Justice is rare. But once in a while there arises an unexpected situation that nourishes the hope that justice has not disappeared entirely from the world. The news of an impending lawsuit against NYU professor Avital Ronell reminded me of a conversation I had years ago with one of her students. Even her luck can’t last forever, this student reckoned. At some point, he said, she won’t be able to continue to abuse her power and unleash psychic terror on her students without being punished. At the time I considered the cloistered world of the university and the unique powers of intrigue and manipulation this professor possesses, and I was skeptical. Now, years later, it seems the student was right. There is, however, bitter resistance brewing, which has also found expression in the feuilletons of German newspapers. A muddle-headed resistance puts solidarity among its members before justice, thus scorning the victim.
First, a brief flashback. As chair of the German department and head of the appointment committee, I 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.
At that point, I understood the question the dean had posed during my interview, namely, where do you stand on deconstruction? I was still naïve and answered as though he had asked me what I think of Leibniz. After I’d arrived in New York it took me a while to understand what was really behind the dean’s anxious question. We were at war, and, as in any war, there was only a yes or a no, for me or against me.
In Professor Ronell’s opinion, I was not enough for her. So she began, after an initial period of acclimatization in the department, to undermine my position as department head. When she spoke, I noticed deviations from the facts; in her deeds, the signs of disloyalty. An unpleasant tension took root. I didn’t expect gratitude, but I could not have imagined such disloyalty. If Martin Heidegger obliterated the name of his predecessor, ejecting him from the offices he eventually occupied, as Ronell claims (in “The Telephone Book“), then obviously he was her role model.
“To make things ‘perfectly clear’ is reactionary and stupefying. The real is not perfectly clear.” – Avital Ronell
The university belongs, like the church and the military, to the social institutions that are situated at a considerable distance from democracy and adhere to premodern power structures. Professor Ronell was unusually skilled at manipulating these. Nothing is so important in these power plays as the unconditional support of the dean of faculty. Luck was on her side. The dean had changed, and the new dean admired her and her publications, of which, I suspect, he had not read a single one. If he had, he would have had to disown his own. But his confidante in the comparative literature department provided him with evidence of theory-queen Ronell’s genius. He took every opportunity to throw himself at her feet.
Working with the dean, she achieved a coup. After I’d returned from a semester in Berlin, I found a letter from the dean on my desk, informing me I was no longer chair of the department. Professor Ronell now occupied my position. No consultation or information preceded this announcement. No appeal, no protest, no reference to my arrangement with the former dean, who had in the meantime left NYU, was relevant. No reason for my demotion was given. The plan I had developed and had begun implementing for the department had evidently been scuttled. Having made Professor Ronell acting chair and installed her in that position before my trip to Berlin, she seamlessly continued as chair.
“Giorgio Agamben is possibly the most delicate and probing thinker since Walter Benjamin.” Avital Ronell
But squeezing me out wasn’t enough for Ronell. Any means were justified in her attempt to destroy my reputation. A friend from Princeton had warned me against hiring her, predicting she would, after a short while, denigrate me as a male chauvinist. This reproach did not escape her lips. After all, it would have been implausible, since, of the five positions I had filled in the department, four were given to women.
“Neither a pathology nor an index as such of moral default, stupidity is nonetheless linked to the most dangerous failures of human endeavor. ” Avital Ronell
However, she had another arrow in her quill. At a public event she labeled me an anti-Semite. Not that she actually believed this smear. But the accusation, once uttered, was not easy to unhear, and since it fit into her political calculations, she had no scruples deploying it. Even if no one believed the charge, it would still have the desired effect for her. Semper aliquid haeret, as the Romans used to say: Something always sticks.
With that, the first step to her goal was taken, namely, to discredit me and to destroy my standing at the university. All of this she did from behind a veil of smiles and verbal niceties. Hypocrisy reigned.
Since I usually learned only indirectly of her slandering me, I had no means of defending myself. Circumstances didn’t allow for more than a frustrated silence. A colleague, a professor of economics whom I respected and who was on the committee that appointed me to NYU, one day did not know me, turning on his heel when we met by accident on the street. I can only guess why he reacted this way.
She once won first prize in the Bad Writing Contest overseen by the late philosopher Denis Dutton. Her winning piece, taken from an entirely serious article published in “the scholarly journal Diacritics,” is an excellent example of how to get to the top in po-mo academe:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power. (Bad Writing Contest for 1998)
From her second semester onward Professor Ronell reigned with an authoritarian hand, gloved in her well-proven hypocrisy. Instructors whom I had brought to the department either submitted to her regime or lost their jobs, always according to the letter of the law and in discussion with the dean, never in consultation with members of the German department. Once, she drafted a secret dissenting opinion against the unanimous decision of a commission and submitted it to the dean. The protest we as a department made to the dean against the dismissal of a junior professor fell on deaf ears. He would make no decision that ran counter to the will of the chairperson. The cynicism of Professor Ronell’s reasoning was hard to beat. The dismissal of this junior colleague was in this professor’s best interests, she explained, for she would not have felt comfortable in the department. In fact, Ronell wanted this colleague to leave because she was not prepared to be subservient. Someone else was found to fill in. Sure, the new hire had no experience, but at least she was ready to submit to Professor Ronell.
