You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!
—Caliban, The Tempest
Stories of identity are never static, monolithic, or politically innocent.
—Lisa Duggan, “The Trials of Alice Mitchell
Perhaps we are not discussing the same thing. In brief, Avital Ronell, a “world-renowned female professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University, was found responsible for sexually harassing a male former graduate student.” We start from here.
Avital Ronell has been identified as a lesbian. I say “has been identified,” as I do not know her. But those who claim to know her identify her as such. The graduate student identifies as a gay man.
I use graduate student here in place of his name. I might use his name later.
Prior to the findings of the investigation being publicly available, a group of powerful scholars, including Judith Butler, Joan Scott, and Gayatri Spivak, signed a letter claiming that Avital Ronell was too eminent a scholar to be subject to harsh disciplinary action by NYU. Specifically, they claimed that she should not lose her job for her actions, as she is a very prominent scholar.
Prominent scholars who have shaped important conversations about listening to and for minoritized voices marshaled their power to defend one of their own without knowing the details of the case.
I suspect that some of those who signed did so because a friend or colleague asked; these are networks of professional obligation and affection. I suspect that some of those who signed did not bother to ask about the details of the case. I suspect that some of those who signed did so to protect academic hierarchy. And that the graduate student—I have still not used his name—was a non-factor.
On 18 August 2018, prominent queer scholar Jack Halberstam directed us to a new post on the Bully Bloggers website.
The post, per Halberstam’s tweet, went beyond the “he said/she said” and moved toward “analysis.” Halberstam used a familiar trope in sexual harassment and sexual assault cases: “he said/she said.” I note this information because I know that many cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment are dismissed as “he said/she said,” where the “she” part of the binary represents the weaker, complaining party. Why did Halberstam choose to invoke this particular structure? What frameworks were being invoked and deployed? How did this particular formulation position Avital Ronell as the victim in this case?
Too, the post was described as “politically savvy,” a savviness that was contrasted to “twitter outrage” and “facebook high horse.” I’m not on facebook, so I cannot speak to what happened there.
I was not paying much attention to the case as it was discussed on Twitter until after the evidence in the case circulated publicly. It seemed clear from the evidence adduced that this was not simply “he said/she said.” The evidence was credible enough for NYU to sanction Avital Ronell . Universities are notoriously reluctant to sanction famous senior scholars.
What I saw on Twitter were comments about the now-public evidence and Avital Ronell’s actions.
In the lower frequencies, I also noted the number of those who “liked” particular comments, but did not—perhaps could not—respond or retweet. Often, such a “like” comes from someone in a vulnerable position.
I know Jack Halberstam as one of the savviest thinkers on queer subcultures and minor forms. Halberstam has an amazing ability to theorize how quotidian encounters and forms express how power and marginalization work. Female Masculinity (Duke 1998), In a Queer Time and Place (NYU 2005), and The Queer Art of Failure (Duke 2011) paid attention to small spaces and ephemeral forms, tracking power as it circulated around minoritized people and forms.
I find myself baffled that a prominent theorist of subcultural figures and forms so readily dismisses Twitter.
Jack Halberstam directed us to a post by Lisa Duggan.
I know Duggan mostly because of the volume she co-edited with Nan Hunter on the feminist sex wars of the late 70s and early 80s and for her lucid treatment of neoliberalism. Around 2012, she invited me to NYU to participate in a seminar on Queer Africa alongside Desiree Lewis, and she was a great host. On the occasions I’ve heard her speak, I have been impressed by her lucidity and the strong ethical positions she takes. I mention these elements because I did not come to reading Duggan blind. I brought with me all the respect and openness that my encounters with her and her work have generated. I suspect that others who have worked with her more closely—as students, as colleagues, as peers, as friends—brought to their reading their admiration and even affection.
Duggan’s post opens,
Sex is never a good idea. It is a mess. It is the scene of desire and fantasy, of power and abjection, of domination and mutuality. Sometimes all at once. It is a bad idea we pursue, avoid, rejoice and despair over.
