Ivan Illich on Footnotes

I have only just begun reading Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text, and already I have the need to write about it.  This does not bode well for any of you who might be following along with me.  You might have to prepare for a steady diet of Illich’s reflection on the Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor over the next few weeks.  I apologize in advance, sincerely.

In his introduction to the book, Illich says, “No one should be misled into taking my footnotes as either proof of, or invitation to, scholarship.  They are there to remind the reader of the rich harvest of memorabilia – rocks, fauna, and flora – which a man has picked up on repeated walks through a certain area, and now would like to share with others.  They are here mainly to encourage the reader to venture into the shelves of the library and experiment with distinct types of reading.”

I love this passage for several reasons.

First, I think that the image of walking along the path and collecting the things that are found there is an apt image for the kind of scholarship that I value.  The walker is not interested in cataloging the flora and fauna of the path exhaustively, nor in classifying them rigorously.  The walker is interested in becoming familiar with the area, with the things that are there every day, with the things that are only rarely there, with the things that make this path singular.  The walker is looking and seeing, is listening and hearing, is finding and gathering, and is also, most significantly, sharing with others what has been found.

The kind of scholarship that Illich is describing with this image proceeds with a similar gait and a similar pace.  It is an invitation to walk with someone who has read and thought and written on certain intellectual paths, with someone who can point to the things that are there to be seen and heard and found.  It does not ask that I replicate a set of results.  It asks that I follow the path that another has made familiar so that it can become familiar to me also.  This is exactly the kind of scholarship that I want to model.

Second, by applying this idea of scholarship to his footnotes, Illich causes me to read his footnotes differently.  They cease being justifications for his scholarly claims and become recommendations for the books and writers and ideas that he has found and loved.  They become the textual equivalent of a verbal phenomenon that is familiar to anyone who talks with others about books and writers.  They say, “Oh, by the way, while we’re on the topic, such and such a book talks about this idea in interesting ways,” or they say, “I remember author so and so said something that relates to this point.”  In other words, they are all the places that our conversation could have gone but did not, all the things that it brushed against and took into itself but did not dwell upon.  They are all the places where our conversation might go next, when we meet again.

Third, Illich’s image is also an encouragement for his readers not to stop at his text, but to read through it to those that he has read himself, to go into the libraries and find the books that he is recommending, to read these things for ourselves.  It is never sufficient, he implies to read about another book or writer, however valuable such reading may be.  It is always necessary to read further and more, to read the many other books that one book always recommends,  even if this process will never be complete, perhaps because it will never be complete.  To read through the book in this way is to take the footnotes as recommendations to more and further reading, as possibilities, as conversations to come.

Illich takes himself at his own word in this respect, as he always does.  The footnotes of In the Vineyard of the Text are often very long, comprising more than half the page in many instances, and they could easily be passed over as either too boring or too intimidating to merit the time and effort that reading them would take, but his footnotes are as different as he claims they are, or perhaps I come to read them differently just because he has made such a claim.  I find them often conversational in tone, unafraid to reference an almost irrelevant anecdote or to recommend a particular book with a kind of personal fervour, and I sometimes find myself reflecting on them as much as the text itself.  Most interestingly, they also make me wonder what other textual conventions might be used in this way, against themselves, in order to foster a reading that is more open and more convivial.


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