The Editor Who Moves Theory Into the Mainstream

In her 2018 book “Double Negative: The Black Image and Popular Culture,” Racquel Gates explores the disruptive potential of stereotypical or so-called negative images of Black people onscreen: Flavor Flav on VH1’s “Flavor of Love,” for example, and the stars of “ratchet” reality shows such as “Basketball Wives.” These images, Gates argues, intervene against narratives of racial uplift that are overly tethered to white and middle-class definitions of respectability. In her acknowledgments section, Gates, a professor of film and media studies at Columbia, invokes a scene from “Love & Hip Hop,” in which an aspiring singer tells an entertainment manager, “I want to be on your roster.” Gates writes, “While I was tempted to quote this bit of dialogue to my editor, Ken Wissoker, during our first meeting, I erred on the side of caution.”

Ken Wissoker has helped to enshrine cultural studies in the American academy.Photograph by Cathy N. Davidson 

Wissoker, who has been an editor at Duke University Press since 1991, has a formidable roster, and one could easily imagine a reality show about junior scholars fighting for a chance to work with him. Under his mantle, Duke has become known as a press that blends scholarly rigor with conceptual risk-taking, where high and low art boldly intermingle on principle. (In “The Queer Art of Failure,” a Duke title from 2011, the queer theorist Jack Halberstam posited that the film “Dude, Where’s My Car?” “thematizes the limits to masculinist forms of knowing.”) As an editor, Wissoker veers away from books built around “subjects”—his voice disapprovingly goes down an octave when he says the word. Instead, he told me, he looks for theory: new systems of understanding that help us rethink everything from identity to the ocean floor.

Wissoker heads one of the few academic presses with crossover appeal: if you notice that a concept from the ivory tower is creeping onto your timeline, there is a decent chance that the idea first appeared in a Duke book under his guidance. (For example, a Teen Vogue piece from last year contended that racial disparities in COVID-19 outcomes were a consequence of “necropolitics”; the concept was coined by the philosopher Achille Mbembe, who, in his 2019 Duke book of the same title,writes about “the necropolitical principle insofar as it stands for organized destruction, for a sacrificial economy, the functioning of which requires, on the one hand, a generalized cheapening of the price of life and, on the other, a habituation to loss.”) The world of arts and letters often relies on Wissoker’s authors for creative stimuli. The art historian Homay King’s “Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier” (2010) inspired the 2015 Met exhibition “China: Through the Looking Glass.” Halberstam’s scholarship on gender, public space, and “the bathroom problem”—first articulated in “Female Masculinity” (1998)—became the subject of a film exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. In Christine Smallwood’s novel “The Life of the Mind” (2021), the main character, an adjunct named Dorothy with thwarted tenure-track dreams, finds Lauren Berlant’s “Cruel Optimism” (2011) to be depressingly relatable: “ ‘Cruel optimism’ was Berlant’s way of theorizing why and how people remained attached to fantasies and aspirations of ‘the good life’ . . . ‘Cruel optimism’ was Dorothy’s entire life.”

The breadth of Duke’s footprint in popular culture is a startling feat of influence for a small university press that is boutique even by its own industry’s standards. Duke publishes just a hundred and fifty books a year (by comparison, Oxford University Press publishes more than six thousand), and Wissoker considers anything that sells two thousand or more copies annually a best-seller. (A Times best-seller typically has to clock thousands more in a single week.) The niche press has inspired similarly niche tweets. David Hollingshead, an assistant professor at MacEwan University, in Canada, likes to tweet out fake Duke titles as a hobby: “look, I’ve been to the Duke UP offices and it’s just one guy writing all those books, he’s hooked up to a giant machine and he screams in anguish but they force him to keep popping out manuscripts called like Biointensities of the New Imperium,” one reads.

By e-mail, Hollingshead told me that his tweets are meant to be playful and that, among his academic followers, they tend to elicit “a genuine (if somewhat abashed) insider fondness for these tics.” He added, “It’s hard to overstate the press’s salutary effects on academic scholarship today.” Duke has been a leader in taking once marginalized disciplines built around the experiences of marginalization (queer studies, ethnic studies, disability studies, trans studies) and institutionalizing them. Wissoker’s authors now chair departments and sit on tenure committees. Some of them started out not knowing whether the academy would open its doors for them, and today they hold the keys. When I asked Wissoker, “Do you prefer ‘pope’ or ‘kingmaker?,’ ” he threatened to run out of the room.

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I first met Wissoker on a chilly day last November at his East Village apartment. I wore a red sweater from the Gap that was too big for me, but in a way that I believed looked intentional and vaguely expensive. I had read that Wissoker was a bit of a clotheshorse—an aesthete who noticed whether writers were dressed as stylishly as they thought. “I think style among academics is field-specific and can be misleading,” he later told me. When he first went to the College Art Association annual conference to meet with art historians, he thought that it looked promising: “I saw people dressed in a really cool way, and I remember thinking, Oooh, this is going to be really interesting.” Looks were deceiving, he found. “It was just, like, no—they do their work in Florence and go shopping when they’re in Italy.” He has never been to the big conferences for sociology or political science, he said, “but what I’ve heard of the dressing there would match my sense of people in those departments.” He chuckled disapprovingly.

