A footnote fetish revisited by L J Frank

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Credit: Jean Philippe-Cypres, photographer

I find footnotes quite appealing for one never knows for certain when one might chance upon an elongated or even short stubby morsel of knowledge that is provocative with a certain discerning taste and subsequently a cause for further probing, insertion, reflection and question. A singular footnote of substance can be I suppose quite seductive in that it may not only offer an arch of intellectual support while being responsive to the body of the text above it and in some cases may actually transcend the flesh of that text in terms of the nature of what it unveils.

And further still, a footnote may actually lead to an enlightened pause and inspiration to track down the original for which it may or may not be based; but then we may inadvertently find that the footnote is in reality a metaphorical ring on a toe that exists for mere decoration without any substantive motive other than being available and fashionable.

On the other hand, can the role of a particular footnote, whether found at the bottom of a page in some scientific scholarly research paper or in the fine print of a legal counsel’s brief or enmeshed in a purposefully complex government document or accidentally tripped over in a rousing literary work, be called “the titillation effect?” That is, a footnote may enhance the meaning of a document but, can it be of such a contour and sinuous design that the “footnoting” itself takes on the nature of being a fetish?

And for further pondering can a footnote achieve a level of such degree to attain  “stimulant status,” for the purpose not only to justify and otherwise support and heighten a given document’s rationale, but also, perhaps even to justify the existence of its author(s)? What indeed is required for a footnote to be elevated to the “honor” of being called a fetish?

The history of fetishes dates back to primitive cultures, and was apparently of some significance among the Hindu, Egyptians, Japanese, Greeks, Romans and others, but the word fetish itself may be rooted in the early 16th and 17th centuries, particularly in West Africa as alluded to by Portuguese mariners and merchants trading in such ports and coming across charms and talismans worshiped by natives. (See The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology) And, according to the Unabridged Second Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary (still being a bible for some philologists and dictionary enthusiasts), a fetish also entails any object or abode “that is supposed to possess magical powers or to be endowed with energies or qualities capable of bringing to successful issue the designs of the owner…” Can a format of writing and grammatical usage acquire a fetish status?

A footnote may come in all shapes and sizes and depending on one’s philosophical disposition or appetite a given footnote may be an acquired taste for it may feel like Larousse’s Gastronomique on the tip of your tongue while others, culinary accents aside, may be but a purposeful infusing of words as one might put seasoning on a particular dish. And yet, the footnote can be metaphorically viewed as wearing the correct size footwear for a created text, as the “curvature” of its soles need balance and a cushion to further define one’s footing within the context of that text and the expressions and ideas being implied, symbolized, manifested, reasoned, elucidated, justified, testified and otherwise intended.

The challenge may be in the focus of that footnote to the point of lusting for the one or two thoughts that help convey the thrust of the text like the inserting of the foot into a shoe. But what happens when a footnote, like a noun, becomes an adjective and then a label and followed by a reshaping and massaging for a manipulative or questionable purpose?

The word foot is etymologically linked to the Latin “ped.” If we wish to control or direct someone we might “impede” their natural power through movement by binding their feet. To be able to move one’s feet is a source of liberty. There’s a correlation between emperors, kings, religious figures and others of “noble bearing” with those that greeted them of unequal status, kneeling to kiss their feet. Such empowerment is only granted when agreed upon by those doing the kissing or being coerced to do so by the individual establishing the rules. Wealth and the fear of an invisible God can affect the nuances of reality.

The issue in history is not the “kissing of a foot” but rather when it’s coupled with an act of injustice perpetrated by a greater authority; that one-act serves as a seed for independent thought that is inevitably planted in the human mind. And once planted, each subsequent act of injustice serves to further stir the passions for independence from that authority no matter how many feet are obligingly kissed.

The word power is implied in a footnote fetish. The note at the foot of a page empowers, just as a foot alone does for movement. A note can have the potential to become a footing, not to serve as an impediment, but rather empower the text and give credence to the author’s information and knowledge. And, likewise, the footnote empowers the reader with an offering for a perceived increase in clarity.

The problem for the author is to have the footnote “rub the reader” in the right way and not become callused. For the reader a footnote is an opportunity to measure the stimulating effect of the text as a whole. For a text to establish credulity let alone credibility, an author and reader may find themselves entwined in a fetish.

After all, the footnote appears to open the door for the readers that quests for such knowledge and enables one to explore and expose thoughts that may have otherwise been hidden. But care is taken as a footnote can also be deceptive and lead the seeker astray for the mind can be deliberately frustrated and quickly find itself as a religion that preys upon those that ask to be deceived.

Still, once an acquired taste develops for a footnote, one can never get enough. And one wonders if perchance the footnote already understood the craving the moment it was born and in the subsequent nature and purpose of its existence.