Monday, October 10, 2016

Notorious Book Club Day 4: Details, Details (Grafton, chs. 5 & 6)

I had a conversation with a grad student about two weeks ago about a thesis chapter of hirs. The writing was elegant, and there was a great argument at the chapter's core. The problem (in my estimation) was that ze had spent pages detailing the names and contributions of every middling lord in north-central Floopriana, with the predictable result that hir argument became lost in a sea of hard-won erudition.

What do we do with the details? Chapters five and six of Grafton's history of the footnote jump us back another century, from the literary footnotes of the eighteenth century to the seventeenth century, to address this question. Chapter five focuses on the the dilemma of the late Humanists, pulled in two by contradictory impulses: on the one hand, wanting to adhere to the models of classical scholarship, which prized elegance of narrative form; on the other, attached to the source criticism that characterized earlier humanists like Lorenzo Valla. Grafton shows how early c. 17 historians handled their ambivalent relationship to footnotes. On the one hand, Jacques-Auguste de Thou, a Latinist and Parisian lawyer, steadfastly refused to include footnotes in his text... but he did leave behind a massive volume of correspondence with other scholars that, in a sense, served as an informal annotation for the scholarly community. Samuel Johnson, whose  position (and possibly very life) depended on his history not being trotted out as evidence of sedition, included notes to his sources, but only reluctantly, taking time in his preface to preemptively defend himself against charges of pedantry.

Less fearful of such charges were the subjects of Grafton's sixth chapter, the ecclesiastical historians and the antiquarians. Also denizens of the seventeenth century, these writers were unafraid of accusations of pedantry: they were practicing a form of history in which erudition was the watchword, rather than stylistics. For the ecclesiastical historians, mountains of detail served as arsenals in sectarian conflicts. Data was so important that interpolations and outright forgeries were far from unknown... giving rise to peripheral disciplines like paleographics and diplomatics in order to root out forgeries created in this age. [Note: will someone please write a history of a golden age of forgery?] For the antiquaries, the details were not the means to pushing a sectarian agenda; they were the end in and of themselves. The were collectors and catalogers, preserving detail for its own sake. And in both cases, since erudition lay at the core, annotation was not only tolerable, it was essential.

What to take away from all this detail about how historians deal with detail? Well, the main thing for me is how very diverse an ecosystem early modern historiography was. And how very contested the definition of "history" is, and how that all relates to how we deal with details. Do we, as my student did, include them all because every one holds a small piece of the puzzle? Do we pare them back (as I recommended to said student) in the service of an elegant and reader-friendly narrative? When we make these choices, what are we saying about our job as historians?

And how does this all relate to the modern footnote? Well, that's Grafton's final chapter -- the one where he brings it all together. Stay tuned...

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Notorious Book Club reconvenes next Monday...

...because I'm up to my eyeballs in work until then. October is going to be... interesting.

So: next Monday we do the two back-to-the-future chapters. Tuesday we do the Cartesian chapter. Wednesday, conclusions.

And then we'll be all caught up and I'll learn not to be so damn enthusiastic about how much I can do and still sleep and sometimes (but not this week) even buy groceries.


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Notorious Book Club Day 3: Pedantry, Real and Fake (Grafton, ch. 4)

One of my favorite novels is Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. When I attempt to explain the book to my friends, I start with the setting: England during the Napoleonic wars. "So it's a historical novel." Well, not exactly. There are droll little commentaries throughout, kind of like in Jane Austen, gently poking fun at the rules of middle-high society. "So it's a comedy of manners." Well, a little, except there's also the fact that, in this version of Georgian England, magic is real. "So it's a fantasy novel." Well, a little, but also not really. Because magic, when the novel opens, is a stuffy academic discipline, embraced by stuffy older gentlemen who find the idea of practicing magic to be vulgar. "Okay, so... umm..." And just as I'm losing them, I usually add in, "And the best part? It's full of FOOTNOTES! Explanations of things and citations to scholarly works written by gentleman-magicians that the author is also making up! It's Brilliant!"

At this point, they usually try to find a way to shift the conversation. But that weird elision of genres turns out to be where Anthony Grafton ends up in his chapter four, "An Enlightenment Interlude." Sliding back a step chronologically, Grafton takes his search for the origins of the footnote from the nineteenth century of Ranke to the eighteenth century of the philosophes. And what he finds is surprising: "Footnotes, in short, spread rapidly in eighteenth-century historiography in part because they were already trendy in fiction." [1]


Here's the thing: I, perhaps like most people, associate the literature of the enlightenment with the Voltaires and Swifts: scholars more interested in being incisive than being scientific. But Grafton shows how the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were actually home to two traditions in scholarly literature: the broadly gesturing and often satirical philosophe, and the erudite antiquarian.[2]  That the former is better known -- perhaps "won" the contest for whom the century would be associated with -- is a foregone conclusion. But the fact that the former felt obliged to constantly puncture the pretensions (as they saw it) of the latter points to the widespread existence of the latter.

