I knew next to nothing about NYU Professor Avital Ronell until the other day when I read this essay by Andrea Long Chu in the Chronicle of Higher Education (not a journal I’d ever read before either). I recommend reading it:
It is a devastating analysis of the flaws not just in a person but in the institutions and cultural habits that gives some individuals extraordinary power and influence over others. Now I’ve already mentioned that essentially that essay is my only source for the facts and background regarding the accusations aimed at Professor Ronell. However, what struck me about Andrea Long Chu’s essay was how extraordinarily well written it is.
There’s not any sensible way of separating content from the style but clearly, they are also, somehow, different dimensions of writing. Clarity of expression, painting both an emotional picture and a set of connected ideas, mixing quips with insight, all of these enable the reader to engage with the content. In short: I think that is a brilliantly written essay — I don’t doubt the truth of what was written in it but if it was all fiction it would still be brilliantly written.
Meanwhile, some of Professor Ronell’s supporters have written a counter-response which is available here: https://theoryilluminati.com/texts-and-contexts/f/is-feminism-another-name-for-right-to-punish
Here’s a sample:
“My point is simply; your effort to fix justice is in vain. As a creature of social media and especially of twitterati, you must know that this ain’t the place for Arendtian deliberation. This is where the lynch mob thrives. Which world do you inhabit? Do you think your speech has no consequence? What deceptions of grandeur? In the real world, it does and with deadly repercussions. Innocents are murdered, towns set ablaze because some fascist posted conspiracy theories on social media. Get off your high horse. Time to return to school and start reading Derrida rigorously, yes that ghastly place you call hardcore deconstruction.”
Now, there is a fallacy we can all fall into of assuming that the ideas eloquently expressed are truer than the ones poorly expressed. However, the gulf is huge in this case because the response is written by somebody with, supposedly, not just advanced skills in the humanities but in literature. Clarity of thought matters. The purpose of reading Arendt or Derrida isn’t to simply pepper them through a paragraph. Yes, the study of literature isn’t intended to be ‘how to write better’ but if the net effect is that you end up writing poorly and express muddled ideas then surely we can conclude something has gone wrong somewhere.
A friend, who like me is not part of academia but whose work crosses orbits with academics sufficiently often to have semi-informed opinions, refers to a thing he calls “stupid people with Phd’s”. I’m not keen on the term “stupid” and in my friend is refering to people from the sciences but I know what he means: lots of really smart people with Phd’s but every so often you encounter people who don’t even seem to understand the discipline they have a doctorate in. The nature of academia and the power relationships that arise out of rewarding expertise and the unstable working conditions of people starting academic careers is doubly toxic – toxic at a human level but also toxic in that it can end up rewarding the wrong people.
Anyway, I’ve already strayed well beyond the extent of my own knowledge and experience.