The Apprentice in Theory: Fan, Student, Star




The very difficulty of the new interpretive readings added to the status of those who acquired the codes and facility. In a university system that was moving toward more entrepreneurial and market forms, where administration competed more and more heavily to be on the cutting edge of market trends, “theory” was a powerful commodity for the department and the academic entrepreneurs who could lay claim to it.

— Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (2011)

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HOT TAKES ON the Avital Ronell-Nimrod Reitman scandal have focused on sex (yes or no?) and power (who had it and who didn’t?). We concur with Corey Robin’s view that in this case, possible sex acts are much less important than raw operations of power. “We” are a professor and a graduate student in the humanities who have been working together for three years on topics including the intellectual history of critical theory, culture industry logics, and the contours of the contemporary professional-managerial class. We come from two different disciplines, English and Film and Media Studies. When the Ronell-Reitman controversy exploded in the press and on social media, we were gripped by the need to work through what it meant for us and for the profession in which we are embedded.

Most accounts of the scandal have referred to Ronell as a “star,” if not “one of the very few philosopher-stars of this world.” In fact, in Reitman’s suit against Ronell, the professor is described as a “superstar of the academic world.” We would like to examine the peculiar nature of her star power, with a view toward, first, the historical emergence of academic stardom in the humanities, and, second, professor-graduate student relations in the age of austerity, with the ongoing crisis of humanities enrollment and funding only deepening across American higher education.

In the early 1990s, Ronell produced a series of astonishing and beautifully designed books with the University of Nebraska Press: The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (1991) and Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania (1992, reprinted by University of Illinois Press in 2004) offered meditations on technology and drugs in which literary analysis blended with groundbreaking syntheses of Derrida, Heidegger, and Freud. In 1996, Ronell was hired by the NYU German Department. A year later, she became department chair. There she consolidated her authority — according to Bernd Hüppauf, the former chair of German who hired her — by marginalizing and persecuting anyone who did not defer to her, Derrida, and deconstruction in their work and their persons.

Right-wing news outlets may be getting drunk on schadenfreude as they crow about Title IX being turned against a “feminist scholar,” but Ronell is, first and foremost, a Theory star. Her career has not been distinguished by either feminist scholarship or activism. As a professor of German Studies, she has never, for instance, been active in Women in German, a coalition founded in 1974 that promotes feminist approaches to German literature. Former NYU graduate student Andrea Long Chu aptly describes Ronell’s behavior in and outside of the classroom as more Taylor Swift than Rosa Luxemburg.

In the leaked letter defending Ronell to NYU top brass, some 50 Theory colleagues and stars from around the world signed on to the notion that NYU should take into account Ronell’s “international standing and reputation” — in other words, her Theory star status — in its Title IX investigation. The signatories go so far as to allude to Ronell’s sinecure as the Jacques Derrida Professor of Philosophy at the Malta-accredited European Graduate School in Switzerland [1] as compelling evidence that she deserves a “fair hearing […] that expresses our admiration.” It is entirely uncertain what role such “admiration” should play in a Title IX investigation. What the leaked emails and texts exchanged between professor and student do make clear, however, is that Ronell’s psychic demands upon Reitman embodied abuse of power and exceeded the boundaries of professionalism. Even if we believe that her constant calling and texting and overly affectionate emails were couched in her intention to “help” him (part of her defense), such behavior is oppressive in any intersubjective framing. In the wake of the scandal, stories that have emerged online about Ronell from former graduate students point to a consistent pattern of emotional and material tyranny. And yet, we believe, between the findings of NYU’s investigation and defenses being issued by fellow Theory stars, [2] the precise nature of Ronell’s power within the profession remains to be specified.

Theory burst forth in the United States in 1966 with “The Structuralist Controversy,” a conference at Johns Hopkins organized by Richard Macksey. Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Roland Barthes took Baltimore by storm. Genuine excitement about new forms of French thought spread what Geoffrey Galt Harpham would retrospectively describe as an “atmosphere of danger and charisma” at the peak of enrollments in the humanities, an apex of postwar growth and expansion in the fields it encompassed. [3] (See Figure 1)

Figure 1  (Source: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/08/the-humanities-face-a-crisisof-confidence/567565/)

