*Just a Footnote


Sunday, February 28, 2021

1:00 pm

Writers and publishers distinguish between footnotes and endnotes. Each demands a different thing from the reader. The footnote demands that the reader’s eyes oscillate between the main text and the small print that accompanies it like an ornament in a side column or most commonly on the bottom of the page. The endnote sends the reader back and forth to the end of the book, a finger stuck between pages. (Some books or theses indeed weighed heavily on my fingers holding the page.)

One could perhaps say that the footnotes on the bottom of the page describe a particular edifice of academic writing. Similar to the elevator pitch,[1] in which the orator measures the time of the talk by the floor count in a vertical movement through a building, the footnote points to a location along the vertical axis. Anthony Grafton, who dedicated a beautiful and also curious book to the curious history of the footnote,[2] describes it as lying “beneath ground level”, as “waste products”, “toilets” and “sewers”, where historians, like archaeologists, enjoy its smell and turn the shit into gold.[3]

If we consider a kind of down-up reading that begins with the footnotes, an architectural space is opened, revealing how a text is composed, what is it made of. One of my closest friends, still under the impression of a movie about a Sicilian family business in New York, recently commented that reading footnotes is like entering the restaurant through the kitchen to see how the food is stored and cooked and how the place is run. The decision to place the footnote on the bottom of the page is a gesture of courtesy to the reader to make transparent how other research or an outside reference has saturated the author’s research, to open up something of their process, of their mind-space. As Roland Barthes put it, as nobody is watching, we take pleasure in a text by skimming or skipping certain passages; unconcerned with what he described as the integrity of the text, footnotes are often entirely overlooked.[4] But footnotes could indeed offer pleasure. They allow a glance into a library full of literature, travel accounts, newspapers, scientific reports and data, but also films and websites – links that, if followed, risk getting readers lost in that edifice, or even enabling them to leave it altogether. They could, at best, be a four-dimensional library in which the words of writers reverberate across generations, secret conversations become audible, anecdotes and academic battles are alluded to, perhaps even the counterargument is given to the thesis on the main part of the page. Yet they still need to limit the number of detours and amount of added material in order to keep the reader’s attention and not undermine the above. But the footnote still trying to hide: you can’t ignore it. Enter at your own risk![5]

A footnote is not only a gesture; it presents a kind of scaffold of knowledge that almost invisibly supports the text. Anthony Grafton writes: “[Footnotes] are the humanist’s rough equivalent of the scientist’s report on data: they offer the empirical support for stories told and arguments presented. Without them, historical theses can be admired or resented, but they cannot be verified or disproved. As a basic professional and intellectual practice, they deserve the same sort of scrutiny that laboratory notebooks and scientific articles have long received from historians of science.[6]

The footnote was a literary art in the 18th century; it had the power to amuse and enrage its readers.[7] It hints at the need of the humanities to dress themselves up as science. The footnote here became the knowledge scaffold, the means of distribution, the chain of custody, a kind of evidence to the speculation. But it’s also a depository of excess meaning, things that had no place in a text or that authors were not able to part with. We know that saying “just a footnote” does not do the footnote justice, but it’s an invitation into the underworld and underbelly of a text.

Ines Weizman

I would like to thank Mike Pilewski for his careful and generous editing of students’ writing and Clemence Rousset and Vidal Mateos for their beautiful design work.

An exercise in academic writing for the PhD group for the School of Architecture, Research Biennale 2021

[1] Ines Weizman, “A Short History of the Elevator Pitch,” http://pgr.rca-architecture.com.

[2] Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975 [1973]), 11.

[5] I remember how Susan Buck-Morss received some criticism for her striking book Dreamworld and Catastrophe, in which on some pages the footnotes took over the page and left only a few lines for the main text. Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (Cambridge, MA, and London: The MIT Press, 2000).

[6] Grafton, The Footnote, vii.

[7] Grafton, The Footnote, 1.

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