Unreal Nature

December 31, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:23 am

Freed from those conventions — from the demands of plot, from the typically false dichotomy between good guys and bad guys, and unburdened of ambiguity, of bravado, of cant, there is only one thing in sight, and that is consequence.

That’s taken from a review of the book, War Surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq: A Series of Cases, 2003–2007 edited by Shawn Christian Nessen, Dave Edmond Lounsbury, and Stephen P. Hetz, with a foreword by Bob Woodruff. The review,  The War We Don’t Want to Seeby Sue M. Halpern, covers five movies and books about current wars. Here is the full bit from which the above quote was taken:

“This 28-year-old male sustained an injury to his right leg from a high-energy blast,” begins the chapter on below-the-knee amputation. “His clothing was saturated with blood. Removal of his combat boots revealed a significant, grossly contaminated, soft-tissue injury and a poorly perfused foot.” On subsequent pages, interspersed with teaching points, clinical implications, and suggested reading, are full-color photos of legs that have been pulverized and feet that have been pulped, of flesh that no longer resembles flesh, of bone that hangs off the trunk like snapped branches.

These pictures, which were taken by doctors in the field with personal digital cameras, were not intended for publication. Though in most instances they are gruesome, they are not prurient. Nor are they editorial. Unfiltered, they are instructive, not only to those who may someday find themselves working in a MASH unit, but also to those of us who, like it or not, send them there to do that work. The photos show wounds — “Figure 4. Fragment of human rib removed from right scrotum”; “Figure 1. Wound showing evisceration of the small intestine” — that have never been seen in this way before.

… Flipping through the coffee-table-size pages and reading the accounts of how a twenty-two-year-old soldier sitting in a Humvee had a hole drilled through his forehead by IED shrapnel, or “a 23-year-old male suffered severe burns during munitions disposal activities [and was] found on fire after extricating himself from his burning vehicle,” what you get is the war without the war story. Freed from those conventions — from the demands of plot, from the typically false dichotomy between good guys and bad guys, and unburdened of ambiguity, of bravado, of cant, there is only one thing in sight, and that is consequence. Here is what we’re really talking about when we talk about RPGs and AK-47s and TBIs and the rest of the alphabet soup tepidly served up in the press. Here is “collateral damage.”

Though the above is about the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, today, I am thinking about the violence in Gaza. I don’t think that I’m qualified to say anything meaningful about what is going on there. I feel extreme sorrow — and outrage and dismay. Below are links to posts by other people that reflect my opinion on the matter, and say it better than I can:

Robert Fisk; Leaders lie, civilians die, and lessons of history are ignored  in The Independent (Dec 29, 2008)

Jim Johnson;  Israelis & Palestinians in his (Notes on) Politics, Theory & Photography  blog

Dr. C;  Gaza; Gaza Day 2, Gaza Day 4 in his blog

Felix Grant; Peace and goodwill on earth (1)  in his The Growlery blog




December 30, 2008

Lose the World and Lose Yourself

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:29 am

There’s an interesting new piece on TheEdge.org, Self Awareness: The Last Frontier by V.S. Ramachandran. Though it’s largely speculative, it’s a good read. (Be aware that there is not yet agreement in the scientific community on the significance of mirror neurons, which are Ramachandran’s specialty.)

It’s a long and rambling article. I’m going to give you a few bits that I found to be especially interesting:

… There are also: “touch mirror neurons” that fire not only when your skin is touched but when you watch someone else touched. This raises an interesting question; how does the neuron know what the stimulus is? Why doesn’t the activity of these neurons lead you to literally experience the touch delivered to another person? There are two answers. First the tactile receptors in your skin tell the other touch neurons in the cortex (the non-mirror neurons) that they are not being touched and this null signal selectively vetos some of the outputs of mirror neurons. This would explain why our amputee experienced touch sensations when he watched our student being touched; the amputation had removed the vetoing. It is a sobering thought that the only barrier between you and others is your skin receptors!

A second reason why your mirror neurons don’t lead you to mime everyone you watch or to literally experience their tactile sensations might be that your frontal lobes send feedback signals to partially inhibit the mirror neurons’ output. (It cant completely inhibit them; otherwise there would be no point having mirror neurons in the first place.) As expected, if the frontal lobes are damaged you do start miming people (“echopraxia”).

