Stevens and Williams, "The Footnote, in Theory"

Stevens, Anne H., and Jay Williams. "The Footnote, in Theory."
Critical Inquiry 32 (Winter 2006): 208-225.

Opening questions: What have readers of Critical Inquiry read since
the journal’s inception? How does the range of reading get reflected in
the articles themselves? In the footnotes? And, finally, what
patterns can be amplified by fairly simple methods of tallying citation
frequency and then relating the rates of frequency by arbitrarily selected (but
consistent) periods of time? Stevens and Williams work at each of these
questions, and they sketch a fairly compelling "distant reading" of the journal
(and object of study), Critical Inquiry, since it was first published in
1974. Although the presentation of their tallies is not visual in quite
the same way as Moretti’s, they do incorporate three tables: one showing
citation-counts by theorist per five-year period; one showing the top-ten most
often cited theorists in each five-year period, and one listing the 95 most
frequently cited theorists over the full life of the journal.

Their first section focuses on footnoting practices. I gather than in
Critical Inquiry footnotes serve a double-function as they gather
references to sources and also fill up with an author’s asides, explanations,
and extra-textual elaboration (this is true, as well, for CCC before
1987, with the exception of one or two articles). It’s clear that Stevens and
Williams worked with footnotes, not with works cited listings or some other list
of references from the end of each article. They are also clear about the
scope of their project. The insights their work produces are limited to
the journal, a journal, they note, "is notoriously difficult…to define" (209).

After discussing some of the ways footnotes operate as a space for
intensities and passions to play out or for choices to be defended they
gradually incorporate some of the tallies and, with those, a few of the
complicating factors, like self-citation and the matter of 137 articles in the
history of CI not using footnotes at all (no telling how big this is
relative to the entire sample). The bulk of the data-mining took place among a
team of four researchers–Stevens and Williams included–in 2004. They
parsed the footnotes, recording a theorist-reference each time a name appeared
in footnotes in association with a unique work in a given article. Repeat
references in a single article were not counted as multiple occurrences (212).
They also explain their reasons for not simply involving a library database,
such as Arts and Humanities Citation Index (AHCI): the collection is too limited
and wouldn’t provide them with the exhaustive account they sought. And it was
easier, they note, simply to use the paper copies of the journal (218).

Stevens and Williams discovered that not only has the number of footnotes in
CI increased over the past fifteen years, but that the length of footnotes has,
on average, doubled: "Our study in fact shows that not only have footnotes grown
in length but that nearly half of the footnotes we counted appeared in only the
last ten years" (220). Are there academic journals for which this has

Further Considerations

  • They include the paragraph from CI about how the journal
    characterize itself? (formal statements) (209)
  • Why settle on 95 theorists? What explains this choice? Also,
    what is at stake in keeping regular collaborators as pairs, especially when
    some of them also have individual works? S&W keep together Gilbert and
    Gubert, Hardt and Negri, Marx and Engels, and others. But how was an
    individual reference to Hardt, let’s say, taken into account with the
    co-authored publications?
  • Their larger list of 147 theorists is selective (not organic or
    comprehensive): "We selected seminal figures from the major fields we
    publish, particularly literary criticism, art history, philosophy,
    psychoanalysis, and social theory" (212).
  • They discuss the unevenness of footnotes or the degree to which they are
    deployed unsystematically and, in some ways, according to one’s style and
  • Does casual citation or commonplace reference (i.e., mention that does
    not warrant full bibliographic citation) become more likely as authors are
    more confident about their own knowledge? Or more knowledgeable about
    their audiences? Is this a symptom of a close-knit group of
    contributors and readers or is it suggestive of some other, larger forces?
  • "It might be argued that these constants, this theoretical canon, are
    evidence of a closed shop, so to speak, that the journal only reproduces
    itself, privileging articles that cite the ‘right’ theorists. Just as
    a healthy journal depends on a stable of authors to give it a consistent
    identity, so too does a journal, any journal, tend to replicate itself"
    (223). What makes a healthy journal? When is divergence in citation
    more a matter of eclecticism than balkanization?
  • From this, do we get a window on whose stock is rising and dropping?

"Doesn’t the breeziness of citation, its offhand and seemingly arrogant
nature signal that the essay as a whole commits one of the sins of the
well-established author, that is, the need to skip serious, rigorous,
time-consuming research in order to reach for grand and majestic statements?"