A Theory of Puzzles: Process, Product, and Slowing Down
I've been putting together a puzzle.
A couple of weeks ago, I felt inexplicably drawn to a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that had been sitting in my closet for I don’t know how long. Turning for a moment from the unrelenting news coverage of COVID-19, the collapse of our routines, and a head-space of hurried, half-completed thoughts, I opened the box.
To acquiesce to being puzzled, to accept and even invite puzzlement, with the goal of assembling a work that you might very well take apart after you’ve completed it, is kind of a strange thing. Assembling this puzzle has become an almost meditative exercise, which has inspired some reflection and consequently, this blog post, which I hope you will enjoy reading.
How do you begin a puzzle? First, I had to push aside the inner objection that what I was about to do wasn’t “productive.” I had work to do, I thought. Plus, why would I put it together if I wasn't going to hang it on the wall afterward? (One wall of my apartment already displays a puzzle—completed with my mom over a winter break—and I don't think I want to become the kooky Puzzle-on-every-Wall-of-her-Apartment Lady.) However, it did occur to me—and a quick online search backed me up—that the process of working on a puzzle could strengthen my mental acuity.
But why did I feel like this required justification at all? Why must a new activity directly relate to a work task or, at least, to apartment décor (which could also relate to work insofar as it shapes my workspace at home) or to brain health (which could make me more efficient)? Gilles Deleuze writes that “work” necessitates a “capture of activity” by capitalism (Plateaus 401). Moreover, as “the economic center” has shifted “from material commodities to social relations,” the “boundaries between labor and life” have become blurred, according to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (134-35). I think I’ve internalized this sense that all activity should be productive—in other words, in service to a product or a goal, especially in relation to work.
Whether it has enhanced my productivity or not, putting together the puzzle has calmed my mind. When I began, my brain was encumbered by an influx of disturbing information, and my attention was shifting from text to email to news report, to Googled follow-up question, to store inventory search… It was cognitive overload, reminiscent of the rapid, dizzying, schizophrenic conclusion that Deleuze foresaw for capitalism (Anti-Oedipus 246-47). As Celeste Headlee points out in Do Nothing, a book in the vein of the Slow Movement, “It takes time for our brains to break away from one task and focus on a new one,” and multi-tasking makes us “three times more likely to make a mistake” (160). Slower, less “active” mental states, such as daydreaming—and, I would argue, doing puzzles—can help you process new information.
Visual Text & Context
Whenever I was about to step away from the puzzle, I covered it up with a newspaper to keep it out of reach of my cat (to whom the pieces looked like so many glossy, bite-sized toys, horded selfishly by his human). At one point, upon returning to it, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the puzzle and the newspaper headlines. This was the last print edition I’d gotten of the Sunday New York Times. The Times has been an occasional some-Sundays treat; I would fan it out luxuriously across the table and consume it, section by section, with breakfast over the course of the week. I had gotten this edition on the cusp of when most Nebraskans began avoiding stores (and even then, I could only feel comfortable getting one by curbside pickup).
The headlines on the newspaper pages I’d laid over the puzzle made apparent the lived context—and the new information that needed processing—which had prompted me to put the puzzle together. (Initially, I even misread an article about an earthquake as directly related to the pandemic; that had been the focus of the news and had, then, become my focus in consuming the news.)
This foregrounding of a conspicuously absent context called to mind Jacques Derrida’s inclusion of context, in a broad sense, in the deconstructionist reading of texts. The Times articles on the encroaching pandemic foregrounded the circumstances from which the visual text of the puzzle would otherwise have appeared far removed: The puzzle shows a table and chairs invitingly pulled out on a flower-adorned deck, which overlooks a view of the sun setting over a cliff-side village and glittering sea. I enjoyed focusing on the several puzzle pieces I was working on at a time, but whenever my perspective shifted from the parts to the whole, this was also an image that I could enjoy.