She dismissed a lecturer in the German language who had been hired by my predecessor and had for years done a great job. Occasionally, he had been a bit aloof around Professor Ronell. For that he had to pay. When he returned to his office to pack up his things, Professor Ronell appeared to commiserate with him and assure him of her sympathy, until he broke into tears and fled the room.
The quality of teaching in the department unraveled. The carefully planned program of teaching German literature was ignored. Many students arrived in the department with minimal knowledge of German literature or history. The courses that were meant to correct this no longer existed. Now philosophy, from Hegel to Judith Butler, was taught. But multidisciplinarity quickly deteriorated into dilettantism. Students were encouraged to take philosophy seminars at other universities. Soon, students who had learned about deconstruction and feminism in Paris, but who had no idea who Gottfried Benn, Joseph Roth and Alfred Döblin were, were no exception in the department. As one student told me, “We study in a German department where French theory is taught in English.”
I am amazed even today that we succeeded in preventing the inclusion of a clause in the German department’s charter that would have exempted students from mastering the German language. It was Professor Ronell who, in all seriousness, made this suggestion. In fact, however, she admitted students who spoke English and French, but not a word of German — but they had studied in Paris and proven in their term papers that they were Derrida connoisseurs.
Included in Professor Ronell’s instruments of domination was the absolute control of information. Information streams were strictly controlled, and a thick net was spun that captured and distributed them as she saw fit. At a department meeting Professor Ronell let it be known through her secretary that no member of the department would be allowed to make contact with any dean at NYU without her (Professor Ronell’s) explicit consent. Soon after that, there were no more department meetings. Information was exchanged only in one-on-one conversations. Whoever did not belong to the inner circle had no access to information. Uncertainty grew, and the department became a rumor mill. This fostered all sorts of manipulation that in turn served to strengthen the inner circle. As in a conventicle [a secret or illegal religious meeting], access to information was gained through eavesdropping on the proclamation of the divinity’s message. Inquiries and criticisms were unwanted.
The rules for the formation of Ronell’s congregation functioned within as without. Necessary to maintaining this body of followers was the placing of a few people in strategically advantageous positions, a journal in which colleagues could review one another’s work, and a flock of admirers. These conditions either existed already or were manufactured. An editor from a publisher was introduced to me with the sentence: “He discovered me!” I received, presumably as a test, an offer to review a book in “one of our” journals. The book had been written by “one of our own.” My review was critical; I saw no reason to praise the book. Further offers to review books were not forthcoming. I’d flunked the test.
The interests of graduate students counted for little. In a department meeting, all students were informed they wasted the professors’ precious research time by asking for guidance and advice.
Sharpening the critical faculties of students was no longer the goal of the department under Professor Ronell. Quite the contrary. Before students were allowed to practice criticism, they had to learn to subject themselves to authority. Every objection, every doubt, brought punishment with it. Dissent was heresy, and heretics would be reprimanded or excommunicated — and not always with a smile, but often ironically, derisively, maliciously.
Two students told me about a seminar in which the “O” in Heinrich von Kleist’s novella “The Marquise von O” was under discussion. Pauline Réage, in her pornographic novel “Story of O“ explores the relationship between sexuality and extreme forms of submission. This subject can certainly be discussed in a university seminar — but in one on Kleist? And the obvious question of the relation between university teaching and submission was, according to the students’ report, not dealt with. There was a reason for that.
I have saved a letter from a student who was close enough to Avital Ronell to study her in detail. He was an older student who had completed training as a psychotherapist. He had wanted to write his dissertation under her guidance. After one year, he gave up, disillusioned, and left the department. I quote from an E-mail he wrote to Professor Ronell :
From my interactions with you and observing you in various settings, you give the impression that you suffer from a well-known mental illness referred to as malignant narcissism in a borderline structure …
There are clear clinical descriptions of sadistic object relations. You may get some sense of why your criticisms of students are so often felt to be destructive and disillusioning: you appear to be unable to control your sadism. Don’t you realize that the metaphor you expressed to me in front of other faculty, that you liken your role to that of a Procrustean bonsai master who prunes and places wires on her students, probably points to a destructive, violent and sadistic phantasy that is only worsened by the self-satisfied relish with which you related it? This disorder, were it found to be present, would also account for why you sometimes seem to me slightly unkempt. These comments are meant to be helpful. I hope you will seek out a proper professional evaluation to identify whatever the problems are and have them addressed. I am concerned for you and I hope you will take this caution seriously …
This student had the financial means to leave. Other students were not in such fortunate positions. They were dependent on Professor Ronell’s approval if they didn’t want to put their stipends at risk. How quickly this approval might disappear she made crystal clear. As soon as a student’s admiration was deemed lacking, Avital Ronell withdrew her support. The department became a hand-selected group of disciples. Whoever didn’t fit in left voluntarily or was pressured to do so. One such student said to me by way of farewell: “Avital never should have been made chair of this department.”
