Confessions of an Anacoluthon:
Avital Ronell on Writing, Technology, Pedagogy, Politics
D. Diane Davis
**from jac: A Journal of Composition Theory 20.2 (2000): 243-281. FYI, this version was scanned in from a hard copy and no doubt still contains several errors I didn't catch. Apologies in advance. I also broke this version into parts to make it easier to manage. ~ddd
In the introduction to a special issue of diacritics devoted to the work of Avital Ronell, Jonathan Culler writes that "her books are like no others"; that her sentences "startle, irritate, illuminate"; and that her work constitutes "one of the most remarkable critical oeuvres of our era." Ronell's writing is remarkable, in part, because of the unusual connections it makes, its determination to blur the distinctions between big thought and small talk, philosophy and rumor, literature and headline newsto blur, that is, the very divisions through which academia sustains itself. But Ronell's work is also remarkable in its style: her writing is characteristically tough, double entendre intended. It's difficult (because of its enormous scope and depth), and it's also gutsy, rough, edgy, and pushy, with a sort of streetwise candor. Indeed, Ronell herself identifies a kind of "class struggle" going down in her texts, a struggle involving her own various compulsions, denials, and voicesincluding the "little hoodlum," the "high philosophical graduate student," and the "more sophisticated Parisian." Ronell notes, however, that the most discernible and continuous voice in her texts belongs to the "wise-ass girl," an ancestor of the "buffo" and every bit an anacoluthon out to disrupt the "smooth logic of accepted meaning or signification." This interruptive forceinasmuch as it does indeed "startle, irritate, illuminate"takes a certain swipe at certitude, prompting rigorous hesitations that open the conditions of possibility for what Ronell's works are always after: an ethics of decision in a postfoundational whirl(d).
Ronell's rigorously deconstructive rereadings of everythingfrom the telephone, the television, and virtual reality to the Gulf War, AIDS, and Madame Bovarytake up that which has been "marginalized, minoritized, evicted, persecuted, left out of the picture ... feminized." Operating in the mode of "irreverent reverence" and in the service of a posthumanist ethical imperative, Ronell sets out to "secure the space of academe as a sheltering place of unconditional hospitality for dissidence
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and insurrection, refutation and un-domesticatable explosions of thought." That is, she takes on the role of gracious host to anything that must be evicted/evacuated for a discourse of mastery and certitude to sustain itself. And why host such a radical party/text? Because it's within the space of certitude's withdrawal that the possibility for what she calls "responsible responsiveness" becomes available: the possibility, that is, for an ethics of decision after the so-called "death" of the humanist subject.
If the intentionality and autonomy that define egological forms of subjectivity were ever adequate grounds for conceiving of responsibility, they certainly are inadequate now. What could be more irresponsible today than a "responsibility" that bases itself on a self-conscious subject in complete control of itself? Ronell's work attempts therefore to redescribe responsibility from a postfoundational, posthumanist perspective that recognizes that the subject who acts is always, in advance, under the influence of something/someone, that there is a fundamental structure of dependency that precedes both desire and will. This view, of course, in no way releases the subject from the imperative to respond responsibly; if anything, it ups the ante of this imperative. Inasmuch as all transcendental navigation systems are down and one can no longer presume simply to be guided (by Truth, by the Word), "decisions have to be made." No decision, strictly speaking, is possible, as Ronell reminds us in Crack Wars, "without the experience of the undecidable." So Ronell's workwhatever the topic/issue under discussionfunctions simultaneously as an interruption of certitude and as an attempt to trace out an ethics of decision for a postfoundational age.
Significantly, Ronell suggests that there is no way to separate questions of responsibility from questions about the subject's affiliation with language. She therefore frequently addresses writing and rhetoric directly and ends up complicating, among other things, the relations among rhetoric's fundamental elements: the writer, the reader, the message. Indeed, Ronell suggests that the "message" (the work, the writing) "murmurs incessantly" and has a tendency to take off on its own, quite oblivious to the conscious intentions or desires of the one who writes and the one who reads. And this implies, she says, the necessity to rethink the place, which is never stable, of both the writer and the reader.
For Ronell, writing is never simply a vehicle for ideas; nor is it, as some expressivists say, a manifestation of one's inner Self. Rather, Ronell compares the activity/passivity of writing to drugging, inasmuch as both involve a kind of dispossession, a mode of departing that's never quite
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sure where it's headed. To a certain degree, she says, to write is to be "body snatched"; and, in fact, Ronell's work is packed with images of "somatic abjection," with images of the writer's body being taken over by writing, "overwritten," "hijacked," used and even abused by writing's expropriating force. According to Ronellwho on this point is very much in the tradition of Heidegger, Derrida, and Lyotardthe writer is in the position of responding to an ethical summons and not the reverse: the writer, first of all, receives, writing only inasmuch as she or he already has been written. And this reception, which is neither strictly passive nor strictly active, is often debilitating, abjectifying, alienatingthat is, it does not occur without a (physical) price. In stark contrast to romantic images of the writer as an autonomous and heroic thinker or creator, Ronell suggests that the writer is always caught up in a network of other voices and is, in fact, a little monstrous and shameful, "fragilized" in some ways and akin to the likes of Gregor Samsa, Kafka's enigmatic little nonfigure who is a "fright for his family and workplace" and who must remain locked in his room "under house arrest."
