Once combined via linking, further thinking and writing, they can be released as novel ideas for everyone to use.
Once combined via linking, further thinking and writing, they can be released as novel ideas for everyone to use.
Many have asked about the meaning of Niklas Luhmann’s so-called jokerzettel over the past several years.
9/8j Im Zettelkasten ist ein Zettel, der das
Argument enthält, das die Behauptungen
auf allen anderen Zetteln widerlegt.
Aber dieser Zettel verschwindet, sobald man
den Zettelkasten aufzieht.
D.h. er nimmt eine andere Nummer an,
verstellt sich und ist dann nicht zu finden.
—Niklas Luhmann, ZK II: Zettel 9/8j
9/8j In the slip box is a slip containing the argument that refutes the claims on all the other slips. But this slip disappears as soon as you open the slip box. That is, he assumes a different number, disguises himself and then cannot be found. A joker.
Here’s my slightly extended interpretation, based on my own practice with several thousands of cards, about what Luhmann meant:
Imagine you’ve spent your life making and collecting notes and ideas and placing them lovingly on index cards. You’ve made tens of thousands and they’re a major part of your daily workflow and support your life’s work. They define you and how you think. You agree with Friedrich Nietzsche’s concession to Heinrich Köselitz that “You are right — our writing tools take part in the forming of our thoughts.” Your time is alive with McLuhan’s idea that “The medium is the message.” or his friend John Culkin‘s aphorism, “We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.”
Eventually you’re going to worry about accidentally throwing your cards away, people stealing or copying them, fires (oh! the fires), floods, or other natural disasters. You don’t have the ability to do digital back ups yet. You may ask yourself, can I truly trust my spouse not to destroy them? What about accidents like dropping them all over the floor and needing to reorganize them or worse, what if the ghost in the machine should rear its head?
You’ll fear the worst, but the worst only grows logarithmically in proportion to your collection.
Eventually you pass on opportunities elsewhere because you’re worried about moving your ever-growing collection. What if the war should obliterate your work? Maybe you should take them into the war with you, because you can’t bear to be apart?
If you grow up at a time when Schrödinger’s cat is in the zeitgeist, you’re definitely going to have nightmares that what’s written on your cards could horrifyingly change every time you look at them. Worse, knowing about the Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle, you’re deathly afraid that there might be cards, like electrons, which are always changing position in ways you’ll never be able to know or predict.
As a systems theorist, you view your own note taking system as a input/output machine. Then you see Claude Shannon’s “useless machine” (based on an idea of Marvin Minsky) whose only function is to switch itself off. You become horrified with the idea that the knowledge machine you’ve painstakingly built and have documented the ways it acts as an independent thought partner may somehow become self-aware and shut itself off!?!
And worst of all, on top of all this, all your hard work, effort, and untold hours of sweat creating thousands of cards will be wiped away by a potential unknowable single bit of information on a lone, malicious card; your only recourse is suicide, the unfortunate victim of dataism.
Of course, if you somehow manage to overcome the hurdle of suicidal thoughts, and your collection keeps growing without bound, then you’re sure to die in a torrential whirlwind avalanche of information and cards, literally done in by information overload.
But, not wishing to admit any of this, much less all of this, you imagine a simple trickster, a joker, something silly. You write it down on yet another card and you file it away into the box, linked only to the card in front of it, the end of a short line of cards with nothing following it, because what could follow it? Put it out of your mind and hope your fears disappear away with it, lost in your box like the jokerzettel you imagined. You do this with a self-assured confidence that this way of making sense of the world works well for you, and you settle back into the methodical work of reading and writing, intent on making your next thousands of cards.
Zettelkasten Face Off: Niklas Luhmann vs S.D. Goitein
If you feel the need to categorize and separate them in such a surgical fashion, then let your index be the place where this happens. This is what indices are for! Put the locations into the index to create the semantic separation. Math related material gets indexed under “M” and history under “H”. Now those ideas can be mixed up in your box, but they’re still findable. DO NOT USE OR CONSIDER YOUR NUMBERS AS TOPICAL HEADINGS!!! Don’t make the fatal mistake of thinking this. The numbers are just that, numbers. They are there solely for you to be able to easily find the geographic location of individual cards quickly or perhaps recreate an order if you remove and mix a bunch for fun or (heaven forfend) accidentally tip your box out onto the floor. Each part has of the system has its job: the numbers allow you to find things where you expect them to be and the index does the work of tracking and separating topics if you need that.
The broader zettelkasten, tools for thought, and creativity community does a terrible job of explaining the “why” portion of what is going on here with respect to Luhmann’s set up. Your zettelkasten is a crucible of ideas placed in juxtaposition with each other. Traversing through them and allowing them to collide in interesting and random ways is part of what will create a pre-programmed serendipity, surprise, and combinatorial creativity for your ideas. They help you to become more fruitful, inventive, and creative.
