*) To a smiley generation this may look like a grin and a black eye. But this is a not a post on faces, but a note on footnotes. A note lacking context, an aside without dialogue.

(Wouldn’t it be wonderful to watch a play of nothing but asides.)

I remember the first time I encountered a footnote, and I remember it, because the fascination I then felt hasn’t gone away. In some children’s book (Dutch, 1930’s, probably, as a child I read a lot of very old stuff), the author explained an unusual word at the bottom of the page. I even think I remember what it was:

*) De motorfiets werd toen, heel zot, “schetenfiets” genoemd.
*) In those days the motorcycle was called, oddly, “farting cycle”.

There may be some involuntary fantasy in this  (I have found no web traces of the word schetenfiets, which however deserves to be remembered — and will be, tagged with this post).

As an aside, as discourse within discourse, the footnote belongs to that broad category of phenomena known as recursive. Or rather, recursion is an abstract feature attributable to a wide range of unrelated phenomena. And as is well known, recursive features hold a (sometimes dangerous) fascination. You may think of Douglas Hofstadter, Noam Chomsky, or (if you’re a musicologist) Heinrich Schenker and Hugo Riemann.[1]

Brackets within brackets within brackets within brackets … which may hold whatever. Footnotes within footnotes within footnotes …

(Wouldn’t it be wonderful to read a book of only footnotes. — No.)

The footnote is an outcast, banished to the bottom of the page. Which is another of its charms. It may say what the main text isn’t allowed to say — a bright, but irrelevant observation; a criticism too argumentative, or a detail too particular to give prominence.

It should not be allowed to expand and take possession of the page, as is common in eighteenth and nineteenth century writing. Long elaborations are better consigned to an appendix (which nowadays may be easily published online). In which case one may add a recursive layer — footnotes within a footnote.[2]

But despite its charms, the footnote mostly serves a dull and humble purpose, that of providing references. Of the three common methods of citation, the first, common in scientific writing, dispenses with footnotes. It assimilates all references (author-date) into the text. This may be efficient, but frequently produces unreadable monstrosities like this:

It has often (Dunce, Dullard and Dolt 2002, Dolt and Dullard 2003, 2005a, Dunce et al. 20007a, b) been assumed that certain things are in certain ways, but more recently (Smart and Sharp 2009, Sharp 2012a, Spruce 2011, Smart, Sharp and Spruce 2015b) it has been argued that they may well be different, or even (Tidy and Bright 2016) nonexistent.

So I can understand why scholars in the humanities, who generally may be more concerned with the literary of rhetorical quality of their prose, prefer to relegate bibliographical data to the foot- or endnote area. Which is fine, as long as those references remain brief and in turn refer to a full bibliography.

Unfortunately, many journals in my field (musicology) still cherish the irrational practice of cramming all bibliographic information into the footnotes, with full citation first time and short titles afterwards (just crawl backwards through the notes to find that title …). In the face of a hugely expanding wealth of sources, this is a waste of space and effort.

And a pity, to bury your spicy asides in dry bibliographical data.

[1]^ See my Music, Language, and the Deceptive Charms of Recursive Grammars (2014).
[2]^ For instance, my Gustav Anton Freiherr von Seckendorff, alias Patrik Peale: A Biographical Note (2016).