… I mention these to emphasize that despite all the pride that your self takes in its individuality and privacy, the only thing that separates you from me is a small subset of neural circuits in your frontal lobes interacting with mirror neurons. Damage these and you “lose your identity” — your sensory system starts blending with those of others.

… Let us return to Cotards syndrome — the ultimate paradox of the self negating its own existence (sometimes claiming “I am dead”, “I can smell my body rotting”, etc.). We postulate that this arises from a combination of two lesions. First, a lesion that is analogous to Capgras but far more pervasive. Instead of emotions being disconnected from just visual centers, it is disconnected from all sensations and even memories of sensations. So the entire world becomes an imposter — unreal (not just the mother). Second, there may be dysfunctional interaction between the mirror neurons and frontal inhibitory structures leading to a dissolution of the sense of self as being distinct from others (or indeed from the world ). Lose the world and lose yourself — and it’s as close to death as you can get. This is not a fully developed explanation by any means; I mention it only to indicate the style of thinking that we may need to explain these enigmatic syndromes.

Now imagine these same circuits become hyperactive as sometimes happens when you have seizures originating in the temporal lobes (TLE or temporal lobe epilepsy). The result would be an intense heightening of the patient’s sensory appreciation of the world and intense empathy for all beings to the extent of seeing no barriers between himself and the cosmos — the basis of religious and mystical experiences.

It’s a good article. [ link ]



Even the Boy That Driveth the Plough

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:18 am

His ruling passion was a simple one: he wanted to render the defining texts of his age and culture — the Old and New Testaments — in an accurate English translation which even “the boy that driveth the plough” could grasp. And the fact that he eventually fulfilled this aim, and paid for it with his life, should be acknowledged more frequently by anybody who cares about freedom of expression.

That’s taken from a good article, William Tyndale: A hero for the information age in The Economist magazine (Dec 18, 2008). Here is more:

… Tyndale was ultimately more influential, and also in many ways a nobler figure than the more famous religious martyrs of the Tudor era, the Catholic Thomas More and the Protestant Thomas Cranmer. Both More and Cranmer served their time as enforcers of religious intolerance before falling victim to it themselves. No such stain sullies the record of Tyndale.

… It was a commonplace of the Soviet era that only people who were slightly abnormal, and utterly indifferent to their own comfort or survival, could find the courage to protest effectively against a totalitarian regime at the height of its powers. And Tyndale fits that description rather well. The main difference between his situation and that of the Soviet dissidents is that, fortunately, Henry’s England was much less successful in sealing off the realm from foreign ideas and influences.

When Tyndale went to Cambridge in 1517, the university was already bubbling with the new learning which had recently been introduced by the Dutch scholar Erasmus. Among many other innovations, Erasmus had rejected the idea that study of the Bible should be confined to a Latin version produced in the year 400. As the Dutchman argued, the proper way to decipher that text was to go to the originals (Greek for New Testament, Hebrew for the Old) and parse them with the best available tools of linguistic science.

To the sharp-minded, polyglot Tyndale, all that was obvious, and he was pretty careless about where he expressed that opinion.

… Tyndale was helped, by Londoners with more worldly wisdom than himself, to go to Germany under a false name, with his half-completed rendering of the New Testament tucked deep inside his trunk. And from the moment he arrived in Hamburg, his life turned into a cat-and-mouse game of sneaking from one north European city to another, in search of rapid presses and nimble protectors.

Agents of the English king were fanning out all over the continent, meanwhile, there were plenty of people in the Teutonic lands (especially in the Low Countries where the Emperor was trying hard to enforce his writ) who did not want the Bible to be translated into English or any other modern language.

… A determined eurosceptic might argue that Tyndale’s capture and execution was the first, ghastly example of a pan-European arrest warrant, made possible by an early version of Europol and the Lisbon treaty. That is true, in a way: he was arrested after Henry VIII made known his feelings to the Holy Roman Emperor who was sovereign of the Low Countries.

But Henry’s motives were more personal than theological. He was infuriated by a pamphlet which denounced his moves to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Theology was moving in Tyndale’s direction by the time of his death. England had half-switched to the Protestant cause, and Thomas Cromwell, the royal adviser, made a respectable stab at saving his compatriot’s life. However, having recently burned ten members of the ultra-Protestant Anabaptist movement, the regime of Henry VIII could hardly present itself as an advocate of religious freedom.

