“Do you have a method of working?” the journalist Jean-Louis de Rambures asked Barthes in a 1973 interview for Le Monde. “It all depends on what you mean by method,” Barthes replied. “As far as methodology is concerned, I have no opinion. But if you’re talking about work habits . . . ” As he recounts his routines, we discover that the openness of his intellectual style is predicated on the exactness of his procedure. After describing in detail his preference for fountain pens over felt-tip or ballpoint, after recounting his experiments with the electric typewriter at the suggestion of Philippe Sollers, after detailing how he organizes his workplace and schedule in Paris and in the provinces, Barthes tells Rambures about his index-card system, which is based on slips of paper precisely one-quarter the size of a usual page: “At least that’s how they were until the day standards were readjusted within the framework of European unification (in my opinion, one of the cruelest blows of the Common Market).” We get the sense that he’s joking, but only sort of. Knowledge emerges out of arrangements and rearrangements of paper. Formats and protocols matter. Matter matters. “Insignificance is the locus of true significance. This should never be forgotten,” Barthes tells Rambures. “That is why it seems so important to me to ask a writer about his writing habits, putting things on the most material level, I would even say the most minimal level possible. This is an anti-mythological action.”
As regular readers are aware I suffer from migraines and so have been a looking at ways to reduce my amount of prolonged screen time. All screens area not equal, of course, and it’s mainly the length of time rather the number of ‘looks’ that makes the difference.
That’s why I’m always fascinated to find out the methods of working for people, both past and present, who were not only fantastically productive, but influential as well. In the above quotation from Barthes it’s evident that the physicality of his system made a difference in a way allied to embodied cognition.