On Avital Ronell, Nimrod Reitman, and Sexual Harassment in the Academy

by Corey Robin on August 21, 2018

I wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education about the Avital Ronell/Nimrod Reitman sexual harassment story. Here are some excerpts:

The question of sex, of Ronell’s work and stature in academe, of literary theory or critical theory or the academic left, of the supposed hypocrisy of the scholars who rallied to her side, of the fact that the alleged harasser is a woman and gay while the alleged victim is a man and gay — all of this, if one reads Reitman’s complaint, seems a little beside the point. And has, I think, clouded the fundamental issue. Or issues.

What’s clear from the complaint is just how much energy and attention — both related and unrelated to academic matters — Ronell demanded of Reitman, her student. At all hours of the night, across three continents, on email, phone, Skype, in person, on campus, on other campuses (Ronell berates Reitman when he does not accompany her to the weekly lectures she is giving at Princeton that semester; according to Reitman, she even punishes him for this act of desertion, removing him from a conference she was organizing and at which he had been slated to present), in apartments, classrooms, hallways, offices, subway stations (there are multiple scenes at the Astor Place stop, with Ronell either insisting on walking Reitman to the train or keeping him on the phone until he gets on the train), and elsewhere. It’s almost as if Reitman could have no life apart from her. Indeed, according to the complaint, when Reitman had visitors — a member of his family, a friend — Ronell protested their presence, seemingly annoyed that Reitman should attend to other people in his life, that he had other people in his life. That really is the harassment: the claims she thought she could make on him simply because he was her advisee.

The issue of sex always clouds these discussions. One side focuses on the special violation that is supposed to be sexual harassment; the other side (including many feminists) accuses the first of puritanism and sex panic. Try as they might, neither side ever gets beyond the sex.

Hanging over all of these exchanges, unmentioned, is the question of power. This is a grad student trying to make his way in an institution where everything depends on the good (or bad) word of his adviser.

The precinct of the academy in which this story occurs prides itself on its understanding of power. Unfortunately, that understanding is often not extended to the faculty’s dealings with graduate students, where power can be tediously, almost comically, simple. Cross your adviser in any way, and that can be the end of your career.

In her various responses to the case, Ronell implies that people on the outside of these relationships don’t understand the shared language, the common assumptions, the culture of queer and camp (and of being Israeli, which both she and Reitman are). As soon as she went there, my antenna went up. It reminded me of communitarians in the 1980s and 1990s, who made similar arguments about local cultures, that people outside of them don’t understand the internal meanings of the specific codes and customs, particularly when those codes and customs are oppressive toward women or gays and lesbians or people of color, that people on the outside don’t understand how differently that oppressiveness might read to someone on the inside. And it also reminded me of Judith Shklar’s admonition to the communitarians: Before you buy the story of shared codes and customs, make sure to hear from the people on the lower rungs, when they are far away from the higher rungs, to see how shared that code truly is.

For all of Ronell’s talk of shared codes and such, there is one experience, one code, in this story that every academic — gay, straight, male, female, black, white, brown, trans, queer — has shared: being a graduate student.


And here is the whole piece.

{ 75 comments }

1

faustusnotes 08.21.18 at 1:54 am

A good piece Corey. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the power issues have gone unmentioned in this, but I think the point needs to be reiterated again and again that academia is full of bullying and all kinds of lower levels of power harassment and academic harassment, and sexual harassment and the more egregious forms of physical bullying would be much less likely to happen if lower forms of bullying and exploitation were not as common and as commonly overlooked. I doubt that situations like this would be as common if the offenders had previously been formally warned over less serious abuses that they are also no doubt also committing.

In my experience though senior academics know when their colleagues are doing this stuff. I would say that everyone who signed the letter without seeing the facts of the case didn’t need to, because they already knew what Ronell was like, and they were simply defending their own right to various of these powers. I hope they’re seriously reassessing their own professional behavior in light of this. And that law suit looks very scary for NYU!

2

Dave 08.21.18 at 3:07 am

What kind of preposterous institution would tie the fate of junior members to the word of senior members

3

Alan White 08.21.18 at 3:33 am

This is spot on about what’s really going on in such cases. Lest anyone think I’m ironically “Liking” for approval, I’ve found being a retired academic is a nice repose beyond that crap.

4

John Quiggin 08.21.18 at 5:52 am

I agree, this is spot-on. I’m surprised that this case is even controversial, but I suppose the instinct to stick by your mates is universal.

Tangentially, due to a series of (fortunate or unfortunate, I’m not sure which) events, I never went to graduate school. I’ve always wondered how different (or not) my life would have been if I had done so.

Possibly relatedly, but perhaps just because Australia is different, I’ve never had the kind of close intellectual relationship with grad students that is common in the US, and forms the background to cases like this one. I’ve advised students successfully, but mostly on topics of only marginal interest to me.

5

Sebastian H 08.21.18 at 6:48 am

The case is such a mess.

“In her various responses to the case, Ronell implies that people on the outside of these relationships don’t understand the shared language, the common assumptions, the culture of queer and camp (and of being Israeli, which both she and Reitman are).”

As you say, this kind of statement is especially nasty because it directly erases Reitman’s discussion of these relationships, the non-shared language, and his resistance to the assumptions she tried to push on him.

Like many things, the last clause takes things too far. Yes, it is possible for outsiders to mistake in-group culture (ribbing, camp, etc.) for harmful interactions. But when one of the parties repeatedly and strenuously objects, we should at least be able to entertain the idea that it isn’t all just misunderstood in-group behavior. It is also especially egregious because it throws gay culture under the bus in precisely the way that its opponents love to see–characterizing it as overly sexualized, easily mistaken as rapey, etc.

6

tomsk 08.21.18 at 11:42 am

It’s just amazing to me that anyone could think this was OK, or try to justify it by saying it was all just good clean camp fun. I mean, PhD students are signing up to learn to do research, not to spend half a decade massaging the ego of a crazed narcissist by supplying limitless attention at any time of the day and night, on pain of being cast into the outer darkness. What the fuck? Even if there was no sexual element at all, how can US academia have degenerated so far that people would defend this as normal?

7

Bill Benzon 08.21.18 at 11:49 am

What’s clear from the complaint is just how much energy and attention — both related and unrelated to academic matters — Ronell demanded of Reitman, her student. At all hours of the night, across three continents, on email, phone, Skype, in person, on campus, on other campuses […] in apartments, classrooms, hallways, offices, subway stations (there are multiple scenes at the Astor Place stop, with Ronell either insisting on walking Reitman to the train or keeping him on the phone until he gets on the train), and elsewhere. It’s almost as if Reitman could have no life apart from her.

I agree, Corey, that this is a critical issue. Ronell seems to have no sense of boundaries between her and Reitman. And that’s what happened to literary criticism in the mid-1970s, boundaries dissolved. That dissolution was a factor in the rise of the star system in lit crit.

That issue came up in Twitterverse conversations over the weekend. Ted Underwood mentioned 1997 article by David Shumway: The Star System in Literary Studies, PMLA, Vol. 112, No. 1, 1997, 85-100. Underwood was interested in the fact that Shumway discussed cheap air fares. Why? They facilitate travel to conferences, allowing conferences to proliferate, and conferences provide a vehicle where stars can shine.

