The Avital Ronell story was ugly enough, but now more critics are emerging. This one is from a former colleague of Ronell’s who was displaced by her as head of the department, so there’s some obvious disgruntlement that might warrant dialing it down a few notches, but even so…the German department at NYU was a dysfunctional mess, largely because of Ronell’s ego.
Before I offered Avital Ronell her job, I’d had many in-depth conversations with her. She engaged my queries with what seemed like understanding. She said she’d throw herself into the building of an integrated study and research program. She promised actively to contribute to department research, conferences and publications. Once she had assumed the position, however, she broke all her promises. She did her best to sabotage the program. She pursued one goal: The work of Avital Ronell and Jacques Derrida must be at the center of all teaching and research. Instead of an academic program, we were left with boundless narcissism. Once she’d become the head of the German department, she had her secretary announce in a departmental meeting that in the German department no student’s written work would any longer be acceptable unless it cited Derrida and Ronell.
Whoa. No one would stand for that kind of nonsense in any department I’ve ever been part of — to dictate content in student work is simply not done. Somehow, I suspect that citing Ronell to criticize her work would not be acceptable.
From her second semester onward Professor Ronell reigned with an authoritarian hand, gloved in her well-proven hypocrisy. Instructors whom I had brought to the department either submitted to her regime or lost their jobs, always according to the letter of the law and in discussion with the dean, never in consultation with members of the German department. Once, she drafted a secret dissenting opinion against the unanimous decision of a commission and submitted it to the dean. The protest we as a department made to the dean against the dismissal of a junior professor fell on deaf ears. He would make no decision that ran counter to the will of the chairperson. The cynicism of Professor Ronell’s reasoning was hard to beat. The dismissal of this junior colleague was in this professor’s best interests, she explained, for she would not have felt comfortable in the department. In fact, Ronell wanted this colleague to leave because she was not prepared to be subservient. Someone else was found to fill in. Sure, the new hire had no experience, but at least she was ready to submit to Professor Ronell.
Now that I have seen — some deans see their role as one of imposing their vision of the discipline in the department. It never works. It only demoralizes the faculty.
The quality of teaching in the department unraveled. The carefully planned program of teaching German literature was ignored. Many students arrived in the department with minimal knowledge of German literature or history. The courses that were meant to correct this no longer existed. Now philosophy, from Hegel to Judith Butler, was taught. But multidisciplinarity quickly deteriorated into dilettantism. Students were encouraged to take philosophy seminars at other universities. Soon, students who had learned about deconstruction and feminism in Paris, but who had no idea who Gottfried Benn, Joseph Roth and Alfred Döblin were, were no exception in the department. As one student told me, “We study in a German department where French theory is taught in English.”
I am amazed even today that we succeeded in preventing the inclusion of a clause in the German department’s charter that would have exempted students from mastering the German language. It was Professor Ronell who, in all seriousness, made this suggestion. In fact, however, she admitted students who spoke English and French, but not a word of German — but they had studied in Paris and proven in their term papers that they were Derrida connoisseurs.
She tried to make knowledge of German optional in a German department? OK. That sounds a bit off. That’s like a biology department deciding students can graduate with no knowledge of biology, as long as they know some physics.
And then the article gets brutal.
Now, however, a few commentators will have us know that the case of Ronell is a fresh example of the oppression of a leftist feminist by conservative white men. This political polarization is crude, and its goal transparent: This is war, and ranks are closing around Ronell.
Leftist? Avital Ronell’s father figures are Martin Heidegger and, often quoted and paraphrased, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan. Who could possibly describe them as left-leaning theorists? If Ronell has a political agenda, it is the liquidation of the legacy of 1968.
In the German newspapers Die Zeit and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Ronell has been elevated to the “shining light” of feminist studies. I had to read this description twice before I could believe my eyes. Anyone trying to find a substantial contribution to feminist thought in her work will be searching for a long time. And “shining light”? If pure ignorance did not produce this phrase, then it is simply the reality-denying militancy of ideology. If “light” is supposed to refer to the Enlightenment, this is also a perversion of standards. Few other books in recent years have served the Counter-Enlightenment as well as Avital Ronell’s books. Her hypocrisy serves the commentators’ lack of insight. She likes to cast herself as diabolical and loves the color black — but only in the sanctuary of her inner circle. As soon as her audience grows beyond those confines, she performs a new role, namely, that of the fragile and vulnerable woman.
Everyone has an ideology. That she told everyone what her label was supposed to be doesn’t mean she fit it well, and we should not judge (or avoid judging) people because of the banner they fly. Leftists can be bad people, too.