Confessions of an Anacoluthon:
Avital Ronell on Writing, Technology, Pedagogy, Politics
Interview, Part I
Q. You've had a great deal to say about "the writer" and "writing," and because what you've said problematizes both concepts, it'll be important for us to tease them through very carefully. Do you consider yourself a "writer"?
A. In a certain way that question might be too masculinist for me because it suggests some kind of volition, agency, control at the wheel of fortuna or destiny. I would say that I have figured myself as a kind of secretary of the phantom. I take dictation. I would say also that one
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doesn't call oneself a writer: one is called, or one is convoked to writing in a way that remains mysterious and enigmatic for me. There was nothing that was going to determine this kind of activity or passivitywe still have to determine what writing is, of course. But sometimes I can, in a way, identify with the figures of "writing being" (Schriftstellersein) that Kafka threw up. For example, that of Gregor Samsa, who is this little unfigurable, monstrous fright for his family and workplace, and who has to stay in his room, kind of locked up, flying on the ceiling and attached to the desk. There is a figure with which I have repeatedly identifiedwhich is to say, there's something monstrous and a little shameful involved in writing, at least in terms of social pragmatics. This sort of logic of the parasite is probably eventually why I wrote about the drug addict and the writer as figures, often paradoxically, of social unreliability, even where their greatest detachment produces minor insurrections, political stalls, and stammers in any apparatus of social justice.
Q. In the introductory remarks to the interview you did with Andrea Juno in Research: Angry Women, you are referred to as an "ivory-tower terrorist." Are you comfortable with that label? Does it seem accurate?
A. These are questions about naming and location, and in this regard neither term is acceptable. The ivory tower is something that I have never been embraced by, or possibly even seen; it is a phantasm. And "terrorist" would imply a kind of being that is single-minded and fanatically set on a goal. By contrast, I would be too dispersed, self-retracting, and self-annulling in the way I work to be considered a terrorist as such. If anything, I would say that I an a counterterrorist. It is true that I have called for something like an extremist writing. And also I have made hyperbolic attempts to secure the space of academe as a sheltering place of unconditional hospitality for dissidence and insurrection, refutation and un-domesticatable explosions of thought. To the extent that the academy is a mausoleum, it tends to expect the reverence due the dead, and my irreverent type of reverence seems to set off, in those describing what I do, some explosive language. But I would also say, in a more general and gendered sense, that very often women who have a somewhat original bent are institutionally psychoticized and isolated. They tend to be structurally positioned as dangerous creatures, so there is always a SWAT team of academic proprietors closing in on them. In this sensc, I can see how the "terrorist" appellation might have grown on me or been pinned on me. But it comes from the institutional space and not from me. I was tagged.
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There's also this: While I was at Berkeley, I was close friends with Kathy Acker and Andrea Juno. Mondo 2000 declared us the "deviant boss girls of a new scene," models of subversion, and so on. That little community may have provoked some politicized assertions, marking the way the three of us would stage ourselves publicly and kick ass in a certain way. In this regard, I think one would want to look more closely at the possibility or impossibility of friendship in academia, and what it implies. Who are your friends? How does friendship set up (or subvert) a transmission system for the kind of work you do and read? One is often judged by one's public friendships. I was friends with Kathy and Andrea. And I think there was something scary about this little girl gang of troublemaker writers. Certainly, publishing with Angry Women did do momentary damage; it dented my career a bitthough it is laughable to offer up an imago of my career as a smooth surface to be dented. It was never not dented: one originary dent.
Q. What kind of damage did it do?
A. Well, I think colleagues were a little shocked to see me involved with performance artists, recontextualized and reformatted in the space of very angry, very outrageous, shit-covered, dildo-wielding, multisexual women. I think there was a gender-genre crossing that probably seemed a little excessive.
Q. Did you have tenure yet?
A. Yes I did.
Q. It's not unusual for you to refer to rhetorical operations in your work or to slip into your own rigorous rhetorical analysis. "Support Our Tropes," for example, offers a clever analysis of the rhetoric surrounding the Gulf War. Do you consider yourself, in any sense, a rhetorician?
A. First of all, I recognize that this is not a stable appellation; to the extent that rhetoric is a feature of language, one is kind of overwritten by it. I don't see how one could not be inscribed in the rhetorical scene. But, of course, on a more technical and thematic level, I am very attentive to rhetorical maneuvers on different registers of articulation. I tend to try and track something like a rhetorical unconscious in a text. I am very drawn in by that which withdraws from immediate promises of transparency or meaning. For example, I am interested in "anasemia," which is a linguistic force, elaborated by post-Freudian psychoanalysis, that works against normative semantics. I am interested in tracking repressed signifiers, including the relationships between syntactical breakdowns and political decisions. I wrote an essay, for instance about George Bush's inability to produce rhetorically stable utter-
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ances, an essay in which I tried to read his rhetorical machine as inexorably linked to the specific kinds of decisions he made and to the reactionary and reactive effects of his administration. Of course, every utterance is susceptible to destabilization, making the itinerary of the question considerably more complicated.