As a methodology that bridged philosophy, literary criticism, linguistics, and anthropology, Theory combined meticulous close-reading with highly dramatic wordplay, both in written and oral rhetorical performances. It attracted some of the smartest, most flamboyant people in academia, like Gayatri Spivak, who, after Jacques Derrida, and later Ronell herself, prospered on the extended conference circuit that the demand for Theory and inexpensive airline travel opened up in the 1970s and ’80s. Theory was celebrated, attacked, and rocked by scandals, including, notably, the uproar sparked by the discovery of Paul de Man’s antisemitic, wartime articles for collaborationist publications in occupied Belgium. Theory, however, survived, immune and emboldened, with the reputations of Derrida, Judith Butler, Spivak, and Ronell burnished by graduate students and junior professors defending their mentors, teachers, and masters in the so-called “Theory Wars.” [4]

Just as economists like Robert H. Frank and Phillip J. Cook were identifying the emergence of a “winner-take-all society,” David R. Shumway published an article in PMLA (the publication of the Modern Languages Association) in which he identified salient features of Theory stardom in the humanities with the star system of classic Hollywood. [5] The signature feature of star systems is the dyadic star-fan relation that orients the operations of the broader institutional nexus, from staging publicity events and interviews, print and televised, to film production itself. The Hollywood star exceeded the frame of the cinematic image, projecting the possibility of intimacy with a continuous star personality. Different stars appealed to different segments of the public. Each particular star image invited a different fan demographic to develop imaginary “personal” bonds with the star herself. In aggregate, the star-fan relationship is reflected in the differential effect that individual stars produced at the box office — a form of branding that Hollywood studios used to divide up the market for its multi-tiered products.

Shumway cites mass media saturation and the growing influence of celebrity culture as the causal horizon in view of which the dyadic logic of stardom entered the Ivory Tower itself. But Theory stardom and its logic unfolded on stages internal to the academy — namely, in “cutting-edge” academic publications and important conferences, where students-turned-fans were graced by the presence of rising academic idols. This restricted field of operation explains what otherwise might be a confusing comparison between movie stars and literature professors: the microcelebrity that accrues to the latter generally obtains within the specialized networks of the university system itself, even as the dyadic relationships it fosters mimic the affectual structures of the former.

Although Theory purported to cast off the authority of both the aesthetic object (the text) and the author in favor of systems/structure (or else what Derrida called “the play of the world”), Shumway pointed out how “these claims are belied by the actual functioning of the name of the theorist. It is that name, rather than anonymous systems or the anarchic play of signifiers, to which most theoretical practice appeals.” [6] Theorists and practitioners within the discipline became critical of every form of institutional power save the names-of-the-theorist in which claims to truth and knowledge came to be authorized. Despite gesturing at “subversion” and “problematization,” Theory never offered a serious critique of academic authority. Authority was simply transposed onto the persons and personalities of individual stars in Theory’s charismatic vanguard.

The shift from institutional to personally invested authority coincided with the eclipse of what Bill Readings would identify in The University in Ruins (1996) as the modern university’s “cultural mission.” Untethering itself from the nation-state as an institution tasked with reproducing a unified national culture, the American university into which French Theory stepped was expanding its global reach while preaching a deracinated cosmopolitanism beloved by an emergent class of jet-setting elites. Readings’s passing reference to the “variety of brand names” should be taken quite literally. [7] By the late 1980s, ambitious university administrators became eager to hire the adepts of Theory as a form of brand management. Every aspiring College of Liberal Arts or School of Humanities hoped to signal commitment to innovation and the “cutting edge” by incorporating Theory curricula and, whenever possible, attracting Theory stars.

Whatever amplifying effect external publicity might have contributed to the initial aura of Theory, the expanded conference circuit of the 1980s and ’90s provided the stage on which the virtuoso performance of the theorist played out. Here, the schema of stardom combined with the Romantic cult of genius, embodied by Derrida’s performances, which joined “deconstruction in action” with “personality in construction.” [8] Derrida was an indefatigable plenary speaker, giving talks that could last up to four and a half hours.

Avitall Ronell’s own performances and her pedagogical method have always been couched in the subversion of professional and linguistic norms. She laid claim to an expressive, edgy, subcultural, extra-institutional personal style. While staffing the NYU German Department with loyalists, she brandished before junior colleagues and PhD students the inchoate promise of inclusion in a circle of Übermenschen — the brilliant, the singular, the transgressive Theory elites. In Fighting Theory (2010), a series of interviews translated from the French that Ronell gave to Anne Dufourmantelle, she recounts the kiss that Jacques Derrida placed on her forehead after her public lectures. [9] Derrida’s kiss was both consecration and communion: it was a rich public reward for the devotion of a favorite apprentice. Years later, Reitman also presented himself before Ronell sycophantically as the most devoted of fan-students: he seemed to have hoped for a repeat of the Derrida-Ronell relationship and he certainly thought the path to attaining it was submission to his master’s and mentor’s demands. Those who have suggested that Reitman should simply have requested another advisor overlook the very real, diffuse power that stardom wields in the profession — perhaps especially acute in Ronell’s case. The position that Reitman occupied was determined in advance by the structural displacement of disciplinary authority and prestige onto the person of Theory star herself, which left intra-institutional mentorship (Figure 1) to cross-fertilize with the extra-institutional dyadic relation characteristic of stardom (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 3

