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Avital Ronell’s Fighting Theory

Astra Taylor, Examined Life, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 88 minutes. Avital Ronell.

Fighting Theory, by Avital Ronell, in conversation with Anne Dufourmantelle, translated by Catherine Porter. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010. 192 pages. $25.

IN 1993, I PUBLISHED an essay in Salmagundi titled “The Academic Woman as Performance Artist,” which sympathetically examined the rise of a cluster of brash female provocateurs who were challenging the staid conventions of scholarly life. One of the prime examples was Avital Ronell, then a colleague at Berkeley, whom I described as an “exaggeratedly polite punk” whose “audaciously stylized and imaginatively produced Telephone Book [1989] and Crack Wars [1992] . . . rewrite the rules for scholarly publishing.” What I did not know at the time, but has since become common knowledge, is that before she entered the academic world, Ronell had actually been a performance artist. And apparently, it is a profession she has recently assumed again, giving seven performances in 2009 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. During that same year, moreover, a theatrical adaptation of The Telephone Book by Ariana Reines appeared off-Broadway to considerable acclaim, showing that even her more scholarly books were potential scripts for performances. Can comparable renditions of more recent works like Stupidity (2001) and The Test Drive (2005) be far behind?

Without appreciating her background in performance, one cannot understand the curious volume under review––a series of “conversations” with a French psychoanalyst translated into English, to which is appended the transcript of a “home video” mourning the loss of Jacques Derrida. For despite the book’s gesturing toward an introductory presentation of her oeuvre to a French audience, it is really as a performance piece that it has to be judged. The author is perhaps best identified as “Avital Ronell,” or, as I will call her, AR––a character playing a role rather than a real figure expressing her true self with limpid sincerity. “One hides, one presents oneself,” she confides in us. “There is a Darstellung [representation] of the person.” There is no deep subject whose presentation can be judged as truthful or hypocritical; it is masks all the way down.

Often, to be sure, her performed representation seems to speak directly from the heart in a confessional mode, exposing her neuroses, dishing the family dirt, and puncturing her own pretensions. No episode is too humiliating to relate, no impulse too embarrassing to confess. Or so it seems. For AR slyly draws on the ancient figure of speech called parabasis, employed in Greek drama, in which the chorus addresses the audience, giving the appearance of breaking the aesthetic frame and revealing some unmediated truth. But as we know from our training in deconstruction, the theory for which she appears to be so ardently fighting, parabasis too is a ruse of dramatic rhetoric, a simulacrum of unmasked directness that is no less an artifice than is apparent authenticity. To put it in more modern terms, “baring the device,” which supposedly shatters the illusion of aesthetic appearance and reveals the mechanisms that produce it, itself turns out to be just another literary device.

What, then, is being performed in Fighting Theory? What scene, in the jargon of performance studies, is being “staged”? The answer is the “so-called life” of AR, heroine of a story of adversity and its overcoming, of warring theoretical tribes, and of constant vigilance against the cultural police who want to silence the voices of the oppressed. AR identifies herself proudly as one of those “supersexy, bold, bizarre women” who “showed up like surfers on the waves of French theory,” “a sort of little gangster-type whom few would mess with, more or less well-armored (even though I probably have several subpersonalities that are by turns hysterical, unhappy and fragile).” Promoting a “radical, politically incorrect, and morally indefensible feminism,” she finds her inspiration in outlaw figures like Valerie Solanas, the would-be assassin of Andy Warhol, for whose SCUM Manifesto Ronell wrote an admiring preface. Her style is simulacral punk, with all its aura of faux aggression and melding of Rimbaud and Rambo.

In the classroom, AR practices what she calls the “pedagogy of anacoluthon, of syntactical disturbance,” arriving “on the scene often dressed in a bizarre, postpunk manner, that is, a little outrageous, theatrical.” “Often [making] a point of scandalizing [her] students,” she proclaims herself a devotee of “institutional contamination,” “a renegade, in a way, whose research and publications are sometimes seen as subversive.” Anacoluthonic pedagogy, for those who were not rhetoric majors, means to mimic in one’s teaching a grammatical structure that denies sequentiality and often introduces several different voices in the same passage, defeating the impression that there is a single controlling presence behind the text. In other words, it is the art of the non sequitur, which deliberately tries to thwart coherent meaning and detranscendentalize the subject. In another performance, her bit in Astra Taylor’s 2008 film Examined Life, AR expresses her general suspicion of philosophy as the search for meaning, which “has often had very fascistoid nonprogressivist edges, if not a core.” Accordingly, AR confides to her analyst/interlocutor Anne Dufourmantelle that “even when I seem to be mimicking this discourse, I’m actually totally distancing myself from it.”

