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What the Ronell–Reitman Case Tells Us about the Predatory University

Published onFeb 10, 2020
What the Ronell–Reitman Case Tells Us about the Predatory University

[Originally posted on August 22, 2018]

In recent days, much has been written about the Ronell–Reitman case. Part of the commentary has focused on the supposed “demise” of the #MeToo movement, and whether the fact that a female, queer scholar has committed sexual harassment in an asymmetric relation of power (professor–student) would delegitimate the struggle of those who are abused (typically women) against those who abuse them (typically men). This interpretation around the events involving NYU professor Avital Ronell and her former graduate student Nimrod Reitman should not be surprising, as this case has all the elements to be turned into the cause célèbre of the right-wing. No such argument should be allowed to stand. To first construct the #MeToo movement as a purely woman-centered movement (remember Kevin Spacey?) and then to say that a single case in which a woman is the alleged culprit invalidates and denies all the other testimonies of structural and massive abuse of power in many fields and professions, is a sickening rhetorical strategy.

This is not, however, the discussion I want to engage in. It is also not my position to comment upon the support Avital Ronell has received from her peers in academia, and the various arguments they have brought to bear to defend her in public. I am unable to do so, even though I ought to admit that some time before the initial article in the New York Times appeared, I signed my name under a letter of support drafted by some of her (former) graduate students. Because Avital has been my thesis supervisor and I want, in spite of everything that may have occurred, to support her.

Let me preface this, however, by saying that none of what I will write below is an attempt to cover up the facts (however little is still known) or the dynamics of the relation between her and Reitman. What follows below is not a defense. It is also not an expression of support. It is an attempt to come to grips with what lies just below the surface of an event that has shaken me to the core. It is also an attempt to write from the perspective of one her students, and one of her translators.

What follows below is an indictment of the predatory university.

According to the reports, Nimrod started his PhD at New York University in September 2012. I spent some time with Avital and him in that same month after visiting the biennial meeting of the BABEL Working Group in Boston at the invitation of my then future co-director Eileen Joy. I attended a lecture at NYU that she gave on Kleist’s Die Marquise von O. We had dinner together: Avital, Nimrod, Susan Bernstein, and me. Avital and Susan told me to write to a colleague of theirs so that a text of mine on Werner Hamacher could be included in an edited collection they were part of. I ordered a dame blanche for dessert, which was not on the menu. I was served with something not even remotely close. Avital remarked: “Why did you set yourself up for disappointment?” I became very emotional.

A year earlier I had defended my dissertation on the genealogy of case at the European Graduate School, where Avital had been my thesis advisor. I arrived in Saas-Fee with my mouth wired shut as my jaw had been broken in a hate crime incident. Avital insisted that my defense be postponed. I defended anyway, two days after a Swiss dentist had prematurely removed the wiring. At the time, Avital was known to take only one advisee at the same time, and to study under her had been my long-cherished wish. I studied her readings of Heidegger and others intensely and translated some of her work into Dutch, including the short text “Powering Down on Authority” for Witte de With, and a full translation of Crack Wars that still sits on my hard drive in search of a Dutch publisher. While writing my thesis, I visited her when I could, both in New York and Paris, where she invited me and my then future husband for tea in her apartment and a walk through the city. In a bookstore that featured her photograph close to Derrida’s, she pointed me to a book of Hervé Guibert, Fou de Vincent. I later translated Guibert’s Les chiens.

Being Avital’s doctoral student was an intense experience. She could have the piercing apperception of a psychoanalyst; she would know what I wanted to write before I knew it myself. When I complained that I didn’t feel coherent, she told me to write a praise of incoherence. She was emotionally invested in my work, and she expected the same from me. Meeting her was exhausting but also incredibly rewarding and invigorating. When I brought her the first complete draft of my thesis, a few months before my defense, she whipped out a red pen and started marking up the introduction. I sat beside her, petrified, while she corrected page after page. She turned to me and asked: “This is what you wanted, right?”

