The Avital Ronell Case: Culture Wars in the Twilight of Humanities Departments

Brian Leiter, the Matt Drudge of the philosophy world, sheds light on a dark period in higher ed

NYU Professor Avital Ronell was accused of sexually harassing a male graduate student. (Facebook)

1.

In 1988, Allan Bloom fired one of the first shots in the “culture war” (a war in which the bullets were made of articles and books, and all the fighters remained at desks and podiums) in his bestselling jeremiad, The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom was a pupil of Leo Strauss and a cultural conservative, and the book was an appalled inventory of everything that had gone wrong in academia since the 1960s: the feminism, the deconstruction, the Frankfurt school of Marxism, the rock n roll, and the sex lives of the student body. Among the more balanced reviews of the book was one by Richard Rorty, the philosopher who revived pragmatism as a philosophical school. Rorty defended the pluralism of John Dewey against the elitism of Bloom’s idea of humanities education as a tradition of reading and re-reading certain crowned texts written by the usual suspects – dead white men extending back to Plato. In the review, Rorty asked the fair question: how would this kind of thing really play out in the campus today? And his answer was that Bloom “does not offer much in the way of practical proposals”.

Allan Bloom’s seminal 1988 book set the table for “the culture is going to hell” academic types.

In fact, however, as much as Bloom and his opponents, the theorists, feminists, etc. spent their time shooting paper pellets at each other, they tacitly agreed about one “practical proposal”: teaching at its best was always a form of erotics. The erotic dimension of the example of Socrates emerges again and again in Bloom’s book as, indeed, the one and only true way to the higher consciousness of the philosopher. Interestingly, the left, too, imagined that the terms of the choice were between the routine learning of the technocrat and a teaching process based on desire and, distantly, sublimation. Thus, in 1998, Jane Gallop, a feminist who would probably be on Alan Bloom’s enemies list, and vice versa, wrote passages in her book (Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment) that could have been penned, with a few rhetorical modifications, by Bloom. Speaking of her own sexual relationships with her teachers, Gallop casts them as necessary stages in her own Bildungsroman. To deny them to students by, say, banning consensual sexual relations between profs and students seems to deny a fundamental fact about education:

“Sexual harassment creates an environment that is hostile to a student’s education. My experience was the opposite. I was in an environment extremely conducive to my education, a heady atmosphere where close personal contact intensified my desire to learn and my desire to excel. I learned and excelled; I desired and fucked my teachers.”

Another and less sensational way of putting this is that both Bloom and Gallop assumed that teachers need teacher’s pets, and teacher’s pets need teachers. And both view students today as depressingly different from previous generations because their heads are full of puritanical images of sexually exploitative teachers. They reject the teacher’s pet. And, in the narrowed options of this worldview, it is always either the teacher’s pet or multiple-choice tests that any computer can grade.

2.

Jump forward thirty years to 2018. Much has changed from 1988. In 1988, women constituted 36.8 percent of the college population. And the collective debt from college loans was around $10 billion. In 2018, 56 percent of the college population – or more generally, those in higher education – are women. And the collective debt from college loans has ballooned to around $1.4 trillion. Of that amount, according to a study by the American Association of University Women, $900 billion – three fifths – is owed by women. The great expansion of the university system that began in the Sputnik era and went through the 80s – a time of seemingly limitless expenditures for research grants, book presses, and humanities departments – has shifted decidedly against humanities departments. If you go through who is making the big bucks in some of our biggest schools, no. 1 is usually a football coach, and the other people in the top ten are administrators. Just as the GDP has expanded since the 80s, so have school budgets, but in the neo-liberal era, the rule is: the richer the poorer. Schools can now afford to pay their presidents $500,000 and up, but they can’t afford, say, language departments. Hiring is tight, and the future looks even grimmer.

It is in the environment, against this background, that the case of Avital Ronell exploded, so to speak, on the front page of the New York Times.

3.

Avital Ronell is a star professor at NYU, in the German Department – although her writing extends far beyond Germanistik. She was long a personal friend of Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher, and has become something like his envoy in American academia. It is a close connection – according to his biographer, Benoit Peeters, Avital Ronell even had a love affair with Derrida’s son, Pierre, in 1979, when Pierre was 17 and Ronell was 27. For Ronell, as for many academics of that generation, sex and talking about sex (and metaphysics, poetry, the German romantics, Being and Time, etc., etc.) were so intermingled that the boundaries between them became porous, and doing one was on the way to doing the other.

