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  • Toward the Glass Bead Game:A Rhetorical Invention
  • J.W. Fost

The 1946 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Herman Hesse, author of the 1943 novel Das Glasperlenspeil, or The Glass Bead Game. In that work, Hesse describes the Game as "a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette" [1]. He constructs a futurescape in which players of the Game are something like today's musicians, historians and mathematicians, all rolled into one. Institutions—indeed, entire provinces—are devoted to nothing but the study of the Game.

Unfortunately, Hesse was not sufficiently explicit to provide unambiguous instructions for how to go about actually creating or playing the Game. This has vexed many. It is possible Hesse himself did not have a clear vision of the Game, but instead a more or less aesthetic and intellectual hope that something more than narrative language should be possible. I am attempting to realize Hesse's vision by experimenting with a fusion of language, art and technology and trying to be more explicit in laying out how such a Glass Bead Game might actually be played.

My approach has three and a half parts.

The first part is simply a narrative essay on some subject. As an example, I use the symbolism I see in Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film Pulp Fiction .

The second part is an association of small images ("beads" and "tiles") with sections of the narrative text. One bead might represent a character, for example, or an event, or a theme. Anything one can describe in the narrative can become a bead. In my example (see Fig. 4), beads are round images with one or two letters on them. For example, the bead labeled "ms" refers to the milkshake shared by the characters Vincent and Mia; the bead labeled "Ch" refers to the biblical Christ; and "vm" refers to the vampire from Francis Ford Coppola's filmic interpretation of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula .

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Fig. 4.

In this partial view of a proof-of-concept Glass Bead Game, a web of symbolic relationships in the film Pulp Fiction is depicted.

© J.W. Fost

The tiles, in turn, represent relationships between ideas/beads, as when I wish to show how an idea from Pulp Fiction is symbolic of an idea from another work. In Fig. 4, the shared relationship between the beads for Christ, the vampire and the milkshake is the tile "blood," denoted (somewhat arbitrarily) by a Chinese kanji for that word. The choice of logographic symbols rather than alphabetic letters was motivated by the desire to further distinguish tiles from beads, keep the images small and denote a sometimes complicated idea.

The correspondence of each bead and tile with its reference would either have been previously established in the narrative or drawn from a pool of familiar symbols developed in earlier games.

The third part of my construction is the assembly of all the beads and tiles into a single composition arranged on a grid, like a Scrabble board. By carefully setting down the beads and tiles in groups of three (bead-tile-bead = subject-predicate-object), I can play with semantics and aesthetics simultaneously, representing large sets of symbolic relationships in a compact visual space.

The "third-and-a-half" part is the underlying language of representation: XML. I use several technologies from the Semantic Web [2] to represent the entire work: narrative, beads, tiles and the Glass Bead Game itself. Resource Description Framework (RDF) statements, for example, provide an XML-based syntax for publishing semantically meaningful assertions on the Web. I use RDF to represent every subject-predicate-object assertion in the Glass Bead Game. When multiple Glass Bead Game players agree upon a symbolic vocabulary for beads and tiles, and simultaneously adopt standards for the universal interchange of semantic information, each becomes able to contribute to an ever-growing crystal of insights and perceptions.

The complete presentation of this Glass Bead Game technique is available on-line at <http://www...


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