Project Proposal: Reading the Cards

For this project, I would like to investigate mysticism in computation, with a particular emphasis on tarot cards. I’ll look at a number of different online divination communities, keeping in mind Morrison’s work on the intimate public. Depending on the malleability of the medium in which I present this, I may also look at spontaneous myth-creation on the internet, and oral storytelling as interactive fiction.

I believe that tarot cards can be understood as a form of computation and interactive storytelling. Some of my reasoning comes from Maggie Steifvater’s Illuminating The Prophecy. She writes about tarot cards (emphasis mine):

I love stories. I love them in all forms: in writing, in art, in music. I love how humans everywhere feel compelled to fold and carve and structure events into a narrative — we’ve been doing it for as long as we’ve been around. We mutter cautionary tales to remind others what frightens us, whisper love stories to give form to our hope, and shout heroic epics to underline what we believe in. (1)

There are three basic components of a tarot reading — the cards, the querent, and the reader. The cards are essentially units of meaning. The reader’s job is to combine and interpret those units in order to create a satisfactory answer to the querent’s question. In this model, the querent acts as the user, the cards as the software, and the reader as the parser.

I think that this approach will be interesting on its own, but it will also be a helpful model for looking at stories as movable units of meaning. This was once fairly standard. (Milman Parry has some fascinating work about the system of specific phrases that Homeric work relied on, for example. [Ong, 30]). By fixing words on a page and allowing for identical copies of a work to be disseminated, print technology helped create the idea of stories as static collections of words; the digital age is beginning to change this. Words are movable on a page. Languages such as XML can isolate various parts of meaning that are present in a word — breaking down a name into the gender, age, and occupation that it represents, for example.

Tarot cards are also interesting because they are an appropriated medium — they originated as a non-mystical card game. I strongly suspect that their popularity and transformation into a divinatory tool is related to trade and to print technologies. (Today, the printing of several tarot decks has been funded through Kickstarter.) Those are avenues I’ll explore through academic books and journals.

On more concrete level, online divination communities are interesting because they take a nontraditional and casual approach to divination. Their work also affected by their form — for example, a common practice is a blogger to post a photograph of several facedown cards at the beginning of the day. Viewers choose one of the facedown cards to focus on. When the cards are flipped over at the end of the day, that is considered to be their reading. There are also communal activities — for example, during one month, a group of bloggers committed to creating their own decks.

To investigate this project, I’ll look into both academic sources and writing from communities. I also have some personal immersion to draw from. After Danielle’s presentation, I’ve also set up an experimental blog at Medium.


Steifvater, Maggie. Illuminating the Prophecy. Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications, 2015. Print.

Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge, 1982. Web. (2015)


4 thoughts on “Project Proposal: Reading the Cards

  1. This is a fascinating project, Matt. I find the idea of the cards as code and the reader as parser extremely interesting. How does ambiguity fit into this understanding, though? To my mind, ambiguity is essential to the ability to create coherent narratives out of something like a sequence of Tarot cards, whereas parsing software code requires the elimination of ambiguity, although code itself can do things like introduce elements of randomness or probability. So I think that is an aspect of the analogy that you’d need to work through. I like the idea of considering it as a form of interactive storytelling too–what’s the role of the querent, though: selecting cards? (I have to admit I’ve never come across these sites so I am intrigued.) Tying Tarot cards into the rise and fall of print culture is also fascinating: I can see how you’d be interested in pursuing that alongside the other aspects of cards, but realize you have bitten off a lot here if you add in the blogging context to boot, so you may find that you’re going to have to drop something in order to work your way through it carefully. Great swirling set of ideas. I will resist the temptation to predict anything in particular.


    • Thank you!

      The querent is the person for whom the reading is preformed. Usually they’re asking a question, but not always, which gets interesting in cases like the online card selection where they’re contributing minimal input.

      I wasn’t thinking much about ambiguity when I was writing this proposal, but it keeps coming up in the research! I also think it’s definitely one of the most important things. Something else that’s emerging as a consistent theme is the use of the cards (and particularly the ambiguity inherent in them) for facilitating communal storytelling in marginalized communities. It’s such a surprisingly prominent and important thread that I think I’m going to let it guide the research, and let things drop as necessary.


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