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. For the seventh installment in our anniversary series, former Diacritics board member Ani Chen spoke with Emoretta Yang about the visual design of Diacritics in the early decades.
“The ideal of the literary journal as a medium for the arts had to compromise”: An Interview with Emoretta Yang
Emoretta Yang was Graphics Editor of Diacritics from 1976 to 1989, after which she remained a frequent contributor. She lives in Ithaca, New York.
Ani A. Chen: How did you first become involved with Diacritics?
Emoretta Yang: It was a very informal thing. diacritics didn’t have a large budget, when I got involved with it. The previous years it had been printed by a linotype company in Deposit, NY, whose main clients were local to the area, regional pennysavers and the like. David Grossvogel had founded the journal ten years earlier, in 1971, and his wife Jill had done graphics. The Grossvogels essentially produced the journal in Ithaca, assembling the galleys, paste-ups, and layouts on their living room floor. That’s when diacritics was published in a folded-and-stapled format, roughly 9×12”, often with two-color covers. Maybe once indulging in a 4-color cover. I was interested to learn from Georges Van Den Abbeele’s essay in the anniversary series that the folded-and-stapled diacritics had acquired something of a “punk” reputation, the larger format being inhospitable to photocopying. I’m not sure when “punk” became an operative cultural term, but maybe the zine-like format affected mission as well as function, as the editorial goals of diacritics included turning the book review into a more substantive, theoretical, and free-wheeling genre in itself. I figured the folded-and-stapled format was less “punky” in stance and more economical in practice. But maybe the two are connected.
I helped design a couple more of the larger-format diacritics issues and particularly enjoyed working with George Brouwer, the account and print manager of the pennysaver press in Deposit, an extremely nice, kind man, modest in manner, generous with his time, but fiercely proud of his trade. The content of the essays from the French department may have been more high-falootin’ than that of their usual clientele, but the clear pride he took in producing the journal impressed me, and in some strange, intangible way, I came to see him as embodying a long tradition of American printing.
Producing the journal must have eaten up all of the Grossvogels’ time. For practical and economic reasons, the editors who were left holding the bag negotiated handing over production to Johns Hopkins University Press, which had begun to assemble a stable of university-affiliated humanities journals that were published by JHUP while leaving editorial control to the respective editorial boards. This production consolidation came with attendant changes in format, so diacritics became a more traditional academic journal, in smaller “executive” size—passibly amenable to photocopying—with so-called “perfect” binding.
I had done some illustration and caricatures since high school; as an undergraduate at Cornell in the late ‘60s, I had had a few editorial cartoons and graphics published in a bi-weekly magazine supplement The Fortnight, with The Cornell Sun under the editorship of Stan Chess. After graduating, I did volunteer graphics work for a short-lived independent progressive activist publication in Ithaca, the Tompkins-Chemung Bulletin. I enjoyed it, but they were acts of faith and love, none of it added up to a job. I’m not sure how Richard Klein, a member of the French department and a colleague of my husband Edward Morris, knew my history of graphics work. I was working full-time as a curatorial assistant at the Johnson Museum at the time. Richard proposed that I take over the graphics gig at diacritics, a pleasant surprise and a challenge—though literary theory interested me, I had no real background in it. But the burgeoning culture and intellectual excitement at Cornell in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the multidisciplinary role of Society for the Humanities, guest lectures from the likes of Jacques Derrida, Louis Marin, Michel de Certeau, among others, boosted the guidance from my husband, Richard Klein, and Philip Lewis, who in addition to all his teaching and administrative duties had taken on the responsibilities of publishing a quarterly journal as diacritics editor-in-chief. Phil later became department chair, then Dean of the Arts College, then vice president of the Mellon Foundation.
Though diacritics changed its physical format, the board still endorsed graphics work, which, I imagine, distinguished diacritics from other discursive journals. Academic essays at the time generally didn’t include graphics, unless they illustrated research or the topical concepts. The challenge was to find or invent graphics that reflected the ideas in the essays, or—in some happy way—amplified them. Visual analysis (whether in art, art history or criticism, anthropology, or film studies) was beginning to leave a mark on general analytic vocabulary. At the beginning of my time working with diacritics, I was concerned to make the graphics appropriate or relevant to the content of the essays, whatever that meant, not always easy in the context of theoretical assertions.
