Avital Ronell & Judith Butler: a cautionary tale of power & accountability in academia by Pauline Park
2017 was the year of reckoning for men who had long engaged in sexual harassment with impunity. Ronan Farrow broke the story of Harvey Weinstein’s long and sordid history of sexual harassment and sexual assault as the most powerful mogul in Hollywood and won a Pulitzer Prize for his groundbreaking reporting. Many heads were to roll after Harvey’s, most of them heteronormative conventionally gendered men but at least one closeted gay man (Kevin Spacey) and even a few women. Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr.’s failure to prosecute Weinstein and his connection with presidents and presidential candidates from Bill and Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama tainted government as well as the entertainment industry.
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 personal and professional price of filing a complaint against a prominent professor is heavy, but I would like to encourage other students in my position to speak up if they feel safe to do so and know that harassment is never okay, and is a result of an abuse of power,” Reitman said in a statement sent to Newsweek (Shane Croucher, “Gay graduate student files sexual harassment suit against his aging lesbian NYU professor,” Newsweek, 17 August 2018). While NYU could not find evidence to corroborate Reitman’s allegations of sexual assault, the university “found that Reitman had failed to produce sufficient evidence to conclude that Ronell had engaged in stalking of him and that he had failed to demonstrate ‘substantial emotional distress,’ which is an element of a claim of stalking,” NYU declared in a statement.
“An 11-month Title IX investigation headed by NYU’s Office of Equal Opportunity found Professor of German and Comparative Literature Avital Ronell responsible for “inappropriate physical contact” and sending sexual texts to former graduate student Nimrod Reitman. Ronell has been suspended for the upcoming academic year for the policy violations,” Washington Square News reported in August 2018 (Jemima McEvoy, Sayer Devlin, and Kristina Hayhurst, “NYU Professor and Feminist Scholar Found Responsible for Inappropriate Physical Contact, Sexual Texting,” 13 August 2018), adding, “Reitman told investigators that Ronell would require him to take her to the opera, out to dinner, to visit her mother and have his nails painted. After hearing about the allegations in June, a group of scholars from around the world — including prominent feminist Judith Butler and fellow NYU Professor Slavoj Zizek, wrote a letter to President Andrew Hamilton and Provost Katherine Fleming defending Ronell’s character. The reputation of the academics who signed the letter foisted the allegations against Ronell into the limelight.”
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:
May, 11, 2018
President, New York University
Provost, New York University
Dear President Hamilton and Provost Fleming,
We write as long-term colleagues of Professor Avital Ronell who has been under investigation by the Title IX offices at New York University. 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 sustained this legal nightmare.
As you know, Professor Ronell has changed the course of German Studies, Comparative Literature, and the field of philosophy and literature over the years of her teaching, writing, and service. She is responsible for building the field of literary studies at New York University, but also throughout Europe as a result of her brilliant scholarship and spirit of intellectual generosity. Her students now teach at leading research institutions in the US, France, and Germany, and her intellectual influence is felt throughout the humanities, including media and technology studies, feminist theory, and comparative literary study. There is arguably no more important figure in literary studies at New York University than Avital Ronell whose intellectual power and fierce commitment to students and colleagues has established her as an exemplary intellectual and mentor throughout the academy. As you know, she is the Jacques Derrida Chair of Philosophy at the European Graduate School and she was recently given the award of Chevalier of Arts and Letters by the French government.
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. The ensuing loss for the humanities, for New York University, and for intellectual life during these times would be no less than enormous and would rightly invite widespread and intense public scrutiny. We ask that you approach this material with a clear understanding of the long history of her thoughtful and successive mentorship, the singular brilliance of this intellectual, the international reputation she has rightly earned as a stellar scholar in her field, her enduring commitments to the university, and the illuminated world she has brought to your campus where colleagues and students thrive in her company and under her guidance. She deserves a fair hearing, one that expresses respect, dignity, and human solicitude in addition to our enduring admiration.
Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor, Department of Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley, President-Elect, Modern Language Association (2020)
Emily Apter, Julius Silver Professor of French and Comparative Literature
Chair, Department of Comparative Literature, New York University
Catharine Stimpson, University Professor, New York University, former Dean of the Graduate School
John T. Hamilton, William R. Kenan Professor of German and Comparative Literature Chair, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, Harvard University
Isabelle Alfandary, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Présidente de l assemblée collégiale du collège international de philosophie, Paris
Jean-Luc Nancy, Professeur émérite, Université de Strasbourg
Edward J. Sullivan, Helen Gould Sheppard Professor of the History of Art Institute of Fine Arts – Deputy Director, Department of Art History New York University
Geoffrey Bennington, Asa G. Candler Professor of Modern French Thought,
Emory University; Chair, Department of Comparative Literature
Laurence Rickels, writer and professor, European Graduate School; Visiting Professor,
New York University
Pierre Alfari, Professor, Paris School of Fine Arts
Peter Connor, Professor of German, Barnard College
Manthia Diawara, Professor of Cinema Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University
Denis Hollier, Department of French Literature, Thought, and Culture, New York University
Christopher Wood, Professor and Chair, Department of German, New York University
Susan Bernstein, Professor of German and Comparative Literature, Brown University
Cathy Caruth, Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters, Cornell University
Cynthia Chase, Professor of French and Comparative Literature, Cornell University
Jonathan Culler, Distinguished Professor of French and Comparative Literature, Cornell University
Diane Davis, Professor and Chair, Department of Rhetoric, University of Texas-Austin
Hent de Vries, Paulette Goddard Professor of the Humanities, New York University
Bernhard Siegert, Professor for the History and Theory of Cultural Techniques Bauhaus University Weimar
Joan W. Scott, Professor Emerita, School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study
Hans-Christian von Herrmann, Professor of Literature, Technical University Berlin
Suzanne Doppelt, writer and photographer, Paris; faculty, European Graduate School
Rudiger Campe, Professor of German, NYU and Frankfurt an der Oder
Vincent Broqua, Associate Professor of French at the University of Paris Est Créteil
Christopher Fynsk, Dean and Professor, European Graduate School
Elizabeth Rottenberg, Professor of Philosophy, DePaul University
Antje Pfannkuchen, Associate Professor of German, Dickinson College
Emanuela Bianchi, Associate Professor, Department of Comparative Literature New York University
Mina Cheon, faculty, Maryland Institute College of Art
Michael G. Levine, Professor of German, Rutgers University
Paul North, Professor of German, Yale University
Elissa Marder, Chair, Department of French and Italian, Emory University
Nicola Behrmann, Associate Professor, German Languages and Literatures, Rutgers University- New Brunswick
Kristina Mendocino, Mellon Assistant Professor of Humanities and German, Brown University
Jeffrey Wallon, Professor of Comparative Literature, Hampshire College
Francois Noudelmann, Professor of Philosophy, University of Paris VIII
Jesus Mario Lozano Alamilla, Professor of Music, Universidad de las Americas Puebla, Mexico
Sam Weber, Professor of German, Northwestern University
Peter Fenves, Joan and Sarepta Harrison Professor of Literature, Department of German, Northwestern University
Shoshana Felman, Woodruff Professor of Comparative Literature and French, Emory University
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, University Professor, Columbia University
Slavoj Zizek, Distinguished Professor, Humanities Institute, University of London, Global Professor, New York University
Marc Redfield, Chair, Department of Comparative Literature, Brown University
Peter Szendy, David Herlihy Professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities
Anselm Haverkamp, Professor emeritus NYU and Honorary Professor of Philosophy, Ludwig Maximilians-University Munich/ Germany
Barbara Vinken, Chair of Romance Languages, Ludwig Maximilians-University Munich, Germany
Arno Böhler, Professor University of Vienna, Department of Philosophy and University of Applied Arts Vienna
Susanne Valerie Granzer, Professor, University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna
Elizabeth Weed, editor, differences, former director, Pembroke Center, Brown University
Significantly, the letter was only made public by sources other than its signatories; in the letter of 11 May 2018, Judith Butler et al. all but demanded that the president and provost drop the university’s investigation of sexual harassment charges made against Avital Ronell; my question is, how could Judith Butler and this conclave of academic cardinals know that “malicious intention has animated and sustained this legal nightmare”…? Perhaps even more problematic was the assertion regarding Ronell that “her intellectual influence is felt throughout the humanities, including media and technology studies, feminist theory, and comparative literary study. There is arguably no more important figure in literary studies at New York University than Avital Ronell.” Should high status and great power insulate one from accountability in academia or any other sector of society?
