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In Memoriam

Late in 2001, when a financial backer pulled out his investment, the magazine Lingua Franca became, as Ron Rosenbaum put it in The New York Observer, an “orphan of the academic storm.” For a while, there were hopes that someone would come to its rescue and adopt it, but no one did. Now that it seems to have shut down permanently, its longest-serving editor, Alexander Star, has brought out a memorial anthology, Quick Studies: The Best of Lingua Franca, that is filled with the wit and energy for which the short-lived magazine (it lasted eleven years) was known.

In a cheerfully retrospective introduction, Star gives us a brief history. The journal was dreamed up in the late 1980s by Jeffrey Kittay, a former Yale professor of French, who wanted to “disturb the professors by amplifying their everyday shoptalk: the catty remarks about colleagues, the tenure-committee intrigues, the confessions of bafflement over a new book or bureaucratic rule.” But Lingua Franca also had “loftier ambitions.” The idea was to get beyond secondhand gossip and to look “directly at the people” who were generating the latest controversies. It ran stories about everything, from a historians’ quarrel over the efficacy of the 1960s student movement, to a dispute among anthropologists over whether cannibalism ever existed, to the fight between the Harvard biologists E.O. Wilson and Richard Lewontin over the extent to which genes control human behavior, to the question of whether dissertation advisers should sleep with their students.

Kittay and his editors (Star was preceded by Peter Edidin, Margaret Talbot, and Judith Shulevitz) recognized early that academia had entered what is now known as its “post-disciplinary” phase. The most interesting professors were getting restless within the confines of departments representing fields of study that had been defined as long ago as the nineteenth century. The general press was not equipped to explain what was going on, since a busy reporter would, at best, spend a few hours phoning this or that star professor about his or her latest theory, then file what amounted to a parody (if the ideas were annoyingly abstruse) or a puff piece (if they seemed “hot” and accessible).

Lingua Franca tried to do better. It sought to occupy, as Star puts it, “the no-man’s-land between the tabloid and the treatise.” It never entirely got rid of personal chatter; it revealed, for instance, that the British philosopher Roger Scruton was raising his son on classical Greek, having banned toys and television so that the boy, like John Stuart Mill, might someday enjoy the deferred benefits of a “genuinely deprived childhood.” But the prime purpose of the magazine was to keep faith with its name—borrowed from the hybrid Mediterranean language by which sailors from Marseille or Genoa once made themselves understood to their counterparts from Barcelona—by reporting intelligibly on the substance of ideas traveling across traditional academic boundaries.

In this merging of what had once been discrete fields of study, Kittay saw an opportunity and an obligation. By the 1980s, American campuses were already witnessing a proliferation of interdisciplinary centers where faculty sought escape from their home departments. At its best, this kind of loosening released new intellectual energies; at its worst, it authorized dilettantism of the sort the mystery writer Robert Parker has in mind when one of his fictional characters remarks:

Often, though not always, the Ph.D. does indicate mastery over a subject. But that’s all it indicates, and, unfortunately, many people with Ph.D.s think it covers a wider area than it does. They think it empowers their superior insight into government and foreign policy and race relations and such.

Like the professors it wrote about, Lingua Franca had mobility, curiosity, and even daring; but unlike some of them it was good at smoking out fads and frauds. It was sensibly skeptical, and its “implied reader,” as Star puts it, was “a graduate student who was well versed in the cutting-edge theorists but also eager for some relief from their portentous obscurities.”

Printed “on thin paper in smudgeable ink,” as Star fondly tells it, the magazine was run at first from a walk-up office in a New York suburb, then moved to a “cubicle in Soho” before heading uptown to a neighborhood of brothels and wig shops, until it finally expired in respectable quarters near Bryant Park, not far from The New Yorker. While it was moving around, it became staple reading among doctoral students and faculty in the humanities and the “soft” social sciences, which were always its main beat. Not a few readers (many, I suspect) bought it for the “Job Tracks” section, a listing of promotions and hirings that served as the academic equivalent of wedding announcements in the Sunday paper—drawing the curious, the envious, and, in some cases, the superannuated, who wanted to learn the fate of people whom they had once known, or heard about, or failed to secure for themselves.

