The Slip-Box And The Passagenwerk
In the latest installment of my series on creative workflows, we turn to what may be the most important question of all: how do you turn hunches and reading notes into new ideas?
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In the late 1920s, the German philosopher and cultural historian Walter Benjamin began collecting notes for a project about nineteenth-century Paris and the historical imagination. Because its initial inspiration was the Parisian passages or arcades, the early prototypes of modern shopping malls, Benjamin’s project came to be called the passagenwerk—usually translated as the "arcades project" in English. The passagenwerk was a kind of intellectual labyrinth—a cross between a commonplace book of quotations and a surrealist poem. It was entirely built out of interlinked fragments: quotes from poets or old tour guides or sociological essays, interspersed with Benjamin’s own gnomic aphorisms. Many of the fragments were encoded with a private system of 32 colored shapes, denoting thematic connections between the ideas. Benjamin also bundled them into a series of thematic clusters—he called them “convolutes”—addressing a wide range of topics: fashion, iron construction, panoramas, boredom, prostitution, gambling. Whether Benjamin ultimately intended the project to coalesce into a linear book remains unclear. He died, tragically, in 1940, committing suicide in Spain during an ill-fated attempt to escape occupied France. The passagenwerk had been his central intellectual focus for more than a decade: “the theater of all my struggles and all my ideas,” as he once described it.
When I was in grad school in the early 90s, the passagenwerk was a kind of mythical white whale for literary theory types. The entire collection—more than a thousand pages long—had been published in German, but the English translation was still years away. (Harvard University Press eventually published it in 1999.) I spent weeks retracing Benjamin’s steps through the Paris arcades—the few that remain—trying to discern myself some of the strange enchantment he saw in them. If I’d ever gotten around to writing my dissertation, the arcades would have played a central role in it. Since then, Benjamin’s actual arguments have grown more mysterious to me; the older I get, the less I seem to understand him. But the structure of the arcades project continues to inspire me.
About two decades after Benjamin’s death, the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann began managing his research and reading notes using a technique that now goes by the name zettelkasten. It shared many properties with Benjamin’s system, with private codes that signified potential connections between the documents. (German intellectuals, as it turns out, seem to have a fondness for meticulous information management schemes.) Luhmann’s system depended on what he called a “slip-box”: the primary storage for all his scattered notes. He wrote notes on slips of paper—index cards basically—and filed them in the slip-box as a kind of physical hypertext, linked by the coding system. Categories would form over time as clusters of slips, all connected by some common thematic thread. It was more orderly than Benjamin’s system, with a formal index and bibliographic data. Benjamin’s was more of a cabinet of wonders, Luhmann’s closer to a library file system. But they had much in common.
Today Luhmann’s is the better known of the two, thanks in part to the fact that his use of the slip-box helped him lead an astonishingly productive life as a scholar, publishing more than 70 books over the course of his career. The zettelskasten method has also been popularized by Sönke Ahrens' bestselling book How To Take Smart Notes. It has inspired an entire cottage industry of indie software devoted to translating Luhmann’s slip-boxes into interactive code.
There’s a great deal in the slip-box technique that overlaps what we’ve discussed so far in this series. (Though somehow I had not read How To Take Smart Notes until a few AP readers recommended it in the comments.) The zettelskasten approach involves some very specific practices for capturing initial ideas and quotations, some of which dovetails with my notion of maintaining a “spark file,” some of which has its own idiosyncrasies. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, I recommend Ahren's book. But I want to focus on a later stage in the creative workflow, one we haven’t yet covered in this series, and one that is central to both the passagenwerk and the slip-box: the crucial process whereby isolated fragments and hunches coalesce into higher-level ideas. It’s important to capture as much as possible of what you read or think, but part of your workflow has to allow for the emergence of new concepts or perceptions, wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts. In Benjamin’s language, you need a technique for turning hunches into convolutes.