Jailed in the vast and forbidding fortress of Vilvoorde, Tyndale could easily have saved his life by agreeing with the Catholic hierarchy that the Bible was best left in Latin for the clergy to peruse. But he maintained his refusal in a way that impressed his Flemish jailers. “He had so preached to them who had him in charge…that they reported of him, that if he were not a good Christian man, they knew not whom they might take to be one.”

The article ends as follows:

… As for Vilvoorde, the place of Tyndale’s death, just a handful of keen locals have worked passionately to investigate and commemorate the local martyr. One of them is Wim Willems, a Protestant theology professor who divides his time between his Flemish homeland and central Africa.

“It’s when I go to Rwanda that Tyndale’s message really comes alive,” he explains. “I tell my African students to think for themselves, to make own their own free and informed decisions about what is valid in their native, traditional cultures and in the cultural values of Europe, including the humanism that Tyndale personifies.” And in Rwanda, more than in most parts of Europe, people can readily understand that defending human dignity from tyranny can often mean sacrificing one’s life. Perhaps some of China’s dissidents should consider adopting him too.

Read the full piece if you have a minute. [ link ]

One last bit on freedom of speech, just to emphasize the point of the above. This is taken from Regardless of Frontiers by AC Grayling from the Index on Censorship web site (Dec 10, 2008):

Most human rights instruments begin by asserting the right of every human individual to life, liberty and security. Arguably, the further rights that such instruments proceed to list are crucial to the possibility of these three, and especially to the second. But it is also arguable that among the other rights — to equality before the law and due process in its application, to privacy, to freedom of movement, to property, to family life, to association with others, and the rest — the one that matters most is free speech.

Without free speech one cannot claim or defend one’s other rights. Without it there cannot be democracy, which requires open discussion of policy ideas and party manifestos. There cannot be a due process of law without free speech, because in its absence one could not defend oneself against accusations, seek remedy against those who have wronged one, or gather and scrutinise the evidence required to make or refute a case.

Without it there cannot be education, inquiry, discussion, the imparting or receiving of information, the testing of opinion or the challenging of falsehoods. Without it there cannot be a free press, which along with an independent judiciary is an essential of a free society. Without free speech there cannot be living art, literature and theatre, which is to say: culture worth the name. Without free speech there are serious limits to the possibility of social novelty, experiment and change. To put matters in summary terms: without free speech other freedoms and rights suffer, if they are possible at all.




December 29, 2008

Person to Person: Time Goes Away

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:55 am


This picture of me from a long time ago is in a combination frame/clock that sits in a bookshelf where I see it all the time. Sometimes I wonder, “what was she thinking?” and “what would she think of me?”

No. That’s not right. What I wonder is “what is she thinking?” and “what does she think of me?” When I look at the me in that photograph, time goes away. She thinks of me and I think of her as if she is there, now.

What brought this to mind was a post on the Talking Philosophy blog, Naked Photographs, posted by Jeremy Stangroom (Dec 27, 2008):

Okay, so here’s a thing.

Suppose an 18 year old fella takes some photographs of his 17 year old girlfriend in various states of undress. Not pornographic, but not artistic (so we’re talking mild readers’ wives type stuff). She is not coerced in any way, has no objections to him possessing the photographs, and he will never show them to anybody else.

They split up a few years later. She’s happy for him to keep the photographs. Fast forward 25 years. He still possesses the photographs. He’s now in his mid-40s, and he hasn’t been in touch with his old girlfriend for some 20 years, so he has no idea whether she’d mind that he still has the photos (of course, he recognises that she might mind).

So various questions arise:

1. Is it morally wrong for a man in his mid-40s to be looking at naked photos of his 17 year old ex-girlfriend taken 25 years previously? (I’m not interested in whether it is ’sad’, ‘pathetic’, etc).

2. If it is morally wrong, was it wrong when he was 18?

3. If not, is it the age difference that makes it morally wrong? If it is the age difference, how old was he when he started to behave immorally?

4. If not (2 or 3), is it the fact that he can no longer assume her consent? If so, suppose he contacts her, and finds out that she doesn’t mind. Is it okay then?

5. If it still wrong, and it isn’t the age difference, is it because she is not now able to consent for her 17 year old self? (So the thought here is that her 17 year old self would not have consented to the 45 year old version of her boyfriend looking at the photos.)

Generally, what should he do with the photographs? Destroy them? (I’m not interested in the legal status of said photographs. Just the moral question.)

