What the Avital Ronell Affair Says about The State of the Profession

Jon Wiener’s BLARB essay (August 26, 2018) is one of the best and most thorough treatments to date of the infamous Avital Ronell case at NYU. Wiener’s piece prompts me to add a number of points that he leaves implicit and that the media have largely ignored or distorted. My own concern is less with who’s guilty — the professor or the student or both? — but what the whole debacle, as delineated in the official Court Complaint, the Judith Butler letter in Ronell’s defense, and the accounts by Ronell herself and various friends like Chris Kraus, says about our profession — the study of literature. All of these documents are readily available online, where they are being widely discussed and disseminated.

First let me identify myself. I am an 86-year old retired female professor, having held the Sadie Dernham Patek Professorship of Humanities at Stanford University from 1990-2002. Before that, I was Florence R. Scott Professor of English at the University of Southern California; I have taught part time at USC again in recent years and am currently Florence R. Scott Professor Emerita. I was President of the American Comparative Literature Association in 1995 and of the Modern Language Association in 2006. I am a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and have held Guggenheim and NEH fellowships and received various honorary degrees. I have held a number of visiting name lectureships like the Weidenfeld Professorship at Oxford. I am the author of 16 books, all but the first two still in print, a number of which have been translated into languages from Chinese to Portuguese and, in the case of my 2016 book Edge of Irony, into Polish.

I cite these facts, not to blow my own horn, but to make clear that I write as both insider and outsider — academic insider for decades, but outsider in being an aged retiree who now has some distance on her profession and can speak more freely than can her younger colleagues about this incendiary case. I have nothing to gain or lose by speaking candidly. No one is going to take my tenure away and I’m not on the job market. Certainly I will make some new enemies, but that’s a chance this octogenarian is willing to take.

In discussing the Ronell case, every article I’ve seen from The New York Times to The New Yorker takes as a given that Ronell is indeed, in the words of the Times, “one of the very few philosopher-stars of this world.” The designation has puzzled me from the start because in my own circles (Modernist and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics as well as Viennese Culture of World War I and Wittgenstein, on whom I’ve written a book and many essays), most people have never so much as heard of Avital Ronell. I myself have never met her: I did read The Telephone Book when it was published in 1991, and found it very clever but almost parodically deconstructionist, and somehow I had no desire to read those later books with titles like Crack Wars and Stupidity. I may be revealing only my own intellectual limitations here, but I would say that in our own eclectic moment, Ronell, whose Telephone Book did get a lot of attention in the early ’90s, is no longer a star in the late 2010s. I notice that her most recent book, ironically entitled Complaint: Grievance among Friends, published by Illinois in 2018, is getting very little attention on Amazon and the first 50 Google results show no reviews. As for being “the best” in Comp Lit at NYU (the claim in the Butler letter), my personal candidate would be Ronell’s Comp Lit colleague, the brilliant translator, critic, and scholar Richard Sieburth, who is retiring this coming year at the age of 70. His work will, I am convinced, have a much greater long-range impact on our field than Ronell’s. But I am sure others have their own candidates for “the best” title, the point being that the curiously hierarchical thinking that crowns an Avital Ronell is already largely passé. You have your candidate, I have mine. Au revoir star system!

It is also of interest that every article on the Ronell case thus far refers to the famed professor as a lesbian. She is of course a self-defined lesbian, but her history to date, beginning with her seduction, at age 27 of Derrida’s 16-year-old son Pierre Alferi (see Benoit Peeters’ Derrida [Polity 2013]), and concluding with her relationship with Nimrod Breitman, suggests that it would be more accurate to call Ronell bisexual. If she is lesbian, some might wonder, what does the letter B in LGBTQA+ really mean?

The media, whether sympathetic or not to Ronell’s case, have, in any case, accepted her self-definition as a fact. World-class star, lesbian, and Ronell is also regularly referred to as a philosopher, evidently because she is a disciple of the philosopher Jacques Derrida. But the fact is that in the US, she and her fellow deconstructionists perform their theory studies under the auspices of Comparative Literature; philosophy departments, including my own at Stanford, tend to focus on analytic philosophy and would never hire a literary theorist like Avital Ronell (or, for that matter, a Derrida). This may be a small detail, but it is important vis-à-vis the larger public’s understanding of fields of study in the Humanities and what they designate.

