Confessions of an Anacoluthon:
Avital Ronell on Writing, Technology, Pedagogy, Politics
Interview, Part III
Q. What about the structure? I noticed that there was a Wordsworth satellite. Are there more satellites?
A. Yes, there is a Kant satellite, too, which is called "The Figure of the Ridiculous Philosopher; Or, Why I am so Popular." I include in the book every mainstream "boss," including Christ, who is depicted by Dostoevsky as being an emanation of sacred stupidity in the figure of the idiot. I also look at the new and improved figure of stupidity sanctified by Christianity in the notion of simplicitas. But the Kant satellite traces or picks up signals from Kant's tortured relation to writing. Kant wrote like a pig, and he talks about it all the time. He is the first philosopher to have wanted to be an author, which is something Jean-Luc Nancy writes about in "Logodaedalus." What interested me is the way Kant does end up prescribing that a true and good philosopher will be more or less a bad writer and will not indulge in certain forms of wordplay and joyous resignification. For Kant, this decision was an agony and a renunciation. He had to renounce being a beautiful writer, a femme writer, and he becomes totally butch. He is very clear about this: he says I can't run around in pink ballet slippers, and I can't have honeythe kind you give to children to get them to drink something that they don't want to drink, like medicine or aesthetics. Real philosophy has to dispense with and renounce writing, being a beautiful writer, a true author. Of course, he also wanted to be this author that he says he renounced. So he feels he's in control of it. To the extent that he had to renounce it, it was something that he initiated. In any case, it is a tortured and charming itinerary of anxiety about not being a good writer. Henceforth, philosophy required it; it is the writing requirement for philosophy: that you be a bad writer. Anyone who writes "beautifully," so to speak, then as now, is stoned, ridiculed, and feminized. This requirement is a Kantian legacy; it's his bequest. French theory, which writes beautifullyDerrida, Barthes, Foucault are writersfinds itself judged across this legacy. Even in one of the JAC interviews, Chantal Mouffe responds charmingly to the first question, noting that before she got into philosophy and became a bad writer, she had wanted to be a writer. That is a citation of Kant about how ridiculous the philosopher has to make himself or herself in regard to writing. But this pernicious history, which I try to trace, leads to certain dismissive gestures that aren't fully contextualizable in the necessity of producing a ridiculous philosopher. This history cuts two ways: when someone says Derrida's work is ridiculous, this accusation is in itself distressing and crazy (and the person probably hasn't really
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read him); nonetheless, this accusation already belongs to a proud history spun out by the Kantian writing imperative.
Q. It struck me as I read the chapters you sent me from this text that you also take a posthumanist approach to stupidity, suggesting, in fact, alongside Roland Barthes, that stupidity is "prior to the formation of the subject"which would imply that we are a function of itand that "writing is always an immersion in stupidity." If this is the case, how would you respond to the question, "Why write?" Is there, even still, a connection between writing and responsibility?
A. I warn my students never to ask this kind of question. It's one of those fundamental abyss-openers: Why am I writing? Why do this? Still, as we discussed earlier, there is something that forces your hand. You write maybe even because it is impossible. Or, maybe you write for or because of some other force that is leading you to regions you need to explore, and you don't know what kind of mapping would justify it. But, in this case, we would want to think, with Walter Benjamin, the notion of the task: Aufgabe in German, which includes the word Gabe, or giftyou are giftedbut in the double sense of poison, since in German "gift" is also poison. Essentially, Aufgabe is your task, and within it is aufgeben, to give up. So the task itself, your task, also enjoins you to give up the impossibility, the sublimity, and the inappropriability of it, of the task itself. It's impossible, and yet something about it is so stirring that you nonetheless find yourself moving toward it. There is always a double imperative, and I think we must all feel it when we're writing: the mania and melancholia mix, the cocktail of the extreme, inexplicable joy, and the equal sense of being demolished by its hopelessness.
One of my writing slogans has been, "Who cares?" There you are, struggling in your little space of writing, and you think you have made a discovery (I am beyond that level of discovering), but nonetheless there is that "Oh, who cares?" Still, there is something about a commitment without the delusions of producing meaning or worldshattering disclosures that moves mea commitment to writing, despite it all, despite fevers, harassment of daily tasks, the need to do other things, and so on. I also think of Beckett's response to that very question because he was considered to edge on nihilism in some ways, and he said, in French slang, bon qua qa, which translates roughly as "that is all I am good for. That is all I can do. There is nothing else to do." And it's precisely because there is nothing else to do that you have to write. We need stories, as Bataille once said, and we need to write.
