One might hope for higher standards in the groves of academe; but were one tempted to look to the academic world and perhaps to LGBT studies and queer theory in particular to articulate an ethic of responsibility and accountability, one might be sorely disappointed to see academia roiled by ethical scandals just like politics and government and the arts world. The most obvious case in point was the scandal that hit New York University when a tenured member of the NYU faculty was accused of sexual harassment by one of her graduate students. Avital Ronell is a tenured full professor of German and comparative literature described by the New York Times as “one of the very few philosopher-stars of this world”; she was suspended without pay for a year after being found responsible for sexual harassment of Nimrod Reitman, one of her graduate students.
The Ronell affair was not a scandal merely because of her alleged sexual harassment but also because of the extraordinary intervention of Judith Butler, who wrote a secret letter to NYU’s president Andrew Hamilton and provost (Katharine Fleming), which Butler signed ‘Maxine Elliot Professor, Department of Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley, President-Elect, Modern Language Association (2020).’ The letter was co-signed by other leading academics, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (signed ‘University Professor, Columbia University’) and Slavoj Zizek (signed ‘Distinguished Professor, Humanities Institute, University of London, Global Professor, New York University’). Because of the central significance of the Butler letter to this scandal, I will quote it in its entirety here along with the complete list of co-signatories:
It is striking indeed, given Avital Ronell’s long history of authoritarian, unethical and abusive behavior — apparently widely known throughout NYU and throughout the academy more generally — that Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Slavoj Žižek, et al. would not only defend Ronell but accuse NYU of acting abruptly and unfairly to her and denying her due process; as Hüppauf notes, “The critique of asymmetrical power structures in universities, which the case of Avital Ronell would allow, will be prevented by the ranks now closing around her. Avital Ronell’s supporters will ensure that existing power structures remain in place.” It is all the more striking, given that many of these apologists regularly rail against the very neoliberal academic economy which Ronell embodies as well as benefits from. While Ronell’s exact salary has not (as far as I know) been made public, NYU itself notes,
“The typical NYU (New York University) Professor salary is $217,882. Professor salaries at NYU (New York University) can range from $149,037 – $300,000. This estimate is based upon 14 NYU (New York University) Professor salary report(s) provided by employees or estimated based upon statistical methods. When factoring in bonuses and additional compensation, a Professor at NYU can expect to make an average total pay of $217,882” (New York University salaries page
, GlassDoor.com). A well-informed source tells me that Ronell is most likely making at least 50% above the base, putting her annual salary somewhere between 300,000-400,000 a year, which does not even include substantial income from her book royalties, the European Graduate School and several other sources, including lucrative speaking fees and film royalties (from “The Examined Life”); according to this source, Ronell’s annual income is most likely at least $750,000 a year. Compare Ronell’s enormous annual income with the median household income in New York state, which was $62,909 in 2016 (Department of Numbers, “New York Household Income
“). I do not know what Nimrod Reitman’s income as a graduate student is, but it is difficult to imagine it rivals Ronell’s, which places her very easily in the top one or two percent in the city and the state; she may well be a millionaire but it is likely that she is someone with enormous wealth as well as enormous power whose word can make or break a grad student’s career. And as a tenured full professor, Ronell can never be removed from her faculty position except possibly for conviction on felony charges. NYU’s decision to suspend her for a year is therefore nothing more than the proverbial ‘slap on the wrist,’ especially given her enormous income from multiple sources beyond the purview of the university administration. If anything, given Ronell’s enormous wealth, a year off from teaching is probably a welcome change of pace for her.
It is in the context of Avital Ronell’s enormous wealth, privilege and power that I read Lisa Duggan’s apologia with some incredulity (Lisa Duggan, “The Full Catastrophe
,” Bully Bloggers, 18 August 2018). Duggan, herself one of the leading queer theorists in the country if not the world, is also a tenured full professor at NYU, and no one could argue with her description of it in this paragraph:
“The university is a particular kind of corporation. Even public universities now rely more heavily on tuition and private funding than on state support. But the state still has a heavy hand in university operations, via the distribution of federal funds. In the university, federally mandated procedures under Title IX govern procedures for adjudicating sexual harassment complaints. These mix with each university’s own procedures, outlined in faculty handbooks.”