At the beginning of my time, the assembly of essays depended on whatever had been submitted. The serendipity of a need for publication outlets. As time went on, individual issues of the journal became more thematic, for example when a guest editor assembled an issue with a central theme, giving it greater value, like a book or discussion with many speakers.
Though I tried to make the graphics adhere to each essay, I had free reign over the cover. That’s probably where I had the most fun. It was challenging to try to think through the abstractions of often dense, theoretical language and find visual analogies, often offered up by tropes. If that makes sense. The covers were often determined by my own sense of a mutual tension and attraction between “the natural” (the concrete) and “the written” (the abstract). I remember a cover from that time, a pen-and-ink drawing of a hand holding a pen, reaching out from the keyboard of a traditional typewriter to write longhand on the typewriter page. Another cover showed a photograph of rocks, painstakingly picked out from the banks of a Maine beach, to spell out the lapidary letters: d-i-a-c-r-i-t-i-c-s.
The pandemic has had me trying to clear out closets, and recently, I found an old sketchbook with first drafts of cartoons for diacritics. These remind me of early influences, like Maurice Sendak, my favorite illustrator, and David Levine, who did political caricatures for The New York Review of Books. Even before being tossed into diacritics, I was influenced by Saul Steinberg, whose cover drawings often appeared on The New Yorker; something in his way of seeing and drawing conveyed a kind of European-inflected reflection on what you might call “meta-phenomenal” weirdness.
In the early days of being published by JHUP, with the limited space of the smaller format, we designed a layout where the title page of each essay included a margin of about an inch-and-a-half in which to place a graphic to set the “tone,” or visual aspect, for the rest of the essay’s graphics. That “tone” might or might not have been related to other essays, but the intent was to give each text some visual coherence.
I used photography sometimes, but in the early years, most of the graphics were in pen and ink, because color wasn’t available. For better or worse, whatever my intentions, the graphics of diacritics may have retained a homemade feeling. The wonderful thing of the first ten years of fold-and-staple was that Jill had designed some funny and eye-catching covers, sometimes two-color, maybe one time a full four-color, not at all what you’d expect of an academic journal. When we changed the format, for budgetary and logistical reasons, we settled for black-and-white covers, either pen-and-ink or screened black-and-white photographs.
In one memorable instance, I persuaded the editor to underwrite a two-color cover. I don’t remember what triggered the association, but a review essay must have referred to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the over-arching conceit of which is a chess game. (Yes, decades before The Queen’s Gambit.) The unifying visual of that issue became the game of chess. Hence, the overarching need to have red (not gold, silver, royal blue, or ivory white) as well as black as a checkerboard wrapped around the journal. For one of the included essays, a review of criticism on Cervantes’s Don Quixote, I photographed the knight on his valiant steed jousting with a windmill, all made of Legos, on a checkerboard. For the front and back covers of that issue, I “parodied” the illustrations from Through the Looking Glass by the great English illustrator, John Tenniel. The front cover shows Alice merging into the looking glass on the mantlepiece, entering the fantastic world of the chess game, as she did with the pack of cards that drew her into the rabbit hole of Alice in Wonderland. On the back cover, I redrew Tenniel’s Alice emerging from the mirror, back into our own “normal” space. The red-and-grey checkerboard that spanned the front, back, and spine of that issue aimed to reinforce the physical objecthood of the journal. Was there an unstated intention to caution “Beware all ye who enter here?” Or to tantalize? Maybe both.
AAC: That was one of the first covers that struck me, looking through the archives. I noticed that in the eighties, the artwork changed from cartooning to mixed-media. I am thinking of the special issue on Jean-Francois Lyotard, which features a photograph of a mimeographed page from The Différend, with clay figures positioned on it. How did your graphic design process change and develop?
EY: You are right. My involvement did change. Part of that was because of time pressures. It was all done by the seat of our pants, really. There was a small honorarium, I think, $300 per issue from petty cash, but that was okay. I did it during off-time from my day job. Partly because of me, the journal’s publishing schedule got delayed, often for weeks. Phil was incredibly patient and supportive. In any case, diacritics had been around long enough and getting actual career artists and photographers to contribute seemed like a happy alternative. This is still before digital photography appeared on the consumer market.
