Sunday, August 19, 2018

A Last Word on Avital Ronell

As Shakespeare said: Once more into the breach…. I trust you will avoid imagining that there is anything Freudian about the quote-- uttered by King Henry V-- because we are yet again going to examine the furor and hubbub over NYU professor Avital Ronell. Hopefully, for the last time.

As noted in a previous post, it’s the reductio ad absurdum of #MeToo. A lesbian professor accused of sexual harassment by a gay male grad student. What’s not to like about the story. The university undertook a lengthy investigation and concluded that Ronell was acting inappropriately and unprofessionally toward her graduate student. The student was named Nimrod Reitman. It chose to suspend her for a year… which is better than stripping her of her tenure.

Meantime a cabal of radicals formed to defend Ronell, led by notable Hamas and Hezbollah supporter Judith Butler. Now, famed philosopher clown Slavoj Zizek has come forth to declare that the allegations are untrue. How does he know? He does not say, but he assures us that the facts do not support Nimrod’s claim. The amusing part here is that the great philosopher clown has suddenly decided that facts exist… clearly a deviation from party orthodoxy.

Anyway, The New York Times has returned to the story, because, among other reasons, Nimrod filed a lawsuit. Within the Times report we find instances of Ronell’s passionate emails to Nimrod.

Among them:

“I was crying when I did not hear back from you. It was a hard night,” read one. Or: “I am on a need to hear from you basis, please don’t refrain much longer!”

True love, you will naturally think. But also very, very needy. She responded that it was all just a pile of rhetoric, the kind that is understandable within the gay community. And she responded, by showing that Nimrod returned her passion, or was playing along, or something. He wrote:

“Sweet Beloved, I was so happy to see you tonight, and spend time together. It was so magical and important, crucial on [sic] so many ways. Our shared intimacy was a glorious cadence to our time in Berlin.”

Can anyone say power imbalance? Does the notion of impropriety pop into head? To be fair to the radical professor Ronell, those who continue to practice deconstruction have long since deconstructed the notion of propriety.They have exposed it as a bourgeois, capitalist, colonialist, phallocentric, patriarchal concept… one that good radicals must immediately expunge from all proper discourse. For the record, the practice of deconstruction was invented by a Nazi philosopher…. It is philosopher-speak for: pogrom.

Let's not call Ronell and the cabal that has formed to defend her liberal or progressive. They are anything but.

This much to say that Ronell engaged in conversations that would, in any corporate or professional environment, be considered wildly out of bounds.

But, to give a better sense of Avital Ronell’s discursive practice and the way she treats her students, I turn to a Facebook post, reposted by one Louis-George Schwartz. It was written by someone who preferred to remain anonymous. It is illuminating, to say the least.

Ronell likes to use and manipulate her graduate students:

AR pulls students and young faculty in by flattery, then breaks their self-esteem, goes on to humiliate them in front of others, until the only way to tell yourself and others that you have not been debased, that you have not been used by a pathological narcissist as a private slave, is that you are just so incredibly close, and that Avi is just so incredibly fragile and lonely and needs you 24/7 to do groceries, to fold her laundry, to bring her to acupuncture, to pick her up from acupuncture, to drive her to JFK, to talk to her at night, etc.

How does that sound? Here’s another account from the inner sanctum of the NYU German department:

A visiting student described the state of Avital’s posse as “Stockholm Syndrome.” When I was accepted at NYU, students took me to the side and told me – that if I didn’t want to get into serious trouble – I “had to” write a personal email to “Avi,” thanking her for my acceptance in the department. A short time later, I was standing on a rooftop when the cellphone of the person with whom I was talking rang, one of AR’s students; AR screaming on the other end of the line; the student smiled apologetically: “Avi doesn’t want me to go to parties, she thinks I should be at home on the weekends and work.”

And also:

I get literally nauseous every time I see another post about AR. When I was a graduate student in the NYU German department, both she and Eckart Goebel tormented students, postdocs, and staff with their narcissistic personality disorders, their choleric fits, and yes, their sexual harassment. When I refused to have either Avital or Eckart as advisor, they threatened to kick me out of the department; I seriously considered switching departments or quitting academia. Instead, I started therapy again; I remember my therapist telling me in the first session: “Oh, whatever, just say you’re sorry - give the elephant a peanut!” and a little later: “Why on earth would you apologize?”

