Peter Riess's Footnotology: Towards a Theory of the Footnote (New York and Berlin: Walter de Gruyter Publishers, 1985): “The footnote is (or pretends to be) the carrier of academic information, but is not the object of academic study” (3).
A functional typology of footnotes (pp. 15-17): excursive, supplementary, cautionary, disassociative, disputatious, cartel, clique, camouflage. Footnote neurosis, footnote fetishism, footnoteophobia, footnote aversion.
I am laughing, I think I now have something like five prospective book projects that are equally important to me (reading Austen, reading Clarissa, Gibbon's Rome, triathlon memoir, etc. etc.), but the biggie longterm one right now (I've just sent out a proposal for a short-term research fellowship) is for the most ambitious academic book I have contemplated to date, a literary history of the footnote, 1680-1818. Here is some of what I wrote recently:
In an essay on the history of the transition from marginal annotation to footnotes, Evelyn B. Tribble has suggested that the shape of the page often becomes “more than usually visible” at periods when “paradigms for receiving the past are under stress”: “In the early modern period, as models of annotation move from marginal glosses to footnotes, the note becomes the battlefield upon which competing notions of the relationship of authority and tradition, past and present, are fought” (“‘Like a Looking-Glas in the Frame’: From the Marginal Note to the Footnote,” in The Margins of the Text, ed. D. C. Greetham [Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997], 229-244). In this context, the page itself rather than the book in all of its rich materiality becomes the focus of interest. This matters for a number of significant literary works of the period that are still widely read, and the monograph that I am looking towards writing will be structured around discussion of those more or less canonical texts: Swift’s Tale of a Tub, Pope’s Dunciad, Richardson’s Clarissa and its increasingly controlling use of footnotes to cross-reference and moralize in subsequent revisions, the self-annotation of mid-century poets such as Thomas Gray and James Grainger, the apotheosis of the footnote in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with a convenient end point provided by the multiple texts of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the notorious marginal glosses of the version published in 1817. But I want to offer very full contextualization concerning the more general literary and historical record; more than that, I suspect that there is a good deal of interpretive work to be done on books with footnotes in their own right, especially in the genre of history.
The practices of glossing and marginalia run much longer than the history of the printed book, but I am especially interested in the new structures of page-based meaning that are facilitated by the sudden predominance of notes at the foot of the page rather than as a long appendage at the end of the text as the annotating authors of printed books in the 1680s move relatively quickly from margins to the foot of the page (Marcus Walsh has identified the French historian Richard Simon as an important node of change here, and his books are one of my first targets, with another important early French exemplar being Brossette’s two-volume 1716 edition of Boileau, whose importance for Pope’s vision of what could be done in the Dunciad Variorum has been roundly demonstrated by James McLaverty). These footnotes are continuous with older forms but also strikingly innovative in various respects, not least because one promise of the print world is that an author can relatively easily sanction multiple editions of his or her own work with increasingly complex and multi-layered annotation. One of my interests here is authorial involvement in the production of multiple editions of a given work, not revision in the most general sense but the specific problem of revision as it comes up in the question of writers with a compulsion to annotate their own works. I will be especially keen to find multi-edition works whose critical apparatus increases with each iteration or indeed in some cases transforms the work at hand.
Some initial theoretical work on this concept was done in Gérard Genette’s Paratexts, and the monograph I will ultimately write will touch briefly on some important twentieth-century forms of authorial annotation (The Waste Land, Pale Fire, the novels and essays of David Foster Wallace). In the early modern period, much of the footwork on this topic has been done and has begun to be elaborated in sophisticated critical works: Evelyn Tribble, Anthony Grafton, William Slights in his work on marginalia. But though work has begun in this area in the long eighteenth century, I was taken aback to realize when I began delving into the critical literature that there was no existing literary history of the footnote in this period; I think there’s a need for it, and I think what I must do before anything else is read exhaustively across the 12 or so decades I am contemplating (but with an initial concentration in the first half of the period) just to track the use of the footnote across major genres in English and French. I am especially interested in history, poetry and the novel, but I will be keeping an eye out for other genres that may prove especially interesting (natural history, say, or theology and moral philosophy – I will initially cast a very wide net).