Star expresses frustration (“Why weren’t there more readers?”) that Lingua Franca never really broke out beyond its academic following. Circulation leveled off at around fifteen thousand. But in May 1996, a breakthrough came when the magazine ran the story of the now notorious “Sokal hoax” narrated by Alan Sokal himself—a physicist at NYU who had submitted to a leading cultural studies journal, Social Text, a deliberately fraudulent attack on scientific objectivity filled with what Katha Pollitt later called a “hilarious compilation of pomo gibberish” of the sort that anyone with elementary physics would have immediately recognized as such. When it was accepted and published by the hoodwinked editors at Social Text, Sokal gleefully offered his story to Lingua Franca, which, “after some discussion,” as Star delicately puts it, ran his exposé. The whole business seemed to confirm that at least some of the academic emperors had no clothes, and the story made the front page of The New York Times.

Sokal’s piece about the affair is reprinted as the opening chapter of Quick Studies, followed by a forum of responses that ran two months later under the delightful title “Mystery Science Theater.” The forum includes a lengthy defense by the injured editors of Social Text, who indignantly announce that “Sokal’s conduct has quickly become an object of study for those who analyze the behavior of scientists.”

The Sokal coup turned out to mark the peak of the magazine’s fortunes, though the rest of 1996 saw the publication of several more engaging pieces that reached beyond their specific subjects. There was a profile by James Surowiecki of the historian Eugene Genovese, which tracked his evolution from doctrinaire Marxist to fierce opponent of political correctness, and thereby showed how scrambled the categories of left and right have become in the modern academy. And there was Frank Lentricchia’s “Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic,” in which a cutting-edge theorist revealed, with a sense of liberation and relief, that he had “stopped reading literary criticism” and returned to the old-fashioned view that “literature enlarges us; strips the film of familiarity from the world; creates bonds of sympathy with all kinds, even with evil characters, who we learn are all in the family.” Lentricchia’s conversion narrative had been eerily anticipated in Lingua Franca‘s very first issue, in a satiric fantasy by Michael Hirschorn (who went on to become editor of Spin magazine) in which Jacques Derrida confesses that “thanks to Roger Kimball, I can finally admit it: I bawled when Little Nell died.”

In its remaining five years, the magazine stayed true to itself. It kept its ironies gentle, and rarely descended into ridicule. It published tough interrogations of the latest academic movements, such as Michael Schudson’s “Paper Tigers” (1997), which, while agreeing with the “kernel” cultural studies idea that “all knowledge is necessarily in the service of power,” points out, through a critique of a celebrated article about the social function of museums, that when “this insight becomes the end rather than the opening of inquiry, then trouble begins.” James Miller’s “Is Bad Writing Necessary?” (1999) was a rebuke to self-styled academic radicals in the form of a juxtaposition of Theodor Adorno’s gnomic style with the lucid prose of George Orwell—the one deployed in private protest against the vulgarities of mass culture, the other in service to Orwell’s conviction that intellectuals must speak intelligibly with “the right words” and in “the right tone of voice” if they hope to contribute to social progress.

Over time, Lingua Franca developed a kind of trademark story about what had come to be known as the Culture Wars—a dual profile in which two major figures (or camps) are pitted against each other in a fight for control of their discipline. One of my favorites, Lawrence Osborne’s essay “Does Man Eat Man?” (not included in Quick Studies), opposed empirically minded anthropologists against their more literary counterparts. The former, adducing such evidence as “pot polish” marks on old human bones that indicate that a femur or finger had once rattled around in a boiling cauldron, were sure that in primitive societies cannibal feasts were commonplace. The latter, citing the scarcity and unreliability of eyewitness accounts, regarded cannibalism as “malicious hearsay” leveled by Western imperialists against people whom they wanted to turn—putatively for the sake of civilizing them—into colonial subjects.

In the tradition of Mad maga-zine’s “Spy vs. Spy,” this genre of war narrative was playful and a little arch. But it had a serious purpose. It expressed a spirit of honest inquiry into complex problems that are inevitably distorted when forced to submit to one or another ideologically driven explanation. In this sense, as Star says, “Lingua Franca refused to take sides in these Culture Wars.” Among the strongest pieces reprinted in Quick Studies are those that show how elusive and mysterious are the workings of human consciousness—as does Helen Epstein’s essay “Bonobos in Paradise” (2000), about the futility of trying to fit monkey behavior into such human categories as “aggression” or “matriarchy,” and Jim Holt’s charming riff “What’s So Funny?” (1998), about the incapacity of any theory of humor to explain the human capacity to laugh.

