In 1996, an NYU physics professor stunned academia when his paper “A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies” was published in Lingua Franca. In the paper, the professor, Alan Sokal, revealed that an early piece he authored for the cultural studies journal Social Text (in which he proposed — using a nearly incomprehensible jumble of theoretical colloquialisms — that the laws of physics were a social and linguistic construct) had been intended as a parody and that its publication by the journal demonstrated the anti-intellectual trend of “epistemic relativism” in postmodern critical theory. The resulting uproar became known as the Sokal Hoax, and the stunt remains a cautionary tale for academics and the best known work to come out of Lingua Franca.
Lingua Franca was started in 1990 by former Yale French literature professor Jeffrey Kittay. For 11 years, it churned out nine issues a year to a readership of about 15,000 to 20,000 subscribers. As its name suggests, content spanned disciplines and was intellectually rigorous without the alienating jargon of many scholarly journals. For better or worse, it eschewed dry coverage in favor of gossip. Articles tended to cover controversies that illustrated broader issues within academe. For example, one piece in the March 2000 issue was on University of Washington’s John Gottman and the Love Lab developed by him and his wife for analyzing spousal arguments. Gottman had successfully used their findings to become a pop psychology success on the topic of marital issues. The article brought into question whether or not research can be accurate and objectively interpreted once the researcher makes a profitable business out of the results. And after the Sokal Hoax, the editors encouraged dialogue between the critical theorists and scientists by later publishing opinions from other science and philosophy academics on the hoax and follow-up commentary from Sokal and the editors of Social Text.
Looking back, it seems Lingua Franca may have had a bigger influence on journalism than on academia. The publication’s roster of former editors is impressive. Judith Shulevitz (currently science editor and chief science writer for The New Republic) and Margaret Talbot (a New Yorker staff writer with New York Times Magazine and Atlantic cred) were the original editors. And Talbot wasn’t the only editor to end up on the New Yorker staff: Daniel Zalewski, Larissa MacFarquhar and Emily Nussbaum all spent time at Lingua Franca, as did A.O. Scott, Emily Eakin, Laura Secor, Rick Perlstein and Caleb Crain. In 1993, it won a National Magazine Award for general excellence.
In October of 2001, Lingua Franca abruptly ceased publication. Subscriptions and ad sales had been constant, but the periodical’s primary benefactor withdrew financial support. Although the official response as to why the financial support ceased seemed to be “no comment,” the action happened at the same time a man by the name of Denis Dutton, founder of the aggregation website Arts & Letters Daily that had been acquired by Lingua Franca’s parent company, Academic Partners, the previous year was being sued by a former employee. (Academic Partners was also indicted in the suit.) Having now acquired a cult following, the publication’s quick death was mourned by the Chicago Tribune and New York Times. The following year, Lingua Franca got a posthumous best-of collection titled Quick Studies, compiled by final editor Alexander Star. Today, readers can find the magazine’s archive on a mirror site created by Internet activist Aaron Swartz. (In the 2006 Observer article on Lingua Franca’s online resurrection, Ron Rosenbaum wrote of Swartz, “I think this kid has a bright future.”)
If you’ve never read a Lingua Franca piece, start with the Sokal Hoax and then move to Margaret Talbot’s “A Most Dangerous Method” on Jane Gallop, the sexual harassment charges brought against her and the erotics of pedagogy — a classic example of Lingua Franca’s style. For the literary conspiracy theorist, there’s “Marxist Literary Critics are Following Me!” on Philip K. Dick’s letters to the FBI. The quest for a feminist Atlantis describes the search for ancient matriarchal societies, and after that whets your appetite for archeological drama, there’s an examination of the complicated ethics of studying looted Mayan artifacts and Lev Grossman on translating the world’s most difficult book (with an epigraph from Indiana Jones). And “The Devil’s Data” relays the scientific misconduct horror story of intellectual property, an incompetent graduate student and appalling academic bureaucracy.
Today, Lingua Franca’s legacy can be found in the ideas and culture coverage it inspired The New York Times to expand to, and in the continued writings of its former staff. Its related website, Arts & Letters Daily, is now published by The Chronicle of Higher Education, which has taken over in academic news reporting. And despite the “death of print” having been declared several times over since the demise of Lingua Franca, one can still hold out hope for another issue. After all, The Baffler — another hoax-exposing, small-circulation magazine that earned a following during the ‘90s culture wars — was resuscitated in 2010. Might Lingua Franca be next?