I Worked With Avital Ronell. I Believe Her Accuser.
The humanities are ablaze. This month The New York Times reported that the Title IX office had found Avital Ronell, a professor of German and comparative literature at New York University and a superstar in literary studies, responsible for sexually harassing a former student, Nimrod Reitman, now a visiting fellow at Harvard. A lawsuit filed by Reitman fills in the details. Leading feminist and queer scholars like Judith Butler, Lisa Duggan, and Jack Halberstam have defended her — or at least deflected criticism.
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I believe the allegations.
Last year I worked as a teaching assistant for Avital Ronell. I hadn’t sought out the appointment; I am a doctoral student in comparative literature at NYU, and that semester I was, per the handbook, guaranteed a teaching job. A few months before the position began, I received an email from one of my professors informing me that Ronell’s other teaching assistants were “all taking her class and working hard to familiarize themselves with her particular methodologies, texts, style, and so on.” I was “encouraged” to do the same. I was told this was “an important part of the process with Prof. Ronell.” After all, there were other students eager to replace me.
This was not abusive, obviously, only irritating. The lightly mobbish tone of the email — “this is a nice job you got here, shame if something happened to it” — was jarring. In theory, at least, teaching assistants are junior colleagues, not employees, and I had thought that my position was guaranteed. Then again, given the things I’d heard about Avital from other graduate students over the years, I wasn’t all that surprised. (Except on formal occasions, she always went by that one name, “Avital,” like Plato, or Cher.)
Eventually I kissed the ring. I attended a session of Avital’s seminar and visited her in office hours. Her manner in that meeting was odd, wounded. “I just wanted to make sure you and I are OK,” she told me with a concerned look, as if we were recovering from a nasty fight. “Of course we are!” I exclaimed, tripping over myself to reassure her. Avital softened. She had just wanted to be coaxed, like a deer to a salt lick. She smiled. I smiled. This was the process.
The course was called “Outrageous Texts.” Like most purportedly edgy things, it was less edgy than it imagined. In practice, outrageous mostly meant some dead white dudes with weird sexual hang-ups. Sometimes we mixed it up; the dudes were still alive. When we did read women (four of the 15 writers assigned), Avital still mostly talked about men. Her lecture on Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, like the introduction she wrote for Verso’s edition of that book, focused on Nietzsche and Derrida.
It is not illegal to read men. Avital is a Germanist and a deconstructionist who has made no serious contribution to feminist scholarship. That’s fine. But when news media report that she is a feminist — “What Happens to #MeToo When a Feminist Is the Accused?” read the Times headline — they are factually mistaken. This is a professional distinction, not a political one. Personally, Avital may be a feminist, in the Taylor Swift sense of a woman who doesn’t like being oppressed, but professionally, she is not a feminist scholar, any more than every person who believes that humans descended from apes is an evolutionary anthropologist.
In class, Avital was waited on by her aide-de-camp, a graduate student who followed her around the Village like Tony Hale on HBO’s Veep. If the energy in the room was not to her liking, she became frustrated. During one session, she abruptly stopped the lecture midthought, blaming her students for making her feel drained. It took a beat for anyone to realize she was serious.
We were sent on a 15-minute break. That afternoon, quite without knowing it, like burrs attaching themselves to some passing animal, the students had been persecuting Avital. As far as I could tell (given that we had no prior relationship), I had done the same when I had failed, during my coursework years, to give much thought to her at all.
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.”
In a milquetoast take for The New Yorker, Masha Gessen applauded Duggan as a model of “academics doing their job: engaging with things in great complexity.” Of course power is messy. But there is no complexity in studying forests if you can’t recognize a tree from a few feet away. This is not wisdom; it is an eye complaint.
Structural problems are problems because real people hurt real people. You cannot have a cycle of abuse without actually existing abusers. That sounds simple, which is why so many academics hate it. When scholars defend Avital — or “complicate the narrative,” as we like to say — in part this is because we cannot stand believing what most people believe. The need to feel smarter is deep. Intelligence is a hungry god.
In this way, Avital’s case has become a strange referendum on literary study. Generations of scholars have been suckled at the teat of interpretation: We spend our days parsing commas and decoding metaphors. We get high on finding meaning others can’t. We hoard it, like dragons. We would be intellectually humiliated to learn that the truth was plain: that Avital quite simply sexually harassed her student, just as described. Sometimes analysis is simply denial with more words. Sometimes, as a frustrated student in a first-year literature course always mutters, the text just means what it says it means.
My department has been largely silent since the news broke. Faculty members have said nothing to us. Upset and ashamed, my fellow graduate students and I speak with one another cautiously. We heal, or don’t, alone. People I know are afraid to make any public comment, even on Facebook, where they are friends with older, richer scholars who might one day control their fates. Even I, who have by extraordinary luck options outside of academia, fear what being vocal will bring.
A culture of critics in name only, where genuine criticism is undertaken at the risk of ostracism, marginalization, retribution — this is where abuses like Avital’s grow like moss, or mold. Graduate students know this intuitively; it is written on their bones. They’ve watched as their professors play favorites, as their colleagues get punished for citing an adviser’s rival, as funding, jobs, and prestige are doled out to the most obedient and obsequious. The American university knows only the language of extortion. “Tell,” it purrs, curling its fingers around your IV drip, “and we’ll eat you alive.”
Avital conducts herself as if someone somewhere is always persecuting her. She learned this, I imagine, in graduate school. No woman escapes the relentless misogyny of the academy. The humanities are sadistic for most people, especially when you aren’t a white man. This is understood to be normal. When students in my department asked for more advising, we were told we were being needy. “Graduate school should destroy you,” one professor laughed.
The irony is that those who survive this destruction often do so at the cost of inflicting the same trauma on their own students. Avital, now a grande dame of literary studies, who Reitman alleges bragged to him of a “mafia”-like ability to make or break the careers of others, still feels persecuted. She makes it the job of those around her to protect her from that persecution: to fawn, appease, coddle. The lawsuit against her reads as a portrait, not of a macho predator type, but of a desperately lonely person with the power to coerce others, on pain of professional and psychic obliteration, into being her friends, or worse.
It’s possible that Avital genuinely believed that her student loved her, that he wanted to protect her from the scary, hostile world. In that case, the alleged assaults would have literalized the romantic tone she required he use. “Hold me,” they would have said. “Make me feel loved.”
There is a phrase for all of this: cultish subjection. It comes from a book called Complaint, released this year, in which the author writes of graduate school as a kind of indentured labor. “I was a painfully earnest baby scholar,” she recalls, “dedicated, conditioned for every sort of servitude, understanding that doing time, whether in graduate school or as part of a teaching body, amounted to acts — or, rather, passivities — of cultish subjection.”
The author’s name is Avital Ronell.
Andrea Long Chu is a writer and critic living in Brooklyn. Her book, Females: A Concern, is forthcoming from Verso.