Wednesday, May 20, 2020
Opening my notebook to where I left off, I notice that the most recent pages are full of the distracted scrawl and half-hearted jottings that result from leaving it open on my desk while I work. There’s a scratchpaper quality to all of it. Random TODOs, unfinished lists, scraps of conversation, doodles, context-free exclamations. It was probably useful for thinking earlier, but it doesn’t tell me much now.
Musing about this in writing — writing about an act of writing, its materials, etc. — is a particular kind of thing. Let’s call it meta. Meta-whatever:
Writing about writing. Programming about programming. Meetings about meetings. The mind reflecting on its own function.
Meta-whatever can be both potent and dangerously tempting. It’s not for nothing that it shows up so many places, and at times it yields deep insights or significant gains in power. It’s also striking how often it seems to trap people in localized loops and hopeless ruts.
Methodology cults like Agile, Getting Things Done, and the recently emerging nerd-frenzy over the Zettelkasten method are rife with process obsessions, semi-stable patterns of recurring inquiry/argument, and people who mainly use their methods of choice to refine their methods of choice. You don’t have to spend much time around any given large organization to notice how much effort is burned on recursive bureaucracy, or how many contemporary jobs have collapsed into closed-loop no-external-reality meta-work.
This is all frustrating both to observe and to experience, when it gets out of control.
Maybe part of the reason it gets away from people is the high from when it pays off. Runaway metaprogramming might turn into such a nightmare because it starts with sharpening your tools to a keen edge, or with an act of leapfrogging tiers of abstraction. Automating your automation can feel like the purest response to that age old imperative of the hacker, that you make the computer do the stupid shit.
Of course, follow that impulse too far, angle it the wrong way — and pretty soon you’re Mickey Mouse trying to bail while the ensorceled brooms flood the whole joint.
Writing about writing might not have quite the same potential for nested, generative dysfunction, but it often produces artifacts just as unintelligible. Self-referentiality in fiction can be a real punch in the brain pan sometimes, but stories about stories get tiresome sooner or later. Taking the framework apart and putting it back together can be amazing; it can also become deeply annoying when a reader’s looking for a framework that contains something.
Sure, all narrative is a sort of trick — but artifice that’s purely interested in its own mechanics eventually leads to boring tricks. It’s like painting that’s purely about how paint adheres to a surface without any particular interest in or reference to external objects and context: There’s nothing wrong with that sort of thing, but there’d be something kind of depressing about a world where it was the only kind of painting.
To circle back to notes about note-taking, because that’s where this started: It’s a fruitful line of inquiry, up to some limit of circularity, some moment where you risk crawling up your own asshole about refining a System instead of using it to learn other things and think other thoughts.
This is a reminder I need, periodically.