But Shumway also mentions developments within the conduct of intellectual work, e.g. (p. 95):

Theory not only gave its most influential practitioners a broad professional audience but also cast them as a new sort of author. Theorists asserted an authority more personal than that of literary historians or even critics. […] Thus one finds article after article in which Derrida or Foucault or Barthes or Lacan or Žižek or Althusser or Spivak or Fish or Jameson or several of the above are cited as markers of truth. It is common now to hear practitioners speak of “using” Derrida or Foucault of some other theorist to read this or that object; such phrasing may suggest that the theorist provides tools of analysis, but the tools are not sufficient without the name that authorizes the procedure.

I’ve written a blog post in which I discuss just how that came about. It’s about boundaries. The act of critical interpretation became conflated with reading in the ordinary sense of the word, thus eroding the boundary between critic and author. Thus Geoffrey Hartman can write (The Fate of Reading, 1975, p. 267):

A great interpreter like Erich Auerbach, a great critic-scholar like E. R. Curtius, a prodigal son like Kenneth Burke, or men of letters like Paul Valéry and Edmund Wilson, who practiced the minor mode of prophecy we call criticism, are not annulled by the fact that they may be explicitly writing about the writing of others. It may be a weakness in them to prefer, at times, the indirectness of commentary to the creation of their own news, but it may also be a conviction that their identity is bound up with the writings of others—that the mind is laid waste by the false Unas of literature even as it is renewed by faith in the classic or neglected text.

There’s more at the link.

8

DCA 08.21.18 at 1:07 pm

I especially liked

“Before you buy the story of shared codes and customs, make sure to hear from the people on the lower rungs”

which puts me in mind of such claims as “people in the South were worse off after the Civil War”.

9

LFC 08.21.18 at 3:03 pm

Someone on LGM yesterday linked to a Salon piece about this. My computer/browser doesn’t like Salon and seized up, so I couldn’t finish reading the piece. But I did get to the part where the author of the piece found a reference in a Derrida biography to Ronell having had an affair in Paris in the late ’70s with Derrida’s son. As the author of the Salon column says, there was nothing illegal about this liaison, but it may be revealing on a few counts… Anyway I’ll just refer people to the piece (which, as I say, I wasn’t able to finish). (Searching on Ronell and Salon should bring it up.)

10

Chip Daniels 08.21.18 at 3:52 pm

I’m reminded of the movie The Devil Wear Prada, where the story arc is that after a brutal period of hazing and servitude, Anne Hathaway’s character is rewarded with the job of her dreams.
The point being that this is a just and rightful way of training and mentoring people and was good for her in the end.

How different would the story have been, I wonder, had at the end, Streep were to cast Hathaway aside with utter indifference, the way she cast aside Hathaway’s predecessor.

Which brings to the fore I guess, how the #metoo movement is not so much about sexuality as about this culture of privilege and power.

11

Donald A. Coffin 08.21.18 at 4:42 pm

I assume Dave (@2) is being ironic. The number of institutions/places in which those with more seniority are regarded more highly/given power over their juniors is legion…I remember such dynamics occurring in high school, for example. And then, here’s Congress…

12

RJB 08.21.18 at 8:26 pm

I am preparing a study to identify causes of “(ir)responsible research practices”. Power differentials are one category of causes we are looking at, because they make it hard for junior people to raise concerns and get them taken seriously. Our focus is primarily STEM and social science, but I’d be very interested in people’s thoughts of how power is structured in humanities. Two key differences across research groups in STEM and social science are sources of funding and isolation. We are predicting that power imbalances will be greater when funding comes from outside groups to one or two senior people in a research group, rather than when funding comes from internal sources (as in most business schools, for example). We are also predicting great problems when junior people who have little access to senior people outside their own group.

What puzzles me about the Ronell case is that it doesn’t sound like she controlled much in the way of funding. And to this outsider social scientist, I see no clear reason one of her students could have access to lots of other senior people. Other than, of course, that she used her power to keep that from happening. But I’m less clear about what made her successful in doing so. Someone who tried that in my business school would have limited success. Is it all about her ability to write letters that will help junior people secure jobs?

13

Faustusnotes 08.21.18 at 11:29 pm

RJB, my blog has a list of some of the ways besides funding in which this happens in public health. A major one is journal gate keeping, and informal and hidden networks created when these senior people are all on the same boards and at the same events. Ronell appears to have had an ally in every escape option Reitman looks for, and was also on his thesis review committee. Some of these problems can be solved institutionally – eg by not giving some stars preferential access to publishers and journals, and not having supervisors or their friends on defense committees – but some requires that we as academics act to stop our peers from behaving like shitheads. The letter makes clear that ronells peers approved of her behaviour, so there’s little chance they would have acted against her in those informal networks. Now we can only hope she and NYU pay the full price for her bullying and NYU’s support of it.

14

John Quiggin 08.22.18 at 1:33 am

@Bill Benzon One of the few (partly) good things about economics as a discipline is the lack of a real star system or a historical focus on “great men (sic)”. The standard economics education contains no mention of Mill, Marx or Marshall – even Adam Smith, Ricardo and Keynes get mentioned only in passing. People like Krugman and Stiglitz are famous for their public roles, but within academic economics their papers get treated much like anyone else’s.By contrast, there is a rigid ranking of the Top 5 general journals, top journals in every subfield and so on.

And the flipside is that the subject is commonly taught as a body of settled knowledge, with no history of thought and no indication that there is any conflict or disagreement about it.

15

Bill Benzon 08.22.18 at 2:36 am

@John Quiggan: The star system in lit crit seems to have arisen in the 1980s and lasted on into the 1990s. It wasn’t there during my undergraduate years in the 60s or my graduate years in the 70s, though I did study with some professors who then went on to become stars. There certainly were scholars who were highly respected and widely influential. But they weren’t stars.

Interpretation (via. so-called close reading) wasn’t a routine aspect of academic literary study until after WWII. During the mid 60s interpretation became problematic. During the 70s the discipline moved toward what came to be known as “Theory”. It was when the discipline lapsed into Theory that “influential practitioners” were “cast … as a new sort of author”, to use Shumway’s terms. And that gave us a ‘winner take all’ disciplinary dynamic.

There was a decade or so in the 60s and 70s when the discipline was trying to figure out which way it wanted to go. It didn’t HAVE to opt for Theory. Intellectual alternatives were available.

Jonathan Culler is an interesting figure in this context. He published Structuralist Poetics in 1975 and explicitly positioned poetics as being different from, alternative to, interpretation. He even drew ideas from linguistics. He toured the country on the book for about a year; it made his career. And that was the end of it. He pretty much dropped poetics after that and signed on with deconstruction. In doing that I think he was pretty much going with the flow. That is, he wasn’t leading the pack; he was following.

Recently he’s been saying, “Jeez, we shoulda’ done more poetics” and I believe he’s even had a thing or two to say about the poetics of the lyric.

16

Matt 08.22.18 at 5:35 am

That’s interesting about Culler, Bill Benzon. The only thing longer than an essay or letter to the NYRB I’ve read by him is his book on de Saussure in the old Modern Masters series. That dates from ’76, so from his earlier period, I guess. I found it pretty useful and written in a clear, straight-forward way. That made me always be a bit surprised when he was lumped (or sometimes self-lumped, I guess) with people who pride themselves on “difficult” writing.