Recall, I know Duggan through the volume she co-edited with Nan Hunter on the sex wars. This opening invokes that work, for those who are familiar with it. It establishes a terrain: “I know what I’m speaking about.”
Those unfamiliar with that work are hailed by that “we.” “We pursue, avoid, rejoice, and despair over” sex. “We.” Who is being addressed here? How are “we” being invited to join in this musing on “sex.”
How has a case about sexual harassment become something to be framed by “sex”? How have power relations been eroticized—“power and abjection, domination and mutuality”—to obscure abuses of power?
What is happening here?
While the first part of the first paragraph discusses “sex,” reminding us of Duggan’s work on sex, the second discusses neoliberalism:
As #MeToo has gathered momentum, the social processes it deploys are also a mess. It is one part feminist social justice movement–calling the powerful (overwhelmingly men) to account for using sex as a tactic of dominion. And it is one part neoliberal publicity stunt.
If you are unfamiliar with Duggan’s work on the sex wars, you might be familiar with her work on neoliberalism. Here, I am not concerned with the accuracy of her diagnosis. Instead, I am interested in how she is establishing her credentials. I am interested in how something that might be called authority is being wielded and how something that might be called consent is being generated.
Surely, the writer on sex and neoliberalism is credentialed to write about this case. Surely, the acute thinking and engaged politics at work in those earlier bits of scholarship will be deployed here. Surely, if we trust her based on those earlier works, we can trust her in this particular instance.
It is all very seductive.
Trust is messy.
It is not until paragraph 7 of the approximately 15 paragraphs that Duggan mentions Avital Ronell .
Paragraph 7 introduces us to “NYU professor Avital Ronell ,” who was “utterly handicapped” by a “confidentiality agreement.”
Paragraph 7 also introduces us to “the accuser (whose husband Noam Andrews is a member of a wealthy New York real estate family).” “The accuser” has no name, but is affiliated with power.
“He said/She said”
If one is “utterly handicapped” by legal institutional requirements, the other is fully enabled by proximity to wealth.
(I note, here, the utterly evidence-free insinuation that proximity to wealth means that one has access to that wealth and the power it brings.)
Paragraph 8 finally introduces us to “the accuser”: “accuser Nimrod Reitman, a former graduate student no longer bound by NYU policies and disciplinary procedures.”
“Accuser” must be repeated. These are not merely incidental rhetorical strategies. They have been honed carefully by Duggan, and they are part of what we who read her anticipate and relish. Style is doing something here; style is working on us, just as much as argument
Too, “former graduate student.” What is a “former graduate student”? Did he complete his program? Did he leave the program? Did he succeed? Did he fail? Was he hounded out of the program? When he became “former,” did he lose all the knowledge he’d acquired? What is his standing in the academy? Does he have any standing worth considering?
The academy throws away graduate students all the time. “Former graduate student” invites those in the know to disregard this “accuser,” this person who dares to attack an “NYU professor,” this person who is not “utterly handicapped” by NYU procedures and, in fact, “leaked” information to the New York Times.
Former Graduate Student.
Married into wealth.
How is he to be trusted?
If she is credible because she is “utterly handicapped” by NYU policies and processes, and he is untrustworthy because he is a “former graduate student” and “no longer bound by NYU” policies and procedures, and if it’s really “he said/she said,” as Halberstam avers, then “what really happened” and “who should be believed” can be set aside.
“Setting aside for the moment the question of truth, of whose version of events is more accurate”
Are we to believe “the accuser,” a “former graduate student,” a “leaker,” or the “NYU professor”? Duggan’s rhetorical strategies have already taught us “whose version of events is more accurate.” It is disingenuous to claim to set anything aside.
Indeed, the question of whose version of events to believe is amplified by Duggan:
The selective demonization of queer and women faculty is very clear in this case. Not only was Ronell treated more harshly than many men accused of far worse infractions, but the personal attacks and demonization of her on social media is breathtaking. Accused male faculty rarely meet this fate, and when they do the cases generally involve multiple victims and physical assault. This is misogyny, of the variety pervasive on the internet. Misogyny is rife even among the queers and feminists posting personal attacks—they do not do this to similarly accused male faculty.
