Fighting Theory


International interest in the work of Avital Ronell has expressed itself in reviews, articles, essays, and dissertations. For Fighting Theory, psychoanalyst and philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle conducted twelve interviews with Ronell, each focused on a key topic in one of Ronell's books or on a set of issues that run throughout her work.

What do philosophy and literary studies have to learn from each other? How does Ronell place her work within gender studies? What does ...

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International interest in the work of Avital Ronell has expressed itself in reviews, articles, essays, and dissertations. For Fighting Theory, psychoanalyst and philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle conducted twelve interviews with Ronell, each focused on a key topic in one of Ronell's books or on a set of issues that run throughout her work.

What do philosophy and literary studies have to learn from each other? How does Ronell place her work within gender studies? What does psychoanalysis have to contribute to contemporary thought? What propels one in our day to Nietzsche, Derrida, Nancy, Bataille, and other philosophical writers? How important are courage and revolt? Ronell's discussions of such issues are candid, thoughtful, and often personal, bringing together elements from several texts, offering hints about them, and providing her up-to-date reflections on what she wrote earlier.

Intense and often ironic, Fighting Theory is a poignant self-reflection of the worlds and walls against which Avital Ronell has crashed.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This book is immeasurably important. Avital Ronell is widely regarded as one of the most productive, established, and shrewd literary and cultural theorists of our time. These essays are startling not only in their lucidity but also in the open address that follows from the conversational form. What is most compelling is to see such a strong thinker reflecting on her own thinking in the midst of the other. She shows thought as a kind of undoing and redoing, offering a powerful dynamic to philosophical reflection. It is a tour de force."--Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor, University of California, Berkeley

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252076237
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 7/10/2010
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 172
  • Sales rank: 1,130,601
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author



Avital Ronell is University Professor of the Humanities and a professor of German, English, and comparative literature at New York University, where she codirects the Trauma and Violence Transdisciplinary Studies program. She is also Jacques Derrida Professor of Media and Philosophy at the European Graduate School in Switzerland. She is the author of Dictations: On Haunted Writing; The Telephone Book; Crack Wars; Finitude’s Score; Stupidity; and The Test Drive. Anne Dufourmantelle is the author of Blind Date: Sex and Philosophy and (with Jacques Derrida) Of Hospitality. Catherine Porter is a professor emerita of French, SUNY, Cortland, and a former president of the Modern Language Association.

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Table of Contents

Preface: The Scene of Fighting vii

Translator's Note xiii

I When Philosophy Meant the Love of Wisdom 1

II The Finite but Unending Goethe Loop 7

III Killer Texts 18

IV Ambivalent Stances: Philosophy in Anger and Meditation 23

V Valerie Solanas: For a Radical, Politically Incorrect, and Morally Indefensible Feminism 38

VI On Television: The Feminization of World 47

VII On Drugs, Polydependencies, and the Drama of Immunodeficiency 59

VIII Nietzsche: Symptom and Virus 76

IX On Trial: The Test Drive 91

X A Mutant Splice of French Theory 110

XI The Disaster of Childhood: A Textual Prompt 129

XII Saying Good-Bye to My Teacher: A Home Video 148

Index 165

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First Chapter

Fighting Theory

By Avital Ronell

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03414-5

Chapter One

When Philosophy Meant the Love of Wisdom

The etymology of philosophy is "love of wisdom." Do you think this still applies today?

If philosophy resembles in the first place a love story, then the love in question would have to be a little perverse for me to be comfortable with it. People will claim that philosophy borrows from love stories—their narrative structure, their need to be told, their need to be embodied in words. As for wisdom, that strange salvation we turn to when we no longer know what else to look for, what meaning can it have for us? It's true that in French you talk about la sagesse, but it's hard for me to conceive of philosophy as having feminine features, since in English it has no gender. And if I look at it through bifocals, I see philosophy in all its brutality, especially when it's set against literature and poetry. Also, in English, a certain sexual warfare is implied in the coupling of philosophy and literature, while in French I'm not so sure. What the act of philosophizing evokes for me in the first place isn't wisdom or love, but rather combat: the resumption of vital hostilities. More than a space for lovers, philosophy as I see it marks out a hostile territory—and this is not necessarily contradictory.

