Ruminant machines: a twentieth-century episode in the material history of ideas

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Chris Korner/Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach

This essay is a companion piece by Daniela K. Helbig for the article, ‘Life without toothache’, in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, 80/1 (2019), 91-112.

Writing tools: between the history of ideas and media theory

Openly and not without irony, the Enlightenment physicist, satirist, and public intellectual Georg Christoph Lichtenberg acknowledged the mercantile origin of his notebooks. Kept from at least 1765 until his death in 1799, they made him famous under the name of Sudelbücher (digitized version at UB Göttingen):

Merchants have their waste book, Sudelbuch or Klitterbuch in German I believe, in which they list all that they have sold or bought every single day, everything as it comes and in no particular order. The waste book’s content is then transferred to the Journal in a more systematic fashion, and at last it ends up in the “Leidger [sic] at double entrance,” following the Italian way of bookkeeping. […] This is a process worthy of imitation by the learned.”(See Ulrich Joost’s analysis in this volume, 24-35.)

In this deliberate attention to his writing and note-taking process, Lichtenberg proves himself to be characteristically skeptical of any notions of thoughts and ideas simply pouring out from the heads of the “learned,” the scholarly equivalent of what was soon to be celebrated by the Romantic cult of creative genius. Instead, the abstract “idea” takes shape through concrete material processes of scribbling and copying. As Friedrich Nietzsche famously conceded to his friend Heinrich Köselitz a century later, “You are right — our writing tools take part in the forming of our thoughts.”  But just how do they do so? This question forms the point of intersection between intellectual historians and media theorists, and other disciplines interested in the material history of text production, notably historians of the book and historians of science. Ideas have a history, but so do the tools that lend disembodied ideas their material shape −− most commonly, text on a page. The text is produced with the help of writing tools such as pencil, typewriter, or computer keyboard, and of note-taking tools such as ledger, notebook, or mobile phone app. These tools themselves embody the merging of often very different histories. Lichtenberg’s notebooks are a good example, drawing as they do on mercantile bookkeeping, the humanist tradition of the commonplace book, and Pietist autobiographical writing (see Petra McGillen’s detailed analysis).

What to do with reading excerpts? From Lichtenberg’s ledgers to Blumenberg’s note cards

In celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Hans Blumenberg’s Genesis of the Copernican World, JHI also celebrates one of Lichtenberg’s greatest admirers, and at the same time the owner of one of the quirkiest and most curious pieces of writing machinery of the twentieth century. Both Lichtenberg and Blumenberg were avid and regular note-takers, but the paper machinery of choice had changed for Blumenberg. No longer did he use leather-bound folio or quarto volumes to record his “penny’s worth of thought” as Lichtenberg had called his entries, but their equivalent from the age of bureaucratization: the Zettelkasten, a note- or slip card box. Sitting still now in thirty-two sturdy green conservation boxes at the German Literary Archives in Marbach, the more than 30,000 cards that comprise Blumenberg’s Zettelkasten have spent their previous working life in motion, on a journey through piles and drawers. “If only I had channels in my head,” Lichtenberg had fantasized, “so as to promote domestic trade between the stockpiles of my thought! But alas, there they lie by the hundreds without being of use to one another.” Two hundred years later, Blumenberg’s note cards, each of them number-stamped by him and thus carrying along a trace of their temporal order of origin, could be moved and rearranged continuously in ways that weren’t open to the entries confined to the bound pages of Lichtenberg’s books. Blumenberg relied on the new connections and constellations generated within his Zettelkasten throughout his life as a writer.

Note card boxes: technology transfer from the library to the office, and back again

Beyond its role in the development of Blumenberg’s thought discussed in ‘Life Without Toothache,’ it is worth lingering a little more on the Zettelkasten itself, and place this intriguing piece of machinery in the historical genealogy of writing tools as a remnant of the pre-digital decades of the twentieth century. Media theorist Markus Krajewski has devoted a book specifically to the paper machinery of cards and catalogs. He traces the origins of this machinery back to sixteenth-century attempts at indexing books, and through the twists and turns of library technology in Europe and the U.S. over the following centuries. By the 1920s, about a decade before Blumenberg began to produce and keep his note cards systematically, note cards and their corresponding boxes had developed into a veritable “paper slip economy” (Krajewski) no longer confined to libraries but now an increasingly important tool of bureaucracy and business administration alike. Standardized in size and readily available, prefabricated systems of paper slips and boxes promised efficient and rational organization for any office. And indeed they were quickly adopted not just by the businessmen and administrators to whom they were primarily marketed, but also by a generation of writers of poetry and prose, of philosophy and polemics: a technology transfer from library to office, as Krajeweski has described the process in his history of the slip-card box, and back. “The basis of organization is to ensure that all work continues to flow on its own,” he quotes from a journal devoted to office organization in the 1920s (see here, 125). This desire for autonomy of office-work processes has taken on a concrete material form in the slip box. Could such an autonomous flow process possibly have satisfied the thinker Lichtenberg’s demand for proper “rules for invention,” formalizing what he suggests is the proper way of speaking: “don’t say I think, but rather: there is thinking [es denkt], just like you’d say there is thunder [es donnert]”?

