The Chronicle Review

The Brief, Wondrous Life of the Theory Journal

October 16, 2011

In the 1970s, the journals in literary studies underwent a tidal shift. Previously there had been little magazines, like the legendary Partisan and Kenyon Reviews, or scholarly journals, like JEGP, Journal of English and Germanic Philology or Speculum, a journal of medieval studies. But the 1970s brought a wave of new publications.

In roughly a decade, more than 20 journals were founded in the United States, among them New Literary History (1969), Diacritics (1971), SubStance (1971), boundary 2 (1972), Feminist Studies (1972), New German Critique (1973), Critical Inquiry (1974), Semiotext (e) (1974), Signs (1975), Enclitic (1977), Glyph (1977), Structuralist Review (1978), Discourse (1979), and Social Text (1979). They were joined by several established journals that retooled themselves along similar lines, like The Georgia Review, MLN (Modern Language Notes), and Yale French Studies, as well as new entries in neighboring fields, like the art-based October (1976). They constituted a new genre: the theory journal.

By 1970 the little magazine, which had been a flagship of American culture of the 1950s, was waning as critical arbiter (Kenyon closed in 1969). The major scholarly journals were still marching along, although they were staid and traditional, largely focused on early periods, notably medieval and Renaissance eras.

The theory journal represented a new focus. Rather than scholarly desiderata or close readings, it had bigger fish to fry, taking the wide-angle lens of concepts like language, society, gender, or interpretation, and it promoted theory systems that dealt with them, such as structuralism, Marxism, feminism, and deconstruction. It was less narrowly wedded to literature and often questioned the aims and boundaries of literary studies, as well as the role of criticism itself. And it was adversarial, especially in its first decade, self-consciously announcing the new.

The theory journal also announced a new kind of professor. For earlier standards like Studies in Philology or Medium Aevum, one pictured a tweed-jacketed Anglophile poring over old manuscripts with a magnifying glass and writing up his results. For the theory journal, one pictured a miniskirted or blue-jeaned rabble-rouser passionately speaking about the signifier, ideology, patriarchy, or aporias. It wasn't your father's literary studies, nor his literary journal.

The rise of the theory journal, so different and so numerous in so short a time, probably reflected the flourishing of a new cultural sensibility. However, journals are not just buoyed by ideas; they also depend on an institutional infrastructure. The theory journal rose on the crest of the postwar infrastructure of higher education. It was a good time to be a professor, a good time to do criticism, and a good time for journals.

Just as the period was remarkable in fostering an armada of journals, our current moment is remarkable for its relative paucity of new journals. Though some who entered academe during the 60s bemoan the lack of critical imagination now, that paucity is not from lack of intelligence; rather, it's due to the drain of funds from the humanities. Infrastructure seems tertiary, but it provides possibilities for certain kinds of work to be done, or not done.

The theory journal was a hybrid of the little magazine and the scholarly journal. The little magazine itself arose from a split in the American family tree of the literary journal, with one sizable branch bearing, in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, mass commercial magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and The Atlantic, and a much more delicate branch bearing entries like The Dial and The Hound and Horn. The latter were "little magazines" because they had small circulations, and, often featuring modernist literature, they pitched themselves against the commercialism of the big magazines. They were short-lived, often with uneven support and editorship, but the nail in the coffin was the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The next major wave of literary journals occurred in midcentury, with what a British historian called "the American Big Four"—Partisan Review, The Kenyon Review, The Hudson Review, and Sewanee Review. They were the flagships of the criticism of their era­—the New Criticism, as well as that of the New York intellectuals—and pitched themselves against traditional academic journals, foregrounding modernism and American as well as European literature. They are often celebrated as a high point of American public culture, but they were for the most part academic productions, their editors academics, housed in literature departments and supported by universities, and with circulations of 1,000 or 2,000.

The learned or scholarly journal in America also arose during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a byproduct of the system of higher education that developed after the Civil War. In England scholarly journals often evolved from amateur or royal societies; in America, learned journals directly derived from the rise of the major research universities, like the Johns Hopkins University (1876), which started MLN in 1886, and the University of Chicago (1891), which created Modern Philology in 1903. Early scholarly journals in literature were oriented toward philology, the method for studying writing imported from the German research university.

By midcentury the little magazine took center stage in literary studies. It focused on criticism over historical scholarship, favored the essay over the technical article, and carried few if any footnotes. It also published poetry and fiction. Scholarly journals generally covered early periods of British literature—Studies in Philology especially the Renaissance, Speculum medieval, and so on. Leaning to the modern, the little magazine was staking out literary culture for a rising, college-educated audience.

By the 1970s, the little magazine largely divested itself of criticism. Instead it turned toward creative writing, following the model of the 1950s start-up, The Paris Review (1953). The next decade saw the founding of a wave of little magazines devoted to creative writing, like TriQuarterly (1964), New American Review (1967), The Iowa Review (1970), and Ploughshares (1975). (The Kenyon Review was reborn in 1979 as a creative-writing journal.) They conjoined with the development of creative-writing programs, as departments separated creative and critical functions and filled them with different faculty. In the earlier era, a single person, like John Crowe Ransom, at The Kenyon Review, or T.S. Eliot, at Criterion, was a poet, critic, and editor.

