Reviews of Peer-Reviewed Journals in the Humanities and Social Sciences

We give you the scuttlebutt on academic journals—aiding you in selecting the right journal for publication—in reviews that are sometimes snarky, sometimes lengthy, always helpful. Written by Princeton University graduate students and Wendy Laura Belcher.

diacritics: a review of contemporary criticism

For those with articles that freewheel through philosophy and history, particularly the uses that we can make of generally accepted precepts in each of those realms of inquiry.

The journal diacritics is focused on critical theory and contemporary continental philosophy. It was founded in 1971 at Johns Hopkins, and moved in 1977 to Cornell, where it is still housed. Diacritics can most accurately be described as one of the major organs of “high theory,” especially as derived from French philosophy of language (Deleuze, Nancy, Derrida, and Badiou). This is a great journal to publish in if you have something substantive to say about materialism, continental language philosophy, or the intersections between politics, theory, and activism. Close readings are generally conducted not as exegesis, but as exemplary or instructive instances of a particular theoretical approach or methodology.

Diacritics contains articles, reviews, and images. If there is a review, there is only one. In one case, there is a review of Susan Buck Morss’ Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History entitled “Hegel, Liberia,” which generated a response from Buck-Morss. Most of the articles appear in a section entitled “Texts/Contexts,” which makes up the bulk of each issue. For the most part the articles are a bit over 20 pages long, and each issue contains four to five. Most of the articles have single authors, but some of the special issues contain a high number of multiple-author articles. This is especially true of 39.3 and 39.4, both published in 2009, and both focused on “Contemporary Italian Thought,” especially as represented by Giorgio Agamben, Antonio Negri, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. However, many of the second or third authors appear to be translators.

I found that most of the articles operate through what Belcher calls “synaptic style.” The authors are given fairly free rein, and it seems to me that this must be due to the fact that the articles might be solicited. Most of the articles are think pieces at the edge of critical theory, and often end up either coining new terms or taking a major theoretical idea from a continental thinker (Marx, Hegel, Deleuze, Nancy, Derrida, Negri, Agamben, etc.) and using this idea to read large-scale social practices or political structures. (Some of these “big subjects” are history, historiography, the commons, publics, and democratic practice.) Even given this synaptic style, however, most of the arguments are laid out in very straightforward ways. This is especially true of articles published after diacritics’ three-year hiatus. Most of the arguments are stated in thesis paragraphs that appear at or near the beginning of the article. The articles are actually quite clear about the “stakes” or the “motive,” and this allows readers to understand why the author has engaged in their often difficult, complex, and multifaceted approach to a specific question or concern.

I read with interest Jean-Luc Nancy’s “What Is to Be Done?” He suggests that he’s taking up the question as proposed by Derrida in a 1994 debate, in which he notes the changing historical context of the question “what is to be done” according to shifting political and philosophical assumptions. Nancy notes that Derrida argues that the question takes up a different character between Kant and Lenin. Nancy takes these two historical figures to stand for two points across which he can track the changing nature of the question of “action” or “doing,” and then posits that Derrida might be a third, and the present moment can be a fourth. He suggests that there is an increasing distinction between “doing” and “acting,” especially in their relative engagement with the world—whether one does something within the world, or whether one acts to create a new world. Nancy troubles this distinction, of course, suggesting that there is something uncatchable about the idea of “making” something, both in terms of the everyday and the theoretical (“making love” and “creating a world,” as examples of each).

Pheng Cheah’s “Nondialectical Materialism” (38.2, Summer 2008) is a Derridean critique of Marxism that suggests that the “negative” (negation and opposition) part of dialectical thought is in fact metaphysical, especially since it names a philosophical and political stance rather than a true materialist critique of existing power structures. Cheah locates the power of “nondialectical materialism” in the idea of “presence,” in which objects and subjects are nevertheless “desubstantialized”—they continue on as “the survival or living-on of the form of a thing”; from what I can tell, this is a description of how something can be and not be—how even that which is considered spiritual has lived forms or experiences.

Stephanie Clare’s “Geopower: The Politics of Life and Land in Frantz Fanon’s Writing” (41.4, Winter 2013) is a corrective of the humanist/universalist trend in reading Fanon’s writing. Often, his writing is linked into broader philosophical or political categories (the psychoanalytic, the poststructural and the postcolonial, in particular)—Clare argues that “while these scholars analyze Fanon as a theorist of national liberation, they have yet to show his contribution to the philosophy of life, nature, and biology” (61). Clare especially attends to his medical and biological vocabulary (given that he was a trained psychiatrist), arguing that “we might drawn on his work to develop an understanding of freedom that consists in an engagement with matter instead of freedom from material constraint” (61). While this relationship to matter might be thought of as primarily appropriative (taming and cultivating nature, using its resources, etc.), she suggests, “Fanon also raises the question of whether we can, and ought to, imagine relations to the earth beyond appropriation, even when in the collective” (62-3).

