A letter in support of Avital Ronell, professor at the German Department of NYU, which I also signed, caused some outcry in the academic yellow press. Avital was accused of harassment, and reactions to the letter focused on the question: how can we, the signatories, support her when we concede that we don’t know the details of the accusation against her? As one of our critics put it, her academic achievements are not an argument. After all, Harvey Weinstein also produced many good movies…
So why did I sign the letter? For a very simple reason: I DO know the details of the accusations against her, and I find them utterly ridiculous. How did I learn them? Not from Avital herself, of course: she all the time maintained a dignified silence. I was in New York (teaching at NYU) for 2 weeks in the period when the procedure in her case (interrogations of NYU personnel and students) reached its peak; many of those caught in this process, in shock and awe, talked to me privately and showed me some notes. Because of the complex legal situation and because of confidentiality (I was told and shown things on condition that I do not render them public), I am, of course, not in the position to say anything more.
The reason I am making this public statement is to make it clear that – contrary to the impression that one may get from the letter – nothing is stranger to me than the idea that Avital’s work and personality can be an argument against concrete accusations of harassment. To be brutally honest, Avital and I are not members of the same theoretical “gang”: she is a deconstructionist while I am a hard-line Lacanian Hegelian totally immersed in my topic; she is a feminist while I am very critical of the predominant version of US feminism. To be even more brutally honest, if the situation were to be the one described by the critics of the letter of support (the Politically-Correct feminist gang of “theorists” usually full of sympathy for a victim quickly closes ranks when one of them is suspected of harassment), I would gleefully take a good seat close to the arena and watch Avital’s downfall. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Since I know Avital personally, I must add another reason for my sympathy with her (which did not affect in any way my decision to sign the letter). In her dealing with colleagues and friends, Avital definitely is a type of her own: acerbic, ironic, shifting from funny remarks to precise perceptions of an injustice, mocking others in a friendly way… In short, she is a walking provocation for a stiff Politically Correct inhabitant of our academia, a ticking bomb just waiting to explode. A person with minimal sensitivity can, of course, immediately discern Avital’s affected surface as the form of intense vulnerability and compassion. But in today’s academia persons with sensitivity are more and more rare. Avital’s “eccentricities” are all on the surface; there is nothing sleazy hidden beneath her affected behaviour, in contrast to quite a few professors that I know who obey all the Politically Correct rules while merrily screwing students or playing obscene power games with all the dirty moves such games involve.
If we abstract from the particular features of our case, what makes me really sad is that the procedure against Avital is effectively targeting a certain psychological type, a certain mode of behaviour and speech for which there is less and less place in our academia. Sometimes this type is mercifully tolerated as an eccentricity, but it always stands in the shadow of threat. When, on numerous occasions, I overheard critical remarks on Avital, it was unmistakably obvious that the disturbing element was her unique persona so far from the Politically Correct mixture of polite coldness and fake compassion. They were just waiting (or rather actively searching) for some slip to catch her… Although the majority of academia opposes Trump and the alt-right, they are clearly the two sides of the same coin. No wonder that the alt-right more and more appropriates elements of identity politics and fights against harassment, its members presenting themselves as the true victims.
The only good outcome of the scandalous procedure against Avital could be that it would trigger a reflection on the pathologies of our academic lives.