The theory journal adopted the tendency toward critical and cultural commentary of the little magazine, grafted to the edifice of the scholarly journal. From the little magazine it embraced reporting on contemporary trends in thought, and also brought politics into literary studies. From the scholarly journal it took scholarly protocols and style; it grafted the formal rules of scholarship onto the speculative literary essay, promulgating a form of the 20-page academic article. It also divested itself of creative writing. Like the scholarly journal, its goal was to produce knowledge, but it was oriented toward generating new knowledge rather than preserving old. Like the scholarly journal, it addressed an academic audience rather than the more general educated audience of the little magazine.

The conditions of the 60s gave impetus to the theory journal, but not quite in the way that most explanations assume. The politics of the 60s and the foment of European philosophy inflected literary theory, but the theory journal developed under the auspices of the contemporary American research university. It required a new organ of scientific knowledge of literature, one that spurred new innovations rather than merely the preservation of knowledge.

Higher education was one of the jewels in the crown of postwar American society, and in 1968 Christopher Jencks and David Riesman declared its success in The Academic Revolution. The revolution was that of professors, whose positions morphed from overworked schoolteachers to autonomous experts. By the late 1960s, Jencks and Riesman observed, for the first time in American history, professors concentrated more on research than teaching, on their disciplines rather than their particular campuses, and on graduate education rather than undergraduate. The theory journal was an outgrowth of those shifts.

The little magazine that had flourished under the immediate postwar regime was not directed to a coterie audience, as the earlier little magazine had been, but to those newly attending college, an educated audience hungry for the wares of culture. Its aim was not research; like much criticism of the time, its role was pedagogical and expository.

The theory journal carried out the aims of advanced research and flourished under the terms of the academic revolution. It set its coordinates toward the discipline, graduate education, and professional advance. It adverted to disciplinary topics, like signs or discourse or social texts; the little magazine hailed those who had an undergraduate education, whereas the theory journal was directed to graduate students or professors; the little magazine was humanistic, whereas the theory journal reached toward the scientistic, in its turn toward the human sciences, as they were called, and theory. Though it adopted the format of the scholarly journal, it fostered a revolution against traditional approaches; rather than preserving tradition brick by scholarly brick, its goal was to produce new knowledge through theoretical surmises.

Its material backing provides one way to explain the shifts in the literary journal over the course of the previous century. The early little magazine was financed primarily by patrons; like the university at the turn of the century, it was backed by philanthropy. That granted it independence from the market but also prompted an elitist bearing of the connoisseur. Philanthropy shrank during the Great Depression, and by midcentury the little magazine adopted a more democratic, perhaps striving, tenor. It was financed more impersonally by foundations, whose goal was to promote American culture. For instance, Kenyon Review received substantial grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, including a five-year grant in 1947 for $22,500 ($218,000 in current dollars). The foundation was a central institution in the immediate postwar period, as policy makers used it to build the new meritocracy they wanted, as well as to mobilize culture in the service of the cold war.

By the 60s, funds came more concertedly from state and federal government, not only for specific research projects but for institutions. The theory journal thrived on university funds. For instance, New Literary History received $14,000 a year ($86,000 in current dollars) its first five years from the University of Virginia. That was on top of other kinds of support, notably for libraries that would subscribe to most new journals, a practice that came to an end by the 1990s. The enhanced research university fostered the tendency toward technical specialization, although it also allowed for a good deal of intellectual freedom, experiment, and exploration.

This genealogy prompts the question: What new kind of journal is looming now? One might identify a turn toward cultural studies in academe, but there is no comparable wave of cultural-studies journals. Rather, cultural studies has been absorbed into the format of the theory journal. An obvious answer is online journals, but most existing online journals, like Postmodern Culture (1990), are in the lineage of the theory journal, although perhaps we cannot yet glean the form that online journals will finally take. A bleak hypothesis is that a new kind of journal has not appeared because of the shrinkage of support for the humanities.

The question of the future is the question of material backing. Today it's clear that we have entered a different moment in the history of higher education; we've passed from the welfare-state university to the post-welfare-state university, determined by the protocols of privatization. Under its terms, the theory journal is becoming a residual form, like the philological journals.

Without the capacious financing for higher education, I predict that journals will return to being philanthropic projects, like the early little magazines, subject to private support, and thus the tastes and vicissitudes of that support. And they will become more rarefied as their readership shrinks—as the number of full-time faculty, who might publish in them and read them, becomes a yet smaller fraction of those who profess.

Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University and former editor of the minnesota review, from 1992 to 2010. This essay draws on research conducted for an interview with Ralph Cohen, founder and editor of New Literary History for 40 years, which was published as a special issue of that journal, 40.4 (2009), honoring Cohen.