Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ode to Lingua Franca

In symbolic preparation for the start of another academic year, I ritualistically cleaned out one of the many file cabinets today, one of the several that I haven't opened in what seems like millennia. There are usually at least two or three pleasant surprises to be uncovered during such a process, and this time around I came across my old stash of Lingua Franca magazines. And I immediately had a dilemma. Do I throw them away or not?

The purported rationale for this annual late-summer exercise is just such purging. I'm a packrat, a trait I probably got from my mom, who tosses just about everything that comes across her kitchen table into a cardboard box (to be filed away and subsequently forgotten). Plus, I'm an ethnographer who considers just every bit of material culture ever manufactured potential "data" that might be deployable in some future attempt at cultural analysis, which means that I always have a "professional" rationalization for my hoarding.

Even still, I try to be strong during my September office purgings. But Lingua Franca has a special place in my heart. Maybe it should be granted some kind of special/prileged status amidst the other junk in need of immediate discarding. I mean, this magazine got me through the first couple years of graduate school at Columbia.

Something like The Chronicle of Higher Education meets The Nation (with a little National Enquirer thrown in for good measure), Lingua Franca was a not-so-guilty pleasure for my grad school cohort in the early 1990s. That's where we learned how academic/intellectual debates translated into institutional fault lines and interpersonal squabbles. It covered academe under the guise of in-depth investigative journalism, which meant that it didn't just dish the gossipy dirt (which was always in full supply); they also tried to breakdown complicated theoretical ideas and explain disputes within fields that had implications beyond them.

For the grad students I knew, this was like getting a cheat sheet on contemporary academic life and its conceptual/analytical conflagrations. Of course, the stories always had a slant, and they usually angered as many people as they excited. But this still seemed like a wonderful way to get at least one pretty well-researched (and popularly pitched) interpretation of academic issues with an impressive degree of institutional contextualization of things.

When I found out that the magazine was closing up shop in 2001, I was no longer a graduate student. And though I'd kept my subscription, I'd stopped doing the cover-to-cover readings that had given my years in grad school such delicious pleasure. Even still, I was crushed that future grad students would be denied the same opportunity to enjoy Lingua Franca. What a pity.

(For one take on the end of Lingua Franca, see "Who Killed Lingua Franca?")

Which brings me to my question: In the age of on-line publishing, could someone resurrect Lingua Franca and actually make it profitable? Or does The Chronicle pick up enough of the slack?


kwiss said...

Sorry, John, but I can't share your nostalgia for Lingua Franca. I felt from the start that LF brought gotcha journalism and a tone of resentment to coverage of the academy. For every article where they actually explained a new theoretical innovation there were many more that were disingenuous or nasty. I still remember in one of the first issues where they did a story on Constance Penley's research on the women writing Kirk/Spock slash fiction -- years ahead of its time. First there is the headline to draw in the reader, then the story, then a moralistic distancing: but is this the kind of thing that should be taught...
Over the years I met with some very smart journalists who wrote for them. Every time they would acknowledge that the journal had been that way in the past, but that was not going to be what they did. But somehow it always was.
I can be nostalgic for there being a public sphere where academic work circulated to a larger interested intellectual readership, but from the period I would take the Voice Literary Supplement any day.

John L. Jackson, Jr. said...

I get your drift, Kwiss. Good point. Also, I have to admit that the nastiness you reference (and that I conveniently airbrushed out of my recollection of things) was probably part of what got me so into the magazine so early in my graduate student career. It made academia seem just as petty as everyplace else. And I might have needed that bitter reminder with the Kool Aid I was otherwise drinking those first couple of years of grad school. Thanks for commenting.

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