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I would even go so far as to say that memes might provide the real breakthrough
needed to bring a functioning Glass Bead Game to fruition.
August 2, 2012
The Glass Meme Game
Playing the game of culture with Hesse & @KimKierkegaard

by Jeremy Antley

Recently, that fine purveyor and curator of Internet tidbits, Boing Boing, published an essay by Klint Finley examining a unique and innovative Soviet synthesizer, the ANS, that utilized etchings—not keyboards—to create varied tones based on the artistic composition fed into the machine. Finley explored how the ANS, named after the Russian experimental composer and practitioner of the occult, Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin, was only one electronic instrument among the larger synthesizer family to act as a cultural intermediary between worlds of music and mysticism. "It's little surprise otherworldly sounds and limitless possibilities of synthesizers and samplers would evoke the luminous," writes Finley, adding "But there's more to the connection. The aim of the alchemist is not just the literal synthesis of chemicals, but also synthesis in the Hegelian sense: the combination of ideas." Indeed, the ANS synthesizer represents an interesting attempt to bring divergent ideas into alignment, a process through which music and mysticism's infused meaning could be distilled into a more epigrammatic and comprehensible form.

Musical Division

4231 divided by 4 equals 1057 r.3 in 4/4 time by m.e.g.

I was struck by the larger point made in Finley's statement above on two counts. First, music is the perfect medium through which to explore the interaction between emotion and ideas—one only has to listen to Brahms “Double Concerto” in order to understand this idea. Romantic notions found in Brahms work, a product of his time and social milieu, are succinctly bound in musical terms that allow listeners to aurally survey vast ranges of emotion and meaning in a condensation of culture. Second, this sounds just like the aims of Herman Hesse's fictitious Glass Bead Game described in his book of the same name. Here we find an alternate vision for compressing emotion and meaning into another, ludic cultural event. Perhaps more exciting, investigating deeper connections between the ANS synthesizer and Hesse's Glass Bead Game yields insight into another, more modern, kindred container of culture- the meme.

Much of the plot for Glass Bead Game centers on the biographical sketch of Joseph Knecht, a typical Hessian-styled child prodigy turned intellectual tour-de-force whose pursuit of inner enlightenment means overcoming obstacles of both perception and understanding. One might recall the line from Hesse's other well-known (and much shorter) work, Demian: "I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?" The story follows Knecht from his childhood, where he fast becomes a virtuoso with the Violin, to his admission and development as an intellectual in the Order of Castalia, a sort-of utopian realm created in the aftermath of a terrible war in order to cultivate both learning and greater development of the highest expression of said learning, that being the aforementioned Glass Bead Game. Knecht eventually becomes “Magister Ludi,” or the head administrator in charge of the Glass Bead Game that, despite being the book's title and one of the more important themes surrounding the plot's development, finds description only in vague terms.

Take this explanation as to the Game's evolution and ascription to scholarly investigation:

At various times the Game was taken up and imitated by nearly all the scientific and scholarly disciplines, that is, adapted to special fields… The analytical study of musical values had led to the reduction of musical events to physical and mathematical formulas. Soon afterward philology borrowed this method and began to measure linguistic configurations as physics measures processes in nature. The visual arts soon followed suit, architecture having already led the way in establishing the links between visual art and mathematics. Thereafter more and more new relations, analogies and correspondences were discovered among the abstract formulas obtained in this way. Each discipline which seized upon the Game developed its own language of formulas, abbreviations and possible combinations.

Hesse never articulates in fine detail the actual operation and play of the Game, only its effects and the larger musings by Knecht and others regarding its theme and development. The key points stressed in Hesse's description on the evolution of the Game centered on the adaptation of the various “Game” languages into the more commonly universal standards of mathematics and music, in addition to the meditation and reflection players and observers were supposed to bring to the playing of the Game. These final steps brought the Game to its highest point, evoking Leibniz’s hypothetical ‘language calculator,’ and producing what Hesse termed the “quintessence of intellectuality and art, the sublime cult, the unio mystica of all separate members of the Universitas Litterarum."

