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On Avital Ronell’s Celebrity Defenders

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This is really good:

It is simply no secret to anyone within a mile of the German or comp-lit departments at NYU that Avital is abusive. This is boring and socially agreed upon, like the weather.

Stories about Avital’s “process” are passed, like notes in class, from one student to the next: how she reprimanded her teaching assistants when they did not congratulate her for being invited to speak at a conference; how she requires that her students be available 24/7; how her preferred term for any graduate student who has fallen out of favor is “the skunk.”

Process: Wild things live in this word. These stories come from sources who strongly wished to remain anonymous, fearing that to have their names attached would threaten their chances in an already desiccated job market. But even if this was just gossip, I would believe it. When it comes to the American academy, I trust raw, red rumor over public statements any day of the week.

Academic celebrity soaks up blood like a pair of Thinx. A letter to NYU’s president, Andrew Hamilton, a draft of which leaked in June, argued that Avital’s “brilliant scholarship” qualified her for special treatment. The 51 signatories included giants of feminist theory like Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak, as well as my department chair — and the professor who emailed to “encourage” me to play nice with Avital. (Butler has since issued some tepid regrets.)

Meanwhile, on social media and on their blog, the queer-studies scholars Lisa Duggan and Jack Halberstam dismissed the blowback against Avital as neoliberalism meets sex panic meets culture clash, straight people apparently being unable to decipher the coded queer intimacy of emails like “I tried to call you a number of times, unfortunately couldn’t get through, would have liked to leave a msg” [sic].

That Avital’s defenders are left-wing academic stars is not particularly surprising if you’ve spent much time in the academy. The institution has two choices when faced with political radicals: Ax them, especially if they are graduate students, or promote them. Make them successful, give them awards, power, enormous salaries. That way, when the next scandal comes along — and it will — they will have a vested interest in playing defense.

This is how institutionality reproduces. Even the call to think critically about power becomes a clever smoke screen. There is a whole dissertation to be written on intellectuals using the word neoliberal to mean “rules I shouldn’t have to follow.” “If we focus on this one case, these details, this accuser and accused, we will miss the opportunity to think about the structural issues,” wrote Duggan. This was code. It meant, “You can talk about structural issues all you want, so long as you don’t use examples of people we know.”

Good piece by Katha Pollitt, too.

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