Ironically enough, the defense of Avital Ronell’s abuse of power was compounded by Judith Butler’s abuse of power in signing the letter on behalf of the Modern Languages Association (MLA) of which she was president-elect in May 2018 but not actually in a position to speak on behalf of the organization; in fact, the MLA rebuked her for doing so though took no real action against Butler, despite the fact that it was all the more serious an abuse of power in that she consulted with no one within the association before signing the letter on behalf of it and sent the letter secretly without even informing her MLA colleagues of it. Having served on several boards of directors including serving as president of the board of directors as well as executive director of Queens Pride House as well as chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA), I am extremely aware of the legal and organizational significance of signing a document on behalf of an organization especially in cases where one does not have the authority to do so — something I myself have never done or even considered doing; and it is difficult to believe that Butler would not be aware of the significance of signing a letter such as this on behalf of the MLA; it is especially shocking given the legal significance of that letter in the context of an investigation of charges of sexual harassment.
The fact that the authors of the May 11 letter would send it to the president and provost of NYU and not make it available to Nimrod Reitman — who alleged the sexual harassment by Avital Ronell — so that he could respond to it is one aspect of this case which (to my knowledge) no one has focused on or even commented upon though it strikes me as yet another abuse of power; concealing the letter from Reitman also strikes me as reminiscent of the character of one of the ‘lettres cachets’ that were used in Venice before Napoleon’s dissolution of the Venetian Republic; such letters were posted in mailboxes in the shape of lion’s heads and were used to make anonymous accusations which often resulted in the disappearance of the person named in the lettre cachet without charges or trial; and of course, that’s precisely what Butler et al. all but demand in their letter of May 11: termination of proceedings against Avital Ronell and dismissal of Nimrod Reitman’s charges without any investigation by the university. Because of the centrality of Judith Butler to this scandal, I will quote here in its entirety her letter in response to the uproar over her first letter; the second letter (which had no co-signatories) was published by the Chronicle of Higher Education on 19 August 2018:
August 19, 2018 “I can only speak for myself since the signatories of the letter addressed to the NYU administration regarding the sexual harassment charges brought against Avital Ronell are not a group with a single view, and different authors helped to craft the draft version of the letter that appeared online without our consent. When the signatories learned that termination of employment for Ronell was under consideration by NYU, we were bewildered by the severity of this possible sanction. We understood she was accused of conducting a ‘romantic friendship’ and that her emails had been scrutinized for evidence of a sexual relationship. Our aim was not to defend her actions – we did not have the case in hand – but to oppose the termination of her employment as a punishment. Such a punishment seemed unfair given the findings as we understood them. In hindsight, those of us who sought to defend Ronell against termination surely ought to have been more fully informed of the situation if we were going to make an intervention. “Moreover, the letter was written in haste and the following are my current regrets about it. First, we ought not to have attributed motives to the complainant, even though some signatories had strong views on this matter. The claims of sexual harassment have too often been dismissed by discrediting the complainant, and that nefarious tactic has stopped legitimate claims from going forward and exacerbated the injustice. When and where such a claim proves to be illegitimate, it should be demonstrated on the basis of the evidence alone.
“Second, we should not have used language that implied that Ronell’s status and reputation earn her differential treatment of any kind. Status ought to have no bearing on the adjudication of sexual harassment. All faculty should be treated the same under Title IX protocols, that is, subject to the same rules and, where justified, sanctions. Immediately after the confidential draft letter was published online, I was in direct communication with the MLA officers (the Executive Director, the President and the First Vice-President) to apologize for the listing of my position within the organization after my name. I acknowledged that I should not have allowed the MLA affiliation to go forward with my name. I expressed regret to the MLA officers and staff, and my colleagues accepted my apology. I extend that same apology to MLA members. We all make errors in life and in work. The task is to acknowledge them, as I hope I have, and to see what they can teach us as we move forward.” (Judith Butler, “Judith Butler Explains Letter in Support of Avital Ronell,” letter to the editor, Chronicle of Higher Education 20 August 2018).