Here, we have a return to our theme, as it were—the blending of mysticism and music (itself comprised of mathematical formulas) as a means to not only weld our world views together, but also derive a whole meaning greater than the sum of its compositional parts. The Glass Bead Game, as described in various scenes of the novel, could be envisioned as a sublime means of polishing the soul, as Solzhenitsyn would say, providing a designated space reserved for contemplation and reflection of ideas or beliefs that rise above the petty. To put it simply, the Glass Bead Game facilitates a means by which players can become a humble and thoughtful component of their people.

Probing the ANS synthesizer and Hesse's Glass Bead Game in more general terms, we see both constructs attempt to provide bridging mechanisms between moving, disparate ideas. However, when these 20th century mechanisms are put in comparison with the networked societies of today, they appear painfully slow and inefficient in assemblage despite their utilization of universalistic disciplines. Clearly Hesse had in mind the complexities of classical music when devising his utopian heady brew of content linked to meaning, with mathematics serving as the backdrop and underlying basis for not only the flight of music but also its link to a rational mind. The ANS synthesizer, likewise, performs a similar function with its linkage between abstract etchings and musical tone. It became a literal and metaphorical instrument through which mysticism and music could be harmoniously linked.

Both the Glass Bead Game and the ANS synthesizer uphold the core idea that math creates music and music feeds the soul. Transmuting ideas across vast distances in Hesse's time required efficiency in presentation and few disciplines were better equipped to handle the task than math and music. In a world covered by the shadows of Babel, these bright stars of knowledge provided a universal translator, the likes of which only Captain Kirk could imagine. You don't have to speak German to appreciate Beethoven's “Moonlight Sonata” or Ancient Greek to comprehend the theorems of Pythagoras. These complex emotions and concepts, viewed in their entirety, would normally warrant extensive review, yet their meaning becomes compressed in music and math.

However, the emergence of the internet and subsequent networked societies reconfigured old forms of conveying universal meaning, making the heralded muses of music and math not obsolete but rather complementary to new forms capable of adding to the unio mystica of our time. Now humanity has a much broader and diverse palette of ideas and styles to choose from when attempting to convey ideas and meaning - broader but perhaps not deeper. The connectivity and speed of idea iteration brought about by internet-related technologies facilitates development of novel knowledge forms that rapidly appear and become refined (but just as rapidly disappear, their sharp edges lost to the blurriness of widespread linguistic ambiguity). One of those new forms I would like to discuss (amongst the myriad engendered) are memes.


There is perhaps no construct that combines high and low cultural forms with such astuteness better than the meme. Made famous by Richard Dawkins, the meme has since gone on to become the preferred means by many for producing complex cultural critiques in a container of meaning that is deceptively simple and easy to parse. They often rely upon pop culture references for their veneer, yet surface level analysis belies the true depth of meaning encoded in the meme. If brevity is the soul of wit, as Shakespeare claimed, then memes are condensed cultural containers that act as building blocks for brevity in the digital age.

While most memes employ a combination of images and text, Hipster Dr. Jones and LOLCats come to mind, the meme possesses a high degree of flexibility and can easily migrate to other forms. They are superb carriers and condensers of meaning, easily bleeding into realms one would not, at face, consider related. Take for example the recent arrival on Twitter of @KimKierkegaard, a tongue-in-cheek mixing of Soren Kierkegaard's philosophy with Kim Kardashian's tweets about her daily life. The combination conjures text that is trivial, yet surprisingly satisfying and thought-provoking in juxtaposition.

Kim 1

Kim 2

Another route for meme creation in the larger Twitterverse can be found in the use of hashtags. A relative newcomer, the #voightkampff hashtag, recently began proliferating in my Twitter stream. Drawing on the test used in the movie Blade Runner, the #voightkampff tweets play on the theme of provoking emotional response in 140 characters- a tweet having much the same constructive space as the questions actually used in the movie. However, in the tradition of memes, many tweets using this hashtag draw upon pop culture to heighten their effect.



