Culture Magazine

Star Struck and Broken Down 7: Comments on a Short Text Avital Ronell Wrote to Honor and Remember Derrida [#AvitalRonell]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

In all this thinking and reading about Ronell I couldn't help but wonder about her intellectual work. I realize that that's not directly at issue. What's at issue is her behavior toward a graduate student, Nimrod Reitman. But her thought is certainly a major component of the shadow cast by those events. She is identified with French Theory, the thinking of Derrida in particular; she studied with him and translated some of his works. Many, likely most, of the luminaries who signed the infamous letter supporting her are students and purveyors of one or another strain of Theory. At least some of the outrage following on her treatment of Reitman is directed at Theory rather than her behavior.

Just how good is she? I'd only just barely heard of her before the Reitman case, but that's neither here nor there. Though I have some knowledge of, even some training in, French Theory, that's long ago, the mid-60s into the early 70s. My own thinking has been quite different, though I did spend a fair amount of time working through Bruno Latour and Tim Morton in recent years. I've thus got a bit of a feel for these ways of thinking and writing.

And I wanted to see for myself, something at least. I had no intention of reading a whole book, much less a half dozen books, but if there were something short and compact I could read, that would be good. So, I sought and I found.

As you may know, PMLA ( Publications of the Modern Language Association) is the oldest academic literary journal in the United States. It is published by the Modern Language Association (MLA), the largest professional society for literary scholars. In 2005 it had a series of short pieces on the work of Derrida. I looked a several of them: Jonathan Culler, because I've read his Structuralist Poetics; Geoffrey Hartman, because he was of Derrida's generation and a colleague at Yale; J. Hillis Miller, because he was also a colleague of Derrida's, both at Yale and Irvine, and because I studied with him in the 60s; and of course Avital Ronell, because she's the main event.

None of the pieces are long. Some are formal notes, some less formal. Ronell's is one of the latter. It's really too short and informal to give me anything like an appreciation for the thinking that garnered her reputation. But perhaps it would at least give me some sense of her mind, the temper and edge of her steel.

An emissary from a foreign land

I've inserted bracketed numbers into the following passage. My comments are keyed to those numbers.

It was August in Berkeley. Most of my colleagues were in Europe or Hawaii, and I was wrapping up endless footnotes for The Telephone Book, the extensive "Yellow Pages." [1] The phone rang. Someone from the president's office was asking me if I would host the minister of culture from the Republic of China on behalf of the university. [2] Me? Well, no one else is around, and we ran out of options, I was told. Three days? I don't know. It seems like a lot, and I'm not prepared. I'd need to do some research. Besides, I [3] have to finish a book and wash my hair. [4] An hour later the minister greeted me. He expressed delight, offering generous expressions of awe, for I was owed, he said, the respect that only a disciple of Confucius could expect. [5] I was the student of Jacques Derrida! [6] At the time, in the mid-eighties, Berkeley itself was not prepared to embrace Derrida, much less a mutant offspring, or what Derrida himself would come to call his own rogue state or territory ([7] he'd link territory with terror and terre, earth, uprooting the concept of nation-state, the voyou Avi-he translated my name as saying "for life," as in he was stuck with me for life, à vie). For my part, I felt more like an [8] early Christian than a disciple of Confucius. (488)

[1] Not only are we being taken to a particular day in late summer in the 1980s, but we're now at a specific moment on a specific day. The ring of the phone obviously plays off the title of the book she's finishing at the time.

[2] Yes, you. And to host an important government official from half way around the world. You! You're representing the university.

[3] Notice the juxtaposition of two very different kinds of activity, one intellectual and somewhat extended in time, the other severely time-limited and thoroughly physical.

[4] And there he is, an hour after the phone rang, this important Chinese minister greets her, and apparently rather effusively and with great respect. I wonder, how much of that was formulaic politesse?

But - did you have time to wash your hair? Did he notice?

[5] Finally, Papa Derrida! After all, this is supposed to be in his memory, yes, no?

Let us designate "hair" as the key word and assign it a value of 0. Counting rightward through the string, "Jacques Derrida" taken as a single entity is number 38. That's thirty-seven signifiers from hair to paternity.

