ZINE MUNCH #7: Academia’s Gossip Rag (w/ Alexander Star)
On Lingua Franca and the contrarian potential of the little magazine
Alexander Star was the longest running and last editor of Lingua Franca, a 90s little magazine dubbed the ‘People magazine of Academia’ for its focus on the ‘personal feuds and intellectual controversy’ within the University; its pages are filled with shockingly entertaining essays (some favorites: A Most Dangerous Method, Mystery Science Theater, Oh My Darwin, and Shell Game) that lose none of the rigor of their subjects. Every time the magazine comes up in conversations with my professors they light up—it seems like the canonical subculture publication for working academics in the 90s. Star edited the magazine from December 1994 to its close in 2001 and edited Quick Studies: The Best of Lingua Franca, a compilation of pieces from the magazine that remains one of the best essay collections I’ve ever read. Josh (see: ZM #1!) introduced me to Alex a few months back; I email him to see if we can meet while I’m in the city and we meet at the Farrar, Straus, and Giroux offices in the Financial District on a Tuesday afternoon.
This interview has been edited for accuracy, clarity, and concision.
Lucas Gelfond: What do you think were the magazine’s intellectual predecessors?
Alexander Star: Clearly there's all kinds of ways intellectual histories can be written in book form or magazine form. To take a random example, the writer Ved Mehta did a series of articles in the New Yorker some decades ago about Oxford philosophy and turned them into a book called Fly and the Fly-Bottle which is a lovely mix of impressionistic, atmospheric writing, personality profiles, and some reconstruction of the arguments.
Some of the more proximate influences on Lingua Franca before I arrived were rather different. The publisher (Jeffrey Kittay) had been in and around the academic world and enjoyed the quality, rhythm, and vitality of backtalk and behind the scenes conversations. Essentially, he felt the proverbial watercooler conversation at an academic conference wasn't reflected in published sources.
How do you get some of that energy into a magazine? [Kittay] was inspired by a magazine called The American Lawyer that the journalist Steven Brill had started not long before. It was about taking a seemingly stuffy (or at least once stuffy) profession (the law), and peeling back the curtain a bit to be irreverent but not debunking. There was also a little bit of the Spy-magazine kind of humor that had been a huge influence in the magazine world in the eighties, combined with intellectual ambitions to clarify that which might not be clear regardless of whether you were inside or outside of the academy.
LG: What do you think was the lasting influence of Lingua Franca? I’ve heard people talk about its lasting influence on nineties magazine culture but generally what do you think were the ideas that came out of it?
AS: The ecology of the magazine world has changed dramatically—we made it into the early days of the internet and had a website that had articles up on it, but the culture of ‘what is a publication’ and how things are read is so different. So there aren’t so many lineal descendents, although I think the Chronicle of Higher Education has a very, very good Review section where they have longer pieces—some of the more narrative pieces remind me of Lingua Franca and I often admire them a great deal.
There’s also n+1, the Point, and the Drift doing variations that are less reported journalism and more essays in various tones looking at issues that are (at least with some of those publications) committed to very particular political projects. I like to say that Elif Batuman’s piece on an Isaac Babel conference at Stanford that appeared in an early issue of n+1 and later in her book, The Possessed was the best Lingua Franca piece even though it was not actually published in Lingua Franca, because it has so much of what we were trying to accomplish. It’s an amazing narrative that goes deep inside an academic conference and a set of academic personalities. It’s also very funny but incredibly informative, not just about the culture of academe and the feuds and rivalries within it, but also about the subject of the conference, Isaac Babel, and his life and his writing. You get a view of the study of X and also of X. I don’t think Lingua Franca had to exist for her to write that piece but I enjoyed basking in the perceived affinities.
Today we talk about the ‘culture wars’ and all the polarizations that go with them. That means a certain thing today, but in the mid to late nineties there was a different version of that with somewhat different actors and agendas. Lingua Franca was right at the intersection of debates over multiculturalism and political correctness (which is essentially what we mean by ‘wokeness’ today, I suppose), but also the literary canon, about ‘theory’ as an agenda and what that meant, and postmodernism.