I have been heavily influenced by Paul de Man's work in this area, which leads me to say that one can never be detached from the rhetorical question or from the necessity of a whole politics and history of rhetorical thought, which has been largely repressed, or expulsed, or embraced, depending on where you are looking and to whom you are listening. So, indeed, if one is trying to be a rigorous and attentive reader, one has to consider oneself a rhetorician in those senses.
Q. When it first appeared in 1989, the layout and design of The Telephone Book were, as far as I can tell, unprecedented in academe. The design of Jacques Derrida's Glas is also staggeringly unconventional, of course; but whereas the simultaneous, multivoiced columns of Glas challenge print's linear imperative, The Telephone Book seems to break more rules and to be more playfully performative on the whole. An incredibly dense theoretical work that addresses some quite somber issues (for example, Heidegger's Nazism), it also seems gleefully irreverent, taking Nietzsche's merry hammer to all kinds of conventional expectations associated with the technology of "the book." What prompted this performative text? That is, why write what wanted to be said in this particular way? What did you hope its performance would accomplish?
A. It's important to note that Glas appeared much earlier and has another history of rupture and invention that still calls for analysis. We are all indebted to Derrida's exegetical energy for boosting the desire for the book and for making us interrogate the placid materiality of acts of reading. On another level of your questioning, I would like to recall that all texts are performative. But what I was trying to get at with The Telephone Book was the possibility of destroying the book in the Heideggerian sense of accomplishing a certain destruction of its metaphysical folds, enclosures, and assumptions. On the sheerly material level, it provided the first computer virtuoso performance in design. Every page was different, an interpretation of the text. And often I did argue with Richard Eckersley, the marvelous designer, because I felt that he was pulling away from the telephonic logic that I wanted his work to reflect and that he was becoming too autonomousbecoming a computer virtuoso. I didn't want the computer to
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overtake the telephonic markings that I felt needed to be continually asserted and reasserted. In a sense, we had a war of technologiesof course, over the telephone (I have never met Richard). What I wanted to effect by producing this telephonic logic that would supplant or subvert the book was to displace authorial sovereignty, to mark my place as taking calls or enacting the Heideggerian structure of the call. In other words, I wanted to recede into the place of a switchboard operator, and in that sense emphatically to mark the feminine problematic of receptivity and the place of reception. I was at the reception desk of that which we still call a book, taking the call of the other.
What I wanted to do as well by breaking up the serene, sovereign space of an unperturbed book was to invite static and disruption and noise. I wanted to showto the extent that one can show thisthat the text emerges in a kind of violence of originary interference, a kind of primal buzz. I wanted to inscribe the kinds of wreckage to signification that aren't usually accounted for. And this could be seen as belonging to a kind of post-feminist ethics, too. There is a great logic of disturbance that rattles the text. It doesn't offer the illusion of being from that professorial space of quiet and support and cocooned sheltering. The great male professor seems to me to be served by anything from the wife function to the institutional function. But I wanted this text to be somehow reflective of women's position, of the attempt to write in an institutional war zone, and this included being rattled and taking calls that are not predictable in their arrival, that jam the master codes and jam the switchboard, ever expelling you from the safe precincts of the imagined contemplative life.
When I was at Berkeley and writing this book, whenever someone would ask me what I was working on, I endured a lot of mockery, so I stopped trying to present it. This book was the first theoretical or deconstructive work on technology, and the telephone seemed like an aberrant, abjected object. Why would anyone write on anything so common, absurd, banal, unliterary, or anti-philosophical? Even my colleagues who were historians thought it a preposterous project. Obviously, literary critics didn't see any point to it at all, and the philosophers I hung out with didn't necessarily get it either. There was something that had to remain stealthy and unannounceable about writing on the telephone.
What prompted the project was the surprise that I experienced when I read the interview in which Heidegger was asked to describe the nature of his relationship with National Socialism, and he said he didn't
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really have a relationship, all he did was take a call from the SA storm trooper. This response appeared to me to be an improbable statementone, in fact, that might offer an access code, since Heidegger is the thinker par excellence of the call, of the difficult and necessary status of calling. And he is also the one to have pointed to the dangers of technology. He is the oneno matter what one thinks of him, and no matter how one thinks one can evaluate him, his lapses and the ways he has been disappointing (but which philosopher finally hasn't been?). Heidegger certainly is a redneck in many ways and highly problematic as mortals go, but what interested me was this response, which is a very compelling response and non-response at once. If I had been the thinker of the call and had made the call on technology, warning that we live under its dominion in yet undecipherable ways, then I would be clearly codifying my response. I thought he was providing an access code to a truer reading. I went after it.
