Electronic Rituals, Oracles and Fortune Telling

Electronic Rituals, Oracles and Fortune Telling

NYU ITP, Spring 2018. Instructor: Allison Parrish. Send me e-mail.

Turn in meditations and projects here.


According to anthropologists Filip de Boeck and René Devisch, divination “constitutes a space in which cognitive structures are transformed and new relations are generated in and between the human body, the social body and the cosmos.” In this class, students will learn the history of divination, engage in the practice of divination, and speculate on what forms divination might take in a world where the human body, the social body, and even the cosmos(!) are digitally mediated. Starting with an understanding of ritual and folk culture, we will track the history of fortune-telling from the casting of lots to computer-generated randomness to the contemporary revival of Tarot; from reading entrails to astrology to data science; from glossolalia to surrealist writing practices to the “ghost in the machine” of artificial intelligence. Weekly readings and assignments culminate in a final project.


Class schedule with readings, assignments and due dates.

Ethos, methodology, structure, outcomes

This is a critical making/speculative design class focused on the practice of divination. We’ll discuss and elaborate on topics related to this topic every week through assigned readings and in-class lectures and technical tutorials. You’ll be assigned a series of “meditations” on these topics, which encourage you to make something (an object, an intervention, a computer program) that engages with, expands upon and/or challenges the content of our discussions. We’ll spend a good deal of time in class “workshopping” the results of these meditations.

By the last class session, students will be literate in practical and academic approaches to ritual and divination, especially as they apply to digital art and design. Students will have made several prototype projects that exercise this literacy and a final project that shows their mastery of the material presented in class.

For the most part, the content of this class will be non-technical (i.e., this is not a programming class). Students are expected to bring their own technical know-how to their projects. The goal of the class is for students to be able to incorporate elements of academic and practical research in divination into their own practices as makers, designers and artists.


In this class, we engage in a radical epoché (or bracketing): we set aside questions of objectivity and natural science in order to more clearly pay attention to internal and collective experiences (phenomenology). This focus requires an applied approach to divination, meaning that we will actually enact and engage in the practices under discussion. I believe this is the best way to understand how divination works and (just as importantly) feels. Keeping this in mind, students are invited to recuse themselves from any activities that make them feel uncomfortable. (We’ll further discuss the dimensions of this in class.)

Traditionally, Western academics have frowned on divination as a practice, considering it little more than unscientific superstition. Nevertheless, many of the readings we’ll be discussing in this class point to empirical explanations (whether cognitive, social, or biological) for the phenomenology of divination. These readings should not be understood as an attempt at “debunking,” but simply as a means to help us better contextualize and understand our experiences.


For the fourth session, students will need to obtain a Tarot deck. A traditional, Rider-Waite-style 78-card deck is preferred. Here’s a helpful but not exhaustive list; you probably can’t go wrong with any of these decks. Nothing wrong at all with going for the classic.

There are no required textbooks, but for students particularly interested in Tarot interpretations, I highly recommend The Little Monsters Tarot Guidebook (also available as an instant digital download).

In the incarnation of this class in Spring 2017, the students came up with a collective bibliography of works and writing on topics related to this class. You can see that bibliography here.

Attendance, lateness, and in-class behavior policies


You are expected to attend all class sessions. Absences due to non-emergency situations will only be cleared if you let me know a week (or more) in advance, and even then only for compelling personal or professional reasons (e.g., attending an important conference, going to a wedding). If you’re unable to attend class due to contagious or incapacitating illness, please let me know (by e-mail) before class begins.

Each unexcused absence will deduct 5% from your final grade. If you have three or more unexcused absences, you risk failing the course.


Be on time to class. If you’re more than fifteen minutes late, or if you leave early (without my clearance), it will count as an unexcused absence.

In-class behavior

Laptops must be closed while your fellow students are presenting work. You’re otherwise welcome to use laptops in class, but only to follow along with the in-class tutorials and to take notes. (Keeping all of this in mind.)

Academic integrity

Please review the Tisch School of the Arts Academic Integrity policy. For the purposes of this class, “plagiarism” that violates the academic integrity policy includes representing someone else’s code (or other procedure) as your own. (If you use or reference materials that someone else made, you are expected to cite these sources.)

Disability accomodations

I am asked to include the following verbiage on my syllabus:

If you are a student with a disability and feel you
need accommodations, you must register with the Moses
Center for Students with Disabilities. They are located
at 726 Broadway, 2nd fl. and can be reached at
212-998-4980 or mosescsd@nyu.edu.

You can find more information about NYU’s disability policies here. I am dedicated to making my classroom accessible for all individuals, but ask that requests for accommodations be made through official channels. (This makes things easier for both of us, in the long run.) I’m happy to (confidentially) discuss any accessibility-related issues that arise in the class. You are not required to disclose your disability.

Assignments and projects

This class has seven deliverables:

  • Five meditations
  • Topical connections presentation
  • Final project

Turn in meditations and projects here.


Five “meditations” will be assigned, one every two weeks. Each meditation encourages you to make a project related to the technical and conceptual material under discussion in class. The form and content of each meditation response will be determined by the weekly descriptions in the schedule.

Meditations must be turned in at the beginning of the session listed as the due date in the schedule. Work turned in after the deadline will not be accepted.

You must write a public blog post to document each meditation response. This post should talk about what you hoped to accomplish and provide an evaluation of how well your implementation matched your ambitions. If your meditation response is implemented with code, your post should also include a link to the source for my review. (If you feel uncomfortable sharing your meditation documentation with the general public, please talk to me and we can make alternate arrangements.)

Topical connections presentations

Each student must deliver a 5–10 minute presentation on a topic related to (but not explicitly covered) in class. Topics can include individual works of art or design, individual artists or practitioners, areas of study, etc. (E.g., I would welcome presentations on the Fox Sisters, crystallography, the Mersenne Twister, Bigfoot, etc.) We’ll make a list of possible topics collaboratively in class.

The purpose of these presentations is to encourage students to make connections between their own areas of interest and the content of the class.

Final project

The final project has no set requirements, but I will evaluate your project based on how well it demonstrates your mastery of the technical and conceptual content of the class. You must document your final project in a blog post and include a link to your source code. Additionally, you will present your final project on one of the two final sessions of class. Plan on a presentation that lasts from ten to fifteen minutes.

Grading policy

Component Percentage
Attendance and participation 25%
Meditation responses 5 x 8% (40%)
Topical connection presentation 10%
Final project 25%

Here’s the breakdown of how grades correspond with percentages. Note that the completion of all components of the class is necessary to earn a passing grade.

Grade Percentage
A 90 to 100
B 80 to 89
C 70 to 79
D 60 to 69
F Below 60

For students taking the class as pass/fail (i.e., all ITP students), anything below a B (79% and below) will be graded as a fail. More information on ITP’s grading policy here.