Now some might mention that memes, especially the ones I've shown above, are highly culture-context specific. If you don't know Spiderman mythology or haven't seen “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” the above #voightkampff tweets would lose much of their meaning. If you've never seen Blade Runner, then the entire point of the meme is rather opaque. Math and music, the two disciplines held up by Hesse to be worthy foundational epistemologies for the operation of his Glass Bead Game can easily lay claim to being far more universal than “Hipster Dr. Jones” or @KimKierkegarrdashian.

Or can they? Consider that music, despite its common theoretical base in mathematics, developed across both time and geographical boundaries in multiple, varied forms. A survey of the British Library's World and Traditional Music online catalog of recordings, quickly reveals the incredible diversity not only in compositional styles but also norms of tone. Consider that time signatures prevalent in Turkish folk music inspired Dave Brubeck's seminal “Time Out” album, his interest revealed upon hearing street musicians while traveling through the country. Mathematics may be fundamentally understood at the most basic level, yet there are significant differences in understanding between Newtonian conceptions and those being investigated by branches of quantum mechanics. In short, even these hallowed disciplines contain diverse and ever expanding boundaries that require, to a degree, a fixed point of view in order to be understood.

The same is true of memes. I would even go so far as to say that memes might provide the real breakthrough needed to bring a functioning Glass Bead Game to fruition. Their meaning is highly negotiable, in that they can be modified to suit the creators need to address an idea pertaining to a more centralized, controlled theme. Due to the permeability of memes, they possess the capacity to compress diverse or disjointed meanings into easily surveyed forms. Not only are there depositories of memes online, but the act of creating one using simple photo editing software allows new memes to be created should suitable candidates prove difficult to find. A chain of meaning and narrative would develop through play, both players (or multiple players) incorporating music, film clips, graphic and textual memes, all in an attempt to answer not just creative drives but also discover new connections between disparate ideas, the unio mystica of a new Universitas Litterarum.

"After each symbol conjured up by the Director of the Game, each player was required to perform silent, formal meditation on the content, origin and meaning of this symbol, to call to mind intensively and organically its full purport," wrote Hesse; "In this way the hieroglyphs of the Game were kept from degenerating into mere empty symbols." Although his intent was to bring a sense of religious, mystic, feeling and contemplation into the Glass Bead Game, a similar idea could easily be brought into the use of memes. Spectators of a match could delve into the deeper meaning behind the meme selected by players, looking up points or references unknown and establishing a greater appreciation for the culture-specific semiotics at work. Even an observer of a foreign Game in progress would be able to take something away from the larger process. One could imagine an entire process of meaning surrounding the Game; highly skilled players selecting memes from among their DJ-esque collection, able to create modifications on the fly, then displaying their selection while observers search for more information on the meme in play (or, perhaps, even intuit), revealing deeper meaning through contemplation that goes beyond the chimeric projection of frivolity.

In the end, isn't this the aim of the ANS synthesizer described above? Design facilitates abstraction of meaning, bringing compression for concepts too burdensome to consider in their entirety. Memes, through their inherent design, are metaphorical icebergs that belie the weight of their content with photoshopped surfaces concealing the heft, even gravitas, of deeper meanings. When #voightkampff tweets 'frivolously' play with the background mythology of Spiderman, deeper issues tied to loss, responsibility, and even the very core of what it is to be human come to the fore. The meme paradoxically glosses over meaning while also creating a chasm of depth revealed through contemplation.

A Glass Bead Game of memes utilizing inherent space of movement afforded through design could perhaps bring a new sense of understanding and contemplation to the interaction of our ideas and ourselves. This sort of introspection, once held inviolate by musical, literary or artistic forms, now finds serious competition with the emergence of memes. Imagine plundering the depths behind the OWS movement through memes, or even larger ideological concepts like hubris or justice. Just as @KimKierkegaardashian's tweets meld together the profound and the banal, forming a greater whole with regards to meaning, a Glass Meme Game as it were could yield surprising cultural insights between a community of players and observers dedicated to thoughtful extrapolation and interoperation.