The Canon as Method, or, the Strange Joy of Footnotes

by | 31 Jan 2023

Footnotes are routinely associated with boredom and annoyance—even dread, if the matching of a journal’s style requirements adds dozens of footnotes to retool to our already overfilled plates. Sure, we are aware of the importance of rigorous citation, its necessity for verifiability and the giving of proper credit for ideas and discoveries. We give it a crucial place as we instruct our students on the basics of academic writing. Yet the rare time you hear an academic speaking of footnotes with excitement is to extol the virtues of software that takes care of them for you.

The two of us, instead, have founded our collaboration on a shared excitement for (a certain type of) footnotes: those that call upon the Great Minds of the past and thus enshrine our collective understanding of where we come from intellectually. 

These types of footnotes can be found in all corners of our respective disciplines, International Relations and International Law, with a strong and unsurprising element of overlap between the two. Vitoria, Machiavelli, Grotius, Hobbes, Vattel, Kant… All these thinkers evoke the noble intellectual roots of our contemporary efforts. And with the gradual shift away from a clear division of labor between the study of “international political thought” and that of “international legal thought” toward an emphasis on general “international thought” instead, the two sets of household names have increasingly merged into a single pile of dead European men.   

It is not hard to see where this homogeneity comes from. Both disciplines inherited their canon from late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century efforts to legitimize new academic fields by endowing them with a refined historical pedigree. That the latter ended up consisting of a collection of European “founding fathers” was very much a sign of the times, a correlate of the rise of “great man theory” and of the telling of history through the heroic acts of a few exceptional men.  

Yet what this general historical context fails to explain is why some of these individuals made it while others did not, and why influential narratives emerged about the “greatness” of this or that person, especially when these stories carry as many elements of fiction as they do of fact. In tracing the origin and trajectory of these footnotes across dusty volumes, we cherish the spark of insight that a seemingly dry and neutral reference can provide. Why did someone become seen as the go-to authority on a given point? Who was seeking to borrow this authority, and why? Is the claim to authority substantiated, or is it mainly founded on opportunistic anachronisms, on the illusion of precedent? 

Our initial, critical impulse was to see the canon under an almost purely instrumental light, as a tool of exclusion and oppression contributing to the perpetuation of existing power arrangements. There is undoubtedly some truth in this view, but it is only partial. Over the years, our understanding has grown more nuanced. In propping up the position of past authors and presenting them as prophetic champions of their present vision, canon-makers creatively produce new perspectives and standards that can overcome the status quo and renew discourse. And because the canon is fluid and porous, it has constituted and continues to constitute a choice site for contestation and reinvention. In this context, our foray into footnotes has one primary goal in mind: to show the extent to which the canon, as it stands, is a curious, quirky historical artefact, and in doing so, to knock it off its pedestal and make space for others to replace it as need be. 

What does our method look like in practice? When one of the “greats” is cited, along with their usual claim to fame, we look for a footnote that might ultimately take us to the originator of that narrative of greatness. This usually takes a few steps. The first footnote will take us to an older text, which itself cites yet another older one, and as we go further and further back in time (and deeper into archival material), we eventually reach the sources of the idea that our man is indeed a great thinker, along with the reasons why this is the case. At this point, we are able to investigate the discrete contexts in which the canonizations first happened and were later reinforced or revived. We can track down the contingencies and forgotten stakes that made some authors canonical at the expense of competitors, and led some stories – often hagiographic in style – to stick more than others. We trace associations and gather minute pieces of evidence: an obscure footnote might guide us to a rare letter where the canon-maker bares their intentions in selecting an author as their noble predecessor, or an unpublished speech where the political project served by a given pedigree is laid out in unusual detail or honesty.

There is joy in solving these little literary mysteries, in finding a series of minor smoking guns returning solutions to whodunits chasing each other across the centuries. And there is joy in learning of the even larger sets of questions this process unearths. The recognition of the canon as a curious historical artefact opens up a space to explore the layers of time, to shed light on how uses of the past shape our legal and political imagination. Canonical authors appear recurringly in multiple historical contexts, and often, their ideas will turn out to be most consequential serving someone’s else agenda in a world they could never have foreseen. And when they are used to buttress the idea that law is based on timeless principles or to construct a narrative of the continued progress of legal science, destabilizing the notion of these men’s incontestable “greatness” also questions the validity of these widespread disciplinary assumptions. As such, there is not only joy, but also much critical power, to be found in squinting at the small print below the main text.

*Paolo Amorosa is University Lecturer of International Law at the Law Faculty, University of Helsinki, Finland

Claire Vergerio is Assistant Professor of International Relations in the Institute of Political Science, Leiden University, the Netherlands.


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