Monday, December 27, 2010

On Footnotes and Doing History

Lisa Clark Diller

I recently picked up Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History (Harvard University Press, 1999) in an attempt to find more coherent ways to talk to my students about citation and research. I have somehow never managed to read it before now, and I’m finding Grafton’s overt connection between what we are “doing” in history and how we document that work, to be extremely useful. As I think about what I need to do to prove to my reading audience that I know what I’m talking about, I have forgotten what a thin tissue evidence rests on—our assumptions regarding footnotes. The Footnote also contributes to the discussions we’ve been having on this site about conversations between generations of historians.

Grafton reminds us that “in documenting the thought and research that underpin the narrative above them, footnotes prove that it is a historically contingent product, dependent on the forms of research, opportunities, and states of particular questions that existed when the historian went to work” (23). The genealogies of scholarship so neatly mapped out by Dan Allosso last week can also be seen in the footnotes and bibliographies of individual works of scholarship. Who we think it important to cite, what range of sources were important (or available) at the time, and the family of historiographical ancestors we choose for ourselves all reveal our location in time and situate us on an ideological map.

Footnotes reveal our technical proficiency, but they do so within a particular context. While in grad school, I can remember discounting entire volumes of historical research because the footnotes were so “thin.” And one of my advisors at the University of Chicago would warn us to look with grave suspicion on any early modernist who cited too many printed sources. I’m less puritanical in my standards now. And Grafton has reminded me that: “No accumulation of footnotes can prove that every statement in the text rests on an unassailable mountain of attested facts. Footnotes exist, rather, to perform two other functions. First, they persuade: they convince the reader that the historian has done an acceptable amount of work . . . . Second, they indicate the chief sources that the historian has actually used” (22).

We sometimes still operate under the assumption that if we have all the “original sources” our argument will be solid. But what makes history interesting is all the various interpretations that we can develop from the same sources. It is part of why we revisit the same problems over and over again. Interpretation as well as sources give each of us our originality. This is decidedly not the same thing as saying that any interpretation of the documents is as good as another, but it is what keeps me from reading a scholarly tome and thinking that because the footnotes took up 37% of each page I read, no one need any longer do research on that subject. Grafton also reminded me to be careful in judging the scholarship of an earlier generation by the type or quantity of footnotes.

As I sweat through proper citation of digital works and decide how much to include or exclude from my own footnotes, I am glad to remember that this process isn’t simply about showing off my guild credentials. It’s also a way to “out” myself regarding my priorities and methods. The evidence I use won’t be considered equally sufficient for all time; but then again, I don’t expect to answer historical questions and decide their significance once and for all.

The footnote reminds me of the time-laden nature of my queries and verifications.


Unknown said...

Thanks, Lisa (for the post & shout-out)! I was fascinated by your description of The Footnote, and also by the “customers who viewed this also viewed” pane on Amazon, which included The Devil’s Details and Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline. It’s interesting to think of the lineage we’re claiming when we build up these historiographical essays and bibliographies. I really enjoy some of those old texts, where there was a whole additional level of argument or source criticism going on on the notes. I was reading Unger’s The Greenback Era the other day; his (very interesting) footnotes are in double-columns, which makes the 1964 book feel like something generations older. Endnotes just aren’t the same.

I noticed Novick riffs on the footnote in a long footnote in That Noble Dream, where he says “it only weakly assimilates historical scholarship to the scientific norm of replicability” (220). And while Novick may have been overstating the role of replicability to support his objectivity argument, I have to admit that when I read older histories like Handlin’s Pulitzer-winning The Uprooted, I have a lot of trouble taking their undocumented assertions seriously. “I have not found it in the nature of this work to give its pages the usual historical documentation,” Handlin claimed in his afterword (308). Does anybody have that type of authority anymore?

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Dan, your comment on Handlin brings together several of the themes that Grafton deals with--the connection between authority, footnotes, and argument. One might do a survey of Pulitzer-prize-winning books to see how many of them have footnotes.... Yet presumably they are widely viewed as authoritative. I think of footnotes as giving me authority, but maybe the truly authoritative don't use them at all. How many volumes with footnotes do I need to produce to justify writing one without footnotes?

Unknown said...

I wonder what the equivalent is, in the classroom? Documentary photos & videos onscreen? Maybe they're more important than just providing visual cues and something interesting for students to look at. Maybe they function like footnotes?