The forgoing is a fairly unobjectionable statement of fact, but then Duggan proceeds to discuss the Avital Ronell case and soon gets into deeper water, as when Duggan declares, “What we see emerging is the full catastrophe, a huge mess, a clash of cultures, and issues of power and boundaries in academia.” Granted that the case obvious raises ‘issues of power and boundaries in academia,’ it is hard to see what ‘catastrophe’ there is here except perhaps for Avital Ronell’s reputation. Even more questionable is Duggan’s assertion that “The selective demonization of queer and women faculty is very clear in this case. Not only was Ronell treated more harshly than many men accused of far worse infractions, but the personal attacks and demonization of her on social media is breathtaking” and the attribution of the reaction to the revelation of the scandal to simple ‘misogyny,’ as when she declares, “Misogyny is rife even among the queers and feminists posting personal attacks — they do not do this to similarly accused male faculty.” I am not really in a position to speak for others criticizing Ronell, but I am just as critical of men engaged in sexual harassment as women if not possibly more so. (Anyone following me on Facebook and Twitter will see many, many posts focusing on sexual harassment and almost exclusively on heteronormative men, with a few references to Kevin Spacey and Asia Argento.)
Duggan goes on to assert, “Critiques of the academic letter of support for Ronell have centered on feminist hypocrisy and double standards — the claim is that the signers are defending a feminist comrade, but they attack men under similar circumstances.” Here, I think Duggan gets it exactly wrong: the letter from Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, et al. is in fact a classic case of hypocrisy and it is not the critics of the letter but rather its authors who are responsible for handing anti-feminist misogynists ‘ammunition’ (as it were) by giving them the opportunity to point out the obvious hypocrisy of ‘feminists’ like Butler who talk endlessly about feminist values but undermine them in practice, as the authors of the May 11 letter did so clearly in attacking the victim of the sexual harassment rather than supporting efforts to hold the perpetrator accountable. “The letter does not represent hypocrisy,” asserts Duggan; well, of course it does, which is precisely why the lead author of the letter has had to backpedal, rather furiously but entirely unconvincingly.
While it is true that a few mainstream media reports on the scandal have focused on the most titillating aspects of the scandal as well as the fact that Ronell is a woman and Reitman is a man and especially the age difference between them as well as the fact that both are queer — Reitman being gay and Ronell perhaps better described as bisexual rather than lesbian — is it true as Lisa Duggan has asserted that this whole affair is nothing but a ‘sex panic’…?
“most Baby … let’s cuddle like cubs”
“get your ass back home, darling … I am sorry I ever let you go!”
“I love you and long for you”
“You looked gorgeous. Couldn’t keep my eyes off you!!!”
“whispering to you, holding you”
“I’m so proud, loving power pump”
“you are arousing”
“my image during meditation: we’re on the sofa, your head on my lap, stroking your forehead, playing softly with yr hair, soothing you”
“I’ll see you at the orifice, I mean office”
“did you find your phallus?”
“it’s your cock-er-spaniel calling.”
“…I was crying when I did not hear back from you. It was a hard night, but I’m pulling together. Yes, I did need to talk to you and will have to stop reverting to that level of expectation, which puts too much pressure on you, I sense and see….”
In what sort of professional relationship would such e-mail messages be considered appropriate for a superior to send a subordinate? Imagine if CBS CEO Les Moonves had sent these to CBS subordinates; imagine if New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman had sent them to female colleagues in the attorney general’s office; imagine if the media reported messages like these from Donald Trump to female cabinet members or White House staff members; would reporting on such messages constitute a ‘sex panic’? It is difficult to imagine any responsible party simply dismissing any scandal involving such messages from a superior to a subordinate as such; that way lies Absurdistan and Duggan’s characterizing the Ronell scandal as a sex panic is part of an enormous exercise in deflection, as Andre Long Chu observed in an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education, writing,
“Leading feminist and queer scholars like Judith Butler, Lisa Duggan, and Jack Halberstam have defended her — or at least deflected criticism.
I believe the allegations. Last year I worked as a teaching assistant for Avital Ronell” (Andrea Long Chu, “I Worked With Avital Ronell. I Believe Her Accuser
,” the Chronicle of Higher Education, 30 August 2018), adding, “It is simply no secret to anyone within a mile of the German or comp-lit departments at NYU that Avital is abusive. This is boring and socially agreed upon, like the weather.” And it strikes me as significant that the signatories to the May 11 letter are all faculty members, all apparently tenured and most full professors, some department chairs and a number of them even holding endowed chairs; in stark contrast, Andrea Long Chu is a graduate student like Nimrod Reitman and speaks from a position of powerlessness as fundamentally different from the lofty positions of status and power from which the May 11 signatories speak and write.
Lisa Duggan’s defense of Ronell is indeed a ‘deflection,’ as Chu writes so perceptively. Granted that the scandal can be and arguably has been somewhat sensationalized because of the sexual aspect of it, but it is absolutely not a ‘sex panic’ as Lisa Duggan so absurdly labeled it; that way lies Absurdistan. Ronell vs. Reitman was and is really all about power: the enormous power of a tenured full professor at one of the wealthiest academic institutions in the world and her ability to demand sexual favors of her advisee, even demanding that he respond to her in the bizarre language of lovers despite her being his faculty adviser and twice his age. In what professional context would it be appropriate for a superior to address his or her subordinate as ‘Sweet cuddly Baby,’ ‘cock-er spaniel’? In what professional context would it be acceptable for colleagues to demand that the head of the organization or firm simply drop an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment simply because of the prominence and power of the accused?