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That would be the provisional response to the question, "Why write?" It's a question, as I said, that I back away from. I don't have an answer for it. There are moments when I climb the scales of hopefulness; there are other moments when I am Hölderlinean about it, in the sense that he says writing is the most innocent of all mortal exertions. Initially, my decision to commit to writingand it is a vow, a vow that needs to be renewedwas connected to my need to be innocent in a certain way. And I don't mean that in a naive sense. But I really felt that anything we do in our present systems of existence is highly contaminated, corporate, compromising, depressing, and so forth. And, of course, writing and publishing must have their share of this kind of conformism, but I think it is minimal, and I try to resist being a conformist in what I sign. So there was something about my commitment to writing that was not at all natural, so to speak; it was a very athletic decision, a decision to "musculate," to "work out" every day. There is nothing of a natural writer in me. I still consider it rather unnatural to be writing and desocializing. Writing, after all, is strangely allied to illness, to being an invalid. I don't know if you experience it that way, but one is cut off, one has a different rapport with time. Nonetheless, writing was the way I felt I could sustain and preserve my need for political activism in a way that wasn't perhaps as deluded as other ways. Everyone does what she or he can, I'm sure, and writing was the way I felt I could be more problematic and more of a dissident than in other ways that are currently allowed. Yet, I never had the choice, even though I say I made the choice to commit to writing. I really couldn't find a place outside the holding pen of this kind of writing. I might have wanted to work on radio or in different media or in theaterthese are other forms of writing, of inscription. At any rate, precisely where there is no utility or support for writing is when I think it has to happen.
Q. In an essay in Birth to Presence, Jean-Luc Nancy says that we write to respond to the call of writing itself, and that there is a constant need to keep doing it, since each time you inscribe, you "exscribe" again. So one writes to attend to the call of the exscribed.
A. Yes, but I do think there are many ways to "write." In fact, when Jean Luc and I were in California, I had started this thing called Radio Free Theory, and he was very encouraging. In fact, he said if he could do something besides the more conventional forms of writing, he would. I really was committed to this radio program, but it was snuffed outtoo subversive, they said.
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Q. I haven't heard about Radio Free Theory.
A. Basically, we maxed out my credit card to buy equipment, and we did some demos for a radio show that, among other things, featured post-Freudian call-ins, where we would call other people and discuss their issues in a post-Freudian rhetoric. We would call authors and critics who had bashed deconstruction and say, "You're on the air. Look, you wrote this. Did you even read this or that? What are you talking about?" Then we did little children's evening programs. They were very sadistic: stories of Dr. Schreber for your child before bedtime. And we did one thing on the Rat Man that was really beautiful and was accompanied by music. We had a correspondent in Paris, who told us what was going on there. We had correspondents all over telling us what Jameson and others were teaching. We had a lot of newsthat was Derrida's idea, that I include news. Of course, it was a brilliant idea that was meant to make us indispensable. We had very creative tracks as well. It was amazing.
But it never got off the ground. It was supposed to be financed by Irvine, but they were horrified when they heard it. I don't know why. And I'm sure that sounds naive. It would have been the Saturday Night Live of high theory. Everything was high theory. We also had little segments that we thought altogether comforting and normal. For instance, we would offer fifteen minutes of someone giving a lectureAdorno, Heidegger, Deleuze. You know, why not? There is an entire archive of voices on tape: Artaud, Joyce, Freud. Freud is on tape. We would also do radiophonic cutups that were inventive and hilarious. So, a Deleuze lecture would be playing, and I would cut in as if it were a dialogue. It was very witty. And, of course, there is something very moving about hearing Freud's voice, or Adorno's, over the radio.
Q. What time period was this?
A. It was the mid-eighties. I was entirely into it. And I have to say that everyone cooperated. We put funny, S/M kinds of ads in journals asking for "submissions," and sure enough, country-wide, people were sending us tapes, hoping to be a segment on our show. Even Frank Zappa was going to help out because he thought it was "kewl."
Q. If it were financed, would you consider doing this kind of "writing" again?
A. I'd love to. That's what I wanted to do. But we couldn't get any institutional support, so the show was put out like a cigarette. Anyway, all of that was to say that there are different types of "writing," and some kinds of very rigorous and political inscriptions do not require
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that you work alone. I think I would like not to have to write alone all the time.
Q. The conjunction of writing, stupidity, and politics is an interesting one that I'd like to pursue here a bit more. In the introduction to the book, you write, "For the writer the problem of stupidity occupies a place of deliberate latency; ever on the prowl for your moment of greatest vulnerability, it prepares another sneak attack. Unless you really know what you're doing, and then it's in your face, all over you in fact, showing no pity." What are the implications of this insight for academe and for activism? Or to use your terminology, for "foolosophy" and for politics?
