July 23, 2021
Diacritics is 50: A golden anniversary is a significant milestone for any academic publication, let alone one that began from a rather eccentric (dare I say punk?) ethos. Rather than the usual toasts or special commemorative issues, we have asked our readers and writers to reflect on the history of the journal. The first entry in our anniversary series is Georges Van Den Abbeele’s look back at the intersections between the early days of Diacritics and the beginnings of his own career.
—Karen Pinkus, Editor
A Diacritical Apprenticeship
It is a cliché of our times to characterize one’s early experiences as “transformative,” but I would have to admit that my encounters with Diacritics over many years have indeed defined my academic career in profoundly transformational ways, including my very entry into the profession. I applied to graduate school at Cornell after stumbling across some of the earlier, weirder, deliberately oversized issues of Diacritics in my undergraduate library at Reed College. I was just blown away by the whole thing, the style of the articles, the interviews, the elevation of the humble book review into a theoretical juggernaut, and of course, the supporting and often outrageous art design (such as the infamous “peanut butter and no jelly” issue, or the mesmerizing cover illustration of “the letter D-constructed,” among many, many others).
I must confess that my avantgardist zeal was further galvanized by the rumor that the Diacritics format was deliberately oversized to discourage photocopying and thus promote the purchase of individual issues, which at that time could actually be found in many bookstores. On the other hand, nothing could have prepared me for what I found to be an exhilarating mix of abstract theorizing with often irreverent humor and unapologetic referencing of contemporary popular culture. For me, exhibit A in this gallery was Paul de Man’s “Semiology and Rhetoric,” which looks rather staid by today’s standards but absolutely floored me at the time when the essay nonchalantly veered into a funny but pedagogical commentary of a contemporary television show, ending with De Man’s infamous characterization of Jacques Derrida as an “archie Debunker,” so outrageously exact, even now. In short, Diacritics was an academic journal like no other, and that overwhelmingly appealed to the anarchistic sensibility of my youth and continues to appeal to my critically cantankerous older self.
Arriving at Cornell, I remember being called into a meeting with all the other first-year graduate students, where Ted Morris tried to assure us rather unconvincingly that earning a Ph.D. in Romance Studies did not mean you had to be able to write a page that sounded like it belonged in Diacritics. This apparent word of caution surprised me since I had thought the whole reason for going to Cornell was precisely to learn how to write “diacritically” as it were.
Later, it was a huge honor and a dream come true for me to be offered the coveted status of student editor during my last two years at Cornell. What I learned in the process was an insuperable amount about not just the basic mechanics of journal editing and academic publishing in general but also about the very meaning and direction of humanities research as incoming articles were subject to lively and sometimes intense debate among the editorial board members. Among other discussions, I remember in particular the consternation caused when Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick submitted a poem, “Trace at 46,” which someone on the board described as “middle-aged deconstructivity.” Curiously, here was a journal breaking all the limits worrying over breaking what suddenly appeared as an unspoken limit: namely the conviction that what was rapidly being pegged as “theory” should take place as prose not poetry, and as argumentative prose rather than fiction, for that matter, or even what is now fashionably called creative nonfiction. In the end, consensus was reached to publish this odd text not because it was (or wasn’t) a poem but because of its compelling elaboration of a theoretical problem in a form that could not not take the shape of verse. That this was an early manifestation of queer theory by way of an alternative discursive intervention did not fail to impress me at the time, and more so given subsequent developments in that field.
But the height of my time with the journal happened the following summer when Phil Lewis asked me to take charge of the journal for a month while he lectured in France (these were of course the pre-email, pre-internet, pre-cell-phone days when business was conducted primarily on paper and a month-long absence was simply not workable). I was to be responsible for everything from correspondence to copyediting to final proofing. Before leaving, Phil generously spent an afternoon with me providing me a master tutorial on all the myriad things an editor actually does (which he would later call the “editor function” after Michel Foucault’s “author function”): from triage of initial submissions to be either returned to the author or forwarded to board members for assessment, to communicating requested revisions effectively, to deciding where and when to overrule authorial mistakes and misprisions, to paying careful attention to any inconsistencies in form or style, to distinguishing printer errors from editorial corrections at the final proof stage (an important cost factor in terms of who was to pay for that expensive last-minute resetting of type!), and finally to proofreading with special care titles of articles and other text in larger or unusual print, since one has a tendency to gloss over those items in one’s zeal to read the actual text. The experience of being interim editor, even for a few short weeks, was a huge, frightful responsibility, a kind of baptism by fire, but it was also the most profound learning experience, and one that prepared me for my academic career in ways not encompassed by time in seminars or work as a TA. Indeed, I found the experience of working with Diacritics so invaluable that I became a lifelong advocate to expand opportunities for graduate students in research capacities as well as teaching, and that also means understanding editorial work as a vital form of academic work that often falls between the cracks of how many universities narrowly distinguish between research and teaching, strictly defined.