And in the ultimate irony, the vehicle that the former used to carry their satires and excoriations was, more often than not -- you guessed it -- the footnote itself

From the prose of Gibbon to the pornographers of Grub Street the eighteenth-century footnote is not one thing. It is a genus with several species: some are citations to sources (of varying degree of precision), some are explanations or clarifications that the erudite address to the ladies, some are snark, and some appear to be entirely made up, used as signifiers to lend the illusion of fact to what was undoubtedly fiction, in a melding of the two as a joke that the reader was expected to be in on.

Had they only existed, Susanna Clarke's scholar-magicians would have been delighted.
[1] Grafton, 121.
[2] Gibbon makes a reappearance here as well, as the bastard offspring of the two traditions, grand narrator above the line, but alternately pedant and satirist below the line. Sort of the scholarly-literary equivalent of a mullet.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Notorious Book Club day 2: Science and Story (Grafton, chapters 2 & 3)

“Simply to say how it actually was.”  — Leopold von Ranke

Poor, misunderstood Leopold von Ranke. If most of us know anything about him, it is this quote, which makes him seem inutterably naïve, the symbol of the way we wrote history before we knew that our sources couldn’t be taken at face value. A slightly more sophisticated summarizer of his life and contributions to the discipline might take a slightly more charitable view, to say that Ranke was the founder of a “scientific” history, one that was born out of an inherenet skepticism of received historical narratives. In oder to find out “how it actually was,” one had to master a method: learn enough of languages and paleography and the intricacies of archival spelunking (archives in those days being largely closed affairs) so that one could go back to the original sources and see what they said.

Are those laugh lines, Leo?
It is this latter Ranke whom we might expect to come up with a nitpicky instrument like the footnote: something that specialists use to show how they are specialists. Grafton’s two chapters on Ranke introduce us to the young (and then middle-aged, and then quite old and blind) enthusiast for source work. The fact that his method depended on critical reading of original sources meant that he had to show his work: as Grafton puts it, “the historian who had eaten from the tree of source-criticism could not regain the innocence necessary to write a simple narrative.”[1] Footnotes for Ranke were not Gibbon’s commentary nor the ancients’ appeal to authority; they were the method laid bare, a sort of postmodern architecture in which all the pipes and struts and supports become an essential part of the design.

Yet this picture, like much modern design, leaves us with an impression of a sterile coldness that doesn’t match the other crucial component that usually gets left out in descriptions of Ranke’s work, and that Grafton so eloquently reproduces in these two chapters: the romance of the archives. Ranke was in love with archives[1] and libraries, he was drunk on undiluted primary sources. In these chapters, we meet Ranke as storyteller. The method was the means to an end, but a perilous one: Footnotes broke the story, took the reader out of the past that he was trying to recreate. He put in footnotes to point the next generation of historians towards the sources they would need.[3]  To put it more simply, he created footnotes not out of love of their scientific nature; rather he used them probably for the same reason he put on pants: because it was necessary to the culture he inhabited.

The final part of the second chapter raises another point: that Ranke was not even the originator of the modern footnote. But I’m going to save that for tomorrow and append it to my discussion of Grafton’s “Enlightenment Interlude,” where he follows the footnote’s backtrail. For now, I just want to rest on this point and invite contemplation of the battles between our own inner scientist and inner storyteller, and to note that even our avatar of scientific history had his misgivings, loved narrative, and maybe even envisioned heaven as an archive. That he aimed to come to his sources with precision — footnotes being a part of that precision — does not mean that he did so without excitement and wonder.
[1] Grafton, 68.
[2] Though he didn’t use them nearly as often as we think.
[3] Towards, not at: Grafton notes that Ranke was at the receiving end of some rather vituperative criticism because his citations did not point where he said they would; he replied that a real enthusiast would not need something handed to them so precisely; they should love the hunt as much as the kill, so to speak. In other words: he had no patience with pedantry — at least not pedantry directed at him.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Notorious Book Club: Footnotes and Authority (Grafton chapter 1)

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.”[1]

“He uses footnotes like a lamppost: not to illuminate anything, but merely to have something to lean on.”[2]

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.”[3] 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[4] 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.[5]

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,[6] 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? 


[1] Grafton, 234
[2] Some snarky scholar, randomly (and probably mis-)quoted by an ex of mine. 
[3] Grafton, 11
[4] YMMV
[5] Squirrel! (And, to be perfectly honest, my lecture style is pretty easily distracted too. Pity the poor student.)
[6] Did you click the link in the callout?