The magazine was at a very particular angle to that. To the people who were really into postmodern theory we could seem insufferably sympathetic to a sort of liberal humanism, to the people who are really into liberal humanism we seemed to take the postmodern theorists too seriously. We wanted to question academic orthodoxies both on the left and on the administrative center in different kinds of ways, so we were in and amidst all of those debates. I like to think at best there was a healthy skepticism and attempt to open up some fresh dimensions and thoughts to people who weren’t having them. That kind of sensibility remains appealing, important, and significant today when these questions of who feels ‘canceled’ or ‘not canceled’ by what are inescapable.
LG: One of my favorite parts about reading the magazine generally is these pieces that feel almost contrarian in avoiding a monolithic left or right view—I'm thinking about stuff around the Sokal hoax. It feels like you get to a more rigorous, nuanced piece that isn’t necessarily in the middle but subverts the dominant positions on both of them. When you talk about some of the more modern ‘public intellectualism’-type magazines having a political project, how did you think through that with the magazine?
AS: A little differently from year to year and always a little nervously. My colleagues and I each had our moral and political centers of gravity and you tried to operate from themt while being inclusive about ideas or arguments we found interesting for any reason. I’m proud of pieces that were unexpected, such as profiles of religious thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas or Alasdair MacIntyre by Mark Oppenheimer and Paul Elie respectively that were really terrific. We had James Surowiecki’s profile of Eugene Genovese, who had been a communist historian who would later become a supporter of Southern conservatism in an idiosyncratic way, there’d be pieces like this that would shake things up and that felt worthwhile.
I wanted the politics to be more implicit than, say, in some of the n+1 magazine kind of magazines. It was just a different enterprise because reported journalism was also a craft and different kinds of journalists with different beliefs could write a good story and if it didn’t cross any horrifying red lines we’d want to publish it. Sokal is an interesting case because he was was embraced by all kinds of people across the political spectrum who were sick of what they thought was a certain kind of postmodern obscurantism, but he was quite assertive about being from the left having taught math for the Sandinistas and so forth.
LG: How did you feel about the Aaron Swartz rehost? That was actually originally how I found the magazine.
AS: I think it was Rick [Perlstein, an editor at Lingua Franca] who told me he knew Aaron and showed me. He had just done this out of love and it was this magnificent thing, we were really happy about it even though it’s too bad there’s not a more official site. I still can’t quite believe what happened to him—if you think about it, his actions at MIT that led to his court case were performed in a similar spirit: making valuable scholarly or semi-scholarly information available to people.
LG: How do you think the magazine changed in the years from when you started to the end?
AS: When I got there I was an earnest young man so I was sometimes embarrassed by the perception of the magazine as a little frivolous or silly—in hindsight it was not that much. I wanted to make Lingua Franca a little more serious without losing this general sense of fun, and over time I hope we didn’t bounce too far in the wrong direction. As time went by we wanted to expand the horizon beyond the cool theorist and the humanities culture wars debates to other realms. Some of that was in economics, religion, or more in the sciences.
It was always a bit of a tug of war, but I think both Jeffrey and I also wanted to cover the administrative issues around the university. I was sometimes a little more resistant to that because I just wanted to read about professors and what they were writing about, but in retrospect this was really important because, as the nineties went on, issues about the corporatization of the university and adjunctification of faculty and so on just became more and more burning. I’m not sure we fully registered their importance but we certainly made more and more efforts to do so. That was an important part of what we were doing, along with thinking about politics beyond the academy when it was appropriate.
One of our late pieces was about the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and what that was about and what academics brought to it, so the debate about globalization was going to be really important to us.
LG: What else did you take away from running the magazine?
AS: I loved the camaraderie of doing that kind of work with a small group of people. We published nine times a year - an academic idea of monthly. And I’ll never forget the two or three nights we’d spend closing each issue, which had the feel of a college newspaper—staying up until midnight or two in the morning in the design studio and ordering in takeout Thai food and figuring out those final touches to make the magazine look good and have each issue tell a story from one page to another.
Lingua Franca is one of my favorite magazines ever, and a central inspiration for this newsletter—I continue to aggressively recommend Quick Studies to my friends (and, now, you!) Anyways — until the next!
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What a lovely surprise to see Alex show up here in Zine Munch. I love this interview, and wish I'd thought to ask him some of these questions myself, back when he and I worked together at the Boston Globe (post-Lingua Franca). Hi, Alex!