From Tarot to Instagram: The Card as Dream Machine

tarots

/–––Before the material nature of algorithmic processes hid within the miniature circuits of our personal computers, it was much easier to understand programming as a material form of media inscription. Since the beginning of the 19th century, this medium was the punched card on which a program was written by means of a mechanical punch system. With the advent of digital computers, one card became the equivalent of one line of machine code. One deck of cards was one program.[1] But this sifting through media archeology tends to unearth ever older strata of our technological unconscious. The card thus shows itself as a medium which can do two things: first it provides the means to trace and compile databases, and second it allows the mediation of a previously programmed sequence of (mostly computational) processes. Cards are in this sense not only a medium for compiling information, but their sequential reading also creates the protocol for recursive logic which is the basis of all algorithmic functions.

And so I ask: what kind of computer are tarot cards?

–/––

We will take the Merriam-Webster definition of an algorithm, which defines it as “a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end.”[2] Although originally this term was derived from the name of the Persian mathematician Muhammad Ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi (c. 750 – 850) whose name became Latinized as Algorithmi,[3] the term algorithm in its present sense started to be used in the English language during the nineteenth century.[4] It can be defined as a set of discrete instruction which allow the fulfillment of a certain end.

The first predecessor of the punched cards of twentieth-century cybernetics were cards which determined the program for a textile loom.[5] The cards were used in the so-called Jacquard loom, which was an improved, automated textile loom developed by the Frenchman Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752 – 1834) in 1801.[6] Jacquard’s invention improved the previous looms insofar as it provided them with a mountable head which employed punched cards whose apertures dictated the movements of the individual warp threads throughout the weaving process. These instructions for the loom may be considered the very first program insofar as it allowed for the automatic weaving of threads in algorithmic sequences. In practice, this meant that the machine was programmed during a number of hours or days, but once the automatic weaving process was initiated, it was twenty times as fast as previous looms,[7] which furthermore needed two people to work them. For his invention, Jacquard was later awarded the Legion of Honor.[8]

Jacquard’s looms made a fundamental impression on the Englishman Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871) who used the principle of punched cards for his Analytical Engine,[9] whose technical specs were for the first time presented in 1837. It is considered the first mechanical computer ever invented. One of its first programmers was Ada, countess of Lovelace who was an able mathematician,[10] and who helped with the development of the first program for Babbage’s new computing machine. Although the waning interest of the British government and the project’s large costs prevented it from ever being actually built, its specifications describe the first universal computer which could compute any mathematical process on the basis of proper instructions. These were again fed into it via the punched card, inspired by the Jacquard loom. It is here, at the overlap of textile weaving and the compiling of numerical tables, that we find the early beginning of programming, and Ada Lovelace wrote to her colleague Babbage: “We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.”[11]

But cards are equally a means for keeping information, and were used in the development of the first modern databases: in 1890, cards were the material which fed the records of the US 1890 general census.[12] The system consisted in the punching of the registry card in order to store information, and was the invention of Hermann Hollerith whose Tabulating Machine Company was, in 1911, merged with the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, which finally became IBM in 1924.The punched cards were used in the United States for both programming and data storage until the 1980s, when the technology was superseded by the magnetic tape.[13]

The card as a dynamic medium of inscription able to compile and store information is yet still older than Babbage’s application of “weaving algebraic patterns” and is older than the Jacquard loom. The origin of cards can be traced to northern Italy of the late Gothic period.

