The Loom of Form and Meaning
A form is a mode in which a thing exists or manifests itself. It can be a dance, piece of music, poem, meal, perfume, physical feeling, artefact, landscape or any other object or experience of the mind or any of the senses. Here it includes the physical matter from which a thing is made, and any other quality such as its appearance, provenance, and any other individual or cross-modal sensory cues and contexts available. The form of words, for example, includes their external characteristics such as pronunciation, spelling, or inflexion, as well as their etymology, and written or spoken style. Comparing forms with each other, there is similarity and difference in all their various qualities. Perceiving and recognizing these qualities and any differences between them involves subjectivity and judgment, even in merely isolating a perception from its environment, or assigning an etymology to a word, or an age and provenance to an artefact. All the above aspects of forms are distinguished here from their meanings, significations, purposes or uses.
Meaning includes interpretation and purpose, both literal and obvious functions and beyond, extending across a word’s use and misuse in figurative, incoherent or lying speech, or a form’s function, use and misuse in different contexts within or across cultures. Comparing meanings, again there is similarity and difference to be found. And again, the degrees of similarity and difference will be either more or less significant for different people at different times.
By comparing and contrasting forms and meanings, connections and juxtapositions can be made between things, some already known, and others newly discovered. As well as comparing and contrasting existing forms and meanings, new connections can also be made, either by finding/proposing different ways to express the same thing by way of summary, embellishment or substitution, or else by finding/proposing different interpretations or uses of the same form.
The perception of degrees of difference between forms and meanings, even of simple sounds, smells and colours, are physically, subjectively and culturally determined. The perception of degrees of difference also changes over time: in the Aurignacian period beads from 100km away would have been considered “exotic,” though extra-terrestrial origins may be needed for a bead to be considered “exotic” in today’s global village.
There is an infinity of degrees of variation of both form and meaning, ranging from exact identity to total difference. There is also an infinity of qualities of a particular form, and nuances of a particular meaning, any of which may be varied, and where there is variation it may or may not be significant, in a given context. But using three simple categories allows both forms and meanings to be classified as broadly the same, or similar but not the same, or different from each other.
The resulting 9 categories can be used to classify how forms, meanings and the connections between them change, develop and evolve in relation to each other. Put anything at the top left of this table, then:
- re-express the idea of it in a different form (horizontal movement towards the right of the loom, e.g. from Mercury the Roman god to Greek Hermes and Egyptian Thoth), or else
- reinterpret that particular form with a different idea (vertical movement towards the bottom of the loom, e.g. from Mercury as god to the metal or planet of exactly the same name), or
- vary both the form and the meaning (with ideas and forms both contrasting towards the bottom right of the loom, e.g. follow Mercury into the domain of trees, according to standard tables of correspondence in European culture, to the fast-growing hazel — hazel groves often being associated with gateways to the underworld, and Mercury himself being a guide to the underworld).
There are various games that play with connections in different ways. In some games the emphasis is on only one type of connection (e.g. word golf, where only one letter at a time of a word is changed), and in other games many types of connection are used (e.g. word association, where any kind of connection can be of interest). In some games, fixed forms are gently bent and twisted by different threads of meaning, such as when we discern faces in a rocky outcrop, or find new constellations in the stars. In other games the meaning is fixed as different forms are woven around it, such as expressing a story in a different way or in a different medium, or remaking a thing by substituting different materials.
In such connection games, as in weaving, the warp is held stationary in tension, and the weft is woven through it. The individual connections give rise to the weaving of the game. In some instances we may fix the meaning and vary the form, and in others the form is fixed and the meaning varied. But the weaving of the game emerges on the Loom of Form and Meaning (“the Loom”) even so.
The Loom can also classify connecting games by the way in which they make connections.
- In some games it may be as simple as reproducing or reconnecting forms and meanings, or a part with its whole. In A1 type games such as “Name that Tune”/ “Beat Shazam” we must recognize the whole from a fragment.
- In other games a given form is connected with multiple meanings or uses. Examples include C1 type games such as looking for recognizable shapes in the grain of polished walnut or marble, and other “pareidolia” games which have been popular since antiquity, or “loose parts” play where objects are reused in unexpected and unusual ways.
- In some games a given meaning is re-expressed with different forms. In A3 type games such as the parlour game of mime charades we must communicate a given idea with actions without using words.
- In still other games, ways are found to connect apparently unconnected forms and meanings with each other. Examples include C3 type games such as the parlour game of consequences where unconnected forms and ideas are juxtaposed.
Some games are not connecting games in the sense described here, except in the weakest possible sense — chess and badminton for example. Whatever else the Glass Bead Game may turn out to be, it will be a game of connections, and perhaps even a game of connecting games. In the finer details of the game there may be fuzzy rules and different points of view. The game will have long horizons and will only really be bounded at all by the minds of the players (ranging as it does potentially across all knowledge, culture, time and space). It will not be fully observable (a characteristic previously unobserved may later be brought into play, or a significant factor may be kept hidden throughout). It will not in fact be discrete but will have continuous degrees of variation, not deterministic but aleatory since anything can be included, not objective but subjective and judgmental, not static but dynamic and evolving: all of these being characteristics AI is not particularly good at, making it unlikely AlphaZero or any of its relations or progeny will be able to teach us much about this game very soon.
So meanwhile, until AlphaZero catches up with us, to the games…