On The Interdisciplinarity of Zettelkasten: Card Numbering, Topical Headings, and Indices

As humans we’re terrifically spectacular at separating things based on perceived categories. The Dewey Decimal System systematically separates mathematics and history into disparate and distinct locations, but your zettelkasten shouldn’t force this by overthinking categories. Perhaps the overlap of math and history is exactly the interdisciplinary topic you’re working toward? If this is the case, just put cards into the slip box closest to their nearest related intellectual neighbor—and by this I mean nearest related to your way of thinking, not to Melvil Dewey’s or anyone else. Over time, through growth and branching, ideas will fill in the interstitial spaces and neighboring ideas will slowly percolate and intermix. Your interests will slowly emerge into various bunches of cards in your box. Things you may have intially thought were important can separate away and end up on sparse branches while other areas flourish. If you make the (false) choice to separate math and history into different “sections” it will be much harder for them to grow and intertwine in an organic and truly interdisciplinary way. Universities have done this sort of separation for hundreds of years and as a result, their engineering faculty can be buildings or even entire campuses away from their medical faculty who now want to work together in new and exciting interdisciplinary ways. This creates a physical barrier to more efficient and productive innovation and creativity. It’s your zettelkasten, so put those ideas right next to each other from the start so they can do the work of serendipity and surprise for you. Do not artificially separate your favorite ideas. Let them mix and mingle and see what comes out of them.

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:


Featured image by Michael Treu from Pixabay

On the Jokerzettel: An Apocalyptic Interpretation of Luhmann’s note ZKII 9/8j

Niklas Luhmann’s Jokerzettel 9/8j

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.

Ein Joker.

—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.

An Apocalyptic Interpretation

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.

Replied to a post by Romain LarueRomain Larue (Piaille)
Nous avons tous pris des notes durant nos cours, nos réunions ou pendant la lecture d’un livre. Mais que deviennent ces notes ? Est-ce qu’il n’existe pas un moyen de les rendre durable dans le temps et surtout de les utiliser de façon efficace? Cette méthode c’est le ZETTELKASTEN, une technique inventée par NIKLAS LUHMANN pour organiser ses notes et ses observations pour en faire des livres et des articles denses et riches. https://youtu.be/1ycG6ojNPq8 #zettelkasten #efficacité #organisation #ecrire
@ctietze @romainlarue
Pourquoi ne pas utiliser la méthode des fiches de Roland Barthes? 😁 #FichierBoîte
Replied to a thread by Donna Yates and Shawn Graham (archaeo.social)
For the past few weeks I've been working hard to bring a modified #Zettelkasten system into my academic life via #Obsidian. Obsidian (or knowledge management) tips, tricks, plugins, etc very welcome.
@Drdonnayates I'd say, ignore the temptation to install all the plugins, until you get the feel of things. And even then, keep it minimal. Otherwise I at least get distracted in pursuit of The One True System instead of just using the damned thing. You might find some use in the materials re Obsidian I use with my students, https://shawngraham.github.io/hist1900
@electricarchaeo OH do I so want the one true system...I want it.
@Drdonnayates @electricarchaeo
Shawn’s admonition to keep things simple is valuable. I’m hoping to go through his excellent looking class materials shortly.

I rely heavily on Hypothes.is for digital annotation and transport it all into Obsidian using https://boffosocko.com/2021/07/08/hypothes-is-obsidian-hypothesidian-for-easier-note-taking-and-formatting/

@natalie recently wrote up an excellent overview for dovetailing with Zotero, which I’d done previously and love: https://nataliekraneiss.com/your-academic-reading-list-in-obsidian/

If you really want to go down the rabbit hole: https://boffosocko.com/research/zettelkasten-commonplace-books-and-note-taking-collection/

If it provides some reassurance, though I’ve not gotten into the specifics I’m reasonably certain that Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss, among many others, had significant practices.

If you go beyond basic notes, I’ll have something on to do list functionality shortly, but our friend @kfitz had something here recently: https://kfitz.info/tasks-matter/

If you’ve not found it yet, Obsidian has a Discord with a specific channel for academia.

Acquired Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia by David Graeber (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The final posthumous work by the coauthor of the major New York Times bestseller The Dawn of Everything. Pirates have long lived in the realm of romance and fantasy, symbolizing risk, lawlessness, and radical visions of freedom. But at the root of this mythology is a rich history of pirate societies―vibrant, imaginative experiments in self-governance and alternative social formations at the edges of the European empire. In graduate school, David Graeber conducted ethnographic field research in Madagascar for his doctoral thesis on the island’s politics and history of slavery and magic. During this time, he encountered the Zana-Malata, an ethnic group of mixed descendants of the many pirates who settled on the island at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia, Graeber’s final posthumous book, is the outgrowth of this early research and the culmination of ideas that he developed in his classic, bestselling works Debt and The Dawn of Everything (written with the archaeologist David Wengrow). In this lively, incisive exploration, Graeber considers how the protodemocratic, even libertarian practices of the Zana-Malata came to shape the Enlightenment project defined for too long as distinctly European. He illuminates the non-European origins of what we consider to be “Western” thought and endeavors to recover forgotten forms of social and political order that gesture toward new, hopeful possibilities for the future.
Picking up a copy for Dan Allosso’s next book club read.
Quantum mechanics anyone? Dozens have been disappointed by UCLA’s administration ineptly standing in the way of Dr. Mike Miller being able to offer his perennial Winter UCLA math class (Ring Theory this quarter), so a few friends and I are putting our informal math and physics group back together.

We’re mounting a study group on quantum mechanics based on Peter Woit‘s Introduction to Quantum Mechanics course from 2022. We’ll be using his textbook Quantum Theory, Groups and Representations:An Introduction (free, downloadable .pdf) and his lectures from YouTube.

Shortly, we’ll arrange a schedule and some zoom video calls to discuss the material. If you’d like to join us, send me your email or leave a comment so we can arrange meetings (likely via Zoom or similar video conferencing).

Our goal is to be informal, have some fun, but learn something along the way. The suggested mathematical background is some multi-variable calculus and linear algebra. Many of us already have some background in Lie groups, algebras, and representation theory and can hopefully provide some help for those who are interested in expanding their math and physics backgrounds.

Everyone is welcome! 

Yellow cover of Quantum Theory, Groups and Representations featuring some conic sections in the background

📖 A new incarnation of Dan Allosso’s Obsidian Book Club begins this coming weekend with David Graeber’s last book Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia (2023). If you’re interested in history, anthropology, or our conceptualizations of freedom, racism, and erasure, this is sure to be your cup of tea. Come join us.

I suspect that it’s by design, but I’m noticing that there’s a well curated “Getting Started” tab on https://zettelkasten.de/, but there’s absolutely no sign of any documentation about “Finishing”. Would someone just slip me into a box when I’m done?