by Roddy Howland-Jackson
For footnoting, as for most complicated things, there’s a wonderfully disparaging German word. Fußnotenwissenschaft translates, dauntingly, as ‘the systematic pursuit of knowledge through footnotes.’ The length of the term, soldering together two compound nouns, gives some indication of the clunky referencing it describes. As for its charge, the English speaker need look no further than its ironic first syllable, ‘fuss’ - here ‘foot’, but perhaps, free association allowing, suggestive of a form of pedantry. Footnotes are the marks of an obsessive, rather than creative approach to academia. With admirable commitment to the point, one German, Gottlieb Wilhelm Rabener, published his dissertation ‘Hinkmars von Repkow Noten Ohne Text’ in 1751 as a publication consisting entirely of footnotes. The work speaks volumes about the authors of footnotes, who, unfortunately for many readers, speak volumes in turn.
It may seem surprising, therefore, that footnotes are an indispensable ingredient in many recent works of comic writing. On paper, the sterile and neurotic world of academic referencing should be far removed from the cutting edge of comedy, but it is on paper that this innovation has been most successful. Wilfully subversive, and densely referential, the works of Tim Key and Richard Ayoade have earned staunch critical approval through their postmodern approach to paratext. Even Alan Partridge has got in on the act, with The Times and The Guardian calling for I, Partridge to be nominated for a Booker Prize based only on the strength of its referencing.
This revival comes less than a century after critics savaged T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land for embodying everything that’s infuriating about footnoting. F. L. Lucas, writing in The New Statesman in 1923, declared:
A poem that has to be explained in notes is not unlike a picture with ‘This is a dog’ inscribed beneath [...] The borrowed jewels he has set in its head do not make Mr Eliot’s toad the more prepossessing.
The notes to The Waste Land are obscure, oblique, and self-indulgent. To many, they exist only as a token of Eliot patting himself on the back for being so well-read. For example, his note on the word ‘lacquearia’ reads as follows: ‘Lacquearia. V. Aeneid, I. 726: dependent lychni laquearibus aureis / incensi, et noctem flammis funalia vincunt.’ No context, explanation, or even translation is supplied. ‘This is a dog’ is a generous overstatement of Eliot’s sparse style by Lucas: the reader cannot even be sure they are looking at an animal.
Eliot was not the first writer, and certainly not the last, to bore readers with laboursome referencing. Their evolution has been intimately bound with the development of academic writing. Most fundamentally, they exist to supplement argumentation. It is no coincidence that the appendix sections of many works are titled Preuves, the French words for ‘Proofs’. Footnotes lend authority to a writer, acting as a prop for their supposed authorial infallibility. But footnotes have more to offer than substantiation.
Anthony Grafton, author of The Footnote: A Curious History, suggests that the true allure of referencing lies in its exclusive membership. It is the thrill of participating in intellectual history. Medieval ‘manicules’ – disembodied hands which prefigure footnotes – point towards this sense of community. Tattered manuscripts are strewn with these floating digits, either imposed by curious readers, or drawn artistically during compilation. The resulting effect is a very human sense of excitement at the parts of a passage which merit a closer look. A writer could, perhaps, lend the reader a hand in order to navigate their text.
It is the medieval equivalent of greeting a friend with finger-guns. Writers could gesture towards a wider critical inheritance in which they have earned their place. The impulse behind referencing is self-congratulation: it allows an author to elevate their own status while, perhaps, denigrating that of their peers. The concise, but damning, ‘cf.’ (meaning ‘compare’) is common evidence for this, often hiding eruptive academic disagreement behind polite notation. Grafton is pithy in his summation:
To the inexpert, footnotes look like deep root systems, solid and fixed; to the connoisseur, however, they reveal themselves as anthills, swarming with constructive and combative activity.
Monotonous, petty and self-absorbed, it is little wonder that footnotes have been exceptionally vulnerable to satire. Alexander Pope was one of the earliest writers to recognise their aptness for parody. The Dunciad was published in 1743 with a complete mock-scholarly paratext, belittling the pedantry of those who held referencing in such reverence. Pope’s mockery, however, belies a genuine faith in academics and allusion. Postmodern treatments of the footnote are, characteristically, less certain.
Take, for example, from I, Partridge, the radio host’s footnote about his estranged peer Sue Cook: ‘it’s funny that she’s called Sue Cook when she can’t cook, but she will sue.’ The footnote is starved of all its lofty academic pretensions, instead made trivial and bitter. Henri Bergson defines humour in these terms, describing it as ‘something mechanical encrusted upon the living.’ It is uncanny in relation to footnotes, which literally impose mechanical elements upon the flow of the text. The mismatches that result provide an ample resource for comedy. Tim Key, an actor-turned- poet, drives this premise to its logical conclusion in The Incomplete Tim Key, relishing the bathos of a surreal footnote:
Tony’s woes are sufficient to warrant a second inclusion, later in the collection, this time with a few differences:
The melodrama is entirely suppressed, allowed air only through the poet’s emotional footnotes. The revelation is partial, tantalising the reader with detail while withholding further information. One can’t be sure whether or not Tim Key is familiar with manicules, but the parallels are clear. Just as Tony’s hand shines a strange, futile light onto Louise, Key offers the reader a muddy, pointless glimpse into what is really going on.
Ayoade’s footnotes are even more bracingly self- aware. Approximately half the word count is invested in sardonic asides – a staple of Ayoade’s canon, whether it be his debut film Submarine, or his viral interview with Krishnan Guru- Murphy in 2014. The first lines of Ayoade on Ayoade suggest this creative anxiety:
Ayoade and Key are clearly indebted to others for this self-conscious referencing style.Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest are exemplary paratext novels, telling their stories through the footnotes as much as through what they refer to. Footnotes, in their conventional role, attempt to place works within their discursive context: as such, they necessarily figure as part of an effort to domesticate ideas, and to subordinate them under a thin black line. Postmodern treatments of the footnote are suspicious of these grand narratives, in which academic notation is complicit, instead reassessing their value in literary works. Dialogic writing becomes its own structural conceit, dismantling the sanctified qualities of critical writing and reimagining them to reflect an unstable system of authorship.
Or maybe it’s all just for laughs? There would be an unfortunate irony in this article intellectualising a joke at the expense of intellectualism. Tim Key’s introductions (all nine of them) and Richard Ayoade’s indexing (see ‘layers, Ayoade’s many, p. 176’) are clearly designed to tickle the reader as much as they are to trouble them.
Perhaps Maria Popova is right to see the footnote as a precursor to the internet: ‘every footnote, every citation, every allusion is essentially a hyperlink to another text, to another mind.’ Paratext works like Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, published entirely online, make this comparison a curious reality. The foreword to Ayoade’s The Grip of Film offers some form of reconciliation in a footnote reading: ‘[I’m never certain] if they’re even words. Sometimes they look like demons.’ Demon, from the Greek daimon (meaning godlike or genius), lies somewhere in the space between fiendishness and ingenuity. The footnote can be clever or silly, supportive or iconoclastic, a synapse or an obstacle - or even, if it needs to be, a sign saying ‘this is a dog.’
Art by Abigail Hodges
RODDY HOWLAND JACKSON is a second year English student at Magdalen. We hear one time he met John Stamos on a plane, who said he was pretty.