As he hints at in option #5, there are four people in this scene, not two. The 17 year old girl is the one in dialogue with the mid-40s man (not the mid-40s woman), — and this relationship is taking place outside of time. There is only one time (or there is no time) and all four are in it.

As a side note, I can’t for the life of me imagine this scenario with genders reversed. First, would a 17 year old woman want to take pictures of her naked boyfriend ? Maybe. Would he agree to it? I doubt it, but maybe. Would she save them and want to look at them twenty years later? Well …  Would there be the same questions as posed above about the morality of her wanting to look at him?



December 28, 2008

The Point Is …

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:20 am

This extract is taken from an essay, Some Points About Pointing by Raymond Tallis in the Nov/Dec 2008 issue of Philosophy Now. It’s about how we humans point with our hand; the index finger, in particular. I think that it is loosely relevant to photography, which, of all the arts, is closest to finger-pointing.

The frustration in trying to show a dog where its ball has gone by pointing in the direction of its disappearance is enough to demonstrate the conventional nature of pointing. The dog just doesn’t get the point and you end up retrieving the ball yourself. In fact, no animals point as humans do. Primatologists used to think that chimpanzees understood pointing and that they used this gesture to communicate the whereabouts of objects. More recently, observers such as Daniel Povinelli have shown that chimps’ apparent comprehension of pointing is due to poor experiment design. If a chimp goes to an object that is pointed to, it does so not because it understands the referential nature of pointing but because it goes to the object nearest the experimenter’s finger-tip.

We are the sole pointing animal because of profound differences between us and all other sentient creatures. Firstly, the use of the index finger to point presupposes a special relationship to a part of one’s body. This deliberate use of the finger builds upon the sense of one’s self as an agent, and the parts of one’s body as explicit tools, which ultimately originates from the sense of the hand as a tool. It is tempting to conflate pointing with forms of behaviour that are widely distributed through the animal kingdom and which seem to involve communication through display of part of the body. But this would be mistaken. Unlike these other communicative modes of bodily display, pointing is discretionary, and, being conventional, has to be learned. (Humans, by the way, are the only animals who explicitly teach their young: who demonstrate and point out things to their offspring.) This sense of a piece of one’s body as an object, as a sign, and as a means of signification which will focus the attention of another on something or other is remarkable, and says a lot about our complex consciousness of our bodies. But utilising one’s body in this self-conscious way is built on something else: the sense of others as self-conscious creatures like one’s self.

My pointing something out to you is a request for joint visual attention to the same object. It is based on a highly explicit general sense of the kind of creature you are: unlike other creatures, (most) humans have an unequivocal sense that others have minds. On top of this, there is a specific sense of your knowledge being defective compared with mine, based on my observation of your (literal) point of view. We are reminded just how remarkable this is when we encounter human beings who lack this sense: people with autism who have no integrated sense of themselves, and no sense of other’s sense of themselves. A poignant early sign of autism is the failure to point – a gesture which usually appears towards the end of the first year of life, before the emergence of language. Pointing, in short, is a potent testimony to the infant’s sense (again unique to human beings) of living in a shared, common world, a public reality, and of its communicative urge.

There’s quite a bit more to the essay. Recommended. [ link ]



Disturbed Bodily Perception

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:13 am

The quote, below is from a review of the book,  Being in Pain by Abraham Olivier. The review is by Vince Luizzi in the Nov/Dec 2008 issue of Philosophy Now. Though it is about pain, presumably it could apply to all forms of ‘bodily perception,’ including pleasure.

In introducing Merleau-Ponty’s view, Olivier writes, “Je suis mon corps — I am my body. Thus Merleau-Ponty coins his well-known viewpoint that the body is not simply an object among objects, but instead refers to myself as perceiving subject. ” (p9.) How do we speak of pain on this view? Olivier tells us pain is “disturbed bodily perception bound to hurt, affliction, or agony…  [I]f I speak of the ‘body in pain’, I refer to the way pain disturbs the way I qua body perceive, that is sense, feel, and cognize.” (p51.) So pain is a disturbed perception of the body. If so, we might think of further disturbances of our perception which would eliminate pain, or engage our minds in such a fashion that pain subsides. According to Olivier, “If pain is itself essentially part of my perception, and my point of view changes, the quality of the pain must also change …  What I advocate is an insight into our bodily capacity to change our body’s pain by means of a change of perception.” (p166.) We can talk about pain, write about it, or write or speak to it. Or we can imagine situations that preoccupy us, disrupting the disruption of pain, thus diminishing the pain.

