Culture Magazine

Star Struck and Broken Down 6: The Lure of the Esoteric

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
is now a good time to add that I once saw Ronell speak and she made no sense? https://t.co/cKl6D2qyLn — Katie Fitzpatrick (@katiefitzpat) September 9, 2018

It is possible that Fitzpatrick’s inability to understand Ronell is akin to my inability to understand, say, string theory. I lack the appropriate (mathematical) background. Similarly, while Fitzpatrick does have a PhD in English from Brown University, it might not have prepared her for Ronell's brand of criticism.
Just what background would be appropriate. What does it mean to “understand” a thinker like Ronell? Perhaps grok – a 1960s term coined by Robert Heinlein and appropriated by hippies – is the more appropriate rendering. When you grok something you inhabit it in a way the bypasses understanding.
I think.
* * * * *
In writing about the Ronell/Reitman/NYU affair, Marjorie Perloff noted: “I myself have never met her: I did read The Telephone Book when it was published in 1991, and found it very clever but almost parodically deconstructionist, and somehow I had no desire to read those later books with titles like Crack Wars and Stupidity.” It’s that word “parodically” that gives me pause. If valid, it suggests that Ronell may have become enmeshed in her own words.
Deconstruction is like that.
Jonathan Culler said of her work, “Zeugmatically yoking the slang of pop culture with philosophical analysis, forcing the confrontation of high literature and technology or drug culture, Avital Ronell produces sentences that startle, irritate, illuminate” (diacritics 24.4, p. 27). That word, “Zeugmatically”, gets your attention, doesn’t it? Do you know what it means? Neither did I, so I looked it up. Now I forget. Does Culler need it as a technical term or does he like to flash strange terms? Perhaps both. Really. Don't want to get snared by false binaries.
Deconstruction is like that.
In a biographical sketch of Ronell, Diane Davis tells us:
Avital Ronell's "remarkable" and edge-pushing oeuvre is informed and facilitated by a wide range of (post)philosophers—including, for example, Derrida, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Levinas, Blanchot, Lacoue-Labarthe, and Nancy—but when it comes down to it, as Eduardo Cadava observes, "Ronell's work remains absolutely different." From her first book, Dictations, through her latest one, Stupidity, Ronell calls the established questions into question, zooming in on whatever "withdraws from immediate promises of transparency or meaning" and/or tracking what she calls the "rhetorical unconscious of a text" ("Confessions" 249). As Culler notes above, however, Ronell's works are remarkable—startling, irritating, illuminating—at the level of the sentence, as well. A striking hybrid of high theory and street talk, Ronell's texts come off gutsy, rough, and edgy, but at the same time exceptionally dense and philosophically rigorous. That is, Ronell's texts are remarkable both for what they say and for the extraordinary way in which they say it.
Ronell's thoroughly postfoundational and (so) posthumanist redescriptions, for example, of the telephone, the writer, and the addict, relentlessly pry open again thinking-zones that had been closed up and covered over. And this is where Ronell's texts remain, in the open-ing, in the coming of open-ness; perpetually deterritorializing without reterritorializing, Ronell's work seems most at home in the unhomey danger zone that it catalyzes, right there where the "ground" is shaking and all the edifices are coming (crashing) down. The reader is asked to enjoy the destruction and disorientation and to risk her/himself (without a hardhat), to join Ronell in this perpetual opening/rupturing, in an affirmative embrace of nonclosure.
You’ll notice there’s a fair bit of word play in those two paragraphs. I believe, as well, that the notion of philosophical rigor has a special meaning. It is more a trope about than an attribute of the discourse.
Deconstruction is like that, no?
Now, crank it up to eleven and toss in some Klingon proverbs. Mama Mia, that's a spicy meatball!
And then there’s that list Heidi Haitri paraded before us in her contemplation of Ronell: “doggedly honest types, a Socrates, a Diogenes, a Jesus, a Bruno, a Nietzsche, a Reich, a Derrida, or a Ronell...” R U serious? Socrates, Jesus, and Ronell, all in the same sentence, phrase, breath, the same soteriological rendezvous. That’s some company Ms. Ronell keeps.
Sacré bleu! aka holy shit!
But then it was predicted, wasn’t it? Geoffrey Hartman called criticism a “minor mode of prophecy” way back in 1975 (The Fate of Reading, p. 267). What’s Hartman doing when he refers to criticism as any kind of prophetic mode whatsoever? Was he troping on Shelley: “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”?
He was troping on something, that’s for sure!
He was troping all over his damned feet!
* * * * *
For most of my career I’ve heard people criticize (at least certain strains of) literary criticism for the use of technical terminology. This complaint is often accompanied by the assertion that critics do this out of science envy. This criticism is often motivated by the belief that literary criticism should be intelligible to anyone who can read literary texts. Literary criticism simply doesn’t require a specialized language; it should be fully intelligible to the educated general reader.
That’s true for certain kinds of criticism. But if by literary criticism one means the general study of literature and literary phenomena – and that’s what the academic discipline is, is it not? – then specialized terms and concepts are legitimate. Literary texts and phenomena are complex. Understanding how they work is not easy. Specialized concepts need to be constructed and deployed.
That is certainly what’s going on in deconstruction and, more generally, in Theory, but also in other modes of literary criticism as well, e.g. narratology, poetics, or that new kid on the block, computational criticism. But is that ALL that’s going on in deconstruction/Theory? What’s with all that word play, all those complex sentences and paragraphs that are elusive even unto the initiated? Has conceptual sophistication become layered over and even displaced by highfalutin’ esoteric horsing around? To the extent that the latter is true, graduate study ceases to be a professional apprenticeship and becomes an initiation into a secret cult.
That way madness lies.

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