The media have ignored these issues because they have of necessity relied on Ronell’s friends and supporters and especially on members of Ronell’s very particular Deconstructionist circle. I say “of necessity” because in the current climate, the others — the large bulk of our profession — are understandably reluctant to get involved. Of the 50 “prominent” academics who signed the notorious Butler letter, only 11 are under 60 and another 11 are over 70! The signatories, in other words, are indeed, like Ronell herself, older Establishment figures: they hold the endowed Comp Lit, German, and French chairs in the institutions of which they are often so critical. As such, they have a vested interest in preserving what they consider the status quo: deconstructionist theory with a feminist/lesbian cast. There are of course signatories who don’t fit into this mold and no doubt signed the letter just to be collegial and supportive, but the large majority are members of the in-circle, whether in the US or in France or Germany, and except for two signatories, Manthia Diawara and Gayatri Spivak, all are white — a fact no one has mentioned but which surely tells us something.

Now let’s turn to the case itself. When I read the complaint, which, as Masha Gessen points out in The New Yorker, reads like a romance novel (or movie!), I thought immediately of Sunset Boulevard. Young bright and attractive would-be screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) takes advantage of aging and wealthy former film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and becomes first her boarder and then, reluctantly, her lover. It is only when feckless Joe starts sneaking out to see a younger woman (a fellow screenwriter named Betty Fraser) that the great star turns vindictive. Just so, the complaint reveals, it is only when Avital becomes suspicious of the person (in this case, a young man) her student is secretly meeting, that the relationship goes sour for both. The Hollywood ending of Sunset Boulevard fortunately gives way to one more appropriate for our own moment: nobody floating dead in a pool but a pending law suit and court case.

Ronell’s defenders claim that her emails to Nimrod Reitman were merely playful, coded queer sexual double-talk. I wonder if they have actually read these emails, as reproduced in the complaint. The initial batch of Ronell’s emails may well be playful but what about the following:

“Maybe we can find a way for this not to happen, for me not to feel unnecessarily abandoned, I’m sure a slight rhetorical shift would do…“

“I am having a hard time letting you go and want, if possible, to retrieve the idea of a “date” … Please be kind to me as only you know how.”

“…believe me, darling Nimrod, I do not like to be in the position of supplicating for more of your attention or time…”

“When for instance you said the other day that you felt that we spoke enough, or even a lot, on the phone, the incommensurateness of my demand began to dawn on me, and I thought I realized that you were asking that I dial it down. Very reasonably. I tend to agree with such super-egoical strictures and understand them well. Then the little ones (voices in her head) start their lament…”

“My dearest Nimrod…I am deeply sorry when I fail at distance, at least sometimes (but not always) and that I suffer your absence with such inelegance. I hope you can continue to have and hold compassion and not feel a downturn in our tremendous closeness at all times … I simply wanted to talk to you. You had told me that we would do so quite a lot: I didn’t realize this was something very hard for me to calibrate and assimilate…“

I didn’t mean to sound desperate. If you need space, it’s, OK, just tell me what’s right for you, I can’t figure it out without your help and insight and prompts! I want what’s best for you. Pls help me with this love, _a_”

Anyone who finds these comments “playful” “queer coding” must have a very strange sense of humor. Reading these emails, I felt deeply sorry and embarrassed for their author, who had trusted her lover and was being so increasingly put off. It makes no difference at all whether the two actually had sex; the point is that Avital was clearly a woman in love and she was suffering. Not surprisingly, then, she turns on Nimrod and does indeed hurt his job prospects. But he is by no means the innocent victim for, as his own narrative suggests, he partly brought the situation on himself. Why was he so besotted with Avital to begin with? Why was he so eager to study with her, and evidently only with her: he mentions no one else. Why was he originally willing to move into the Paris apartment of a single woman twice his age, even if she was going to be his thesis advisor? And so on.

