Natalie Funk, MS Candidate, Information Design Technology, LCC  
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 *  The Waste Land Tarot - Thesis Project Proposal

For my Master's project, I intend to create a generative, digital version of a Tarot deck that highlights themes and illustrates concepts from T.S. Eliot's poem, "The Waste Land."

In his book, Mechanical Occult: Automatism, Modernism and the Specter of Politics, Alan Ramon Clinton uses Aleister Crowley’s Thoth tarot as an aleatory framework to psychoanalyze Eliot’s life and work. Using biographical information and analysis of his poems, Clinton creates a portrait of the poet which he then regards through the lens of the tarot. Clinton performs the role of medium and draws a 15 card spread which offers archetypes to be compared against themes in Eliot’s work. For example, he draws the Queen of Cups and the Universe card in the position of “Psychological Basis.” He then applies intuitive observations inspired by the card to fuel discussion about the poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” By employing this spontaneous method of approaching literary work, Clinton sees himself as “using the historical avant-garde as a model for adding the element of chance to criticism itself.”

Random elements and the interpretation of chance. This can be contrasted against the strong degree of control that the Modernist poets maintained over their work, even though it was also experimental. Despite its current great length and scope, “The Waste Land” benefited from a very thorough pruning by Pound before it was considered fit for publication. Though it gives the impression of many elements arranged by chance – overheard conversations, snippets of Biblical references, phrases from Shakespeare – the poem is the product of years of work and craftsmanship. Yet there is something to be gained by acceding to Eliot’s mise-en-scene, by appreciating the sensation of being an onlooker, a flaneur who is exposed to a myriad of happenstance human personalities and expressions.

On page 117 of the Norton Critical Edition, Eliot claims that “The poet’s mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.” A few pages later, he continues to illustrate his metaphor “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.” Let us then use these ideas as a model for a kind of experimental digital poetry machine. Eliot himself suggests that, “in art there should be interpenetration and metamorphosis. Even the Golden Bough can be read in two ways: as a collection of entertaining myths, or as a revelation of that vanished mind of which our mind is a continuation.” (Eliot, quoted in North, 132). Suppose that a model of a digital unconscious could be made that allows the ideas of the Tarot and The Waste Land to interpenetrate, creating a kind of crucible where symbolic meanings can be combined in the form of play with dynamic Tarot cards.

Eliot’s poem is a work of literature that is richly allusive and full of symbolism. The Tarot deck of cards is a cultural artifact that shares these qualities. Both examples have been accused of being too “arcane” to be appreciated by the casual participant. By isolating, examining and recombining the symbols belonging to both these artifacts, a new grammar can be produced that sheds some light on these these subjects and allows them to be used by a wider audience.

Modernism and automation. Automatons and poetry? Though the practices of spiritualism at the turn of the century were not of personal interest to the majority of Modernist poets, the techniques of automatic writing and divination for amusement were considered worthy methods of artistic production by the surrealists. The “…Surrealist project of using the dream logic of the unconscious to liberate one’s consciousness” is alluded to (Clinton 28). And he mentions the idea of “bringing the machine into the process of production itself. …Technology’s fundamental automatism, its potential to continue producing long after the control exacted by human consciousness has been relinquished.”

The role of the medium in a Tarot reading. Séance as a way of contacting the dead, much like the literary summoning of the dead which was performed by Dante, Eliot, Pound and Joyce, to name a few. It was Dante who pointed the way to the juxtaposition of the medieval inferno and modern city life. In the poem, “The Waste Land,” Eliot himself is performing the role of medium, channeling the multiple voices that haunt the work, leading us on a descent into the unconscious and the disconnected entities that abide there.

The advantage of playing with these symbols in a digital medium is that they can be combined in novel ways to create new meanings. Depending on the order and arrangement of the cards, complex interpretations can result. The cards are active and evolving. The Celtic Cross layout is a traditional positioning of the cards, which may be a good place to start. Ordinarily, this means drawing ten cards, with six cards on the left arranged in a cross shape, and a column of four cards to the right of it. I may opt to do just the cross of 5/6 on the left, depending on how processor-intensive this turns out to be. [Will post a link with diagrams here].

My plan with this thesis project is to map networks of symbols between the poem and the historical Tarot to create a novel system of visual elements with generative properties. By playing the game, the player is essentially learning how to use the system expressively. The plan at this point is to use Java to create a file that the user can download and run on their own machine - a web applet would be cool, but I have a feeling this is going to be a large file in the end, and may not work optimally over the web. I may play with Flash a little over the holidays to experiment with its game design capabilities, but my classmates have warned me that Actionscript is not very user-friendly. Java development in the Processing environment is probably where I'll be most comfortable.

At the beginning of the game, the player sees a deck of cards shuffled and spread on the screen in a fan, from which a set number can be chosen. Each card is displayed with an accompanying intepretation, which might contain a phrase from the poem, and perhaps phrases from the works of literature that Eliot quotes in the poem. The images that appear on the card are linked to a number of such descriptive meanings, so that if say, the image of a chair is repeated, those associations will also reappear. There will be some animation taking place on the card itself, and the symbols might be allowed to combine to produce novel associations.

I do like the idea of incorporating some techniques of Freudian psychoanalytic dream work like condensation, displacement, representability and intelligibility. I still need to read more about this before I know how exactly it will fit in, but I agree that Freud is relevant both to Eliot's poem and the work of the Surrealists. I imagine that a Freudian framework may help to provide a basis for some of the behaviors of the cards. Also, the use of conceptual blending as a technique is going to be important in procedurally combining the symbols and images of my little Tarot world. Originally, I had envisioned a simple collage process, where the disparate pieces would be layered somewhat randomly in proximity to one another on the card. While I was presenting my ideas about the project to my Games class last week, we discussed using the conceptual blending approach, which may be preferable to collage. The idea is that three images, for example, a duck, a squid, and a steeple could be integrated into one object that reflects certain properties of each, resulting in some kind of amphibious tentacled pillar. Sounds pretty surrealistic. There are some links to cognitive architecture theories and I think artificial intelligence where the conceptual blending idea is being implemented. With some research, I may be able to adapt these approaches to my project.

From these cards that have been selected, the player is able to isolate and place in a workspace the symbols that she chooses, which can then be recombined into a card of the players own making. [optional or maybe jettison - (Perhaps at the beginning of the game session, a poetic phrase is generated, which the player must strive to reproduce by arranging symbols according to the meanings that have been displayed. Much like the game Mastermind, in which the player must reconstruct a sequence of colors and receives feedback about the number of correct items in each guess.)] This is the basic structure for how the game works. Cards are revealed, meanings are displayed, and the player participates in the construction of new cards.

Exactly how this will be implemented in code is not clear to me at this time. I need to experiment with how the interpretations are mapped to the images and by what rules the behaviors of the cards are determined, how the symbols are able to combine. I would like to allow this exploration to take place as I work on the piece and not be set in stone before I have had the time to try out different formations and constructions of code. I am still a beginning programmer, so I have a lot of work yet to do.

 *  Thesis Committee Members

Ian Bogost, Chair
Janet Murray, Reader
Blake Leland, Reader


Last Updated
Sunday, December 11, 2005

©December 2005, Natalie Funk email HomeTimelineOutlineReferencesOther Files