This might seem the approach of someone who (to paraphrase an old advertisement) “is not a philosopher, but plays one on TV”––or at least while walking around Tompkins Square Park in front of a movie camera. But it is perhaps better understood as an instantiation of what can be called “remote philosophy.” By this I mean not only a type of thinking that is remote from traditional philosophy––defended in terms of Heidegger’s “thinking” as an alternative to boring, academic philosophizing––but also as a style of philosophy that mimics the experience of watching television with the remote held by someone with attention deficit disorder, a style that will be familiar to readers of Slavoj Žižek at his most manic. That is, it flits from channel to channel, rarely pausing to finish a thought or defend a position before another one lurches into view. “I am taking risks by moving too quickly,” AR confesses, “but the machine won’t let itself slow down.”

In particular, AR acknowledges oscillating “between the gutter of Gerede [Heidegger’s ‘idle chatter’] and high philosophy. Or even, sticking to low-flying philosophy, Carl Schmitt, who had so much to say about enemy relations.” Schmitt’s friend/foe version of the political, in fact, informs AR’s performance as a theorist throughout her career. Reminiscing about her graduate school days, she writes: “Impelled by the paranoia that I needed to feel in order to pump up and get myself to write, I remember that I often compared myself ego-ideally to Muhammad Ali.” Fighting Theory is filled with expressions of solidarity with friends and scorn for enemies. Many of the former turn out to be intellectual celebrities: Jean-Luc Nancy, Hélène Cixous, Judith Butler, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Claude Lanzmann, even fellow performance artist Kathy Acker. AR’s penchant for dropping names turns out, in fact, to be prenatal, as she tells us that her mother worked for David Ben-Gurion and was friends with Dr. Ruth, her father worked for Moshe Dayan, and Max Brod served as a courier for her parents’ love letters.

If there is a friend of friends, it is Jacques Derrida, who himself wrote movingly about the politics of friendship. AR’s presentation of their relationship suggests, however, more than normal friendship, more even than normal pedagogical asymmetry. It began, she tells us, when she was a teenager and was advised by no less a luminary than Hans-Georg Gadamer, “You know, Avital, to be a real thinker one day, you have to find a master.” Although at first resistant to this authoritarian dictate, she ultimately submitted: “Gadamer’s words became law for me. I accepted his verdict and eventually I joined up. I did my training in the ‘Derrida camp.’ I went toward Derrida to make myself suffer and to train myself the way one signs up for the worst military service imaginable.” When Dufourmantelle remarks that, according to Freud, “there’s no master without a hysteric to support him in his semblance of power and knowledge,” AR replies, “That’s exactly right. Women are the ones who, out of perversity and their often unanalyzed hysterical assaults, play against themselves, undoing their own legitimate bid for mastery. . . . Because men detest passivity and mimeticism, they project their own lacks and weaknesses onto women, and women take these on with astonishing complicity.”

Performing the inconsistency of an anacoluthonic temperament, AR trumpets her own helpless complicity. Derrida, “the materno-paternal engine of my so-called own work,” retains his mastery even after he is gone, as the disciple basks in her special status as favorite pupil. When Dufourmantelle notes with awe in her voice, “You’re the only person with whom Derrida shared the podium,” AR replies, “The attention and credit I’ve been granted surpass me, it’s true.” She tells us that after she had given a talk with Derrida sitting next to her, “he planted a kiss on my forehead, in public, punctuating the presentation. That was the way he’d greeted me each time, when the moments came for the hellos and adieux. But now he took my forehead and kissed it in public, after my delivery.”

Ariana Reines, Telephone, 2009. Performance view, Cherry Lane Theatre, New York, February 5, 2009. Matthew Dellapina and Gibson Frazier. Photo: Sara Krulwich/New York Times/Redux.

Not only is Derrida a most appreciative personal master, but he is credited by AR with single-handedly changing the academic climate in America. “One cannot imagine how whited-out the academic corridor was when Derrida arrived on the American scene. There was really no room for deviancy, not even for a quaint aberration or psychoanalysis,” she asserts, blithely erasing Norman O. Brown, Herbert Marcuse, Noam Chomsky, C. Wright Mills, Hannah Arendt, Natalie Zemon Davis, Hayden White, Florence Howe, etc., from memory. “His political views, refined and, by our measure, distinctly leftist, knew few borders and bled into the most pastoral sites and hallowed grounds of higher learning. Suddenly color was added to the university––color and sassy women, something that would not easily be forgiven.” At least the invention of the Internet is left to Al Gore.