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Although the exact date of origin of the tarot cards is unknown, the decks of 78 cards were first made at the court of the Milanese duke Filippo Maria Visconti (1392 – 1447) who, along with his son-in-law Francesco Sforza (1401 – 1466), commissioned the creation of the oldest extant tarot deck, the Visconti-Sforza tarot. The first mention of the so-called “tarocchi” comes from 1505,[14] but tarot cards at that time were merely used for playing card games at court and were not in any way used for the purposes of divination. Cards from 15 incomplete Visconti-Sforza decks have survived until today, and together they make one (almost) complete set.[15]

A different set of tarots – the Sola-Busca tarot – came from Venice and was first made in 1491. It is this tarot which, in 1909, was shown in London at the British Museum where it was seen by the mystic E. A. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith who then went on to make one of the most important contemporary tarot decks – the Smith-Waite (also called Raider-Waite) tarot. It is also in the Sola Busca tarot that we for the first time find hermetic symbolism,[16] and the newest findings in the field propose that the deck was made for the Venice-based historian and alchemist Marino Sanuto the Younger.[17]

Tarots today are inextricably linked with the connotation of fortunetelling and divination. This method of use however came only with the French occult renaissance, specifically the work of Antoine Court de Gébelin (1728 – 1784) whose nine-volume opus Le Monde Primitif Analysé et Comparé avec le Monde Moderne (1781) explains how once, while visiting an acquaintance of his, he saw a group of Parisian madams playing the tarots. At that time, these cards were still an exotic item in Paris, and Court de Gébelin was at that moment inspired by the notion that tarot cards are in fact The Book of Thoth, the long-lost, mythical book of Egyptian hermeticism.[18] The book was, at least according to Gébelin, remediated into a pack of cards, was brought to Europe by travelling “gypsies,”[19] and this false hypothesis appears in the cultural database until today.

Gébelin’s work thus framed the opinion that tarot cards are more than a mere game, and that they contain forgotten or forbidden knowledge – if only a person possessed the key to read into them.

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Tarot cards are often employed within the context of psychological work, specifically Jungian psychoanalysis,[20] and it is in this game of signification, archetypes and cultural constellations that I ask again: what kind of computer are tarot cards? 

A deck of tarot cards usually contains 22 “Major Arcana“ (e.g. the Fool, the Emperor, the Lovers, Death…), “Minor Arcana” or “pip cards” of four suits each (e.g. swords, wands, pentacles and cups) where each suit has ten cards, and the “court cards” (page, knight, queen, king). We can consider the deck of tarots to be a database of cards which, instead of carrying apertures and punched holes which of the individual lines of algorithmic instructions, carry various symbols and symbolic assemblages intended for the human eye and mind. Doctor Inna Semetska speaks of memetic clusters which the cards and their reading make accessible to the reader, writing that “the physical implementation of the archetypes in Tarot pictures supplies an actual body to an otherwise virtual (non-physical) ‘meme machine’.”[21]

This database of 78 cards is read in a prescribed sequence (an algorithm) in which the individual positions of the cards serve as placeholders corresponding to a specific function. There exist various sequences of reading – the more elaborate “Celtic cross” comprising of 10 or 11 cards, or the highly minimalist approach of Camelia Elias who uses a quick sequence of three cards; the possibilities of the underlying syntax of reading are many, and with a bit of practice the tarot reader can fine-tune old methods or program their own.

In the Jungian sense, tarots are a machine for projections; not only a “meme machine,” but also a ‘dream machine.’ Semetska writes that “Tarot may be considered as performing a Jungian compensatory function, similar to dreams in the analytic process.”[22] Much like a significant dream helps us understand the contours of what lies on the edges of our unconscious, so do tarot cards help us project and crystallize our intuitive understanding of the world by means of assembling various constellations and semiotic relationships. Semetska further writes that “When a reader interprets the meaning of a sequence of cards, the client does experience certain affect and emotion. Her feedback, triggered by the associative process, becomes a means of reality checking at the elevated level of consciousness.”[23] Semetska understands this process as part of the “road to individuation”[24] which constitutes one of the goals of Jungian psychoanalysis.

