June 12, 2018
A gaggle of critical theorists come to Avital Ronell’s defense
by Ian Dreiblatt
It’s tough times for philosophers — just ask the disciples of György Lukács, the epochal Hungarian Marxist whose archive is currently being shuttered by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, over loud international protests. Ask Jürgen Habermas, eighty-nine next week, who’s mad as hell about the disintigration of the public sphere in the age of the internet. Ask Socrates, who’s owed a co-author credit, and hundreds in royalties, on Medea. (For what it’s worth, noted olive magnate Thales is reportedly doing just fine thanks.)
To the list of philosophers having a bad week, we can add Avital Ronell, theorist, author, and NYU German professor. Ronell’s many publications include The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech and, ahem, Stupidity. She was a student of Jacques Derrida and a frequent collaborator with Anne Dufourmantelle. In her writing, feminism mingles with psychoanalysis, the history of the AIDS crisis with the poetry of Goethe, ethics with psychoanalysis. Her theoretical brilliance, originality, and fearlessness have made her a standard-bearer for the humanities, and she’s received numerous awards and fellowships.
According to high-brow internet cretin, Nietzsche scholar, and University of Chicago law professor Brian Leiter, Ronell is also currently under investigation for sexual misconduct. In a post to his blog (which bills itself as “the world’s most popular philosophy blog for more than a dozen years”), Leiter writes that “Ronell, it seems, is the target of a Title IX complaint and investigation at NYU,” adding, “The details are not known to me.”
If Leiter’s report is accurate, and the accusations are ultimately substantiated, it’ll be a blow for sure. Ronell, one of the world’s leading theorists, has trenchantly argued for an untidy, polymorphous feminism, and has described the gender discrimination she faced as a PhD candidate at Princeton in the late seventies, writing in her book Fighting Theory that she retained “wounded memories of graduate school.”
While Leiter does not identify a source for his information, he does include the text of a purported letter (whose source he also doesn’t disclose) in Ronell’s defense, addressed to NYU administrators and reportedly being circulated for signatures. It’s signed by some of the most prominent names in contemporary philosophy, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Judith Butler, Cathy Caruth, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Slavoj Žižek.
While acknowledging they have “no access to the confidential dossier” investigators are collecting, the scholars write that Ronell’s “mentorship of students has been no less than remarkable,” that they “deplore the damage that this legal proceeding causes her,” and that “the allegations against her do not constitute actual evidence, but rather support the view that malicious intention has animated and sustained this legal nightmare.” They also write that “some of us know the individual who has waged this malicious campaign against her.” The rest of the letter consists of praise for Ronell and (accurate) descriptions of the extreme respect her work has commanded from the international scholarly community. It’s a powerful document — eminent people at the top of a competitive field, closing ranks around an embattled colleague.
Still, while Leiter’s account drips with a contempt that borders on the cartoonish (he describes “theory” as “[what] they call bad philosophy in literature departments”), his objections are not all easily dismissed. It’s been a mainstay of the MeToo moment to acknowledge that “the grace, the keen wit, and the intellectual commitment” to which Ronell’s colleagues testify should have no bearing on an investigation into her possible wrongdoing. And as for the assertion that allegations of abuse “do not constitute actual evidence” — that, in 2018, is a difficult hill to defend. Ronell is a wonderful writer and a hero to many on the left, but it’s hard to find a reason, beyond elective affinities, why accusations against her should be taken less seriously than those against others.
If only there were some academic discipline for reckoning with divergent conceptions of knowledge and competing ethical imperatives. That’d come in really handy about now.
UPDATE: A well-researched piece by Nell Gluckman appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education after this story was published, containing several important updates. Gluckman spoke with Judith Butler, who confirmed that the letter was not entirely fraudulent, but stressed that the version Brian Leiter published, apparently without consulting anyone, was not final. Neither, it appears, was the list of signatories as Leiter published it. Leiter, presumably, seethed off to a box of his native soil to lay low and feel vindicated by the memory of the sound of his own voice.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.