“The academic job market is structured in many respects like a drug gang, with an expanding mass of outsiders and a shrinking core of insiders,” Alexandre Afonso wrote on the London School of Economics and Political Science Impact Blog (Alexandre Afonso, “How academia resembles a drug gang,” London School of Economics and Political Science Impact Blog, 19 September 2018). It is of course powerful academic oligarchs like Judith Butler and Avita Ronell — undisputed hegemonic figures in their fields — who are the drug lords in this analogy, as powerful in their world as Pablo Escobar once was as the head of the Medellin cartel; as tenured full professors holding endowed chairs, they have virtually unlimited power over untenured faculty and especially the graduate students whose careers depend on their active support and promotion. Since tenured faculty cannot be removed — except only rarely and in only the rarest and most exceptional circumstances — their position of near-absolute power creates circumstances and in fact a structure of power that is ripe for abuse and Ronell flagrantly abused that power as did Butler in using the enormous power and influence of the MLA to defend Ronell and insulate her abuse of power from even scrutiny. The economics of academia reflect an oppressive corporate neoliberal regime that wealthy, powerful academic oligarchs not only do nothing to challenge but benefit from while publicly deriding the very neoliberalism that they exploit for their own selfish gain — the very height of hypocrisy.
My willingness to speak out against Avital Ronell’s sexual harassment and Judith Butler’s defense of it prompted Lisa Duggan to ‘unfriend’ me on Facebook, where I had never once posted a single criticism of her either with regard to the Ronell scandal or anything else; quite the contrary: I had been unfailingly supportive of Lisa Duggan, including with regard to her recent health issues as well as the controversy over her support for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel for its illegal occupation of Palestine which prompted a furious response from the Zionist machine when Duggan was president of the American Studies Association (ASA). Ironically enough, I had been careful to avoid any mention of Duggan on Facebook or Twitter despite my disappointment over her oddly clumsy and utterly unpersuasive blog post and other statements about the Ronell affair. It is striking to me that someone in such a position of power in the academy would ‘unfriend’ all those who expressed disagreement not even with her but simply with the position she took in defense of Ronell in this sordid affair.
Duggan’s private message to me ended with this injunction: “Please do not quote or circulate. This is intended as a private communication.” Such a message is itself an exercise of power by one of the most famous and powerful academics in the field of LGBT studies/queer theory over someone who has no power whatsoever in academia and who has at best a marginal position on the edges of the queer theory world; it is also a classic act of manipulation and intellectually dishonest, since one cannot unilaterally impose an obligation of confidentiality without the other’s consent, all the more so in the very same message in which one is effectively announcing the termination of whatever relationship existed up to that point. Were I a graduate student seeking employment in the same field, Duggan’s message could be interpreted in a very sinister light indeed as a possible attempt to silence me with the threat of being blacklisted from academia entirely; certainly, a threatening message from a celebrity in the field who wields enormous power and influence with it could not be disregarded even by someone on the margins of academia who has no power or influence within it whatsoever. The irony is that Duggan (mis)characterized Nimrod Reitman as the embodiment of ‘neoliberalism’ while he is a powerless graduate student who was the victim of sexual harassment by Avital Ronell, an enormously wealthy, powerful and famous academic oligarch who is universally recognized as the hegemon in her field — just as Judith Butler is universally recognized as the hegemon in gender studies; one word from either Ronell or Butler can make or break an academic career and their obvious flagrant abuse of power is the real issue here. In defending Ronell’s sexual harassment of a powerless graduate student and Butler’s flagrant abuse of power it is Duggan — like Butler and like Ronell herself — who is the very embodiment of neoliberalism in its most rapacious corporate form.
In contrast with my obvious ‘outsider’ position in relation to LGBT studies and queer theory, Marjorie Perloff writes in her op-ed in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “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” (Marjorie Perloff, “What the Avital Ronell Affair Says About the State of the Profession
,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 29 August 2018), adding,
“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…”
As for the sexual harassment case itself, Perloff writes,
“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… 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? …is there another profession where the senior person with the power wouldn’t immediately be fired, given the evidence in this particular Complaint? …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… 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…”
Perloff is surely right that at the very least, Ronell has ‘terrible judgment’ and that NYU’s one-year suspension of her sends a message to grad students that the university does not take sexual harassment of them by faculty seriously at all. But of course, NYU is a profit-making corporation disguised as a non-profit academic institution; as NYU faculty member Lisa Duggan describes it, NYU is a real estate enterprise that offers courses.