Ronell absorbed much from Derrida, but she made a name for herself from a series of rather brilliant books, none of which can be easily typecast. She wrote on telephones, on crack, on tests, on stupidity. She experimented with typography in The Telephone Book, and wrote a politically charged book about Desert Storm. In all of these books, she weaves between technical cases seemingly far from philosophy and philosophical cases seemingly far from actuality: between Alexander Bell and Walter Benjamin, or between Karl Popper and Alan Turing. There is a good, though rather staid, Ronell reader entitled, competitively, The Überreader, with a preface by her editor, Diane Davis, who extolls Ronell as a philosophical close up artist – someone who can take the odd detail and pull out its way of destabilizing the generalities and universals that philosophers have traditionally striven for.

4.

Jane Gallop was Bloom’s ideological opposite, but she too believed that a certain amount of eros was inevitable between instructor and pupil: ‘I desired and fucked my teachers.’

That version of Ronell, the thinker of the margins, was not present in the NYT story. The story was, instead, of the all too human Ronell, labeled a “feminist” to fill out the irony quotient, who was being examined for sexual harassment in another sensational #metoo case full of cringe-inducing verbiage, all written down in a thick trove of emails. Ronell was accused by a former graduate student, Nimrod Reitman, of years of sexual harassment and general emotional exploitation, and he had the emails to prove it. At least, that is what he claimed – Ronell also had emails, and these, too, were submitted into evidence. It was, if nothing else, a folie a deux, witnessing to an out-of-control German department – which is where Ronell is technically employed. There were a lot of intimate nicknames, flatterings, and woozy email rhapsodies. Twitter quickly seized on Ronell addressing Reitman as “my cock-er spaniel.”

Even with this material, however, the NYT would probably not have headlined Ronell’s case if it wasn’t for an astonishing letter written on her behalf and signed by numerous bigwigs in the fields of cultural studies and “theory,” among whom was Judith Butler, the president of the MLA. The letter starts out as a sort of banal inventory of Ronell’s honors, standard character witness stuff, but it then makes the absurd leap from distinction to the moral case. In outraged tones, the signatories ask how could a woman who has been awarded the “insignia of chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters” from the French government even be suspected of sexual harassment? Worse, the letter goes on to make remarks about her accuser that, ironically, seem to make his case that she has professionally damaged him:

“… 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 sustained this legal nightmare.”

Whoever leaked the letter leaked it to the person most likely to publish it: Brian Leiter. Leiter is something like the Matt Drudge of the philosophy world. Like Drudge, he was a first adopter of the new world given to the individual by the Web for disseminating info under the radar of the usual gatekeepers. His “Philosophical Gourmet Report,” which he started as an undergraduate, holds a position in the philosophy world not unlike that enjoyed by the U.S. News and World Report ranking of colleges and universities. Although Leiter consistently leans politically left, his philosophical positions are reliably conservative – he has a deep detestation of Derrida and most of the direction of continental theory, as they call it in the biz, in the last thirty years. Much like Bloom, he thinks of it as a huge con game, disguised under a natty and obscure rhetoric, and he makes that clear over and over in his blog. Although one of the two books Leiter has written is on Nietzsche, he writes within the “analytic” tradition in philosophy, an umbrella name for the Anglo-American approach that grew up in the mid twentieth century, with its concentration on logic and language, and its general positivism with regard to science.

Brian Leiter’s well-read blog has made him ‘the Matt Drudge of Philosophy.’ (Lloyd DeGrane, courtesy of the University of Chicago Law School.)

Avital Ronell’s whole academic life is a sort of red flag to Leiter, and so the opportunity to expose her was too good to miss. After the NYT story was published, the Ronell case became fodder for thumbsucking articles everywhere. Good ones were published by Andrew O’Hehir in Salon, by Edith Wang in Jezebel and by Corey Robin in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The idea that a famous academic woman – who describes herself as a lesbian and a feminist – could have been harassing a gay male graduate student, and been defended by her high-powered friends in academia on the basis that she was too important, seems to hit on every newsreader’s pleasure center.

5.

Jane Gallop’s case in 1998 reflected the zeitgeist, and in particular, the impeachment of Bill Clinton. This thrust sexual harassment, and its difficult relationship with cases of consensual sex, into the center stage. Ronell’s case resonates to an extent with a certain re-formation of identities that we also saw in the Clinton campaign. Clinton and Ronell are generationally close; both are from upper middle-class families, both made the social climb to prominence within the neo-liberal era. For the Clinton campaign, “breaking the glass ceiling” would surely resonate with the generation of today’s college educated women. For Ronell’s defenders, clearly, a powerful woman was being targeted for a takedown by a man. As Ronell put it in an email to Inside Higher Education: “What’s at stake is the fate of feminism, theory, the personality and singularity of any given professor, due process in Title IX cases. Did I say misogyny?”

Yet this call has not resonated as it might have in the past among a generation of college women who are thinking as much about debt, the lack of health insurance, and the precarity of the job market as they are about identifying with the “personality and singularity of any given professor,” even if she claims to be a feminist. It is not the case that the authors to whom Ronell goes back in her texts are women – in fact, they are hardly ever women. A tweet by one of her former T.A.’s, Andrea Chu, claims that the NYT article is flatly wrong about Ronell being a feminist scholar, since she simply doesn’t work in that field.