17

faustusnotes 08.22.18 at 6:16 am

I have discovered that Jack Halberstam has this to say on Facebook about social media and the current stoush (here “AR” is Avital Ronell):

I am sick to death of social media. Of twitter – which I just left – of fb, of zombie opinion making. I am sick of known sexual harassers righteously condemning AR. I am sick of AR. I am done with the gay guys who think they can post “fire this homophobic anti-male cunt” on my wall and no one will get mad. I am sick that no one got mad. I am sick of the mansplaining about this case and I am sick of the women who direct me to the mansplainers so that I can really understand what is going on. I am sick of patriarchy. I am so sick of straight people. I am done with righteous condemnation. I think I am done with facebook. I am sad that someone as ethically responsible and as brilliant as Judith Butler is being dragged through the mud. I wish everyone trashing her had done even a fraction of what she does for people. I am sick of the people who do nothing, support no one, stand for nothing and get away with it because the not doing is less offensive to people than the doing. Did I mention that I am sick of facebook? And the algorithms sending me useless shit. I am sick of your puppy videos and I don’t care how cute your child was today. Don’t update me. I am done sharing. Done caring. I am done with social media.

It’s worth remembering that Halberstam was one of the signatories to the disgraceful letter that attacked Rebecca Tuvel, as was Butler. These people are calling each other “ethically responsible” and “brilliant” – signing the letter to Hypatia was neither responsible nor a sign of brilliance, and Butler’s defense of a rapist in 2005 wasn’t either. Meanwhile we have Zizek defending Ronell on his blog regardless of the facts of the case. But Halberstam is angry that social media is being a bit vindictive at the moment? If the investigation reveals that this letter was retaliation for a Title IX complaint, a few angry mentions in Twitter are going to be the least of these people’s problems …

Also, to me this letter is a big neon sign saying that these people are bullies and harassers. If I were a fan of Butler, Halberstam et al, I would be bracing myself for more revelations in the future. These people didn’t stand by and watch Ronell mistreat her students for years because they thought it was wrong, now did they? And if I were a graduate applicant I would steer clear of any academic who signed that letter …

18

Bill Benzon 08.22.18 at 8:09 am

BTW, @Matt, Culler is one of those who signed the (in)famous letter supporting Ronell.

@RJB: In general, literary criticism is not funded by grant money, at least not in the US. However, that’s changing a bit in the case of so-called “digital humanities”. And so, a standard criticism of digital humanities is that it’s just a cheap play for grant money.

19

Orange Watch 08.22.18 at 12:19 pm

FN, well said.

One thing I’d add to your comments is that the tone and mannerisms adopted by those defenders, as well as in the two letters you mention, smack of virtue ethics as the signatories’ underlying metaethical framework, albeit a fairly vile implementation of it. The fact that they are known to be good people who act with right intent is more important than their mere actions, the irrelevant consequences of their actions, or obsequious obedience to “rules”. In this case, “good people” and “right intent” tends to mean “orthodox theoretician” and “supportive of the established hierarchy”, but the bullies have defined virtue in such a way that “are you orthodox” and “do you know your place” are the only questions that matter WRT the morality of one’s actions…

20

LFC 08.22.18 at 1:09 pm

Lest someone infer from my comment @9 that I did not get the point of Corey’s piece in the Chronicle, I did get the point, and I basically agree with his take (not sure I would have generalized it quite as much as he does at the end, but that’s a quibble).

The background conditions for this this case/story are prob worth emphasizing: i.e., elite program, superstar adviser who knows ‘everyone’ and has the clout to get her advisees jobs, or at least interviews, simply by picking up the phone, etc. Not all grad students are in that kind of milieu, so experiences will vary (and my experience as a grad student was in certain respects totally different from the one being taken as modal or typical here, but then my experience was atypical in a number of ways, though perhaps not *that* atypical in its ultimate outcome, i.e., my not getting a job). P.s. Sorry for the autobiographical digression.

21

Dave W. 08.22.18 at 6:16 pm

@Bill Benzon: I think this is the correct link to your blog post. I was puzzled for a bit trying to figure out what New York 2140 and the MetLife tower had to do with appropriate boundaries in literary criticism.

22

bill benzon 08.22.18 at 9:48 pm

Thanks, Dave W. Yes, that’s the correct link. Here it is again:

Star struck and broken down: How did literary criticism come to this foul pass? [#AvitalRonell]

23

Fuzzy Dunlop 08.23.18 at 1:23 am

Bill Benzon makes interesting points about the fall of boundaries, but I wonder how much this is really something specific to disciplines that favor Theory? The fact that a lot of academia seems to function through personal networks and have some distrust for bureaucracy is what erodes boundaries, and that is more a structural fact than anything to do with Theory (in my area of academia many people don’t even like Theory). I’ve never seen a case of boundaries being eroded as bad as Ronell, but then I don’t suppose she was typical of her field either.

24

faustusnotes 08.23.18 at 2:09 am

I don’t buy Bill Benzon’s idea that the fall of boundaries is the cause of this, or that it is in some way related to the way personal declarations of social position have become important in the field of “Theory” (as he says near the end of the post). I think this is just a case of hippy punching. I think it’s more along the lines Orange Watch describes: we have a clique of bullies, and this particular clique of bullies have this particular discursive method. It would be different in analytic philosophy or public health or whatever. The way that an egregious sexual harasser in, say, clinical medicine would work is different to the way Ronell works, but that’s just decoration. The issues it hat the harasser has power, that power is enabled by the harasser’s peers and networks, and the students just have to buckle under. I think there was a case almost as terrrible as this one a few years back in some branch of climate or physical science, involving a professor being in the antarctic for long periods of time with students/post-docs, and treating them like absolute shit. The isolation and the nature of the work mean the abuse was different (I doubt that Ronell ever threw stones at Reitman when he was taking a piss, for example) but that’s just a consequence of the environment where the opportunities are taken advantage of.

It’s just power. Bullies gonna bully. Literary theory bullies are gonna bully in a particularly poetic way, but it’s still the same basic thing.

25

Bill Benzon 08.23.18 at 2:38 am

@Fuzzy Dunlop: The boundaries I’m interested in have little to do with the administrative units of academic bureaucracy. My analysis is pretty specific to literary criticism, which, after all, is the field where Ronell functioned and where academic stardom seems to have been most extreme. Stardom different from mere eminence.

What’s at issue is the source of intellectual authority. The star is the irreducible source of intellectual authority, as opposed to the (often informal and implicit) governing conventions of a/the discipline. It’s one thing for a critic to become renowned for their exemplary and original contributions within those disciplinary norms. That’s not what I’m talking about. Stardom is something else. Stars exceed or evade disciplinary norms in one way or another and so establish themselves a reference point.

Stardom was possible, perhaps even necessary, in literary criticism because of certain intellectual developments, which I sketch out in that post. I note that not a lit crit came to be dominated by Theory. Alongside that we have the New Historicism. And that didn’t produce stars. Eminent practitioners, yes, but not stars. The critical practice was quite different, much more deeply immersed in historical detail.

26

Kurt Schuler 08.23.18 at 4:20 am

Thank you for this trenchant article. I am left wondering how Ronell got to be so high and mighty. Have professors of German been curing diseases, lifting people out of poverty, overthrowing dictatorships, or writing some poetry that is within shouting distance of Heine or Rilke? The picture this incident paints is of a field that is both useless and corrupt at what it supposed to be its top level.

27

ph 08.23.18 at 7:13 am

@10 You’re not getting it. The Prada arc is not about power-nut is searching for an assistant, but for her/his replacement – a lunatic sufficiently jaded and hardened to ‘successfully’ wield executive authority – a unconscious/conscious winnowing process – a la ‘In the Thick of It.’

This is more a tale of why does the canine use her tongue to wash her -, because she can. My own under-grad advisor warned me that sucking up to a narcissist was usually par for the course, and asked me to imagine how all Paul de Mann’s grad students must be feeling now/then. Choose well, if one can. I did.

