The Loom of Form and Meaning – The Story So Far

They played the song many times, and with every repetition the song was involuntarily enriched with embellishments and variations.

The Glass Bead Game, Hermann Hesse

Looking for a way to compare two beads in a glass bead game, I compared their different shapes and materials, making one of them a reference point, and evaluating the qualities of other against it. When the game broadened to include other artefacts, words and ideas, it evolved into a comparison of their forms and meanings/uses on what became the Loom of Form and Meaning, which has since been brought into play in many different instances which I’m going to try to sum up here, before looking at some of the precursors of the Loom going back to Heraclitus and Chuang Tzu, and also how it all connects back to the glass bead game.

Applying the Loom to linguistics, we compared the form and meaning of two different words, as Ferdinand de Saussure did, and went on to explore examples where the two forms are the same (homonymy, C1 on the Loom) and two meanings are the same (synonymy, A3 on the Loom), as studied in more depth by Saussure’s pupil Serge Karcevskij.

In psychology, we took stock of the form and meaning of the symbol and the symbolised, and in anthropology the concrete forms and cultural meanings of artefacts and practices such as a Buddhist stupa, the dance, the use of milk in contemporary African ritual, and the emerging meanings of beads in the African Middle Stone Age.

In film editing, we compared the form and meaning/use of the frames before and after the edit, alongside Japanese linked verse (which Sergei Eisenstein claimed as an influence) and the successive haikai of a poetic sequence.

Separately analysing verbal reasoning tests and also jokes on the Loom, we compared the relation of the solution or punchline to the question, and likewise in board games and also game apps, separately, we compared the relation of the response/move to whatever is driving the game mechanics.

Describing my preparations for a particular game involving comparisons, I also wrote about what reference sources may be consulted to identify examples of different kinds of comparison on the Loom.

In art, we considered how the work of art compared with whatever substantial thing or insubstantial thought it may represent to the viewer.

Most recently, from observing a young child, we found examples of her verbal tics, slips and games to illustrate the different Loom categories.

Some of these have taken literally years to write, and others only a few days. Topics still in progress in the background include aphasias, fairy tales, cultural diffusion, modern classical music, and popular music.


Up to this point, the story I’ve told about Loom has described its application in different contexts. But the Loom has a backstory of its own which reaches back thousands of years.

There are two mature fields of linguistic research, onomasiology (Tappolet, 1895) and semasiology (Reisig, 1839), focused respectively on the Loom’s horizontal and vertical axes:

‘The point of departure in onomasiological research is the denotatum/ signifié or its linguistic equivalent, i.e., the concept, and the aim of such research is to find linguistic units which may express this concept. In semasiological research the point of departure is a word unit and the research is centered upon the pursuit of designata to which this unit may refer.’

Jakubowicz, M., The Development of Words Across Centuries (2010, transl. Artur Zwolski, 2017)

At the intersection of these fields of research, the basic idea of the Loom of Form and Meaning was prefigured by Saussure’s student Karcevskij in 1929: ‘the signifier seeks to have other functions than its proper function; the signified seeks to express itself by other means than by its sign.’ Karcevskij is focused only on language, but basically he’s describing the homonymy and synonymy which are the vertical and horizontal axes of the Loom. Peter Steiner’s Defence of Semiotics (1981) extends Karcevskij further to include polydimensional forms ‘comprised of all substances which can serve for the expression of meaning’ – just like my broader definition of Form on the Loom. In this scheme, from any thing itself, or an initial icon, symbol or sign as a starting point, proceeds an infinite interconnected chain of reexpressions of form, and reconnections of meaning/use, like the variations of a theme woven on the Loom.

Roman Jakobson remembered Karcevskij appreciatively, and his seminal 1956 paper also resonates with the synonymy and homonymy of Karcevskij’s ‘slope of reality.’ But Jakobson ultimately resolves the ‘impressive array of possible configurations’ arising to two ‘gravitational poles,’ though he admits elsewhere that ‘any metonymy is slightly metaphorical and any metaphor has a metonymical tint.’ But what if the two terms lie not as poles on a continuum, but on axes orthogonal to each other, as on the Loom? It enriches the descriptiveness from a single variable on an axis (-x to +x) to a double coordinate (x, y) where one aspect can vary while the other stays the same, allowing a more complex interaction of the two principles in line with Jakobson’s own admission.

It was The Prague School papers collected by Peter Steiner (in particular, The Semantic Analysis of Philosophical Texts by Ladislav Rieger (1941)) which led me back as far as Heraclitus’ central dialectic of the one and the many:

Εκ πάντων εν και εξ ενός πάντα。

From all things, the same use; from the same thing, all uses.

In The Art and Thought of Heraclitus: A New Arrangement and Translation of the Fragments, Charles H. Kahn describes two fundamental principles of Heraclitus’ thought and literary style as complementary: a one-many relation between sign and signified, and a many-one relation between different texts and a single image or theme.

My related reading at the time about chiastic style showed Heraclitus and later Chuang Tzu had offered a similar thought more than 700 years and 7,000 km apart:


All kinds of things can have the same one meaning (i.e. synonymy); all kinds of meanings can come from the same one thing (homonymy).

The later traces of these early precursors have shown up in some of my applications, for example the Loom of Japanese linked verse, where Bashō’s debt to Chuang Tzu may be seen in his own poetics of refamiliarisation (recasting traditional topics into new languages and material cultures – A3) and recontextualisation (defamiliarisation and dislocation of habitual perceptions – C1), as described by Haruo Shirane in Traces of Dreams. And so the cycle is closed again.


… but hold on, even though this may have started as a way of comparing two beads, haven’t we completely lost sight of the glass bead game? Not really, and here’s why…

As I wrote when I originally introduced the Loom: ‘Whatever else the Glass Bead Game may turn out to be, it will be a game of connections.’ The Loom is all about connections, and classifies types of connections. Yes, I know just because all cats are grey, it doesn’t mean grey things are all cats, but it does mean a cat lover had better like grey, and might be interested in distinguishing different shades of grey. Similarly, the glass bead game designer or player should enjoy a familiarity with different types of comparison, and the Loom is a tool to do that. But it also goes deeper than this. Each time I’ve taken a subject matter area and developed it on the Loom, I’ve been playing a version of the glass bead game. Actually, two related versions:

  • Each new application adds a new domain to one single overarching game which applies the same fixed semantic framework of the Loom to different subjects, as if I were building an ongoing table of correspondences, like Athanasius Kircher’s application of the fixed framework of Greek musical/planetary cosmogony to the various preoccupations of his day from Judaeo-Christian angelology to quadrupeds, metals, and minerals.
  • Even at the level of the individual application, it’s a single theme which is varied across different categories, like any Rattlesnake Game, except these categories are fixed, instead of emergent during play.

I’ve thought about a version of the Rattlesnake Game which would use a dice to determine which category of the Loom a player would have to make their next move in. But it makes for a difficult game, and so far I’ve refrained from introducing it explicitly as a game requirement, and have offered it only as a potentially helpful way of finding variety in connections.


So for now, let’s stick to the game… if we ever left it at all.

Glass Bead Game designer

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