Loser Academics: Politics and Authority
Like with most things, I am late in approaching the so-called “scandal” (public revelation) regarding Avital Ronell. Academia itself sometimes seems at odds with my general need to over-process before I can formulate thoughts and respond. Nonetheless, the last month has felt not dissimilar to the wave of think pieces that followed the babe.net story on Aziz Ansari. Everyone wants to get their two cents in on the bigger picture; very few care about the language that they use to do it.
One thing sticks out comparatively; half the people defending Ronell work as professors, some within departments of rhetoric and related fields. The initial letter standing in defense of Ronell provides a few of the names you’d hear in an introductory theory course, and the newly launched website TheoryIlluminati (yes, really) includes texts by PhD candidates, professors, and writers.
As I watch this unfold, I try to understand what it is exactly that I want to say in response. I have already written about my own experience with sexual assault and academia, but these wounds are easily reopened. I drift off amid conversations with my girlfriend to scroll through the “Avital Ronell” tag on Twitter and to open every article with an infuriating title. After she falls asleep, I stay awake for hours reading each one. I wake up at six in the morning almost every morning and catch up with all the new tweets. I burn each one that hurts me into my memory to tell to my girlfriend when she wakes up. It becomes a ritual. But after a week and a half, she gently asks me if it can wait until later that day. So I pick at it when she isn’t looking.
Many major publications have written on what has occurred; however, for those unfamiliar: In mid-2017, Nimrod Reitman, a former PhD candidate at NYU, filed a Title IX complaint against Avital Ronell, a professor of German and Comparative Literature at NYU. During the course of the eleven-month investigation, NYU received a letter co-signed by many prominent scholars (linked above) that spoke to Ronell’s superior intellect and condemned Reitman as someone driven by malicious intent. Although NYU found Ronell guilty of verbal and physical harassment, the letter persuaded them to change their punishment from a full-on dismissal to a year of leave followed by supervision. Reitman has now decided to sue NYU and Ronell for their misconduct and (frankly miserable) handling of the investigation.
Part of what makes this so hard to talk about right now is the overflow of articles that exist, approaching this from every angle. I have much to say about the built-in power structures in academia, but it has already been discussed at length, just in response to this one case. Professional contrarian Slavoj Žižek even weighs in on the matter, attempting to argue that because it is so well-known that power imbalances exist within academic spheres (from both sides, he twists), Ronell couldn’t possibly be blamed for her abuse of it. Although I’m sure Žižek would disagree, I don’t think it is radical to note that the power dynamics between a student and a professor dictate that anything romantic, affectionate, or sexual that happens between them cannot be consensual.
In any case, I am most caught off-guard by the disorganized communication between scholar-apologists and by their insistence on using theory to justify themselves. Žižek is, of course, the most obvious example of it, but the majority of my surprise is aimed at other academics who pretend as if they haven’t spent their careers looking at his texts with exasperated amusement. When Lisa Duggan posts an article questioning the “tricky” nature of boundaries and Jack Halberstam backs her up, I sit in disbelief. That disbelief is only furthered by Masha Gessen’s article, which places Duggan and Andrea Long Chu, another graduate student in Ronell’s department, opposite each other as if their viewpoints should be weighed equally.
Academics clamor over each other to vocalize that they think it’s complicated, and the more I read, the more certain I am certain that I have never seen anything like this strange attempt at intellectualizing harassment. By intellectualizing it, of course, I mean they are trying to soften it. They know that if they can push their readers out of the framework of this specific case and to see it as a purely theoretical question, they can manipulate their readers into agreeing with them. But Reitman’s case is very real and specific and cannot be philosophized into some abstract commentary about the erotics of teaching.
Even more ridiculous to me is the fact that these academic superstars and writers can’t seem to get their story straight. While in her non-apology letter Butler claims that she had no idea of Ronell’s behavior, others scramble to explain their support by admitting that it’s common knowledge. Chris Kraus, who begins her defense of Ronell by confessing she’s “never studied with Avital, and don’t know her well” admits that even she is familiar with Ronell’s “style of pedagogy.” The same people who championed the flowery and inappropriate email exchanges between Reitman and Ronell as innocent queer affection backtrack as soon as they see that Reitman sent emails calling her a monster and that Ronell insisted he speak to her using said language. Suddenly, his actions become representative of the ways in which queer female scholars are targeted. For a group of academics, they are not particularly smart about it, and when they face the backlash, most don’t know how to handle it (Duggan, for example, privatized her Twitter after blocking any nay-sayers, and Halberstam appears to have completely deleted).