He himself was wearing what I would learn was his uniform: slim-fitted black pants and a colorful, collared shirt. With his black-rimmed glasses, he reminded me of the Weezer front man Rivers Cuomo. His record collection and sound system had a considerable footprint in his small apartment. Wissoker’s hyper-attunement to style extends to his environs: his apartment evokes an interior-design store curated by a comp-lit major who harbors nostalgia for their semester abroad in Tokyo. “I don’t know if you have been in Japan at all,” he said, as he pointed out prints by Osamu Kanemura and Daidō Moriyama. A slanted, three-tiered lampshade reminded me of Tatlin’s Tower. I managed not to bump into a piece of spiky driftwood, the size of a small child, that Wissoker’s wife, Cathy Davidson, a CUNY professor of English and author of “36 Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan,” had “made sculptural.” As he and I sat down at his kitchen table to talk, I could see a Cindy Sherman print on the wall behind him.

Wissoker told me that he and Davidson had curated the apartment in the same way that he curates his relatively compressed slate of authors. “You wait until something is really good,” he explained, “rather than just go out and get a bunch of stuff.” He sees a connection between his editor’s intuition and his days as a hip-hop d.j. for his college station in Chicago in the nineteen-eighties. “It’s all about finding out where the sound is, where is it coming from,” he told me. “I like to say, ‘You go where the thinking is livest.’ ” Right now, that’s in Black thought and Asian American studies. He loves Twitter, which helps him identify the buzziest scholars and ideas.

He spoke in a relaxed, surferesque drawl—lots of so, likes—but appeared to become nervous when I asked where he’s from. “That has actually always been a really hard question for me,” he said, as if resigned to disappointing me. “I come from a very conventional background.” He shyly recounted a typical Jewish middle-class upbringing: New Rochelle, public schools, Book-of-the-Month Club, etc. He prefers to tell his origin story by way of books, specifically the ones he came across in the seventies and eighties at the University of Chicago, a school he chose to attend after reading in a brochure, “If you’re a misunderstood intellectual in your high school, you’ll be in your element here.” He narrated discovering the field of cultural studies—in the classes of the anthropologists John and Jean Comaroff—with the same longing and affection with which others might describe their first college keg party. Talking about Dick Hebdige’s book “Subculture” (1979), a classic cultural-studies text, he got so excited that I worried he was going to choke on air. Hebdige argues in “Subculture” that the mods and skinheads of nineteen-sixties Britain fashioned themselves after Black culture—or, more precisely, their fantasy of it. “It’s this double projection,” Wissoker explained, his face awash in ecstasy, “where you project these other people in the first place, and you forget that it’s your projection and arrange yourself in relation to it.” He could not stop smiling.

Cultural studies was a loosely defined school of thought developed by working-class British academics such as Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, who believed that the culture of the people they grew up with was as legitimate an object of study as Shakespeare or classical music. After arriving in England on a Rhodes Scholarship, the Jamaican-born thinker Stuart Hall expa
nded on their work, analyzing the cultures of ethnic minorities and migrants in the United Kingdom to build his theories of multiculturalism and the political significance of the popular arts. “Popular culture is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged,” Hall wrote.

Wissoker would eventually spend his days at Duke working to enshrine cultural studies in the American academy, especially as the field grew to encompass queer theory and ethnic studies. David L. Eng, a professor of English and Asian American studies at the University of Pennsylvania, has published all his monographs with Duke, and said that the press has been “indispensable” to making Asian American studies central to American studies. “The academy today is quote-unquote more diverse, but it’s not any less segregated,” Eng said. “In order to desegregate the university, you have to start with desegregating knowledge. That is something that Ken has been really adept at doing.”

In the nineteen-eighties in Chicago, though, Wissoker’s fiefdom was limited to the campus bookstore—the storied Seminary Co-op—in Hyde Park. Wissoker realized that he “could do a sort of intellectual leadership,” curating table displays to spread the gospel of, say, British Marxism or the fifth issue of the journal Conditions, which was devoted to Black lesbian authors. His time as a bookseller also instilled in him the value of cover design. Duke covers skew cheeky—they seem almost pleased with themselves for having solved the riddle of representing abstract academic concepts with a single image. (The cover of “Global Icons: Apertures to the Popular,” Bishnupriya Ghosh’s “materialist theory of global iconicity” from 2011, shows two painters in Calcutta, working on a mural of Mother Teresa.) The queer theorist Elizabeth Freeman attributed part of Duke’s rise to the appeal of the covers: “They were glamorous—it was something you would want to be a part of.” Last year, an old black-and-white image of mannequins melting in a heat wave circulated online; Lake Micah, the associate editor of The Drift magazine, tweeted in response, “this has the look of the sort of image you’d find replicated and stretched across the book jacket of a university text, a volume entitled something like—Deliquescent Ontologies: (En)Gendering Corporeal Peril in the Anthropocene (Duke UP, 2023).”