Many of Ronell’s most famous defenders want to constrain the mediating institutional nexus (Figures 2 and 3) by denigrating the application of Title IX and its operations. Intentionally or not, they prefer the pleasure and suffering of the pre–Title IX dyadic relationship. If Ronell’s defenders flirt with demonizing Reitman, they are not shy about psychologizing and rationalizing negative responses to the Theory star. Laura Kipnis invokes our collective hatred and fear of sexual mothers, while Lisa Duggan tells us that Ronell’s critics are animated by misogyny pure and simple. For Duggan and Kipnis, the structure of the mediating institutional nexus, or Title IX and the legal norms it imposes only exacerbate the “corporate,” “punitive,” or even “neoliberal” ethos of large organizations. They want a system of governance and administration that is more “flexible,” or able to account for genius, ambiguity, ambivalence, and Eros.

Like Duggan and Kipnis, Ronell wants to minimize interference from the mediating institutional nexus and yet it is quite obvious that she made a series of professional promises to Reitman. In so doing, she used the professional set-up in order to control his personal behavior in the dyad. In her emails and texts, Ronell promised Reitman that she will be working on getting him a “super job.” Asking for love and devotion on the one hand, she assures him that half of the Ivy League German departments are staffed with NYU PhDs on the other. The Title IX definitions of sexual harassment used by NYU and the University of California define quid pro quo sexual harassment as “unwanted sexual advances, unwelcome requests for sexual favors and other unwelcome verbal or nonverbal physical conduct of a sexual nature […] and a person’s submission to such conduct is made the basis for employment decisions, academic evaluation, grades or advancement.” In retrospect, without a job and exiled to the “out group,” Reitman found that his submission to Ronell’s conduct was coerced. Ronell’s defenders point to his flowery emails and the mutual professions of love as evidence that he was not some tongue-tied victim but an active agent in an “adult” relationship. But Reitman’s alleged equality is predicated on the assumption that his relationship to the profession could be excluded from his relationship to Ronell, which is simply not true.

The style of the Reitman-Ronell correspondence can be called queer, campy, or subcultural, but we prefer the more antiquated term: bourgeois. The terms of affection shared by Ronell and Reitman, e.g., “baby love angel,” should be understood as related to preciosity — a coded way of using language shared by 17th-century aristocratic French women who created “alternative” spheres of influence during the reign of Louis XIV, outside of seminaries, and academies from which the “fair sex” was excluded. In the 18th century, when literate women and an educated bourgeoisie emerged as new cultural forces, epistolary novels memorialized these extremely codified forms of mutual affection. Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise (1761) and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) are the most well-known representatives of the genre. Beyond overvaluation of the beloved, the vanguardist bourgeois sensibility was predicated on its indifference to money and its contempt for business. To the 19th-century bourgeois, calculations of any sort or “ambition” were deemed beneath the interest of the truly refined and independently wealthy. In their correspondence, Reitman and Ronell seem to lead lives of pure affect, remarkably free of any economic or institutional constraints; they seem to exist exclusively in the taste world of the aesthete rentier. That Reitman did not get an academic job at an elite institution was not an unthinkable plot twist to the Romantic narrative of genius and love: Rousseau’s and Goethe’s novels were both constructed on the delicious dramas of doomed love. The “real” world always makes its unwelcome appearance, and it is shocking that its intrusion should have taken the Goethe scholar Ronell by surprise.

According to the 2017 MLA report on jobs in the humanities, the number of advertised tenure-track jobs continues to plummet, with positions in English and foreign languages reaching all-time lows, indeed, significantly below the numbers of the immediate post-crisis year of 2009–2010. Openings in English departments declined by 22.6 percent, from 1100 to 851. In foreign languages, openings declined by 20.9 percent, from 1022 to 808. In the meantime, according to the MLA tracking metrics, the numbers of PhDs produced in both English and foreign languages continues to grow: “Over the six years, 2010-2015, PhD production in English has averaged 14.6% higher than the average for the previous five years, while ads for assistant professors averaged 33.7% fewer.” Research universities seek to protect a certain graduate-undergraduate ratio: in order to maintain their rankings, they have to admit more graduate students if their undergraduate population is expanding. Tenure-track jobs are in short supply because fiscal management still follows the laws of austerity. Graduate students increase in number as jobs on the academic market plummet: it is a crisis of overproduction that leaves in its wake conditions that even yesterday’s brightest Theory stars are unable to weather on behalf of their protégés.