[6] I have little or no knowledge of Berkeley in the mid-eighties. I do know that Derrida had little presence in Language, Literature, and Communications at RPI, where I was at the time. But then that was a rather small department spread over three or four disciplines. Not much room for deconstruction.

I do know, however, that in the mid-eighties J. Hillis Miller had been President of the MLA and used his presidential address to lament the waning of deconstruction within the profession [1]. So, when addressing the largest professional association of literary scholars in the country, one luminary at apogee says deconstruction is on the way down while a younger luminary on the rise says it's not yet arrived. At least not at her university, the one that asked her to meet the Chinese minister of culture.

[7] And now for some deconstructive word play: the terrible nation-state, the enfant terrible, who's stuck to Derrida à vie. Clever Derrida! Lucky Avi!

[8] That is to say, persecuted. But why a disciple at all, regardless of Christian, Confucius...or Derrida?

Make no mistake, this is a virtuoso performance, exhibiting a high degree of conceptual and linguistic skill. I can see why thinkers of a certain temperament are bedazzled.

Nor, I might add, can I help but to remark on the ontological variety of beings that Ronell has summoned up in this one paragraph of a philosophical text, for she is a philosopher, no? Hawaii, footnotes, phone, Republic of China, hair, awe, Derrida, the list goes on. Has she been channeling Latour, through the back door as it were? I note that We Have Never Been Modern was published in 1991.

There was a lot of solitude and theory bashing in those days, a lot of intimidation and punishment. [9] Low salaries and mocking colleagues-assuming one managed to get in or on anyone's payroll. Not only that, but, once inside, Freud was [10a] KO'd at least once a month, Lacan was [10b] spun out of our orbit, and, with the exception of one or two troublemakers, the [10c] theory girrls hadn't even shown up yet on the boy scanners. I was the [10d] fastest pun in the West, but that was nothing to boast about in those days. The only one who had some holding power was Foucault, cleaned up, straightened out, and identitarian. So the dispatch, the postcard and envoi, [11] came to me from China-the news of the fate of deconstruction. [...] As in a Kafka parable, I received the broadcast of Jacques Derrida's fate as philosopher from a sentinel who held the secret of a genuinely possible and strongly inflected future. [12] As Derrida has taught us, there are many futures and even more returns. (488)

[9] But were those low salaries reserved for the disciplines of deconstruction, or were they generally low because that's how academic salaries were/are? Yes, the academic job market was tough then, though not like it is now. It was tough for everyone, not just the devotees of Derrida.

[10 a,b,c,d]. Notice the shifts of register and reference, all within a relatively short span. Mere more virtuosity.

[11] This I like, a lot. It really is very clever, and an interesting way to show the geographic and cultural sway of Derrida's thinking. If you're at all interested in such things, here's a post in which I excerpt a recent dialog between J. Hillis Miller and Zhang Jiang, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, "Consult the text, the varieties of criticism", New Savanna, October 4, 2016, https://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2016/10/consult-text-varieties-of-criticism.html

[12] And this, this locution, as X has taught us, it's very annoying. It seems characteristic of Anglophone French Theory - I have no idea about French theory in France, which is a different kettle of fish. It's signaling to us that these ideas ultimately depend on the charisma and aurora of direct transmission from teacher to student, as though the ideas can't stand for themselves. And maybe they can't. If so, that's problematic, at least for an academic discipline, no?

That's the first two paragraphs, more or less. It's rather a self-centered opening for a short article written to remember and honor a thinker who had been one's teacher. In depicting herself as Berkeley's proxy before the emissary from China Ronell's also assuming the role of heir apparent to the Duchy of Deconstruction. Is that how she was perceived within the profession? Is she being presumptuous? Or is she just playing around? Well, certainly, she's playing around, but what are the rules and bounds? I'm not a member of the club, so I don't quite know how to read this.

Now Ronell does shift her attention to Derrida. I like this formulation "it is as though Jacques were beaming signals from another region of meaning, speaking from new intelligibilities" (489). An alien? And so what? If Jacques is beaming in from some other region of meaning, just what region of meaning, pray tell, is this one here where we stand now? This is very clever, but is it any more? Though perhaps more isn't called for in a piece like this.

What if they're all like this, piled higher and deeper until you have accumulated enough pages to separate the covers of a book? Ay, and what then?