A. First of all, I am writing out of an ethical contern that I articulate in the utterance, "I am stupid before the other." What happens when one humbles oneself and says, "I am stupid before the other"? I raise a question about how it is that in the unwritten history of stupidity there has always been an alterity, a non-appropriable other, that has been trashed and bashed and has received the accusatory sting of being called stupid. So, I am interested in this naming in which executive and executing decisions are made about the status of the other. And this occurs also in the testing apparatus of universities and admission policies. One interesting point in the history of testing is the invention of the word moron by American psychologists. This was how they filtered out immigrant children. Moron means a little below average. But it allowed the immigrant children to be left back, kind of humiliated and degraded when their admissions tests were graded. These political and activist concerns have motivated and compelled me. There is a displacement, a violence in the question of who gets designated as stupid. I need only mention The Bell Curve and other decisions that have been made about minorities. Even decisions that have been made about "clever" minoritiesor shrewd or shifty minoritiesare part of the same experience of stupidity: it's mechanical but upgraded to cleverness, so it is not real intelligence. I call for a kind of rewriting rephrasing in Jean-Frangois Lyotard's senseaccording to which one would say, "I am stupid before the other." I think that would involve a surprising reformatting of what we think we know and how we think we can evaluate and judge.
I also try to show that in testing, the subject who can't respond to questions often is, so to speak, too stupid or too intelligent to offer the kind of response that is instrumentally demanded. They might be too dialectical or not able to assimilate an accepted grid and so forth. I am
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interested in the humbling that occurs when one says, "I am stupid before the other," which is absolutely a taboo. You cannot imagine someone in a university saying, "I am stupid" or "I am stupid before my students." This humbling and destabilizing of the sujet supposé savoirof the subject who is supposed to know or who is posed as functionary of knowingcreates minor insurrections that interest me. But, of course, one of the most stupid reflexes is to think that you know what stupidity is all about. This situation calls for another type of activism that begins with "I'm not sure I know." And you don't close the book; you don't throw the book at anyone. I fear I am simplifying the trajectory of the book right now. I hope you'll extend me some credit on this account. Suffice it to say that it would provide for a very different politics to say "I don't know" or "I am stupid before the other," but not in the oppositional sense that stupidity is the opposite of whatever opposes itlet's say, provisionally, intelligence.
Q. In the "Activist Supplement," you suggest that "the opposition between passive and active proffers a deluded equation. Take a look around you," you write, "haven't we, as a culture, been too active, too action-filled?" And you note that a "true ethics of community ... would have to locate a passivity beyond passivity, a space of repose and reflection that would let the other come." This is not the typical view of community, which is usually posited as a product to be built and which therefore requires the active subject building. Would you elaborate on this ethic of community?
A. I made these remarks on community in the context of the Gulf War with its attendant overestimation of virtual reality. This thought comes from the works of Heidegger, Freud, and Levinasand, obviously, from Derrida as well. As Heidegger and Freud in their own ways posited, there has been too much action. When Heidegger went off track, it was under the aegis of "acting." The qualities that I am trying to describe are difficult to abbreviate, and I do not want to invite misunderstanding. The action hero, as we knowand there is no quarreling with this valorizing of the action herois not the thoughtful subject, though action and thought, activity and passivity, should not be easily opposed. It is much more complicated than that. Thinking is assimilable to acting. Rather than presuming and making predictable what could happen in a community, giving assigned places and determinations, if one opened up a space of radical passivity, one might see what comes, what arrives. Rousseau, for example, called for a mode of being that is in recessionhe calls it the far niente, the nondoing that
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opens you up to a disclosive dimension of being. From there, one might be able to hear the call; or, the call might be put out in a way that is entirely surprising, perhaps unrecognizable and perhaps irreducible to codified meaning. Something would occur on the level of absolute and unconditional hospitality to being, to the other. These are the kinds of considerations that have prompted me. Rather than think we know in advance what community is, or what we are building, as if it were ours to build, we might allow it to come. To allow and allow and allow is the experiment that I would want to conduct.
Q. In his contribution to the issue of diacritics devoted to your work, Eduardo Cadava suggests that your writing compels us to rethink our assumptions about "language and subjectivity, encounter and relation, responsibility and decision." And he emphasizes the latter, even suggesting that your works "are nothing but the very trial of the concepts of responsibility and decision." If those concepts tend to be soaked, even marinated, in humanist presumptions about intentionality and autonomy, your work seems consistently invested in tracing out an ethics of decision (of "responsible responsiveness," as you have called it) that takes off from a posthumanist perspectivefrom the "presupposition that we are always, in advance, under the influence of others." But some would ask what this responsibility, this ethics of decision, would be based on if not on the intentionality and autonomy of the subject who acts.
