GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine

Theory: Still on the Table
By Megan Lisagor
Photography by Dan Dry

As Critical Inquiry, Chicago’s influential humanities journal, turns 30, it rejects the buzz that theory is passé and continues to seek fresh ways of viewing the world.

In its annual “Year in Ideas” issue this past December, the New York Times Magazine claimed the curtain had closed on literary and cultural theory; along with carbs and Bennifer, theory was out. For Critical Inquiry, a humanities journal born at Chicago in 1974, the assertion had as much merit as 2001’s pronouncement, popularized and later renounced by the punditocracy, that irony was dead.

In the pages of Critical Inquiry and elsewhere the pursuit of new ideas persists, argue professors working to ferret out the latest theories. “I’m absolutely certain that the human race isn’t done theorizing,” journal editor W. J. T. Mitchell says, bemoaning the tendency of soundbites—in this case, the headline “Theory is Finished”—to oversimplify complex matters. “I don’t believe in final answers.”

Ironically enough, Critical Inquiry posed the questions that thrust theory—those overarching paradigms that intellectuals use to read texts and to understand the world—into the limelight in 2003, opening it up to scrutiny. In the spring Mitchell asked his editorial board, an all-star lineup of academic heavyweights including Homi Bhabha, Stanley Fish, and Fredric Jameson, to fashion statements addressing such issues as technology’s impact on the transmission of knowledge and the relationship between criticism and politics. Inviting them to continue the dialogue in person, the journal convened an April symposium to chart a course for itself—and its lifeblood—in the 21st century. It was an ambitious agenda exemplified by Mitchell’s opening remarks: “We want to be the Starship Enterprise of criticism and theory.”

About 550 people, mostly faculty and students, crowded Swift Hall’s auditorium to hear what the scholars had to say. But that afternoon a desire to establish theory’s relevance seemed lost on the group; discussion returned time and again to the recently launched military strike in Iraq and other hot topics. Though at one point Bhabha, professor of English and Afro-American studies at Harvard University, stepped up for the humanities, pronouncing, “Even a poem in its own oblique way is deeply telling of the lives of the world we exist in,” for the most part politics eclipsed abstract matters. “I missed the day theory was politically transformative,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of Harvard’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute and chair of the Afro-American studies department. “I’m too young.”

Mitchell wasn’t surprised that the conversation turned toward the Bush administration’s policies. “Everyone was charged up about that,” he says. “There’s an intellectual war going on. What can theory do? Not a whole lot at this moment. We’ve got to fight ’em with better ideas.” Where he and the mainstream media differed in their readings of the symposium was on the ability of those ideas to effect social and political change. The New York Times titled its account “The Latest Theory is That Theory Doesn’t Matter”; the Boston Globe highlighted intellectuals’ “anxiety of non-influence.” And in January the Times teased, “Cultural Theorists, Start Your Epitaphs” in its coverage of Marxist critic Terry Eagleton’s After Theory (Basic Books, 2003). “Oh, OK, so we can go home,” jokes Jay Williams, Critical Inquiry’s senior managing editor. “I don’t think so.” Subscribing to the theory that theory is perennial, the journal stands by its raison d’être.

“It’s easy to publish famous people,” says Mitchell, the Gaylord Donnelley distinguished service professor of English and art history. “The difficult thing is identifying the young people who will be famous 20 years from now. So that’s our job, above all else—to be the distant early warning system.” Indeed, rather than discouraging scholars from sending their work to Critical Inquiry, the symposium generated a flood of new submissions. The quarterly journal fields about 350 unsolicited manuscripts a year in addition to the handful it commissions, and Mitchell and his team sift through them all. For each issue the best of the bunch—seven or eight—get slipped into a rack of manila folders, circulated, and discussed at monthly editorial meetings.

A motley crew of seven coeditors, whose expertise runs from American studies to feminist criticism to French theory, hash it out in Mitchell’s second-floor Wieboldt Hall office, seated in a hodgepodge of chairs around a school-cafeteria table. Books, papers, folders, and videotapes blanket every surface: his desk, end tables, 15 bookcases. This is a place where ideas converge and reaching consensus is no small feat. Nothing gets by without an argument, Mitchell says, relishing the inevitability. Submissions are, in fact, judged on their ability to raise the temperature in the room, sparking debate—a measure known within the journal’s ranks as the “passion principle.” The other main standard is breaking new ground; contributions to existing schools of thought won’t pass muster. “Criticism like anything else has its fashions, its styles,” he says. “We made a resolution to never do that, to be open.”