I know Lisa Duggan in at least one other way: as the author of a beautiful, historically rich, speculatively interesting article on Alice Mitchell, who was convicted for murdering her female lover. The article is well researched and powerfully argued; nuanced speculation supplements the archive’s silences. It is a model of how to listen to and for minoritized voices in the archive.
Is it anti-queer and misogynist to ask that queer women in positions of authority not abuse that authority? Because, repeatedly, what disappears in Duggan’s account is that Avital Ronell was a senior scholar in a position of authority over her “accuser.”
If there has been “twitter outrage,” it has been based on recognizing the power asymmetries between “the accuser,” a “former graduate student,” and NYU professor Avital Ronell .
Senior queer scholars—Jack Halberstam, Lisa Duggan, Juana Maria Rodriguez—have closed ranks on Twitter. Their friends and colleagues and students and admirers have either joined them or are compelled to keep quiet because there are professional consequences for going against senior scholars.
This is about power.
This is also about affiliation and networks.
Job-insecure people—grad students, prospective grad students, untenured faculty, adjunct faculty—cannot afford to alienate those who might facilitate their professional advancement. I note, here, that this is precisely one of the weapons Avital Ronell used, and it is distressing to see it being deployed by senior queer scholars, no matter how implicit that deployment.
What are these senior queer scholars protecting? Why are they protecting it? Why are they closing ranks? Who is rendered vulnerable?
Little of how these senior scholars have conducted themselves online convinces me that they would have been willing to help a vulnerable student or colleague who had been subjected to abuse by one of their friends. Sure, this is gross speculation. And probably unfair. But one is forced to speculate this way when discussions about accountability are dismissed as “policing” and being “overly sensitive” and “missing the bigger picture.”
Little of how these senior scholars have conducted themselves online convinces me that they are willing to listen to and for minoritized, vulnerable voices.
Little of how these senior scholars have conducted themselves online convinces me that they are willing to help minoritized, vulnerable people, if that help means risking their standing in their various coteries.
As I have read these senior queer critics, I have wondered about the place of moral clarity and about freedom practices.
Audre Lorde writes,
Within the interdependence of mutual (nondominant) differences lies that security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant power to effect those changes which can bring that future into being. (“The Master’s Tools”)
I am arrested by “the interdependence of mutual (nondominant) differences,” by the promise of sociality that it conjures.
As I read Duggan and Halberstam and the coterie that has gathered around them, mostly of senior, tenured scholars in queer studies and feminism, I wonder what forms of affiliation and exclusion are at work. I wonder, also, about the practices of identification at work and what those practices need as their unthought, perhaps unthinkable, so that a posture of white woundedness can claim the high theoretical and moral ground.
As I read minoritized scholars attempting to respond—Black, untenured, graduate students, faculty at less elite and non-elite schools, independent scholars—attempting in the registers that are possible—a retweet, a like, crafted tweets, expressions of frustration—I wonder about the practices of unlistening that subtend the coterie around Duggan and Halberstam.
What kind of demand can the minoritized and the vulnerable stage before the unlistening coterie? What can we ask for?
My “we” is not Duggan’s “we.”
I am writing this from Nairobi, not as a member of the U.S. academy. I am writing this as someone who has been trying to grapple with what it means to practice and pursue freedom. I am writing this as someone who was minoritized during my time in the U.S., a minoritization that is compounded by my distance from the U.S. and my current location in Nairobi.
One might well ask, why do I care?
Yet, to pose that question is to misunderstand how freedom practices work, how freedom dreams travel, how freedom pursuits draw energy from each other, how we who pursue freedom work across geohistorical difference, recognizing our shared struggles.
In these performances of white woundedness by Halberstam and Duggan and their coteries, I note that the terms freedom and liberation are absent.
We do not share the same goals of pursuing and practicing freedom.
That is all I need to know.