather than ‘the’ in the title of her book A Hacker Manifesto is a manifestation of this struggle to define that which refuses representation: ‘We don’t quite know who we are […] it is in the nature of the hacker to differ from others, to differ even from oneself, over time. To hack is to differ.’14 

[Asemic Writing/Hacking] is best described as a ‘concept’ in the Deleuzo-Guattarian sense. It does not name something in order to define it, to enclose it within disciplinary boundaries, to exclude it from what it is not. Rather, it is a term that encourages the creation of new practices and discourses; That transcends boundaries rather than erecting them. It is a practice that is defined by a conscious act of troubling and transforming the existing, redirecting it towards the new and different. [Asemic writing/Hacking] is ‘turning a system against itself’; It is a process in which elements and qualities of a system are used beyond their original purpose and limitations.15 An ‘exercise of ample creativity’, that consists of a continuous surpassing of the known.16

A practice that challenges a system central to our culture and that frustrates our habitual interaction with media, is easily dismissed as nonsensical and useless and as a practice pursued for mere self-expression and pleasure. The [asemic writer/hacker] is defined as a person who ‘enjoys exploring the details of [programmable/writing] systems and how to stretch their capabilities […], who [writes/programs] enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys [programming/writing]. […] An expert or enthusiast of any kind. […] Who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.’17 [To hack/write asemic] means to ‘to interact with a [computer/writing] in a playful and exploratory rather than goal-directed way’, to be ‘motivated to [hack/write] for the sheer pleasure of doing so’, Just for Fun.18 They [write/hack] ‘simply for the joy of pulling off an awesome trick’.19 

The nonsensical and useless nature of [asemic writing/hacking] seems to be reinforced by the repeated use of words such as enjoyment, enthusiasm and fun. These words are commonly used to qualify an activity as trivial or irrelevant. An aimless, casual, playful or exploratory activity at the other end of doing something useful, purposeful or goal-oriented: ‘”Whatcha up to?” “Oh, just [writing/hacking].”’20 However, on closer inspection, what the [asemic writer/hacker] enjoys is a stretching of their capabilities, an intellectual challenge, an overcoming of limitations. The [hacker/writer] is driven by a ‘desire for access to something new, something previously unknown’.21 They ‘derive pleasure in outwitting constraint’.22 The joy derived from [asemic writing/hacking] stems from expanding the limits of what was is considered possible, destabilising and pushing personal and technological boundaries. It embodies a pleasure and desire to transcend the constraints of conditioning, unlocking untapped potential; A liberation from the static, fixed and predictable nature of everyday life. [Asemic writers/Hackers] ‘illuminate the ways in which [programming/writing] is tamed and contained by its socially accepted formats’.23 

There is a striking similarity between the definition of humour and the pragmatics of [asemic writing/hacking]: ‘[Humor/asemic writing/hacking] requires a similarly irreverent, frequently ironic stance toward language, social conventions, and stereotypes.’24 [Asemic writing/hacking] and humour involve ‘a play upon form’, questioning the necessity of accepted patterns.25 A hacker’s enjoyment of hacking and outwitting technical constraints is reflected in the central role of humour among hackers. Furthermore, the [hackers’/asemic writers’] provocative rejection of systems translates into their inventive use of language: ‘Hackers, as a rule, love wordplay’.26

[Hacking/Asemic writing] is ‘an invitation to play.[…] to resist a stable meaning in favor of […] the interminable play of differences’.27 It is driven by a ‘joy’ of experiencing the virtual.28 The virtual here is not to be equated with the digital or contrasted with the real. According to Deleuze and Guattari, the virtual is that which is not yet manifested or realised, a realm of potentiality of reality that is not yet actualised in the present. The concept of [asemic writing/hacking] is liberated from its specificity to be understood in a more abstract sense: ‘The virtual is the true domain of the [hacker/asemic writer]. […] To the [asemic writer/hacker], what is represented as being real is always partial, limited, perhaps even false. […] To [hack/write asemic] is to release the virtual into the actual’.29 Through [asemic writing/hacking], the [hacker/writer] penetrates seemingly infallible systems and disciplinary regimes, creating the possibility of new and alternative practices, but also new and alternative futures: ‘Every [asemic writing/hack] is an expression of the inexhaustible multiplicity of the future, of virtuality.’30 The [hacker’s/asemic writer’s] joy in experiencing the virtuality of nature parallels what Nietzsche calls the ‘joy of becoming’, that is, the joy of experiencing the dynamic nature of life, existence and identity.31 Joy, here, consists in challenging the rigidity of static ideals in favour of exploring the inherent complexities of life, finding fulfilment in continuous processes of transformation, growth, change, and creation.

