Faithful readers of CI may have noticed that our masthead is crowded with many names and titles: a thirty-member editorial board, a managing editor and manuscript editor, nine coeditors, three consulting editors, a European editor, an executive editor, and, simplest of all, an editor. This last position is one that I have held since 1978, the year after I arrived at the University of Chicago. I took the place of Sheldon Sacks, who founded the journal in 1974 and passed away in 1978. For better and worse I have steered the journal for the last forty-two years, breaking Ralph Cohen’s record as the editor of our rival, New Literary History.
It is with deeply mixed feelings that I announce that I have decided to step down as editor of Critical Inquiry on 30 June 2020. I always thought that I would leave this office feet first, but it turns out that I will walk out on my own two legs. It has been a long run, and I will miss it very much. There is good news, however. My two very capable colleagues, Frances Ferguson and Bill Brown, will fill the position of editor, instantly doubling the energy invested in the position, while multiplying its fund of intelligence, taste, and good looks by even higher factors. Meanwhile, I will move up to the stratospheric position of senior editor, where I will continue to kibitz, nudge, kvetch, advise, and recruit new and old talent to our pages. Critical Inquiry will continue to be the most widely cited journal in the humanities, publishing articles that break old frames and create new ones, sparking debates over the crucial issues of the day, and making it clear why our species needs critical reflection on its place in the world more than ever.
At a later time I will attempt to write a more capacious and detailed history of my experience as editor of this journal. For now, it is enough to say that it has been an incredible journey, highlighted by numerous friendships and amazing feats of intellectual collaboration. We have “covered” everything from the rise of feminism to the resurrection of formalism, from deconstruction to the digital humanities, from race to religion, from political theory to the public sphere—just to recite the first alliterative pairings that come to mind. If I start naming names at this point, I will never stop, so I will limit myself to two that were there at the beginning. One of our first notable authors, Kenneth Burke, wrote to Shelley Sacks almost fifty years ago that CI should drop its short-lived editorial slogan, “A voice for reasoned inquiry into significant creations of the human spirit.” Much better, Burke advised, to announce our vocation as serving the true purpose of criticism: “to create a perpetual state of crisis and critical discrimination”—between the true and the false, the innovative and the obsolete, the useful and the useless. In an age of fake news, alternative facts, and superfluous gadgets, Critical Inquiry has never felt more necessary.
There is something deeply fitting, then, that I write these words during what will forever be remembered as a world crisis, the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic. Alongside the crises of climate change, failing democracies, and capitalism, the era of algorithms and computer viruses has now been literalized in living bodies all over this planet. Bats, birds, pigs, mosquitos, and humans are all coming together in a new global ecology that echoes the emergence of the rat-borne plagues of the early modern era. Some will read these as the sign of “end times.” For Critical Inquiry, it will be just another beginning.
Editor W. J. T. Mitchell
31 March 2020