Ronell's Complaint

Avital Ronell's new book, Complaint, is not really about the recent harassment case, writes Scott McLemee. At the same time, it’s not exactly not about it.

September 7, 2018

A former graduate student’s complaint that the prominent literary theorist Avital Ronell stalked and sexually harassed him for a period of years has stirred up much discussion of Title IX and academic celebrity over the past few weeks -- without directing much attention to Ronell’s latest book, published by University of Illinois Press in April. The title, as it happens, is Complaint. (Last month, New York University, where Ronell is a professor of German and comparative literature, suspended her for the academic year.)

Reading both the student’s complaint and Ronell’s Complaint is instructive if not quite illuminating. Busy reporters can’t be faulted for not wading through the congealed gumbo of Ronell’s, allusive, punning, self-deconstructive performance-art prose. But numerous passages do belong in any public dossier. Complaint is not really about the harassment case. At the same time, it’s not exactly not about the case. The reader learns that one of Ronell’s mentors gave her a nickname: iRony. This may be worth keeping in mind. It seems both trivial and essential, and anyway, she brought it up.

“Sometimes it hurts when people play with your name,” she writes, “especially if it’s a weird one to start off with, like mine … Friends rename you or name you according to different unconscious assessments that can become determining. They have acquired the right to nickname, to nick and name you.”

This passage, tucked away in an endnote, may be the key to Complaint. The book reads as a palimpsest of messages the author has taken from a whole phonebook’s worth of literary and philosophical interlocutors (Aristotle to Žižek) between frequent callbacks to her own books. It’s a dense text, crowded and busy. Anxious? About friendship, yes -- absolutely. Friends come to “different unconscious assessments that can become determining,” shaping you deep down, for good and for ill, in ways that outlive the friendship itself. A friend “remains open for business during psychic droughts,” she also writes, “listening in for the pings and pangs of disillusionment, the advent of compounded pain, the spread of disturbance on existential and mortal lines of disappointed expectation.”

That sounds more like the description of a therapist than of a friend. (Especially the “open for business” part.) But it is, rather, the distinction between friend and colleague that haunts the book. At “the core of university life,” she writes, “friendship scores some points here and there, but tends quickly to snag and fold, perhaps as is to be expected in any theater of work or in the shadow of competitive exertion. Still, one needs allies, craves a kinship network -- whether disruptive and improbable or reliably bolstering, familiar -- and wants to think of oneself as capable of making friends.”

Extra credit if you recognize that “haunt,” above, as a nod to Derrida’s discussion of Hamlet, which is: (1) one of the texts glossed, both at length and in passing, throughout the book, and (2) a reminder that Ronell, as a student and translator of Derrida, is here working through the process of mourning in ways that never seem too far from the oblique proceedings. To frame it another way, Complaint is in part about having been an early member of deconstruction’s warrior elite, back in the day:

I start off out of tune, a bit of an outcast, a somewhat defiant but mostly vulnerable misfit. Defiance was not meant to style my original stance; I was a painfully earnest baby scholar, dedicated, conditioned for every sort of servitude, understanding that doing time, whether in graduate school or as part of a teaching body, amounted to acts -- or, rather, passivities -- of cultish subjection.

Was it gendered? Oh, man, was it ever. “Brimming with Kantian enthusiasm and our sick/healthy humor,” she writes about graduate work at Princeton University in the late 1970s, “my cohort and I were not entirely appreciated and, for my part, I was consistently depreciated even though I wore tight dresses and sparkly rhinestones, always trying to look my best as I delivered papers and listened to my teachers without once retouching my lipstick during seminar.” The trick is to make it seem effortless, though pulling that off sounds depleting. “To take corrosive insults all day long,” Ronell writes, “to have to wrestle down insolence all the time, to wear yourself down proving and outdoing yourself, overcompensating, pushing hard, becoming exhausted to the point of blanking, so much so that you can’t even complain? Don’t get me started.”

Having so much to complain about that you don’t even have the energy left to complain -- then doing so anyway, in spiked yet sinuous language -- means operating at a pitch of intensity that, as Ronell puts it, “at once courts and holds ambivalence in a strong clutch of reflection.” To keep the process going smoothly at all times may be possible in specific domains. It's a viable posture for a cultural critic to assume, for example, at least while doing cultural criticism. As a comprehensive modus vivendi, though, probably not, as her subsequent reference to “irony’s collapsing control tower of Babel” may suggest.

“Like the emotionally fragile beings that one occasionally comes across,” Ronell indicates early in the book, “I can embrace across the distance any number of best and only and absolutely singular friends. I am always in earnest and elfishly intense. Still, I try not to be a psycho about it -- about the making and keeping and responsibly tending to the custodianship of friendship, whether real or make-believe.”

Which reads a bit creepy, all things considered. Calling the professor-student relationship whose boundaries she breached a “make-believe friendship” would be an abuse of the powers of euphemism, at best. But there’s some irony at work here -- an embarrassed form of it. The claim to “try not to be a psycho about it” tacitly admits to sometimes failing in the effort. The cost is bound to be severe, even without the failure becoming, as in this case, a matter of public record.


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