My doctoral advisors (two) weren’t at all interested in anything but my work. Whatever ego needs they have weren’t/aren’t going to be met by co-opting/bullying students. Working as an unpaid research assistant was part of the learning process, and by that I don’t mean photo-copying, typing, proofing, or scanning. There’s always a trade-off.

The last thing we need is to abolish sex in the work place. Half the couples I know met at work, grad advisors marrying undergrads, etc. Then there’s the other stuff.

Getting f-ed – that’s so not part of life. Right? I try harder to avoid giving than receiving.

28

SusanC 08.23.18 at 7:52 am

Psychoanalysts talk about “counter-transference”.

The adviser-grad student relationship has about it something of the quality of the shrink-patient relationship, which is to say that it is potentially vulnerable to abuse.

We might now think that Freud was a sadist and a sleazy lecher with respect to his patients…

29

casmilus 08.23.18 at 8:46 am

@25

Gilbert Ryle’s essay on “The Verification Principle” had some observations about how positivism was a reaction against the way the prevailing idealist schools were centred around particular universities and particular sage-like personalities, in contrast with the (presumed) democratic culture of scientific communities. Maybe that was something like what you’re seeing in “Theory”.

30

Bill Benzon 08.23.18 at 10:43 am

@faustusnotes: Yes, “Bullies gonna bully.” But that’s not the question I was addressing. The question I was addressing is: Where’d the lit crit star system come from?

Now, we might ask another question: Within the disciplines of academic literary criticism & cultural studies, is bullying more likely by stars than by prominent non-stars? That’s an interesting question. I certainly don’t know the answer.

31

Faustusnotes 08.23.18 at 2:05 pm

There are stars in other disciplines bill. Here in Japan at the national Universities there is a very strong star system in place. What is Jordan Peterson if not a star academic? There are quite a few in public health and they have been a fixture of physics since long before hawking. Maybe lit crit is just a narrow enough field that it’s easy for a few people to dominate? Or maybe it’s just unlucky to have some particularly outrageous bullies (ronell) and some especially slimy enablers (Butler, halberstam, zizek).

A problem people often make upon witnessing someone else being bullied is they ask “why?” The behaviour is so egregious and out of line that people naturally think it must have a reason, some basis for the behaviour – usually sought in the actions of the victim but sometimes also in the environment or the circumstances of the bully. But bitter experience shows that this is a mistake. The bully doesn’t bully because of circumstances or some trigger, the bully bullies because the bully can. In a world of people as ethically disconnected as we are discovering the zizeks and butler’s ofit crit to be, it’s inevitable that eventually someone like ronell will see their chance, and take it.

The more interesting question is the implications for “theory” and all its political positions of the fact that it’s leading lights are such horrible people. What are we to make of butler’s past work on gender, power and behaviour, now that we know what we do of her own? How should we reinterpret zizeks contribution to modern leftism now we know he’s nothing more than a power hungry and bitter bully?

32

Orange Watch 08.23.18 at 3:23 pm

FN@24:

I think there’s a bit more field-specific issues going on than just “hierarchies nurture and shelter bullies”, though that is ofc true. Theory loves to critique hierarchy, but despite its putative goal of justice it’s less interested in abolishing hierarchy than inverting it or otherwise restructuring it without necessarily eliminating the underlying oppressive structures in the hierarchy.

Furthermore, the star system in Theory – unlike most fields – has elevated certain scholars to a unique and indispensable status. Their contribution is singular, and no one else could produce it no matter how long or hard they tried – so without the star scholar their methodology would forever be denied to the world. Couple this with the field’s claim to have special insight into social justice – their theories and frameworks are the best of all possible windows through which racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. can be understood – and the prominence of standpoint epistemology and personal experience as a source of scholarly and moral authority… and you have a field where having a star’s wrongdoing (particularly in terms of abuse of power, and even more particularly if the abuse includes sexual dynamics) threatens the legitimacy and claim to authority of the field at large. If personal experience and insight is key to the field, and the field directly and explicitly seeks to promulgate morality and social justice, a revelation that a respected elder has feet of clay is an existential threat in ways that are not comparable to malfeasance by a revered STEM or econ scholar whose work is both less personal in nature and origin, and less directly concerned with dictating moral behavior and thought.

To a large degree, Theory has gone all-in on their hierarchy, and are too invested in the authority it grants to admit it is fallible.

33

monboddo 08.23.18 at 5:01 pm

@25 — I don’t think that’s true in most of academia; at least, I assume that an advisor in, say, mechanical engineering doesn’t claim the relationship to her grad students has something of the shrink-patient relationship. I may be echoing something Corey said a while back, but at least when sexual harassment occurs in most academic fields, there isn’t an extra claim that it’s a part of the graduate training; I mean, you may be getting harassed in an Astrophysics program, but at least the advisor isn’t claiming there is an “erotics” of Astrophysics that dictates the lack of boundaries…

34

Kiwanda 08.23.18 at 6:14 pm

If Ronell’s alleged abuse of Reitman had not had a sexual element, would Reitman would have had a basis for a lawsuit? Reitman would not have had recourse to the machinery of the Title IX system, dubious though it may be. So while the sexual element may have clouded the fundamental issue, it seems like the aspect that allows Reitman to seek some kind of justice.

When people, in whatever profession, have this enormous power over others, ideally there is some mechanism, formal or informal, to counterbalance that power and/or guard against abuse. In business, there’s “going to HR”; in academe, except for some particular categories of complaint, what is there? The Dean of Students?

35

engels 08.23.18 at 11:36 pm

The only thing longer than an essay or letter to the NYRB I’ve read by him is his book on de Saussure in the old Modern Masters series. That dates from ’76, so from his earlier period, I guess. I found it pretty useful and written in a clear, straight-forward way.

From what I can tell that was a fantastic series of books and a minor tragedy the publisher let most of them go out of print. I was looking through an old list of titles the other day and there are some intriguing author-subject combinations that don’t even show up on Amazon.

36

faustusnotes 08.24.18 at 3:02 am

Orange Watch, I’m not convinced that standpoint epistemology is essential to the position of the star (I mean, aren’t they all white chicks and white dudes?) but yes, I can see that the process of calling on a particular theorist’s work (rather than an independent theory) could make the star essential to the discipline. But I’m not convinced it’s the discipline itself that made this necessary, and not the behavior of its luminaries. Leiter reports is reporting that Ronell made it a condition of all student work that it cite her and Derrida, which suggests rather than the theorist being essential to the work, the theorist had to make it a rule that the work made her essential. So it seems like there could have been some other way of doing lit crit, but these arseholes passed rules to make sure it was done this way. It seems like the bullying chicken came before the fragile lit crit egg.

Kiwanda, it’s my view that if minor bullying were more effectively punished, sexual harassment of this kind would be much less likely to happen at all.

37

casmilus 08.24.18 at 8:44 am

I read a pile of the old MM series last year, including Culler on Saussure. Arthur Danto on Sartre is nice although of course the specialists have issues with it. Conor Cruise O’Brien on Camus was sharp. However the one on Guevara has dated most of all. I doubt anyone would care to write about him now, and it’s pretty hagiographic yet still can’t disguise that he didn’t have much in the way of theory to offer.

Michael Tanner’s short book on Nietzsche got ripped apart in a review in the Nietzsche Society journal, but I’m not sure that was in the same series. I saw that review in the mid 90s.

