Confessions of an Anacoluthon:
Avital Ronell on Writing, Technology, Pedagogy, Politics
Interview, Part II
Q. In Crack Wars, you discuss what you call a "genuine writing," which you hook up with a "''feminine' writing in the sense that it is neither phallically aimed nor referentially anchored, but scattered like cinders." This genuine writer is like the addict, you suggest, inasmuch as neither is capable "of producing real value or stabilizing the truth of a real world," and inasmuch as both writing and drugging are "linked to a mode of departing, to desocialization ... without the assurance of arriving anywhere." In your 1994 Alt X interview with Andrew Laurence, you suggest that this section is, to a large degree, a tribute to the work of Hélène Cixous. To what extent can this "genuine" writing be conflated with what goes by the name écriture feminine?
A. When I use the word "genuine," I am already pointing toward a kind of etymological net that involves "genius" or suggests that there is something that can't be proper or genuine. After all, the code of genius is usually reserved for the metaphysical male subject. So I want to bear in mind the irony of "genuine," or the genitality of "genuine," because genuine has to undo itself and dismantle its premises. But what I wanted to underscore when citing this term "genuine" is akin to what I'm underscoring when I use the term "feminine" (and I put them both in quotation marks): that it is not about some recognizably feminine trait. I also use this strategy to rewrite Emma Bovary's name, "femmanine," with Emma enacting the femme, and of course with Flaubert being identifiable as Emma, as he himself notes in the famous utterance "Madame Bovary c'est moi." I wanted to show that the predicament of a woman who wants to write but who has nowhere to go and little to do, and who's writing for no one, counts for something. I say it is the writer's common lot. The "femmanine" is already there in any kind of writinglurking, latent, showing that all writing is exposed, unsure of its destination, unable to chart its course, unable to know if it is going anywhere but down. Deleuze has said that writing minoritizes the writer and also sets him or her into the condition, or the flow, of becoming-woman. On some level, this phasing out of oneself is what happens to all who write, or to all who are inclined toward writing or who are written up by writingeven written off by writing. There is no way for you to think, really, that you know to whom you are writing, or that you are going anywhere, or that you are doing anything, in the classical sense of those terms. Emma's housewifely psychosis, her loser's sense of having no one to write to, no audience, is to be honored for its particular scenography of abjection, for its critically depressive qualities and properties.
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At the same time, doesn't writing turn us all into little housewives who are sitting home all day? Maybe not with rollers on our heads, but in our little house robes and immobilizations. There is something about being under house arrest, about the solitude, the not knowing what the hell you are talking about.... There are such moments (I hope I am not the only one outing myself here) that occur when you think, in the most expropriated sense, "what am I doing?" At just that moment, when there is nothing holding you up or bolstering your sense of who you are or what you are doing, right then you can maybe say that you are a "genuine" writer. So, it is according to that kind of paradoxical itinerary, or in that kind of aporetic rapport with writing, that I was trying to place Emma Bovary, who was kind of my girlfriend for awhile because I really dwelled on and with her. And I got very anxious and upset that all these guysrather prominent lit crit typesthought they controlled her or understood her and could detach from her general abjection, as though she were simply dismissible and a trash body. Of course, I tried to show to what extent she is a trash body. Through her, Flaubert invents the body of the addict. Nevertheless, there was something I wanted to show about her humbling and alienated domesticity that reflects the writer's common lot. And no matter how objectionable or easily judgeable she might appear to be, Emma Bovary represents what you become one day when you are a so-called "genuine" writer.
Q. Your description of this "genuine" writing in Finitude's Score strikes me as very close to certain depictions of hypertext, itself an acclaimed offspring of electronic culture. George Landow, for example, sees hypertext as explicitly performing a kind of postfoundational writing that embraces its own value after the "death" of the author and the crisis in representation. Do you think the medium of hypertext might invite, more explicitly than print, the kind of "genuine" writing you discuss?
