While my students shake their heads at the futility of citing sources when we revisit the subject in class today, I find myself more and more appreciating the system to which we subscribe. Even the world of bibliographic citations is not free, I find, of underlying philosophic presuppositions. This delights me.
“What are these presuppositions?” you ask.
Well. They are several.
Firstly: order. One of the things I like about citation is that it is an orderly system: there is a place for everything and everything is in its place. When we create citation systems, we assume that order is both desirable and attainable. (If we did not assume those two things, we would never begin the project.) Moreover, in desiring and attaining order, we prove that order does not occur naturally; it requires a mind to create order. Proper citations would never emerge from a collection of sources, no matter how long you left the sources alone. Proper citations require a mind, an outside agent to craft them.
This leads to a second presupposition: authorship. A correctly formatted citation begins with the author’s last name, provided that the author is named. This reinforces the idea that information does not spontaneously generate, nor emerge from randomly circulating molecules, but emerges from minds. Though literary critics debate whether authorship should even be considered a factor in literary criticism — does the literary work stand alone, speak for itself without reference to an author? does it emerge from a historical moment rather than an author? — when those literary critics cite their sources, they return inevitably to the author. Because authors are important.
A third presupposition is intellectual property. This is closely tied to the idea of authorship; the author has the right to claim and receive credit for his or her ideas. If authors are unimportant, intellectual property shouldn’t matter; ideas are ideas are ideas, no matter who puts words to them. But in our paradigm, we emphatically assert that ideas are valuable and can and do belong to specific individuals. Though we may laud the virtues of think tanks and collaboration, our works cited pages contradict any sort of collectivism of ideas.
Lastly — though this is not an exhaustive list — is the presupposition that not all ideas are equal. We not only give authors credit for their ideas, but also use our knowledge of authors to assign value to their ideas. Ideas emanating from literary critics whose advanced degrees and lengthy publication lists attest to lifetimes devoted to a subject receive more attention than ideas posted by high school students in online chat forums, though they may pertain to the same work of literature. We value the experts over the amateurs.
Thus, we can move from the apparent futility of formatting citations to larger questions of origins, meaning, and morality. Order requires an orderer, authors — and orderers — are important and deserve credit for their work, and some authors are more trustworthy than others.
We live in a universe which displays indisputable order, from things too small for microscopes to see to things too large for our minds to imagine. We live in a story which is being told by an Author who knows all things, because He made all things. When He tells us things, His words are valuable because they come from the Expert.
“These words,” He says, “are trustworthy and true. . . . I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son” (Rev. 21:6,7).
Though citations may not excite you; THIS is exciting.
©2014 by Stacy Nott