Where I come from, philosophy scarcely exists, or at least it no longer has the determining role that it was credited with for a long time, or the aura of grandeur that set it apart. What you and I understand as "philosophy" can no longer count on shelter or space in any Anglo-American zone of academic thought. Roadblocks and avowedly underhanded schemes have led to its devaluation and exile. And if I talk about plots, it's not because I'm after some great villain in the matter, but because I'm trying to understand how the most virulent forces of resistance operate and cooperate.

What you and I call philosophy is disappearing, but I'm interested mainly in the designs of those who are making that happen and in the delegitimizing velocities that still require a reading.

Let's go back to the love of wisdom. If there is love in this story, we would have to understand it starting with Freud, that is, we would have to think through its essential ambivalence, discern the contradictory values it harbors. The meaning of the word "love" wasn't the same for the Greeks (in whose literature different essential types of love are announced), or for the Latins, or in the time of the troubadours, or at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Love has all sorts of modalities; that's in part why it's hard for me to address the question of love in and with philosophy, unless I conceive of it in its essentially sadomasochistic dimension, at once degraded and upgraded, according to a highly sensitive grid. For, contrary to what people might still have been able to believe in preceding centuries, philosophy may not be as radiant, as openly positive, as its etymology seems to indicate. It is not necessarily on the side of life. It does not guarantee a mobilizing energy, it does not affirm, it does not respond, or it no longer responds, to our vital needs. Besides, who knows whether that was ever its job or its function?

Heidegger had already designated the last philosopher long ago: Nietzsche. And it seems to me that since then we've consigned philosophy to oblivion and even to something less poetic than oblivion and perversely much more attractive to me: we've consigned it to ridicule. In my own philosophical work, I urge awareness of a class struggle, and the "prole" that slumbers in me considers that the Heideggerian oblivion remains terribly elitist, the ruse of a false peasant. "Oblivion" strikes me as still too exalted, too noble, and too optimistic. Oblivion is promising. It makes a tacit deal with return, with memory. And I think that what is happening right now in philosophy is much more serious than oblivion, than what oblivion promises. I happen to be attracted by things that are ridiculous, even lamentable; one could even call this attraction "philosophy." I started considering the figure of the ridiculous philosopher in the registers of Kant's anxieties. He has a real sense of what it means to sich lächerlich machen, to produce oneself as ridiculous—it's quite a performance of inescapable abjection.

Philosophy, if it still exists, is worn out; it's threadbare. Our culture—I'm taking a shortcut when I say "our culture," as if there were one and as if we knew what that meant—is marked by deficit, exhaustion, chronic fatigue. Metaphorically, our culture can be said to be directly threatened by one of those autoimmune diseases that we generate ourselves, and this is what interests me: regions, territories, bodies, corpuses, discourses that attack and defeat themselves. I'm attracted by what rejects me, what rejects the immunity of a vaccine. Moreover, I studied HIV/AIDS very soon after it appeared, as a terrible and singular disease but also as a philosophical problem inscribed within a social logic.

Do you think that philosophy has made itself ill?

Philosophy began in relation to failing health and, to this day, issues statements that often parallel doctor's orders, prescriptive ordinances, a rhetoric of wholesomeness. In my research and teaching, I interrogate relations of self-destruction, hostile zones that undermine being. Of course, one type of "vigorous" philosophy continues to be practiced and taught in universities. We find completely healthy philosophical exercises that do not appear to have been affected yet by the disease. This global autoimmune disease and the way it operates internally are experiencing a sort of repression. I won't say that everything ended with the pre-Socratics; this would be to adopt a false, possibly nostalgic attitude. But a very brutal, physical way of putting things would lead to an observation like this: "Ah, philosophy has been over for a long time now, there's nothing left." Even when I seem to be mimicking this discourse, I'm actually totally distancing myself from it.