The residual glow of the Theory star’s personal embodiment of power takes on a certain feverish radiance in an economy characterized by austerity on the one hand and winner-take-all structures of competition on the other. Enabled by the smartphone, Ronell’s demand for constant contact through text and voice from Reitman also depends on the dissolution of private-public boundaries. Her need for constant contact is not so much a reflection of eccentricity than the narcissism of bosses and employers who want their workers to “love” their jobs. The terms of Ronell’s relationship with her advisee are emblematic of the generalized collapse of work and leisure, public and private life, that contemporary capitalism demands — the order of the day in Silicon Valley and beyond. [10]

While public spaces and collective institutions in contemporary capitalism are neglected, left to buckle under market pressures, private life becomes a space of continuous “networking” in which social relations are reconstructed on an ad hoc basis. Wolfgang Streeck has described this condition in terms of “[p]erson-centered relation-making”:

In the absence of collective institutions, social structures must be devised individually bottom-up, anticipating and accommodating top-down pressures from “the markets.” Social life consists of individuals building networks of private connections around themselves […] Person-centered relation-making creates lateral social structures that are voluntary and contract-like, which makes them flexible but perishable, requiring continuous “networking” … [11]

Streeck identifies “the exaltation of a life in uncertainty as a life in liberty” as the signature ideological justification of this state of affairs. Recalling the Derridean “play of the world,” Theory’s celebration of “undecidability” tacitly supports the “ideological narratives” that Streeck finds characteristic of contemporary capitalism. According to Streeck, these narratives “offer a euphemistic reinterpretation of the breakdown of structured order as the arrival of a free society built on individual autonomy, and of de-institutionalization as historical progress out of an empire of necessity into an empire of freedom.” [12]

In 1997, Shumway alluded to the fact that the Theory star promised freedom from the austere affiliations of the traditional university. He distinguished the colorful personalities and performances of the Theory stars from those of charisma-challenged scientists and laboratory researchers outside of the humanities. Today, the star system has conquered most of the university. Departments pursue star professors out of the sheer need to compete for diminishing internal support and outside funding. STEM and business departments do not chase personalities so much as “star researchers” with proven track records of attracting grant money and private funds. Like Theory stars of yore, stars of this new sort can instantly increase a university’s rankings, reputation, and visibility, while attracting especially ambitious graduate students.

Ronell’s star presence at NYU was transformative: according to Hüppauf, and as evidenced by the hires she made and the graduate students she recruited, she remolded the German Department in the image of Derrida. Derrida was said to have adored her, and she was his fiercest lieutenant in turn, treating her chairship at NYU as an outpost of deconstruction’s military campaign against its many enemies, real and imagined. Ronell’s dominion attracted students like Reitman — ambitious, independently wealthy — who wanted to be identified with the most exclusive and excellent forms of humanities scholarship. In offering Ronell his devotion, he expected the same kinds of professional rewards that Ronell’s submission to Derrida brought her. Whatever the causes of Reitman’s failure to get a tenure-track job, Ronell’s manipulation of his expectations cannot be ignored. With Title IX in place, Reitman could see Ronell’s behavior framed in a new way, given new meaning by the law’s restrictions on abuse of power.

While more regulated and accountable to victims of sexual harassment, Bill Readings’s “university in ruins” has also become an externally oriented branding platform and publicity machine, an incubator for the next startup, with deans and development officers preoccupied with fundraising for endowed chairs and named centers. Reorganized around dyadic worship of stars in and around whom resources concentrate, this university is Hollywood’s creature: an institution in which the whole plays to the greatness of singular parts rather than parts playing roles within the greater whole. While Marjorie Perloff worries that the Ronell case has damaged the reputation of the humanities, such anxiety over potential fallout from a single individual’s revealed abuse itself attests to the institutional weakness of the humanities in which the star system came to flourish. Who worries about the integrity of the field of evolutionary biology after Francisco Ayala’s recent fall from grace? We believe the damage suffered by the contemporary humanities can only be understood in relation to the vicissitudes of global capitalism, the star system, and the hunger for innovation and novelty that underwrites their hegemony. Roiled by economic crises, universities have been trying to cope with austerity by fetishizing “innovation.” In 1979, Gerald Graff tried to deflate the rhetoric in which Theory draped its radical novelty by insisting that “the real ‘avant-garde’ is advanced capitalism, with its built-in need to destroy all vestiges of tradition, all orthodox ideology, all continuous and stable forms of reality.” [13]