After a bit of this and that (489):

I'll track a marginal perspective meant to be metonymized into the bigger picture. One cannot imagine how whited-out the academic corridor was when Derrida arrived on the scene. There was really no room for deviancy, not even for the quaint aberration or psychoanalysis. [...] Suddenly color was added to the university-color and sassy women, something that would not easily be forgiven.

I don't have to imagine it. I was there. I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins 1966 when Derrida was on campus to speak at the (in)famous structuralism conference. Though I didn't attend the conference, I was in its orbit [2]. I'd become a student of Richard Macksey, one of the conference organizers and co-founder of the Humanities Center. I found structuralism more compelling than deconstruction, and went from structuralism to computational semantics and other things.

Hopkins was an all-male undergraduate school at the time. The faculty was mostly male, though Phoebe Stanton was renowned for her two-semester introduction to the history of Western art, which I took, and Mary Ainsworth did some seminal work on attachment theory while she was at Hopkins (I took an independent study with her). Women were admitted as graduate students.

Yes, Hopkins was mostly a white institution, undergraduate, graduate, and faculty. And there were many Jews on campus, at all levels. That was mostly a post World War II phenomenon.

As for Derrida's influence, Ronell is obviously talking rather generally, not about Hopkins specifically, and only about a certain sector of the academy at that, a sector well-known to readers of PMLA. As for the changes, as the song went, the times they were a changin'. The civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the women's movement were all active at the time and had their influence in the university, and bases of operation too. Derrida's thought fit in, but those currents were independent of him.

And yet he certainly gets some credit for change within literary studies and some quarters of the humanities. Deconstruction helped create room in which other voices could speak, color and sassy women, for example. As for deviancy, look, the university has always had room for eccentrics; we had little need for Derrida to educate us on that score. There was nothing special about his velvet suits.

It is interesting how language play spelled trouble. Derrida's language usage, exquisite and replenishing, itself became an offense to the more controlled behaviors and grammars of academic language. Perhaps unavoidably, Derrida, like all breakthrough thinkers and artists, continues to provoke rage and attract death sentences even after his announced death.

Derrida was known for his language play, and others took him up on it. Even typographic games. I learned this from him, for example, though I don't find much use for it. It seems to me that to the extent that literary critics envy the writers they study, as Geoffrey Hartman has owned up to, it's dangerous to give them permission to fart around with language. They might actually do it and then what happens? Their criticism degrades into self-important word play.

Alas, there's this, begging for comment:

I missed the sixties but inherited their beat. I'm probably more politically anxious, faster on the trigger, than most of the folks around me; in any case, I look for trouble and aporia in the most downtrodden neighborhoods of thought. (489)

The return of the fastest pun in the West. Oh, girrl, please!

Let's finish with the opening sentence of Ronell's final paragraph: "By the time he finished his tour of duty, Derrida was respected in France as Aristotle must have been among the ancients" (490).

Tour of duty? Really? As for the rest, hmmm.

That's a very tricky bit of craftsmanship. Who, in the course of reading it, is going to pause and think long enough to distinguish between Aristotle's reputation in the ancient world and his reputation now? He was an important thinker among the ancients, otherwise Philipe II of Macedon wouldn't have had him tutor his son, Alexander. But Aristotle wasn't a so-called classical thinker. He couldn't have been, not back then. That's what he became and is to us now, yes?

Is Ronell perhaps hoping to trick us into thinking that Derrida is already, so soon after his death (in 2004), a classical thinker? Or is she only suggesting that, in the future, he will be thought of as being classical?

How does she know? Does it matter? This, after all, is more of a ceremonial gesture than a formal biographical assessment.

Was Derrida a star? Yes, of course. A great thinker? I'm biased. But also it's too soon to tell.

Ronell? Yes, a star.

And PMLA published her piece, with its self-regarding opening. That's something.

But what?


[1] To which I replied, William Benzon, Letter to the editor about J. Hillis Miller's MLA Presidential Address 1986, PMLA, Vol. 103, No. 1, Jan. 1988, p. 57.

[2] And if you look at the conference proceedings you'll find that I have a page and a half in the proceedings, William Benzon, Comment on Dyson-Hudson's essay, "Levi-Strauss and Radcliffe-Brown", in Macksey and Donato, eds., The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970, pp. 244 - 245.


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