Maya Nitis’s article, “Teaching Without Masters” (41.4, Winter 2013), is an interesting contribution to diacritics. It is certainly in keeping with the journal’s general embrace of leftist, materialist politics, but it is much more pragmatically oriented in that it takes up pedagogy as a theory as well as a practice. I should say, she deliberately titles her piece “Teaching Without Masters” rather than “Pedagogy Without Masters,” I think due to her belief in the more open-ended and necessarily contextualized understanding of teaching as an action, rather than pedagogy as a method or body of thought. Her article is a reading of Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” in concert with Judith Butler’s oeuvre. She locates her theory of pedagogy without masters in the generative intersection between transformative activism and theories of the performative.

In keeping with my general interest in the surface reading/deep reading debate, I read through Charles Sumner’s “The Turn Away from Marxism, Or Why We Read The Way We Read Now” (40.3, Fall 2012). Sumner begins the article by referencing the issue of Representations in which Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus outline the emergent surface reading paradigm. Sumner argues that surface reading operates by situating “‘surface’ as a given and self-identical category, a move that proves especially problematic in their reading of media productions that by definition mediate manifest surface content” (27). Sumner advocates a method of reading that pays attention to discourse as a material and ideological structure within a text, as well as that which produces aesthetic pleasure. He thumbs his nose at Best and Marcus (and, especially, Bill Brown and his “thing theory”) by saying that not only will he rely on Marx, but he will also use both Freud and Lacan to show how discourse works through “instinct” and “enjoyment” to “produc[e] ideological effects” (28).

David Kazanjian’s 33 page review of Buck-Morss’ Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (in 40.1, Spring 2012) is as much a review as it is an article/critique inspired by the book. He argues that looking to a wider Black Atlantic archive—specifically, through the letters written by the settlers/colonists who moved from the United States to Liberia—“opens up a possibility that Buck-Morss does not consider: that the most seemingly quotidian and apparently concrete historical moments can offer deeply theoretical and profoundly speculative reflections on freedom” (7).

by Francisco Robles

Word count: 8,000-11,000

Articles per year: 16-18         

Cite Style: Chicago

Disciplines: Philosophy, Literature


For detailed information about individuals’ experiences with submitting articles to diacritics, including comments on length of backlog and turnaround time, editorial promptness, peer reviewer helpfulness, see the excellent Humanities Journal Wiki

Cheah, Pheng. “Nondialectical Materialism.” diacritics 38.1-2 (Spring-Summer 2008): 143-157.

Clare, Stephanie. “Geopower: The Politics of Life and Land in Frantz Fanon’s Writing.” diacritics 41.4 (Winter 2013): 60-80.

Kazanjian, David. “Hegel, Liberia.” diacritics 40.1 (Spring 2012): 6-39.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. “What Is to be Done?” Trans. Irving Goh. diacritics 42.2 (Summer 2014): 100-117.

Nitis, Maya. “Teaching Without Masters.” diacritics 41.4 (Winter 2013): 82-109.

Sumner, Charles. “The Turn Away from Marxism, or Why We Read the Way We Read Now.”  diacritics 40.3 (Fall 2012): 26-55.

Famous Articles (WLB):

159 J Butler Giving an account of oneself 2004
140 D Panagia, J Rancière Dissenting words: A conversation with Jacques Rancière 2000
116 P Cheah Mattering 1996
110 E Laclau Can immanence explain social struggles? 2004
105 M Mamdani Amnesty or impunity? A preliminary critique of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa (TRC) 2005
89 GC Spivak Ethics and politics in Tagore, Coetzee, and certain scenes of teaching 2005
73 A Norris Giorgio Agamben and the politics of the living dead 2000
55 T Campbell Bios, immunity, life: the thought of Roberto Esposito 2008
55 MG Bal The politics of citation 1991
42 M Hagglund The necessity of discrimination: Disjoining Derrida and Levinas 2006
41 EJ Bellamy, S Shetty Postcolonialism’s archive fever 2000
30 P Cheah Nondialectical materialism 2008
27 L Dubreuil, CC Eagle Leaving Politics: Bios, Zōē, Life 2008
26 CR King The (mis) uses of cannibalism in contemporary cultural critique 2000
24 RS Patke Benjamin’s Arcades Project and the Postcolonial City 2000
23 B Bosteels Nonplaces: an anecdoted topography of contemporary French theory 2006
15 R Esposito, T Campbell The immunization paradigm 2008
12 K Pinkus, G Giorgi Zones of exception: Biopolitical territories in the neoliberal era 2008
11 S Haddad A Genealogy of Violence, from Light to the Autoimmune 2008
10 M Vatter In Odradek’s World: Bare Life and Historical Materialism in Agamben and Benjamin 2008



This entry was posted on June 14, 2015 in Humanities Journals, Literary Theory Journals, Philosophy Journals.