38

Bill Benzon 08.24.18 at 11:00 am

@Faustonotes #31: “There are stars in other disciplines bill.” 1) Setting Japan aside, I know little about the Japanese academic world, but 2) you are confusing academic celebrity with what happened in literary studies & cultural studies in the American academy in the 1980s and 1990s. Jordan Peterson may be a celebrity academic to the outside world, but, as far as I know, he has no special status within the academy. John Quiggan observed upstream (#14) that economics lacks stars in this sense. Note his specific assertion “People like Krugman and Stiglitz are famous for their public roles, but within academic economics their papers get treated much like anyone else’s.” I’d be very surprised if physicists were any different w/ respect to Hawking or, for that matter, the late Richard Feynmann who, after all, testified on national TV about O-rings in the Challenger disaster.

As for your suggestion that lit crit may be a narrow field, what do you mean by narrow? The Modern Language Association is the largest association of literary academics in USA (& has foreign members). It’s got about 24K members now, down from almost 30K some years ago. Anyhow, just how does a small coterie come to dominate a field unless the members of that field allow them to do so? At the departmental level that means “stars” are given perks and leeway denied to ordinary faculty.

Let me say a little more about literary criticism. John Quiggin observed:

“And the flipside is that the subject is commonly taught as a body of settled knowledge, with no history of thought and no indication that there is any conflict or disagreement about it.”

In literary criticism we have two bodies of knowledge, the primary texts (the so-called canon), and the methods by which we study and interpret those texts. So, Shumway observed, “Theory not only gave its most influential practitioners a broad professional audience but also cast them as a new sort of author.” That is, Theory allowed the stars to function within the discipline in a way like the authors of those primary texts. You know, to be a bit extreme about it, Žižek is the new Shakespeare, and Butler is the new Brontë.

Most academic disciplines don’t have a body of texts that they study in the way literary critics study those primary texts. Theology obviously, religion more generally. But otherwise, no.

Orange Watch #32: “Furthermore, the star system in Theory – unlike most fields – has elevated certain scholars to a unique and indispensable status. Their contribution is singular, and no one else could produce it no matter how long or hard they tried – so without the star scholar their methodology would forever be denied to the world.” Yes.

39

Matt 08.24.18 at 1:23 pm

and a minor tragedy the publisher let most of them go out of print.

I had thought that a good number of them found their way into the Oxford “Very Short Introductions” volumes, but in fact I think that’s wrong – most of the “reprints” in that series are from the “Past Masters” series, which was similar but different. (As an example, the “Past Masters” series had, somewhat bizarrely, I have always thought, a book on Marx by Peter Singer, while the “Modern Masters” series had one by David McLellan, who is, at least, a specialist on Marx.) It is too bad – several of the volumes that I’ve read were very good.

40

engels 08.24.18 at 1:54 pm

If I wanted understand the operation of power in the world we live in today the last thing I’d want to spend my time doing is picking over the details of interpersonal relationships among American bullshit/culture industry glitterati

41

LFC 08.24.18 at 2:32 pm

@engels

A few months ago I happened to see in a used bookstore a hardcover copy, in excellent condition, of George Lichtheim on Lukacs in the Modern Masters series (pub date 1970). I bought it even though I’m not all that interested in Lukacs and may never give it more than the 15 mins I gave it after the purchase.

42

Orange Watch 08.24.18 at 4:10 pm

FN@31:
What is Jordan Peterson if not a star academic?

Jordan Peterson is a star, but not a star academic. The special deference and reverence he receives comes from individuals who are not members of the academy; in Theory, the external reverence is minimal, but reverence within the field is ubiquitous.

43

Faustusnotes 08.25.18 at 1:57 am

Okay I’ll grant you that Peterson was a terrible example. A better one is Chris Murray in global health (actually quite a few senior academics in global health), who dominates the field in a very similar way to the litcrit stars being referenced here. Also in physics I remember there were definitely star academics – I had a brief stint working for Jasper Munch many years ago and he was exactly the same as ronell. What an awful few months that was! Also I think infectious disease epidemiology has this phenomenon though I’m not close enough to be sure. These are academics whose star status arises from their work and their connection within academia not their public status.

Also in analysing the ability of someone like ronell to render themselves indispensable to theory you need to consider their active use of brutal temporal power to do that. Ronell didn’t become indispensable at NYU because theoretical work depended on her contribution – she mandated that everyone reference her. That’s not really a sign that her work was indispensable, quite the opposite.

44

LFC 08.25.18 at 2:08 am

@ bill benzon

A course in the history of political thought has its canonical texts and so does the history of sociological theory. So for that matter does the history of economic thought, though as J Quiggin mentioned most mainstream economists don’t pay a lot of attention to it.

45

Richard 08.25.18 at 3:12 am

Why is there so much analysis over this?
The facts of this case couldn’t be clearer. This woman is clearly a mentally ill, entitled malignant narcissist, who’s so-called queer identity is just a mask to hide her inability to maintain any meaningful relationship in her life with a person on equal footing. I believe everything Nimrod said about her because the entire surrounding fact pattern and all available evidence supports it. To be frank this woman looks like a malevolent, yenta, crotch monkey pushing some absurd, pedantic, derivitive, academic drivel to a collection of college students who are too young and or inexperienced to realize that she contributes absolutely nothing of substance. It is a sad testament to the degraded state of academia in this country that this individual would ever hold any position of authority anywhere. I mean seriously have you actually read her work? She’s just some hysteric that screams rape every 5 minutes to avoid taking responsibility for herself. As bad as she is still worse are the people that follow her around treating her as though she has some type of role model. Quit lit and get a real job all of you!

46

Orange Watch 08.25.18 at 3:26 am

FN@36:

Standpoint epistemology isn’t essential to the particular toxins present in Lit Crit’s hierarchy, but its popularity aggravates them significantly. SP Ep is frequently cited here as a source of scholarly insight – not something reported by an “objective” observer who is recording a third party’s standpoint, but something actively shaping and molding the actual analysis as written up by the scholar. The effect of this is to make it significantly harder to separate an academic from their work – and it implicates their work in ways that those of a malignant, predatory scholar in economics or astronomy would not be implicated.

47

Fake Dave 08.25.18 at 8:13 am

This whole flap gives me that same “what kind of school are they going to?” feeling that accompanied CR’s take on the the “Erotic Professor” subgenre. I suspect the vast majority of grad students have advisors who are helpful (when they can get ahold of them) and important in an “I’d better not piss them off” sense, but also too busy doing their actual jobs (and splitting attention between many other students) to become such a fixture in the life of just one advisee.

Just like how we can bracket out the sexual elements of this case to see the underlying abuse of power in their relationship, we can also ask ourselves, “if there wasn’t abuse, would this closeness be OK?” She must have had other students, other advisees, who were equally entitled to her time and support. How much was she giving them? What did her peers and students think when she paraded around with her hand-picked protege? Were they jealous? Resentful? Did they think this was normal — just what top academics did? Did they think he was lucky to get so much attention? That he should be grateful?

There’s a social justice issue here that I’d dearly like to see addressed. Why is it that while virtually every other facet of the educational system makes some effort to prevent favoritism and ensure that instructors treat students equitably as a “class,” the top teachers at the top schools have been allowed to operate private apprenticeships with no oversight or expectation of equal access? Isn’t it a bit suspicious that these proteges and mentees then go on to become the next generation of “top” academics and perpetuate the cycle? How many potentially powerful and insightful voices in the academy have been banished to the land of intro lectures and term papers because they didn’t kiss the right ass or their advisers and instructors just never took that “special” notice of them? How the hell is this still the system?