The Lyotard issue stands out. Georges Van Den Abeele refers to it in his essay. The graphics work published there was voluntarily contributed by Michael Snow, an accomplished Canadian artist with an international reputation, who offered it to diacritics without, I believe, the usual commission. He may have been a friend of Lyotard, or at least the two were mutually acquainted with each other’s work. The playful figures of clay homunculi, which he photographed and sent down to diacritics, jived with the spirit of the journal. I think diacritics had evolved to become a venue for acknowledged and accomplished practicing artists; during my time, Snow was perhaps the most prominent artist featured on diacritics pages.
By that time, because of production schedules, it turned out that trying to customize graphics to every article wasn’t sustainable. We began to shift toward featuring the integral work of individual professional artists, in particular photographers, with their own preoccupations and themes, not necessarily to illuminate individual essays.
Unfortunately, the first time we used this new layout resulted in a disappointment and misunderstanding about the role of graphic work in diacritics. John Miller, an architect who practiced for years with Levatich, Miller and Hoffman in Ithaca and later became a professor of architecture at Cornell, had a longstanding engagement with photography, meticulously framing each shot in camera. When his partner Elisa Evett took a research year in Paris, John—who didn’t speak French—accompanied her, taking his 35mm camera. He came back with a series of photographs he entitled “A Cowboy in Paris,” exquisite in vision and execution (no cropping or dodging in the darkroom). Because so much of diacritics focused on French writers and theorists of the 1980s, it was an easy decision to publish these images that captured the design and intimate beauty of a flâneur in Paris, exotic to an American eye but not the tourist’s. One of Miller’s photos appeared on the front cover and another on the back cover. The others were laid out between each successive article. If an article ended on an even-numbered page, the remaining white space was supposed to remain blank, allowing Miller’s photo on the facing odd-numbered page ample blank space. But JHUP, without editorial clearance, used these blank spaces to advertise other journals from their stable. The stillness and gravitas of Miller’s photographs were blown apart by these adjacent ads. I understand the rationale for the press to publicize other journals, but the visual clash was jarring. The damage was done, as the subscriptions were mailed out. If it had been my own work, I could have let it go, but the primacy of the ads placed next to John Miller’s photographs felt like injury, insensitive and demoralizing. Thanks to the intervention of diacritics’ editor-in-chief, Phil Lewis, the JHUP press manager approved a special smaller print run as an extra edition of this issue, in which the ads were removed. The ideal of the literary journal as a medium for the arts had to compromise. Besides a few copies for me, I don’t know who got the edition without ads, how many were printed, or where they were sent. In subsequent issues, where work by independent artists was published, the compromise between art and commerce made some attempt to be more seamless.
AAC: It’s interesting to hear how the production process of the magazine changed, from being put together on David Grossvogel’s living room floor to being produced by John Hopkins University Press. When I was reading through the archive, I noticed that the illustrations informed how I read the articles, and later on, when the ads were introduced, they did change how I read the images together with the texts.
EY: That’s very interesting. Another photographer, whose work embodied a certain playful and pungent spirit adumbrating punk was (and is) a writer of fiction, Stephanie Vaughn, who still teaches creative writing in the English department. She had just moved to Ithaca; living downtown, she noticed all the shopping carts people used to bring home the bacon, but then wouldn’t return to the store. People would just leave them somewhere! Some ended up in parking lots, some ended up in the creek. A shopping cart was just something you saw in all the neighborhoods on the flats. Stephanie is a great writer of fiction, but also a keen visual observer. I happened to see a series of photographs she had taken of shopping carts —she wasn’t looking to publish them, she just took the photos because, well, as they say, Everest was there. The spirit in which she took these photographs, documenting these poor, abandoned, forsaken, and forlorn shopping carts—a viewer can’t help but anthropomorphize them—seemed right in line with the spirit of diacritics. Why, I can’t put exactly into words. Apart from the playful side, you can figure out pretty easily, there was an underlying sociological, economic and environmental side to the appearance of these shopping carts, ubiquitous in the bottomland neighborhoods of Ithaca.
