(Swans - November 15, 2010) I live in New Haven, near Yale University. All critiques of its presence in the city here aside, it is a simple truth that many of the world's top academics circulate through its halls on a regular basis, oftentimes at events that are open to the public. Or, if not open to the public, at least easily snuck into.
Recently one of the leading inheritors of Derrida's teaching, Avital Ronell, gave a talk there. I want to recount the basic outlines of the happening, because I believe the theoretical ramifications are somewhat important.
Entitled "What was Authority," Ronell's presentation can be said to be characterized overall by an extreme lushness and strength of address. Ronell would, in her most intense precaution about every theoretical gesture, of course contest any overall image of any address, given as this would contest her own overall image of thought as "weak," or liable to failure, incompletion, stupidity, and the like.
I came to note many such contradictions in the course of her discourse, as it were, seemingly confirming the "weakness" hypothesis, which she repeatedly asserted. Yet, is not the confession of "weakness" the true source of our strength? -- i.e., does not a preemptory admission of failure close off all possibility of future failure?, i.e., when we make an axiomatic of incompletion, is this not the premier means of totalizing our discourse?, i.e., is not accepting one's own stupidity the path to genius?
Ronell did not seem to evidence insight into these consequences of her formulations on the night in question.
Another site of blindness I believe to have identified in her performance, and here she tentatively agreed with me when I raised it during the discussion time, was that her exclusively political approach on the question of authority excluded all the economic relations so inextricable from resolving the issue at hand. Political authority, or even authority in general, it seems to me, is essentially a most massive extension of the private familial fold, the oikos.
I would like to echo Slavoj Zizek here in his most prescient insight into postmodern feminism, which is characterized precisely by figures like Ronell (and Cixous, Irigay, etc.): Capitalist relations are dissolving the patriarchy of the family, indeed the family unit altogether; it is thus highly paradoxical, even backwards, to emphasize and fret over the continuity of patriarchal forms of authority (i.e., Derridean "phallologocentrism", etc.). Ronell even tended to rather "weakly" lapse into considering patrimonial authority (e.g., the Lacanian "name of the Father," etc.) a permanent feature of Being in general. This is merest docility and caving into the most conservative aspects of bourgeois society.
This is why I will hypothesize, in my decidedly Marx-inspired manner, that Ronell is primarily a representative of the haute-bourgeoisie, or high-capitalism. I tender this with regard not so much to her class position but her class allegiance, which indeed proves the more decisive practical aspect of class relations.
In end, the cheese buffet and free wine were lovely. So, cheers to Ronell for that at least!
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Maxwell Clark is a writer living in New Haven, Connecticut. (back)