The real victim here — and this point has not been sufficiently made although Jon Wiener implies it — is the university — not just NYU but the university at large. When people in other fields and professions open the lengthy complaint, they are given a capsule view of two small departments that share faculty (German and Comp Lit), departments that only takes in a handful of graduate students a year, all of them, incidentally, on fellowship, departments in which a professor has an intimate and obsessive relationship with one particular student, which means making him the teacher’s pet at the expense of all the others. It is a dangerous power trip on her part. Various anonymous students have said as much on Facebook pages. Whether or not the two had sex will probably never be known, it being a case of he said, she said — but what is a fact Ronell does not contest is that professor and student spent countless hours — whole weekends — together, that they frequently traveled together, and that they were in almost daily touch over a two to three-year period. In that period, when Nimrod was out of town, for example back home in Israel, telephone records will prove that she called him frequently at all hours of the day and night. Merely playful? Then, too, both principals agree that the professor had the power to make or break the student’s career, and that in the end, she evidently did the latter. For if, as Ronell contends, Nimrod was simply not good enough to get one of the rare assistant professorships in German/Comp Lit available around the US, then why did she spend years of her life coaching him and being endlessly available to him? Why, finding that the dissertation wasn’t jelling, didn’t she simply tell him to choose a different director and study-plan? It happens all the time: I had to do this a number of times in my years at Stanford. Wasn’t Ronell’s, to say the least, terrible judgment?

From the perspective of other university departments or the medical school or law school, from the perspective of those who work in publishing or the TV industry or in Silicon Valley, the professor’s behavior must seem simply unbelievable. Many universities now have laws against faculty-student relationships, at least while the student is actively working with the professor in question. But more important, from the perspective, say, of a medical student or engineer: how do these Comparative Lit stars have such endless time on their hands? In one email, about two years into the relationship, Avital tells Nimrod she is available from Thursday through the entire weekend: he need merely say the word. When, outsiders ask, do these people actually do any work? Grade papers? Teach their classes? And how can knowledge in our field be so subjective and tenuous that a professor who begins by praising a given student so extravagantly then turns on him and declares that his dissertation had no solid argument? What did his other dissertation readers think? Or were they afraid to go on the record with their evaluations? And was there no outside member (from another department) on the dissertation committee?

This at least, is what I hear outsiders say: What is wrong with these academics? Why do they lead such solipsistic lives? Does NYU really need a Comp Lit or German department, if this is what goes on? Do we want to give large graduate fellowships to students like Nimrod Reitman? What about those undergraduates whose tuition makes the whole graduate school game possible? Whatever happened to knowledge, scholarship, research? And — most important — is there another profession where the senior person with the power wouldn’t immediately be fired, given the evidence in this particular Complaint?

Defensively, I tell my “outsider” friends that the Ronell case is not entirely typical, that I know of departments and colleges and universities where this doesn’t happen. Certainly, I believe NYU is itself partly to blame for permitting an environment where professors and students share the intimacy these two people shared. And perhaps the tenure system is ripe for such abuse. But it won’t do to throw up our hands, as Masha Gessen does in her New Yorker piece when she concludes by citing Derrida (the ultimate star himself!) as having said that there can never, after all, be perfect justice. She suggests that the best we can do, to quote Beckett, is to “fail better.” That sounds very lofty and philosophical, but tell it to James Levine, the fired conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, tell it to the philosopher Colin McGinn who was pushed to resign from the University of Miami in response to a Title-9 accusation based purely on emails with purported witty sexual double entendres, the victim in that case acknowledging that the professor had never laid a hand on her. Have any of Ronell’s supporters suggested that justice was imperfectly meted out to these men?

If our already beleaguered literature departments are to survive into the third decade of the 21st Century, we must, as I think Jon Wiener’s fine piece suggests, fail a lot better. We cannot simply assume that those who are Stars (in our profession, as I have noted, largely a debatable category) don’t need to be accountable. The focus, I would argue, should shift, as it has at many institutions, to undergraduate education, for it is the undergraduates who will determine the future course of a discipline like Comp Lit. The heady days of limitless Deconstruction are surely over.

And here is the greatest irony. Given that in the European university systems which have provided the foundation for her career, Ronell, aged 66, would have to retire soon anyway (the age in France is 68, Germany 65, Oxford currently 65), I suggest that the best thing she can do for literary studies, both at NYU, and around the country, as well as for her “case,” is to resign immediately and collect her pension and benefits before the now active case goes to court. A year’s suspension? As Jon Wiener puts it, “For grad students facing sexual harassment by faculty members, the message is frightening.”

FacebookTwitterEmail