48

engels 08.25.18 at 9:21 am

Yes, I think Past Masters (Oxford) were re-published as VSIs and some of the philosophy ones were collected in one volume. Modern Masters (Fontana) have mostly gone out of print. I may have been exaggerating a bit but some I remember finding useful included Wollheim on Freud and Lyons on Chomsky and I think the list included titles by Stanley Cavell, Charles Rosen, and others I can’t remeber off-hand, that aren’t available anymore. I haven’t seen the Lichtheim one but flicked MacIntyre on Marcuse in a second-hand shop, which is interesting but very hostile.

“Past Masters” series had, somewhat bizarrely, I have always thought, a book on Marx by Peter Singer

I think Singer also wrote the introduction to Hegel.

49

Matt 08.25.18 at 10:22 am

LFC – I read the volume on Lukacs a year or so ago and enjoyed it, for what that’s worth. I don’t know enough about him to know if the book is accurate for fair, but it seemed reasonable and informative to me. Most of the volumes in the series I’ve read have been at least interesting and informative, some better than that.

50

SusanC 08.25.18 at 10:40 am

Speaking as someone from a university where research staff (including grad students who are being paid by the university) are unionized … if Reitman was a university employee and a union member over here, the alleged bad behaviour by management is exactly the kind of thing where a complaint via the union rep might be in order.

I think Corey is right that its not just about sex. Union disputes can arise over other kinds of bad behaviour by management too.

51

ph 08.25.18 at 11:04 am

One of the ways to tell if an academic is a ‘star’ in the market sense, is to determine whether said academic has an agent. Many do.

Agents are dedicated to transforming academic expertise into revenue streams, and by that standard JP is at the very top of the heap. Getting tenured at the University of Toronto, btw, isn’t as easy as one might believe. Getting hired isn’t all that easy.

So, either the standards at U of T are in some drastic need of repair, or JP is a role model for all academics looking to win a following willing to fork over cash. None like that here.

Envy is a sin for good reason.

52

engels 08.25.18 at 11:06 am

(‘Bullshit industry’ was probably a bit over-heated as I know even less about Ronnell and Reitman’s oeuvre than I do about Weinstein’s and Argento’s, but fairly sure they’ll continue to live happy and prosperous lives without my admiration.)

53

Faustusnotes 08.25.18 at 2:23 pm

As an amusing aside, when I google ronell I get a link to a presentation she did called “a crisis of immaturity,” which is terrible nonsense but starts with what one might now consider to be a prescient intro; and a book about “the complaint” which is arrogant rubbish but ironic in light of current events. Ronell has now done a fair bit of fieldwork on the nature of “the complaint”, all deriving from her own crisis of immaturity, and will no doubt be doing considerably more when the investigation into retaliation gets into full swing.

54

Bill Benzon 08.25.18 at 3:01 pm

@Faustonotes, #43: “Also in analysing the ability of someone like ronell to render themselves indispensable to theory you need to consider their active use of brutal temporal power to do that. Ronell didn’t become indispensable at NYU because theoretical work depended on her contribution – she mandated that everyone reference her.” But why was she allowed to do that? Did she simply declare herself a star? “I hereby declare myself to be a star. Bow down before me & let me do whatever I want.” If that worked every bully would become a star.

@LFC, #44: “A course in the history of political thought has its canonical texts and so does the history of sociological theory.” Sure, every discipline has them. But what disciplines consider knowledge of those texts as essential to becoming a current practitioner in the discipline?

* * *

On the Modern Masters, yes, Lyon on Chomsky is good, so is Edmund Leech on Lévi-Strauss.

55

Faustusnotes 08.25.18 at 3:50 pm

Bill, you can see why it worked from the response of her peers to her case. They supported her. It’s easy to declare yourself indispensable if your peers protect you. Letter reports is publishing translations of an article by the prof who hired ronell which describe her psychopathy, but isn’t asking – why did a professor let another professor do these things? (I hope we will find out). This isn’t a flaw of the field (the prof who hired her maybe wasn’t even one of these lit crit wankers). It’s a flaw of academia. A woman seized what power she could and some of her peers supported her.

And yes, if every bully was enabled by their bullying peers then many bullies would be stars. And in fact they are. See eg Jimmy Savile, Harvey Weinstein.

56

bianca steele 08.25.18 at 4:24 pm

Reading this reminded me of the piece on Steve Jobs’s daughter’s memoir, which the NYT ran in the past couple of days. She reports that when she lived with his family for a while, he not only objected to her doing extracurriculars that cut into her time for being a member of his (other) family, he touched her sexually under the guise of having “family time.”

We have a problem in Western culture, in my opinion, with what we allow to people we’ve designated “stars,” of the type Jobs was and Ronell seems to be. Subcultures that permit special social rules that enable abuses of power are only part of that. I’m not sure a criticism directed at communitarianism, even though I agree with it, gets at the problem either, because it doesn’t touch the claim that communitarianism is inherently conservative in a way gay or artists’ subcultures aren’t really. This is really the kind of case where people who hate domination and employer power occasionally have a habit of looking the other way, because the person and the subculture seem so special and important for some purpose that they’ll reply “oh you don’t understand,” and there’s really no answer to this.

57

bianca steele 08.25.18 at 5:18 pm

Also, thinking about the Gira Grant piece—the one time I experienced something similar, from a man who theoretically had the power to keep me employed and certainly had the power to control the conditions under which I worked (he was a wishy-washy type and in practice he was more likely to keep me on with the dangled hope of a change in those conditions) though I’m sure he justified his behavior in nonsexual terms (and likely in religious terms), sex *roles* were overt in his management style, and lack of sexual boundaries was absolutely an ever-present issue with him, even when it amounted to his “flirting” and following up with bizarre, oblique and off-topic moral admonitions in email. Which is to say, I guess, that both “it’s not about sex” and “it’s about sex” seem wrong to me. If it *can* be about sex, it probably will be. And for most women working for men, it will be about sex. The number of people who can abuse their power over people they can envision themselves in sexual relations with, while remaining strictly nonsexual in their behavior, has got to be small. (That’s why, they often claim, they shouldn’t have women in the organizations in the first place.)

58

engels 08.25.18 at 5:27 pm

Here’s the whole list:
http://www.fontanamodernmasters.org/titles.html

Seems like I dreamt the Cavell one but eg Dreyfus on Merleau-Ponty sounds interesting, comes up with nothing on Amazon:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=dreyfus%20merleau%2Dponty

59

Orange Watch 08.25.18 at 5:44 pm

BB@54:
Not just this, but also how is it that people outside the direct influence of the “stars” handed them so much scholarly authority and deference? I think the “academic as author” angle is probably the most productive path to dig into this from; the high and mighty of Theory are frequently cited in ways you’d only see primary sources cited in other disciplines. The incestuous, navel-gazing tendencies of orthodox Theory really are (thankfully) exceptional within the academy, though they do bleed out into disciplines that draw on it.

60

bianca steele 08.25.18 at 5:57 pm

“I assume that an advisor in, say, mechanical engineering doesn’t claim the relationship to her grad students has something of the shrink-patient relationship”

I wouldn’t assume this. I’ve worked in engineering my entire career, and I’ve gotten to know male science and engineering professors online (i.e. more recently than school) whom I’ve otherwise seemed to get on well with, and I’ve known some who would claim just that (some because they believe it’s part of traditional culture in the relevant realm of society, and some because they believe it’s lacking in their realm and they’re taking it upon themselves to change it).

Sorry for the triple post—the idea that more formal or bureaucratic hierarchies could be improved by the introduction of personalized forms of power, supposedly more “human” wielding of power, bugs me, and I hadn’t read the later comments when I posted earlier. The idea that “those people over there” have a better way of doing things and all “our” criticism is necessarily misguided, is harmful and makes discussion impossible.