A. This question is a difficult one. Eduardo is discussing here a trial of decision. Everything has to pass through the crucible of undecidability. There is a trial, and, as Derrida has pointed out in "Force of Law," it is not the subject who makes a decision. In fact, if decision is called for, it has to encounter undecidability. If we knew, then we wouldn't have to decide, but there is a moment of madness, where a cut, a decision, an incision is made. And that madness shatters the contours of the subject. What I have in mind here is a more Levinasian inflection. In other words, ethical responsibility for the other is prior to subjectivity. It's only through this ethical relationship that a subject can emerge, according to Levinas. There is something like originary liability: you are liable prior to any empirical evidence of guilt. That is, prior to any subjective coagulation, or sealing process, there is something like a liability that hovers between guilt and owing and innocence. You are already marked by this being-for-the-other that is, you are indebted, kind of guilty, kind of ready to assume responsibility prior to anything else. And this would be the first moment of being taken hostage in the
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experience of radical passivity. The status of "autonomy" cannot be stabilized in this subject who acts. In Stupidity, I try to read the Enlightenment values of sovereignty and autonomy and how they are dented and undermined by so many currents and considerations.
One issue that I have tried to grapple with, because it is not clear, is where responsibility begins. In my work on trauma TV, I began by citing a psychoanalyst who made the assertion, concerning World War 11, that one was made responsible by dint of having seen, having witnessed. So there is already a testimonial quality to responsibility. What this means is that the boundaries are really moving in on you because it displaces the categories of doing to seeing you are responsible even for what you have seen. Responsibility is monstrous. As Derrida has observed, once you say, "Well, I have acquitted myself; I have acted responsibly," that is your moment of irresponsibility. In the very moment that doubt is removed and you feel you have accomplished your ethical task, you have relinquished it. It is in this context that decision, then, needs to be placed and understood, but not as a preemptive strike or with the assumption that judgment has been made, conclusively, definitively, and in a way that we could consider it to close the case. There is a temporality of decision that has to be scrupulously considered.
Q. In Finitude's Score and in Stupidity, you note that writing, for you, is a "nonplace" in which "one can abandon oneself to abandonment" and discover an "ectopia of all 'proper' places." Whereas for Aristotle, "good" writing takes off from common placestopoiyou're interested instead in a kind of atopical writing. Would you elaborate on that a bit?
A. I am interested in that which obliterates the originariness of site, which is haunted and difficult to condense into material qualities. But I would have to ask you how you are construing Aristotle? Do you want to say something about Aristotle before we continue?
Q. In the most general terms, he lays out the topoi, and in the fields of rhetoric and writing studies, it is generally taken for granted that good writing begins from common places, from conceptual starting places that are familiar to both of us. So we begin together and can then take a new course together or run down an old one. The point is that the connection is made across common places.
A. You know, in this regard, I'm sure I could be taken to task because I do, in fact, begin with common places. I think I remain in many ways Aristotelian. What could be more common than drugs, the telephone,
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secretarial relations in writing, stupid mistakes, housewife psychosis, and so forth? In that regard, I think I do follow the prescriptive pad. So the odd thing is that there are moments when you can trace a lineage. Those who might consider my work outrageous, or completely unfathomable in terms of a secured contextual milieu, might consider precisely such moments in which I answer the ancient call to begin with common places. But, of course, when one philosophizes, the common place becomes dislocated from its locus. I also situate myself within the German lineage of ironizing, subverting and displacing certain horizons of expectation. After all, to be in a tradition, I feel you also, in this apparent paradox of absolute loyalty, have to show a moment of disidentification and departure. You split. Extreme loyalty to a tradition might force you to be entirely untraditional if you are attuned to the historicity of what you're doing, where you're coming from, where you are going. Obviously, you can't know these things absolutely, but you can endeavor to be attuned. It doesn't mean that one is enslaved by mere replication but that one effects repetition with difference. One could be upholding tradition precisely by masking its many figures and identities.
Q. You suggested in your interview with Andrea Juno that because of your irreverent writing style, your refusal to censor the play of languagein fact, because of the pleasure you take in its playyou "tend to be associated with a writing which is considered 'morally wanting. "' Why do you think there is such a resistance to wordplay in academe? What investment is bolstered by declaring it irresponsible?
A. Well, in the first place I house an unusually cruel and sadistic superego: there is always censorship and reprisal. I am, however, willing to say that I affirm irresponsibility in the Nietzschean sense. Nietzsche says we have to be rigorously irresponsiblethat is, we must be nonconformist; we must not kiss up or suck up to the powers that determine whether or not we get a grant or get approval. With the exception of an early Alexander von Humboldt grant (before I started publishing), my work has not been funded. At this point, one might have expected some supportI don't know why one would have such an expectation, but perhaps because those working in similar and contiguous areas are supported. What I am saying is that the urge to chastise someone for being irresponsiblewhich, I assume, is not being said in the Nietzschean spirit of trying to be a free spirit, so to speak, with all the reservations and preambles that he appends to thatis also antiwoman. Women are irresponsible; they are not responsible enough to the phallic hold of the academic ideology, unless they are servants who
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accept and name their servitude and who practice the strictly coded politics of gratitude. And that practice could include turning yourself into the authority of women's studies, or ghettos of feminism, instead of fanning out, disseminating, making trouble, kicking ass in all the "wrong places" and in ways that are barely recognizable according to the determinations that govern what are acceptable and responsible forms of objection. Being "responsible" in this negative sense means, precisely, not inciting highly problematic incursions into the domesticity and peaceful home fronts of the university. There is a lot to be said for this appellation.