This raises some interesting questions about the morality of inflicting a “disturbed bodily perception” (pain) on others. If those others don’t perceive that “disturbance” as pain, then is it pain?



December 27, 2008

One Thing As Another

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:31 am

This post was supposed to be about metaphor, but my mind has been hopelessly hi-jacked by the fruit fly genome. Metaphors are dangerous.

I started in a fascinating first chapter extract from Thinking of Others: On the Talent for Metaphor by Ted Cohen. This is terrifically interesting. I highly recommend reading the whole thing (it’s not very long) as my quoted bits don’t really get to the core of what he’s saying.

There is mystery at the heart of metaphor. During the past several years a number of capable authors have done much to clarify the topic, and they have shown that some earlier central theses about the nature of metaphor are untenable. What they have shown, in particular, is that the import of a significant metaphor cannot be delivered literally, that is, in general, that a metaphorical statement has no literal statement that is its equivalent.

It may or may not be prudent to regard the import of a metaphor as a meaning. If it is, then a metaphorical sentence has two meanings, one literal and one metaphorical. If not, then there is only one meaning, the literal meaning, and the metaphorical import has to be understood in another way. But in either case there will be a metaphorical import that a competent audience will grasp. How the audience does this is, in the end, a mystery.

… My topic is the phenomenon of understanding one another, and, as noted earlier, it may seem dubious to connect this topic with the topic of metaphor. I do not know to what length the comparison can be kept salient, but I make the comparison, provisionally but also polemically, for this reason: the creation, expression, and comprehension of metaphors must involve speaking and thinking of one thing as another. I am persuaded that understanding one another involves thinking of oneself as another, and thus the talent for doing this must be related to the talent for thinking of one thing as another; and it may be the same talent, differently deployed.

Again, I hope you’ll read the rest of the chapter. [ link ]

I’ve been thinking about the above for a few days, so it clicked with the conclusion at the bottom of an article on The New Scientist, Bye-bye boojums: Scientific names lose their sparkle by Richard Webb (Dec 27, 2008). The piece is about the creative names that have often been given to scientific items:

As memorable as such names are, they can prove problematical too. Take the mammalian gene Sonic hedgehog, which acquired its name from the related fruit-fly gene. It is now known to play a role in a developmental disorder of the brain known as holoprosencephaly. The name does not help when parents have to be told that a mutation in Sonic hedgehog has given rise to their baby’s potentially fatal condition.

“It would be nice to have a system for human genes that was stable, memorable and meaningful at the same time,” says Povey. But that’s impossible to achieve, and ultimately the need for stability — and searchability in gene databases — is winning out. The result is the unpronounceable alphanumeric jumble that is the typical gene name today.

It could be a metaphor for science: ever more complex, ever more impenetrable. The shift may be regrettable, but there is a general feeling that it is inevitable. “I slightly mourn the more whimsical names” says Povey, “but their time was past.”

Within that article, there is a link to Mark Isaak’s site, Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature, that has entire sections devoted to puns and wordplay in scientific naming. It also has a page of the names given to fruit fly genes. From there, I was linked to a page, FlyNome, that gives the stories behind the nutty fruit fly gene names. About an hour later, I returned to consciousness, having become totally, and happily lost in puns, wordplay and fruit fly stories. There’s a message in here somewhere, and I’ll figure it out in a day or so. In the meantime, may I recommend some fruit fly genes for your dining pleasure? They are yummy.



December 26, 2008

Time Bombs

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:30 am


“VIP observers are lit up by the light of an atomic bomb, Operation Greenhouse, Enewetak Atoll, 1951.”
— from
How to Photograph an Atomic Bomb by Peter Kuran (posted Oct 22, 2007) on the California Literary Review Web site


Castle Bravo, March1, 1954. 15 megatons


When reading the daily news, I often feel like one of the people in the top photo. Twenty years from now, I may know what today’s news really meant — and what I should have been doing.



December 25, 2008

Into That State of Feeling

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:06 am

… that state of feeling which is experienced oftenest at Rome. It is a vague sense of ponderous remembrances; a perception of such weight and density in a by-gone life, of which this spot was the centre, that the present moment is pressed down or crowded out, and our individual affairs and interests are but half as real here as elsewhere.

Time as well as place can evoke such a response. Christmas is a prime example.