Such is the scene of writing, which necessarily involves an extreme surrender, an abandonment to one's own abandonment. According to Ronell, this is also the scene of reading: inasmuch as the reader accompanies the writer to the "nonplace of writing," he or she experiences the "infiniteness" of his or her own abandonment. When really reading, Ronell insists, "you will set aside your work, ignore the empirical accidents that harass your being like imperatives of life. You will not answer your phone; this other call will summon you, softly and deliberately" (Finitude's Score). In reading, as in writing, you respond to this page, you surrender, you allow yourself to be hijackednot by the author but by the writing, which transports you into an "ectopia of all 'proper' places" and hurls you into an encounter with your own nonidentity. The ek-stasy of reading, like that of writing, very often involves an element of bodily abjection, and this prompts Ronell, in the introduction to Finitude's Score, to offer the reader some cautionary advice: "don't hesitate to interrupt your reading (don't forget to eat)."
Of course, this caution would seem a bit ridiculous, inappropriate, and unnecessary to anyone still harboring a residual allegiance to another sort of writing, one that gestures toward "true manifestation or disclosure," one that masquerades as the product of an Author-in-charge. But, according to Ronell, this writingwriting as the harnessing of language for the making-manifest of realitycan be safely declared dead. What remains interesting about it now is that it was never not dead and that it has never
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stopped dying, which implies a "complicated itinerary of finitude," one that leads her, in Finitude's Score, to state that she is "writing for writing because it died." Writing, Ronell says, like the Father in Freud's Totem and Taboo, is even more powerful, even more alive in its death. The writer, the one "convoked" by writing, collaborates with writing's lively remains, putting into play another, non-referential sort of inscriptionwhat Ronell, in Crack Wars, calls a "writing on the loose"which consistently points up its own mirage-effect, exposing the catachrestic "nature" of each element in the "rhetorical situation." In Ronell's thoroughly postfoundational work, the writer is not the "author" or the "thinker" or the "poet" but merely a singular voice ventriloquizing, taking dictation from language itself.
And yet, the fact that one is taken hostage, abducted by writing's force, Ronell insists, does not release one from the responsibility that writing entails. The one who writes, who is called by writing, must respond responsibly to the work that one "transcribes"that one is "assigned to, haunted by." One must, that is, assume responsibility for it as a signatorwith a signaturebut without presuming to take credit for the work itself. This is the politics of writing that Ronell enacts: to assume responsibility for her work and yet perpetually to acknowledge her debt to the Other and to others, to the "circuit that speaks through [her]." The extent to which she embraces this ethic is evidenced in her responses to several of the questions in this interview, most notably to the last question, which offered her the opportunity to address any misunderstandings about her work. Though she was touched by the gesture and appreciated the kind of "rescue mission" it entailed, she declined to assume a posture of authority about her texts, declined to step into the "control tower" that would presume to "land the right reading," noting only that it's not "her place" to do so. She insists that it is not she who takes risks but that "language is risk-taking and risk-making." So, in writing, Ronell surrenders to these risks, signs her name to them, and then refrains from trying to control their effects. As she puts it: "A text's got to do what a text's got to do."
This unsettling of the author(ity) function is one manifestation of Ronell's larger ethic, which has to do with a general "humbling and destabilizing" of the sujet supposé savoir, of the subject who is supposed to know. If the typical presumption is that there is a subject who decides, an "action hero" in control of technology, of writing, even of the possibility of slipping into addiction or stupidity, Ronell's work points out the ways in which the subject is always already a function of other
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functionsalways already a product of technology, of writing, of an originarily addictive structuring, and, yes, of a kind of transcendental stupidity. Although philosophy has slammed the door on a thinking of stupidity by containing it within the epistemology of "error," Ronell locates all "knowing" within an originary arena of not being able to know, all "intelligence" within an overarching dome of stupidity. Proposing the sujet ne supposé pas savoir (the subject not supposed to know and who doesn't suppose it knows), Ronell explores the possibility of a mode of ethics and activism that begins with "I'm not sure I know," that begins, in fact, with the humbling utterance: "I am stupid before the other."
To begin by affirming the irony of understandingwhich says that "the only knowledge we could have is that we have not understood [fully]"implies an/other kind of political commitment. This move is important. For Ronell, it does not imply the end of politics but rather an/other (ethico-) politics altogether. This other politics would not, of course, pretend that horrific acts of violence and terror cannot be understood in a certain way; but it would, nevertheless, recognize that "such decisions as ethnocide, genocide, murder" are based on the presumption that one has understood fullyare based, that is, on the tyranny of an "understanding that does not doubt or question itself." So the stakes of this other politics are high; they involve the possibility for community itself, for being-together-in-the-world. "A true ethics of community," Ronell writes in "Activist Supplement," "would have to locate a passivity beyond passivitya space of repose and reflection, a space that would let the other come." Ronell suggests that rather than presuming, arrogantly, that we know what community is and that it is ours to build, we might instead affirm a mode of "radical passivity" that would allow it to come; we might, that is, embrace a mode of "absolute and unconditional hospitality," a mode that would "allow and allow and allow... ."