Words Made Flesh

Executable code existed centuries before the invention of the computer in magic, Kabbalah, musical composition and experimental poetry. Symbols turn physical, and words are made flesh.


"Executable code existed centuries before the invention of the computer in magic, Kabbalah, musical composition and experimental poetry. These practices are often neglected as a historical pretext of contemporary software culture and electronic arts. Above all, they link computations to a vast speculative imagination that encompasses art, language, technology, philosophy and religion. These speculations in turn inscribe themselves into the technology. Since even the most simple formalism requires symbols with which it can be expressed, and symbols have cultural connotations, any code is loaded with meaning. This booklet writes a small cultural history of imaginative computation, reconstructing both the obsessive persistence and contradictory mutations of the phantasm that symbols turn physical, and words are made flesh."

An attempt «to show that algorithmic code and computations can’t be separated from an often utopian cultural imagination that reaches from magic spells to contemporary computer operating systems.»

The more abstract the code, the more speculative the meaning that may be read into that code

Hieroglyphs thought to hold divine powers before the Rosetta stone

The word made flesh, writing taking up a life of its own by self-execution, has been a utopia and dystopia in religion, metaphysics, art and technology alike.

the irrationality of rational systems as experienced by the computer user

Words becoming flesh, the symbolic turning physical – these are by no means recent phantasmagorias and speculations. The beginning of the Gospel of John in the New Testament reads:
1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was
with God, and the Word was God. [. . . ]
1:14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among
us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only
begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

This figure of thought, of a speech act that affects physical matter instantly and directly, is magical in its root.

A small cultural history of imaginative computation; symbols turning physical, words made flesh

Algorithmic code and computations can’t be separated from an often utopian cultural imagination that reaches from magic spells to contemporary computer operating systems

Transformation of symbols into action

A sequence of executable instructions

«The word made flesh, writing taking up a life of its own by self-execution, has been a utopia and dystopia in religion, metaphysics, art and technology alike.»

Executable code: from magic spells to contemporary computing

«Material creation from the word is an idea central to magic in all cultures; it is precisely what magic spells perform. Magic therefore is, at its core, a technology, serving the rational end of achieving an effect, and being judged by its efficacy.»

The idea of divine creation through the letter has its root in early Middle Eastern and Egyptian mystic cults

Gnosticism: theurgy, the invocation of divine powers for achieving material effects


Christianity’s theurgy: prayer!

Magic wasn’t considered occult until religion and later science and technology rivalled and marginalized it

The technical principle of magic, controlling matter through manipulation of symbols, is the technical principle of comuter software as well


William Burroughs’ «language magic» and cut-up literature, language as a virus

Burroughs «semanticizes the mobilization of matter through symbols in the magical speech act»


Pythagorean harmony: founded on the idea that the world is organized in numerical proportions which are coded equally into music and mathematics

Pythagoras discovered the arithmetic principle of the musical octave by splitting the string of a monochord in half, and from that concluded that there was a mathematical harmony of the cosmos, he founded an aesthetic philosophy that closely linked art, science and nature

Pythagorean thinking: universal numerical code organizes both nature and art; describes harmony in the sense of beautiful numerical proportions as the guiding principle of the world

Umberto Eco calls this the «hermetic paradigm» (as above so below)

The source code of the universe, the numerical foundation of the cosmos

Mathematical modeling of music (Bach, Hofstadter)

Donald Knuth; teaching software development as an art rather than a science

(book: «Things a computer scientist rarely talks about»)

Mandelbrot fractals

«magic and Pythagorean thinking are two prototypes of programming and software, the former lacking rigorous concept of abstract mathematical symbol language, the latter lacking a concept of executing symbols.» the history of software begins where these coincide

Kabbalah: in hebrew, all letter correspond to numbers

«The Kabbalah effectively combined the Pythagorean idea of the world being composed of numbers […] with the magical concept of language as an agent that affects matter»

this concept in religion: god created the world through language

Kabbalah is a mystical scholarship aimed at retrieving the original power of the divine letters and words, and aims at applying this power practically

practical kabbalah is theurgy, i.e. magical rituals performed within religion as invocations of god

sefer yetzirah, the book of creation; the world created through letters and algorithm

letter combinations function as a straightforward algorithmic source code

proper computation! a model of creation through mathematical combinatorics

Ramon Llull inspired by ecstatic Kabbalah

ars as a missionary device? (llull was stoned to death by muslims)

Lull’s letters B-K as an example of programming language semantics

the ars is «a first prototype of modern symbolic logic in which logical statements are transformed according to purely formal rules»

Comenius’ Orbis pictus: a graphical interface for alphanumeric code developed from lullist computational encyclopedism

«the secularization of jewish kabbalah through llull» llullist science, leibniz and analytic philosophy -> machine computation and computer software

to what extent is relligion, metaphysics and speculative thinking still present in contemporary computer culture?

greek, roman and persian rhetoric

the i ching oracle and tibetan prayer wheels; computational writing

creating an abundenace of speech from a limited amount of material

«memorie» memorization system with imagined architectural spaces: the first implementation of a visual UI for alphanumeric codes?