Perhaps this is why Andrea Long Chu’s article feels like a breath of fresh air. In it, she details her experience as Ronell’s TA, the unspoken truth that every institution knows who their abusers are, the frustrating insistence on referring to Ronell a feminist scholar (spoiler alert: she’s not), and the ways in which the scholarly blowback is indicative of structural issues within academia.
From the get-go, Chu is honest and delightfully foul-mouthed about the whole thing, tweeting such gems as:
I want to be that brave, but when I tweet, I can only muster the courage to write long, formal threads. I mask my anger with polite language, unable to shake the fear that my points will be rendered invalid if my derision comes through. Instead, I watch Chu tweet from the side-lines and wonder how it’s possible that the biggest voice against Ronell is a graduate student within Ronell’s own department. She refuses to hide behind a “rigorous” theoretical debate about the ways in which academia, queerness, and patriarchy “complicate” the matter.
In her article, she states: “It is simply no secret to anyone within a mile of the German or comp-lit departments at NYU that Avital is abusive. This is boring and socially agreed upon, like the weather.” Two weeks after I read the article, I am invited over by a friend whose husband goes to NYU (although he isn’t within the humanities). She asks me if I have heard of Ronell. “He tells me all about which advisors you don’t want to work with. Everyone knows that shit,” my friend says, shoveling mapo tofu into her mouth. Very few graduate students get through their Master’s or PhD without being tapped into some whisper network.
There’s a certain fed-up irreverence to it all behind closed doors.
I am also not surprised by the fact that a graduate student has been harassed by a professor or that big names are willing to bend over backwards to defend a fellow academic celebrity. But it doesn’t stop their arguments and excuses from hitting close to home. The professor who later ends up assaulting me is the first to warn me about another professor within the same department who sleeps with his students. According to my former professor, his colleague’s punishment, when the department found out, was to ban him from teaching his favorite class. “I’d just avoid taking classes with him,” my former professor tells me as I sit in his office only a few months after we first meet.
This man becomes my mentor over the course of two years. Part of our relationship is founded on the fact that he’s openly bisexual. When we get close, he shares his marital problems with me and opens up about his depression. He also asks me on a regular basis if he’s being too needy. It’s the same word that I see being used over and over again about Ronell.
It feels taboo to even admit it, but something I cannot stop thinking about is how oddly reassuring it felt to be needed by my former professor. To borrow a phrase from Duggan, the relationship was founded in a type of queer intimacy, but, in retrospective, that intimacy feels oddly calculated. As his former student, I trick myself into believing that his neediness is proof that he respects my work and thoughts, enough so that I am able to push away any red flags. Academia has taught me that there is something admirable about being singled out by your mentor, so I see it as a compliment.
A week after he assaults me, he begs me to forgive him. “I need you. I don’t know what I would do without you,” he tells me, and I cave in for the time being. His neediness — I learn — is ugly and has nothing to do with me.
As it stands, I feel uncertain about pursuing anything beyond my Master’s. From the age of eleven, I was certain that I wanted to teach, and from the age of eighteen, I decided I specifically wanted to be a professor. But I’m no longer sure. Three of the names on my preliminary bibliography (written a year ago) for my thesis signed off on the initial letter supporting Ronell. I cannot unlearn my distrust of academia. Frustrated, I tweet out: “I keep saying I hate academia too much to pursue a PhD after my Master’s, but maybe I hate academia just the right amount to do it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯,” and Andrea Long Chu responds with: “THRESHOLD”. At the moment, it’s hard not to imagine myself Artax from Neverending Story, sinking into the Swamp of Sadness that is academe.
Personally, it is hard not to view the culture surrounding academia as a sham at the moment. My girlfriend and I frequently joke that a successful student can argue anything as long as they use the right language. If anything, this mess surrounding Ronell has proved that certain scholars agree. Many articles describe Ronell and her crew of academic apologists as geniuses. They carry a certain clout in that world, so it’s hard to imagine that they are unaware of how they are twisting the language of queer and feminist theory to fit their agenda. And from the disorganized aftermath, it has become clear that many of them only care about ethics in the abstract.
Most people have stopped talking about Ronell with the same frequency that they did a month or even a week ago. I understand. But I feel stuck and lost within my own anger. To quote everyone’s favorite fictional manipulative (former) professor, Albus Dumbledore, “It does not do to dwell on [Avital Ronell] and forget to live.” I’m working on it, but until I get there, I know I am just going to keep on picking at it.