 

This does not mean that feminism is passé; but it does indicate that the identity politics that held sway from the 80s until now is undergoing a change. For decades, class was largely subtracted from the politics of identity. But in the society of massive inequality that we have inherited from the policies pursued by both Republican and Democrat, identifying with one’s place in the positional economy is coming back into the equation. Academia is the site where these transformations are most apparent. So far, there is no catchy name for those who identify the horror stories told by white collar proles, who are watching their twenties and thirties pass away without any security, living with the borrowing decisions they made when they responded to the call of their talents and interests. The line between the teacher and the teacher’s pet is broken. The anxiety induced by trying to please a powerful advisor (especially one who incautiously tells her advisee that she will most surely find him a “super job whenever and wherever you want”, as Ronell did in one of her very bad karma emails) is an identity maker that sours the response to Ronell’s supporters call for solidarity.

6.

Yet there is something else in this story – there is something contextualizing to say about this case.

Contextualizing usually means: weaseling out of. It is what-about-ery in a latinate suit. But it can also mean: clarifying the phenomena. In this case, the phenomena is both the power of the star professor and the state of play of the classroom.

Ronell is not the only star philosopher who has been the “victim” of #metoo. Before her, there was the philosopher John Searle, who has long been an institution (literally) at U-Cal Berkeley. Searle was accused by a former assistant of being both sexually aggressive and chuckleheadedly racist. When his accuser, his former assistant Joanna Ong, told him that she was working on a thesis on American imperialism, he reportedly told her, “American imperialism? Oh boy, that sounds great, honey! Let’s go to bed and do that right now!” This is certainly the kind of braindead phrase that should be great twitter bait. And yet, in spite of Buzzfeed’s report on the case in 2017, John Searle’s name has not appeared on the front page of the NYT. Moreover, his name is still on his institution at Berkeley, the John R. Searle Institute of Governmental Studies (whatever that means).

There was no letter written on Searle’s behalf, because there didn’t have to be. Where Avital Ronell is a star within a certain narrow circuit of philosophy and cultural studies, Searle is one of the most famous living American philosophers and has been for decades. His paper, “Minds, Brains and Programs” (1980), introducing a thought experiment entitled the Chinese room argument – which is basically meant to prove that there is criteria by which computer programing will always be a mechanical, and never a mind-like process, with all the implications for AI – has spawned a small industry of replies, counter-replies, and research. Searle’s work is rich in other areas as well. He is the kind of academic who is “too big to fail.” The powers that be at Berkeley don’t need letters from the head of the American Philosophical Association to keep him on – all they need to do is look at the one place in the NYT where his name has been mentioned recently. It is not a #metoo article – rather, it is about Bill Miller, a quant investor who is giving $75 million to the Johns Hopkins philosophy department. The article was written well after the sex harassment accusation hit the news – on January 16, 2018. At the end of the piece we find the following grafs:

“In addition to books on the history and sociology of money, Mr. Miller said he had been reading the Berkeley philosopher John Searle’s 1995 book “The Construction of Social Reality,” which looks at how objective social realities form, grow and change.

“It is particularly insightful when trying to understand new social facts and structures such as crypto assets,” Mr. Miller said.”

No billionaire is going to say that Avital Ronell’s Telephone Book gives us insights about “crypto assets”. For all of the seeming power of the Judith Butlers and Avital Ronells, one remark like this by some billionaire like Miller in reference to Ronell would have surely changed the terms at NYU, for the simple reason that administrators at the top flight universities prioritize tickling out money from plutocrats over squalid squabbles in the humanity department, and they are willing to put up with and do nothing about sexual harassment claims if they get in the way of the gravy train.

John Searle is still sitting pretty at Berkeley. And nobody cares.

UC Berkeley’s Philosophy rock star John Searle, seen here at Christ Church in Oxford, seems to have avoided consequences that have been visited upon similarly accused professors.

One thought on “The Avital Ronell Case: Culture Wars in the Twilight of Humanities Departments

  • September 17, 2018 at 8:30 am
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    Avital Ronell and Asia Argento are both women who held a great deal of power over their accusers. Ronell was Nimrod Reitman’s academic adviser, which means she was not only his mentor but a gatekepeer to his professional advancement. In a lawsuit Reitman has filed (subsequent to NYU’s finding of a Title IX violation), he alleges that his adviser “created a false romantic relationship” between them, and that he was “subjected to sexual harassment, sexual assault, and stalking.” Ronell “asserted complete domination and control over his life,” and threatened to put the advancement of his PhD in danger. Argento cast Bennett in a number of movies, beginning when he was 6 years old and appeared in

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