Thursday, January 31, 2008

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 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 not happened?

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 preference.
  • 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?" (211).

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