But, again, being "responsible" in that sensewhere you are not necessarily courageously pitted as one against the multitude, or doing something that is not recognizable, or not very appreciatedbeing responsible in this "negative" sense means keeping things clean, bordered, serious, manly. To be irresponsible implies a feminization, the double entendre, the double meaning, so there's this slippery feminine kind of masking and masquerading and make-up that's going on: she is "making it up," she's "faking" and "making," and so on. And, in literary history, that kind of notion of wordplay and fooling around with language and sedimented levels of signification always got linked to forms of analitysuch as Shakespeare's Bottom, who is the great punster, an obsessional neurotic, or the Rat Man, who is Freud's case study of obsessional neurosis. There is always some sort of reversion to anality that is implied in wordplay or word disfigurement and distortion, so that the anal retentive hegemony of the academic stronghold is, I am sure, upset by this kind of thing. But to call someone irresponsible is, in the first place, a gesture that doesn't read the political implications of undermining monolithic meaning, doesn't read what it means to refuse to underwrite the notion that there is just the sanctioned dimension of accepted meaning. Language is arbitrary, radically arbitrary, which means that to a certain extent I am being extremely faithful to the rhetorical imperative, the imperative to understand the artifice and affirm the disjunctive nature of linguistic positing.
As I indicated earlier, there are institutional repercussions for this kind of linguistic misbehavior. I have many writing selves, many personae. I'm also the very responsible chair of a department, for instance, and a prudent professor, if I may say so. We have to understand that I am producing effects on different fronts here, and affronts. But if I were to situate one of these "posthumanist" selves, I
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would want do so in terms of the buffo in romantic literaturethe one that de Man, Schlegel, Hegel, and others discuss. The buffo breaks into fixed narrative structure or theater and performs feats of ironic destruction and performs like the Greek chorus that would interrupt the narrative. The buffo is the interrupter par excellence. You wouldn't know if it comes from the inside or the outside, whether it's an invasion of the narrative line or an outburst. The buffo releases an expression of rage. I would want to be seen as a relative of this buffo, who is also related to Nietzsche's staging of the buffoonthe one who really destabilizes and is unassimilable, carrying with her or him the mark of interruption. Rhetorically speaking, the buffoon is an anacoluthon or, that which interrupts the smooth logic of accepted meaning or signification.
I take responsibility for those kind of feats of ironic destruction and for producing certain disjunctions within the academic text. For Schlegel, the buffo becomes an important figure leading up to his great essay on unintelligibility. Very often the curse of irresponsibility quickly slides into a demand for intelligibility, which I think is a reactionary demand. And that would be the lie, this intelligibility. Schlegel says we would all collectively freak if intelligibility held sway over our affairs. It would destroy our families; it would destroy everything. He was beginning to trace out and map a notion of the unconscious. There's something unfathomable, and therefore potentially destructive of smooth and totalizing narratives, when unintelligibility is allowed to surfaceunintelligibility being the condition for possible meaning and intelligibility.
Q. Would you say that your dedication to wordplay, textual performance, and genre busting is in any way associated with your devotion to tracing out an/other ethics of responsibility and decision? That is to say, do you consider your writing style political in any sense of that term?
A. To interrogate meaning is a political gesture that forces one to interpret community and sociality in its possibility. In that regard, yes, it has to be viewed as such. Traditionally, communication and community involve gathering around stabilized meanings. So by taking risksand it is not I who is taking risks but rather language is risk-taking and risk makingby surrendering to the risks that linguistic positing inevitably demands of one means, at least at some level, to hear and heed the call to break with the oppressive dragnet of reactionary significations. There is a class struggle in my texts: there's the girl gang speaking, the little gangster, the hoodlum; there's the high philosophical graduate
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student who studied at the Hermeneutics Institute in Berlin; and there's the more sophisticated Parisian, and so forth. There are different voices, compulsions, denials, and relations that emerge in the texts. But there is the continuity of the more "prolo," proletariat, and very often wise-ass girl who is watching this stuff happening and commenting on itagain, like the chorus or the buffowho's ironic and whose narcissism involves a kind of sarcastic, biting, meta-critique of what is going on but without ever becoming anti-intellectual. That's important. I never embrace the anti-intellectual tendencies of the American academy. But, then, my boundaries for what is intellectual are very, very generous, I think. A lot belongs to that space.