Nostalgia is always a mistake. We have to trust the machine that trans-values values, the Nietzschean machine. Let's say that a good and a bad decadence most likely coexist. The decadence of health is the one that Heidegger designates later on as marking the difference between destruction and devastation. Destruction is connected with the future, after all; it is positive in that it makes it possible to open up fields, to bury what is destructive or unhealthy. But we have to be careful: this discourse might have somewhat fascistic resonances. So destruction is dedicated to the future, while devastation for its part is absolutely futureless: it's a collapse, it comes when one has gone too far, and it's possible that we have gone too far. Yes, it's possible. Is the end, if we have actually entered an "end of philosophy," is this end a definitive closing off, or merely a boundary? We have to continue to interrogate the figures used to designate the end, and to recognize the difference among such terms as closure, finality, terminus.

Today, it's crucial to keep reflecting on technology. Because philosophy also entails thinking about what's coming. And what is coming is often already here. From this perspective, wisdom and even love become secondary. Besides, technology, which tends to invade everything, has also colonized the field of love. There is a rhetoric of everyday words (at least in English and German) that borrows its terms from technology itself. In English, one is "turned on," "plugged in," "having a blast," "connected" (in French, branché). Even words that signify interiority, or that designate some characteristic of subjectivity, have been annexed by technology. In this sense, Heidegger's prediction has come true: technology has extended its hold on language and inflected our very existence. For Freud, too, love, which is linked to affects, is first of all informed by a technological notion, that of a libidinal "economy." The German term that designates libidinal investment evokes an electrical structure (Besetzung). Transference, the word designating the relation between the analyst and the analysand, is structured, like the unconscious, in homology with a telephonic device. We continue to be invaded in our bodies and in language itself by the parasitic means of technology. We must constantly come back to affects. To sensations. To what has bound together the body, love, and thought since Spinoza. And we have to question ourselves about this mutation of our relation to love and to language starting from what Heidegger calls the essence of technology.

Is what you call "technology" the same thing as what Heidegger meant by "technology," insofar as it affects our way of thinking?

No, not exactly. Well, yes, maybe. Heidegger is very ambivalent when it's a matter of characterizing the essence of technology, even though he's among those who have gone the farthest in pointing out its contradictions and the incalculable range of our fascination with it. He asserts that the essence of technology poses the greatest danger to our future democracies. In the ineluctable and increasingly rapid development of technology, against all odds, he was able to detect a very serious event. When I connect Heidegger to the question of democracy, I recognize that we end up with a distorted trajectory. A sort of perversion. In one of my books, I show that, in the same way that Heidegger was blinded or rendered naive by technology, he let himself be ensnared by Nazism. In any case, it would be necessary to examine the relations between Heideggerian thought and democracy as attentively as we have done with Nazism.

How do you perceive this danger?

First, not everything is homogeneous; as in geology, there are multiple strata. We can go ahead and inveigh against the media—we've been doing it since Mirabeau—but this doesn't solve anything. The problems raised by excessive mediatization were already foretold by Plato and rebooted by Aristotle. What interests me is not so much the positivity of objects or the everyday invention of new technological gems, but the fact that technology responds to the needs of what Heidegger has called the "essence of technology." And finding out to what extent this process puts democracy in danger. I've done so much work on this topic that I have trouble summing up the problematic in a few hours of dialogue. For Heidegger, one of the dangers began showing with man's first step on the moon. This step destroyed the world, symbolically; it destroyed the essentiality of the world. But Heidegger tended to think somewhat naively that some space in the world could escape technology, that there could be a "safety" zone. Poetry, for him, was one such space. He also seemed to retain a belief in the protected space emblematized, materially and symbolically, by the Black Forest. If technology was one of the moments of revelation of being, at the same time Heidegger signaled (and when I use the word "signaled," I am using yet another technological term in spite of myself) that there was a possibility of being much more anterior and authentic than the possibility embraced and dominated by technology.

