Electronic Rituals, Oracles and Fortune Telling

NYU ITP, Spring 2017. Instructor: Allison Parrish. Send me e-mail.

Turn in your homework 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.

Ethos, methodology and structure

In this class, you’ll be making projects related to the practice of divination in response to weekly prompts. Each week we’ll discuss a topic related to divination, and the weekly prompts will concern the material discussed in class. In-class time will be devoted to giving feedback on your fellow students’ projects, along with discussions of assigned reading. The balance of in-class time will be devoted to lecture, exercises and technical tutorials.

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 divination into their own practices as makers, designers and artists.

This is a class in applied 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. 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. 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, but these are assigned simply to help us better contextualize our experiences, not to deny their reality. We take a position of radical subjunctive “para-skepticism,” in which we are mindful of the usefulness of empirical approaches but embrace other ways of knowing and accept without question other people’s reports of their interior states and experiences.


For the second 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.

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 is defined as representing someone else’s code (or other procedure) as your own. (We will, of course, liberally be using text that other people have written as source material for our code and procedures—this does not violate the academic integrity policy. You are, however, expected to cite the sources of these materials where possible.)

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 six deliverables: four weekly meditations, a contribution to the class bibliography, and a final project.


The weekly meditations concern the technical and conceptual content discussed in a particular class session, and are due at the beginning of the following session. Work turned in after the deadline will not be accepted. The form and content of each meditation response will be determined by the weekly descriptions in the schedule below. You must write a 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 don’t want to share your source code publicly, you can send it to me instead by e-mail as an attachment.) Weekly meditation responses will be the subject of in-class feedback sessions.

Bibliography contribution

Over the course of the class, you must contribute at least three readings or links to projects related to the content of the course. Add your contributions to this Google Doc.

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 the final day of class. Plan on a presentation that lasts from eight to twelve minutes.

Grading policy

Component Percentage
Attendance and participation 30%
Meditation responses 4 x 10% (40%)
Bibliography contribution 10%
Final project 20%

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.


Session 1 (2017-03-08): Ritual

  • Introduction and syllabus
  • Divination: Concepts and directions
  • Ritual and spirituality
  • Slides


To be discussed 2017-03-22.

On ritual in digital contexts:

On religion, spirituality and exoticism:

On academic approaches to divination:

  • Peek, Philip M. “Introduction: The study of divination, present and past.” From African divination systems: Ways of knowing. Georgetown University Press, 1991. (PDF available in shared Google Drive folder.)
  • Optional: Curry, Patrick. “Introduction.” From Curry (ed.), Divination: Perspectives for a New Millennium [Ashgate, 2010], pp. 1-9

On specific forms of divination (both optional but interesting!):

Meditation #1

Due 2017-03-22. Imagine an “electronic” ritual and prototype the necessary systems to perform the ritual. Then perform the ritual and document the process. (This can be a ritual that you perform on your own, or you can involve other people.) Your imagined scenario can be speculative (e.g., a science fiction), critical, mystical, oriented toward self-care, etc. What effect does your ritual have in the world? On its participants?

Session 2 (2017-03-22): Fortune telling as collaborative storytelling


To be discussed 2017-03-29: On prediction and prophecy.

Meditation #2

Due 2017-03-29. Invent your own “oracle deck.” Your deck doesn’t have to be a physical object (though it can be). Keeping in mind the formal characteristics of cleromancy discussed in class, consider how digital media can complicate/diminish/augment the parts and processes of a reading. (Some questions to get you started: Who gets to participate? Can a computer program be a “reader”? A “querent”? What can a “card” be? What can a “deck” be?)

A few examples:


Session 3 (2017-03-29): Prophecy and prediction


To be discussed 2017-04-05: On automatic writing.

Meditation #3

Due 2017-04-05. Invent an “-omancy,” or a form of divination/prophecy based on observing and interpreting natural events. Your reading of “natural” should make some reference to digital/electronic/computational media. (What counts as a “natural event” on the Internet? What’s the electronic equivalent of phrenology, from both a physical computing perspective and a data analysis perspective? Does it count as “interpretation” if it’s being performed by a computer program?) I’m especially interested in responses that take the form of purposefully inaccurate data analysis.

A few examples:


Session 4 (2017-04-05): Mediums and messages

  • Meditation presentations
  • Reading discussion
  • Final project pitches
  • Clairvoyance, spirit boards and automatic writing. Slides.
  • In-class exercise: Markov chains with RiTa.js; grammar-based generation with Tracery.


To be discussed 2017-04-12. On randomness. Consider: What does it mean for something to be “random”? What is the phenomenology of randomness—how does it “feel”? Can a computer produce truly “random” events? If so, is it possible to create varieties of randomness that have distinct qualities and produce distinct affects?


Meditation #4

Due 2017-04-12. Choose one of the following options:

  • Make a prototype of an electronic spirit board or other method for producing language or communication from unconscious/subconscious/collective gesture. (You can use procedural methods like those discussed in class, or invent your own method.) Questions to consider: How does your spirit board produce “coherence” (if, in fact, it does produce coherence)? Who is participating?
  • Create a psychic “experiment” with your interpretation of an electronic equivalent of Zener Cards. Document your methodology and your results. (What is it possible to be “psychic” about in a digital context?)


Session 5 (2017-04-12): Randomness

  • Meditation presentations
  • Reading discussion
  • Randomness
  • In-class exercise: Devising methods of randomness

Notes and resources

Session 6 (2017-04-19): Final project presentations

  • Final project presentations