Individuation in the broader sense of the term is a central aspect of the user experience in general, as our technological interfaces offer us a very similar aesthetics as a tarot assemblage – the images of the digital environment flitter before our eyes much like the constellation of cards, and interpolate us as a subject/user within a specific context of reading and pragmatics. The digital interface, with its forever mutating database of and streams of images, present us with a chain of signification which glides over the surface, offering us information – swipe up, swipe right. In the digital sphere, meaning, as the refuge of the symbol rather than the sign, often becomes an irrelevant appendix whereas in the reading of the tarot, it provides the pragmatic context for its initiation. 

In this context, it is also interesting to think of the iconography of the tarot, whose memes have evolved through the centuries of western history and, on an unconscious level, still reside within the treasure trove of Symbolic representation (at least according to the Jungian tradition). It is these depths of the shared unconscious that the Jungian dream draws from, and from which it creates a positive feedback loop between the card as a historically determined technology and its contemporary human user.

This text was written for the exhibition Být sněný / Being Dreamed (Tereza Darmovzalová, Filip Hauer, Marek Hlaváč, Tomáš Kajánek), 12 March – 6 June, 2020 at GAMPA (http://www.gmpardubice.cz/en/).


[1] Dale Fisk, “Programming with Punched Cards,” Columbia.edu, 5/2/2020<http://www.columbia.edu/cu/computinghistory/fisk.pdf>.

[2] ‘algorithm,’ Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 5/2/2020<https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/algorithm>.

[3] Al-Khwarizmi mostly studied linear and quadratic formulae, and is also considered the inventor of algebra..

[4] ‘algorithm,’ Online Etymology Dictionary, 5/2/2020<https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=algorithm>.

[5] Kevin Driscoll, “From Punched Cards to ‘Big Data’: A Social History of Database Populism,” communication +1 (vol. 14, no. 4, 2012).

[6] “1801: Punched cards control Jacquard loom,” Computer History, 5/2/2020<https://www.computerhistory.org/storageengine/punched-cards-control-jacquard-loom/>.

[7] Benjamin Gross, “The French Connection,” Science History Institute, 10/11/2015, 5/2/2020<https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/magazine/the-french-connection>. 

[8] Gross

[9] Sadie Plant, Zeroes and Ones (Fourth Estate, 1997).

[10] Ada Lovelace was also the only legitimate offspring of Lord Byron, and also gave the name to the Ada programming language (*1980).

[11] Gross; see also Sarah Laskow, “Before Computers, People Programmed Looms,” The Atlantic, 16/9/20145/2/2020<https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/09/before-computers-people-programmed-looms/380163/>.

[12] Driscoll; see also Kellee Blake, “First in the Path of the Firemen: The Fate of the 1890 Population Census, Part 1,” Prologue (vol. 8, č. 26, 1996) 5/2/2020<https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1996/spring/1890-census-1.html>.

[13] Fisk

[14] “Il segreto dei segreti: I tarocchi Sola Busca,” Pinacoteca di Brera, 5/2/2020< http://pinacotecabrera.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/document9.pdf>. 

[15] “The Visconti Sforza Tarot, c. 1460” The World of Playing Cards, 5/2/2020 <https://www.wopc.co.uk/italy/Visconti>.

[16] “Il segreto dei segreti“

[17] “Il segreto dei segreti“

[18] Helen Farley, “Evolution of the ‘Mother’ in Tarot,” Hecate (vol. 32, no. 2, 2006) 75.

[19] Antoine Court de Gébelin, “The Game of Tarots,” Donald Tyson via The Wayback Machine, 5/2/2020 <https://web.archive.org/web/20111004232937/http://www.donaldtyson.com/gebelin.html>.

[20] Sallie Nichols, Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey (United States: Red Wheel Weiser, 1984).

[21] Inna Semetska, “Information and Signs: The Language of Images,” Entropy (vol. 12, 2010) 535.

[22] Inna Semetska, “Tarot as a Projective Technique,” Spiritual and Health International (vol. 7, 2006) 192.

[23] Semetska, “Tarot as a Projective Technique” 190.

[24] Semetska, “Tarot as a Projective Technique” 190.

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