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,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.