Asemic writing doesn't signify anything but itself. This can be thought of like a form of ghost writing, a text aspiring to become a ‘presence’ or thing in its own right, rather than a form that carries significations of other things. Ghosts are often in fiction aspiring to the reality that living life forms have, and if we are not careful they might supplant the living.
Any inscription that is still legible, but perhaps only faintly, is like a ruin of its former self, a phantom presence. This ruin can however be a powerful form in its own right and signify a silenced voice. Its past form can overcome its present one, especially if its erasure wasn’t just a consequence of normal wear and tear, but was the result of a deliberate attempt to remove it. This can often be the case with graffiti, especially if it is politicised comment or a sign of struggle.
Erased or cleaned off graffiti can also be thought of therefore as a type of palimpsest. One text is removed to make way for another, but in a future time, the first text may re-emerge and become more important than the text that replaced it.
Patrick Ford has highlighted for me how these issues relate to the political graffiti that has appeared all over the city of Hong Kong and of how inexperienced government appointed cleaners after doing their work, left recognisable 'ghosts' of the slogans used. The erased text being still clearly legible to locals residents, even though the offending words or characters had been cleaned away.
As the cleaners would use solvents to try and remove the messages, the ink or paint used was partly dissolved, thus creating a delicate wash effect not too dissimilar to traditional Chinese ink painting. In effect the process of cleaning was developing an aesthetic 'look'. Patrick also sent me a link to the artist Serene Hui Sze-Lok, who has written about this issue in an Amsterdam Alternative article, and who points to that fact that these drawn marks now bear witness to the writing and un-writing, of the city’s memoir.
The word "palimpsest" means to be scraped clean and ready to be used again. In medieval times Vellum was so expensive that old texts were often scraped off, so that new ones could replace them; therefore the original palimpsests were made as a matter of economy. However the removing of a text can also become a political act, even if it was not seen to be so at the time. Sana’s palimpsest, one of the oldest Koranic manuscripts in existence, has been carbon dated, and its new date indicates that the under-text or ‘scriptio inferior’ could have been written 15 years before the death of the prophet Muhammad. However it differs from the standard Koranic text as completed in about A.D. 650, under the direction of Caliph Uthman ibn Affan, the third leader of the Muslim community. Muslims believe that the Koran they read today is the text that was standardised under Uthman, and regard it as the exact record of the revelations that were delivered to Muhammad. A variant reading could be seen as a threat to the authenticity of a sacred document, therefore the ghost of an earlier text, when it emerges, could be thought of as a threat to religion.
However we can also regard the idea of the palimpsest as a metaphor. Thomas de Quincey describes our brain as ‘a natural and mighty palimpsest’, he points to ‘layers of ideas, images and feelings, each one as it arrives burying ‘all that went before’. Once thought forgotten ideas and feelings are as de Quincey says, ‘not dead but sleeping’. More recently the term ‘palimpsest’ as we have already seen has become a metaphor for describing the city, both its physical form as well as our collective memories and experiences of it. The concept of the palimpsest is a way of thinking about the transformation of a city, new structures existing alongside old ones, as well as new life stories being written upon existing ones. Hong Kong is no different to any other city, however its present situation is more urgent, and we can see change happening in real time as the Chinese government tries to force Hong Kong to become integrated fully into the Chinese state.