One espies a pattern of systematic bullying… one which did not always have a sexual component:

Every time I didn’t take a seminar with AR, the departmental manager wrote me an email telling me “you are expected to take Avital’s seminar” (the rest of the time, the same departmental manager was busy baking brownies because “Eckart is in a bad mood” wink, wink). Let me be clear: I learned a ton from AR in the first two semesters; I admired her wit, intelligence, her politics – but after two semesters it was all repetition; she was clearly under-prepared for teaching and rambling self-importantly about her seminar as “the theater of hell” and about how we have to “open another dossier” while we do “very important work in our gentle community.”

And then there was the matter of Ronell’s decorum-- I trust that you understand that decorum has also been deconstructed:

How very gentle, indeed… at conferences, that several people who signed the pro-AR letter attended, she would shout at a graduate student “You don’t deserve to ask a question!”, she would call invited speakers “ungrateful” in front of a whole audience. When one of her most loyal students announced he was getting married she screamed at him in the departmental hallway: “You are abandoning me!” I remember her following me into a bathroom-stall, trying to persuade me that she should be my advisor (“I could also co-advise you!”)

What happened to the student who declined to have Ronell as an advisor?

When later that day, I declined once more via email, writing awkwardly that our “styles” were simply not compatible (What should I have said? “You are a horrible person, go away”?), she wrote me that she first had to break me before she could put me back together intellectually. Later, she contacted at least two professors who invited me for interviews (one for a fellowship, the other for a job), telling them that I wasn’t “trustworthy.” That backfired. Still, I did not get extra-funding like other students, I was prevented from teaching for a professor who wanted me as a TA, I was never suggested for any departmental fellowships or honors -- these were the smaller forms of retribution.

It’s not all about sex. Schwartz concludes that the pattern of systematic abuse, bullying, manipulation, intimidation was the worst part of it:

All I am saying is: the AR-case is not about a single case of sexual harassment, it’s about systematic manipulation, bullying, intimidation, pitting students against each other, creating rivalry between them. Once I spoke out against AR when, at one of her weekly dinners with her posse, she was making fun of a queer student who had just spoken in seminar about having changed her name in fear of her family (“Oooh, I’m so scared of my family! I had to change my name!” AR’s assistant: “Do you think she was sexually abused? She looked like it”); I got furious, AR tried to put me in my place; the next day said graduate assistant takes me to the side: “I had a terrible nightmare about you – you were in an accident and covered in blood. You know, you can always apologize to Avi!” I could go on and on with stories like this but it seems that most of the people who signed the letter do not want to hear negative stories and are enjoying much more a precious moment of group identity with Judith Butler and other luminaries in the field. I agree the concept of “Avital Ronell” is a great one: I too would love to be friends with a smart, hilarious, queer, Jewish, feminist, anarchist theorist!"

Can you imagine any place of business tolerating such an individual. When radicals like Ronell denounced capitalist enterprise, they might be extrapolating from their own behavior in their own little ivory tower.


whitney said...

Good Lord! She deserves to go down in flames. I did go read the comments at Jezebel about this and they are 100% against her. It seems to be mostly about the power dynamic. I was surprised and pleased

Sam L. said...

The phrase "Pure-D Bitch" comes to mind.

Sam L. said...

(No, I don't know the origin of that. Nor do I remember where or when I first heard it.)

Anonymous said...

And one wonders why conservative graduate students do not want to work towards a PhD in this all encompassing environment that academe has engendered. Even worse if one is a heterosexual male. I keep hoping there will be more universities in the mode of Hillsdale.


Anonymous said...

"Schwartz concludes..." -- Just a small correction: the text you quote was not written by Schwartz, he reposted it. The person who actually wrote it, wanted to stay anonymously, as you can see in the comments of the post.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Correction made... thank you for the clarification.