Founded in 1971, Diacritics was part of a wave of critical theory journals that emerged in the United States in the 1970s. From the first issue, Diacritic was conceived of as a new kind of academic journal. David Grossvogel and Philip Lewis, both professors in the Department of Romance Studies at Cornell, managed to secure funding from Cornell for a journal that in fact aimed to be independent of Cornell. Philip Lewis suggested the name, and Diacritics was quickly established as a nonprofit corporation with editorial offices off campus, in downtown Ithaca, New York. The physical object looked more like a magazine than an academic journal: it was the same size as the New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly, with a full-color cover, wide margins, text filling two columns, and illustrations throughout (the work of Jill Jaross, who oversaw the innovative design for the first five years).
The journal was intended to be critically eclectic, to offer a forum for dialogue between the many theoretical currents that were igniting literature departments in the United States: narratology and semiotics, Marxist, structuralist, and psychoanalytic criticism in the early years, soon joined by feminism, deconstruction, poststructuralism. In the first issue, Claude Lévi-Strauss was interviewed; Michel Foucault began a heated exchange with George Steiner; Tzvetan Todorov offered a work in progress on two types of narrative; and Erich Segal wrote a critique of Federico Fellini’s Satyricon.
For six years, the editors managed to put out four issues a year from their downtown Ithaca office. They handled subscriptions, copyediting, layout, design, and mailing. When the issue was ready to go to press, one of them drove the galleys eighty miles on country roads to Deposit, New York. This arrangement turned out to be unsustainable, so in 1977 the editors turned to Johns Hopkins University Press to manage subscriptions and distribution. One practical consequence of this move was that Diacritics began to look like other academic journals. If the content remained cutting edge, the physical object became standard journal size and the interior marginalia disappeared. The creative color covers continued for a few years until 1982; after that the journal was printed in black and white. Twenty years later, Renate Ferro, an artist herself, became art editor and began featuring the work of one artist in each issue, a tradition that continues to this day.
In 2011, the editorial board elected Laurent Dubreuil as editor. The beginning of his term coincided with the arrival of Diane Berrett Brown as managing editor. Together, they decided that their first task was a redesign of the journal, to restore some of the visual flair of the 1971 journal. They enlisted the Boston-based designer Rick Rawlins, who brought back the original logo and a larger format, reminiscent of the first issues. Digital print processes allowed us to move from offset to digital printing and with that move came full-color covers and interior images. The redesigned journal (beginning with volume 40) has won awards from the AAUP Book, Jacket, and Journal Show (2014) and the Council of Editors of Learned Journals (2014).
For more than forty-five years, Diacritics has published important special issues and groundbreaking articles. In the early years of the journal, Jacques Derrida loomed large, beginning in 1973 when he first commented on divisions with Lacan, accusing him of “acts of hostility in the form or with the intent of reappropriation.” Diacritics has served as a workshop for many well-known authors to try out their ideas before they later appeared in book form. For example, Peggy Kamuf published a 1975 article on “Rousseau’s Politics of Visibility,” aiding in her first monograph published seven years later, Fictions of Feminine Desire: Disclosures of Heloise. In 1974, Edward Said wrote a review essay on Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language, both published in English in 1972, predating his dialogue with Foucault in Orientalism. Jane Gallop in 1976 undertook a pointed critique on Lacan and women. Before he served as Diacritics editor, Jonathan Culler wrote the essay “Apostrophe” in 1977, which would later lead to material for his 1981 The Pursuit of Signs. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, writing in 1980, four years after the publication of her translation of Derrida’s Of Grammatology, returns to Derrida in reviewing his polemic with Searle in Limited Inc. Stanley Fish’s 1981 review article of Wolfgang Iser’s The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response wonders “Why No One’s Afraid of Wolfgang Iser,” to which Iser responded in the next issue. A feminist issue in 1982 included a text by Toril Moi critiquing René Girard’s concept of desire in “The Missing Mother: The Oedipal Rivalries of René Girard.” In 1994, Leo Bersani published “The Gay Outlaw,” work that he would use in his 1996 book Homos. In the same issue, Biddy Martin published her influential “Sexualities without Genders and Other Queer Utopias.” In a 2001 article “Giving an Account of Oneself,” Judith Butler developed the ideas that would be published under the 2005 book of the same title. Other well-known theorists and philosophers have published works with Diacritics or been included in interviews in the recent decades, including Peter Szendy, Jacques Rancière, Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy, Juliet Mitchell, Ernesto Laclau, Alexander Sokurov, and Slavoj Žižek.