Electronic Rituals, Oracles and Fortune Telling

Electronic Rituals, Oracles and Fortune Telling

NYU IMA, Fall 2023. 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.

Expectations, 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.

Note that this is an elective class. You could choose to be somewhere else, but you chose to be here. My responsibility as an instructor is to present the course material in an accessible and engaging way, and provide students with an opportunity to hold themselves accountable for learning that material. It is not my responsibility to make you curious about the material—that’s something you need to bring to the table yourself.


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.

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. This bibliography is available online (PDF).

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.

Assignments and projects

This class has six deliverables:

  • Five meditations
  • Final project


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 thoroughly document each meditation response. Suggested methods for authoring and sharing your documentation include a personal blog, a NYU-hosted WordPress blog, or (as a last resort) a Google Docs document. Your documentation 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.

Note that I’ll be sharing the spreadsheet with everyone’s meditation responses with the entire class. If your response contains sensitive content that you’d prefer not to share in this way, let me know and we can make alternate arrangements.

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.

Evaluation rubric

Work will be evaluated according to the following criteria: compliance, gregariousness, and stubbornness.

  • An assignment is compliant if it meets the brief.
  • An assignment is gregarious if it makes connections between course content and the rest of the world; e.g. your own interests as an artist, designer, technologist, etc. and/or other fields of research and practice.
  • An assignment is stubborn if it provides evidence that its maker was opinionated about what they wanted to accomplish and did not let small setbacks (whether conceptual or technical) deter them this end.

Each assignment will be assigned a score of 0, 1 or 2 in these categories, in accordance with the extent to which the assignment demonstrates the properties described.

  • 0: No evidence of quality
  • 1: Meets expectations
  • 2: Shows exceptional effort

Each category will be weighted equally when assigning a final score to each assignment.

Grading policy

Component Percentage
Attendance and participation 25%
Meditation responses 5 × 10% (50%)
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


Statement of academic integrity

Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work as though it were your own. More specifically, plagiarism is to present as your own: A sequence of words quoted without quotation marks from another writer or a paraphrased passage from another writer’s work or facts, ideas or images composed by someone else.

Statement of principle

The core of the educational experience at the Tisch School of the Arts is the creation of original academic and artistic work by students for the critical review of faculty members. It is therefore of the utmost importance that students at all times provide their instructors with an accurate sense of their current abilities and knowledge in order to receive appropriate constructive criticism and advice. Any attempt to evade that essential, transparent transaction between instructor and student through plagiarism or cheating is educationally self-defeating and a grave violation of Tisch School of the Arts community standards. For all the details on plagiarism, please refer to page 10 of the Tisch School of the Arts, Policies and Procedures Handbook.

Statement on accessibility

Please feel free to make suggestions to your instructor about ways in which this class could become more accessible to you. Academic accommodations are available for students with documented disabilities. Please contact the Moses Center for Students with Disabilities at 212 998-4980 for further information.

Statement on counseling and wellness

Your health and safety are a priority at NYU. If you experience any health or mental health issues during this course, we encourage you to utilize the support services of the 24/7 NYU Wellness Exchange 212-443-9999. Also, all students who may require an academic accommodation due to a qualified disability, physical or mental, please register with the Moses Center 212-998-4980. Please let your instructor know if you need help connecting to these resources.

Statement on use of electronic devices

Laptops will be an essential part of the course and may be used in class during workshops and for taking notes in lecture. Laptops must be closed during class discussions and student presentations. Phone use in class is strictly prohibited unless directly related to a presentation of your own work or if you are asked to do so as part of the curriculum.

Statement on Title IX

Tisch School of the Arts to dedicated to providing its students with a learning environment that is rigorous, respectful, supportive and nurturing so that they can engage in the free exchange of ideas and commit themselves fully to the study of their discipline. To that end Tisch is committed to enforcing University policies prohibiting all forms of sexual misconduct as well as discrimination on the basis of sex and gender. Detailed information regarding these policies and the resources that are available to students through the Title IX office can be found by using the following link: Title IX at NYU.