Butler’s non-apology is striking in its lack of real remorse for accusing Nimrod Reitman of ‘malicious intention,’ saying only that “we ought not to have attributed motives to the complainant, even though some signatories had strong views on this matter. The claims of sexual harassment have too often been dismissed by discrediting the complainant, and that nefarious tactic has stopped legitimate claims from going forward and exacerbated the injustice. When and where such a claim proves to be illegitimate, it should be demonstrated on the basis of the evidence alone.” But how could ‘some signatories’ have ‘strong views on this matter’ if as Butler writes, that “we did not have the case in hand”…?
If they were not ‘fully apprised of the facts of the case,’ as Butler et al. admitted in that statement, then why did she and her co-signatories insist that they knew with apparent certainty that no sexual harassment had ever taken place between Ronell and Reitman and that the latter was driven by malicious intent? And how responsible was it for Butler to have written a letter ‘in haste’ when two academic careers were hanging in the balance and the May 11 letter was intended to have a decisive impact on the outcome of the NYU investigation? Simply saying “we all make errors” is itself irresponsible.
Even more irresponsible is Butler’s failure to acknowledge the abuse of power in using the full weight of the MLA’s organizational authority to try to influence the NYU administration’s decision without having consulted with a single MLA colleague; it is actually much worse than this, because Butler sent the letter in secret, not even informing MLA colleagues of the letter after sending it, as Butler herself acknowledges in this statement. I have served on multiple boards of directors and have chaired two as well as serving as the executive director of a not-for-profit organization; I would never have signed a letter on a matter of this importance to anyone as board chair or president without consulting my colleagues before sending it and it is simply inconceivable that one would send such a letter and conceal its very existence from one’s board colleagues, all the more so given that Butler is not yet president but merely president-elect and therefore not authorized to make any statement on behalf of the MLA.
But even more serious than Butler’s outrageous and unacknowledged abuse of power is her utterly insincere declaration that “we should not have used language that implied that Ronell’s status and reputation earn her differential treatment of any kind. Status ought to have no bearing on the adjudication of sexual harassment.” Anyone reading the May 11 letter can see that Butler et al. are more than just ‘implying’ that “Ronell’s status and reputation earn her differential treatment of any kind.” Butler et al. write, “There is arguably no more important figure in literary studies at New York University than Avital Ronell… 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…”
“And we should not have used language that implied that Ronell’s status and reputation earn her differential treatment of any kind. Judith Butler was forced into a humiliating climbdown from her letter because it was rightly understood as condoning sexual harassment and excoriating the university for daring even to investigate the charges because of the prominence and power of the accused without any expression of concern for the victim of Ronell’s predations. Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, tweeted that the Butler letter “echoed the defenses of male harassers” as in fact it did.
Butler & Co. seem to be saying that stripping someone of tenure who has such status in the profession is in and of itself an ‘injustice’ even if she were guilty of the crimes she was accused of — and conversely, that it would be no injustice whatsoever to demote or dismiss someone who lacked such status in academia. Butler et al. are also clearly asserting that someone without Ronell’s ‘international standing and reputation’ does not deserve ‘dignity,’ which is to be accorded only to the powerful.
“El Principito después de acabar Filosofía y Letras” (The Little Prince after finishing a degree in philosophy & letters) “Yo voy a tomar esa con forma de sombrero.” (I’ll take the one in the shape of a hat.) “Serpiente.” (Snake.) ~Lorena Velasco (@odepeza) periodista multimedia (multimedia journalist) Lisboa (Lisbon) (ojodepeza.com)
It is difficult to see the feminism in this approach to allegations of sexual harassment and I have to confess I have a rather different conception of feminism than Butler and her confederates; I actually take allegations of sexual harassment seriously and I do not think as they seem to do that merely holding superior status in academia and having direct power over the accuser means that the accuser can never be believed; apply that standard to Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump. In the case of Hollywood’s most powerful producer, one would cite countless Academy Award-winning films and perhaps his significant donations to the Democratic Party, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates for president and other offices; then contrast Weinstein’s celebrity with the far lower status of the actresses accusing him of sexual harassment and even sexual assault and see where Butler’s logic leads. In the case of Donald Trump, compare his status as president of the United States with that of the women accusing him of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault — in the case of Stephanie Clifford, the porn star known by her stage name as ‘Stormy Daniels’ — and by Butler’s logic, one would have to credit the accused with innocence because of his higher status and ability to exercise power over the accuser while dismissing the accuser’s charges as simply driven by ‘malicious intention.’ Indeed, using Butler’s logic, any man or woman with sufficient power to make or break a subordinate’s career must be insulated from accountability or even scrutiny; and conversely, the powerless and those with low status or no status deserve neither dignity nor even a hearing when they have the courage to come forward with complaints of sexual harassment or even sexual assault.