The question we face is this: for what destructions is technology responsible, and exactly what does it endanger? Because I don't believe that there are any "protected zones," of the sort we have in national forests. A particular wave of destruction, still in force, began with the Nazis' terrorist state, which was a state explicitly invested in technology, even the technology of mass murder. All the rhetoric, the so-called theory of Nazism, was devoted to technology. Robert Musil said that there was no theory of Nazism, that it was the movement the most lacking in intellectuals, books, or texts that had ever existed on the planet. Apart from Hitler's Mein Kampf, a poorly written tract, by the way, there was not even the pretense of any theoretical justification whatsoever. Even Mao had his Little Red Book! Whereas Nazism was characterized both by its exaltation of technology, in connection with the Nazi myths, and its contemptuous refusal to support its own so-called political ideas.

But here too we have to be careful: even though I think that there is no such thing as a space free of any relation to technology, technology must not be viewed in a solely negative light, precisely because, as a good Nietzschean, I have to take note of all its facets and complexities, including the fact that it is our "destiny." We can't get away from it. So why complain that technology has no meaning, if meaning itself is what has to be interrogated?

Certain moments in the history of technology have been liberating, especially for women, and technologies have been put in place through women. And here I am no doubt going to shock you by speaking of positive technologies, inventions that have often been very "feminine." Every new bomb bore a woman's name, every airplane, every ship. Canning, for example, was one of the first objects of industrialization that brought about real change. For the first time, a whole population of women was no longer confined to the kitchen, no longer had to do the canning or cooking herself, and the new situation constituted a threat to traditional patriarchal society. This is why, with the invention of every positive technology, an antifeminist discourse sprang up, as a warning.

Chapter Two

The Finite but Unending Goethe Loop

You began with the Germanic world, with Goethe. Have you also met with hostility there?

Yes, unquestionably. My first thesis was rejected by my dissertation director at Princeton. Because it didn't deal either with a famous writer or an established philosopher, my thesis struck him as useless: I wanted to work on a certain Walter Benjamin, who was unknown at the time. Hannah Arendt herself had said only a few years earlier that it was all a rumor: Benjamin was only a phantom, not even an acknowledged philosopher or a writer. And yet I had spent two years working on his writings. Into the trash. I then turned to Goethe, Hölderlin, and Kafka, somewhat better known. But here, too, there were problems. My graduate directors told me to eliminate the passages where I discussed temporality and to weave in the idea of nature instead. What was really behind this maneuver was the allergy to French philosophical terminology characteristic of a certain American milieu that saw itself as having been "colonized" by Derrida, Foucault, and their ilk. In my thesis I dealt only with German texts, but these texts were nevertheless viewed as corrupted by the French and the analyses peculiar to their idiom. And the allergy to my own work appeared at the outset. I had been initially trained as a Germanist, and the readings of German texts that were being produced in France interested me a great deal. But a sort of patrol was doing its job at that time, and perhaps it was right, after all, to guard the border, because since then French philosophers have never stopped invading the Germanists' territory. Here, in German studies in American universities, people don't tend to venture further than hermeneutics! The opening to French theories scarcely belongs to their "horizon of expectation," as it's called.... Anyway, my own itinerary, at once phobic and intimate, is somewhat more complicated. The German texts owe their current vitality to the French sentinels, to those who have devoted themselves to restoring meaning—or the process of unmeaning—within different registers of classical German texts and other, more contemporary ones.

So you launched your "career" by writing about Goethe ...

I thought that my attentiveness to Goethe would be greeted with enthusiasm, whereas in fact my career as a Germanist was practically destroyed on that score alone. It was naive to think that one could attack with impunity the literary monument that immunized an entire people against the castration of "national" carriers of pride and imagination. Goethe's signature is the privileged figure of everything seen as good, abiding, and necessary in "German" culture. I thought I had discovered very important things, and I was attacking the work not frontally but structurally; I unleashed significant hostilities without meaning to. I was interested in Goethe's status as monster as well as in the imaginary fiction around which his legend had been built, a legend that was far more widespread than knowledge of his texts and his discoveries. I don't deny that we owe him works as magistral as The Sorrows of Young Werther or Elective Affinities. Goethe is altogether very transgressive, very courageous; but what interested me from the start was the way he had been able to penetrate the unconscious of every German-speaking writer and thinker, from Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud to Benjamin, Kafka, and Heidegger among many others.


Excerpted from Fighting Theory by Avital Ronell Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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