What does Madonna have to do with history notes?

Some ramblings on studying history...

I am no history scholar, just a note-taking enthusiast, so that’s the perspective from which I write. It’s not the only perspective! This is also a pretty abstract post from me… but bear with me on this!

An idea I cannot shake from my mind is that history notes are an attempt to harness the movement of history into a (more) static, snapshot form. I’ve been thinking about this for so long that I’m no longer sure it makes any sense, so I’ve been searching for ways to illustrate my points.

I think one of Madonna’s music videos might help me do just that.

What do I mean by the movement of history?

Defining history is not something I feel qualified to do. But a reasonable starting point might be that history is what has occurred before the present moment.

We measure time in a finite way. We can finitely measure the number of hours, months, years and centuries that have passed since a pin-pointed time beforehand. But where that sure-footed, boundaried way of considering the world falls short is when you consider just how much there is to consider in the study of a time gone by.

“What has occurred” is a sentence that woefully attempts to capture the fact that history is an incomprehensibly complex web of interconnected places, wars, events, people, be it individuals, groups or states, all with their own desires and driving forces. It’s too complex to understand. That’s why you end up with short, almost abstract sentences such as “what has occurred before the present moment”. You cannot fully understand.

But the study of history is us trying to get as far as we can with the tools that we have.

One such tool might be a note-taking app, like Capacities*. Taking history notes is how some, such as myself, try to make sense of the complexity of our human past. To be clear, I’m not trying to put the web into my notes. I’m making my version of it.

But where is the movement I keep thinking about?

This complex web of history cannot be still because history cannot be separated from time. For us to be able to attempt to understand any small part of it, we must consider what came before and came after, and the more we learn, the more we re-interpret and re-understand what we’ve learned about before. This sense of inherent dynamism is important when considering deepening your understanding of history.

Yes, there’s that objective linear timeline of which events and battles came before some and after others, but where the complex web is really important is for an understanding of what you’re taking notes on. Why is it important to know that one battle came before another?

It feels like you have to move back and forth through time in order to build out your understanding of a given subject, as if you’re flipping back and forth through a textbook to feel more confident in the notes you’re taking at a given time.

A singular note is an attempt to capture your understanding of a tiny aspect of the web of history, a bit of the movement of history, a bit of the chaos. It’s a way to try to make sense of it. Not total sense, but some sense.

Taking notes in a networked-note-taking app then facilitates this sense-making by linking with relevant other notes. But in comparison to this frenetic web of history, notes feel much calmer- they have to be, as they’re the canvas on which we try to capture said chaos. They are ready for us to express our understanding, as we flip through the metaphorical textbook and dynamically move along a timeline, trying to make sense of a given subject.

It would be so easy to find the idea of history so overwhelming and off putting, but I personally think it’s thrilling. If you can’t know everything, why not just start and go on a journey?

Ok wait, what about Madonna?

I’ve been trying to find a visual representation of all this because it feels so abstract. I think Madonna’s Ray of Light music video is a pretty good option.

Now I don’t want to be hit with any copyright issues, so I’ve linked to the exact timestamp here:

But essentially it’s an short scene of people around a table in a busy restaurant with lots of other tables and people moving around in the background.

I want to use the table, the people, and the movement behind it as an example of how I view all this.

Say I’m in Capacities taking notes on a historical figure. I see this note as the table in the restaurant in the video. But a table in a restaurant is meant to be occupied, as notes in a networked note-taking app are (arguably) meant to be connected to each other. I therefore see an empty restaurant table as an orphaned note in your graph.

But there are people at this table. I see each diner as a representation of another note, connected in some way to the note about the historical figure, which here is the table.

Its the table, or the note, that facilitates the connection. The notes exist in their own right but you can link them together too. Similarly, each of the diners exist in their own right, but they are brought together around this restaurant table. In this way, I see the table with diners as a representation of a page graph showing some connected notes.

Notes in Capacities or a table with diners…

But whilst you focus on one note and its connections, the complex web in the background still exists. In the video, there are more tables, more people, more ideas, more connections, and movement all around them. You can try to take a snapshot through looking more specifically at a given idea, but there’s always more to the story.

Taking history notes in Capacities is my way of trying to pause or maybe hold this giant web for a moment, to turn information about it into a note that can be connected to others and that deepens my understanding of the world.

The more notes you take, the more connections you find, the more your network of notes grows, and the more your own version of this giant web develops in your app of choice. With it, your understanding of the world grows and your curiosity grows with it.

It’s an endless quest and that is what makes it so exciting. But it’s also important to learn in a positive environment too, which is why I chose to stick with Capacities back in November 2022. It just makes me happy. Other apps will make other history lovers happy.

So whilst I think I’ve got more thinking to do here, I will end this post by answering the question in the title.

What has Madonna got to do with history notes?

Well I believe she accidentally created a music video that is a perfectly helpful metaphor for how I view history notes in a networked note-taking app.

I hope this helped you visualise what I mean in some way, but if not a summary would be: history is a complex web we can never fully understand. Enjoy getting lost in and take some notes along the way if you’d like to :)

*I work for Capacities, you can read my full disclaimer here.

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