Such openness wasn’t in the original blueprint for Critical Inquiry, launched by English professor Sheldon Sacks, PhD’60, as a voice for the Chicago School of criticism, a literary approach characterized by neo-Aristotelian, formalist theories. But the journal abandoned that focus before its first issue hit the academic circuit because, as Mitchell, who took the helm in 1978, put it in “Critical Inquiry and the Ideology of Pluralism,” “there were simply too many other interesting things coming immure [the journal] in the gray walls of Chicago’s critical tradition.”

Mitchell’s essay appeared the year after Critical Inquiry reached a major milestone with “Writing and Sexual Difference,” one of the first scholarly looks at feminist criticism. Elizabeth Abel, then a coeditor and an assistant English professor, spearheaded the 1981 special issue. “The time was simply right for it,” says Abel, now an editorial board member and professor of English at University of California, Berkeley. “The contributors were themselves brilliant young women in the early stages of their careers, and it was the moment at which the intellectual possibilities of feminist criticism were suddenly becoming apparent.”

At Critical Inquiry “Writing and Sexual Difference” set a precedent for showcasing cutting-edge ideas, Mitchell says. Yet it was “‘Race,’ Writing, and Difference”—a 1985 issue edited by Gates which introduced “race” as a meaningful category for studying literature and shaping theory—that became a criticism classic and the journal’s biggest seller to date. Of course, not all editorial gambles win high praise, a lesson learned when Critical Inquiry ran Jacques Derrida’s 1988 partial defense of Paul de Man. After his 1984 death, de Man, like Derrida a founder of deconstruction and a contributor to the journal, was revealed to have written for 1940s pro-Nazi publications. Derrida’s article on de Man spawned passionate responses, which appeared in a later issue, and, Williams recalls, some “people who had been interested in Critical Inquiry were no longer interested.”

Despite the backlash, the journal survived, growing in size—it now boasts a staff of five (besides the coeditors and editorial board), including a College intern—and scope. With support from the provost’s office in 1989, Critical Inquiry established a lecture series, hosting four or five talks a year. The journal has since found a champion in President Don Michael Randel; the longtime fan has channeled more money its way, funding the symposium and a four- to six-week visiting professorship. The Critical Inquiry visiting professor—most recently Julia Kristeva, a psychoanalyst who teaches at the University of Paris VII—delivers two public lectures and leads a seminar. As Mitchell sees it, “We’ve become more conscious of a public role.”

That role comes at a price—even with the extra support. Critical Inquiry, though financially viable and in the black, he says, still has to pinch pennies. Perhaps more worrisome than budget crises (which, after all, are endemic to academic journals), circulation, which peaked at around 4,500 in the late 1990s, has dropped to about 3,000 today. Williams attributes the current decline partly to budget cuts at university libraries, which represent about half of Critical Inquiry’s subscribers. Individuals make up the rest, and of those fewer graduate students are willing to pay for hard copies when their schools provide online access.

On the flip side, thanks to the journal’s Internet presence, he believes that overall readership is up. Subscribers are privy to its complete works on a password-protected site. (For $165, institutions receive both the print and electronic versions. The same deal costs individuals $42 and students $28. Institutions can get the electronic-only edition for $149.) For nonsubscribers, the editorial office’s 10-year-old Web site ( displays excerpts of each issue’s essays about two months before their print publication and other features including “Rough Cut,” a collection of preliminary, unedited articles.

Yet circulation may be more than a technology or money matter, at least for Critical Inquiry’s general-interest readers. The public—academics included, as evidenced by the symposium’s tone—is consumed with geopolitics, and the media have seen interest in theory-centered articles wane since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “The temperature of the times,” suggests Robert Vare, AB’67, AM’70, a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, “has caused a recession in the big cultural idea pieces. They may be out there, but, because the appetite isn’t there, they’re struggling to be born.” Still, life being cyclical, Vare believes theory will make a comeback. “Things are pronounced dead so facilely.”

