Electronic Rituals, Oracles and Fortune Telling

Electronic Rituals, Oracles and Fortune Telling / Spring 2020 Schedule

Syllabus here.

With a few exceptions, all readings should be accessible via the hyperlinks provided, as long as you are using a computer connected to the NYU network. Alternate methods of obtaining the readings will be discussed in class.

Turn in meditations and projects here.

Session 01: Introduction

Date: 2020-01-28.

  • Introduction and syllabus
  • Divination: Concepts and directions

Reading assigned

To be discussed in session 02.

Questions to guide your reading: What is a “third place” and what does it have to do with ritual? Do you agree with the idea that “if people take something as real, it is real in its consequences”? Is the idea of “plabor” applicable outside the realm of digital games? Do you agree with Altglas’ characterizations of spiritual bricolage and exoticism? Can you think of examples that Altglas doesn’t mention? What “rituals” do you perform with your electronic devices? (Or would you categorize the behaviors that Alexander describes as “ritual” in the first place?)


  • Wallendorf, Melanie, and Eric J. Arnould. “‘We Gather Together’: Consumption Rituals of Thanksgiving Day.” Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 18, no. 1, 1991, pp. 13–31. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2489481.

Session 02: Ritual and society

Date: 2020-02-04.

Meditation #1 assigned

Due at the beginning of session 03.

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?

If you need more structure for your process or some ideas about how to proceed, try How do you design a ritual? and About ritual design from the Ritual Design Lab.

Session 03: Cleromancy

Date: 2020-02-11.

  • Meditation workshop
  • Introduction to cleromancy. Slides here.

Reading assigned

To be discussed in session 04. Calvino constructs a narrative from a Tarot spread and details the history of Tarot and his obsession with it as a system, outside of any spiritual affordances. Does Tarot make you feel the same way it makes Calvino feel? What can you take from his approach? Love enters into a discussion of how divination techniques intersect with culture, ritual, and identity. Temper et al. build an oracle deck drawing from the symbolism of the Tarot to support a research method. Is this approach productive, appropriate, generative?


  • Greer, Mary. “Origins of Cartomancy (Playing Card Divination).” Mary K. Greer’s Tarot Blog, 1 Apr. 2008, https://marykgreer.com/2008/04/01/origins-of-divination-with-playing-cards/.
  • Semetsky, Inna. “Tarot and Projective Hypothesis.” Re-Symbolization of the Self: Human Development and Tarot Hermeneutic, SensePublishers, 2011, pp. 73–83, doi:10.1007/978-94-6091-421-8_7.
  • Semetsky, Inna. “Stories Lives Tell.” Re-Symbolization of the Self: Human Development and Tarot Hermeneutic, SensePublishers, 2011, pp. 85–144, doi:10.1007/978-94-6091-421-8_8. (NOTE: You only need to read the first two or three case studies in this chapter.)
  • Tedlock, Barbara. “Divination as a Way of Knowing: Embodiment, Visualisation, Narrative, and Interpretation.” Folklore, vol. 112, no. 2, 2001, pp. 189–97. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1260832.

Session 04: Fortune telling as collaborative storytelling

Date: 2020-02-25. (Note: Class was cancelled on 2020-02-18.)

Meditation #2 assigned

Due at the beginning of session 05.

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 05: Prophecy and prediction

Date: 2020-03-03.

  • Guest talk!
  • Meditation workshop
  • Omens, augury, phrenology, predictions, interpretations
  • In-class exercise: Random birth chart

Reading assigned

To be discussed in session 06. Aphek and Tobin offer a somewhat contentious and skeptical overview of the “semiotic structure” of astrology, based on close analysis of horoscope texts and transcripts of consultations with astrologers. Does their characterization of the structure of the horoscope (“positive… precedes negative, and then is immediately mitigated… followed by additional positive information”) ring true to you? Does it seem representative of “fortune-telling in general”? Hamilton’s empirical study shows that people exposed to Sun sign astrology come to identify with their own sign. Hamilton states that “strong belief in the validity of astrology is apparently not necessary for these effects to occur,” and suggests several mechanisms through which this effect obtains. Do you think that “the incorporation of astrology-based information into… long-term self concepts” should be “cause for concern”? Finally, Agüera y Arcas et al.’s article digs into the inner workings of a machine learning model intended to distinguish criminals from non-criminals. Do you agree with the comparison they draw between machine learning technology and physiognomy? (Are statistical models just a form of divination?)

Optional, on astrology, ontology and identity:

Optional, on algorithmic physiognomy:

Session 06: Astrology and dream interpretation

Date: 2020-03-10.

Meditation #3 assigned

Due at the beginning of session 07 (after Spring Break).

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 07: Mediums and messages

Date: 2020-03-24.

Related work:

Reading assigned

To be discussed in Session 08. Wooffitt’s chapters give a very thorough and detailed analysis of the linguistic structure of psychic-sitter interactions, using close transcriptions and conversational analysis as a methodology. He claims that a “three turn sequence” (implied claim, acceptance, attribution) is at the heart of these interactions. Do you agree with his conclusions and his methodology? Newton’s piece in The Verge relates the narrative and implementation details of a memorial chatbot. Characterize the formal differences in the kinds of interactions described in Wooffitt and interactions with a memorial chatbot. The “Hertzian Space” chapter from Dunne’s Hertzian Tales describes many artworks that make use of invisible electromagnetic phenomena (like electricity and radio waves), in some cases explicitly drawing comparisons between these artworks’ methodologies and the occult. In what sense are these artworks a kind of telesthesia?


American Artist’s essay describes a memorial chatbot with political aims. Hartman’s chapter talks about how randomly generated text necessitates the same kind of hermeneutics as an encounter with the Oracle. Romano’s article succinctly describes the “ideomotor effect” and how it is responsible for certain kinds of talking board experiences. Finally, the Wooffitt chapters build on the arguments he made in the assigned chapters.

Session 08: Automatic writing

Date: 2020-03-31.

  • Reading discussion
  • Language models as necromancy
  • Quick techniques for text generation and chatbots

Meditation #4 assigned

Due in session 09. Choose one of the following options:

  • Experiment with language model-based text generation. (Train your own model or just play around with some of the example implementations below.)
  • Make a prototype of an electronic spirit board or other method for facilitating automatic writing (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 09: The aesthetics of randomness

Date: 2020-04-07.

  • Meditation workshop
  • Introductory notes on randomness. These notes take the form of a Jupyter Notebook, which interweaves code and text. The code is in Python, but you don’t have to know Python to follow along. If you want to mess around with the code but don’t have a working Python installation on your computer, you can use this version on Binder.

Other Code examples and resources:

Readings assigned


Session 10: Computer-generated randomness

Date: 2020-04-14.

Meditation #5 assigned (optional!)

Due at the beginning of session 11. This assignment has two parts.

First, produce your own implementation of digital randomness, without using any pre-existing implementation (e.g., you can’t use the random() or noise() functions in p5.js). Consider mathematical solutions and physical solutions. Aim for a generator that produces randomness with a uniform distribution.

Second, incorporate an alternative random number generator into one of your existing projects. You can either use the generator you implemented for step one or a generator that produces random numbers with a distribution other than uniform. Be curious and creative!


Session 11: Hexes, spells, amulets and talismans

Date: 2020-04-21.

  • Meditation workshop
  • Final project check-in
  • Amulets and talismans
  • Deck from class

Session 12: Collaborative work day

Note: Instead of class this week, I will be scheduling 30-min sessions with each student for individualized feedback on final project ideas.

Sessions 13 & 14: Final projects

Dates: 2020-04-28, 2020-05-05.

  • Final project presentations