“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,” wrote Katha Pollitt in an assessment of the affair for the Nation (Katha Pollitt, “What on Earth is Going on at NYU?
,” the Nation, 29 August 2018).
“It is a feature of universities — present in other organizations, but seldom as pronounced — that is important to consider whenever complaints are alleged, buried, and/or disputed. And it isn’t hard to see how when someone toward the top of the pyramid is accused of sexual misconduct, the other people making up the pyramid might be more concerned with the position of the accused than the details of the case,” write Adam Harris and Alia Wong (Adam Harris and Alia Wong, “When Academics Defend Colleagues Accused of Harassment
,” the Atlantic, 15 August 2018). The Avital Ronell scandal has actually compelled some faculty members to consider either dropping writings by Ronell and even Butler from their syllabi or else ‘contextualize’ such writings with considerable explication (Lindsay Ellis, “Avital Ronell Blowback Has Entered College Classrooms. Here’s How Scholars Are Responding
,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 September 2018).
“The question of sex, of Ronell’s work and stature in academe, of literary theory or critical theory or the academic left, of the supposed hypocrisy of the scholars who rallied to her side, of the fact that the alleged harasser is a woman and gay while the alleged victim is a man and gay — all of this, if one reads Reitman’s complaint, seems a little beside the point. And has, I think, clouded the fundamental issue. Or issues. What’s clear from the complaint is just how much energy and attention — both related and unrelated to academic matters — Ronell demanded of Reitman, her student,” writes Corey Robin of the affair (Corey Robin, “The Unsexy Truth About the Avital Ronell Scandal
,” the Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 August 2018). “Depending on whom you believe, Ronell’s claims on Reitman may or may not have been for sex, but the sex was only one part of the harassment. Ronell’s largest claims were on his time, on his life, on his attention and energy, well beyond the legitimate demands of an adviser on an advisee,” writes Robin, professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City of New York (CUNY), adding, “I have no doubt that Ronell believed, at times, that the language she used was shared. People in positions of power, abusing that power, often believe that.”
“For all of Ronell’s talk of shared codes and such, there is one experience, one code, in this story that every academic — gay, straight, male, female, black, white, brown, trans, queer — has shared: being a graduate student… If even one-quarter of what Reitman describes here is true, it suggests a more intense, more extreme, more abusive instance of a pervasive imbalance of power in academe. One that many graduate students have had to negotiate. And should not have to negotiate. For all the revelations of sexual harassment within academe that we’ve seen in the past few years, we continue to leave that imbalance of power to graduate students, as individuals, to figure out. Thinking, as always, that sex is somehow different, more peculiar, more idiosyncratic, than what, in the end, as Gira Grant made clear, is the most boring and familiar story of all.”
Bernd Hüppauf writes that he
“played a large role in the decision to offer Avital Ronell, on her second attempt, a professorship at NYU. Three years before that, I had been asked to resuscitate a moribund German department and to help it find legs upon which to stand. During negotiations, the dean pledged four professorships to me. I wrote a comprehensive position paper describing what a German department in the academic landscape of New York and the United States should look like. This task drew me to New York. Before I offered Avital Ronell her job, I’d had many in-depth conversations with her. She engaged my queries with what seemed like understanding. She said she’d throw herself into the building of an integrated study and research program. She promised actively to contribute to department research, conferences and publications. Once she had assumed the position, however, she broke all her promises. She did her best to sabotage the program. She pursued one goal: The work of Avital Ronell and Jacques Derrida must be at the center of all teaching and research. Instead of an academic program, we were left with boundless narcissism. Once she’d become the head of the German department, she had her secretary announce in a departmental meeting that in the German department no student’s written work would any longer be acceptable unless it cited Derrida and Ronell” (Bernd Hüppauf, “A witch hunt or a quest for justice: An insider’s perspective on disgraced academic Avital Ronell
,” Salon, 8 September 2018).
“From her second semester onward Professor Ronell reigned with an authoritarian hand, gloved in her well-proven hypocrisy. Instructors whom I had brought to the department either submitted to her regime or lost their jobs, always according to the letter of the law and in discussion with the dean, never in consultation with members of the German department. Once, she drafted a secret dissenting opinion against the unanimous decision of a commission and submitted it to the dean. The protest we as a department made to the dean against the dismissal of a junior professor fell on deaf ears. He would make no decision that ran counter to the will of the chairperson.”
