Avital Ronell and A Bunch of Dudes

So to get you normal people caught up, the scandal surrounding surrounding Avital Ronell at NYU, here’s a description, along with (PAY ATTENTION PHD STUDENT AND NONFICTION WRITERS) the point of the entire essay stated in the first sentence from Fordham’s Leonard Cassuto: 


It shouldn’t take a case like Avital Ronell’s to make us pay attention to graduate advising. Ronell, a professor of philosophy at New York University, was recently suspended from teaching for a year for the sexual harassment of Nimrod Reitman, one of her former Ph.D. advisees. Reitman, who had brought a Title IX complaint against Ronell after he graduated, has further claimed that Ronell’s lukewarm recommendations have hindered his search for an academic job. Ronell disputes all the charges.

This case is strange for many reasons. One is that Ronell is female and Reitman is male — an inversion of the usual pattern for sexual-harassment cases. Further, Ronell is a prominent scholar. And the kicker: Ronell is lesbian, and Reitman is gay. The two have been flinging he said/she said barbs at each other since his accusations went public. More than 50 scholars signed an open letter of protest of NYU’s investigation, and now that the university found that he was sexually harassed, Reitman has sued NYU for damages.

“What Happens to #MeToo When a Feminist Is the Accused?” asked The New York Times.”Groping professor Avital Ronell and her ‘cuddly’ Nimrod Reitman see kisses go toxic,” said Britain’s The Times. The public fascination is no wonder. This is bizarre stuff.

It is, but it isn’t.  This has the feel of a “Man Bites Dog” story, and thus we have it in the BLOODY  New York Times which has apparently lost its mind again:  What happens to #MeToo When a Feminist is Accused? 

Well, bloody nothing.  First of all, just being queer doesn’t mean you are feminist, and just because you are feminist—and I have real questions about whether Ronell is or isn’t one—doesn’t mean you will never abuse your position.  Even posing this headline this way pisses me off as how it illustrates the NYT’s desire to have it both ways, to be the grey lady, while also dog-whistling to the worst in us. Har, har. This’ll give those feminists their comeuppance and douse some fires on this whole #MeToo thing.  

I have to start by saying I personally have not found Ronell’s work particularly useful over the years, at the same time that her advisor, Derrida, who has some big coattails, was pretty important to my own ways of thinking about the world.

 I’ve generally considered Ronell to be one of those few women who could gull their way through the university’s star system, which, by the way,  is actually one of the villains here (SEE STUDENTS, I’M NOT NEARLY AS GOOD AS CASSUTO, BURYING MY LEAD HERE.)  Post-modern universities give most of the work to adjuncts and then use media to flog a small number of their “stars.” Who are these people?  Who can explain this?  They look good, they are stylish, they write their own Wikipedia pages, they get on great with deans and higher-ups, they network like crazy,  and they in no way REALLY challenge existing social or economic relationships. And, notably, they get their work done.  Avital Ronell fit this bill very well, with her pixie-ish looks (not a criticism) and her connections to one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, and, in turn, her control over a department at one of the exclusive privates just outside the Ivies. 

If there were a recipe for this academic scandal to get into the mainstream, it’s this one with Ronell: Man bites dog, yes, but then 50 other superstar academics did her the great “favor” off condemning the investigation—let’s repeat this, condemning the investigation–in an openly circulated letter arguing (REALLY BADLY) that because she’s such a precious little genius and so playfully queer that her behavior somehow can’t be judged by the rest of us (puke)–and thereby making the holy bejeezuz damn sure that the WORLD was doing to pay attention to Ronell’s disgrace granted their own star status. Like, somehow, they don’t know how this works, only they do, because they’ve done every play in the star playbook to get where they are.

Honestly, with this set up, why are we surprised that malignant narcissists make their way into these star positions then make others miserable, which is exactly what it sounds like Ronell did.  I have no doubt that some of the people on the 50 scholar list were well-intended but oye what were you thinking? 

The key to understanding this is 1) the man bites dog story of the malignant behavior in  question coming  from a queer woman versus the 2) everyday story of the malignant narcissists in star positions is that men dominate in high-status, perk-laden positions and women don’t. It’s not that feminists are immune (though I would hope our training would make us more reflexive leaders, nothing is certain). It isn’t that men are swine, and women are naturally more moral. It’s that our structures make it unusual for a woman for Ronell to make into the star space in the first place because of patriarchal suppositions about who is allowed to be on top of anything.

The reason for the “Bunch of Dudes” in the title is that I want to point out, without any real sympathy (or derision) for Ronell (as i don’t know what happened beyond the structure that allowed it because that structure is everywhere in research universities), that male privilege is even at work here. Her disgrace follows her by name because of women’s oppression in these spaces. Her uniqueness means her name and her face are imprinted. But when you are a sexual harasser amongst a big, long list of dudes, you’re just another one of the dudes. You might face some consuquences–you might–but the NYT won’t be all over you the same way, nor will there likely to be one salacious, score-settling article after another one denouncing you. Because the male harassers’ field is crowded, and womens’ is not, well, stand-outs in the second get the full measure of public censure.

It’s important to point out that plenty of us in the academy have both tenure and accountability. As Cassuto points out, the answer is institute genuine post-tenure reviews and systems of accountability that disallow the nonsense that Ronell’s dean let her do–both in graduate advising and everything else. Granted, my dean knew me from when I came up as an assistant, but I can’t imagine in a million years pulling what Ronell appears to have done (and that I have seen white het cis male scholars do all the time) just on an everyday basis without getting hauled over the carpet for it, either by my dean or my senior colleagues.

Regardless of the various salaciousness of the details, students deserve better than the nonsense of hot-and-cold advising, which is at the very least what happened here. If you have a problem with a student’s work, it needs to *be worked out* with you and the rest of the committee. Students should have *multiple mentors* they can rely on for support and advice, including the advice that the academy maybe is not the place for them if they really don’t fit in it, for what ever reasons. And it’s not just students. The rest of us need these things,too.

Even, and especially, stars.