The Never Ending Story

We live in the age of search. The question is not what is known, but what is next. Possible combinations.

This video shows a machine that trawls patents, serving up an endless series of related patent drawings. But this is not so new, either. Georg Philipp Harsdörffer was fascinated, in the 17th century, by the potential of combinatory principles for education. Most famously associated with the Nuremberg funnel—which will have to await another post—Harsdörffer developed several models for poetry machines.

Georg Philipp Harsdörffer's Fünffacher Denckring der Teutschen Sprache (1651)

This was, amongst other things, a question of pedagogy:

The mechanizations of language discussed by Harsdörffer fall into two groups, one consisting of very simple combinatorial devices and the other one containing his famous Denckring. The first of the simple mechanisms consists of a set of six dice, on which the letters of the German alphabet, together with the umlauts and some frequent two-letter combinations are inscribed. When throwing several or all of these, words or word-parts are produced in a mechanical way. Harsdörffer intends these as a pedagogical device for teaching children to read: “After the child knows the letters of one die, one takes the first die containing the vowels and a second one, and constructs a simple syllable, subsequently one plays with syllables of three or four letters.” Thus the child first of all had to learn the alphabet, by playing with a single die at a time, in order subsequently to learn to read random syllables or parts of words, by playing with several dice.

—Jan C. Westerhoff, Poeta Calculans: Harsdörffer, Leibniz, and the “Mathesis Universalis”

But as will all such aids, the challenge is to say whether devices like the Denckring nod to potential and intelligence, or replaces this power for student’s who might not manage, within themselves, to generate poetry.

Regardless, it is hardly even that new. As Horkheimer and Adorno suggest, in The Dialectic of Enlightement, the epic tale of the Odyssey amounts to a series of earlier mythic scenes, combined and strung out on what amounts to a road trip.

The mistake would be to imagine that these myths, on their own, weren’t combinatory as well.

The question, as Google would have it, is “do you feel lucky?”

Marcel Duchamps