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    A History of Footnotes

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    Anthony Grafton and Bruno Latour may be considered as people of knowledge and education. They both were engaged in the process of knowledge acquiring and transforming it into their own ideas and new horizons of thought. For most aficionados, Princeton historian Anthony Grafton put the bon mot in play a few years ago in his elegant The Footnote: A Curious History Harvard University Press.

    Now, however, in The Devil’s Details: A History of Footnotes Invisible Cities Press, former Amherst College dean Chuck Zerby, in his odd doppelgänger to Grafton’s volume, merely credits Grafton with reusing the line while stating see backhanded compliment at Zerby footnote No. 31, “Grafton indicated that three other scholars have used the quip. ” That is, before Zerby made it four and your writer made it five. 1 But can we trust Zerby? His initial footnote to Grafton’s book, on Page 13, gives the publication date as 1999. By Page 55, the date reverts to 1997 the correct year, where it remains in subsequent citations.

    Is this the Devil teaching Zerby manners, befouling his own Grafton footnote as punishment for the author’s daring, as a mere freelancer, to zap our leading footnote-ologist? Another Zerby aside, commenting on a purportedly inadequate Grafton citation “Grafton’s annotation is not as fulsome [sic] as one might wish”, suggests that less preternatural causes, like carelessness, prompt Zerby’s error. But this aggressive proponent of a footrace within the historiography of the footnote does remind us that Grafton’s own crediting of the remark under whelms.

    The eminent Renaissance scholar points readers to a 1976 book, Cole Lesley’s Remembered Laughter: The Life of Noel Coward, in which Coward “attributed a stronger version of the remark to John Barrymore. ” 3 Any chance Barrymore stole it from Edwin Forrest? Grafton begins his search with what prove to be two straw men: the nineteenth-century German historian Leopold von Ranke and the late-eighteenth-century English historian Edward Gibbon, who share the reputation of having perfected modern historical scholarship.

    Despite Ranke’s impressive combination of narrative and analytical history and Gibbon’s blending of massive knowledge and high style, neither, according to Grafton, was the first to practice the art and craft of documented, critical history. Behind both were ancient, medieval, and Renaissance prototypes, numerous historians who not only told stories but cited evidence as well. Among them were the Italians Bernardino Corio, Leonardo Bruni, and Giannantonio Campano; the Englishmen Richard White and Ben Jonson; and, most impressively, the great French historian Jacques-Auguste de Thou.

    The latter wrote a “genuinely new kind of history” in what would prove to be the longest historical narrative before the twentieth century. 2 Other prototypes of modern scholarship included seventeenth-century church historians and antiquaries, particularly the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, whose massive, illustrated study of ancient China marked the maturation of a tradition of historical documentation reaching all the way back to the fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius and the venerable eighth-century English monk known as Bede.

    Here, too, one can find a combination of technical argument and deep documentation that anticipates modern historical scholarship. Also helping to make the primary source supreme within this tradition of scholarship were the bitter tracts of warring Protestants and Catholics. The seventeenth century was nonetheless a step up in historical scholarship because that century’s church historians and antiquaries, as well as exceptional scholars like de Thou, subjected documents to a higher degree of scrutiny, allowing “the [prior] age of primitive accumulation of ecclesiastical-learning . . . to give way to one of analysis and investment.

    4 However, Mr. Grafton again insists that the work of these scholars also provides an “insufficient” explanation for the rise of the footnote. So who, or what, in the end was the key player in the birth of the new professional scholarship the footnote came to represent? For Grafton, that honor belongs to a scholar and a work he first discovered as a college undergraduate: the great Dictionnaire of Pierre Bayle. “Swarming” with footnotes and irreverencies, and aspiring to expose and correct all the mistakes then existing in other reference books, Bayle’s dictionary is truly a young man’s book.

    It was written against the background of the “deconstruction” of the scientific authority of the ancients at the hands of the new seventeenth-century scientists Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, Blaise Pascal, and Robert Boyle. Here the modern “rules of scholarly procedure” and historical scholarship as we know them today finds their definitive statement. 3 Although Grafton proclaims Bayle’s uniqueness, he diminishes it somewhat by his extensive honor roll of earlier prototypes and by the revelation that Bayle was not, as the Germans like to say, always sauber “he silently abridged and consciously or unconsciously misread texts”.

