Friday, November 28, 2008

Footnotes on Footnotes (in Books on Footnotes), II

Having now read (or re-read) most of Grafton's book on The Footnote. A Curious History, I have three initial reactions:

(i) I do not really understand what Zerby means when he claims that he entirely disapproves of "what happened to the footnote in Ranke's hand" (90n), while Grafton approves of it. Grafton is not only highly critical of Ranke and his use of footnotes, but also of the power of footnotes and "scientific history" in general. Thus he claims that "Ranke, the founding father of the modern historian's craft, practiced it with no more discipline than his professional grandchildren and great-grandchildren ... he used a salt shaker to add references to an already completed stew. This seems to have been Ranke's consistent practice" (65). Hardly a ringing endorsement. In general, he observes that "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" (9). Or: "Footnotes guarantee nothing, in themselves ... Yet footnotes form an indispensable if messy part of that indispensable, messy mixture of art and science: modern history" (235). It's hard (for me) to disagree with the last sentiment.

(ii) Grafton's book is hardly a history of "the" footnote. It is a history of the footnote as used by historians (with very short detours into other disciplines and genres). The role of footnotes in theology, philosophy, which, as I would argue, is at least as important, is not really treated. (One thing that makes Zerby's book interesting is that he also looks at literature and at the difficulties printers had with them from the beginning.)

(iii) The name of the philosopher "Kant" occurs once in the Index. He is discussed on p. 108, though "discussion" is probably not the proper word for the way he is treated: "Hegel wished to distance himself from Kant, the most oppressive and challenging of his predecessors, who had made masterly use of footnotes to give material form to his inner ambiguities. Kant, as Wolfert von Rahden has shown, deliberately confined all suggestions that reason might have had a historical origin or might undergo a further development to the murky region below the superstructure of the text." Well, "has shown" is always an occasion for doubt—at least for me. And "has shown that X deliberately did y" leads me to ask "Really, and how?" In this particular case, there are even bigger problems. Even though the accusation is old, going back to Johann Georg Hamann and his Metacritique, there is also a chapter in the Critique of Pure Reason entitled "The History of Pure Reason," which Kant strategically placed at the very end of his work. Since it mentions Democritus, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Locke, Leibniz, Wolff, and Hume by name, and alludes to a host of others as relevant for the history of reason, I beg to differ for that reason alone. At the very least, this shows that the universal claim about "all suggestions" is just false.[1] But I will have to take a closer look at the book by Wolfert von Rahden, which is the only thing cited in support of this claim—something that in philosophy (or perhaps better: in the history of philosophy) would hardly be sufficient.[2]

1. An example of why one should never rely on a secondary source alone?
2. See also point (ii).

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Information Scraps

A study that should be of interest for anyone concerned with note-taking:

Information Scraps: How and Why Information Eludes our Personal Information Management Tools

No further comment!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Footnotes on Footnotes (in Books on Footnotes), I

Recently, there have been a number of books on the role of footnotes in scholarly and other kinds of literature. Most respected among these seems to be Anthony Grafton's The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), which first appeared in German under title: Die tragischen Ursprünge der deutschen Fussnote (Berlin, 1995). But there are others, such as Peter Rieß, Stefan Fisch, and Peter Strohschneider Prolegomena zu einer Theorie der Fußnote (Reihe: *fußnote: anmerkungen zum wissenschaftsbetrieb vol. 1, Münster, Hamburg, LIT Verlag, 1995), a not entirely serious contibution to "Fußnotenforschung," "Fußnotenlehre," "Fußnotologie," "Fußnotentechnik," and the search after the "Urnote," and Chuck Zerby (2002) The Devil's Details, A History of Footnotes (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), which is billed on the back cover as a "charming, witty history and exploration of the formal written aside."

It's the last contribution I am concerned with today. Zerby tells us in a footnote to page 90 that he has "borrowed a great number of facts and antidotes [sic]" from Grafton's book. But, he points out, "our interpretations of them differ dramatically." It's especially the interpretation of what Leopold von Ranke did to the footnote. Grafton "approves of what happened to the footnote in Ranke's hands, [he] entirely disapprove[s]. Indeed, it appears (to me) that Grafton's book occasioned Zerby's, as a footnote, one might say. But the cause of the book seems to be more remote. As he tells us on ppp. 8f., as "an inexperienced graduate student, he wrote an article, critical of an established historian, who, in "a barrage of of eighty-four notes," dismissed his young critic, saying "Zerby misquotes me, accidentally, I suspect by substituting 'which' for 'that.'" Zerby finds: "The wound inflicted should not be minimized ... The imputation that the error was an accident instead of a subtle tactical move seems to have been devastating: 'that' graduate student's name never appeared again in a scholarly journal." That's much to be regretted, I would say.

