One of the very few philosopher-stars of this world

There’s this Avital Ronell thing – literature professor accused of sexually harassing a student. The Times has the newspaper version:

The case seems like a familiar story turned on its head: Avital Ronell, a world-renowned female professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University, was found responsible for sexually harassing a male former graduate student, Nimrod Reitman.

I’d like to pause for just a second to ask how “world-renowned” a literature professor can actually be. I think the honest answer is “not very,” and I think academics in literature departments have an embarrassing way of thinking otherwise. Very few academics of any kind are world-renowned, and those that are are very unlikely to be in the literature departments, no not even if they are renamed “Theory.” In other words Avital Ronell seems to reek of absurd lit-crit academic pretension right from the outset.

An 11-month Title IX investigation found Professor Ronell, described by a colleague as “one of the very few philosopher-stars of this world,” responsible for sexual harassment, both physical and verbal, to the extent that her behavior was “sufficiently pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of Mr. Reitman’s learning environment.” The university has suspended Professor Ronell for the coming academic year.

One of the what? She’s described by a colleague as “one of the very few philosopher-stars of this world”?? See what I mean? That’s not a thing in the first place, and literature is not philosophy in the second place. I repeat: even if you rename the academic study of literature “Theory” that still doesn’t make it philosophy.

And that isn’t a side issue in this story, because the story is about the way the wagons were circled around her on the basis that she’s Too Important to be accused of sexual harassment, which is…well it’s obvious what it is.

In the Title IX final report, excerpts of which were obtained by The New York Times, Mr. Reitman said that she had sexually harassed him for three years, and shared dozens of emails in which she referred to him as “my most adored one,” “Sweet cuddly Baby,” “cock-er spaniel,” and “my astounding and beautiful Nimrod.”

Coming in the middle of the #MeToo movement’s reckoning over sexual misconduct, it raised a challenge for feminists — how to respond when one of their own behaved badly. And the response has roiled a corner of academia.

Soon after the university made its final, confidential determination this spring, a group of scholars from around the world, including prominent feminists, sent a letter to N.Y.U. in defense of Professor Ronell. Judith Butler, the author of the book “Gender Trouble” and one of the most influential feminist scholars today, was first on the list.

Of course she was.

“We testify to the grace, the keen wit, and the intellectual commitment of Professor Ronell and ask that she be accorded the dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation,” the professors wrote.

And that, my friends, is where out of control pretension gets you. “The dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation” – you couldn’t say it much more clearly than that, could you.

Brian Leiter commented acidly on all this back in June:

Blaming the victim is apparently OK when the accused in a Title IX proceeding is a feminist literary theorist

That would seem to be the takeaway from this remarkable letter (written, I am told, by Judith Butler) in support of Avital Ronell, who teaches in German and Comparative Literature at NYU:   Download BUTLER letter for Avital Ronell.   The signatory list reads like a “who’s who” of “theory” (as they call bad philosophy in literature departments), from Butler to Zizek (with a few honorable exceptions, of course).  But far more revealing is the content of the letter.

Professor Ronell, it seems, is the target of a Title IX complaint and investigation at NYU; the details are not known to me, and are not revealed in the letter.  But this is apparently irrelevant.  From the remarkable first paragraph (boldings added by me):

Although we have no access to the confidential dossier, we have all worked for many years in close proximity to Professor Ronell and accumulated collectively years of experience to support our view of her capacity as teacher and a scholar, but also as someone who has served as Chair of both the Departments of German and Comparative Literature at New York University.  We have all seen her relationship with students, and some of us know the individual who has waged this malicious campaign against her.  We wish to communicate first in the clearest terms our profound an enduring admiration for Professor Ronell whose mentorship of students has been no less than remarkable over many years. We deplore the damage that this legal proceeding causes her, and seek to register in clear terms our objection to any judgment against her.  We hold that the allegations against her do not constitute actual evidence, but rather support the view that malicious intention has animated and sustainedthis legal nightmare.

Imagine that such a letter had been sent on behalf of Peter Ludlow, Colin McGinn, John Searle, Thomas Pogge or anyone other than a feminist literary theorist:  there would be howls of protest and indignation at such a public assault on a complainant in a Title IX case.  The signatories collectively malign the complainant as motivated by “malice” (i.e., a liar), even though they admit to knowing nothing about the findings of the Title IX proceedings–and despite that they also demand that their friend be acquitted, given her past “mentorship of students”.

And her fame and fame and fame and fame.

But you get a real sense of the hypocrisy and entitlement of these precious “theorists” in the concluding paragraph of the letter addressed to the NYU President and Provost:

We testify to the grace, the keen wit, and the intellectual commitment of Professor Ronell and ask that she be accorded the dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation.  If she were to be terminated or relieved of her duties, the injustice would be widely recognized and opposed.

We may put to one side that Professor Ronell’s “grace,” “keen wit” and “intellectual commitment” are irrelevant in a Title IX proceeding.  What is truly shocking is the idea that she is entitled to proceedings that treat her with “the dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation.”  Apparently in the view of these “theory” illuminati dignity in Title IX proceedings is to be doled out according to one’s “international standing and reputation.”  So while Professor Ronell “deserves a fair hearing, one that expresses respect, dignity, and human solicitude,” other “lesser” accused can be subject, without international outcry, to whatever star chamber proceedings the university wants.  Moreover, only one outcome of the process is acceptable, regardless of the findings:  acquittal.  Any other result “would be widely recognized and opposed,” I guess because grace, wit and intellectual commitment are a defense against sexual misconduct and harassment.

With friends like these….

Yep. The snobbery and in-group loyalty are a sight to behold, all the more so in people who fancy themselves geniuses of “Theory” and therefore extra special skilled at looking behind the mask.

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