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

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.

IMAGE:  Theory:  Still on the TableIMAGE:  Theory:  Still on the TableIMAGE:  Theory:  Still on the TableIMAGE:  Theory:  Still on the TableIMAGE:  Theory:  Still on the Table

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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