Sunday, August 26, 2018

Queer Academic and Clerical Slug Trails DEMAND Cleansing Blue Fire

newyorker | This is academics doing their job: engaging with things in great complexity. Discussions of #MeToo cases in other areas haven’t been up to this task. We certainly can’t expect it from Hollywood, whose job is to make stories palatable and simple. Writers, who on the subject of #MeToo have often practiced either avoidance or positional warfare, have been able to advance the conversation only so far. But this rare moment, when a wider audience is briefly interested in what academics have to say for and about themselves, might give us a chance for complicating the conversation. They can bring us back to some under-deliberated questions. In the #MeToo revolution, does the focus on identifying bad actors distract us from breaking down the structures that enable them? What is justice in terms of #MeToo, if not merely public disgrace and professional exile for the perpetrators? And how can justice be achieved?

As it happens, many of the scholars apparently most invested in the Ronell case have spent their professional lives studying power. That may give us a chance to finally acknowledge that there are power imbalances in all relationships, and that both parties in two-person interactions exercise some sort of power. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who is firmly convinced of Ronell’s innocence, argues that it was Reitman who was using Ronell. This sort of assertion is perhaps easier to make because the accuser is, in this case, a man, but also because Žižek has made a career of making shocking arguments.

What Žižek’s take does not acknowledge, however, is that even when it seems that everyone has behaved badly, it doesn’t mean that everyone has behaved equally badly, or is equally responsible for the bad relationships that have been created. This is where Duggan’s question, about the boundaries in the relationships between graduate students and their advisers, becomes crucial. The same blog on which Žižek’s post appeared, Theory Illuminati, posted a video of Jeremy Fernando, now a fellow at the European Graduate School (where Ronell is a professor), delivering a talk called “On Walking With My Teacher.” In the video, from 2015, Fernando, seated in front of a large projected photograph of him and Ronell, says, among other things, “My dear teacher Avital always reminded me that movement of thought and our bodies are potentially entwined.” For nearly forty minutes, he talks about love as a precondition for teaching and learning and bodies as the location of both knowledge and love. The talk is, clearly, full of love.

Ronell employs the psychoanalytic term “transference” to describe intense relationships with her students. She is not the first feminist postructuralist scholar to have done so, nor is she the first to get in trouble for it—or to take it too far. Twenty-six years ago, two graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee filed sexual-harassment complaints against the scholar Jane Gallop, who was eventually found to have violated a rule against consensual amorous relationships, though the university found no evidence to support other claims . (A contemporary account of the case, by Margaret Talbot, is eerily relevant.)

A different take on Ronell’s pedagogy came in an anonymous quote that circulated on Facebook. (I don’t know the name of the author, who declined to communicate with me, citing, through an intermediary, the fear of retaliation.)
We don’t need a conversation about sexual harassment by AR, we should instead talk about what AR and many of her generation call ‘pedagogy’ and what is still excused as ‘genius.’ When people talk about sexual harassment it’s within the logic of the symbolic order – penetration, body parts – I doubt you will find much of this here. But AR is all about manipulation and psychic violence. . . . 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. . . . 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. . . . 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!
Duggan calls for looking at harassment as an issue that is neither limited to sex nor rooted in “bad apple” individuals—rather, it is a function of power structures. Closed Title IX investigations are not a good way to address harassment, she suggests. “Perhaps we should begin to think about a restorative justice process that would center in departments, be transparent, hold faculty responsible, and assess the question of boundaries in local context?” she writes. “Perhaps impose confidentiality as the exception, not the rule—to be invoked when a need is demonstrated.”