The surest confirmation of the truth of Nimrod Reitmas allegations comes from Avital Ronell herself and her behavior subsequent to the public revelation of the case and the Butler letter. Tony Cochran
is a prison abolitionist, philosopher and social critic who set up a public Facebook group “The Avital Ronell Affair & the Death of Criticism” after the scandal became public; on 9 September 2018 he posted of Ronell that she “did act in a manner that was odd, even slightly aggressive, with furtive comments threatening my ‘career’ — she did later apologize. In any event, I think the focus should be on her sexual harassment and upholding the dignity of Mr Reitman. If Ronell thinks that NYU ruled wrongly against her, she has every recourse to sue and bring the Title IX process into open court. Mr Reitman, and I agree with him, is suing because NYU didn’t go far enough.” Cochran’s interaction with Ronell is yet further evidence confirming a long history of abusive and unethical behavior on her part as documented by Bernd Hüppauf, Andrea Long Chu and others.
One of the oddest confirmations of Avital Ronell’s bizarrely inappropriate and indisputably abusive behavior comes from Ronell herself. On 7 August 2017, Ronell gave a lecture on “A Crisis in Immaturity
” at the European Graduate School
(EGS) at Saas-Fee in Switzerland. In that August 2017 talk, Ronell asks, “Have you ever met a truly mature person? And what would that be? What would that look like?” Ronell goes on to say, “Kant urged upon us the recognition and realization that one likes to choose immaturity.We get off on it, we like to stay there, we love our tethers; of course, one has to break up the ‘we’ here. For my main main Goethe, immaturity was a good thing; he had what he called ‘wiederhumpte Pubertät (recurrent puberty), which at the age of over 70, he fell in love with a 17-year-old and it kept him going, it kept him going… so perhaps if you turn on the transvaluing machine, there’s a good immaturity and a bad immaturity — a very bad immaturity… So for Lyotard, who worked with Wolfgang to envisage what EGS what might be… in terms of an anarchist immaturity that opens up to thought in a way that would not necessarily fit a university — in other words, an affirmative place for affirmative misfits to which I was invited to join the team of misfits…” Halfway through her talk, Ronell references Judith Butler, saying, “Concerns with precarity such as outlined by Judith Butler have been given the heave-ho and this ho is heaving.”
Ronell’s self-identification as a ‘misfit’ in the ESB lecture is interesting enough, but what strikes me as really significant here is the reference to the 70-year-old Goethe’s love affair with a 17-year-old. Ronell was born in April 1952 and so was 66 at the time the scandal broke in June 2018, nearly twice the age of Nimrod Reitman at 34 years of age. At the time of this talk in April 2017, the dispute with Reitman had not yet become a public scandal but I have to wonder if there is a whole lot of self-referential language here, especially the weirdly creeping celebration of ‘immaturity’ and Goethe’s arguably pedophilic affair with a 17-year-old. Ronell has denied sexually harassing Reitman, but then again, Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose and Les Moonves all deny sexually harassing the women who have accused them of sexual harassment and even rape just as Asia Argento denies Jimmy Bennett (Amelia McDonell-Parry, “Jimmy Bennett’s Team Calls Latest Asia Argento Claims ‘Ludicrous’
,” Rolling Stone, 7 September 2018). Bennett’s attorney Gordon K. Sattro said of Asia Argento in a statement in September that she “has yet to realize that successful women can also be among those who prey on the vulnerable. Predators are not limited to a single sex…”
Regardless of whether Avital Ronell is making references in the April 2017 ESB lecture to the relationship with Nimrod Reitman, both participated in a retrospective symposium on “The Telephone Book” (Ronell’s best known work) on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of its publication; the symposium took place at NYU’s Deutsches Haus in October 2014 (“‘The Telephone Book’ @ 25
,” 31 October 2014). Watching a video of the event, it becomes clear the extent to which Reitman’s future career was at that point so substantially if not entirely dependent on Ronell’s grace and favor.
Still odder is a statement Avital Ronell made in an interview she did with Laura Hengehold (associate professor of philosophy at Case Western Reserve University) at the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities as part of the semester-long seminar in “Media and Power in the Information Society” there in fall 2006 (“Avital Ronell: A Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities Interview
,” YouTube). On the one hand, Ronell reiterates her oft-stated insistence that indecipherability is somehow morally superior than intelligibility, which she has often called ‘fascist’; but later in the interview (at 28:00 in the half hour long interview), Ronell declares, “Transgression may have been transgressed and seen its finite limit… there’s been a return to ethics in a certain way because transgression is still within a kind of an onto-theological horizon; it still presupposes a God, something analogous to sinfulness… because there’s been too much transgression of too many things that… we ought to have been the guardians of and custodians of; and there’s too much failure in transgression; now that might have the core of intelligibility that you might like… but it’s important to consider with all of the new levels of political perjury and lies and ethical embarrassment with which we’re faced on a daily basis in the United States why transgression has been demoted and devalorized and why that’s no longer the location of philosophical urgency and despair…”
One could be forgiven for hearing intimations of the confessional here while at the same time noting the inconsistency and contradiction if not outright hypocrisy in this statement. Sexual harassment is most certainly a ‘transgression’ of the law as well as accepted standards of behavior in the workplace in the United States in the twenty-first century; and no enforcement of laws and standards pertaining to sexual harassment is possible without ‘intelligibility.’ No legally constituted authority could come to any decision on a complaint of sexual harassment if that authority — whether a university administration, a city or state human rights commission or the U.S. Department of Justice or Education in the case of a Title IX complaint — could not find or make intelligible such a complaint; and of course, no duly constituted legal authority could possibly issue a decision that would be regarded as enforceable were the written text of that decision not intelligible to the complainant, the defendant and interested parties as well as the general public. Far from being ‘fascist,’ intelligibility is a sine qua non of democratic process and accountability in academia and every other domain; in a court of law, a clear statement of innocence or guilt is required to resolve both civil and criminal cases and intelligibility is the opposite of ‘fascist,’ though it is an indication of the moral as well as intellectual bankruptcy that Avital Ronell considers such intelligibility ‘fascist.’
