A gem to be fished out of the tub


August 11, 2000

Talking to friends and colleagues when I was sent Angelaki to review, I discovered that nobody, not even the most theoretically engaged of us, had heard of the magazine. In some ways that is unsurprising. The pressure for academics to publish, brought on by the research assessment exercise, has led to an alarming proliferation of articles and, consequently, a rise in new journals being established. Nobody can keep up with the reams of text that, like Swift's Tale of a Tub , pour out each year and many a worthy article can, no doubt, get lost in the noise.

But the neglect of Angelaki is a shame. It is a little gem of a magazine, lively, sharp, imaginative and - at times - fun. Established in 1993 by a group of young academics based mainly at the University of Oxford, it publishes articles on philosophical, literary and social theory. It aims to break down the division between academic and non-academic writers and readers with the belief that theoretical questions should carry a political force and not be confined to university institutions and the publishing game. And it is dedicated to an interdisciplinary agenda. Indeed, with youthful idealistic zeal, the opening issue begins with a manifesto of the journal's aims: " Angelaki fosters an experimental and amateur ambition. We aspire to offer something more than an abstract space for the publication of your work: a network where intellectual and practical ideas can be tried out, and we venture to hope that this work, and the concerns of our contributors, will permeate a wider cultural and political setting. As such, Angelaki heads towards hope and resolve, and addresses itself to a constructive project of intellectual responsibility."

Heady stuff. The opening issues, mostly written and guest-edited by the coterie of contributing editors, seem infused with the same spirit. There is a sense of risk and mischief that sometimes works and sometimes does not, but that entertains. Two of the articles that particularly caught my eye were Nick Groom's piece, "Never mind the ballads, here's Thomas Percy", which compares the furore surrounding the release of the Sex Pistols' first album with the controversy over the publication of Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry , and Mozaffar Qizilbash's essay, "Yuli's birthday party: a philosophical short story", which considers the question of how we can free ourselves from intellectual attachments through the telling of a story of a doomed love affair.

Each issue is devoted to a particular theme and is edited by an expert in that area. Some are focused on well-established literary and theoretical issues of our time. As, for example, "Intellectuals and Global Culture", which addresses questions thrown up by postcolonial theory and the victory of global capitalism over the failed Marxist vision, but which, interestingly, finds that globalisation has brought with it a "desire for specificity". There is also a potentially important issue on "Narratives of Forgery", a response to our growing anxiety about authenticity in the postmodern climate. Unfortunately, it concentrates upon the 18th-century poet forger, Thomas Chatterton, and it would have been nice to have broadened the focus to other classic tales of fakery, in art, history and archaeology.

Other issues adventurously address topics and disciplines not normally covered by mainstream theoretical discussions. The special issue "The Love of Music", put together by Timothy Murphy, Roy Sellars and Robert Smith, is unusual and commendable for the way it brings together musicians, philosophers, theologians and literary critics. I particularly enjoyed Nicholas Royle's Derridean reading of the Talking Heads song "Heaven".

Angelaki has also remained true to its initial pledge to publish non-academic writing as well as the narrowly professional. Again Qizilbash is the most imaginative in this regard. His special issue, titled "Impurity, Authenticity and Humanity", includes a most provocatively and interestingly juxtaposed collection of writers and artists. Two essays, by Max de Gaynesford and Michael Pinsky, examine what it is to be human by bringing short stories by Heinrich von Kleist and Franz Kafka, about puppetry and a man who was once an ape, together with the theoretical writings of Heidegger and Donna Haraway. These essays are sandwiched by stills from the work of the video artist Edwina Ashton, which depict humans as sheep and bears, and by a poem by A. J. Mackay, "Monkey Man", which examines the ambiguities of our relationship with animals.

Angelaki has been getting more serious recently. The early issues were small, colourful, literary-magazine shaped. The issues since 1998 have been larger and plainer and more like an academic journal. There has always been a commitment to including visual material, though it would be nice to see a larger commitment. Similarly, the presentation of articles in parallel columns seemed funky at first but can actually make reading hard work.

This is a great magazine. With some rethink of the visual presentation and a recommitment to the fun and lowbrow-highbrow mix of the early days, it would be nice to think that it could reach the high street where, with its admirable cultural aims and political urgency, it should belong.

Jennifer Wallace is director of English, Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities (Three times a year)

Editor - Gerard Greenway
ISBN - 0969 725X
Publisher - Carfax
Price - £24.00 (indivs); £98.00 (instits)

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