61

john c. halasz 08.25.18 at 9:32 pm

Nothing really new here. Just an academic tempest in a teapot.

Paul Valery:

“the delirious professions… This is the name I give to all those trades whose main tool is one’s opinion of oneself, and whose raw material the opinion others have of you. Those who follow these trades, doomed to be perpetual candidates, are necessarily forever afflicted with a kind of delusion of grandeur which is ceaselessly crossed and tormented by a kind of delusion of persecution. This population of uniques is ruled by the law of doing what no one has ever done, what no one will ever do. This is at least the law of the best, that is to say, of those who have the courage to want, frankly, something absurd.”

62

Bill Benzon 08.25.18 at 11:24 pm

@Faustusnotes, #55: “Bill, you can see why it worked from the response of her peers to her case. They supported her. It’s easy to declare yourself indispensable if your peers protect you.” But she had to be a peer in the first place; that requires mutual recognition. You can’t just come in out of nowhere, declare yourself a peer, and expect the to be accepted into the club. You have to earn admittance. How does that happen? You are assuming it comes out of nowhere.

@Orange Watch, #59, yes.

There are a number of things going on in this discussion and I want to try to sort them out. Note that Corey has said:

The question of sex, of Ronell’s work and stature in academe, of literary theory or critical theory or the academic left, of the supposed hypocrisy of the scholars who rallied to her side, of the fact that the alleged harasser is a woman and gay while the alleged victim is a man and gay — all of this, if one reads Reitman’s complaint, seems a little beside the point. And has, I think, clouded the fundamental issue.

That is, that fact the Ronell is an acknowledged “star” in the sense that I’ve been using the term, which is a sense that has been current in lit crit and cultural studies for over two decades, that’s secondary for him. That’s fine. What’s important to his argument is that Ronell had power over Reitman as his advisor, and she apparently used her reputation in the academic world in a way that made it difficult for him to extricate himself from his situation. You don’t have to be a lit crit “star” to have that kind of power.

So why, then, did I bring it up at all? First of all, the issue of Ronell’s stardom came up in Twitter discussions. Tim Burke, a historian at Swarthmore, started a Twitter chain that began with: “The academic star system of the 1980s and 1990s in the humanities created a group of people who believed they were better than everyone else and a group of people who were invested in believing the stars were better than everyone else.” In the 7th tweet in the chain he mentioned Ronell. Somewhere in that cloud of discussion Ted Underwood mentioned David Shumay’s 1997 article, The Star System in Literary Studies in a tweet.

Secondly, I am interested in the history of lit crit since WWII. I’m particularly interested in developments from the mid-1970s on, which is when this star system emerged. What interests me is the intellectual developments, the apparent fact that stars emerged in the 1980s has been a secondary matter. But now that Tim Burke and Ted Underwood have brought my attention to this star system I began wondering whether or not it had something to do with the nature of those intellectual developments. That’s what Shumway argued and the points he brought up are consistent with things I’d been thinking about.

Well, Shumay’s articled triggered a number of responses from other academics, one or two of which I’ve read. The Minnesota Review devoted an issue to the matter (Fall 2001, #52-54). Alas, that’s behind a paywall, so I couldn’t read the article, though I was able to read the first page of Shumway’s response.

So, what do we have? I figure, 1) bullies will be bullies, and 2) they exist in all academic disciplines. 3) You don’t have to be powerful (by virtue of reputation and/or or ability to snag grant money) to act as a bully, but power probably helps. (Here’s a case last year from U Rochester involving a cognitive scientist, T. Florian Jaeger, that got a fair amount of attention.) 4) At least some lit critics and humanists thing there’s a “star phenomenon” that is specific to the postmodern modes of though that were in the ascendant in certain circles after the 1970s and reached their zenith in the 80s and 90s. I happen to believe that is the case and have added some further thoughts in another post, which also has links to some of this other literature. 5) There has been some comment in the Ronell case centered on the fact that the many/most signatories to a support letter made their reputations commenting on power and privilege but seem to be blind to the power they’re exercising in their letter. Finally, 6) I note as well that there is a widespread belief that that star system is moribund if not dead. Those who had become stars still retain their aura, though their power may be fading, but no new stars have been born. Points 1, 2, and 3 still remain in play.

63

RJB 08.25.18 at 11:35 pm

@bianca

the idea that more formal or bureaucratic hierarchies could be improved by the introduction of personalized forms of power, supposedly more “human” wielding of power, bugs me, and I hadn’t read the later comments when I posted earlier. The idea that “those people over there” have a better way of doing things and all “our” criticism is necessarily misguided, is harmful and makes discussion impossible.

As an accounting prof, I’ll press you on this. Everyone complains about accountants for sucking out the drama and fun of life, forcing people to keep records of what they do instead of just doing it, and building roadblocks in any number of ways. But the most fundamental tool in controlling behavior is to separate duties. Don’t let any one person take responsibility for a long sequence of tasks (e..g, opening the mail, counting the cash, recording it and sending a receipt). Don’t let someone report on their own performance.

It turns out these tools are really useful in academia. Many of the biggest frauds in empirical research could have been nipped in the bud by following these simple controls. And I see the Ronell abuses alleged in the complaint to be very similar. If someone truly independent had played a role in, for example, whether she could switch advisors or switch to Yale, much of this would have been avoided.

Accounting controls are no panacea. No system is perfect, and you have to decide whether fraud and abuse of power are more costly than imposing a bunch of controls. But accountants don’t devise controls for “those people over there”. We do so for everyone, including ourselves, because everyone has a good chance of behaving badly if we don’t a good job of imposing some controls.

64

bianca steele 08.26.18 at 2:05 am

RJB

I can only guess that you’re assuming I’ve made some mistake you feel is common among the benighted non-academics you sometimes are so unfortunate as to have to work with, and suggest you might want to read my comment again.

65

Bill Benzon 08.26.18 at 1:17 pm

Just when I thought I was done with star culture, I decide to take one last look. Shumway’s article mentioned a parody fanzine devoted to Judith Butler. So I went googling for it and it turned up immediately:

http://www.openculture.com/2015/08/judy-1993-judith-butler-fanzine-gives-us-an-irreverent-punk-rock-take-on-the-post-structuralist-gender-theorist.html

And frankly, in this context, clicking on a button labeled “Submit” is a bit weird.

66

Faustusnotes 08.26.18 at 10:59 pm

Bill, your response at 62 seems particularly weak. It seems to suggest that having peers is wrong or that only a star system would admit a system of peers. Everyone has peeers! My point here is that ronells peers have the same twisted view of power that she has, which is why she became their peer and why now they protect her. She didn’t become their peer because she’s good at her job and indispensable to the field, quite the opposite: as with bullies everywhere they’re sticking together to protect their own incompetence. That’s why she has to declare that all work must cite her, rather than being confident her superior contribution will ensure it. And her peers support her and this behavior because they know too that their work will only be “indispensable “ while they police their field tightly.

If your star system theory were true it would arise much ,ore naturally in modern statistics where he work of a few people (mcullagh, Efron, Gelman, hall, rabe hasketh) is essential to almost all practical work. But it doesn’t, because these leading statisticians haven’t been able to convert their ubiquity into temporal power. That’s because seizing temporal power is not possible through theory. It’s only possible through brutal action.

