I thought things were quieting down (see this post), but Cornell University student journalists, taking note of the sexual harassment case that has “garnered widespread attention in academia and elsewhere,” have now attempted to ask three Cornell professors why they signed the now-notorious letter (“a terrible letter,” writes Masha Gessen in the New Yorker) defending the harasser.

Two of the professors responded like Donald Trump when asked by reporters about John McCain.

[Cathy] Caruth and [Cynthia] Chase declined to be interviewed by The Sun… Caruth said she understands “the general interest in this letter, but I feel it is too complex to be handled adequately through an interview for an article.”

The familiar too complex move – with its evasion, condescension, and self-aggrandizement – puts Caruth solidly in the Slytherin camp among the now-squabbling letter signers.

(Update: Here’s a whole analysis of the way the too complex bit has been used in this case.)

Slytherin because of what David Lehman memorably called the “slithering elusiveness” of the deconstructive analytical/argumentative method.

Rather than deal forthrightly with moral questions, you slither away by talking about complexity, or enigmatic gay coding, or the instability of signifiers. (The model here is Derrida’s 62-page dance around the obviousness of his friend Paul de Man’s wartime – lifetime, as it would turn out – degeneracy. “Borrowing Derrida’s logic, one could deconstruct Mein Kampf to reveal that its author was conflicted on the subject of the Jews,” as Lehman wrote.)

The Ravenclaws among the letter writers go the other way, seemingly forgetting everything they’ve learned and taught about a world of indeterminacy/performativity, and instead going right in for the linguistically transparent kill. “If any of the sexual contact alleged by the complainant had taken place,” writes Jonathan Culler to the Cornell reporter, “there would doubtless have been references to it in the emails,” and he doesn’t find any, so case closed. “If he effectively felt oppressed and harassed, there were ways of signalling this, which would have definitely not hurt his position,” announces Slavoj Zizek, taking up an astonishingly naive univocal position on the matter of language, not to mention cause and effect.

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7 Responses to “The Avital Ronell Wars: Slytherin vs. Ravenclaw.”

  1. dmf Says:

    pathetic, sadly this is what much of politics/organization is like among faculty, it’s understandable when one sees the resistance (feeble as it generally is) to universities bringing in business leaders with little to no academic research in their backgrounds to run liberal arts institutions but then one is faced with the hothouse flowers they produce and are populated with and here we are…

  2. dmf Says:

    and to the excellent point you raise about
    ‘The Ravenclaws among the letter writers go the other way, seemingly forgetting everything they’ve learned and taught about a world of indeterminacy/performativity’
    her book (not one I’ve read) on The Complaint: Grievance among Friends
    https://www.humcenter.pitt.edu/sites/default/files/Avital%20Ronell_Introduction.pdf
    there is a whole growing literature on how philo profs who are selling themselves as ethics experts and the like are no better at actually doing what they preach than lay folks, something perhaps along the lines of knowing-about vs knowing-how if one wants to be generous.

  3. DRC Says:

    Although I generally like Masha Gessen’s writing, I’m afraid you’ve quoted the one good thing she wrote in that piece. For the most part, I’d have to put what she wrote in the Slytherin camp. More commentary here: http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2018/08/the-new-yorker-piece-on-the-ronell-case.html

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Thanks for that link, DRC – going there now.

  5. dmf Says:

    no light to be found at BL’s site which is mostly about him one way or another, the craze around status in some academic circles is telling, like the land of misfit toys which might be just sort of pathetic if it wasn’t tied in with:
    http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/08/cfpbs-student-loan-watchdog-resigns-in-protest-of-trump.html

  6. theprofessor Says:

    This reminds me of one of our former literary eminences here who was bitten hard by the deconstructionist bug and never recovered. Language was indeterminate, incoherent, ambiguous, contingent, elusive, self-destructive, etc., etc. In any debate about an issue he was interested in, however, no one was quicker on the draw with “Clearly,” “obviously,” “there is no doubt,” “there is no question at all,” etc. in responding to others’ comments.

  7. Margaret Soltan Says:

    tp: The rank absurdity of deconstructionists trying their method out on the Paul de Man revelations got everyone’s attention and had a lot to do, I think, with the demise of the thing – though, as Martin Jay points out, there are still holdouts in caves who haven’t heard.

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