005 Note the Messy Garden

On tinkering with the noospheric prosthesis

One omnipresent, if not always apparent, source of anxiety for many of us is that we exist between a residual paradigm that is textual, literate, and authoritative, and an emergent paradigm that is postliterate, oral, and spectacular. A feature of a liquid and spectacular society is, I think, that polysemy is no longer an affordance but an imperative. Competing interpretations are the norm. Our attending minds are forced into tension.

There are ways of modeling the world and living life that can inoculate against this to some extent, or offer support, or claim to … but even if you are so fortunate to find one, you can’t take for granted that your neighbor does, too. Let alone a stranger.

But this installment of Attendance Optional is going to focus on something more modest than all that. I want to tackle the problem of note-taking, and ways of using text (et elia) as prosthetic memory. How could one best structure habits of media practice, attention, and cognition for greater output?

Let me say, I don’t belong to what I think of as the “cult of optimization.” Life, frankly, needs its surplus and waste. Even the most necessary work needs balance with rest and with leisure. When I’m eventually on my deathbed, I doubt I’ll care about a lot of optimizable aspects of my life and whether I squeezed them dry to be the most productive and efficient I could be, but I will probably care that I sorted out a way of keeping hold of good ideas I come across and communicating them to people to people in a way that feels “authentic.” (I am told this desire corresponds to my enneagram type, if you’re into that.) If I think back to the Simone Weil quote from my first letter, I’m reminded of the advice that “we must not want to find.” Instead it is a matter of being open, of conditioning one’s life to this receptivity so that it may generate results we don’t imagine beforehand—results that will likely surprise and, moreover, be true.

I’ve been reading lately about digital gardens (examples here), as well as different forms of note-taking, such as sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s, whose notecards you can browse here. The digital garden lives somewhere between the ephemeral, small, and transient and the polished and long-form. The garden, as a metaphor, captures the qualities of growth and also of slow, attentive care. It is cyclical but it isn’t always monotonous.

From a journal entry of Ernst Jünger:

“Herein lies the charm of collecting, not in any sense of completeness. It’s a matter of finding points of reference in all this multiplicity that indicate a creative energy. That is both the meaning of gardens and ultimately the meaning of the path of life itself.”

(A disclosure: I drafted some language about Jünger and why I quote him at all, but it veered too off-topic. Maybe another day.)

One co-exists with a garden. A garden requires our activity and also our patience. Gardens can be spaces for sociality and for seclusion. Thinking and writing involve a lot of solitary work, but there’s also a necessary social component. One needs to commune with other writers and thinkers, living and dead; one needs to test and temper ideas. A person who keeps intellectual notes of some kind is trying to connect disparate elements into a meaningful structure that allows growth and renewal.

A good note-taking system should be expansive and non-linear; it should make intuitive sense to the note-taker; it should be generative. It comes very unnaturally to me to keep mine centralized, standardized, and consistent. Instead, my notes from the past twenty years of life are scattered impractically across notebooks and stray sheets (which sit in my desk area, in boxes, in a file cabinet down in storage); they are in all kinds of Word documents throughout folders on my computer, with different naming conventions; they are scratched on printouts of PDFs. They might be email drafts. They might be in a phone app or two.

I’ve been experimenting a little bit with Notion lately, although I’m loathe to spend too much time on any particular system, site, or software in perpetuity. I want a system that is intuitive enough for me to pick up quickly and apply for my own uses. The point isn’t to learn a system for the sake of learning it. I’m only looking for a little more order to allow my notes to be messy in the best way.

Andy Matuschak, whose name comes up a lot in notes & productivity talk, emphasizes this when he writes that the goal isn’t better note-taking: it’s better thinking. That’s good advice and it’s why I don’t intend to dwell at length on this issue after this installment. If I do, it’s probably a sign that I’m stuck in “preparation mode,” and not so dissimilar from what’s been called the collector’s fallacy. This is certainly a stumbling block for me and relates deeply to the surfeit of demands on attention I discussed in my first letter.

To sum up, if the point of one’s notes and one’s writing is to to act as a prosthesis for our minds—to help us remember, which is another way of saying, to help us forget—so that things may be surprising once again!—then words, links, and references shouldn’t be lost in mess, too much mess. Too much brings one out of balance. We’re going for balance and for harmony.

If anyone has thoughts on this, feel free to sound off in comments or drop me a note. I’ve enjoyed the feedback I’ve gotten so far and am happy anyone’s getting something out of these early newsletters.

A few recommendations:

  • The Wexner Center for the Arts commissioned a bunch of short films to create Cinetracts ‘20, in which filmmakers were asked to produce very short films that reflected their world at the time. You can watch it here. Contributors include Charles Burnett, Bouchra Khalili (screencap above), Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Sky Hopinka, and Su Friedrich.

  • If you Netflix, a worthwhile double: Atlantics (‘an art film with some horror elements’) and His House (‘a horror film with some art movie elements’). They're both good; His House was just released and Atlantics I only caught up with, finally, within the last couple months. Probably 90% of the people who read this will already be well aware of both movies, but I’m mentioning them anyway. Similar themes of immigration and survival come up in a novel I read recently, Dionne Brand’s In Another Place, Not Here (1997). Synchronicity’s good to see.