In any case, footnotes can be wielded like weapons. It is true that "a scholar's life is not for the timid." Zerby's conclusion is that footnotes "can be mistrusted precisely because they reveal the inner workings of scholarship."

While this is undoubtedly true, it does not provide the only reason for mistrust. Even when there is no animus at work, there are more than enough reasons for distrust, that is, for checking the scholarship and the facts of a scholar on whom one is relying. Thus, ideally, every quotation and every "fact" used in a publication should, if at all possible, be checked against the originals. A quote referenced with "quoted in x" or "quoted by" is to be avoided at all costs, but this is what is done by Zerby far too often: 80n: "Quoted in Anthony Grafton," 90n: "Quoted in Antony Grafton, 91n: "Quoted in Antony Grafton," 91n: "Quoted in Peter Gay," 92n: "Quoted in Antony Grafton," 93n: "Quoted in Antony Grafton ... in the English translation by Grafton," 101n: "Quoted in Peter Gay ... (Gay is responsible for the abbreviated citation to Webb)," 123n: "Quoted in ibid.," 125n: "Quoted in Michael Schmidt."

Zerby is honest in indicating that he quotes a quote—something that cannot be taken for granted in scholarship, but I'd wish he had gone the extra mile and checked the quote himself. He might have noticed not oly that "Tagebucher" (91n) are really "Tagebücher," that "Idas Brifwerk" (90n) is "Das Briefwerk" (though this title is also correctly spelled by Grafton), but also that Grafton's "facts and antidotes" are not as reliable as he thinks. I am not saying that they are definitely not, but scholarship (as expressed in footnotes) consists of seeing for yourself and "wie es eigentlich gewesen." The devil is in the details. I will check.

Monday, November 24, 2008

You and Your Research

This is the title of an inspiring talk by Richard Hamming (1915-1998), a mathematician, who "who discovered mathematical formulas that allow computers to correct their own errors, making possible such innovations as modems, compact disks and satellite communications" (New York Times Obituary).

It can be found here. It appears to me that his advice is sound not just for research in science, but also for research in the Liberal Arts, or indeed in any pursuit.

Some quotes:

"'Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.' Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity - it is very much like compound interest. I don't want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime."

"If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work. It's perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them. Let me warn you, `important problem' must be phrased carefully."

"Most great scientists know many important problems. They have something between 10 and 20 important problems for which they are looking for an attack. And when they see a new idea come up, one hears them say 'Well that bears on this problem.' They drop all the other things and get after it."

Perhaps the "important" is not so important in disciplines other than the natural sciences, if only because one might say that the criteria for the importance of problems are much more vague there, which may be taken as another way of saying that all the problems are important (and that would, of course, be another way of saying that none of them are). So, let's keep it at "much more vague."

What is important, however, is that one has problems that need solving, for without problems there is no real thought, or so I would argue.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ulysses, Scrivener and ConnedtedText

In a very thoughtful blog entry, called Scrivener or Devonthink Pro, with a side of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Jake Seliger explains why he finds Scrivener less useful than James Fallow seems to do. Starting from an article discussing James Joyce's use of index cards in giving a shape to his "Ulysses" that is independent of any linear plot line and resembles more the unity of a mosaic, he explains
if Ulysses can be said to have a plot, its plot is formless and does not give form to the book – it is not shaped to produce a series of dramatic sensations for purposes aesthetic or otherwise; it has no conclusion in event, only a termination in time [. . .]” If a plot “does not give form to the book,” then something must; for some writers, Scrivener might organize it and help find a way to present formlessness. The program helps one create a mosaic, but I’m not trying to create a mosaic in my work, at least right now: I’m trying to create a linear plot. So I don’t think the program will help me as much as it could.

This resonates with me, even though I am not so sure that Scrivener is essentailly designed to "help find a way to present formlessness." It has an outliner, after all, and it might better be characterized as providing a way out of formlessness to a linear plot or argument.

