In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Rise of the Theory Journal
  • Jeffrey J. Williams (bio)

I. A New Kind of Journal

The brief period between 1969 and 1979 saw the founding of a wave of new literary journals in the United States. They included New Literary History (1969), diacritics (1971), SubStance (1971), boundary 2 (1972), Feminist Studies (1972), New German Critique (1973), Critical Inquiry (1974), Semiotexte (1974), 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, such as Georgia Review, MLN, and Yale French Studies, as well as new entries in neighboring fields, such as the philosophy-based Telos (1968), social-science-based Signs (1975), film-based Camera Obscura (1976), and art-based October (1976). They constituted a new kind of journal, the theory journal.

The standard journals at the time were largely oriented around literary periods or fields and had a more empirical focus toward close readings or scholarly reconstructions; these new journals turned toward the larger concepts that framed the study of literature, such as language, gender, interpretation, or society. Though they varied in particular approach or political leaning—New Literary History was nondenominational, whereas diacritics, for instance, tacked toward poststructuralism and Signs and Social Text had explicit political missions—they shared a stress on theoretical and methodological issues, as indicated by many of their titles. Part of their theoretical mission was bringing news from the Continent to a U.S. audience. They also freely drew upon other disciplines, such as sociology or anthropology, whereas most previous journals were more narrowly wedded to literature. They often took an overarching perspective, questioning the role of criticism itself and the aims and boundaries of literary and other studies. And they were adversarial, especially in their first decade, self-consciously announcing, as in the title New Literary History, a new way of doing criticism. [End Page 683]

One way to glean a sense of the change they represented emerges from a 1978–79 survey, the results of which appeared in College English in 1980.1 According to its rankings, the majority of the leading journals were traditional scholarly ones, such as British Journal of Aesthetics, ELH, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Journal of the History of Ideas, Medium Aevum, Modern Philology, Philological Quarterly, Review of English Studies, Speculum, and Studies in Philology. They comprised the large majority of "Group A (Distinguished)," which only included a select sixteen; the bulk of journals fell into B-, C-, and D-lists. The A-list also included more general, organizational standards, such as American Literature, American Quarterly, PMLA, and, reaching beyond the academic fold, the New York Review of Books. Even by 1979, the only theory journal that made the cut was New Literary History (Critical Inquiry, diacritics, and Signs were among over fifty on the B-list, although the surveyor did note that it was early in their histories). Within a generation, many of the theory journals had taken over the A-list, displacing the fleet of philological journals especially.2 The theory journal became the dominant model in literary studies, spurring a few additional entries, such as Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature (1982), Representations (1983), and Cultural Critique (1985), and influencing already existing journals, like ELH, which assimilated some of the tenor as well as expectations of the theory journal.

Yet, other than occasional mention in histories and Jonathan Culler's "New Literary History and European Theory," there has been little account of the theory journal, of either its history or role.3 For instance, the two standard reference works inventorying the rise of theory, the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism and the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory, amidst myriad entries on theorists, schools, and terms, have no entries for NLH, Critical Inquiry, diacritics, or any other journal, nor for their editors. This lack of attention is not entirely surprising, since journals are usually seen as a kind of cargo truck, at most tangentially related to their intellectual freight. Spatially, they seem to be containers, like a box or the frame on a painting. Temporally, they are seen as secondary to the thought of theory, gathering...


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