    So, in the end, the hero of Grafton’s story turns out to be far from indisputable. If there is a failing in this very ambitious and informative little book, it is the absence of a discussion of what the “rise of the footnote” or modern scholarship has meant for the reading public outside the academy. Grafton writes about a very comfortable scholarly world that he obviously loves. The only discordant note he finds is arguably one only a scholar in such a position would take notice of and lament: the footnote’s “stylistic decline to a list of highly abbreviated archival citations.

    A more interesting question is how the footnote has affected the scholars it obsesses. Is it also the source of inaccessible scholarship and academic cliques—networks of scholars who write primarily to and for themselves, aloof from the general, educated public? Has the rise of the footnote contributed to that historical illiteracy and denial now rampant in many of our schools and universities? Could it be the footnote that has enabled so many scholars to walk away from their pedagogical responsibility to inform and enlighten their fellow citizens?

    There may be a larger, less abstract, and more important story still to be told about the modern footnote. 4 Any trusting and innocent soul who has taken hope from the many obituaries for poststructuralism that have appeared in the last several years should read Aramis or The Love of Technology by Bruno Latour. Although some English departments are moving tentatively away from poststructuralism, it is thriving in other quarter’s freshman composition programs, sociology, and “science studies,” the field in which Latour is preeminent.

    This book, published by Harvard University Press in both cloth and paper covers and well advertised, is clearly expected to reach a large audience—not some tiny pedantic sect. If it does have a lot of enthusiastic readers, the intellectual world is in more trouble than most English professors dream. Aramis is a poststructuralist novel, a pastiche of different voices, set in different typefaces; the subject of the novel is the failure of the French to build a much discussed public-transportation system with detached cars linked by magnetism and run by computers.

    Latour says of the book: “a young engineer is describing his research project and his socio-technological initiation. His professor offers a running commentary. The invisible author adds verbatim accounts of real-life interviews along with genuine documents, gathered in a field study carried out from December 1987 to January 1989. Mysterious voices also chime in and, drawing from time to time on the privileges of prosopopoeia, allow Aramis to speak. ” Aramis, the system, identifies itself with Frankenstein’s monster, bewailing his abandonment by Victor Frankenstein.

    Latour’s book is intended to reverse the meaning of Mary Shelley’s, so that the real crime is not tampering impiously with nature, but abandoning the monster. Latour asks us to give up our fuddy-duddy prejudices and imagine a world in which nature provides no constraints on human activity, suggesting that no crazy scheme should be abandoned. 7 In fact, he wants to eradicate nature as a category. The earth appears only in the repeated contemptuous references to the “beet fields” near the Orly airport where Aramis was being planned.

    And the novelist attempts to dissolve the barrier between the human being and the machine, the living and the manufactured. The author’s purpose is to enlighten “our intellectual universe, from which we have in effect eradicated all technology. In this universe, people who are interested in the souls of machines are severely punished by being isolated in their own separate world, the world of engineers, technicians, and technocrats. ” Were I to decide the fate of people interested in the souls of machines, they would be isolated in a separate ward of the mental hospital.

    Latour suggests that machines are the basis of an alternative religion: “they are the scapegoats of a new religion of Silence, as complex and pious as our religion of Speech. What exegesis will have to be invented to provide commentary on the Silence of machines? ” He begs us to think of Aramis not as a plan for a machine, but as “an instituted object, quasi-object, quasi-subject, a thing that possesses body and soul indissolubly. ” 8 This nonsense would not be worth discussing if I did not believe that Latour may provide clues to what I have always found the most difficult puzzle of the poststructuralist phenomenon: why do people like it?

    Demons cannot enter the mind unbidden: even Count Dracula must ask his victims to enter his castle freely. Late in the novel Latour suggests some reasons for the appeal of post structuralism: “Thanks to computers, we now know that there are only differences of degree between matter and texts …. In fact, ever since a literary happy few started talking about ‘textual machines’ in connection with novels, it has been perfectly natural for machines to become texts written by novelists who are as brilliant as they are anonymous. Post structuralism has flattered the vanity of English professors, as Milton’s Satan flattered the vanity of Eve, encouraging them to think of themselves as intellectual revolutionaries.

    The essays in the second half of Beyond Poststructuralism, which are supposed to reaffirm the value of reading literature, also display far too much willingness to compromise with poststructuralism. Essayist after essayist avoids mentioning any particular work of literature, but attempts to establish, on purely theoretical grounds, the reasons why we might want to try taking literature seriously again.