However, in doing so, it clearly pays more attention to the journey from the formless stuff than it does to the end result, i.e. the "linear plot." In fact, it does not even prescribe a linear plot or a sequential argument at all. This does not mean that it prevents one from reaching such an end or that one must "present formlessness" or that one is destined to place fragments in what appear to be "their proper positions through a process of rough drafts and revisions."[1]

The makers of Ulysses, the model of Scrivener, point out correctly — it appears to me that no longer "text is written at once, in a single document. A story consisting of 200 pages results from fractions, starting points, discarded ideas and many more – all neatly distributed along a total of 800 pages, most likely with over 100 different documents, combined with notes, Post-Its, scribblings on the margins of numerous daily papers, beer covers, napkins and the back sides of photos." Ulysses, just as Scrivener, is designed to free the writer from the need to deliver and develop his text in predefined structures." Instead, it gives the writer the "ability to form his own preferred structures – both within the text and in organising things."[2]

Still, by blurring the distinction between research, "prewriting," preliminary drafts, rough drafts and final product — or, perhaps better, by allowing one to do all these things in one and the same application, it tempts the user to spend more time on the preliminaries than the production of the final product. It "distracts," which, in the day of "distraction-free" software might appear to be a bad thing. People end up spending more and more time on particular small passages rather than "the whole thing." To be sure this is only a distraction — and it might not be an issue for everyone — but it would be a mistake to deny that this temptation exists.

Seliger uses DevonThink to structure his research, just as I use ConnectedText. This puts a wall between the two activities. And I am beginning to think that such a wall is a good thing, even though I think it needs to be "porous." For the last book, I used to different projects in ConnectedText: one for research, the other for writing. In the end, I exported the writing project to rtf files. This worked, but I wish I had not spent as much time with "word processing." Perhaps Ulysses will work better as an intermediate stage between ConnectedText and the Word Processor. But I don't not know yet.

1. He quotes from a paper by Walton Litz: "It was the function of the note-sheets to assure that patterns and relationships already visualized by Joyce reached their fore-ordained positions in the text. Like the mosaic worker, he was continuously sorting and re-grouping his raw materials, assigned each fragment to its proper place in the general design. The mechanical nature of this process emphasizes the mechanical nature of those ordering principles which give Ulysses its superficial unity." The note-sheets seem to him as "notecards."
2. See Welcome to Ulysses. In the spirit of open disclosure I should perhaps add that I bought Ulysses yesterday (at the price of $9.99 in Mac Applications store and wasted spent yesterday working with it on a long overdue contribution to a collection of essays. This largely contributed to the need to make explicit these musings.

Annie Proulx on Yard Sales and the Internet

One more on the (almost entirely) mis-spent $14.00 on Writers [on Writing]:

I keep asking myself "Why do I keep buying such books new when you can get them at used book dealers for a fraction of the cost?" Someone else might suggest that I should really ask myself why I spend life-time on reading such stuff, which usually turns out to be about 98% useless. My answer would be that 2% of useful, entertaining, uplifting, and inspiring is a good percentage. And I did like everything but the title in Walter Mosley's "For Authors, Fragile Ideas Need Loving Every Day" (161-164) and Susan Sontag's article.

Annie Proulx's "Inspiration? Head Down the Back Road, and Stop for the Yard Sales" (185-190) praises the wonders of odd book finds at yard sales and other venues. I can relate to that, having spent more than enough times at book stores, whether they specialize in new or used books. What I cannot relate to is her sentiments about the Internet. She claims that she "rarely" uses it "for research" because she finds "the process cumbersome and detestable. The information gained is often untrustworthy and couched in execrable prose. It is unpleasant to sit in front of a twitching screen suffering assault by virus, power outage, sluggish searches, system crashes, the lack of direct human discourse, all in an atmosphere of scam and hustle" (188).

I would suggest a new monitor, a new CPU, and a different Internet connection for the "twitching screen" and the "sluggish searches," a new operating system for the "system crashes," a serious virus checker for "assault[s] by virus," and a change of place for "the lack of human discourse," the "atmosphere of scam and hustle," and the "power outage[s]."

As to the untrustworthiness and the execrable prose: This cannot be helped. But it is not that much worse than what you may find in many of the books that are likely to be found at yard sales.

I have nothing to say about the claim that the process is "cumbersome and detestable," as I have no clue what she might be talking about.

