Philosophy World News: June 18, 2019 On Avital Ronell

As a young, woman, philosopher in 2019, when I go back to read texts I once read when I was a naive teenager in college getting my Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, I notice there are a lot of things I would miss. I know this because, I’ve been reading books my entire life. I am what they call a book-worm. As a good book-work, I have been highlighting passages in books in different colors that mean different things, and analyzing sentences, and finding meaning in them. However, I’ve come to learn that a lot of times in life the meaning we give to things is given through a limited perspective. Language creates reality, and through that reality we come to understand the world in different ways. If you have not been given the ideas (which are in the mind) and these ideas are manifested through language; if you haven’t been taught these ideas through language, then how can you challenge them at all?

It wasn’t until college that I learned language such as “critical thinking” and “dialectic” and “dasein” and “feminism” and “deontology…” Surely my parents weren’t teaching me Derrida’s deconstruction theory. I recognize now, that when I began college, I carried sexist, racist, and shoddy ideas in my head. That was the language that was taught around me, in my conservative country, and my conservative family. However, I am no longer in college, and I am now an adult. I now go back to reading my books from college written by Nietzsche and find it interesting that as a young, pre-philosophy major, I would read philosophers, such as Nietzsche, and be blind to the blatant sexism engrained in their words. It was thanks to my philosophy professors, both men and women, who would point this out for us in class that I came to see, how engrained these ideas are in our society even upon those who call themselves philosophers and genealogists of morality.

Nietzsche wrote:

To inspire trust in his promise to repay, to provide a guarantee of the seriousness and sanctity of his promise, to impress repayment as a duty, an obligation upon his own conscience, the debtor made a contract with the creditor and pledged that if he should fail to repay he would substitute something else that he “possessed”, something he had control over; for example, his body, his wife, his freedom, or even his own life.

Genealogy of Morals (Pg. 64)

Now, this specific paragraph you might argue, does not mean that Nietzsche was being sexist himself. It is true after all that women were, in the past, (and still in some places), considered to be a possession of men, their wife’s body, and freedom. However, it surprised me that when I read this paragraph when I was young, it didn’t even move me a little bit. It was kind of expected that that’s the way it was. But after philosophy, I realized that ideas can be changed, specially when ideas are bad, they must be changed. Now I read passages such as this one, and am grateful that we no longer think that the pursuit of happiness should be just for men, in fact, I would argue that if we believe in true equality and in the power of language, that the constitution of the United States should have the language that reflects that. Nietzsche said that only men are“tame domestic animals, which is to say modern men“, but it’s 2019 now, and it’s time to acknowledge that tame domestic animals can be found in any gender. It’s 2019 and it’s time to hold these truths as self evident, that all Men, I mean, HUMANS are created equal.

Now, the title of this post is Philosophy World News: June 18, 2019. And Nietzsche is so not 2019 (even though of course many of his wonderful not sexist ideas can be applied to the present world.) Anyways, let’s move on to what’s going on in the philosophy world, right now, 2019. Today, after spending most of my day analyzing Zizek’s book on Violence, I then proceeded to watch a documentary called “Examined Life: Excursions With Contemporary Thinkers” by Astra Taylor. I had watched it when I was getting my B.A. but quite frankly, it’s been almost six years from that and I’ve watched a lot of things since then. The first philosopher in Taylor’s documentary is Cornell West, and the second was was Avita Ronell. I was very intrigued by what Ronell had to say in the documentary while walking around the park. So I decided to search her name on the internet, and the first article that popped up was: I Worked With Avital Ronell. I Believe Her Accuser.

Now, as a young, woman philosopher without a PhD yet, I must be autodidactic and teach myself how to pursue a philosophical career post bachelor’s. So I decided to read not only the classical texts once again but also to re-read books from Zizek, Butler, and now I was thinking of reading Ronell’s work. However, it doesn’t inspire me very much to keep on reading their work, when their actions are not being aligned with their ethical duties. If Ronell did harass someone, why wouldn’t she take responsibility and feel that ethical anxiety she talks about, and why would Zizek support an abuser who perpetuates the systemic violence he so much talks about? It is one thing for Nietzsche to have had sexist ideas in the 1800’s but for philosophers that are alive now in 2019, how is it possible for them to justify this type of behavior?

I will be keeping close attention to this case, and to how other Academic and famous philosophers respond. If we do not hold philosophers in academic, influential positions who are preaching morality to others accountable, then how can we expect for anything in the world to change? Now, let’s not fall into ad-hominem attacks and go around the “smoking cigarettes is not bad because the person who said it smokes them” route. Cigarettes are bad regardless of whether the person making the argument smokes them or not.

Heidegger, had pro-nazi ideas, yet his books are still taught at philosophy departments throughout the world. They do not teach his pro-nazi ideas, but other theories whom it is believed to be of significant value. So one could argue, regardless of Ronell’s unethical actions, her ideas and theories still stand as valid. I have not yet read her theories, I just learned about her today. So I cannot comment as to the validity of her philosophical work and theories. However, to learn about the possibility of these influential philosophy figures being involved in unethical behavior makes me feel disillusioned. If the people that have been fortunate and privileged enough to get a PhD, such as Ronell, Zizek, Butler, among others, whom get paid for research, and have attended wonderful universities, and have an influence in thought are being unethical themselves, then that causes disillusion.

As the curious human being that I am, I decided to read more about this case (thought have not ready sufficiently yet), and in the readings I found today, the letter of support for Ronell signed by these scholars that I mentioned was published. They were published in a Slate article and while reading this article, I realized that it’s not unreasonable to feel disillusioned by someone who claims to be a philosopher engaging in unethical behavior. As Lili Loofbourow said in her article: “True admirers of these thinkers and scholars (many of whom have written seminal texts on gender and power—complicating things) have been shocked by the retrograde attitudes the letter revealed.

Before you move on reading this, or if you want to come back after, I’ll leave here the letter in support of Ronell for you to download as a PDF. The way this PDF was acquired was through the Slate article I just mentioned above. (On this Slate article, the means of how this letter was acquired is explained.)

Before we move on, I do want to say that Loofbourow mentions in her article that Butler apologized for having signed the letter and said: “We all make errors in life and in work.  The task is to acknowledge them, as I hope I have, and to see what they can teach us as we move forward.” I am glad that Butler said this however, what about Zizek? What about all the other professors that signed that letter? What about Ronell herself? The people I want to admire in this life, are not people who run away from their wrong-doings, and this is what Ronell seems to be doing.