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This Won't Hurt

A number of contributors to the drb will have knocked up against the inconvenience – some readers may even have half-noticed – that we do not for the most part append footnotes to the essays we publish. “We do not encourage”, “would prefer if you could do without”, “if they could be kept to an absolute minimum” – these are all phrases our writers may have heard from us from time to time. There are sound practical reasons for this: editing footnotes is more intensive work than editing ordinary text: there is more that can go wrong, and in a more dense space. The sense of mild exhilaration that arrives as one approaches the end of editing a long essay can be somewhat dampened at the sight of a list of fifty-three – yes fifty-three! – footnotes to be gone over.

It is not just an aversion to work, however, that makes us put up the “do not encourage” flag. Footnotes are a traditional part of the apparatus of academic publishing. But the drb – we hope – is not engaged in academic publishing, even if many of our contributors are academics. Like other journals which are read by sections of the intelligent or intellectual general public, we hope that our contributors will write not for their professional peers but for a wider audience, one that might be interested in the subject if it is given a little encouragement and not choked with controversy with which it is unfamiliar or baffled by the absence of context with which it is assumed to be familiar ‑ but is not. The French had a word (or two) for it, which I think can’t be bettered: haute vulgarisation, bringing the knowledge of the expert to a wide audience, with the necessary extra “allowances” and elaborations that that will require, but at a relatively high intellectual level. The literary critic Frank Kermode expressed the essence of  the business very well in the introduction to his essay collection Pleasing Myself:

The understanding between writer and reader is that the former will perform as an educated audience has a right to expect, and that the latter will, under those conditions, take pleasure in what may from time to time be a mildly strenuous bit of reading, justified by a faith that authors who write for these papers [literary/intellectual reviews] on the whole know what they are talking about, but are not so proud of that accomplishment that they cannot refrain from vainglorious displays of their professional prowess.

None of the above is to diminish the importance of footnotes in their proper place. Traditionally they have perhaps been seen as working in tandem with the main body of the text: the text is the argument; the footnotes are the proof of that argument. Though, as the historian Anthony Grafton points out in The Footnote: A Curious History (published by Harvard University Press), this is a problematic notion: what citations tend to prove is not that the argument is “correct” but that the historian, or other scholar, has done a reasonable amount of work. The inferences drawn from the citations may, in the eyes of other scholars, be to a greater or lesser degree unsound. And this can give rise to bouts of intellectual jousting and sniping, activities that some academics seem to greatly enjoy. As Grafton writes:

Unlike other types of credentials ... footnotes sometimes afford entertainment – normally in the form of daggers stuck in the backs of the author’s colleagues. Some of these are inserted politely. Historians may simply cite a work by author, title, place and date of publication. But often they set the subtle but deadly “cf.” (“compare”) before it. This indicates, at least to the expert reader, both that an alternative view appears in the cited work and that it is wrong. But not everyone who reads the book will know the code. Sometimes, accordingly, the stab must be more brutal, more direct. One can, for example, dismiss a work or thesis, briefly and definitively, with a single set-phrase or well-chosen adjective. The English do so with a characteristically sly adverbial construction: “oddly overestimated.” Germans use the direct “ganz abwegig” (“totally off the track”); the French, a colder, but less blatant, “discutable” [debateable]. All these indispensable forms of abuse appear in the same prominent position and carry out the same scholarly version of assassination.

Thus, Grafton argues, footnotes are not as uniform in function as they may appear: “To the inexpert, [they] look like deep root systems, solid and fixed; to the connoisseur, however, they reveal themselves as anthills, swarming with constructive and combative activity.”

At bottom, the scholarly footnote performs a professional function and perhaps one professional is much like another:

Like the high whine of the dentist’s drill, the low rumble of the footnote on the historian’s page reassures: the tedium it inflicts, like the pain inflicted by the drill, is not random but directed, part of the cost that the benefits of modern science and technology confer.
As this analogy suggests, the footnote is bound up, in modern life, with the ideology and technical practices of a profession. One becomes an historian, as one becomes a dentist, by undergoing specialized training: one remains a historian, as one stays a dentist, if one’s work receives the approval of one’s teachers, one’s peers, and, above all, one’s readers (or one’s patients). Learning to make footnotes forms part of this modern version of apprenticeship. Most historians begin on a small scale, during the frenetic weeks they dedicate to writing papers that must be read aloud to their professor’s seminar ...  Later ... [they] move from craft to industrial styles of footnote production, peppering each chapter with a hundred or more references to show that they have put in hours of hard work in archive and library ...
Over time, however, the writing of footnotes usually loses its flavor: the thrilling claim of membership in a mysterious new profession, the bold assertion of one’s right to take part in a learned dialogue, degenerates into mere routine. Historians for whom composing annotations has become second nature – like dentists who have become inured to inflicting pain and shedding blood – may hardly notice any more that they still extrude names of authors, titles of books, and numbers of folders in archives or leaves in unpublished manuscripts. In the end, the production of footnotes sometimes resembles less the skilled work of a professional carrying out a precise function to a higher end than the offhand production and disposal of waste products.

And yet, for let us remember these observations are culled from a work in praise of the footnote, historians cannot afford to ignore waste products and their disposal. Indeed the study of water closets, privies and sewerage systems has proven invaluable for historians of population, urbanism or health and disease. As for the history of education, it is all very well, Grafton suggests, to be familiar with the essence of the anti-Aristotelian positions of the French Protestant humanist Petrus Ramus, but in order to savour what a sixteenth century classroom was really like we should perhaps know, as his biographer has informed us, that the learned Ramus was in the habit of taking a bath once a year, at the time of the summer solstice.