My position as EGS student was one of privilege. I never coveted nor expected a university appointment. Above all, I wanted to remain independent, to follow my scholarship where it would take me without the vain battle for a university position and then tenure. I was able to do so thanks to the unwavering support of my parents and my freelance career in the art world. This, perhaps, also provided the optimal background for my relation with Avital to flourish and “work.”

Anyone who knows Avital’s scholarly work is familiar with the convincing and sometimes overwhelming rapport she is able to uncover between the German literary and philological tradition to which Freud was heir, and the phenomenology and hermeneutics that turned into continental “theory.” In her work, the communication lines between philology and psychoanalysis crackle with static and open up readings that seemed unfathomable before. But, borrowing what is in the end a technique well established by Lacan, this logic is at work not only her writings but also in her pedagogy. The roles of teacher and student often morph imperceptibly into those of analyst and analysand, and the public comments made recently about the role of “transference” in the Reitman case only further cement this frequent slippage between the domains of pedagogy and psychoanalysis. A slippage, which, I should stress, is constitutive of both.

My own studies in the field of psychoanalysis, and in particular group-analytic psychotherapy (group analysis), have convinced me of the relevance of psychoanalytic insights for the classroom concerning the relation between teacher and students. But what group analysis also teaches us is the crucial importance of what D.W. Winnicott calls the “holding environment,” a space in which emotions can safely be contained. Ideally, the classroom or professor’s office provides such a holding environment. This has nothing to do with “trigger warnings” or “safe space” stickers, but with the proper consideration of a set of external conditions, what S.H. Foulkes called “dynamic administration”: anything from the contract between analyst and analysand, spatial and climatic conditions, scheduling, payment, and so forth. And it is precisely this dynamic administration at which the modern neo-liberal university miserably fails, with as a result the creation of an environment in which toxic relations between teachers and students are able to take root.

For what are these external conditions to the current pedagogical environment of academia, especially the humanities? They involve a contract in which students don’t just pay a modest contribution to their education, but take on massive and unbearable loads of debt with little chance of paying them off without a secure job. They involve working conditions in which the majority of professors have temporary contracts, while even tenured faculty now increasingly run the risk of their tenure being revoked or their departments being shut down. They have created conditions in which students are fully dependent on teachers for future financial stability and their career, while professors are forced to treat promising students as future safeguards for their own job security and pawns in an obscene game of academic musical chairs. This mutual (even though still asymmetric) dependency would be utterly unacceptable in a therapeutic setting, but has become the norm in contemporary academia – and has in fact led to a spike in mental health issues with graduate students (I am unaware of research involving faculty).

Because the Ronell–Reitman case diverges at significant points from the regular straight male professor serial abuse cases that continue to haunt academia and other fields, while also casting a strong spotlight on the psychoanalytic aspects (including transference and counter-transference) of every pedagogical setting, it has the “virtue” of allowing us to see more clearly the underlying structural problems of the university that I have pointed out above. To reiterate, nothing of this analysis absolves anyone from any responsibility, but in order to avoid future iterations of similar scenarios, we need to consider a thorough rethinking of the university, which would include a drastic reform of its financing model, which currently makes graduate students ridiculously dependent on their advisors, increases the administrative workload of faculty, enables the ever-growing importance of non-academic bureaucrats and the governance models these techno-managerial bureaucrats import, not to mention their emphasis on the idea of education as the process of the unilateral acquisition of knowledge. And finally, there is not enough attention on the enormous importance of proper mental health care for both faculty and students.

It would be great if we could do so before the predatory university will swallow all its children, both those who teach and those who are taught.

[cover image: Torika Bolagatici, ‘Decolonise Your Mind’, installation view, Frankston Library, 2009.]

Max Beit: If the relation between a doctoral student and the advisor of the student and the thesis resembles in part the modalities established between analyst and analysand, than you shared something akin to the content of a psychoanalysis. I have not met Dr. Ronell. The press characterises her as sharp and offensive. Now, she has gone into hiding. To me, your text reads as an attempt to shine a spotlight into the corner where Dr. Ronell now sits and awaits the situation to calm down. Are you sure that Dr. Ronell approves details of her style of mentoring students being posted by you as a former student? Divulging intimate knowledge of a public persona to me looks like an exertion of power.