That quote is from the opening chapter of The Marble Faun (1859) by Nathanial Hawthorne. The text before and after that quote, given below, can be applied not only to places, and to holidays and anniversaries — “ponderous remembrances” — but also to art in general; what pictures, sculpture, literature can do.

Four individuals, in whose fortunes we should be glad to interest the reader, happened to be standing in one of the saloons of the sculpture gallery in the Capitol at Rome. It was that room (the first, after ascending the staircase) in the centre of which reclines the noble and most pathetic figure of the Dying Gladiator, just sinking into his death-swoon. Around the walls stand the Antinous, the Amazon, the Lycian Apollo, the Juno; all famous productions of antique sculpture, and still shining in the undiminished majesty and beauty of their ideal life, although the marble that embodies them is yellow with time, and perhaps corroded by the damp earth in which they lay buried for centuries. Here, likewise, is seen a symbol (as apt at this moment as it was two thousand years ago) of the Human Soul, with its choice of Innocence or Evil close at hand, in the pretty figure of a child, clasping a dove to her bosom, but assaulted by a snake.

From one of the windows of this saloon, we may see a flight of broad stone steps, descending alongside the antique and massive foundation of the Capitol, towards the battered triumphal arch of Septimius Severus, right below. Farther on, the eye skirts along the edge of the desolate Forum (where Roman washerwomen hang out their linen to the sun), passing over a shapeless confusion of modern edifices, piled rudely up with ancient brick and stone, and over the domes of Christian churches, built on the old pavements of heathen temples, and supported by the very pillars that once upheld them. At a distance beyond — yet but a little way, considering how much history is heaped into the intervening space — rises the great sweep of the Coliseum, with the blue sky brightening through its upper tier of arches. Far off, the view in by the Alban Mountains, looking just the same, amid all this decay and change, as when Romulus gazed thitherward over his half-finished wall.

We glance hastily at these things — at this bright sky, and those blue distant mountains, and at the ruins, Etruscan, Roman, Christian, venerable with a threefold antiquity, and at the company of world-famous statues in the saloon — in the hope of putting the reader into that state of feeling which is experienced oftenest at Rome. It is a vague sense of ponderous remembrances; a perception of such weight and density in a by-gone life, of which this spot was the centre, that the present moment is pressed down or crowded out, and our individual affairs and interests are but half as real here as elsewhere. Viewed through this medium, our narrative — into which are woven some airy and unsubstantial threads, intermixed with others, twisted out of the commonest stuff of human existence — may seem not widely different from the texture of all our lives.

Side by side with the massiveness of the Roman Past, all matters that we handle or dream of nowadays look evanescent and visionary alike.

Here’s a link to an online transcription of that text. [ link] You can also find it in Google Books.



December 24, 2008

Thank You (Foot) Note

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:45 am

Dear Felix[1],

Thank you so very much for making, just for me, a footnote in your recent blog posting[2]. It’s just what I’ve always wanted for Christmas. Lest others doubt my sincerity in really, really wanting such a gift, here is just a taste of the fascinating history of the footnote from Chuck Zerby’s book on the subject [3]:

Gone is the time when the Reverend John Hodgson, the distinguished nineteenth-century historian, could unselfconsciously devote one quarto of his multivolume account of Northumberland County (England) to a single gigantic footnote on the Roman Wall.

… A stern, no-nonsense lecture on the eighteenth-century belief that the universe was a smooth-running machine is being delivered. Suddenly, from the bottom of the page, a voice whispers, “It should be pointed out, however, that de la Mettrie, the author of the famous book Man The Machine, died of over eating and gout; he stoked the machine too well.” The reader is intensely grateful for this human interruption.

Being human, authors sometimes miscalculate, of course, which is part of the charm of footnotes. That gentlest of philosophers, William James, once interrupted his discussion of the brain to reassure the reader. “Nothing is easier than to familiarize oneself with the mammalian brain,” he said. “Get a Sheep’s head, a small saw, chisel, and forceps…and unravel its parts.” Only a reader with a strong stomach will gain the assurance James intended.

…  A scholar’s life is not for the timid. A somewhat sad illustration of this occurred many years ago. Historians were engaged in a furious conflict set off by a recently unearthed confidential memo submitted to the U.S. Intelligence Bureau during World War I by John Dewey, the philosopher and Vermonter. (The intricacies of the dispute are no more necessary for the general reader to grasp than a knowledge of how to load a musket is required by War and Peace.) A short volley of criticism, supported by fifty rapidly fired footnotes, was directed at one of the combatants by an inexperienced graduate student. The response was a barrage of eighty-four notes, at least one of which struck home. “Zerby,” the assaulted scholar’s note exploded, “misquotes me, accidentally, I suspect by substituting ‘which’ for ‘that’.” The wound inflicted should not be minimized. Grammar — despite the considerable evidence to the contrary — remains important to graduate students. 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.