The Logic of Puzzles
But it was still a puzzle. How do you begin when you’re faced with the puzzling? You can’t dump out all 1,000 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and expect to immediately recognize the colorful splotches as elements of larger patterns (although another option, if you're my cat or the capitalist impulse, would be to try to consume it). I chose one thing to focus on first, or at least, one thing at a time. I chose the foreground: the chairs, table, and flowers on the deck. Then one side of the deck. Then just the purple flowers. My focus could shift easily, organically, without feeling rushed.
Can we understand the puzzle as a metaphor for reassembling the parts of our own world that currently seem fragmented?
Once I located all of the corner and edge pieces, I had defined the limits of this perspective, one which wasn’t my own and which likely valued the picturesque over the realistic. In the words of John Berger, “Every image embodies a way of seeing” (142). What was left outside the frame might, for Jacques Rancière, be considered the unrepresented. Those who are unrepresented in political life comprise what he calls the part of no part (23).
On the other hand, while a puzzle is a slow activity, it is also a temporary one. I'm aware that the perspective is an artifice, which I've decided to recreate for the span of the puzzle. Moreover, even though the complete picture on the box serves as a representational guide, the premise of which functions as a sort of meta-narrative, the default state of the puzzle doesn’t really seem to be its completed form. The puzzle holds your attention when it is in pieces because it is in pieces; it requires action. You might admire it afterward, but you no longer scrutinize it in the same way.
As I made progress—both drawn by my momentum to complete the puzzle and dreading no longer having a puzzle to work on—I challenged myself not to check the image on the box. I tried to recognize the patterns based on the colors and the shapes onto which I was adding. I had already given some of the puzzle shapes names of my own, so that I could recognize them more easily—names that functioned like “trapezoid” or “square,” but more along the lines of “Robot House” and “Accusatory Ghost.”
In a much less lighthearted way, I think that these are ways in which we’ve attempted to make sense of recent global events—through the lens of repeated patterns (the 1918 Spanish flu or earlier outbreaks in other countries) or by mastering the vocabulary (“asymptomatic,” “social distancing,” or “N95 mask”).
What would it be like, I mused, to work on a puzzle with no reference picture at all? Maybe just with an idea of what was to come? I’m drawn to this concept, although I know that in reality, it is, in fact, frustrating not to be able to visualize a clear picture of the future. But does “becoming” require an anticipated becoming-something? What would it be like to shift the focus so radically to the process rather than the completed product and the desired "productivity" that must speed up its conclusion?
For a change of pace, I got my hands on an easier, 500-piece puzzle, which I completed in a matter of days. I hadn’t decided yet whether to disassemble or to try to preserve the 500-piece puzzle. But as I was moving it from the table to a piece of cardboard for safekeeping in the meantime, some of the pieces began to come apart. At first, I strove to piece it back together, but that only jumbled the pieces up further. Finally, I submitted to the process, and just as I had pieced it together, I found myself gently helping along its deconstruction. The shapes and colors followed their own lines of flight, as they exceeded the limits that had defined the whole, falling together and apart in ways I couldn’t have predicted.
On a simple puzzle, it's easier to accept this form of disassemblage. When it comes to the larger, 1,000-piece puzzle, to which I’ve devoted more time and energy, I don’t know that I will be ready to break it back apart anytime soon. And, metaphorically speaking, there are some changes that shouldn't be accepted.
But perhaps to put a puzzle together is to accept that it can also be taken apart—or at least, that it can be more constantly in flux than the image on the side of the box would suggest.
Whether or not you find the connections I've pieced together in this pseudo-epistemology of puzzles to be of use to you, I heartily recommend the puzzle as a mind-clearing exercise. As such, it ultimately did make me more productive, but that doesn't have to be the reason we do it.
Berger, John. “Ways of Seeing.” Ways of Reading, edited by John Bartholomae, Anthony Petrosky, and Stacey Waite, 11th ed., 2017, pp. 141-160.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Penguin, 2009.
---. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi. U of Minnesota P, 1987.
Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Harvard UP, 2009.
Headlee, Celeste. Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving. Harmony Books, 2020.