Star system–enabling administrators are not themselves sovereign agents in all of this; chancellors, deans, vice provosts, and development officers are all caught in the gears of the star-system machine, competing with each other for money, attention, prestige, reputation, and ranking. Top universities attract the most grant dollars, philanthropy, and star professors: public universities, state universities, and less prestigious private universities scramble to keep up with the Harvards and Stanfords of the world. Without a transformation of social and economic relations at the most fundamental levels, the star system will continue to shape the ways in which students, professors, and administrators struggle to define the mission of the institution with which they are affiliated, in which they are employed. At best, Title IX offers only a partial, blunt force remedy to an endemic problem: workplace exploitation and abuse of the weak by the powerful. In the Ronell-Reitman scandal, the stars themselves were the ones most blinded by their own light. The signatories of the letter to NYU administrators tried to marshal star power and Carl Schmittian exceptionalism against the rule of law. While the Ronell scandal may have diminished the power of one star and her Theory brand, market pressures continue to intensify and the chokehold the star system has on American universities has not been loosened.

The Ronell-Reitman case and most of the press coverage that ensued shed no light on the intensive labor involved in functional professor-graduate student relationships. Our collaboration in writing this essay follows almost three years of intensive, constant dialogue, in and outside of the classroom. The majority of professor-student relations function well, despite economic and bureaucratic pressures. For professors and students, the work of mentoring and being mentored is taxing, both intellectually and affectually. In the dialogue between professor and student, the guided transfer of knowledge and authority is a dynamic process that is stymied by mutual idealization. For us, pedagogy is collaborative, built on solidarity with and respect for the other. We are separated by differences of age, gender, status, and experience, but we respect our essential equality in the struggle to act, write, and work with compassion and integrity in the context of a university system shaped by financial crises and intensifying economic inequality.

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Catherine Liu is professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine. Author of two academic monographs, Copying Machines: Taking Notes for the Automaton and American Idyll: Academic Anti-Elitism as Cultural Critique, she has also published a novel called Oriental Girls Desire Romance. She is working on a memoir, titled Panda Gifts.

Devan Bailey is a PhD student in the Department of English at UC Irvine. He is the program coordinator of the UCI Center for Culture and Capital.

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[1] The European Graduate School has been embroiled in accreditation controversies in the United States for the past decade and has been listed by the state of Texas as a substandard or fraudulent university, and the state of Maine includes it on its list of “Non-accredited colleges and Degree Mills. See Texas database: https://drive.google.com/file/d/14SPy5euriqrnP1lehroFum396kDsaIVG/view

[2] Slavoj Žižek: https://thephilosophicalsalon.com/why-did-i-sign-the-letter-in-support-of-avital-ronell/ and follow-up https://thephilosophicalsalon.com/a-brief-post-script-on-the-case-of-avital-ronell/; Jean-Luc Nancy: https://theoryilluminati.com/texts-and-contexts/f/clear-confusion

[3] The Structuralist Controversy: the Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, edited by Richard Macksey (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007). Geoffrey Galt Harpham, “The End of Theory, The Rise of the Profession: A Rant in Search of Responses,” Theory’s Empire, edited by Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral (Columbia University Press, 2005), pp. 381–394, 385.

[4] See Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Theory,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Summer, 1982), pp. 723–742, for a critique of Theory from within the Humanities; for an attack from outside the Humanities (connected with the famed “Sokal affair”), see Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (Picador, 1999).

[5] Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook, The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us (Penguin, 1996); David R. Shumway, “The Star System in Literary Studies,” PMLA, Vol. 112, No. 1 (January 1997), pp. 85–100.

[6] Shumway, “The Star System,” p. 95.

[7] Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 90.

[8] Shumway, “The Star System,” 96.

[9] Avital Ronell and Anne Dufourmantelle, Fighting Theory: Avital Ronell in Conversation with Anne Dufourmantelle, translated by Catherine Porter (University of Illinois Press, 2010), p. 151.

[10] See Melissa Gregg, Work’s Intimacy (Polity, 2011) and Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Catalogue and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[11] Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End?: Essays on a Failing System (Verso, 2016), p. 41.

[12] Streeck, How Will Capitalism End?, p. 46.

[13] Gerald Graff, Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society (University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 8.


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