And that is what prompted me to look to the telephone and to think about its place (or nonplace) or repressed functions in thinking. My question was how you would write the history of a non-relation, which is what Heidegger was asserting. There was a crucial non-relation. It has a history. It's called the telephone. It appeared to require a kind of inclination toward a subterranean history. I asked: What is this place of non-disclosure that doesn't allow for delusions of transparency or immediacy? This non-disclosure in part is why I felt that the book needed to bear the burden of that which resists signification, resists the serene certitudes of reportage or information gathering or knowledge naming that a good many academic books rely upon. I wanted it to come out with a university press because I felt that frame would rattle some cages. There are presumably many advantages to going with a trade or commercial press, but I thought that it had to reside within the university structure, that it actually would do more damage or stir up more trouble if it were to be contained by a university press. By the way, one of my motivating slogans is that a woman should be a pain in the ass.
Q. Your work seems consciously to muck with genre boundaries, to operate in the face of inherited borders of thought. Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania, for instance, falls into the genre of literary criticism: it is an analysis of Madame Bovary. But Crack Wars also operates very explicitly as a piece of fiction and, simultaneously, as a history and critique of drug culture and the "war on drugs." Do you set out to break up genres, to force them to collide? Or is it more that
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you ignore genre boundaries because they don't work for you?
A. I'm keenly aware of the histories and presumptions of that with which I am breaking. Above all, I am a scholar working the German side of things. As for the stability of genres, their boundaries are not as secure as one would think. I am working within a lineage that these genres already prescribe. There is a great insecurity about their limits, and I do try to work at those limits. The history of genre is highly domesticated and meant to suppress anxiety about possible contamination and violation. I am negotiating with what genres know about themselves, which is to say that they can easily collapse, that the border patrol might be dozing off, taking a cigarette break, and then something else occurs that could not have been predicted. I will use a given genre's pretexts and inroads and histories voraciously, but then I'll also invite, in a mood of great hospitality, certain marginalized genres to participate in the "literary critical" move on a text. I work with crime story and drama, and also poetry at some point. In this sense, I am Deleuzean since Gilles Deleuze has called for writing philosophical works in the form of a crime story, zooming in on a local presence and resolving a case. In this connection, I've been very interested in the difference Freud asserts between police work and detective work. (He says sometimes you have to arrest a symptom arbitrarily just to get the analysand to advance in a certain way.) As we know from thematic reflections on the latter, very often the detective has to turn in the badge and assume a different rapport with the truth. This involves solitary tracking. Often one is outcast. Certainly, the figure of the detective is something that fascinates me. Nowadays, of course, we have lesbian detectives on the prowl, looking for some kind of disclosure or going after traces and clueswhich is, after all, the position one necessarily finds oneself in when one is engaged in reading.
Q. In the preface to Finitude's Score, you suggest that "electronic culture" signals for you a kind of "prosthetic écriture" that puts "writing under erasure"; and a few lines later, you make the rather startling statement that you're "writing for writing because it died." Would you elaborate on that a bit? Are you suggesting two different senses of "writing"?
A. That is a very astute observation on your part. Obviously, since Plato all writing has been linked to techné, so what I am getting at is a regional difference. Writing was always prosthetic and consistently viewed as a dangerous supplement, as Derrida says. But you're right because there are boundaries and differences to be accounted for. And the kind of writing, I would say, that is associated with immanence and transcen-
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dence can no longer be affirmed innocently, as if writing could be capable of true manifestation or disclosure, linked at this point to a kind of transcendental being. Writing is no longer in that kind of association with a privileged locus. The demotion of writing's claims has been thematized by so many writers and observed by so many critics that this project is not, in itself, new. What interests me, though, is the way in which writing has been, in a sense, obsolesced and divested. Of course, one has to be Nietzschean and produce at least two evaluations of that observation because there is something that, despite it all, liberates writing to another realm once its more church- and state-like responsibilities have been suspended. Something else is happening and something else is going on. There is a kind of freedom that writing still says, or tries to say, or can refuse to say. This writing is political, but according to another logic of politics that escapes simple codifications. Nonetheless, writing, in the sense that I have been outlining, with its privilege of transcendence and disclosure, I think can be safely said to have perished, died.
At the same time, what does this mean? Writing never stops dying. There is an endless ending of writing. Psychoanalysis has been declared dead, too, and so has deconstruction, but, as we know, the dead can be very powerful. Freud illustrates or throws this power switch in Totem and Taboo: when the little resentful hordes of brothers get together and kill this powerful father, what they discover is that they are left with remorse and unmanageable haunting and sadness, such that the dead father turns out to be more powerful dead than he ever was alive. He is more alive when he is dead. Thus, to declare writing dead can also, in fact, make it more haunting, more difficult and commanding. It can imply a more pressurized zone of being and a much more intense rapport with that which has died. In making this statement, I'm also aligning myself in some ways with Hölderlin's Diotima: when the philosopher Empedocles commits suicide, Diotima is left behind to read his sandals, which are all that's left of him; they are his remainder. Diotima becomes the reader of this lost foundation or footing that philosophy might have had. Diotima is one exemplary instance of the feminine figure who is left behind as the mourner par excellence and who needs to read the traces and somehow honor them commemoratively. We have this figure also, of course, in the crucifixion of one of our gods. To observe that something has died implies a complicated itinerary of finitude, and it can be an infinite finitude that becomes more and more powerful in its withdrawal, precisely because it withdraws.