AAC: I really appreciated that you brought up the Through the Looking Glass illustrations, because that Fall 1979 issue is one of my favorites. You blended elements of what you saw in each article with pop art. In the 1982 issue on Feminist Critique, you blend fashion illustration with pop art and comics. In an article about Frankenstein, you have Wonder Woman and mermaids. How did you come up with these?
EY: Thank you for referencing that. I remember that I did a lot of collage. This was for a review of the work of Dorothy Dinnerstein, by Barbara Johnson. “My Monster / My Self.” Barbara Johnson is wonderful. That was an article where I was trying to tailor the images to content in the article itself. That was still in the early phase when I was doing the illustrations myself.
AAC: The placement of the mermaid figures reminds me of medieval illuminations, in that you are using the one-inch margin on the side of the article for these monstrous mermaids and setting the tone for the article.
EY: Some people say that, when you have limitations, as any kind of so-called creative artist, the limitations are actually helpful in determining what you do: they force you to be resourceful. I searched all over for sources, and though I had some background in art history, my basic source for those medieval elements might have come from Dover Publishing, which made a lot of images copyright-free for graphic artists. I would often use those, but as with the Wonder Woman thing, felt free to alter them. That was one series that was more fun to explore.
AAC: When we spoke before this interview, you mentioned that Nuclear Criticism was one of your favorite issues. In that one you have a dinosaur motif. How did you come up with it?
EY: Well, I’m going to tell you that you should credit that to Zoë Sofoulis (who used the name Zoë Sofia then). This is a nice moment to remember Zoë with fondness and admiration. I was not close to her. She showed up, as a graduate student, at the “Nuclear Criticism” colloquium that Richard Klein organized in April 1984. The conference became the basis for that issue. Because there was a tie-in with diacritics, Richard asked me to make the poster for the conference, which I enjoyed doing: a charcoal drawing that looked like dust. A joy to make, despite the subject. We adapted that same image for the cover of the Nuclear Criticism issue. For the interior graphics, Zoë allowed us to reproduce her work, collages and dinosaur stamps.
Richard had assembled an impressive panel of participants for the conference, which included Jacques Derrida and Dorothy Dinnerstein and other well-known academics. Richard, who had an ear for interesting, edgy work, included Zoë, as her ideas combined feminism, science fiction, and emerging environmentalism. Zoë did have a punk mentality. She had purple hair. This was way back then. I learned more about her subsequent work in Karen Pinkus’s interview with her for the diacritics fiftieth-anniversary blog series. Zoë’s presentation at the conference was earnest and serious but stood out in its lively, edgy playfulness. One of her collages depicted a mushroom cloud made from dinosaur stamps. Zoë was avantgarde: ebullient in person and energy-infused in her collages. It was easy to say, we gotta use those!
I’ve always remembered an anecdote Zoë told at a dinner party after the conference at our house, where we had invited a few participants, including Jacques Derrida (Ted was one of his sponsors) and Zoë. Zoë was then a PhD student at UC Santa Cruz in a program called History of Consciousness. One of her duties as a program assistant was to help with receptions. She said she loved going down to the liquor store in Santa Cruz to order wine and say to the folks there, “Just charge that to the History of Consciousness!” She had flair, and I was glad to read the interview with her.
AAC: One of the aspects of academic journals moving online is that you get a sense of the visual identity of the journal in a different way from when you handle the physical copy. One of the first places I encountered your work was the virtual galleries for diacritics on Project Muse, which included photos that you took in Cairo and in the Caucasus.
EY: I came late to online life and didn’t even acquire an email address until the year 2000. I stumbled across the virtual galleries long after my association with the journal. I did learn that the Mellon Foundation had underwritten the ambitious program to digitize journals through JSTOR. I am gratified that it includes some of my photographs.
EY: Oh my gosh I had forgotten about those. Thank you for reminding me. There were two extraordinary trips I took during that time, one with my parents in Egypt and one with German friends in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The trip through Central Asia was a wonderful trip with friends who were affiliated with the foreign service in Germany. They were posted to Azerbaijan and undertook a cross-country, overland trip to a meeting in Uzbekistan. They invited me along, a rare opportunity. Starting in Baku, we flew across the Caspian to Turkmenistan, then by car through Samarkand and to Tashkent. It was an epic trip. I took black-and-white photos. I don’t remember thinking of diacritics. But by that time, diacritics had published several issues with integral work by scholars with connections to Cornell, photographic work that stood on its own merits, like “A Cowboy in Paris.” The photographic portfolio of Vietnam by historian Patricia Pelley that was featured in the Spring 1994 issue also was a way to amplify her scholarship in diacritics.