In any case, the record that is available to us of the deliberations of NYU’s administration seem to indicate a fairly high degree of intelligibility with regard to Avital Ronell’s guilt with regard to sexual harassment. “In spring of 2012, Reitman says that Ronell asked him to spend a few days with her in Paris, where he says she put his ‘hands onto her breasts, and was pressing herself — her buttocks — onto [his] crotch,’ and then kissed him all over; he claims that incident repeated itself later in the evening as well. During Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, Reitman says that Ronell, whose power had gone out from the storm, repeatedly showed up to sleep as his apartment. Throughout his academic career, he alleges, Ronell ‘
subjected [him] to sexual harassment, sexual assault, and stalking’,” according to one account of the evidence NYU considered (Amanda Arnold, “What’s Going on With Avital Ronell, the Prominent Theorist Accused of Harassment?
,” the Cut, 21 August 2018). According to the same reporter, Reitman provided the NewYork Times
with e-mail in which Ronell referred to Reitman as ‘Sweet cuddly Baby,’ ‘cock-er spaniel,’ and ‘my astounding and beautiful Nimrod.’ “In his 56-page lawsuit, Reitman also claims that Ronell ‘asserted complete domination and control over his life,’ and would threaten his Ph.D. career. Ronell has vehemently denied harassing Reitman. ‘Our communications — which Reitman now claims constituted sexual harassment — were 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’,” Arnold reports. Lisa Duggan’s assertion that “Forms of intimacy well outside the parameters of heterosexual (and, homosexual) courtship and marriage are commonplace among queers who not clearly separate friendship and romance, partnership and romantic friendship” (ibid) seems at best a diversionary tactic by an apologist determine to distract attention from the real issue at hand. The real significance of this scandal is not a whether Ronell and Reitman had sex or sexual relations of any kind, but — as any good feminist will tell you — the asymmetric balance of power between the two, whether it was sexualized or not, though there is considerable evidence that Ronell used her power to try to coerce her student into sex.
“The Ronell cheerleaders are almost universally intellectuals who once upon a time considered themselves cultural outsiders — queer theorists, postcolonial scholars, feminist thinkers. They act as if they are a politicized coalition defending a vulnerable person, without the awareness that they are now the tenured, the published, the well-off, the powerful: precisely the demographic that #MeToo proposes to investigate,” wrote Josephine Livingstone perceptively (Josephine Livingstone, “Asia Argento, Avital Ronell, and the Integrity of #MeToo
,” the New Republic, 21 August 2018), noting, “Ronell was Nimrod Reitman’s academic adviser, which means she was not only his mentor but a gatekepeer to his professional advancement.” Livingstone sees both parallels with the Asia Argento case and significant differences, concluding, “Asia Argento may be famous, but she was not protected by tenure. Her allies in what has been a horizontal, democratic movement have no institutional reasons to support her. The Ronell cheerleaders, on the other hand, are almost universally intellectuals who once upon a time considered themselves cultural outsiders — queer theorists, postcolonial scholars, feminist thinkers. They act as if they are a politicized coalition defending a vulnerable person, without the awareness that they are now the tenured, the published, the well-off, the powerful: precisely the demographic that #MeToo proposes to investigate.” And that is in fact the real difference between the two: Avital Ronell has tenure and short of NYU taking the drastic step of stripping her of it, her position is secure and in fact impregnable. Which brings us full circle to Judith Butler’s May 11 letter, which was (as she describes it) ‘hastily written’ and intended to prevent the administration of taking precisely that action; Butler and her confederates clearly felt that the only way to do so was to vilify the victim of sexual harassment by demolishing his claims — though Butler admitted in her subsequent letter that none of them had access to the evidence the administration was actually considering — and by assigning ‘malicious intention’ to the accuser, once again, with no evidence to substantiate that accusation.