Butlerian feminism — apparently shared by Gaytri Spivak, Slavoj Zizek and all of the other signatories — would seem to reverse the logic of progressive feminism by according the accused not only the benefit of the doubt but assigning to anyone who claims to be the victim of sexual harassment or even sexual assault ‘malicious intention.’ In this extraordinary reversal of progressive feminist thinking, the status of the powerful must be secured and maintained by the elite neoliberal institution at all cost and the accusations of those directly subjected to their power dismissed out of hand because of their lower status and precisely because they are subject to the exercise of power by those who exercise power over them.
“Es kann als durchaus schockierend empfunden werden, dass eine relativ große Gruppe von Professoren davon ausgeht, an der New York University könne es kein gerechtes Verfahren für Professor Ronell geben. Es erscheint zudem besorgniserregend, dass die Personen, die die Titel-IX-Beschwerde eingereicht haben, von den Professoren leichtfertig und ohne nähere Gründe und ohne Detailkenntnisse (außer sie stammten von den Betroffenen selbst) als böswillig beschrieben werden. Sprachlos schließlich lässt einen der arrogante Ton zurück, mit dem die Professoren die Unschuld ihrer Kollegin aus den ausführlich beschriebenen wissenschaftlichen Verdiensten herleiten. Eine solche Argumentation spricht den mit dem Vorfall betrauten Zuständigen an der NYU ein differenziertes Urteilsvermögen ab. Auch die Unschuld Harvey Weinsteins ergibt sich nicht aus den gefeierten Filmen, die er produziert hat. Und niemand ist von vornherein unschuldig, weil er oder sie Hölderlin so vorzüglich interpretiert hat,” wrote Anton Pluschke (Anton Pluschke, “Arroganz spricht,” Freitag.de, 13 June 2018).
(It should be considered quite shocking that a relatively large group of professors believe that there can be no fair trial for Professor Ronell at New York University. It is also worrisome that the person who submitted the Title IX [sexual harassment] complaint was described so recklessly as ‘malicious’ by the professors [who are signatories to Judith Butler’s May 11 letter] and for no specific reason and without any detailed knowledge (unless they were the victims themselves). One is ultimately left speechless by the arrogant tone with which the professors insist on the innocence of their colleague. Such assertion was clearly an attempt to question and undermine the judgment of the NYU administration in this case. The innocence of Harvey Weinstein [of charges of sexual harassment and assault] is not proven by the acclaimed films he produced. And no one is automatically innocent simply because he or she has interpreted Hölderlin so skillfully (translation mine)).
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 foregoing 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 corporateneoliberal 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.”
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.
“This course explores the literature, philosophy, phsychoanalysis and political theories of straightjacketed existence. Is the stagnation of being a temptation or a necessity? How are we confined within a grievance culture — by whom, to what purpose? Do we have enough agency to pull out of the psychic stalls or political stagnation fueled by misgivings and faltering assumptions? How does fiction manage these questions and reconfigure our being-toward-death? Are growing accounts of ethical failure and mounting injustice at all survivable? We shall also analyze different aspects of penitentiary culture or what Michel Foucault calls ‘the carceral subject’ — effects of incarceration whether material or imaginary, corporeal and psychic. To what extent do boundaries protect or limit the possibility of experience? How have we secretly internalized penitentiary structures? By the end of the course, the thinking organized around limits, frontiers, and different forms of lockdown, will offer boundless interpretive possibilities and a new freedom for understanding movement and its inhibitors. Our start-up text will be Heinrich v. Kleist’s famous work on the making of a terrorist, Michael Kohlhaas, whose exemplary demise in the face of inequity drives him to political despair. One of our sticking points will involve Kleist’s circumscription of a feminized zone of counter-memory. To frame our work, we will lean heavily on Lyotard’s theores of dispute (“The Différend) and explore Derrida’s thought on justice and the mystical foundations of authority (“Force of Law,” on Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence).”