A. I am not certain that it does, especially since it is so, I dare say, masculinist, in its glee about overcoming masculinist premises about writing. So I have to view it with some suspicion. I think hypertext and many of its theories offer an over-literalized interpretation of its promise and boundaries. At some level one has to deal with the fact it is a mere device that isn't often rigorously deployed. I don't think that what I am trying to work with is dependent on some kind of mechanical shiftand a rather minor mechanical shift, since one could probably demonstrate that the Pre-Socratics, for example, used hypertext. I have never thought positive technologies initiate new modalities of Being or
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reflection. Very often these technologies, I have tried to show, respond to some sort of rupture that itself isn't even entirely newthere isn't the epistemic, clean-cut or clear new beginning. So I think I would like to propose a far more complicated itinerary, one that couldn't be reducible to one discovery. Hypertext is more like the Wizard of Oz, right? The figure behind the special effects is hidden behind the curtains, and when we see its ascesis and poverty, we're a little disappointed. But it is there, and someone manages its presumed arbitrariness. One could certainly complicate what I just said, but essentially it is not so new. Of course, I am very open to discussion on this.
Q. I agree with all you've just said, but I think that the conjunction of "writing" and the "device" is a complicated one. Inasmuch as all texts are hypertextual, inasmuch as every word is implicitly a "hot word," I think hypertext, when rigorously deployed as a medium, more explicitly than print technology exposes one to language's inherent hypertextuality. Your printed texts seem particularly hypertextual to me; they seem to engage strategies designed to expose their hypertextuality. But print requests that the reader move in a linear fashion from one word to the next word planted there on the page. I think hypertext invites a reader, at the very least, to notice that any word could beand so, at some level, already operates asa hot word.
A. I like what you're saying. It's inviting and compelling. And I do have to read my own resistance. I had a similar resistance to television, too, until I finally broke down and wrote about television. So I do feel there is a level of resistance that I need to interrogate. And that means I haven't closed the book on it, so to speak, but that there is something that is not allowing passage for me yet. I am provoked by what you said.
Q. In "Activist Supplement: Papers on the Gulf War," you warn that the most influential proponents of virtual reality seem invested in propping up "his majesty the ego" and, to that end, describe virtual space as somehow making up for the lack of control we feel in "real life." Jaron Lanier, as you note, would like to have called virtual reality "intentional reality," since the latter indicates the sense of mastery over one's world that VR simulates. But your approach to technologyfrom the telephone to the television to VRseems more interested in the way that it makes us, in the way that our technological creations in turn recreate who we humans are and what we can bea process that ends up challenging the very notion of an ego in charge. Would you, then, characterize your approach to technology as posthumanist?
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A. Yes, I certainly would, though I might have to pause and explicate the meaning of "post." Still, I look to technology to affirm those aspects of posthumanism that are more liberatory and politically challenging to us. As I said, one of my concerns has been with television. Beyond the thematizations of crime, murder, and the production of corpses that don't need to be mourned, I am very interested in the way television stages and absorbs trauma, the way it puts in crisis our understanding of history and the relation of memory to experience. All of these aspects of the televisual that I have tried to read, as you indicate, presuppose a posthumanist incursion into these fields or presume that a posthumanist incursion has been made by these technological innovations (or philosophemes, as I like to call them). On a terribly somber note, I don't see how, after Auschwitz, one can be a humanist.
My work has concerned itself with the Nazi state as the first technologically constellated polity as well as with the fact that technology is irremissible. Mary Shelley projected this view of technology with her massive, monumental, commemorative work on the technobody, which was the nameless monster. The problem with (or opening for) technology is that no one is or can stay behind the wheel, finally, and no one is in charge. And the way I have tried to route and circuit the thinking of technologyindeed, in a posthumanist frameexposes the extent to which it belongs to the domain of testing. This view has little to do with hubristic humanist assumptions. I am interested in the difference between the real and the test, which collapses in a technological field. Every technology will be tested. Moreover, and paradoxically, that means it will not merely be a test. The Gulf War was a major field test; after the war there were trade shows that announced that every weapon had been proven and tested. And so for the military, the Gulf War was afield testand, as we know, that test cost real lives. But still you can't say someone decided this or that. There is something about the perpetuation of the technological that involves the figure of testing.