If AR knows her friends, she is no less mindful of her enemies. She still harbors grudges against those who made life hard for her along the way, whether as an embattled grad student at Princeton, an assistant professor denied tenure at the University of Virginia, or a standard-bearer for the deconstructionist movement. No comparison with other martyrs is too extreme: “As soon as someone has a little magnetism with students, as soon as the ‘children’ start to listen, one sets out on the road to crucifixion,” she remarks, to which Dufourmantelle obsequiously adds, “Socrates was accused of corrupting the young . . .” When it comes to identifying who exactly was in the foe camp, she singles out the followers of Habermas, who betrayed their commitment to communicative rationality by refusing charity to those who were out to subvert it. When Derrida began gingerly to acknowledge common ground with Habermas, she recalls, “it was a troubling reconciliation for those close to Derrida, and even for the warriors that Habermas has sent out, consciously or not, to make trouble for everybody. Many problems arose in German and American university contexts at the time, because Habermas or his representatives came across as particularly malicious and imperialistic.”

How, in conclusion, are we to judge this particular performance? Should we translate it into a series of arguments, which can be critically evaluated? In so doing, would we risk becoming hapless victims of the weapon of oldfartization that AR so skillfully wields in her permanent war against the academic police, revealing ourselves to be paralyzed by male performance anxiety? Should we instead take seriously the deconstructionist lesson that binary hierarchies need to be challenged (or are self-challenging), and no longer be frozen in fear that performance is betrayed by such a redescription? Missing from this book are the more sustained arguments in Ronell’s previous works’ imaginative explorations of her “favorite themes: drugs, technology, violence, music . . . deviance, all-out mobilization, the vapid orientation of libidinal aggression—the anal-erotic war zone that Freud has designated.” Fighting Theory only gestures toward substantive claims, and in this case, it seems fair to remain on AR’s turf and react to the book as primarily a performance piece that pushes the reader beyond the straightforward evaluation of its arguments, such as they are.

Performativity, to be sure, is not itself a simple category, caught as it is in the coils of ironic distancing from and yet mimetic duplication of straightforward argumentation. On one level it can be judged in terms of sheer entertainment value. Here the book has considerable merit. AR’s campy, sassy persona is alternately beguiling and appalling, but rarely is it boring. Although her prose––which, to be fair, is an English translation of a rambling conversation conducted in French––is not always pellucid, she often turns a clever phrase (her coinages include “the techno-hermeneutics of mourning”) and puns her way out of a jam (Mozart’s Tamino, for instance, is “Contamino, because he introduces . . . contamination”). When the reader’s attention begins to flag in the face of her manic presentation of “ideas,” she is always able to throw in a scandalous fact such as her mother’s crush on Hitler or her obnoxious childhood response to the news that her grandfather had sent a postcard from Auschwitz: “Did he write: ‘Wish you were here?” (which she claims she was ashamed of asking, although not ashamed enough to refrain from repeating now).

There is, however, a more serious sense of performativity, which J. L. Austin and John Searle called the perlocutionary effect of a speech act: what it actually does in the world. For example, when the leader of a sovereign country declares war on another, hostilities begin; when a bride says “I do,” she becomes a legally recognized wife. What is performed by Fighting Theory in this sense? Originally an attempt to introduce the work of an American author to a French audience, it is now supposed to carry out an equivalent task back home. But although the presentation of AR’s ideas may at times whet the reader’s appetite for the longer and more substantial books in which they are developed, it is too uneven and idiosyncratic to inspire a burning desire to turn to what she has to say about aids or drugs or media technology.

As an exercise in anacoluthonic pedagogy, the book also has an ambiguous effect. While touting the virtues of self-fissioning, it enacts instead a program of self-fashioning. Self-mortification morphs into self-aggrandizement and back again. If Heideggerian “thinking” (Denken) implies, as AR reminds us, “thanking” (Danken), then the old Enlightenment value of Selbstdenken (thinking for yourself) can be just as easily transformed into Selbstdanken, or self-congratulation. AR tells us that her last name was an invention, chosen when her family went to Israel and “Goldstein” was left behind as too Jewish-sounding for her self-hating mother. “I was told,” she remembers, “that it was a huge thing to be the firstborn in this family under the new, chosen family name, Ronell, this logically meant I was the father.” The disclosure leaves the reader uncertain whether she is really Derrida’s dutiful daughter or is secretly dreaming of replacing him in the family romance.

But perhaps the ultimate perlocutionary effect, at least for this reader, is to weaken respect for the legacy of deconstruction, especially if it depends so heavily on mobilizing the tired rhetoric of combat that animated the “theory wars” of the 1980s. AR herself seems frozen in that moment, a bit like one of those Japanese soldiers on a remote Pacific island still fighting for the emperor long after he surrendered. There are, after all, just so many times you can act out Zéro de conduite before the audience gets tired of adolescent rebelliousness as a mode of critique. Intellectual mooning grows as tedious as the real thing. It is fair to say that the ranks of her regiment are in fact getting thinner and thinner as the scandal and provocation of deconstruction recede further into the past. Fighting Theory may thus mean not only a theory that battles for its place in the sun but also a fight, however unintended, against a certain version of theory itself. Irony, it turns out, really is all.

Martin Jay is Sidney Hellman Ehrman professor in the history department of the University of California, Berkeley.