The footnote is bound up, in modern life, with the ideology and the technical practices of a profession. Pix courtesy of Footnote-mislink

THE footnote (sometimes more than endnotes) is an obsession. It is an assemblage of the relevant of the irrelevant, the essential and the trivial. It is also the left hand of the right hand — saying something but thinking of something else. It is much like, if you like, our idea of saying “yes” but meaning “no”. It is the subconscious of the conscious.

Recently, I encountered someone, an intellectual in his own right, who seems to have a problem with the footnote and those who use it as a matter of academic and scholarly obligation. I agree with him that footnotes do not naturally attract all and sundry. Even the intelligent segment of society may decry footnotes as dry and superfluous. Footnotes also may tend to misrepresent, perhaps detract from the subject matter and the essence of the research, or concept.

Then there are editors and publishers who require the author to reduce the number of footnotes. Some may transfer that as endnotes. Some may conceive footnotes as the epitome of research, conceiving tomes with footnotes as “academic” or “research” books compared to work without footnotes.

Some fellow academics have described footnotes as archaic and orthodox upon realising my uncompromising preference for the style. Sure, some styles do not require footnotes such as the “author/year/page number” system. Still one might find a smattering of footnotes in the manuscript. In contrast, the footnotes may dominate almost a whole, subduing the text.

And not to be misunderstood, I also would have to emphasise that works of profound scholarship do not necessarily use footnotes. Many academically-informed writings either in the form of books, non-fiction essays, which include the journalistic essay like this one, and in genres as manifested in commentaries, opinions and reviews in newspapers and other periodicals — both in hardcopy and online — do not use footnotes, as a convention.

Some, like the person referred to above, a former parliamentarian and technocrat-turned-polymath if you will, circumvented the footnote by writing fiction, based on the actualities of society, perhaps a cross between the novel and new journalism, a loose conception of the factual-fiction matrix. He says, that way, the books appeal to the masses, they sell more than the conventional Wallerstenian text on the political economy.

Many among us perhaps then see the footnote as a non-functional, non-essential thought. And perhaps even many more have no attitude towards the footnote. But it is a scholar’s tool — indeed, a weapon of power to shock those who encounter the text, or to enlighten those who marvel it as literary prowess. Yes, the footnote does matter.

And it definitely does to Anthony Grafton, author of The Footnote: A Curious History, first published in 1997 by Harvard University Press. Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor at Princeton. Earlier, together with some friends, a pseudo-scholarly journal devoted to the topic was conceived. It failed.

Nevertheless, perhaps true to the nature of footnotes justifying the life of the text, the failure was redeemed. This time owing much to a conference on Proof and Persuasion in History held in 1993 at the Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University. The conference provided Grafton the impetus to assemble materials and advanced an interpretation of them.

Grafton had dedicated an entire book to the history of the footnote. To him, it is the humanist’s rough equivalent of the scientist’s report on data. It offers empirical support for the stories we live by.

The story of the footnote is not a simple one, neither is there a poverty in form and spirit. It is as rich in human interest as other, more famous areas of intellectual history. It is the creation of a varied and talented group that includes almost as many philosophers and historians. As we may have noticed in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon had transformed the footnote into a high form of literary artistry.

In the world of scholarship, the footnote is critical. And many a graduate student would vouch that one has to allow oneself being apprenticed to love the footnote.

“Forget the footnote” — some pundits may say. If some, who have arguably put it that P. Ramlee is the man from the past and of the past, and perhaps a footnote in film history, the footnote is neither past, nor from the past, nor about the past. The footnote is ever present, and especially for those who study the past, of which the present and the future are to be relegated to that status in time.

Grafton’s concern is with footnotes and historical scholarship. He asserts that historians perform two complementary tasks. They must examine all the sources relevant to the solution of a problem and construct a new narrative or argument from them. The footnote proves that both tasks have been carried out. It identifies both the primary evidence that guarantees the story’s novelty in substance and the secondary works that do not undermine its novelty in form and thesis.

By doing so, moreover, it identifies the work of history in question as the creation of a professional. Grafton draws an analogy between the footnote and 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 benefits from modern sciences and technology.

The analogy suggests that the footnote is bound up, in modern life, with the ideology and the technical practices of a profession. One becomes a historian, as one becomes a dentist, by undergoing specialised 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.

Those who have gone through graduate studies would know what apprenticeship means. Weeks, months and years spent on writing papers that would have to be presented to the faculty, department or our professor’s seminar. At this point, we have to admit that our footnotes are only seen, not read. And when seen, they form a blurred, closely printed mass of grey text at the bottom of pages.

Later, as we compose our dissertation, we elevate footnoting from a craft to some form of industrial production — meaning peppering each chapter (and to the extent of almost every page) with 100 or more references to show that we have put in hours of hard work in the library, archive or our study.

Once elevated to the doctorate and relevantly employed, we compose footnotes every time we write a paper, a monograph or an article for a learned journal. Thus it becomes a general part of the practice of science and scholarship.

Apart from that, the footnote demands attention as an object of keen nostalgia and a subject of sharp debate. Are footnotes synonymous with authenticity of knowledge? Is the footnote the criterion in the measure of truth? These are some of the things implied in Grafton’s work.

Here he cites from two sources — see footnote 26 on page 15 — R. Sanjak, ed. Fieldnotes: The Making of Anthropology (Ithaca, N.Y.: 1990), and R.M. Emerson, R.I. Fretz, and L.L. Shaw, Writing Ethnographic Footnotes (Chicago and London, 1995).

In this instance, field notes of anthropologists, which record ephemeral events, from rituals to interviews, and document customs that change even as they are described, cannot in principle be verified. If it has been said (by Heraclitus) that no man can step on the same river twice, then no anthropologist can live and work in the same village twice; or no two anthropologists will describe the same transaction in identical terms, or analyse and code the same description of a transaction in identical categories.

Like many rituals and practices in modern, secular life, the footnote has its origins before modernity — or at least in how religious and sacred life was seen and recorded. In Muslim cultural history, one finds the warraqeen (derived from warraq, the Arabic word for paper) or scribe noting their own comments and criticisms on the margin of manuscripts.

The warraqeen was not merely a scribe who was given the ijazah by an author making the manuscript lawful for transmission in the public, but was also an intellectual in his own right. The warraqeen was, in effect, an early example of the practice of writing footnotes.

We cannot claim to have constructed the history of the footnote. Much of it is unwritten history. Nevertheless, not without good reason, the birth of the footnote varies from the 12th through the 19th centuries. The modern footnote can be variably traced to figures such as the German scholar Ranke and the French Descartes.

The story of the footnote is the story of unexpected human and intellectual history. And footnotes, like friends and colleagues, function both to support, and subvert at the same time. And most of the time, it confers authority on the part of the writer — a routine devious device, almost ritualistic in the intellectual production (or protection?) process.

But then again, on another plane, the life of man, society and thought are riddled with footnotes to be salvaged by the presence of history.

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