In any case, technology has produced different registers of being, or is reflective of different registers of being, and even our rhetoric of desire has been steadily technologized. We say we're "turned on," we're "turned off," and so on. We also say we "had a blast," which indicates a nuclear desire in desire. Nonetheless, there are different protocols of marking experience, and to arrive at some sensible reading of those protocols, one should no longer be tethered irrevocably to humanist delusionsdelusions for which I have the greatest respect, of
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course. But humanism often functions like a drug that one really ought to get off of in order to be politically responsible. I think it is irresponsible not to be Nietzschean in this sense of risking the greatest indecency, of crossing certain boundaries that have seemed safe and comfortable and are managed at best by general consensus. Posthumanism is not necessarily popular with those who hold the moral scepter at this point. But I think it would be regressive and cowardly to proceed without rigorously interrogating humanist projections and propositions. It would be irresponsible not to go with these irreversible movements, or "revelations of being," so to speak. That sounds a little irresponsible, too, since it's a citation of Heidegger. But that's just it: one is precisely prone to stuttering and stammering as one tries to release oneself from the captivity of very comfortable and accepted types of assignments and speech. An incalculable mix of prudence and daring is called for.
Q. Your approach to writing seems posthumanist, too. Your first book Dictations: On Haunted Writing explicitly examines (via the Conversations between Eckermann and Goethe) the possibility of writing after the "death" of the author. You redescribe writing from the angle of the possessed and suggestlet me quote you from the prefacethat it "never occurs simply by our own initiative: rather, it sends us. Whether one understands oneself to be lifted by inspiration or dashed by melancholia, quietly moved, controlled by muses or possessed by demons, one has responded to remoter regions of being in that circumstance of nearly transcendental passivity." To a large extent, then, to write is to be a lip-syncher, to take dictation, as you put it earlier. Writing here seems to require a kind of passivity that is not inactive but that is also not, strictly speaking, active. In Crack Wars, you note that when one writes "there are certain things that force [one's] hand," a "historical compulsion" that "co-pilots [one's] every move." So who is writing when something gets written? Or, more specifically, to what extent are you the author of the books published under the name Avital Ronell?
A. To a very limited extent. As I am speaking, I don't feel contemporaneous with the one who writes because, as we discussed earlier, writing is a depropriative act; it always comes from elsewhere. One is body snatched, in a trance, haunted. Or, one is on assignment. I use that sense of being on assignment or assigned something to emphasize how I am "called" to writing. I don't know how to locate its necessity. And one doesn't know where the imperative comes from. Nevertheless, one is
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assigned to it, so that one is always writing at the behest of the Other. At the same time, I am not trying to unload my responsibility here. It is not as though I can say that it comes from elsewhere or that I am merely a zombie of another articulation and therefore that I am in bondage absolutely. There is some of that, of course, but I must still assume the position of a signator because I become responsible to respond to this thing that I am transcribing, assigned to, haunted by. So we're talking about assuming responsibility as a signator, with a signature, but without taking credit. And that, perhaps, is the politics of writing to which I subscribewhich is not to say that I take credit for it. I am always indebted to others. I am always part of a circuitry that speaks through me, writes on me, uses me, and certainly uses my body, which has been "fragilized" and has had to endure quite a bit of suffering in order to allow me to respond to my debt: a matter of my allowance. That is the configuration in which I try at once to name my dispossession, or my possession (I am possessed by the Other), and at the same time to assume responsibilityand yet not suddenly, in absolute, irresponsible contradiction to what I have been trying to say, to take credit for that which traverses me in the work.
Q. Let me quote from the introduction of your forthcoming book, Stupidity: "To write is to take a retest every day (even if, brooding, stuck, anguished, you are not empirically writing), to prepare a body, adjust your drive, check in (out of respect) with superego, put ego on sedation, unless you are a total memoir-writing-I-know-myself-and-want-to-share-my-singularity idiot." I take it that you would not call yourself an "expressivist" in the strictest sense of that term. That is, I take it that you do not think writing expresses a pre-existing inner self?
A. Only in the Bataillean sense, where there is an inner experience that somehow gets "exscribed," as Jean-Luc Nancy says. Indeed, writing has something to do with a constitutive outside, an exteriority, and cannot express but only invents and produces the fiction, if necessary and if called for, of the inside. You are outside yourself when it happens; you are beside yourself; you are pumped up as a different kind of beingor else you are deflated and defeated. In any case, it's not a constitutive thing but a performative act.
Q. How, then, would you characterize the relationship among rhetoric's fundamental elements: the writer, the reader, and the message?