    Only one of these is really moving, Virgil Nemoianu’s “Literary History: Some Roads Not Yet Taken. ” The echo of Frost’s beloved poem tells us right away that this writer cares about literature; he also cares about history and wants to bring back genuine literary history like that of scholars in the past. Like Searle, Nemoianu dares to use the word fact, derided by those who call everything a cultural construction; he also uses the forbidden words/ove, gratitude, and praise as he suggests that we once again embrace literature as a source of wisdom and joy.

    And like Searle he knows something about “intuitive and ‘irrational’ reactions … based upon thick and multifarious internal processing” the mind that is inseparable from our bodily selves. 10 The intuitive, irrational, imaginative, whole human being—another category dismissed by poststructuralists—is the subject of the final and finest essay in the second half of the book, Martha Nussbaum’s “The Literary Imagination in Public Life,” a beautiful reading of Hard Times as a lesson in the wisdom that no public servant should be allowed to forget.

    Unlike any of the other writers, Nussbaum repeatedly uses the word life as the standard of truth and value try finding that word in any poststructuralist text!. Mr. Gradgrind’s educational theories are bad because they are false to life; Dickens’s novel is good because it offers a vision of life that includes reason and imagination, soul and body. Nussbaum, like Searle, comes from a field outside English: she is a professor of law and philosophy. Unlike the English professors whose essays make up the majority of Beyond Poststructuralism, these two have the courage to say that poststructuralism is wrong and that literature is rooted in life.

    Too many English professors have been listening so respectfully to such people as Bruno Letour and such theories as “computo ergo sum” that they have lost their nerve and acquiesced in the refusal of poststructuralism to acknowledge life as a meaningful term of value. Our whole profession should remember Paulina’s words in The Winter’s Tale: “Dear life redeems you. ” Dear life, our biological life on earth, must become the standard of truth if we are to redeem literary studies from post structuralism without relying on blind faith and miracles. Life is certainly a standard of value in Minutes of the Lead Pencil Club: Pulling the Plug on the Electronic Revolution, edited by Bill Henderson.

    This collection of essays, cartoons, poems, and snippets from newspapers is breezy and informal. The forty essays are all short, and as far as I can tell, none is by a literary critic. Poets and essayists—Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry—contribute; so do the humorists Russell Baker and Dave Barry and the novelists E. Annie Proulx and John Updike.

    The book has one clear theme: enslavement to computers is taking us out of the natural world, away from face-to-face and voice-to-voice connections with our friends and our families. Some of the essays also decry the expense of computers, the planned obsolescence that forces people to keep buying “upgrades” so that they will not be stuck with unusable machines. More clearly than anyone else Wendell Berry warns that computers are one more link between us and the power companies that are destroying the earth for their own profit.

    Mark Slouka’s “Rapture and Redemption in the Virtual World” is about the mad millennialism of those devotees of computers who proudly announce their imminent freedom from the body. He does not mention Bruno Letour, but Letour is one of their number. Slouka includes horrifying quotations from other famous professors Michael Benedikt, Bruce Mazlish about the promise of freedom from “the ballast of materiality,” the possibility of being “angels, if not God” in virtual reality. The recent mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult of computer programmers demonstrates that what sounds like harmless lunacy in people like Bruno Latour is in fact deadly.

    When people start believing “computo ergo sum,” their minds are open to all demons. 8< /p> The disdain for the biological world in poststructuralist theory and the disdain for physical labor that is part of the worship of computers cannot be separated. The supercilious contempt that poststructuralists feel for people who still believe a real world exists is only the most extreme and absurd version of the contempt that white-collar workers have felt for blue-collar workers and farmers ever since the Renaissance.

    Noxious plants with deep roots are very hard to kill; well-intentioned but half-hearted criticism of post structuralism and computers is not going to be enough. We need a deeper criticism of the falsehoods in our culture, a stronger knowledge that the reality of our life on earth must be the test of truth than the books by Goodheart, Harris, and Henderson offer. But this criticism and this knowledge do not depend on some great intellectual breakthrough, some yet undiscovered insight.

    If we could once again take literature seriously we would not have to look any further than As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale, where the rich are forced to remember that their life depends on the poor who grow their food, that only fools and tyrants feel contempt for shepherds. If we can truly believe that the selfsame sun that shines upon Bill Gates’s court hides not his visage from a cottage in Bangladesh, then dear life can indeed redeem us.

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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    A History of Footnotes. (2018, Apr 29). Retrieved from

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