Aside from the obvious obscurantist pretensions of the writing and the various allusions and the overuse of commas, what strikes me is how the course description reads almost as a coded confession of sorts: “Are growing accounts of ethical failure and mounting injustice at all survivable?” strikes me as alluding to Ronell’s own ethical failure in harassing Neiman Reitman and of course the ‘mounting injustice’ here has to be the injustice of Ronell basically getting off scot-free largely because of the profoundly unethical intervention of Judith Butler et al., whose letter to NYU’s senior administration itself reads like an implicit threat against the university should it have the audacity to try to hold Ronell accountable for her crimes. In her own imaginary, is Ronell casting herself as the ‘carceral subject’ of persecution by her all-powerful advisee? Is the ‘grievance culture’ she refers to the ‘Me, Too’ culture of accountability for those engaging in sexual harassment? And is the reference to ‘boundaries’ that may ‘protect or limit the possibility of experience’ a reference to Ronell’s feeling unfairly restricted by rules that she believes should not apply to members of the academic elite such as Ronell herself? Or is the reference to ‘boundaries’ here perhaps an implicit acknowledgement on Ronell’s part of her own lack of ‘boundaries’ with regard to her graduate advisee…?
In response to the course offering and description, Andrea Long Chu tweeted, “the funny thing is it’s just the same damn texts she ALWAYS teaches, she really has to go out of her way to own herself this bad” (@theorygurl, Twitter, 18 April 2019), earning 147 ‘hearts’ (the Twitter equivalent of ‘likes’ on Facebook), three ‘re-tweets’ and five responses.
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. Eliot Cohen compares Judith Butler’s defense of Avital Ronell to Ed Whelan’s defense of Judge Brett Kavanaugh (Eliot A. Cohen, “The Crisis of the American Elites,” the Atlantic, 23 September 2018), writing,
“Whelan, an intimate of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who is now a candidate for the position of associate justice on the Supreme Court, wrote a bizarre extended tweetstorm defending his friend from the accusations of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her at a party 35 years ago… The stories of Whelan and Butler have nothing to do with whether one thinks Kavanaugh and Ronell did nothing at all or behaved appallingly. They have everything to do with the current crisis of American elites in many fields, including the law and higher education. For the lawyer and the professor are exquisitely similar… Their motives here are also similar: Eminent friends are being taken down at the peak of their professional career by someone who is, in their world, a nobody. It’s outrageous, and it has to be stopped. And if, by so doing, you defame a classmate of Kavanaugh’s, accusing him of attempted rape, or effectively threaten to obliterate a graduate student’s career by lending a mob of literature professors the imprimatur of the MLA, so be it. That is the point and that is the sin: the willingness to stomp hard on a defenseless little guy in order to protect your highly privileged pal…”
Butler and Ronell have been called the leading feminists in the world today and both love to heap ridicule on Donald Trump; yet Butler’s defense of Ronell’s sexual harassment is strikingly like Trump’s and Whelan’s defense of Brett Kavanaugh just as the abuse of power that Butler and Ronell engaged in parallels the abuse of power both Trump and Kavanaugh engaged in; the irony is that two queer women who think of themselves as progressive feminists and despise the politics of Donald Trump replicate the abusive politics of the president and his Supreme Court nominee in wielding power without responsibility and insisting on insulating themselves from accountability and even public scrutiny. The Ronell scandal and Butler’s leading role in it illustrate the all-too-common phenomenon of those who espouse progressive politics — what I would call ‘external politics’ — but practice institutional and interpersonal politics of the most despicable sort.
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.
“A hippopotamus bites off more than it can chew in Maasai Mara, Kenya,” photo by Mike Triton (CWPA/Barcroft Images, via National Geographic, 4.2018)
Pauline Park is an LGBT activist based in Queens who led the campaign for the transgender rights law enacted by the New York City Council in 2018 and was the first openly transgendered grand marshal of the New York City LGBT Pride March when she served in that capacity in 2005. Park participated in the first US LGBTQ delegation tour of Palestine and has written widely on LGBT issues as well as the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip; she did her Ph.D. in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.