Michael Jacobson Interview
by Michael Jacobson and Quimby Melton
Part of "Cryptotexts": a SCRIPTjr.nl special section.
In addition to your curatorial work with The New Post-Literate, you've written two of your own asemic texts: Action Figures (imgs. 1-5) and The Giant's Fence (imgs. 6-9). Do you see your work as part of a cryptotext tradition that includes the Voynich manuscript and Codex Seraphinianus?
First, I have to say I'm a terrible cryptographer. Readers should know that if they're going to look for codes in my work. Nevertheless, I can say, with some confidence, that the Voynich manuscript is more relevant to my asemic writing than the Codex Seraphinianus. I'm much more familiar with that text and have been since I began developing my personal calligraphic style. Tim Gaze, of asemic.net and SCRIPTjr.nl's editorial board, introduced me to the Codex Seraphinianus a few years ago, and it's a very interesting book. But the Voynich manuscript seems more significantly proto-asemic to me. That is, I think the text may very well reveal its secrets if one studies it in terms of visual aesthetics rather than semantics.
Part of me hopes the Voynich will never be deciphered, but who knows? Maybe it's written in an extinct European language that could be translated if we found the right Rosetta Stone. Undeciphered languages, in fact, influence my work a good deal. The Giant's Fence, for example, was influenced by Rongorongo and illegible graffiti.
Even if you're not actively engaging in cryptography, would it be inappropriate to suggest Action Figures and The Giant's Fence are cryptographic?
My asemic novels are cryptographic to the extent that their language is obscured and hidden. But while the general aesthetics of cryptography and secret writing have always fascinated me, my asemic texts are less encryption-focused and more akin to sigils, wherein the text is abstracted and charged with energy, and xeno/exolinguistics.
Not only is "illegible alien wizard graffiti" a good description of my penmanship, it might make a good topic for a future SCRIPTjr.nl special section.
Why not throw in some extra-terrestrial haiku for good measure?
A large, scary 'bot.
Klaatu barada nikto.
The earth lives again.
Getting back to your work, if it formally has more in common with sigils, ancient Pascuense script, and exolinguistic haiku, where would you ground your work's sensibility?
In terms of sensibility, I have more in common with the French symbolists and lettrists than with codemakers and codebreakers. Like all these groups, I'm acutely interested in exploring what happens to language when meaning is intentionally obscured. But unlike the latter two, I'm uninterested in providing a decoding mechanism or trying to reverse engineer an objective cipher.
How would you say broader contemporary post-literate writing relates to cryptotexts like the Voynich and the Codex Seraphinianus?
This is the information age, and we route almost all our information through DARPA's internet. In the post-9/11 security climate, I wouldn't be surprised if most, if not all, emails coming into and going out of the US aren't recorded by the NSA: America's Big Brother.
In fact, investigations by news outlets like PBS suggest exactly that.1
No one likes to be spied upon or even think they're being spied upon. Post-literate writing and texts like the Voynich manuscript and the Codex Seraphinianus offer readers and writers an oasis in such a climate. They allow us to communicate using semantically undecipherable signs.
In that sense, asemic writing and cryptotexts have a subversive quality to them in that they challenge government authority over communication. Thinking beyond political concerns and moving back into the realm of aesthetics, they offer readers and writers a more or less impenetrable subjective shelter. Since they usually cannot be "broken" -- that is, translated into objective carriers of meaning -- one can interpret asemic texts as the ultimate encoders of personal insight and reflection. Everything from little sister's journal to the rape fantasies of a poetic psychopath could be safely housed in asemic glyphs.
I have put some of my ugliest and most beautiful thoughts into my asemic texts, and that's where I'd like these thoughts to stay. The unknown author of the Voynich manuscript may have felt a similar need to express him or herself as completely as possible but without giving readers overly-easy access to the inner sanctum of his or her naked thought. Luigi Serafini, author of the Codex Seraphinianus, claims the Codex is asemic, but maybe that's just to throw the crypto-dogs off the scent.2
It's fascinating to think of asemic writing in this way: as a sort of locked vault one shares with the world while withholding the key or combination (sometimes even from oneself).
Since we've covered form and sensibility, let's move on to method. Do you write your asemic novels in semantic language first and then translate or do you arrange abstract signs independently of any semantic meaning?
I start my novels at the semantic beach, where meaningful and meaningless language converge. I'm particularly interested in exploring the moment when a simple line on a page begins to have meaning, when the content of a gesture is sufficient to scream, "I exist!" Ultimately, though, I've come to the conclusion that it's very hard to write a gesture completely devoid of meaning or to write a gesture that's completely filled with meaning.
