NB: this is first in a week-long series dedicated to discussing Anthony Grafton's "The Footnote: A Curious History." Today, we're discussing chapter 1; tomorrow will be chapters 2 & 3. Grab a book and a slice of pie and join in wherever you like.
“Only the use of footnotes enables historians to make their texts not only monologues but conversations, in which modern scholars, their predecessors, and their subject all take part.”
“He uses footnotes like a lamppost: not to illuminate anything, but merely to have something to lean on.”
When I was an undergraduate, I found footnotes intimidating. If a book was scholarly, that was fine, so long as the notes were at the end. Seeing them looming there at the bottom of the page made me feel like an interloper on a world of specialists that I was nowhere near smart enough to evaluate. The elaborate code, the titles in multiple languages, the long quotes in Latin (I’m a medievalist, after all) — all of these let me know that I was an outsider, rather than someone who was a real practitioner.
The first chapter of Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History tells us two things: First, that the modern footnote is engineered to do just that, and second, that it wasn’t always that way.
Let’s turn first to the proposition that it wasn’t always this way, that “the footnote varies as widely in nature and content as any other complex scientific or technical practice.” Grafton notes the relation (though not direct parentage) of the modern footnote to the ancients’ in-text references to authorities they were depending on, and to medieval writers' authoritative glosses. And the chapter opens with a drolly hilarious section on Gibbon’s use of footnotes to gossip and snark while maintaining a gentlemanly decorum above the line. As any reader of my blog or my academic prose knows, I am a fan of this sort of footnote. I tend to use footnotes as a storage space: Here’s something pretty neat that’s tangentially related or maybe something that just crossed my mind that would break the flow of the argument in the text, but I tell you, you have just got to see this. If the text is the lecture hall, then the footnotes are arm-waving chitchat at the bar or coffee shop. Above the line, all is outline-based order and strong topic sentences that flow from one to the next and ruthless culling of the irrelevant; below the line, the barely contained chaos of an easily distracted mind.
Second, there is the proposition that the modern footnote is meant to divide the world between specialist and non-specialist. This is the footnote we are familiar with. It is a claim to authority, not of the sources, but of the author her- or himself: “I have labored in the mines; I have mastered the method.” Grafton lets us know that, unlike its premodern ancestors, the modern footnote generally legitimizes the author and the method of production, rather than focusing on the reader and the framework of consumption. As much as I might joke in my blog about letting my subconscious write the footnotes to my academic prose, I know I’d never actually do that, simply because Mann macht das nicht. Because that would not be professional.
And there’s a whole heckuva lot tied up in that idea of “the professional historian” and the relationship to the modern footnote. But I’m going to leave that for tomorrow, when we go into Grafton’s chapters 2 & 3 on Ranke and the footnote. For now, I leave you with these two questions: How do you use footnotes? Did you recognize yourself in any of what Grafton writes in chapter 1?
 Grafton, 234
 Some snarky scholar, randomly (and probably mis-)quoted by an ex of mine.
 Grafton, 11
 Squirrel! (And, to be perfectly honest, my lecture style is pretty easily distracted too. Pity the poor student.)
 Did you click the link in the callout?