Holding the footnotes to the fire

There are words, gestures, behaviours and objects that indicate high status.

We all play the status game, negotiating symbols and status indices every moment of our lives. Even when we think we’re acting from a status-free mindset.

Books are no exceptions. There are low and high status markers from the first to the last cover. Books communicate as much as their makers, sellers and readers.

In the English-speaking bubble, the term non-fiction designates as many disparate genres such as political and social essay, popular history, philosophy-psychology, academic, criticism of all kinds, etc.

And unlike fiction, non-fiction books are confronted with the temptation of the status-rich footnote.

The role of footnotes is well-known. It is to provide the evidence, source, back story of a statement in the main text. Footnotes sit at the foot of the page and ground the claims in fact. Or at least they try.

Very few arguments worth considering and defending occur in a void. They grow in the shadow of past scholarship. The dwarf on the shoulder of giants. But even dwarfs have feet.

Footnotes offer both stability and mobility to an argument. They make it walk as well as stand upright. In the limelight of evidence, of course.

No true scholarship can do away with footnotes without sacrificing the clarity of the text and of the argument.

But often footnotes become branded items of high-status apparel. I’ve seen too many footnoted books that leverage the power of the footnote not to ironclad a claim, but to communicate something about the book itself – that by virtue of having footnotes, the argument is authoritative and worth considering, when in fact the footnotes bring little, if anything, to the table.

Footnoting is an art.

Too many footnotes are circular. They link to books and articles that make unsupported claims. Those footnotes are status markers, not markers of scholarship. They make a point, without adding to the line of attack. Their feet are not held to the fire.

And those books get away with a lot.

If footnotes are not required, as they often aren’t, then leave them out. But if they’re in,

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