If #MeToo has any meaning, it is precisely the demand that complaints of sexual harassment be taken seriously, which Butler, Spivak, Zizek, Duggan, et al. adamantly refused to do, instead denigrating both the alleged victim of the sexual harassment and those who dared voice any criticism of the accused even after her own university administration found her guilty of sexual harassment. It strikes me that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr.’s decision to drop charges against Harvey Weinstein after what appears to have been the offer of a substantial bribe in the form of an unsolicited campaign contribution represents Butlerian pseudo-feminism better than anything else I can think of (David Colon, “Report: Cy Vance Got $10K Campaign Donation From Harvey Weinstein Lawyer After Declining To Pursue Sexual Assault Charge
,” Gothamist, 6 October 2017). Initial defense of Harvey Weinstein was strikingly like that of Avital Ronell, focusing on Weinstein’s extraordinary record of producing Academy Award-winning films; and Weinstein’s ability to get the district attorney to quash a prosecution that the assistant district attorneys in Vance’s office apparently all strongly supported simply demonstrated the Hollywood mogul’s power to command resources and influence other people in power just as Avital Ronell’s ability to command support from some of the most powerful academics in the country if not the world demonstrated her continued power.
Another close parallel was the Metropolitan Opera’s protection of James Levine as its music director for decades despite many credible accusations of sexual harassment (in his case of youth of color, apparently legal minors at the time of the sexual abuse) until Levine became a political liability in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal (Gordon Cox, “Metropolitan Opera Fires Conductor James Levine for ‘Sexually Abusive and Harassing Conduct’
,” Variety, 12 March 2018). As with Weinstein, apologists for Levine stressed his supposed irreplaceability because of the maestro’s command of the operatic repertoire, though the difference with Weinstein was that Levine’s increasing physical incapacity almost certainly made it easier for the Met’s management to come to the right decision and terminate him as music director; but once again, just like Butler and the Ronell apologists, Levine was protected for decades because of his status as a conductor and cultural icon, enabling him to continue years of sexual abuse of minors with impunity; to this day, no legal action or prosecution has moved forward against him.
An even more pointed comparison can be made between the sexual harassment Avital Ronell engaged in and the sexual abuse that has shaken the Roman Catholic church to its foundations (Christopher R. Altieri, “If Viganò’s ‘Testimony’ is true, Pope Francis has failed his own test
,” Catholic World Report, 26 August 2018). On the face of it, there are significant differences between the Catholic church and the academic world and I am sure my even making such a comparison will provoke howls of outrage given Avital Ronell’s supposedly ‘sex-positive’ philosophy. But there are in fact significant similarities between the Catholic pedophile priest scandal and the Ronell case, even aside from the fact that there are many prominent Catholic colleges and universities in the United States and elsewhere. Like American universities, the Catholic church is a highly hierarchical organization; while NYU may lack a pope, it does have an enormously well paid president and provost who preside over not only the New York City campus but now a network of campuses in cities around the world just as the Catholic church has a global network of sites. Even more significant is the fact that priests were able to get away with sexual abuse of children because their authority was unquestioned just as a tenured full professor’s authority cannot be effectively questioned by anyone except senior administrators at a university (president, provost, dean, and to a much lesser extent, department chair or head). The student who is an advisee of a tenured faculty member has no more power in that relationship than a child might have in his/her relationship with a parish priest much less a bishop or archbishop. And so the potential for abuse of power is inherent in the relationship; whether it is sexualized is actually not the most important question.