Mary Gordon on Handwriting and Notebooks

Here another reaction to one of the entries in Writers [on Writing, Collected Essays from New York Times], edited by John Darnton (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001). It's to Mary Gordon's "Putting Pen to Paper, but Not Just Any Pen or Just Any Paper" (78-83).

Gordon finds: "Writing by hand is laborious, and that is why typewriters were invented. But I believe that the labor has virtue, because of its very physicality. For one thing it involves flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper, those anchors that remind us that, however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world" (79). She says she likes to write with her Waterman's "black enamel with a trim of gold" pen (whatever model that may be).

She also tells us that has a shelf in her closet "entirely devoted to notebooks," which she chooses "for the perfect relationship between container and the thing contained" and buys wherever she goes "in the world (80). Indeed, most of the essay is made up about descriptions of notebooks from France, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, and Vermont. Her thoughts on the daily reading of Proust go into a French notebook that "is robin's-egg blue on on the outside" (80).

Finally, she also talks about copying other writers in her own hand. "It is remarkably pleasant, before the failure [intended by her as a reference to her own writing] starts, to use one's hand and wrist , to hold and savor pleasant objects, for the purpose of copying in one's own delightful penmanship the marks of those who have gone before. Those whom we cannot believe have ever thought of failing ..." She does not know "what people who work on computers do to get themselves started," but she hopes "never to learn firsthand."

I find all of this a bit too much. I also own fountain pens (even a Waterman), and I like to write with them. I also have written many notes in Notebooks (many of them Composition Books bought at the local CVS, but some of them nicely bound as well). And I have bought Notebooks in Spain, Germany, and Scotland. It's not like I don't understand that obsession. But I cannot say that I have ever noticed a "perfect relationship between container and the thing contained." The notes and drafts don't improve by being contained in a better notebook. This is sad, because if they were, I could spend my way to better notes and writing.

I also have problems with the idea that writing by is more "physical" and involves "flesh, blood, and thingness" more than a typewriter or even a computer. Perhaps it is because I grew up in post-Nazi Germany that I find the adulation "of flesh, blood, and thingness" a priori off-putting, but perhaps it also has to do with having read too much Kant.

It's not that I don't like to write by hand. In fact, I don't find it any more "laborious" than typing—perhaps even less so. But the advantages of finding my notes again after I wrote them outweigh for me any nostalgic attachment to pen and paper. Furthermore, rewriting is much easier on computers.

One thing that almost reconciled me with her sentiments was her fleeting reference to Auden's pronouncement on handwriting and farting, but she spoiled it by misspelling farts as "...". Perhaps a little too much "flesh and blood" in Auden?

Thursday, November 20, 2008


An interesting link, calling attention to one of the signs of our time: Plagiarism-free dissertation.

No further comment!

Montaigne on Rewriting

Michel de Montaigne was opposed to rewriting. Thus he found in his Essais, "as far as I am concerned, I fear to lose by the change: my understanding does not always go forward, it goes backward too. I distrust my thoughts hardly any less for being second or third than for being first, or for being present than for being past. We often correct ourselves as stupidly as we correct others." In other words, writing (or rewriting) for him does not amount to sitting in judgment of ourselves, as Ibsen and Sontag thought. [1]

This makes sense, at least to some extent, because it's not a good idea if the judge and the accused are one and the same person, and it's not even clear what kind of crime is being committed (since writing is still going on).

But that is not Montaigne's point. There are several people involved. He thinks that "myself now and myself a while ago are indeed two, but when better, I simply cannot say. It would be fine to be old if we traveled only toward improvement. It is a drunkard's motion, staggering, dizzy, wobbling, or that of reeds that the wind stirs, haphazardly as it pleases." [2]

This is much too Heraclitean for me. I'd prefer to think that there is something like a (semi-permanent and roughly identical) self that sits in judgment of what it has wrought. In other words, I disagree with both Ibsen and Montaigne. I also think that Sontag was mistaken in thinking that she was following Ibsen.

1. This does not mean that Montaigne never changed his text, but only that the changes were mainly additions: "I add, but I do not correct" because "my book ... is only an ill-fitted patchwork" that isn't changed by "extra ornaments." Accordingly, there are clearly identifiable strata of text in the Essais.

2. Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Works. Essays, Travel Journals, Letters. Tr. Donald M. Frame. Intro. Stuart Hampshire. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, pp. 894f.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sontag on Reading and Rewriting

There is a very perceptive essay by Susan Sontag, called "Directions: Write, Read, Rewrite. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as Needed." Apparently, it first appeared in the New York Times. [1] It is mainly concerned with the writing of novels, but it appears to me that what she says applies to almost all kinds of writing.

Most interesting (and true) is how she connects the acts of reading and writing. She thinks that "to write is to practice with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading. You write in order to read what you have written and see if it's OK and, since of course it never is, to rewrite it—once, twice, as many times as it takes to get it to something you can bear to read" (223). This is probably the most important difference between a serious writer and a scribbler like myself: "as many times as it takes to get something that [I] can bear to read" usually does not go beyond twice. Clearly, Sontag was her "own first, maybe severest reader." She thought that she was actually following Ibsen's maxim that "to write is to sit in judgment of oneself," most of us don't, even though we all would find it "hard to imagine writing without rereading"—at least once (223).

Sontag is, of course, not the only writer who thought that revision is where it's at. Just three other examples: “First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about” (Bernard Malamud). “There is no great writing, only great rewriting” (Louis Brandeis). “Books aren’t written—they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it” (Michael Crichton). I do find, however, that Sontag's phenomenological description of the writing process is more precise, just because she calls attention to the activity of reading and rereading as central in revision.

"Reading usually precedes writing" (226). The reading for the writing of non-fiction includes note-taking, paraphrasing and summarizing. It's very different from the reading of novels she describes, in which there is a "complete elimination of the ego" (Virginia Woolf). Disembodied rapture is not what is needed here, but critical understanding and evaluation. Some would argue that the same holds for novels—at least sometimes. And I would suppose that Sontag would agree.

Furthermore, writing for me is similar to writing for her in that "what I write about is other than me. And what I write is [usually] smarter than I am. Because I rewrite it. My books know what I once knew—fitfully, intermittently" (228). But not always and not reliably, if only because I may not have reread and rewritten it sufficiently many times. [2] This also makes for the accumulation of "uncertainties and anxieties" she notes as essential in writing.

See also Husserl on Writing and Thinking

1. I read it in the version that appears in Writers on Writing, Collected Essays from New York Times. Introduction by John Darnton. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001 pp. 223-229. One of the annoying things about this "edition" is that it does not give any indication as to when the original essays appeared.

2. As a massive disclaimer let me point out that these blog entries should be viewed more as notes to myself than as finished products.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Verdichtend Reformulieren

"Verdichtend reformulieren" is German for paraphrasing and summarizing. There are those who believe that note-taking in the form of paraphrasing and summarizing difficult or long passages in one's own words, to make them clearer to oneself or to shorten them, has no place in note-taking any longer. Computers allow us to simply copy texts. Since this approach takes less time and even preserves formatting, it is considered superior to the relatively arduous processes of reformulating the information for oneself.

This is nonsense, of course. Simply copying a passages does nothing for one's intellectual engagement with the material. Nor is this approach all that new. Photocopying has served the same purposes for almost forty years. And before that there was always the possibility of copying out entire passages word for word, without attempting to understand them. Everyone who has collected reams of photocopies and thousands of quotes knows that such material is useful only in so far as it is re-read and paraphrased or summarized at a later date. Simply copying information is thus only postponing the inevitable, unless, of course, one takes the possession of the copy for the "real" thing. Paraphrase and summary (verdichtende Reformulierung) allows us to appropriates the information and make it our own, thus providing the starting point for our own reflections on the material. Indeed, it may only constitute the first reformulation in a long process of thinking or reformulating ideas that resulted from such note-taking. Copying and pasting per se does not start this process, just as photocopying and filing does not do so.

This is not to say that copying and pasting or photocopying and filing are never appropriate. It's just that it does not represent progress over the older strategies of paraphrasing and summarizing because they are entirely different things.

See also Note-taking versus Information Gathering.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On Reading and (not) Thinking

He "had read much, and although he generally forgot what he read, there were left with him from his reading certain nebulous lights, begotten by other men's thinking, which enabled him to talk on most subjects. It cannot be said of him that he did much thinking for himself—but he thought that he thought." From Anthony Trollope, The Prime Minister

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Overcoming the Inertia of Convention

On typewriters, the QWERTY keyboard, and the power of convention.

An interesting article: Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Without further comment.