A big bowl of word salad

Katha Pollitt asks what are we to make of the Avital Ronell controversy:

Ronell denies everything. To me, her hundreds of histrionic e-mails read like a humorless novel of obsessive passion. Not so, she claims; they were lighthearted fun “between two adults, a gay man and a queer woman, who share an Israeli heritage, as well as a penchant for florid and campy communications arising from our common academic backgrounds and sensibilities.” Well, all you queer Israeli academics out there, do you address your grad students as your “sweet cuddly baby” or warn them that “‘I love you too’ does not cut it darling,” if they fail to respond with sufficient enthusiasm?

Not being an academic, I was puzzled that a gay man turning 30 would—or even could—spend three years returning the extravagances of a woman he derided to friends as “psychotic,” a “witch,” a “monster,” and a “bitter old lady.” (Ouch! Ronell was in her early 60s at the time.) But numerous people in academia have told me that an adviser whose ego isn’t properly fed can destroy your career. When I asked Reitman over e-mail why he stayed under her wing, he wrote back, “Ronell often told me about her capacity to “make or break” the careers of young academics, as well as her network of personal and professional connections.… Throughout my time at NYU, I was advised by various other faculty and students in the department to power through and lay low if I wanted to have a career. In fear of retaliation and retribution, I decided to stay in my chosen program.”

A broader window into the corner of academia that is “theory” is provided by the defenders of Ronell. In May, some 50 prominent academics signed a pro-Ronell letter that was sent privately to NYU’s president and its provost. Co-written by the renowned philosopher Judith Butler, the letter asserted that some of its signers found Reitman “malicious” and stressed Ronell’s achievements and fame. It even invoked Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstruction, who once tried to stop the sexual-harassment investigation of a colleague. That these smarties thought they could e-mail hundreds of academics about signing the letter without having it leaked tells you the kind of bubble they live in. (Butler has since expressed regret for portions of the letter.) As others have pointed out, Ronell’s defenders sound a bit like the friends of Harvey Weinstein: He’s made so many great movies. That’s just Harvey being Harvey. Those actresses were no angels.

One of the features of the corner of academia that is “theory,” it has always seemed to me (looking on from the outside) is a marked tendency toward peacocking – toward vanity and self-regard and a wildly exaggerated sense of fame and glamour and celebrity. “Theory” is full of putative “stars” known only to the tiny corner of academia that is Theory. Ronell seems to be given to peacocking in a big way.

Ronell’s supporters have done their best to change the subject. It’s not about sexual harassment; it’s about neoliberalism (Lisa Duggan), or stamping out “all but the most technocratic pedagogy” (Kraus), or singling out queers (Jack Halberstam), or attacking a rare and original person (Slavoj Žižek). It’s a violation of due process (Joan Scott), and an attack on feminism, the humanities, and the left (many, many).

It’s a totally unfair attack on peacocks.

Some of those who initially defended Ronell have faded away. I wish I felt those who still support her were surprised and troubled by her behavior. Instead, they seem to find it delightfully provocative. As Abby Kluchin, who teaches at Ursinus College, asked in a much-circulated Facebook post, “What is at stake in the bizarre doubling down on the idea that the rules of professional behavior exist to be playfully transgressed? Why is there no recognition that one person’s playful transgression is another’s traumatic nightmare?”

Ronell’s work strikes me as a big bowl of word salad. But I understand that the general project of deconstruction is the analysis and dismantling of conscious and unconscious structures of power. How odd, then, that these professors could see domination operating everywhere except the one place they could actually do something about it: in their own relations with students.

It’s less odd if you keep the peacocking in mind. Students are the captive peahens, crouching in dumb admiration at the feet (or claws if you insist) of the Stars who tower above them. Without the students it’s just a bunch of rival peacocks driving each other nuts.

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