Most significantly, just as with the Catholic church and its ideology of canonical authority, so Ronell uses ideology to obscure her crimes and divert attention from them through deliberately obscurantist language which is part of a discourse of mystification that is entirely devoid of the true spirituality of mysticism; as Alexander Verney-Elliott, an aesthetic archivist, writes so perceptively,
“For Avital Ronell writing is confessing. And the price of writing is confessing. To write is to pay a price. What is the physical price paid in the writing of Avital Ronell as the writing-on-the-wall written by Ronell as the confession of writing returning rewriting what Ronell wrote writing I confess to the crime of writing as writing of my crime. Uncannily, unwittingly, unwritingly, one can now read the writings of Avital Ronell afresh as a rehearsal for the writing of the crimes committed through the commitment of the crimes of writing. As if everything that Avital Ronell has ever written has been a coded confession of crimes to come or crimes committed. Coded because the telling tropes of deconstruction are all about the opaque, the nebulous, the surreptitious; the sly, the slippery, the furtive, the creepy, the underhanded, the undecided: Derridean ‘undecidability’ (which is why politically speaking deconstruction is profoundly petty-bourgeois and Avital Ronell ‘inherited’ her petty-bourgeois politics from the petty-bourgeois Jacques Derrida who inherited his politics from Martin Heidegger – a radical petty-bourgeois, as Karl Löwith correctly called him. So we can all now clearly see where Ronell is ‘coming from’ having inherited this ‘radical petty-bourgeois’ world-view (which clearly comes out in the decadent deconstructive writings of Heidegger and Derrida. Deconstruction ‘works’ so well for Ronell by putting into questioning any claims to truth, to stable definitions and definite meanings, to knowing reality, to knowing the Real and above all to being ‘responsible’ for the words that one utters as ‘being’ your ‘words’ where ‘your words’ are ‘your actions’ as an ‘author’ of your ‘word-actions’. But Ronell, as a petty-bourgeois par excellence, abjects ‘authorship’ of (her) ‘word actions’ by being subserviently dutiful to the (sadly still fashionable) postmodern myth of the ‘death of the author’ which serves Ronell well regarding Reitman because Ronell was not the ‘author’ of any (of her) actions against Reitman: for ‘it’ was just phantom with no name, no authorship, no responsibility. But (our) Words are (our) Actions and so it was not at all surprising that Ronell’s teacher, Derrida, despised and detested Jean-Paul Sartre and acutely avoided Mikhail Bakhtin. Deconstruction ‘works’ extremely well in the Ronell-Reitman case because Deconstruction places into doubt the system of oppositions, of crude and simplistic ‘binary opposites’, of those black and white ‘dualisms’ between good and bad, right and wrong, innocent and guilty: where nothing is clear-cut, where all is vague, blurred, opaque, nebulous; unclear, uncertain, undecided, unknown. Yet when it suits Ronell she strategically jettisons the ‘undecidability’ of Deconstruction: for now all is decided, for now all is clear, for now all is known to Ronell and so thus Ronell has exploited and adopted ‘crude’ clear-cut ‘binary logic’ now by ‘acting’ as being the ‘victim’, by ‘acting’ as being ‘innocent’, by ‘acting’ as being ‘righteous’ and thus reversing the reality of the real Ronell for Ronell has ‘projected’ her perpetrating ‘predator-pedagogy’ psycho-persona ‘onto’ and ‘into’ Reitman ‘representing’ Reitman as predator-perpetrator. Reitman has thus become the sociopathic monster (Real thing) that is Ronell. The Real is known: the Real is what Ronell is; a Real thing, a Real monster. Yet Lacanians, Derrideans and Ronellians ‘clearly’ cannot come to know the Real. That is the real tragedy. To make things ‘perfectly clear’ is to know the Real. Ronell makes the Real ‘perfectly clear’. Ronell is clearly the Real. A Real monster. (To know thyself is to know thy monster) (Alexander Verney-Elliott, “The Death Of Criticism and the Avital Ronell Affair, 9 September).
Ronell’s most famous statement is her assertion that “To make things ‘perfectly clear’ is reactionary and stupefying. The real is not perfectly clear.” But it is precisely that discourse that precludes even the possibility of accountability; when it comes to allegations of sexual harassment, Ronell would argue that there simply is no such thing and even if there were, it would be ‘reactionary’ to state clearly that sexual harassment (much less sexual assault) has occurred, or to assign responsibility to any individual for it. But no organization can survive indefinitely without clear lines of responsibility and accountability; without them, any organization — whether church, university, film studio, opera house or district attorney’s office — will simply decline into pure self-aggrandizement (individual and collective). An ethic of accountability and responsibility requires that we clearly state where responsibility lies for ethical misconduct and hold those responsible accountable for such misconduct. NYU fell far short of the highest standards of ethical conduct by accepting a lettre cachet from Judith Butler and her confederates and keeping it secret, to the detriment of the victim of sexual harassment and in failing to discipline the perpetrator of that egregious sexual harassment with anything more than a proverbial slap on the wrist. The miracle is that the university acted at all in the face of a campaign of harassment and intimidation by Butler and her confederates directed toward the victim of sexual harassment; but the finding of guilt in this case on at least some of the charges is at least some small consolation to the victim as well as a repudiation (however mild) to Avital Ronell’s legion of enormously powerful and unrepentant apologists.
The only society worth living in is one in which Avital Ronell like Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Kevin Spacey and a legion of other abusers can be held accountable for their crimes and progressive feminism requires nothing less. So here’s the thing about Avital Ronell’s hypocrisy and that of Judith Butler and her legion of wealthy, powerful, famous and incomparably privileged apologists: posing as a feminist and/or a gender radical but acting like a privileged and unaccountable oligarch is bound to make one look like the hypocrite one is; one can have all the right ‘external’ politics — blithely denouncing neoliberalism from a position of unassailable power within the neoliberal corporate academy — and all the wrong institutional and interpersonal ones; and the appearance as much as the reality of hypocrisy is bound to boomerang as Ronell, Butler and the other academic oligarchs who have attacked the victim of sexual harassment while circling the wagons around the perpetrator of it have discovered to their chagrin.