I should add that I also got my earliest publishing experiences while still a graduate student at Cornell, first by translating Sarah Kofman’s influential essay on “The Narcissistic Woman,” and then publishing my own first article, in classically diacritical style: an extended review of Dean MacCannell’s The Tourist. And here, I owe a debt to Jonathan Culler, who advocated for a review of the book before I in some way or another, I don’t really know how, ended up with the assignment. Only much later did I learn that Jonathan had been writing his own review of MacCannell’s book, which he published elsewhere. I’m sure he could readily have asserted his privilege as a senior faculty member over some neophyte graduate student such as I was, so I can only thank him for the golden opportunity to see my work appear in print (though only after my piece had been roundly read and reviewed by the other members of the board!). Still, this gave me an imprimatur and a boost of self-confidence that I badly needed. Of course, this article also dovetailed theoretically with the dissertation I was then writing on travel in French philosophical literature, which would become the basis of my first book, Travel as Metaphor. What surprised me the most in writing the article, though, was how quickly and easily the writing came, taking just a matter of days, not weeks as was often the case with my more tortured and overly elaborate seminar papers. Almost as if playing for keeps with a real publication motivated and challenged me to cut to the quick and avoid the pitfalls of detours and digressions, compelling as they might be at the moment of writing. Be that as it may and despite the fact that I have never republished the piece or included it in a book, “Sightseers: The Tourist and Theorist” remains not just my first but I believe still my most-cited publication, and it continues to elicit responses and invitations. In 2012, I was even asked to deliver a sequel as the keynote to a conference on tourism in Italy. I guess despite Ted Morris’s admonition, I had indeed learned how to write “diacritically” as the capstone to my degree at Cornell, and not just something that read “like it belonged in Diacritics” but something that actually appeared in its pages. When I started my first job at UC Santa Cruz and was invited to a reception held by Hayden White and the History of Consciousness program, one of their top graduate students came up to me, expressing admiration for my piece and with unforgettable irony opined that “publishing in Diacritics is like dying and going to heaven”!
As a coda, realizing how small our profession can be, for a long time I dreaded actually meeting Dean MacCannell, since being “diacritical” meant writing a review that was analytical in ways that were certainly not about assuaging an author’s ego. It was another great lesson to me that when we finally did meet and in fact became colleagues at UC Davis, he was unbelievably gracious and most appreciative of the fact that someone like me had taken the time to take his book so seriously. Just as Marcel Proust famously defined the opposite of love not as hate but as indifference, I learned that the opposite of criticism is not encomium but neglect. Even now, when I lecture, I always most appreciate the truculent questions, since those are the ones that encourage me to clarify or further develop my own positions. As for Dean and I, we wound up sharing graduate students and establishing a program in cultural tourism together before he retired and I left the campus.
I should add that I have of course published in the journal a few times over the years since then. In 1984, I guest-edited a special issue on Jean-François Lyotard, which I believe was the first organized American response to his work. Ironically, the piece he provided for the issue, an excerpt from The Differend, had previously been rejected by Representations. Apparently, the editorial board there did not care for his “misappropriation” of the work of analytic philosophers such as Gottlob Frege or Saul Kripke. (As opposed to the general disinterested tolerance of or indifference to the various French rereadings of the German idealist tradition, any French encroachment on the terrain of Anglo-American philosophy seemed to generate fierce rejection, such as John Searle’s angry polemic against Jacques Derrida over the latter’s reading of J. L. Austen.) Incidentally, the interview I did with Jean-François for that issue has only ever been published in the English translation I prepared, but recently I have received a request to publish the original French, after the English version was reprinted in a volume of Lyotard interviews. One glitch occurred in the art design, however: Jean-François had requested that his friend, the avantgarde artist and filmmaker Michael Snow, provide the illustrations. Snow graciously agreed to do so gratis, on the condition that he could have advance access to the texts, which were accordingly sent to him already in copy-ready format. No one could have predicted that his design concept involved clay figures superimposed over the actual pages of the texts. Not necessarily a problem, except that the first image which would become the issue cover used the first page of Lyotard’s text, which included as typical in the upper left-hand corner his contact information and specifically his home address. Needless to say, Jean-François was not too happy with this indiscretion, but with his typical sense of irony and bemusement excused this error in process, for which no one in particular was to blame. In retrospect, I think I was more upset than he was. Veering more positively to the issue’s content, he singled out Tim Murray’s contribution as the piece in which he most “fully recognized himself.”
About a decade later, I guest-edited a special issue on censorship, based on a conference I had organized at the behest of legal scholar Robert Post, as part of his larger Getty-supported series on “Censorship and Silencing.” At the time, questions of free speech and censorship did not loom quite as large as they do today, and so that issue didn’t seem to generate much in the way of response. But more recently, in the last few months in fact, I have been getting more inquiries on this question and interest in revisiting the issue I put together. I cite these cases as examples of the continuing relevance and interest in previous Diacritics publications, another sign of the journal’s vanguard tendencies and uncanny ability to showcase new directions that only later became part of critical currency.
Hard to believe in any case that this upstart journal is now 50, but there it is. May it continue its relentlessly critical redrawing of the bounds of intellectual and theoretical thinking for at least another 50 years!