… As tempting as it is to ascribe a hard-nosed, even commercial, motive to scholarly antagonism to footnotes, that is too easy. Anyone who has been around a practicing scholar knows there is more of the kid in his soul than the banker. (Many of them, for example, take summers off.) And always we should keep in mind that the footnote, like the haiku or terza rima, makes difficult and strict demands on the writer, however much pleasure it may give the reader. Impatience, even resentment, and certainly ambiguous feelings on the part of writers toward footnotes are to be expected.

… Scholars are often viewed as park rangers of footnotes; the notes are on their preserve and in their charge. But scholars are not entirely to be trusted. A notable example is the pioneering historian of the footnote, Anthony Grafton. His The Footnote: A Curious History is solid scholarship, an entertaining read, and a sophisticated defense of the footnote as scholarly tool. Alerted by our experience with McFarland to the fact that hidden and ambiguous feelings may be expressed in metaphor as they are in dreams, we can “psyche out” Grafton.

He turns out to be a terribly conflicted supporter of the footnote; his mind says one thing, his dreams something else. Early on a peculiar “low rumble” is ascribed to the footnote and the “rumble” compared to the dentist’s drill’s “high whine”; enthusiastic annotators then are compared to “dentists who have become inured to inflicting pain and shedding blood….” We leave the dentist’s office only to hear that the “production of footnotes” resembles “the disposal of waste products.” Next comes a comparison of the footnote to a fish that few readers bother to trawl for, then to a shabby podium, a carafe of water, a “rambling, inaccurate introduction.” That each of these comparisons is in the service of a legitimate insight and that each extends our understanding of the footnote does not conceal the “low rumble” of hostility emanating from this scholar’s prose.

It is true that when Grafton’s story reaches the eighteenth century, the seductiveness of that century’s footnotes moves him to say that “footnotes burgeoned and propagated like branches and leaves in a William Morris wallpaper.” A lovely comparison that is preceded, however, by a comparison of footnotes to the “impregnably armored bottom” of a tank and succeeded by a scholar who uses a footnote the way “the hockey-masked villain in an American horror film uses a chain saw: to dismember his opponents, leaving their gory limbs scattered across the landscape.”

Ermmm… that’s not quite going in the desired direction. Here is another source that gets right to the point:

In the hands of a master, the potentially pedestrian footnote is elevated to a rhapsodic grace note. It can inform and entertain, clarify and illuminate. The artful practitioner “knows how to instruct and to amuse,” writes Princeton history professor G.W. Bowersock in The American Scholar, “to unite utile with dulci in accordance with the unrivaled precept of Horace two thousand years ago.”[4]

Footnotes allow us not only to see the prejudices of old sources, but the biases and convictions of the footnoter himself. They provide readers with the intellectual map that the writer has used to arrive at her conclusions. If some see footnotes as tiresome road blocks, others more fairly view them as serendipitous detours that can lead to delightful and unexpected stops not on the original itinerary. Footnotes gave birth — after an extended gestation, mind you — to the hypertext links that are the vis vitae, the life force, of the Internet.[5]

In addition to crafting a lovely footnote for me, Felix has submerged the page — within which one finds inciteful insightful comments from the always-interesting Dr. C — in Growlery Green® so that, after you finish reading it all, and look away, everything looks pinque.[6] The gift of rose-colored brain cells. So thoughtful. Thank you, Felix.




  1. Felix Grant, The Growlery, Bristol, UK
  2. Felix Grant, Notes from Dr. C, The Growlery, December 23, 2008
  3. Chuck Zerby, Chapter 1: The Endangered Footnote taken from The Devil’s Details: A History of Footnotes (Nov 1, 2007)
  4. G.W. Bowersock, “The Art of the Footnote,” The American Scholar (Winter 1983/84): 58
  5. Bruce Anderson, The Decline and Fall of Footnotes, Jan/Feb 1997 issue of Stanford Magazine
  6. Ray Girvan, Felix: “Nothing Propinques Like Propinquity” ; JSBlog, December 16, 2008
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