Broadly the same thing is happening with respect to the structure of commonplace books. There one needs to do more work of randomly reading through and revisiting portions to cause the work or serendipity and admixture, but the end results are roughly the same. With a Luhmann-esque zettelkasten, it’s a bit easier for your favorite ideas to accumulate into one place (or neighborhood) for easier growth because you can move them around and juxtapose them as you add them rather than traversing from page 57 in one notebook to page 532 in another.
If you use your numbers as topical or category headings you’ll artificially create dreadful neighborhoods for your ideas to live in. You want a diversity of ideas mixing together to create new ideas. To get a sense of this visually, play the game Parable of the Polygons in which one categorizes and separates (or doesn’t) triangles and squares. The game created by Vi Hart and Nicky Case based on the research of Thomas Schelling (Dynamic Models of Segregation, 1971) provides a solid and visual example of the sort of statistical mechanics going on with ideas in your zettelkasten when they’re categorized rigidly. If you rigidly categorize ideas and separate them, you’ll drastically minimize the chance of creating the sort of useful serendipity of intermixed and innovative ideas. A zettelkasten isn’t simply the aggregation repository many use it for—it’s a rumination device, a serendipity engine, a creativity accelerator. To get the best and most of this effect, one must carefully help to structure their card index to generate it.
It’s much harder to know what happens when you mix anthropology with complexity theory if they’re in separate parts of your mental library, but if those are the things that get you going, then definitely put them right next to each other in your slip box. See what happens. If they’re interesting and useful and they’ve got explicit numerical locators and are cross referenced in your index, they are unlikely to get lost. Be experimental occasionally. Don’t put that card on Henry David Thoreau in the section on writers, nature, or Concord, Massachusetts—especially if those aren’t interesting to you. Besides, everyone has already worn down those associative trails, paved them, and re-paved them. Instead put him next to your work on innovation and pencils because it’s much easier to become a writer, philosopher, and intellectual when your family’s successful pencil manufacturing business can pay for you to attend Harvard and your house was always full of writing instruments from a young age. Now you’ve got something interesting and creative. (And if you really must, you can always link the card numerically to the other transcendentalists across the way.)
In case they didn’t hear it in the back, I’ll shout it again:
ACTIVELY WORK AGAINST YOUR NATURAL URGE TO USE YOUR ZETTELKASTEN NUMBERS AS TOPICAL HEADINGS! MIX IT UP INSTEAD.
I’m hoping that this example will give the aspiring interested note takers, commonplacers, and zettelkasten maintainers a peek into a small portion of my own specific process if they’d like to look more closely at such an example.
Following the reading and note taking portions of the process, I spent about 5 minutes scratching out a brief outline for the shape of the piece onto one of my own 4 x 6″ index cards. I then spent 15 minutes cutting and pasting all of what I felt the relevant notes were into the outline and arranging them. I then spent about two hours writing and (mostly) editing the whole. In a few cases I also cut and pasted a few things from my digital notes which I also felt would be interesting or relevant (primarily the parts on “notes per day” which I had from prior research.) All of this was followed by about an hour on administrivia like references and HTML formatting to put it up on my website. While some portions were pre-linked in a Luhmann-ese zettelkasten sense, other portions like the section on notes per day were a search for that tag in my digital repository in Hypothes.is which allowed me to pick and choose the segments I wanted to cut and paste for this particular piece.
From the outline to the finished piece I spent about three and a half hours to put together the 3,500 word piece. The research, reading, and note taking portion took less than a day’s worth of entertaining diversion to do including several fun, but ultimately blind alleys which didn’t ultimately make the final cut.
For the college paper writers, this entire process took less than three days off and on to produce what would be the rough equivalent of a double spaced 15 page paper with footnotes and references. Naturally some of my material came from older prior notes, and I would never suggest one try to cram write a paper this way. However, making notes on a variety of related readings over the span of a quarter or semester in this way could certainly allow one to relatively quickly generate some reasonably interesting material in a way that’s both interesting to and potentially even fun for the student and which could potentially push the edges of a discipline—I was certainly never bored during the process other than some of the droller portions of cutting/pasting.
While the majority of the article is broadly straightforward stringing together of facts, one of the interesting insights for me was connecting a broader range of idiosyncratic note taking and writing practices together across time and space to the idea of statistical mechanics. This is slowly adding to a broader thesis I’m developing about the evolving life of these knowledge practices over time. I can’t wait to see what develops from this next.
In the meanwhile, I’m happy to have some additional documentation for another prominent zettelkasten example which resulted in a body of academic writing which exceeds the output of Niklas Luhmann’s own corpus of work. The other outliers in the example include a significant contribution to a posthumously published book as well as digitized collection which is still actively used by scholars for its content rather than for its shape. I’ll also note that along the way I found at least one and possibly two other significant zettelkasten examples to take a look at in the near future. The assured one has over 15,000 slips, apparently with a hierarchical structure and a focus on linguistics which has some of the vibes of John Murray’s “slip boxes” used in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.