31 May 2012

Footnotes et al.

D.W. Winnicott says: “I shall not first give an historical survey and show the development of my ideas from the theories of others, because my mind does not work that way. What happens is that I gather this and that, here and there, settle down to clinical experience, form my own theories, and then, last of all interest myself to see where I stole what. Perhaps that is as as good a method as any.” I have quoted this as the epigraph of my book I’m Only Bleeding, and lately I think often of Winnicott’s statement. The footnotes in Winnicott’s Playing and Reality , for the most part, are explanatory. Though he appends a bibliography to his work, he actually quotes few authorities other than himself. I think there is something so Emersonian about it: the thinking man is always alone. Frank Smith once said something similar about the development of his knowledge: he argued “It is impossible to list sources for ideas contained in this book, but not because I want to claim all the credit for myself. The notion that ‘scholarly’ writing can always be tied neatly into a network of other people’s publications is academic fantasy. Real life is more complex. I have been influenced by many things that I have read, but a definitive list would have to go back to my youngest days and include a multitude of novels, biographies histories, and newspapers and magazine articles as well as formal texts.” Finally, what he argues is that the ideas in the book are his own, and that he cannot trace any single thread to any single source or even a series of sources. And Anthony Grafton, in his text The Footnote argues, “Footnotes guarantee nothing, in themselves. The enemies of truthand truth has enemiescan use them to deny the same facts that honest historians use them to assert. The enemies of ideasand they have enemies as wellcan use them to amass citations and quotations of no interest to any reader, or to attack anything that resembles a new thesis.”
Now, Winnicott and Smith and Grafton do not eschew footnotes—especially the latter, who gives historical groundings to the creation of the footnote and to its growing hegemonic power the footnote has acquired in contemporary academia. Ironically (on his part, I am sure), Grafton has grounded his text with a plethora of footnotes! And I believe that Winnicott and Smith acknowledge that when they write they assume responsibility for the words and ideas expressed without their having to buttress their authority with the words of another. Seneca says, “Let’s have some difference between you and the book . . . Why, after all, should I listen to what I can read for myself?” For a long time I have become too aware that my own selective use of sources serves mostly my own purposes: that is, I quote those who agree with my ideas (and therefore, offer support for them) or I cite those those who disagree with me to reveal the fallaciousness of their arguments. My footnotes most often serve in the effort of self-aggrandizement. Grafton rightfully asserts that the footnotethe exact citation of sourcedoes not guarantee anything, but at least the demand the footnote makes offers a certain legitimacy to the writing. Seneca wonders why the writing needs any external legitimacy. “Footnotes,” Grafton writes, “confer authority on a writer.” I append footnotes.
It is a curious fact that Seneca does not so much dispute as disparage this form of scholarship. He says, in Letter 33, “It is disgraceful that a man who is old or in sight of old age should have a a wisdom deriving solely from his notebook. ‘Zeno said this.’ And what have you said? ‘Cleanthes said that.’ What have you said? How much longer are you going to serve under others’ orders?” “Assume authority yourself,” Seneca asserts, and utter something that may be handed down to posterity. Produce something from your own resources.”  How Thoravian Seneca sounds; or perhaps how Senecan sounds Thoreau. Ironically, though Seneca argues against the aphorism, the knowledge of Thoreau and Emerson for many rests in the aphorisms that are drawn from their work. It would be an interesting study to discover if and how Seneca’s style avoids constructions that result in aphorism.
I think what Seneca argues against is the use of authority to buttress the idea of the writer. I have studied papers whose reference pages exceed the length of the article. Grafton’s book concerns the history of the footnote as the form was developed primarily by historians. The ubiquity of the footnote in all disciplines says a great deal about our models of contemporary scholarship. It is interesting to me that we Deweyeans always quote Democracy and Education to support our ideas about education or democracy, but there is not in Dewey’s text one footnoted citation nor a bibliography. Though I regularly quote from John Dewey, he rarely cites sources; Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization has no footnotes, and Lionel Trilling names names within the context of an essay but never at the end of the essay appends a bibliography; his footnotes are explanatory for the most part, additional information to his own text, but not immediately relevant to the sentences at hand.  There is not a footnote to be found in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own; the notes section at the end of my edition was composed by the editor. And yet these men and women are for me quintessential intellects.
Interestingly, Tony Judt’s book Past/Imperfect is heavy with footnotes, but his Thinking the Twentieth Century has no footnotes; the authors caution “The bibliography is not conventional since this book arises from a conversation.” We cite sources when we speak but we do not footnote. Maybe more complicated conversation would reduce the appearance of footnotes!


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