A. Well, understanding the message as the work, I would assume that these fundamental elements are in themselves unstable, sometimes exchangeable or erasable by one another. And I would say that writing
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alters these elements, doesn't leave them in their place, leaves them expropriated and disfigured, unrecognizable. The workwhat you are calling the messagein any case seems to let go of the reader and the writer. In other words, I see the work as solitary, inexhaustible, sovereignit murmurs incessantly. But, of course, according to other hermeneutic appropriations, the reader can also produce, or be productive of the work and is inscribed in the work as its codependent, as that on which the work relies in order to be brought into being. This is one type of reading of Hölderlin: the godslet's call them the message or the work or the writingare dependent on mortals, on the poetic word, in order to be brought into time and existence. So these are different configurations in the fundamental triangulation that you set into motion. But in each case, I would say that the writing, the work, produces a type of disfigurement and distortion that requires us to rethink the place, which is never secured, of writer and reader.
Q. Stupidity traces the question or problem of a kind of transcendental stupidity. Would you talk a bit about this project, both its content and its structure?
A. It was Deleuze who named the future necessity of reading stupidity, and a transcendental stupidity, asking, What are the conditions for the possibility of stupidity? And he said that philosophy hasn't been able to think stupidity. First of all, because philosophy has been hijacked by epistemological considerations of error, error has derailed the thought of stupidity. As he says, literature has always brought the question of stupidity to the door of philosophy, who slammed that door shut, finding the theme (it is a paraconcept) somehow unworthy. Deleuze suggests that philosophy is haunted by stupidity, which, nonetheless, it won't consider. There is something about stupidity that is violently resisted by philosophy. That is where I come in: where something has been marginalized, minoritized, evicted, persecuted, left out of the picture, and of course feminized. Certainly, one of the impetuses for reading stupidity is promoted by a kind of post-feminist passion, protesting the way women have been called "stupid bitches" and noting what this might involve, how stupidity became an accusatory force, a devastating demolition of the other. Minorities are considered stupid, women are considered stupid, and so forth. To return to Difference and Repetition, Deleuze says that even the trashiest literature concerns itself with questions of stupidity. And even the most sublime literature is aware of it. In an inverted form, Henry James is very compelled by questions of stupidity and intelligence and of how one can tell them
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apart. Stupidity is a very slippery signifier and often turns into its other. It is not the other of thought; it is sometimes, literally, the figure of sheer reflection, proffering something like pure thought. But what interested me above all was located in the poetic act, the passivity of the poet in the extreme inclination toward surrender, the near stupor that characterizes the poetic dispositionthe structure of exposure, something that poetry knows about, the extreme and secret experiences of stupidity. In this work, what I am doing, essentially, is appealing to the debilitated subject, the stupid idiot, the puerile, slow-burn destruction of ethical being, which, to my mind, can never be grounded in certitude or education or prescriptive obéissance. There is something about placing the question of responsibility close to the extinction of consciousness that interests me. Against the background of the ethical anxiety that has been expressed in recent years, my question tries to invoke a parallel track that is thematized in so many waysthe platitudes of dumbing down, the dumb and dumber and dumbest. What does a generalized dimwittedness, a diminished sensibility, imply for ethics?
In addition to addressing this kind of transcendental stupidity, which, of course, one needs to ponder and reflect on, I also consider other questions: for instance, "Who are the secret beneficiaries of stupidity's hegemony?" and "What are the somatizations that occur in stupidity?" For Marx, for instance, stupidity is third in terms of what determines historical world power. In other words, the world is motored by economy, violence, and then stupidity. So these are some of the points I wanted to engage by mobilizing the question and problem of stupidity. In terms of micromanaging one's own history, I am also very interested in the idiot body and in our relation to our bodies when they are ill, when they collapse. How do we heal them? What do we know? Why is it that the scanners, charts, and medicalizations of the body tend to disappoint us? The rapport with the body is already something mechanical and stupid. I focus on the monthly period, which is a kind of stupid repetition to which women are routinely subjected. So there are different levels and registers of stupidity, a lot of them highly political, beginning with the only time Heidegger used the term stupidity: when he said his relationship to Nazism was his dumbest mistake. There I read what it means for Heidegger to say that he made a stupid mistake or I read the status of such an "excuse" for any justificatory discourse.
Introduction, Part I, Part III