The Giant's Fence, my first book, attempts to push written, symbolic communication to the breaking point and create a sort of "trans-symbolism," that is, signs transcending symbolic communication. My second book, Action Figures, is probably my most gentle and accessible text because it's a collection of street hieroglyphs. The Paranoia Machine, my peripheral vision reading machine (img. 10), is concerned with internal and external psychological conflict and with the problem of artist-as-survivalist in a contemporary society that has devalued the role of creator. My recent asemic animations (below) simply seem to scream, "Holy shit! Life!"3
What about materials? Nico Vassilakis, for example, composes work like Language Is Hell on an iPod touch. The Paranoia Machine notwithstanding, do you use contemporary technology and gadgetry to create your asemic typefaces? The Giant's Fence looks hand-drawn.
All my work begins as pen-and-paper sketches. I like to use this low-tech approach to document the modern American high-tech environment because I think it's an interesting, and ironic, way to capture today's ultra-technical reality. When I begin an asemic text, I will either do some automatic writing or snatch a shape from the surrounding environment. I start simply and develop complexity. Usually the signs begin as recognizable symbols that, through subsequent generations, become abstract designs whose origin eventually becomes obscure even to myself, the creator of the piece.
Though the defining characteristic of asemic writing is its muted semantic meaning, in what ways do you consider yourself a "a creator of meaning," "a communicator," and/or "a storyteller?"
Through my own work, and by curating The New Post-Literate, I'm trying to tell a story of change and (r)evolution. I'm interested in texts whose form remains constant, but whose meaning evolves over time and in the individual mind. Asemic writing is somewhat like dramatic writing and even entertainment script forms: the text stays the same, but individual performances change from night to night, from production (event) to production (event). As I see it, asemic writing is a means of scripting the world. Each reader-writer-viewer breathes unique life into asemic texts and individual signs like actors.
Interesting metaphor. It, of course, makes the conjunction of asemic texts and screen/teleplays in SCRIPTjr.nl seem all the more congruent.
I also write to stay ahead of death. I know I'll be caught sooner or later, but in the meantime, I'm trying to stay a step ahead. Social media may make it possible to live on in ways previously unimagined. For example, I recently watched a YouTube video featuring Arthur Rimbaud. The creator, Jim Clark, has animated a childhood picture of the poet and overdubed a Frenchman reading "Ophéle."4 Maybe this is our future: we'll live on, one way or another, whether we want to or not.
Based on some of the points you make above, within or without the current new media context, the radical subjectivity of asemic writing almost ensures writers a sort of eternality. The potential life span of an asemic text is really only limited by the durability of its plastic media. Unlike other forms of literature -- whose meanings change and that go in and out of fashion and popularity and always risk functional erasure as a result of linguistic extinction -- asemic writing is virtually timeless. This is true whether, like your work and the Codex Seraphinianus, a given text was intended to be asemic or, like the Rongorongo tablets and possibly the Voynich manuscript, becomes so over time.
What other advantages, if any, do you think asemic writers have over semantic writers? You could answer the question in reverse too, if you'd like.
Like the French symbolists' complex metaphors, asemic writing's main advantage lies in its ability to express difficult and complex emotions in ways that aren't easily essentialized or finalized. I'm not much of a verbal communicator, but I do have a sense that asemic writing captures new experiences as they happen. It has a certain immediacy that semantic writing lacks. The latter seems to record experiences after the fact, but asemic writing focuses on the future-as-it-happens. Its meaning comes into, and goes out of, existence as the reader-writer-viewer negotiates with it.
What are the most constructive methods for approaching, that is "interpreting," asemic literature?
One must have an explorer's spirit to interpret asemic texts. They aren't bound by anything except the limits of one's imagination. I also think asemic texts offer readers access to the author's raw life experience. Because the text is undecipherable, an asemic author is likely to put down thoughts and emotions that don't exist in standard written communication. What the reader does with this nexus of communication is entirely up to him or her. I recommend "reading" an asemic text in various places, in various orders, and in various contexts so the glyphs can interact with the environment and always seem fresh.
What are the roots of post-literate culture, and how has it developed during your relationship with it?
Post-literate writing has probably existed for almost as long as conventional literacy has. There are examples of what I would consider post-literate writing in various ancient cultures around the world. Nevertheless, the term "post-literate" was first used by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960's,5 and that's as good a place as any to start. Multimedia was beginning to saturate American society, and a standard definition of "post-literate" is "occurring after the introduction of the electronic media." One of the reasons I chose to name my online gallery "The New Post-Literate" is because it exists in a purely electronic environment.
Really, I consider any form of writing post-literate if it goes beyond conventional literacy, if its expressions move beyond traditional literacy. As such, the discourse can include cryptography, visual poetry, asemic writing, rebuses, hypergraphic super writing, xenolinguistics, graffiti, comics, &tc. I should note too that this evolutionary tension between traditional literacy and post-literacy seems to be playing itself out on the internet and via new (e)book forms. I suspect this is why, even though people are reading fewer and fewer traditional books, it's still an exciting time to be a writer.
