a disembodied language: lisp and the fictions of AI

The crystallization of the scientific efforts that were to gave rise to artificial intelligence (AI) took place in the decades following the second world war, and involved a select group of people, closely interacting with each other. While rooted in mathematics, linguistics and a burgeoning computer science, the “fathers” of artificial intelligence relied on a set of assumptions taken from both a history of scientific thought and from a history of capable, autonomous machine-like beings. While not explicitly referencing fictional works, the individuals involved in these early stages of AI research (e.g. Turing, McCarthy, McCullough, Weiner, Weizenbaum, amongst others) have implicitly based their work on assumptions resulting from an entanglement of beliefs around the brain, language and inanimate matter.

By examining the scientific and linguistic concepts set forward by those individuals in the 1940-1970 period in the United States, this contribution aims at expliciting the thin line between the scientific work of AI pioneers and fictional accounts of all-powerful languages and symbol manipulation. Particularly, I will focus on the connection between the myth of the Golem in Jewish folklore, Freud’s narrative accounts of human psychology (and how they were commented on by McCullough), as well as Leibniz’s imaginary characteristica universalis, a fantasized universal formal language. The interplay of these different fictions will be considered as a fruitful breeding ground for the contemporary approach of AI methodologies, in which the power of the Word is considered foundational, along with the formal system within which it is organized. The result, I will argue, is a paradigm through which form can be entirely separated from content, in which meaning no longer has anything to do with its vehicle.

Developing this point further, this contribution will examine the nature and discourses surrounding Lisp, a programming language designed by McCarthy for the specific purposes of AI development, and still in use today. A semantic analysis of Lisp itself, as well as a discussion of the social contexts in which Lisp is evoked or referred to (sometimes as God’s language), will reveal a technical object whose perceived power is based on flexibility and abstraction, as an embodiment of those working assumptions. This contribution will, through the analysis of the different metaphors of religion, wizardry and perfection in popular programming culture, highlight how Lisp has, throughout the years, acted as a technical vehicle for the thoughts and ideas of AI pioneers.

Through critical discourse analysis, I intend to shed new light on the fictional assumptions behind early AI research, and how those assumptions have, through the technical development of an AI-oriented language like Lisp, informed the current production of AI-generated works in the past 70 years. Ultimately, this perspective will allow us to better understand the nature and origin of those contemporary productions.


stories, people, events, or places that are imaginary



this contribution looks at how the early communities of AI development have built up a series of narratives around the power of language, and particularly logical language, and how assumptions about form and content allowed the development of modern computation and contemporary artificial intelligence.

part on lisp itself, what it makes it special as a computer

list processing, abstracting away details, functions-as-data, eliza, tree-like structure

the socio-historical context

leibniz, first AI dartmouth, SICP, lots of dialects

what that tells us today

??? it’s not so much language dependent as concept independent: the list, the group, which together form a pattern, from the line to the surface

references that people in AI have