Machines of the Imagination

A 2013 exhibition at the museum of the German Literature Archive in Marbach showcased the diverse uses to which these ‘machines of the imagination’ were put not just by Blumenberg, but by many of his contemporaries across the political spectrum and across academic disciplines, such as Ernst Jünger, Siegfried Kracauer, or Friedrich Kittler (see the exhibition catalogue ). Not all Zettelkästen look as intriguing as art historian Aby Warburg’s, who occasionally used thematically matching cover material for his boxes. His box no. 6, for instance, gathers entries to do with ‘saga − snake − tree,’ and is wrapped in yellow imitation snake-skin. And some Zettelkästen exist in their creator’s imagination only. The novelist and storyteller Jean Paul assembled some 12,000 paper scraps over the course of his lifetime, but died in 1825, well before the advent of standardized box systems that made it convenient and easy to store such multitudes of paper slips, as well as to realize what remained a dream to Paul: the dream of a more complex order between the paper scraps than that imposed by the linear arrangement of the written page. Note card boxes are capable of maintaining a fragile order of card entries to be written, arranged and rearranged, an order nevertheless always under threat by mundane hazards: a drawer may be knocked over, a folder bumped into. The note card box’s capacity to establish connections between entries, be it systematically or by hazard, is reminiscent of another one of Lichtenberg’s quips: “Oh how many ideas aren’t hovering dispersed in my head! Quite a few pairs among those could provoke the greatest discovery if only they came together. But isolated from one another they lie, just like the sulphur from the city of Goslar lies isolated from East Indian nitre and from Oaksfield coal dust when jointly they could produce gunpowder!”

“Communication with note card boxes”

The sociologist Niklas Luhmann kept the only note card box that is known to match Blumenberg’s in size and importance as a tool for thought. Like Blumenberg, he had developed a complex system of excerpting on note cards, and of labeling these cards in an idiosyncratic shorthand for cross-referencing purposes. To Luhmann, his note card box is a “ruminant,” Wiederkäuer: a system to chew over various bits of reading material over stretches of time that are long enough to allow new connections and combinations to appear, and thus to generate genuine surprises (for more, see here). Accordingly, he readily grants the Zettelkasten agency in the process of thought production: “Without the paper scraps, i.e. by reflection alone, I wouldn’t have such ideas. Of course my head is required for writing them down, but it cannot be held solely responsible for them (see here, 144).” So how does the box contribute to thinking? Luhmann the system and communication theorist offered a starting point for analyzing the function of his writing machinery in a article tellingly titled “Communication with note card boxes.” He emphasizes the element of chance built into the retrieval of material for thought, and the process of communication between himself and the box. Should the idea seem strange that an apparatus made of wood and paper makes a stimulating conversation partner, Markus Krajewski reminds us that Luhmann’s choice of interlocutor has a precedent in an 1805 piece by the novelist Heinrich von Kleist (see the chapter “Paper as Passion” in this collection). In his “On the gradual fabrication of thoughts while speaking,” Kleist was in turn musing on Immanuel Kant’s metaphor of the teacher as the midwife at the birth of the student’s thought. When stuck in developing a thought, Kleist recommends, find an acquaintance to talk at. No responses are required. The mere presence of the silent interlocutor, and even more so the imminent threat of losing their attention during lengthy stretches of boredom or incoherence will trigger, or so Kleist claims, the “fabrication of my idea in reason’s workshop.” Luhmann’s note card box adds both access to information stored over time and a tactile twist to the thought fabrication process. The box responds to touch rather than voice, to drawers being opened and cards being pulled out, and delivers the keywords and connections necessary for forming thoughts.

“He who hasn’t lost anything in his head can’t find anything in there either.”

Hans Blumenberg carefully read Luhmann’s piece on ‘Communication with note card boxes’ in 1981. He compared their respective systems, and did not fail to record that he had “collaborated” with his own Zettelkasten for forty years, compared to Luhmann’s mere twenty-six. But, while acknowledging similarities and differences in the everyday usage of the writing tool they had in common, Blumenberg is less inclined than Luhmann to credit the box for his thought production. His understanding of its function is informed by a different metaphor of Kant’s for the process of thinking. Filed on a card under the key word cogitare, Blumenberg quotes Kant: “Thinking is conversation with oneself… Listening inside.” As Dorit Krusche and Ulrich von Bülow argue in their analysis of Blumenberg’s Zettelkasten (see here, 113-119), it became a medium to send “messages to oneself.” Judging by the number of writing projects that Blumenberg’s note card box generated, it is only helpful for such a conversation with oneself that plenty of messages end up getting lost in the note card box for quite a few years, sometimes to be forgotten but often to be picked up again later, reinserted in new contexts. “He who hasn’t lost anything in his head can’t find anything in there either,” Lichtenberg joyfully declared (a few days after praising the word ‘nonsense’ over weightier notions such as ‘chaos’ or ‘eternity’). The Zettelkasten is a tool to outsource memory, but also to enhance that fortuitous forgetfulness that leads to future productive re-encounters. “Sibi scribere: The reasonable author writes for no other posterity than his own, for his own old age, in order to take pleasure in himself even then,” Blumenberg quotes Nietzsche (here, 83). His piece of organizational machinery from the age of paper-based bureaucracy made sure he did not run out of material for productive pleasure.

Daniela K. Helbig teaches at the School for History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Sydney. Her research areas are at the intersection of the history and philosophy of technology, and of intellectual history. 


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