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? 


Bardiac said...

I totally clicked the link!

I think Lit folks use the footnote to show that they've done the reading but don't want to talk about the other stuffs (only whatever they've chosen to put in the main body), to play with some secondary ideas, and to give a sense of a network, as when one thanks the people in a Shakespeare Assn seminar.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I think Grafton talks about this -- the footnote, like the introduction, as a sort of aspirational network-builder. Again, this is a means of claiming authority by claiming connection.

Belle said...

Claiming connection AND assuring the reader that I've actually done this research. In my stuff, I found that other scholars would simply refer to a document by noting a specific date and volume of correspondence. My footnotes thus became my attempt to get more specific, since date/volume narrowed it down to perhaps a dozen documents. Archivists also made things more interesting by filing documents in odd places: a letter that had five or six topics might end up in a file on one of those topics but NOT in any of the others. And no cross referencing. As far as I could tell, no other scholars in 'my' archives used the internal reference numbers provided. So finding a specific item from somebody else's note was an exercise in futility.

Fascinating book!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Belle, along these lines, what I find inutterably frustrating is that my archives change names and/or citation systems every decade or so. So once a book is out, you've got about 5 years before its notes are obsolete. And with the problems in staffing archives, you may have one or two people who actually know how to decode notes from three citation systems ago.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

I'm crazy busy these days, now that I'm chair, but I'm enjoying participating passively in this discussion. Would you mind if I alerted Tony to it? It's always a bit dodgy inviting an author to join in a discussion of their book, but he's a good sport.

Sarah C said...

So I'm caught up to here, ch. 1. I don't read much early modern stuff these days, so I'd forgotten how lovely a writer Grafton is: funny, direct, pithy, but also clear as a bell. This book is well-timed for me, as I'm in copy edits for my first book (and I've just found out the press intends to use endnotes instead of footnotes; I'm fighting--wish me luck) so I'm thinking about what I meant to do in my notes and how I meant to do it. As a young scholar, I was trained to look to the footnotes--that they were where the *real* argument was to be found (and I even did that, inadvertently, in my first published article) and that a page without copious notes was a worthless page of text. It's hard to train oneself out of that kind of early education, even as I know that Grafton is right that in many ways we use the notes to show what "what a big grown-up historian I am!"

At the same time, I take a real but prurient interest in his anecdotes about scholars bashing each other in their notes...and think too, that this is a great purpose for notes to serve. It can be where we insert ourselves as people in our scholarly work--for good or for ill. If we are meant to disavow "objectivity" perhaps the notes are the place to do it?

(That said, I tried to be really nice to everyone in my book's notes, and not too discursive. It's my *first* book - I'll be more effusive once I'm established!!)

Flavia said...

Alas, I was over-ambitious too! I read chapters 1 & 2 right away. . . and haven't yet found time for the others. But I'll enjoy reading the series and the comments.

I'll note, though, that I had some of Bardiac's sense of how subtly but interestingly different the footnote is in literary scholarship; it's something I had never noticed or thought about before even though I read a lot of historiography. We, too, write footnotes as a credentialing mechanism, to show off our erudition, assert our insider status, and the like, but because our arguments are usually based in relatively accessible primary texts there isn't the same laconic obscurity that comes with citing a document or folder, without further specification (and from an archive that may be a $1,500 plane flight away anyway).

It's certainly true that things can be obscured in footnotes, but in most articles I can chase down every last item in someone's footnotes if I want to, because what they're citing are other works of scholarship (whether literary or otherwise).

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm taking all of this in, friends. It's going to help me write my conclusion to the series, in which I talk about how we use footnotes and what that says about how we are positioning ourselves vis-a-vis the reader (and, not incidentally, who we think that reader is, or should be). I may be excerpting you when I get there...

And for those of you who fell behind in the reading -- well, no reason you can't finish up and join us as you work your way through at your own pace!

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