The Indexalist

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Matthew Fuller

I first spoke to the patient in the last week of that August. That evening the sun was tender in drawing its shadows across the lines of his face. The eyes gazed softly into a close middle distance, as if composing a line upon a translucent page hung in the middle of the air, the hands tapping out a stanza or two of music on legs covered by the brown folds of a towelling dressing gown. He had the air of someone who had seen something of great amazement but yet lacked the means to put it into language. As I got to know the patient over the next few weeks I learned that this was not for the want of effort.

In his youth he had dabbled with the world-speak language Volapük
  • 223.6 Orthographe


    4. Depuis le XVIe siècle des efforts nombreux ont été faits en vue d’une réforme de l’orthographe française. Ils ont rencontré de l’opposition.

    L’orthographe, disent les opposants, est une forme conventionalisée de l’écriture. Elle a l’avantage de s’imposer aux irrégularités des dialectes et aux changements historiques des sons. Elle lie les forces et les expressions d’une civilisation. Sans orthographe ou avec une orthographe phonétique, Shakespeare et la Bible ancienne seraient des œuvres étrangères pour les Anglais d’aujourd’hui. Le langage littéraire comme lien d’une civilisation et voix d’une nation doit être regardé d’abord comme un langage écrit, bien qu’il ne doive pas rester sans relation avec le parler pour devenir vivant.

    Les grammairiens ont donc tenté un effort systématique pour établir un moyen de relation commun et bien authentique entre les communautés à dialectes divers d’une nation.

    M. Brunetière a adressé à la réforme deux reproches : elle changerait la « figure » des mots et en altérerait l’« harmonie » et, ce faisant, elle transformerait le français en une sorte de volapük. M. Renard réplique qu’au XVIe et XVIIe siècle l’orthographe avait une autre figure, que dans les éditions d’aujourd’hui on la modernise et que Brunetière lui-même, dans son édition des « Sermons » de Bossuet, n’a pas respecté l’ancienne orthographe.

    À la fin du XVIIIe siècle, l’Académie a simplifie en bloc 5.000 mots sur les 10.000 que comptait la langue. Et nul ne protesta.


, one designed to do away with the incompatibility of tongues, to establish a standard in which scientific intercourse might be conducted with maximum efficiency and with minimal friction in movement between minds, laboratories and publications. Latin biological names, the magnificent table of elements, metric units of measurement, the nomenclature of celestial objects from clouds to planets, anatomical parts and medical conditions all had their own systems of naming beyond any specific tongue. This was an attempt to bring reason into speech and record, but there were other means to do so when reality resisted these early measures.

The dabbling, he reflected, had become a little more than that. He had subscribed to journals in the language, he wrote letters to colleagues and received them in return. A few words of world-speak remained readily on his tongue, words that he spat out regularly into the yellow-wallpapered lounge of the sanatorium with a disgust that was lugubriously palpable.

According to my records, and in piecing together the notes of previous doctors, there was something else however, something more profound that the language only hinted at. Just as the postal system did not require the adoption of any language in particular but had its formats that integrated them into addressee, address line, postal town and country, something that organised the span of the earth, so there was a sense of the patient as having sustained an encounter with a fundamental form of organisation that mapped out his soul. More thrilling than the question of language indeed was that of the system of organisation upon which linguistic symbols are inscribed. I present for the reader’s contemplation some statements typical of those he seemed to mull over.

“The index card system spoke to my soul. Suffice it to say that in its use I enjoyed the highest form of spiritual pleasure, and organisational efficiency, a profound flowering of intellect in which my every thought moved between its enunciation, evidence, reference and articulation in a mellifluous flow of ideation and the gratification of curiosity.” This sense of the soul as a roving enquiry moving across eras, across forms of knowledge and through the serried landscapes of the vast planet and cosmos was returned to over and over, a sense that an inexplicable force was within him yet always escaping his touch.

“At every reference stood another reference, each more interesting than the last. Each the apex of a pyramid of further reading, pregnant with the threat of digression, each a thin high wire which, if not observed might lead the author into the fall of error, a finding already found against and written up.” He mentions too, a number of times, the way the furniture seemed to assist his thoughts - the ease of reference implied by the way in which the desk aligned with the text resting upon the pages of the off-print, journal, newspaper, blueprint or book above which further drawers of cards stood ready in their cabinet. All were integrated into the system. And yet, amidst these frenetic recollections there was a note of mourning in his contemplative moods, “The superposition of all planes of enquiry and of thought in one system repels those for whom such harmonious speed is suspicious.” This thought was delivered with a stare that was not exactly one of accusation, but that lingered with the impression that there was a further statement to follow it, and another, queued up ready to follow.

As I gained the trust of the patient, there was a sense in which he estimated me as something of a junior collaborator, a clerk to his natural role as manager. A lucky, if slightly doubtful, young man whom he might mentor into efficiency and a state of full access to information. For his world, there was not the corruption and tiredness of the old methods. Ideas moved faster in his mind than they might now across the world. To possess a register of thoughts covering a period of some years is to have an asset, the value of which is almost incalculable. That it can answer any question respecting any thought about which one has had an enquiry is but the smallest of its merits. More important is the fact that it continually calls attention to matters requiring such attention.

Much of his discourse was about the optimum means of arrangement of the system, there was an art to laying out the cards. As the patient further explained, to meet the objection that loose cards may easily be mislaid, cards may be tabbed with numbers from one to ten. When arranged in the drawer, these tabs proceed from left to right across the drawer and the absence of a single card can thus easily be detected. The cards are further arranged between coloured guide cards. As an alterative to tabbed cards, signal flags may be used. Here, metal clips may be attached to the top end of the card and that stand out like guides. For use of the system in relation to dates of the month, the card is printed with the numbers 1 to 31 at the top. The metal clip is placed as a signal to indicate the card is to receive attention on the specified day. Within a large organisation a further card can be drawn up to assign responsibility for processing that date’s cards. There were numerous means of working the cards, special techniques for integrating them into any type of research or organisation, means by which indexes operating on indexes could open mines of information and expand the knowledge and capabilities of mankind.

As he pressed me further, I began to experiment with such methods myself by withdrawing data from the sanatorium’s records and transferring it to cards in the night. The advantages of the system are overwhelming. Cards, cut to the right mathematical degree of accuracy, arrayed readily in drawers, set in cabinets of standard sizes that may be added to at ease, may be apportioned out amongst any number of enquirers, all of whom may work on them independently and simultaneously. The bound book, by contrast, may only be used by one person at a time and that must stay upon a shelf itself referred to by an index card system. I began to set up a structure of rows of mirrors on chains and pulleys and a set of levered and hinged mechanical arms to allow me to open the drawers and to privately consult my files from any location within the sanatorium. The clarity of the image is however so far too much effaced by the diffusion of light across the system.

It must further be borne in mind that a system thus capable of indefinite expansion obviates the necessity for hampering a researcher with furniture or appliances of a larger size than are immediately required. The continuous and orderly sequence of the cards may be extended further into the domain of furniture and to the conduct of business and daily life. Reasoning, reference and the order of ideas emerging as they embrace and articulate a chaotic world and then communicate amongst themselves turning the world in turn into something resembling the process of thought in an endless process of consulting, rephrasing, adding and sorting.

For the patient, ideas flowed like a force of life, oblivious to any unnatural limitation. Thought became, with the proper use of the system, part of the stream of life itself. Thought moved through the cards not simply at the superficial level of the movement of fingers and the mechanical sliding and bunching of cards, but at the most profound depths of the movement between reality and our ideas of it. The organisational grace to be found in arrangement, classification and indexing still stirred the remnants of his nervous system until the last day.