But even as Lingua Franca kept up its spirit, it was losing its subject. And as the Culture Wars waned, it started to lose its edge. Today, the wars are not exactly over; the situation is more like the Korean armistice—with periodic saber-rattling on both sides, but also diplomatic missions across the border, and, most of all, a feeling of exhausted confusion about what all the fuss had originally been about. The combatants are getting old, and the issues they fought over have become yesterday’s news. Along with the back files from which it is excerpted, Quick Studies remains an invaluable source for anyone interested in the internal history of the humanistic disciplines during the Culture Wars—but it has the feeling of a book about the past.

The real story in academia today is the story of the systemic transformation of our universities into market-oriented enterprises with multibillion- dollar budgets and vast investments in such emerging fields as biotechnology. The humanities are not really part of this story except in the sense that they are being marginalized by it. “As the Culture Wars receded,” Star says, “Lingua Franca covered the sciences more frequently,” but it was never able (many have tried and failed) to close the gap between the “two cultures” of humanities and science by bringing to bear narrative techniques suited to the former upon fundamental questions under debate in the latter.

An example is James Schwartz’s piece, “Oh My Darwin!” (1999), about the animosity between the “radicals” Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, on the one side, and the “conservatives” E.O. Wilson and Steven Pinker, on the other, over how natural selection affects the human genetic endowment and the extent to which genes determine human behavior. In the course of this article, it is amusing to learn that Lewontin and Wilson are both afraid of flying, and that they ride the elevator together to their offices in Harvard’s Peabody Museum without speaking. But the substance of their debate seems more obscured than illuminated by the personality sketches.

Along with the growing importance of science for anyone interested in what is happening in the academy, Star recognizes that “the quieting of the Culture Wars also coincided with an escalating debate over the material conditions of life inside the university.” Lingua Franca‘s big year, 1996, “was also the year of the infamous Yale grade strike, when graduate student teaching assistants withheld marks from their undergraduates in a failed bid for union recognition.” Lingua Franca covered this event, but the larger story of the corporatization of the university never quite came into focus in its pages—in part, perhaps, because it is a tale of deep institutional change not readily told in the sort of article about clashing personalities at which the magazine was adept.

What is on the minds of academics today is not so much the internecine quarreling that Lingua Franca brought to life for its readers in the 1990s, but the transformation of the university into an entirely new kind of enterprise, in which teaching becomes an ever more subsidiary activity, and the line between “pure” and “applied” research is almost impossible to discern. In this new kind of institution, income from patents is a hotly contested treasure between the institution and the faculty. Undergraduate teaching is increasingly relegated to part-time teachers who are paid low wages and receive no benefits. And the proportion of faculty with tenure is declining, while the rise of on-line education threatens to turn residential students and full-time faculty into relics of the past.*

These issues, which far outweigh the squabbles of the academic Culture Wars in their likely long-term effects, have been better covered in the Chronicle of Higher Education (circulation 95,000; about half of whom are administrators), and in the general press, than they were in Lingua Franca. It was in The Atlantic Monthly, for instance, that one of Lingua Franca‘s own writers, Eyal Press (represented in Quick Studies by a thoughtful piece on two left-liberal law professors who disagree about racial bias in law enforcement), published his important article “The Kept University” (March 2000), about the increasing sponsorship of academic research by pharmaceutical companies.

Lingua Franca was a good thing while it lasted. It brought humor and perspective to issues that were often treated elsewhere in deadly earnest and with suffocating provincialism. It helped to tone down the rhetorical excesses that threatened for a while to blow the academic humanities apart. But we need not mourn its passing overmuch. Its death was natural, honorable, and, as it turns out, timely—because the kinds of quarrels it covered have become, by and large, a sideshow. Now that its editors and writers have dispersed to other journals and papers (Star is now editing the new Ideas section of The Boston Globe), it is to be hoped that they will keep their eye on the coming struggle for the soul of the university—in which there is more at stake than there ever was in the glory, and sometimes goofy, days of the Culture Wars.

  1. *

    A recent report by the National Education Association (June 2001) concludes that between 1992–1993 and 1998–1999 there was an average decline of 3 percent in the percentage of faculty holding tenure in all American colleges and universities, and an increase of 5 percent in the percentage of faculty who hold part-time appointments.

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