Indeed, I am always questioning what is proper to meaning and what is propertied by our estates of meaning, of teaching, and so on. It is not that I am playing with meaning but that meaning is playing me, and playing through me, on me, and against me all the time. I am inscribed in that disjunctive flow of meaning's regimen. Again, I want to note that I don't sit there as the pilot in the great Star Trek fantasy, with fabulous equipment, and such. Actually, even in Star Trek they got lost in space a lot. I don't decide; it decides me, it plays me, and I surrender and listen to it or take it down, as would a secretary taking shorthand. I suppose I don't repress it or call in the police to clean up the scene of the crime.
Q. You don't censor it. You let it play.
A. To a certain extent, I let it perform itself. Of course, there's also the part of me that's impish, a troublemaker, and that kind of dares and counterbullies what I consider to be these gigantic "bosses." In a traditional sense, I don't censor it, and I don't censor myself. But at the same time, it's rigorous; it is not stream of consciousness. There are strategic and tactical maneuvers that I do, of course, decide on and work with. It is work.
Q. When you said earlier that you do indeed start with common placeshow much more common and comfortable can you get than the telephone?that made a lot of sense. But I have to say that it just doesn't jibe with the experience I have when I read your work. Your telephone, after all, turns out to be something completely unfamiliar, not really a "common" place at all. That experience sort of fakes the reader out. Your texts are jarring in this way; they are in no sense comfortable or comforting; they jerk the reader around a bit. It is difficult to name exactly what's going on, but even at the level of the sentence, or of the phrase, your work delivers a kind of disorienting smack.
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A. That is interesting because it's familiar. Very long ago, at the beginning of my career, when I wasn't getting any jobs and I was completely destitute and desperate, I told my friend Larry Rickles, who became the chair of German at the University of California at Santa Barbara, that I didn't understand why this was happening. And he said, "You are going to have to become aware of the sheer radicality of your work, which is in sum an outrage." And that was the first I had heard of it. There's this little girl in me who just doesn't get it, who thinks she's really handing in the right assignment. Of course, we know from Freud and then Lacan that everything you hand in is your own caca. And you are so proud of it. Still, there is this little retarded or naive parasite-being in me who doesn't know this yet, who doesn't realize it, who thinks she is so loving, who sees herself opening up to everyone, and who thinks, "Why are they mean?"
I don't know what this absurd anxiety is about, this desire to be able to say, "Have a nice text." It could be an effect of having been severely undermined. De Man said that I was a "professionally battered woman" before this term came into the public domain. I was beaten to a pulp by all sorts of institutional experiences; for example, I was fired illegally. There is still that part of me, the abused child of academia, who wants to be accredited and who wants to be told, "This is highly responsible work; we see you in the tradition of the Romantics and Hannah Arendt; you're in touch with the necessary mutations of your historicity." That part of me appears to persist.
When the Telephone Book first came out, I was greatly distressed. I felt exposed, that I wasn't one of "the boys." When I saw the "Telephone Book, it came to me that I had broken with recognizable norms, and this prompted a narcissistic blowout. I really had a very bad depressive reaction because I felt it wasn't recuperable as typical scholarly work. I guess there is a double compulsion: part of me wants to please and to be institutionally recognized, patted on my back (or ass), but another part of me would feel molested by that kind of recognition. It's actually kind of a class warfare. There is the little bourgeoise who thinks, "Well isn't it time that I got some comfort here?"; and the other street girl who says, "Nah! So you're right. When you say that this work jerked you around or was jarring, violent maybe, that surprises me, and yet, of course, I was there when it happened.
Q. Well, it jerked me around in the most wonderful way. In Crack Wars, you cite Flaubert: "The worth of a book can be judged by the strength of the punches it gives and the length of time it takes you to recover from
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them." Your books pack major punches. In "The Differends of Man," you discuss Lyotard's notion of the differend but offer another version of it, one that "talks and negotiates"you call it the "affirmative differend." This version says, "let's talk," and you say this implies listening, a "talking as listening" that strains past oppositional logic. And yet, in Crack Wars, you note that to say "I understand" is to cease "suspending judgment over the chasm of the real." Is this listening and straining not aimed at understanding? Does it perhaps suggest that there are affirmative ways to embrace the withdrawal of understanding that the differend indicates?
A. Yes. In Stupidity, there is a section called "The Rhetoric of Testing," which is on de Man and the irony of understanding. Citing de Man's elaboration of the problematic, I say that there would never be a moment where one could say, "This has been understood." I often appeal to Nietzsche's ever-resonating and recurring utterance, "Have I been understood?" He sends it out in a sci-fi way, and I still hear it signaling to me, "Have I been understood?" It is a big question, a big interrogatory challenge. The irony of understanding is that the only knowledge we could have is that we have not understood, not fully understood. This irony, I think, does produce, in part, the articulation for a kind of political commitment. At the same time, it doesn't mean that we have not understood terror, genocide, misogyny, racism in a certain way. Still, having registered injustice doesn't obliterate the necessity of our incessant reading and questioning. The place from which such decisions as ethnocide, genocide, or murder are made is a place that thinks it has understood and can act on the basis of certain understanding that doesn't doubt or question itself. I think that to presume that one has understood is often murderous.