What exactly would you say are the core goals and/or interests of contemporary post-literate writing?
Post-literate writing is the next stage in the evolution of writing. In the same way Dada gave birth to Surrealism, asemic writing will create a viable, self-sustaining post-literate writing culture. Like all asemic writers, I just want to know where the human literacy story will go next. Of course, selling a few books would be nice, and I'd like to see some arts funding roll in.
While a robust mercantile spirit is unavoidable and even admirable in the arts, be careful what you wish for concerning the latter. As Foucault reminds us, care is most certainly control, and institutional prisons have etiolated many an artist, artwork, and arts movement. Post-literate culture's independence and noble poverty are two of its strengths. Currently, the movement's destiny and "power structure" -- as it exists -- lie in the hands of a decenterd, populist network of like-minded enthusiasts, and it seems to have flourished in this climate, under what I once heard the critic Dave Hickey refer to as "the warm sunshine of benign neglect."
On that note, I do find it interesting that post-literate/asemic writing culture has developed without an official marketing department, as it were. It's maintained its independence and even become centrally ungovernable. Additionally, most, if not all, asemic texts are self- or micro-press published.
As I suggested in the introduction to SCRIPTjr.nl's legacy issue 1.2, it's impossible to over-state the revolutionary importance of this aspect of contemporary literary culture. Within asemic and vispo culture specifically, independent 'zines like Tim Gaze's Asemic Magazine and publishers like Arrum Press, Xexoxial Editions, xPress(ed), and Andrew Topel's Avantacular Press need all the plugs and support they can get.
If asemic texts remain independently published, and find a sizeable, paying audience, they could help revolutionize the writing and publishing industry.
Hopefully, SCRIPTshop will help asemic writers and artists sell their work more easily.
Moving on, who would you say are the major artists working in the field? Who, in your opinion, are especially effective asemic writers?
There are a lot of great asemic writers and artists out there. I don't think I could pick out any favorites from the current post-literate generation. The New Post-Literate showcases new work every week so interested readers can decide for themselves.
The New Post-Literate is another resource that can't be plugged enough. And I suppose your reluctance to use your position to dole out favors or influence opinion speaks to the movement's nebulous democracy at present.
Be that as it may, I think asemic writing is still too new to decide who history will remember. Tons of great asemic works still need to be written. A robust post-literate culture still needs to be built. The asemic writing movement is still trying to find its wings.
Thinking about this development, where do you see post-literate culture in a decade or two?
I'd like to see post-literate writing programs pop up at colleges and universities. Much of what we're doing today will seem rather dated by then, though.
And that's why it will reside there. The academy is an aesthetic and epistemic archive. It's not really designed to be a generative dynamo of new movements and thought.
The next generation of asemic writers will probably emit telepathic vispo and use jetpacks to create asemic skywriting.
That gets you an "Oh my" of my own!
Back on the ground, I'd like to see libraries and bookstores dedicate sections to asemic writing. Amazon and WorldCat already categorize asemic texts in their own right, and I'd like to see other entities like the Library of Congress follow suit.
Class P, subclass PN and Class N, subclasses NC-NE and NX are just waiting, aren't they? The LOC gives "Anacreontic literature" its own call number (6233-6238), and I bet no one reads or writes that wine-soaked nonsense anymore.
My fundamental hope, however, is that generations of asemic writers will perpetuate the tradition of international cosmopolitanism that defines the culture at present, bring millions more people into the fold, and help them discover how interesting and challenging asemic literature is.
Two of my wilder ideas:
I'd like to develop a martial arts style based on asemic calligraphy, and I'd like to travel the world in an old Chinese junk disseminating asemic writing.
You could be the Caine of asemic culture.
- See, for example, the PBS Frontline episode "Spying on the Home Front" (Prod. WGBH Boston, 2007. DVD. PBS Video, 2007). The episode can also be reviewed on the web: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/homefront/ (5 September 2010. PBS. Frontline, 15 May 2007). ↩
- This according to an uncited statement Serafini allegedly made to "the Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles ... on May 8, 2009" ("Codex Seraphinianus," Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codex_Seraphinianus#Writing_system [7 September 2010]). ↩
- See also Jacobson's kinetic asemic blog novel Mynd Eraser (http://mynderaser.blogspot.com [27 September 2010]). ↩
- See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=db1gctCmkXU (5 September 2010. Jim Clark/poetryanimations. YouTube, 20 December 2008). Clark's series of animations also includes "readings" by William Blake, John Keats, William Wordsworth, and several other poets. See http://www.youtube.com/user/poetryanimations (5 September 2010. Jim Clark/poetryanimations. YouTube, 05 September 2010) to watch the entire series. ↩
- See Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (McGraw Hill, NY, 1964; MIT Press, 1994; Gingko Press, 2003). ↩