Trust cannot grow in a department where the chair repeatedly stresses her commitment to the success of staff and students, but in truth has only her own success in mind. As the dismissed junior colleague said, the learning environment under such leadership grew cold. Hypocrisy, suspicion and intrigue were all that blossomed.
Under the mantle of hypocrisy, Professor Ronell’s abuse of power was the order of the day. If a relationship between Ronell and a student had a sexualized tincture, its end spelled personal catastrophe for the student. The initiation of a sexualized relationship is never only an ethical violation; it is also a major breach of professional conduct that inevitably influences a student’s professional training. I know of a student who lost her stipend after a personal conflict with Ronell. This meant she wasn’t able to continue her education, which meant she lost her visa and had to return to her home country. Later, I met her by coincidence at a conference in Berlin. She lived from gig to gig and off of grant money. But her judgment of her former advisor hadn’t changed: Ronell, she insisted, was a genius, the greatest living literary theorist. Once a member of the sect, always a member. Tunnel vision forever.
One time I was away from the department for a few weeks, and a student had used my office and computer. When I returned, I found a letter on my desktop that the student had written to Ronell. Never in my life had I read a cry of such groveling submission and howling guilt. She begged forgiveness because she had failed to appear at a scheduled meeting. She confessed: She had not been sick. Instead, she had not had the inner strength to meet Avital in person at her apartment. Would Avital forgive her one more time?
Other students kept their appointments with Professor Ronell. I remember a student from Iran. Ronell had pressured him to write his PhD thesis on Goethe’s “West-East Divan” under her guidance. He acquiesced, bowing to necessity. After a conference with his new mentor, he slunk into my office. He closed the door and dropped his voice (the walls had ears), and said: “I am sick to my stomach. I need to take two days off to recover.” Most students reacted differently through self-humiliation and self-abnegating subjugation. They were ever-stricken with a guilty conscience and an identification with their aggressor. The question of guilt played a large role in Professor Ronell’s machinations. Her steady accusation was this: “You are guilty and deserve to be punished by me.” Students translated this as: “Yes, I am guilty and deserve to be punished by you.” The severe über-mama was always in the right.
Going against her prohibition of making any unauthorized contact with university officials, I arranged a meeting with a new dean. I could no longer look on in silence, and I told her about the desolate state of teaching in the German department and the psychic pressure students were forced to endure. The dean’s response: There are no faculty police to ensure the enforcement of rules. If there are problems, they need to be solved within the department. This, in my view, provided carte blanche for abuse. A few days later, Professor Ronell inquired of me if I “still” found it necessary to stay in contact with the deans. On the same day she found a new way to humiliate me. The continued bullying — needling and more serious harassment — had no end.
Even when one is acquainted with the hermetic world of the modern academy, it is still hard to believe how many years had to pass before awareness of Ronell’s abuse of power made its way to a public forum, or before her sexualized pedagogy would even be mentioned.
“Learning to speak is like learning to shoot.” Avital Ronell
Now, however, a few commentators will have us know that the case of Ronell is a fresh example of the oppression of a leftist feminist by conservative white men. This political polarization is crude, and its goal transparent: This is war, and ranks are closing around Ronell.
Leftist? Avital Ronell’s father figures are Martin Heidegger and, often quoted and paraphrased, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan. Who could possibly describe them as left-leaning theorists? If Ronell has a political agenda, it is the liquidation of the legacy of 1968.
In the German newspapers Die Zeit and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Ronell has been elevated to the “shining light” of feminist studies. I had to read this description twice before I could believe my eyes. Anyone trying to find a substantial contribution to feminist thought in her work will be searching for a long time. And “shining light”? If pure ignorance did not produce this phrase, then it is simply the reality-denying militancy of ideology. If “light” is supposed to refer to the Enlightenment, this is also a perversion of standards. Few other books in recent years have served the Counter-Enlightenment as well as Avital Ronell’s books. Her hypocrisy serves the commentators’ lack of insight. She likes to cast herself as diabolical and loves the color black — but only in the sanctuary of her inner circle. As soon as her audience grows beyond those confines, she performs a new role, namely, that of the fragile and vulnerable woman.