Q. In your essay "The Sujet Suppositaire," you suggest that "a question regarding the transmission of sexual marks as a condition of knowledge can be posed under the name 'Oedipedagogy. "' Rurnor has it that you have also taught a graduate seminar called Oedipedagogy. Would you unpack that term for us and tell us a bit about the seminar?
A. "Rumor has it"this strikes me as funny. I have written on rumorological paranoia and other channels of transmission that occur everywhereon the job, off the job, on the streetsand how rumor is this parasitical utterance that Rousseau was invested in, of course. But what I mean by "Oedipedagogy," briefly, is the way pedagogy is linked to desire but also to the structures of parricidal writing or overcoming your teachers. This intentional dimension
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abides in the teaching relation where all sorts of aberrant transferential or countertransferential structures can be observed. At the same time, you never entirely overcome the teachers that you are killing. This situation is something I try to read with and against the grain of something like the anxiety of influence, upping the amps on parricidal engagement or on such tropes as jealousy and appropriative rage. In the introduction to Stupidity, I speak of graduate students packing heat. When you publish something, you're putting yourself before this tribunal that is going to judge and evaluate what you've done. And there were so many graduate students, especially at Berkeley, who were intensely competitive and jealous with one another or of me. Some were loving and wonderful; but, obviously, the site of learning and teaching is a highly charged atmosphere, and I wanted to bring to the fore the impossibility of teaching while I was teaching and also to scan the virginal space of the student body that lets itself be filled by the professorial phallus. Of course, these were quite controversial ways of considering our profession, but they're also canonical discursive formations around the fact of learning that I don't want to exclude.
In the seminar, I wanted to explore the more phantasmatic dimensions of acts of teaching, beginning with Socrates and his affairs of the heart and the phallus. We read Lacan on transference, Derrida's Carte Postale, and Frankenstein, which is an allegory of teaching and learning, self-education, and the relationship of the master to the creator. (At one point the monster says, "You may be my creator, but I am your master.") We also read Blanchot on the difference between a teacher and a master teacher, which is very compelling. In the Rat Man, especially, the parameters of the relationship between the analyst and the analysand were very interesting to explore. And with all the difficulty and disjunction of translation, I wanted to see what could be retained of that relationship in the scene of teaching: What are the differences among Lacan as analyst, as teacher, as writer? What's the relationship between Plato and Socrates, as analyzed by Derrida in Carte Postale? What's the relation between the mentor and studentbetween Arendt and Heidegger, Goethe and Eckermann, Batman and Robin? We also looked at the new laws legislating against sexual combinations in the classroom or in the university. When they first were proposed, Foucault, who was at the time at Berkeley, said it was absurd to try to legislate desire out of the scene of teaching. But what interested me especially was the hidden phantasm of sodomy as the groundless ground of the transmission of knowledge, and how its
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ghostly echoes still sit in on sem(e/i)nars-the etymological roots of seminar, seminal works, and other offshoots of the seed of knowledge.
A. Voilą. The relationship reversed, or arse upwards, so to speak. Plato and Socrates, for example, as read by Derrida. And certainly in the case of Freud's Rat Man, the obsessional neurotic, where the Rat Man is exemplarily coached by Freud. The Rat Man was unable to name his symptom or disease, so Freud, filling precisely the space of learning, decides to guess in order to help him. In German, the word is erraten, for guess, so that's the first "rat" insertion: he is going to rat him out. Freud says the Rat Man, trying to explain, stammers, "and then ... and then ... and then," which is followed by ellipses and a dash, and then Freud writes, "Into his anus, I helped him out." This, for me, became the paradigm of learning: let me help you out: "-Into his anus, I helped him out." There's this kind of moment of violence, of sticking it to you that true teaching has to enact. Of course, I am symbolizing highly here; no one should think we're solely pursuing a dildological pedagogy. But the question is where teaching arrives. When? Is it a trauma? Is learning a trauma, as Werner Hamacher once suggested? If so, does it come to us at night? When does the promissory note that you give to each class (you are promising that they will have understood) come due? Will they understand five years from now? In a dream? In the space of the so-called unconscious?
