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January 11, 2003
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· An Ode Owed to the Low Art of Footnotes ·
I begin with this "dialogue" (invoking the wider "dialectic" to which it points) because footnotes do, in fact, displace thought as puns do. You start out on one line of thinking, and end up on another. It's their virtue — though some think notes a low vice better lost than found today. Bruce Anderson in The Decline and Fall of Footnotes expresses the thought wittily: "Coming across a footnote, Noel Coward observed, is like going downstairs to answer the doorbell while making love." I grant: Coward does have a point.
But they do bring good news, too. It might be — think about it — Ed McMahon at the door. Take an academic note cited from Fredric Jameson's Marxism and Form (1971) and translated from Theodore Adorno's Philosophie der neuen Musik (1958):
"So what now of your titular 'Owed'?" you ask. Well, naturally, it's Jameson's own take on Adorno — quite instructively explained. "Stylistic juxtapostion of music, symbolic logic, and financial sheets?" he inquires. "The text under consideration is all of these things, but it is first and foremost a complete thing, I am tempted to say a poetic object" — a footnote! So Jameson of course sings its praises. Adorno's mind "incarnates itself in order to know reality," he claims, "and in return finds itself in a place of heightened intelligibility" — a place where there's "momentarily effected a kind of reconciliation between the realm of matter and that of spirit . . . a socio-economic style [my emphasis] which can be named." Then Jameson adduces his own footnote, one partially quoted below:
Naturally, Jameson's own debt to Adorno marks my debt to him, so before quitting, maybe I should add another footnote. And what better one to cite than an apt, long-time favorite from Edward Gibbon, a footnote simply, directly, and wisely marking the many debts authors generally owe one another. I mark Gibbon's text generically.
*Here what Gibbon calls "each scene" is a readerly metaphor, but if we just think about it, of course, the footnote's unfitful existence is likewise "seen" here.
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