• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

The Pathways Project—both the brick-and-mortar book and the virtual wiki—uses many more branches than footnotes, and the difference between these two strategies amounts to far more than a simple disparity in nomenclature.

Branches as networked options

Branches are themselves pathways, links that by leading “elsewhere” offer the user/reader the opportunity to co-create the navigating experience. They aren’t afterthoughts or supplementary evidence, something extra or subsidiary. In a real sense branches actually constitute the Pathways Project wiki, and in (inevitably reduced) textual form they provide multiple ways to read Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind.

In both cases branches represent open-ended options—nothing more, but also nothing less. If you as user/reader decide against branching, against clicking on the wiki link or redirecting your eyes to another node in the book, your route will continue to take a certain, predictable, textual shape (at least until the next branch, where you’ll need to make another decision). If on the other hand you choose to follow a branch (and the choice is always an emergent, right-now choice that reconfigures everything), your route will morph accordingly.

The emerging experience is yours to mold, and the outcome will depend on the choice you make at that initial branching crossroads—and on every subsequent choice thereafter. As a result there are multiple, nearly infinite ways to read, not only via the major route-systems plotted in the linkmaps in the lefthand menu-bar but also via the individual links within each and every Pathways Project node. Reality resides not in singularity and certainty but in plurality and possibility. Reality derives from alternatives made flesh.

In other words, nothing ever is or can be cast in stone, and nothing ever is or can be exhaustively textualized. Not if branches beckon at every turn. Your trailblazing through the Pathways Project can never be as predetermined and unidirectional an exercise as the typical book mandates. Since the Project is specifically designed not just to permit but to require choice among live options, there isn’t any right or wrong decision—only an interactive web of linked possibilities. Power and meaning derive from the overall network.

Footnotes and the tAgora

Footnotes, on the other hand, present no networked options, and for good reason: that’s not their role. They aren’t meant as alternative viable routes, only as documentation to help describe and clarify whatever route you’re already traveling along. As such, footnotes are indigenous to the tAgora, and it’s in that environment of object and stasis that they thrive.

Let’s step back a moment and consider the dynamics of reference and redirection in the footnotes (or endnotes) that we ritually insert into texts.

The logic of footnotes

Why do we employ footnotes or endnotes? Primarily, to support and strengthen claims that we make in the main text. According to the protocol of academic research as based in the ideology of the text, footnotes ballast our declarative statements, making them even more objective and dependable, even more constructed facts. In addition to providing relevant, applicable data, their very existence and recognizable form raise confidence in any presentation to which they’re affixed. After all, in the tAgora there’s no corroboration like textual corroboration.

Footnotes take a variety of forms, from simple citation of “sources” (notice the certifying rhetoric of that term) to quotation (whereby another author speaks up to help us urge our claim) to the more discursive contributions of “talking footnotes.”

Citation

The simplest case of footnote support is the minimal-level citation of another published textual item, a prior book or article that in some way validates the position for which we are arguing. Of course, we always use proper bibliographical code, a feature of the lingua franca in the tAgora, to do the job. Here’s an example of citation:

Luciano Canfora, The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), pp. 20-25.

This accepted (and expected) routine can be deployed in various ways for various purposes. We can cite a current article in a professional journal to establish the status quo, for instance, or refer to a book published a decade or more in the past to reveal a trend leading toward the present situation, as we imagine the process. Or we might even cite a published source we regard as false or wrong-headed for the sake of contradicting it—that is, in order to “prove” our own argument by indirection. All of these are standard strategies in the tAgora.

Quotation

A special case of citation is quotation, whether brief or extended. But here the submerged logic changes subtly. Actually quoting (not paraphrasing) from another textual object—bringing a small sample of its concrete reality into the orbit of our own argument—adds rhetorical urgency. Here’s an example of how quotation irrupts into the textual arena:

As Canfora observes (p. 196), “Alexandria is the starting point and the prototype; its fate marks the advent of catastrophe, and is echoed in Pergamum, Antioch, Rome, Athens.”

Instead of merely adverting to another document, we excerpt it into the present argument, making the quoted author a forced witness in the ongoing trial of our proposed ideas. Of course, authors of quoted material are always absent and unaware of the use to which their thoughts are put, but we conventionally overlook that displacement. The ideology of the book and the lingua franca of the tAgora demand that we subscribe to this only too transparent fiction.

Talking footnotes

Another level of footnote support is what some have described as the “talking footnote,” a mini-discussion of an issue that bears on the main argument but is not centrally part of it. Thus, in a historical account of a Civil War battle we might find a short digression on advances in weaponry, the disruption of supply lines, or some other topic tucked into subsidiary position at the bottom of the page. Here’s how a footnote can talk:

In regard to the uncertainties about what the Alexandrian Library actually contained and what might have survived its destruction, compare the situation with the medieval manuscripts in Robert Cotton’s library in Ashburnham House, Westminster, England, where a 1731 fire severely damaged the only known copy of Beowulf, for example.

Interesting, yes, and perhaps tangentially relevant to the overall inquiry, but categorically relegated to second-class status in the tAgora. Nonetheless, because many different levels and kinds of exchange contribute to a successful text-marketplace, talking footnotes—like citation and quotation—perform a valuable service.

Latin confers authority

As with the culturally approved naming of certain body-parts, Latin terminology lends an official status to footnote dynamics. To Latinize, in many quarters, is to command respect. Although some of these terms are now obsolete in everyday books and articles, they still occur in scholarly, academic texts. And when they do occur, the rhetorical force of the Latin language melds with the specific meaning of the given abbreviations, identifying the footnotes in question as dependably useful and appropriate tAgora tools.

For example, readers encountering ibid. (for ibidem, in the same place) realize that it designates a work cited immediately above, with no other work intervening between the two references. Likewise with such directives as idem (precisely the same author) and op. cit. (opere citato, standing for a previously cited title). To explain these and many other Latin abbreviations, one need turn only to one of the standard bibles on tAgora text-speak, such as The Chicago Manual of Style.

Latin signals authority in other ways as well. In books on Greek and Roman authors and their works, we commonly find a freestanding table of individual words, lines, or passages from those works that are examined within the text, a tool referred to as an index locorum (index of places). It amounts to an exhaustive list of citations, a kind of map for locating the “geographical destinations” readers might be seeking. (And this is to say nothing of the standard practice—common until recently—of writing introductions to such classical works entirely in Latin.)

Undeniably useful strategies, each of these more-official-than-English gambits. But the conventional solemnity of the Latin terms as a group conveys another message as well: that we are expected to take these references as authoritative support on the basis of their idiomatic form. They are an important dimension of tAgora communicative code.

Footnotes and closure

Whatever the particular strategy, the core function of footnotes is to terminate rather than begin, to end rather than to continue. They function to boost the writer’s case, diminish opposition, quash contentious discussion—in general, to point toward closure. Always the lesser, dependent partners, they exist solely to certify greater claims to which they are attached as subsidiary evidence.

Under normal circumstances we don’t interrupt our reading experience to chase down what gets cited or quoted or talked about in footnotes. That’s a task for another day and another experience, if ever. In most cases it’s the mere mention of the data they incorporate—rather than the data itself—that matters to us as we remain centered in the main text.

For this reason, footnotes aren’t pathways. They’re dead-ends that quite intentionally lead nowhere else, at least within the tAgora experience.