It's also a question of locating the address of teaching. Whom are we addressing with teaching? What are we addressing? How does the question of address determine the essential quality and possibility of teaching? In the Rat Man case, the patient calls Freud "Captain" after the Captain who scared him with the story of penetrating rats. The analysis starts taking hold when Freud is addressed as the Captain-the sadistic, cruel, inserting, penetrating Captain. Whom are we addressing in the pedagogical scene, or what are we addressing, and how is that structured? These are some of the questions that emerged from the texts we looked to, including the Reveries of the Solitary Walker written by Rousseau, who at the end of his oeuvre names his debt to the woman he lived with, an older woman, and he turns everything around. He reverses the charges. She becomes the origin of all of his work. Turning around, he feminizes himself, so to speak. We also read Nietzsche on higher education; he says that even when we think we are taking notes freely, we are attached like a Bic pen to the paternal belly of the state. We interrogated questions of academic freedom, too, and Samuel
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Weber's text on institution and interpretation. The final text was Deleuze's Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty, on the kind of contract you sign when you enter the scene of pedagogy. In Deleuze, the sadist abhors instruction, whereas the masochist signs on with a teacher, and instruction takes place. The final phase of the course was on our interrupted relation to law, which constitutes the scene of pedagogy.
Q. Now that you've completed Stupidity, what's next for you?
A. I have a few things happening, but I think the title of my next work will be The Test Drive, which is about the extent to which we depend on testing in our modernity. It's connected to what I tried to show in my article on the Gulf War: that, figuratively, our whole country, our national body went through an HIV test and scored HIV negative. The argument was bolstered by the relentless rhetoric of a bloodless and safe war. You could see the collapse of AIDS hysteria with the diction of warfare. The Test Drive was motivated as a project by Nietzsche's thought on the experimental dispositionamong other things, an antiracist position that he took. And another work that I shelved for awhile is called Politesse. It involves the intersection of ethics, politics, and aesthesticsand also the question of politeness. I had the privilege of talking to Levinas about it at one point, and he said that politesse is the space where God still resides. This project is something that I have worked on for quite a while that I may unfreeze.
A good part of me wants to venture elsewhere, though. I want to do theater or performance. These books are heavy burdens for me. I feel excessively obligated to them, and I don't entirely understand the nature of that obligation, that call. You caught me in one of the few times in my life when I'm between books. So first of all, I am trying to recover. I'm on a recovery program from writing. I've been clean for about a month. Of course, I get very anxious when I am not writing (not writing means I'm not under the command of a bookthere are articles, reports, tenure reviews, letters). At the same time, I am kind of drawn to other ways of performing the inscription. And rather than just continue to do as I have, I want to think about what other ways might be possible. But still, these unfinished books are yelling at me, screaming for my attention. There is something very tormenting about unfinished books. And they each take years. I would like to get to the point where I "finish" these unfinished books and then could go elsewhere and do other things. But my health problems have kept me at home, too. So I don't see myself staying up till four in the morning preparing off-off-Broadway productions of Eckermann's relation
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to Goethe, or whatever. But other types of inscription, nonetheless, would be a real temptation.
Q. Obviously, your work has been enormously controversial. Are there particular misreadings or misunderstandings that you'd like to address or respond to here?
A. You know, I am touched by this question, and I am very sensitive to the kind of rescue mission it entails. At the same time, though, I feel deeply that it is not my place to assume the posture of authority, or to place myself in the control tower that lands the right reading, the right understanding, and sees to it that certain calamities don't occur. I feel that the work is not mine to correct. When a misunderstanding does come to me in a way that I find intelligible, I try to address it in the next work. Since I question the closure of interpretation, I can't allow myself to slip into the place that would prescribe how texts are meant to be read. I have to rigorously affirm their having been sent and having gone out to do whatever it is they have to do. A text's got to do what a text's got to do. Even if it brings shame upon my name.
The only thing I might signaland this cannot be corrected, and I can't provide a correctional facility for such critical behavioris that often, especially coming from England, there will be reviews of my work, in which the guy will say that I should be beaten for the way I write, or that I should be smacked for this or that. These reviews, that is, involve a supplement of physical abuse. In the early part of my career, I was pushed off podiums and stages; I was interrupted and just largely reviled in the most Ivy Leagued places, the big leagues. Somehow, I provoked violent responses. And this response is just a dimension of my work that probably should not be left out of the picture. These critics and colleagues may want to learn to read their own symptoms, may want to consider why it is that a little girl's work can provoke such reactionary responses. The level of rage that prescribes physical correction and censorship is interesting to note. That's all I'll say. The misunderstandings are probably necessary, and the calls for violence are symptomatic and real. One thread of my narrative entails the continuing saga of a manhandled woman, psychoticized by institutional forms of undermining that do occur. I am fortunate in many ways, though. At times, I feel like a cartoon character. I have survived so many batterings, and I am up again and runningat a slower pace, but after this explosion and that removal of ground, I'm back on the scene. I feel very welcome here in New York, so that's wonderful. But perhaps some readers/critics would
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like to reflect on the recurring shift to violence, the desire to do violence, to violate this textual body.
1. But Ronell complicates the easy distinction between life and death. To say that the humanist subject has "died" is not to say that it is no longer operational; nevertheless, Ronell insists that humanism is a drug we desperately need to find a way to get off of.
2. 1 would like to thank my research assistant, Adam Burke, for transcribing this interview from the original tapes.