One issue that was particularly memorable and satisfying in its collaboration was the special issue edited by Neil Hertz on Freud’s case of Dora. (You’ve interviewed Neil about this for the anniversary blog.) In that case, I collaborated with the extraordinarily talented Noni Korf, then a College Scholar at Cornell. She had already mastered traditional photography. Our aim was to make a series of photographs illustrating each sentence of Freud’s account of the dream of Dora. There were about eight or nine sentences, and each photo was to be of a local staging of the content of those sentences that included a photo of the same place—a kind of meta-phenomenal image, to put it in a complicated diacritics way. For example, for the sentence where Dora recounts her dream of being at a station, Noni took a photo of the old Station restaurant in Ithaca, developed and printed that as an eight-by-ten, then photographed the picture being held up in front of the same site. The second shot was the published image. There were about eight or nine sentences to be illustrated in this complicated, time-consuming way. Noni, still an undergrad, grasped the concept immediately and executed the series without a hitch. Since that time Noni has become a pioneer in the development of online education courses for Cornell, the University of Michigan, and other institutions, as well as an accomplished independent video producer and filmmaker, co-founder of Nice Girl Films. As collaboration with a visually ambitious scope, with the unified theme of articles assembled by Neil Hertz, that issue stands out.
My association with diacritics came to an end not long after my husband died. It had always been the case during my time that diacritics didn’t have a budget line for a dedicated graphics editor, but for me the association with the journal, its ideas and the people I worked with made the experience interesting and worthwhile. Editors like Phil Lewis, Richard Klein, Neil Hertz, and artists like Noni Korf, John Miller, Marilyn Rivchin, Jessica Evett-Miller remain my friends, and I was grateful for the supportive and kind Kate Bloodgood, who came to fill the new position of managing editor.
P.S. I’m grateful to the diligence and patience of Ani Chen in this interview.
Here’s one of my last ambitions for diacritics, one that I was never able to pull off, though I inquired and explored ways to execute it.
The notion of the palimpsest came down, filtered in part by the ways Jacques Derrida and others had written about this antique support tablet of the act of writing and rewriting. It was my hope to design a cover for diacritics like the waxed boards for children with an opaque plastic sheet on top: take your stylus and make your marks on the plastic sheet, which show as lines stuck to the wax. Then pull the plastic sheet up and whoosh, the marks are gone and you can start all over again.
I pass this idea on to diacritics for free. Long before the advent of the iPad.
Emoretta Yang, January 28, 2022, Ithaca, New York
 See Georges van den Abbeele, “A Diacritical Apprenticeship.” Diacritics Blog, n.d. https://www.diacriticsjournal.com/diacritics50-a-diacritical-apprenticeship/
 Diacritics 9, no. 3 (1979).
 Special Issue on the Work of Jean-François Lyotard. Diacritics 14, no. 3 (1984).
 See Doing French Studies. Edited by Jonathan Culler and Richard Klein. Special issue of Diacritics 28, no. 3 (1998).
 Diacritics 15, no. 3 (1985).
 Cherchez La Femme. Feminist Critique/Feminine Text. Special issue of Diacritics 12, no. 2 (1982).
 Nuclear Criticism. Special issue of Diacritics 14, no. 2 (1984).
 See Karen Pinkus, “An Interview with Zoë Sofoulis.” Diacritics Blog, n.d. https://www.diacriticsjournal.com/diacritics50-an-interview-with-zoe-sofoulis/
 Diacritics 26, no. 1 (1996).
 Diacritics 28, no. 2 (1998).
 Diacritics 24, no. 1 (1994).
 A Fine Romance: Freud and Dora. Edited by Neil Hertz. Special issue of Diacritics 13, no. 1 (1983).
 Ani Chen, “An Interview with Neil Hertz.” Diacritics Blog, n.d. https://www.diacriticsjournal.com/diacritics50-an-interview-with-neil-hertz/