BIO

Dr Charlotte Lengersdorf is a visual communicator, researcher and lecturer based in London and Düsseldorf. Her research emerges from an intersection between type design, human-computer interaction and a practice of programming with specific interest in the nonsensical, undetermined and unknown. She holds a BA from the Peter Behrens School of Arts in Düsseldorf and an MA from the Royal College of Art in London. Her PhD (2023) in communication research at the Royal College of Art, titled ‘Towards an Uncausal Practice of Visual Communication‘,  was funded by The German Academic Scholarship Foundation.

[email protected]
charlottelengersdorf.com
@charlottelengersdorf

REFERENCES

  1. Peter Schwenger, for example, refers to three ‘asemic ancestors’: Henri Michaux, Roland Barthes and Cy Twombly. ↩︎
  2. Peter Schwenger, Asemic: the Art of Writing (Minneapolis, MN; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 17. ↩︎
  3. ‘Four questions about asemic writing, #12: Michael Jacobson’ (14 February 2016) <http://scriptjr.nl/four-questions-about-asemic-writing-12-michael-jacobson/3447#.W8O5Ai_Myog> [accessed 20 January 2022]. ↩︎
  4. ‘Asemic’, Google Group: <https://groups.google.com/g/asemic> [accessed 04 April 2024].
    ‘Asemic Movement’ (Sep 24, 2011), Tim Gaze <https://issuu.com/eexxiitt/docs/asemicmovement1> [accessed 04 April 2024].
    ‘Asemic’, Tim Gaze, <http://www.asemic.net> [accessed 04 April 2024].
    ‘Asemic Writing for Mail Artists’ (2024), Ruud Janssen <https://iuoma-network.ning.com/group/asemicwritingformailartists> [accessed 04 April 2024].
    ‘The New Post-literate: A Gallery Of Asemic Writing’, Michael Jacobson <https://thenewpostliterate.blogspot.com> [accessed 04 April 2024].
    ‘Post-Asemic Press: A Publisher of Asemic Writing & Beyond’, Michael Jacobson <http://postasemicpress.blogspot.com> [accessed 04 April 2024] ↩︎
  5. Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2010), 458. ↩︎
  6. McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto (Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press, 2004), [072]. ↩︎
  7.  Tim Jordan, ‘A Genealogy of Hacking’ (2017), Convergence, 23(5): 528–544, 528. ↩︎
  8. Wark, [004]. ↩︎
  9. Caroline Bassett, Sarah Kemper and Kate O’Riordan, Furious: Technological Feminism and Digital Futures (London: Pluto Press, 2020), 15; 105. ↩︎
  10. Ibid., 19; 105. ↩︎
  11. Wark, [080]. ↩︎
  12. Schwenger, 122. ↩︎
  13. Wark, [006]. ↩︎
  14. Ibid., [003]. ↩︎
  15. Gabriella Coleman, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013), 98. ↩︎
  16. Coleman, 97. ↩︎
  17. ‘The Hacker Jargon File 4.4.7’ <http://catb.org/jargon/html/online-preface.html> [accessed 20 January 2024]. ↩︎
  18. Ibid.; Coleman, 98; Linus Torvalds, Just for Fun: the Story of an Accidental Revolutionary (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney: Harper, 2001). ↩︎
  19. Levy, 464. ↩︎
  20. ‘The Hacker Jargon File 4.4.7’. ↩︎
  21. Tim Jordan, Hacking: Digital Media and Society Series (Cambridge, Malden: Polity Press, 2008), 5. ↩︎
  22. Coleman, 98. ↩︎
  23. Schwenger, 7. ↩︎
  24. Coleman, 100. ↩︎
  25. Douglas 1975 as quoted in Coleman, 100. ↩︎
  26. ‘The Hacker Jargon File 4.4.7’. ↩︎
  27. Schwenger, 149. ↩︎
  28. Wark, [060]. ↩︎
  29. Wark, [074]. ↩︎
  30. Wark, [078]. ↩︎
  31. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (1889), trans. by Richard Polt (Indianapolis, IN; Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1997), 91. ↩︎

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