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· Footnotes: From Low Art to High Science ·

I linked last to a footnote seen on top of a page and thought today to say why. In An Ode Owed to the Low Art of Footnotes, I linked to a Gibbon footnote represented in my text by its generic content initially:

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.

Although I haven't fully represented my own use of Gibbon's text, you can link to it to infer my larger intent. But my point is still larger, namely, to raise anyone's use of the academic footnote by such a dialectical move from a "low art" to a "high science," instructively invoking, to that end, a passage from Marc Bloch's The Historian's Craft.

 · Bloch's Biography ·

Marc Bloch you may recognize as a member of the Annales school of historiography (including Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel, and Le Roy Ladurie). Although Bloch wrote as a practical French Medievalist, in The Historian's Craft he advocated scientific-theoretical standards for a still larger historical purpose. He believed that beyond objectivity, verifiable truth was the historian's ultimate aim. Bloch warranted this view on the assumption that history is a truth-seeking, scientific enterprise done by a group — even if conducted by individuals. So it's toward the development of the group's historical consciousness that Bloch aimed; indeed, he aimed ultimately at humanity's scientific consciousness.

Though I cannot pretend to outline Bloch's thought, I can present a small but subtle part of it as it bears on footnotes. These are the humble forms binding Bloch's theory to his practice. For Bloch the footnote helpfully binds word to deed, language to reality, consciousness to act, and, indeed, historian to craft. Initially, he starts by noting the low footnote's too-common abuse:

[W]hen certain readers complain that a single note, strutting along by itself at the foot of the page, makes their heads swim, or when certain publishers claim that their customers, doubtless less hypersensitive in reality than they would have us believe, are tortured by the mere sight of a page thus disfigured, these æsthetes merely prove their imperviousness to the most elementary maxims of an intellectual ethic. For, apart from the free play of imagination, we have no right to make any assertion which cannot be verified and a historian who in using a document indicates the source as briefly as possible (that is, the means of finding it again) is only obeying a universal rule of honesty. Corrupted by dogmas and myth, current opinion, even when it is least hostile to enlightenment, has lost the very taste for verification.

In noting the humble footnote's higher use, however, Bloch rises to a stylish eloquence linking factual notation to scientific verification to suggest, I think, even truth itself.

On that day when, having first taken care not to discourage it with useless pedantry, we shall succeed in persuading the public to measure the value of a science in proportion to its willingness to make refutation easy, the forces of reason will achieve one of their most smashing victories. Our humble notes, our finicky little references, currently lampooned by many who do not understand them, are working toward that day. Marc Bloch, The Historian's Craft, Knopf [Random House Vintage ed., 1964], 1953, 88.

Published posthumously in 1953, Bloch's own text is ironically without footnotes. Considering his circumstances — tortured and executed by the Nazis in 1944 as a part of the Free French Resistance — we should maybe see Bloch as an abused footnote himself. The artful words of D. W. Brogan can suggest why:

I remember vividly the day on which the news of Marc Bloch's death reached us in Cambridge, and how eagerly we pounced on the rumour — false, alas! — that he had escaped. When we learned beyond doubt that he was dead, we felt that a blow had been dealt to the whole world of learning. Quoted on the text's back cover.

Consider — "in proper citation style" — about whom you could say that.


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