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Saturday, January 14, 2012

“This Footnote’s For You” (1)

The footnote—
“A humble subaltern in the ranks of the apparatus of textual scholarship.”
—Peter Cosgrove (1991)

Canadian popular singer-songwriter Neil Young (1988) railed against the use of popular music in advertising with a polemical pastiche of a publicity campaign for an American beer, “This Bud’s for you,” singing “This Note’s For You.” In the lyrics, there are two widely-recognizable ad slogans, the Budweiser ad parodied in the title and Coca-Cola’s “It’s the real thing” mocked at the end with his repeated assertion, “I got the real thing,” and ending with the singing equivalent of italics or bold text (or are they distancing quotation marks?)—“Yeah, alright.”

The footnote is …
a notational supplement;
an apparatus of annotation;
a scholarly apparatus.

In a delightful essay, Peter Cosgrove (1991) asks whether the footnote is an objective tool or rhetorical device? (p. 130). He reads in the footnote an “inherent instability” between “its rhetorical and its factual elements” (p. 131).

The footnote has its origin in the “idea of objectivity” … “among its origins is the desire during the Reformation to formulate an ideal of knowledge free from the influence of partisan religious struggles, or from the apriori syllogisms of medieval Aristotelianism.”

Quickly associated with mathematics and experimental science … “we regard it today as a way of thinking uncontaminated by prejudices personal, professional, natural, or ideological” (p. 131).

Cosgrove describes the footnote as a “humble subaltern in the ranks of the apparatus of textual scholarship” (p. 131). It is necessary but self-effacing: “Along with bibliographies, indexes, catalogues, reference books, and dictionaries, the footnote became an indispensible if anonymous tool.”

Why is it indispensible? “A reader … is not to be convinced by rhetoric alone; like a good positivist, or a jury in a court of law, he or she demands that the manipulations of the text come equipped with an independent support system.” (p. 132)

Cf. Today’s “disclaimer” at scientific meetings in medicine and psychiatry are attempts to establish scholarly independence and assert intellectual integrity.2


Cosgrove, Peter W. Undermining the text: Edward Gibbon, Alexander Pope, and the anti-authenticating footnote. In: Barney, Stephen A., ed. (1991). Annotation and Its Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press; pp. 130-151.


1 This is the first in a series of reflections about the scholarly apparatus employed in my doctoral dissertation. The scholarly apparatus that I want to clarify includes:

Annotations, Excursi, Footnotes, Glosses, Marginalia, Scholia, 

2 A newer requirement in the academy is the disclaimer read before a scientific paper. It serves a very perverse function. Someone who gets up and has nothing to disclaim or disown may be seen as unimportant. Someone who is on advisory boards and has the requisite number of affiliations in the requisite areas establishes in a sense their authority. It is disingenuous at best. Often, it is puffery at its worst. It is the opposite, really, of acknowledging, as many scholarly texts offer acknowledgements, both to funding and other sources of support and intellectual accompaniment in the scholarly tasks. Speakers would be better off simply stating they are capable of having independent thought and demonstrating that in their presentation.

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