Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The art of citation

Recently I was talking with some friends about the problem of citation in contemporary theological writing. We bemoaned the disturbing rise of block-quotes in much current writing: the tendency merely to cite large chunks of (presumably transparent and authoritative) text, instead of trying always to speak in one’s own voice, while reserving the apposite citation for particular strategic purposes.

Anyway, Leland de la Durantaye’s excellent new book on Agamben includes a discussion of Agamben’s notion of “the art of citing without quotation marks” – an idea derived from Walter Benjamin. Durantaye writes (pp. 145-46):

“Benjamin had a singular relation to citation. He once wrote that the ‘craft of the critic’ required a ‘theory of critical citation’…. In his One-Way Street, he informed his readers that ‘citations in my work are like armed thieves who emerge suddenly and rob leisurely strollers of their convictions.’ He thus uses citations strategically; they are part of the guerilla warfare he wages against the preconceived notions of his reader…. To cite without quotation marks is to offer the idea without the imprimatur of an author or authority. This requires of the idea that it stand or fall on its own merits and not find automatic support from its lineage. Elsewhere in The Arcades Project, Benjamin compares citational footnotes to bills slipped under the garters of women for hire. His sensitivity to the less reputable sides of citation was particularly keen.”

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