The quality of her publications is trotted out as one reason she should remain immune from criticism. But should even a brilliant book protect someone from accusations of sexual harassment and abuses of power? Moreover, not everyone agrees that Professor Ronell’s books have made significant contributions to theoretical debates. And not everyone who declares her guilty of intellectual charlatanism (for example, for her fantasies of a conversation between Martin Heidegger and the SA in Berlin, or her musings about Flaubert and the crack wars) are old, misogynist men thirsting for the blood of emancipated women.
How could such a polarization emerge? I remember a conversation I had with a colleague after one of Ronell’s lectures. In private and with a glass of wine in hand, we agreed without hesitation: It was a convoluted mess replete with incomprehensible longueurs. As soon a third person joined us, however, the conversation shifted to high praise. The intervention of Ronell’s network of supporters was working splendidly.
She is expert at translating incomprehensibility into pseudo-profundity. The following convoluted remarks were Avital Ronell’s attempt at clarifying the convoluted structure of her book “Crack Wars.” Her purpose was not, she argued, to show complicity with the “metaphysics of continuity” — what could this mean?
In fact, I wanted to move with a disruptive flow characteristic of the types of experience which we can still have which are discontinuous, rhythmed according to different moments and impulses, urges. I was trying to play precisely with the question of speeding and slowing down, and the relation of artificial injections to the way we can think about temporality. So the book is on different types of drugs, too: there’s the more psychedelic moments, there’s the narcotized moments where it slows down into a heroin experience, and there’s the speed freak moments. Different articulations. There’s different angles and approaches (or reproaches) to the problem. Since it’s also trying to argue for the relationship of drugs to technology, I do try to sequence it according to this discontinuous flow, in the sense that the electronic media “makes sense” only by discontinuous flows. So it would be an instance of non-technological resistance to try to produce an uninterrupted linear argumentation.
Professor Ronell’s confused efforts at originality don’t convince every reader. Terms such as “ontic,” “identity,” “Dasein,” “a priori” and “totality” are generously scattered throughout her books and give the impression of philosophical rigor. In such a lexical environment, the following banalities and meaningless sentences have a patina of significance: “As for Hölderlin, he did not watch television,” or “A woman’s voice is perfectly suited to perform a phallic penetration” (from “The Telephone Book”). “That’s how I want to write,” sighed a student whom Ronell had helped to make the jump from Bielefeld to New York. He wasn’t the only one who took burbling nonsense for profundity.
One rarely sees posed the question of whether her writings have meaning beyond the suggestive allure of their incomprehensibility or their playful associative quality. Judgment is preordained; admiration is programmed. To keep this charlatanism alive, her cultivation of her communications network is essential. At one of the last faculty receptions I attended the year I finally threw in the towel, one of the, by that time, many deans, vice-deans or sub-deans said, “But her research!” just moments after bemoaning from one corner of his mouth the deficiencies of her administration.
Whoever masters the art of manipulating deans and colleagues has won the game. I must admit that I once unwillingly took part in that power game by offering her a professorship. At a similar faculty function, I remarked that as chair of the department I had made gravely misguided decisions. Avital, who stood nearby, immediately understood what was behind this remark. “That can only have been me.” She never wanted for presence of mind and intellectual sharpness, for what, in the 18th century, was called “wit.”
Ronell’s supporters warn of the loss to NYU and the academic world if she is disciplined. But what, exactly, would be lost? In an open letter, available online, philosopher and visiting professor at NYU Slavoj Žižek bemoans the potential loss to the academy, because it is in need of her “ironic, mocking, sardonic” language.
Ronell’s high-profile supporters blame the students for misunderstanding her modes of communication. Such self-justification is scandalous. Whom are university professors meant to serve? Are they there for their own entertainment and self-affirmation? As her student in the quoted letter observed more than 10 years ago, Ronell’s students found her language destructive and injurious – contrary to Žižek’s glowing assessment of their effect. But Professor Ronell, he added, was obviously incapable of seeing the sadism at work in her language. If she conceives of her verbiage as the equivalent of a bonsai master’s craft, one based on cutting and constraining, then this destructive and sadistic fantasy will merely be strengthened by the self-justified pleasure she obviously takes in cutting down her students.
Can it be anything but false solidarity that is now practiced as a diagnosis from afar, or, in the case of Žižek, who after a mere two weeks at NYU, sees in Ronell an understanding and caring professor? Whoever wants to whitewash the misconduct of Avital Ronell does so either out of ignorance or is eager to make a contribution to this undeclared war. As in all wars, truth is the first casualty, and these alternative facts do a disservice to the cause of women. 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.
Bernd Hüppauf is professor emeritus at New York University. He taught modern literature, cultural theory and comparative literature at NYU, where he was also director of Deutsches Haus. His books include “War, Violence and the Modern Condition” and “Globalization and the Future of German.”