That comeback might be subtler than the broad approaches of past decades, if April’s symposium is any indication. The event “marked an acknowledgment of transition into a new stage of theory, which is somewhat more complicated and sober than it was in the heady days of the 1970s and 1980s,” Mitchell concedes. “It seems that new theories are coming from all kinds of places around the globe,” unlike 15 to 20 years ago when French theorists Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan dominated. A July 2001 New York Times article billed Michael Hardt and Antonio Negris’ Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000), a treatise on globalization, as a potential watershed. “It came at a point when people were searching for the next big theory, the next big ’ism,’” Williams says. But Empire ultimately failed to spark a movement, signaling that “what’s really dead is the need to attach labels to systems of thought.”

While Critical Inquiry seems content to keep seeking out fresh theories—earth-shattering or not—what about their meaning to the masses? “It’s a kind of trickle-down value,” Mitchell suggests. He offers the trendiness of homosexuality—think Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Will & Grace—by way of illustration. “Homosexuality is in,” he says. “The whole theory of sexuality and queer theory [was] tried out in our pages,” as early as 1984, “and now it’s nighttime TV. Theory does make something happen. I think it underlies the important world events”—including current affairs in Iraq. Coeditor and English professor Lauren Berlant agrees: “As we see in any historical crisis, thought matters, but you can’t chart in advance how it will matter.”

In the meantime, scholars continue to write for upcoming issues. “The mailbag is always full,” Mitchell notes, and the journal recently received an essay from Derrida. Though there may be no real measure of Critical Inquiry’s influence, this much is certain: the symposium drew enough intellectual diehards to fill an auditorium (and to merit a live video feed in Swift Commons). The journal will reprise the conversation at Beijing’s Tsinhua University as part of a June conference, The Ends of Theory. “I do think we’ve become more savvy about publicity,” he says, showing off some new promotional gear, a royal blue T-shirt with the message “Critical Inquiry, Theory Driven” emblazoned across a Harley-Davidson-styled logo. Theory, it suggests, is one great ride.

Critical Inquiry Hit List

Publishing essays that spark debate and break new ground, Critical Inquiry has secured a reputation as a must-read for literary and cultural critics. What’s more, its traditional fare yields passionate responses—not always favorable. “We will accept something that pisses off the expert,” journal editor W. J. T. Mitchell explains. Here are five issues (or resulting books) that Mitchell and senior managing editor Jay Williams offer as ideas with staying power.

Writing and Sexual Difference
Later published as a book (University of Chicago Press, 1982), the Winter 1981 issue was edited by Elizabeth Abel. As Abel wrote in her introduction, “This volume indicates the scope of feminist inquiry in essays that examine how writing relates to gender, how attitudes toward sexual difference generate and structure literary texts, and how critical methods can effectively disclose the traces of gender in literature.”

Against Theory
Named after a Summer 1982 essay, the Summer 1983 issue, edited by Mitchell, presented several responses to Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, who, attacking literary theory, had argued that meaning and intention are the same. Most critics— including Richard Rorty, AB’49, AM’52, in “Philosophy without Principles”—disagreed with Knapp and Michaels.

Race,’ Writing, and Difference
Henry Louis Gates Jr. edited the Autumn 1985 issue (published as a book by the U of C Press in 1986), attempting to answer the question posed in his intro: “What importance does ‘race’ have as a meaningful category in the study of literature and the shaping of critical theory?”

The Sociology of Literature
The Spring 1988 issue contained a special feature: “Jacques Derrida on Paul de Man’s War,” translated by Peggy Kamuf. “I imagine that for some it will seem I have tried, when all is said and done and despite all the protests or precautions,” wrote Derrida of his partial defense of de Man, who had been revealed to have written for 1940s pro-Nazi publications, “to protect, save, justify what does not deserve to be saved.”

Critical Inquiry
The journal’s most recent, self-named issue presents “The Future of Criticism—A Critical Inquiry Symposium,” with essays including Wayne Booth’s “To: All Who Care About the Future of Criticism,” Stanley Fish’s “Theory’s Hope,” and Fredric Jameson’s “Symptoms of Theory or Symptoms for Theory?”


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