«the concept underlying rhetoric is that any speech and writing can be created through formal instruction, and composition is a technique that can be learned by anyone»


Kuhlmann: «everything permutes, everything loves, everything seems to hate something»

Richard Stallman: free software and the GNU manifesto

«information wants to be free»

political semantics embedded into formal, digital code, by its virtue of boundless and lossless replication, that happens every time a program is run by (copied onto) the CPU

Stallman as «Saint Ignitius of the Church of Emacs»

GNU recursion (GEB infinite looping iteration of a statement)

GNU is Not Unix is Not Unix (ad infinitum)

the GPL «virus» of copylefted code

information: latin «impregnation» (incarnation???) «shaping», «instruction»


the GUI: Christianopolis (Andreae, rosicrucianism): all knowledge denoted in public mural paintings; Orbis Pictus (Comenius)

«Information is only what has an impact, reaching and impregnating its recipients just like the execution of a program code mobilizes matter.»

in christiana societas, the origin of the impregnation is heaven, the informant is called god

(Executable?) code as a materialization of the divine

code is concrete and physical, materially contains its own activation: permutations, recursions, viral infections

(permutations of language: Borges’ the Library of Babel; Kuhlmann’s Ars magna librum scribendi: «a universal letter combination machine designed to write all existing and potential books in the world»)

A game is an autonomous, self-contained world: removed from the pre-modern idea that computation and algorithms are a divine creation, the game can do without a reference to higher powers

A game is a process based on rules, a formal source code that can be expressed in logical language

Conway’s game of life; cellular automata

The Library of Babel: first sentence «the universe (which others call the Library)» echoes cosmological Lullism

Gödels theorem; the logical paradox that formal systems cannot fully describe themselves or prove their own consistency

Max Bense "information aesthetics": a computational theory of modern art
(also inspired by Leibniz, Llull)

the Bauhaus

psychogeographic computing

Tzara's cut-up method, how-to make a dadaist poem; algorithmic process
Gysin and Burroughs "ALL WRITING IS IN FACT CUT-UPS"

John Cage and the I Ching

oulipo: "game-like artificial restriction on writing"; "the algorithmic restrictions had to be compensated by imagination"

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE; the potentials and limitations of machine cognition

Kuhlmann on Llull's combinatorics: grasping "the true power from the universal book of nature that is hidden underneath it" and applying it to everything

algorithmic composition and artistic subjectivity as contradictory? (kuhlmann didn't think so)
technical and human subjective wit combined

"one could argue that human cognition is no more than higher-order formal computation" (searle!)

Scientology: the mind can be programmed like a computer; refashioning of occult and magical techniques into superficially "scientific" technology; pop science behaviouris, cybernetics, and linguistics

Burroughs and Scientology: language as a viral code yielding immediate physical effects

A cultural definition of software
Distinction between software and hardware?
"computations": calculation and alogrithms performed in the medium of language itself or by mechanical/electronic devices; difficult to draw a clear line between software (symbolic-imaginary processing) and hardware (material processing)
Defining software as the system of algorithms fails to encompass the vast imagination from magic to codework; software is both material and practice ("to google")

"Isn't it a totally arbitrary distinction whether a circuit is hardwired into the layout of chip transistors, or whether the same logic is stored within a memory chip?"

idea of software as immaterial vs hardware as material needs to be suspended (?)

software history as intellectual history

algorithm and human imagination

"The cultural history of computation shows that it is as rich and contradictory as that of any other symbolic form. It encompasses opposites, algorithms as a tool versus algorithms as a material of aesthetic play and speculation, computation as inner workings of nature (as in Pythagorean thought) or God (as in Kabbalah and magic) versus computation as culture and a medium of cultural reflection (starting with Oulipo and hacker cultures in the 1960s), computation as a means of abolishing semantics (Bense) versus computation as a means to structure and generate semantics (as in Lullism and Artificial Intelligence), computation as a means of generating totality (Quirinus Kuhlmann) versus computation as a means of taking things apart (Tzara, cut-ups), software as ontological freedom (GNU) versus software as ontological enslavement (Netochka Nezvanova), ecstatic computation (Kuhlmann, Kabbala, Burroughs) versus rationalist computation (from Leibniz to Turing) versus pataphysical computation as the parody of both rationalist and irrationalist computation (Oulipo and generative psychogeography), algorithm as expansion (Lullism, generative art) versus algorithm as constraint (Oulipo, net.art), code as chaotic imagination (Jodi, codeworks) versus code as structured description of chaos (Tzara, John Cage). 

Computation and its imaginary are rich with contradictions, and loaded with metaphysical and ontological speculation. Underneath those contradictions and speculations lies an obsession with code that executes, the phantasm that words become flesh. It remains a phantasm, because again and again, the execution fails to match the boundless speculative expectations invested into it. Cultural and political semantics result merely from its dull formalisms and their interference with daily life, from account balance statements to “end-user software.” Formalisms create semantics in a wholly different way than people expect from an allegedly “intelligent machine.” Computers therefore exist, as hacker wisdom says, to solve problems which we would not even be aware of having if not for the computers themselves."