(A more interesting line of inquiry could be whether the willingness of these academics t exert naked power the way they do has had some influence on the strange and psychotic behavior of some undergraduate humanities students as documented here and elsewhere, as they police language and behavior in academia)

67

Bill Benzon 08.27.18 at 2:10 am

Faustusnotes:

1. The existence of a “star system” in literary studies in the 80s and 90s is an ethnographic fact. People in the field believe that it existed. Their belief may, however, be mistaken. Even if not, there is some question, however, about how this system works and whether or not it is different from status hierarchies in other academic disciplines.

2. You seem to believe that a relatively small group (say, 10 to 30 stars) of incompetent academics was able to dominate a discipline of 25K to 30K academics “through brutal action.” How does that work? What kind of brutal action?

As far as I can tell your conception of literary studies is a vague fantasy. You don’t know what you’re talking about.

68

LFC 08.27.18 at 2:27 am

Faustusnotes @66
I think this back-and-forth is driving to you to some considerable exaggeration.

Bill Benzon, as he has reported, did a PhD in English before, iirc, the Theory [the capital “T” here is important] vogue, but at any rate this is his field. If he is interested in possible connections between Theory and its attendant star system, on the one hand, and this case and perhaps similar cases on the other, why are you getting so worked up about it? B. Benzon is not denying that ‘raw’ power plays a part. He’s simply exploring another angle. I’m not sure I find the exploration (to the extent I even follow it) that convincing, but I don’t really care that much about whether BB is right or wrong on this.

Moreover, FN, your points don’t take on added force when you denounce all these people (e.g. the signatories of the infamous letter) as merely bullies and incompetents and nothing more. I haven’t read most of their work and I assume you haven’t. So I don’t know for certain that they’re incompetent and presumably you don’t either. (Take Butler’s Gender Trouble, which I once tried to read a few pages of. I have no grounds for assuming that it’s nothing but rubbish just b/c the writing style is ‘difficult’ and doesn’t appeal to me. That someone chooses to wrap his/her arguments in prose of a certain apparently deliberate opacity or difficulty does not necessarily signal incompetence, though it may signal a lack of concern for the reader.)

69

Collin Street 08.27.18 at 2:28 am

I just want to thank RJB for their input, which gave me some useful recontextualisation &c

70

faustusnotes 08.27.18 at 4:59 am

Bill, I think perhaps we’re misunderstanding each other and I’m sorry if I’m coming across harshly. I don’t doubt that there is a star system in litcrit, and I certainly known nothing about the way that this particular discipline works. I’m simply questioning whether there’s anything special about this, i.e. I don’t think it’s unique to litcrit and I am not convinced that we need any special explanation in the particular culture and intellectual framework of any discipline to explain it. As I said, I have met and worked with star academics in my disciplines, and right now on Harry’s thread people are discussing Feynman, the quintessential star, who was a star I suspect before Ronell’s incursion into her discipline.

Regarding your question 2, I don’t know how far the rot spreads, but we have now a report that Ronell explicitly forced everyone in her department to cite her in all their work (see the reprint of this report at Leiter’s blog). This is the basis for my suspicion that Ronell didn’t become a bully through being uniquely essential in her discipline, or through standpoint epistemology (as Orange Watch was suggesting adds to her power, in comments above). I think this is an example of “brute action”. My guess is that given she could only get 17 people to support her retaliation letter, her power doesn’t stretch anywhere near as far as she (and, sadly, Reitman) thought. But it certainly appears that this small clique have stitched up a neat little system of mutual backscratching for themselves.

LFC, this matters to me perhaps for reasons similar to those Bianca outlined above. If there’s something special going on in litcrit in which it is uniquely vulnerable to the development and abuse of a star system then the rest of us don’t have to clean house. But I was educated in theoretical physics, worked in hospitals, and now am in Public Health, and in all those fields we see star academics, bullying and misuse of power that differs from Ronell’s behavior only in the floridity of the language. I have certainly experienced viciousness on a par with Ronell’s (though none sexual) and seen senior academics threaten and cajole in various ways throughout my career. As far as I can see the problem is one of academia as a whole, and we need as academics to find ways to reorganize the structures of our field and its institutions to prevent this from happening. I don’t think Bill is personally doing this but when we say “oh that’s just a weird trait of this discipline” what we’re also saying or implying is that we don’t need to be vigilant against it in our own, and we really really do.

As for denouncing people as bullies and incompetents – as far as I am concerned the 17 people who signed that letter have shown themselves to be nothing else. They denounced themselves, I’m simply discussing what they have made very clear by their actions. (Also I’m currently reading Ronell’s The Telephone Book and it is objectively utter crap).

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SusanC 08.27.18 at 8:32 am

Mathematics, at least, is commonly seen as being relatively independent of the person who happened to discover it. I use chi2 tests all the time, and I can’t offhand remember who invented it. In philosophy or lit crit on the other hand, the work is much more tied upwith its authorship. This is so despite Barthes or Foucault (“The Death of the Author” being indissolubly tied with its authorship).

Some disciplines might be more inclined to a star system by virtue of their content.

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bianca steele 08.27.18 at 2:40 pm

The star system as Bill and others seem to describe it do seem to potentially account for the case of Marc Hauser, the psychology professor at I think Harvard, who from the accounts I read at Language Log bullied students into “understanding” that they were supposed to anticipate experimental results in terms of his theory and notate their expected, not actual, observations (of language abilities of eithet monkeys or chimps), if they wanted him to promote their careers.

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bianca steele 08.27.18 at 3:08 pm

Additionally, if I understand correctly what Matthew Crawford says about physics in The World Outside Your Head, the kind of “knowledge created through direct face to face tuition by a senior thinker with a protege” that seems, at least to me, impossible to imagine without some kind of star-like system, is in the opinion of some a good form of knowledge, guaranteeing immersion in a tradition, in distinction to the forms of physics more likely to be practiced in the US which Crawford believes are crudely empirical and thus alienating, and presumably preferably abandoned in favor of the European system he favors.

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Orange Watch 08.27.18 at 3:22 pm

LFC@68

That someone chooses to wrap his/her arguments in prose of a certain apparently deliberate opacity or difficulty does not necessarily signal incompetence, though it may signal a lack of concern for the reader.

All practical (or “practical”, if you prefer) experience I have with Theory of any depth is limited to the late ’90s/early ’00s, so I lack BB’s broader view. But textual difficulty – and specifically creating and extensively using novel concepts and jargon, which are best or only understood through the study of specific authors’ critical output – always struck me as one of the tools used to enforce orthodoxy and support hierarchy in Theory. It also seems like something that would help prop up a star system; when the Structuralists et al were being overthrown and dismissed as stodgy old tools of oppressive hierarchy, complex and opaque explanations of methodology would encourage or even require reference to certain authors to engage with the insurgents who used them, either to attack their ideas or defend them. In that respect, the whole star system seems quite in line with Deconstructionist, etc. dogma that hierarchies must be inverted, not toppled; claiming certain sympathetic critics are uniquely indispensable as an article of faith and writing in such a way that familiarity with and reference to them is necessary to produce text that can be parsed within the ascendant professional dialect seems like an excellent ploy (whether explicitly undertaken or merely gravitated towards) to elevate a preferred canon of critical texts into a status above the existing hierarchy.

The above hypothesis – which is admittedly more than a little ad hoc if not quite a posteriori in a strictly anatomical sense – might also hint at why the star system has waned: when you’ve overthrown the old hierarchy and firmly planted your own one in its place, it’s no longer desirable to allow the same sort of “unearned” elevation to stardom facilitate anyone to “jump the queue”.

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engels 08.27.18 at 6:00 pm

Here’s the Schoenberg book if anyone wants it:
https://monoskop.org/log/?p=11789

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