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· An Ode Owed to the Low Art of Footnotes ·

By rule I should be fined for writing, and you for getting the puns above.

Pay up, Styles [You should be saying]! You abused puns in High Style and A Punny Thing Happened and For \ Four \ Four. Here you are stooping to footnotes.

Yes, I know. Sorry. But they do charm me, and like puns mark a low form of thought — even (to mark to J-P. Sartre's case) of "Dialectical Reason." Know that I come to them here under the necessity of explaining the art of thinking to my students.

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):

It is hardly an accident [just like my titular "Ode"] that mathematical techniques in music as well as logical positivism originated in Vienna. The fondness for number games is as peculiar to the Viennese mind as the game of chess in the coffee house. There are social reasons for it. All the while intellectually productive forces in Austria were rising to the technical level characteristic of high capitalism, material forces lagged behind. The resultant unused capacity for figures became the symbolic fulfillment of the Viennese intellectual. If he wanted to take part in the actual process of material production, he had to look for a position in Imperial Germany. If he stayed home, he became a doctor or a lawyer or clung to number games as a mirage of financial power. Such is the way the Viennese intellectual tries to prove something to himself, and — bitte schön — to everyone else as well. T. W. Adorno, Philosophie der neuen Musik, Frankfurt, 1958, 62-63; quoted in Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form, Princeton, 1971, 7.

"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:

[A]n almost physical cause [Jameson writes] may be said to account for the structural peculiarity of the text in question, which is neither more nor less than a complete footnote: and the abundance, as well as the stylistic and philosophical quality of the footnotes to Philosophie der neuen Musik is itself "no accident" and has symptomatic value. The footnote in this context may indeed be thought of as a small but atonomous form, with its own inner laws and conventions and its own determinate relationship to the larger form which governs it — something on the order of the moral of a fable or the various types of digressions which flourished within the ninteenth-century novel. In the present instance, the footnote as a lyrical form allows Adorno a momentary release from the inexorable logic of the material under study in the main text, permitting him to shift to other dimensions, to the infrastructure as well as to the wider horizons of historical speculation. The very limits of the footnote (it must be short, it must be complete) allow the release of intellectual energies, in that they serve as a check on a speculative tendency that might otherwise run wild, on what we will later describe as the proliferation of "theories of history." The footnote as such, therefore, designates a moment in which systematic philosophizing and the empirical study of concrete phenomena are both false in themselves; in which living thought, squeezed out from between them, pursues its fitful existence in the small print at the bottom of the page. Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form, Princeton, 9;  8 above.


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.

Although I cannot stop to quote [my author] for every fact, I will observe that the navigation of [the subject] from [one place] to [another] and [another] is contained in [a text] ( [on some page] ), and that the historian has the uncommon talent of placing each scene* before the reader's eye. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire [5 Vols.], Vol. V, New York, Burt, 360.


*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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