Loser Sons: Politics and Authority

Loser Sons: Politics and Authority

by Avital Ronell

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There are sons who grow up unhappily believing that no matter what they do, they cannot please their fathers. These are the loser sons, a group of historical men as varied as President George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden, and Mohammed Atta. Their names quickly illustrate that not only are their problems serious, but they also make serious problems for others, expanding to…  See more details below


There are sons who grow up unhappily believing that no matter what they do, they cannot please their fathers. These are the loser sons, a group of historical men as varied as President George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden, and Mohammed Atta. Their names quickly illustrate that not only are their problems serious, but they also make serious problems for others, expanding to whole nations. When God is conceived and inculcated as an angry and impossible-to-please father, the problems can last for generations. In Loser Sons, Avital Ronell draws on current philosophy, literary history, and political events to confront the grim fact that divested boys become terrifying men. Looking beyond our current moment, she interrogates the problems of authority, paternal fantasy, and childhood as they have been explored and exemplified by Franz Kafka, Goethe's Faust, Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Hannah Arendt, Alexandre Kojeve, and Immanuel Kant. Shockingly honest, Ronell addresses the implications of her insights directly to her readers, challenging them to think through their own notions of authority and their responses to it.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The area of literature, politics and economics is a growing interdisciplinary field of study. Avital Ronell's new book is an important contribution to this newly evolving aspect of literary theory...Ronell has written a beautiful and timely book in support of the highly underrated and immeasurable zero position."—Political Studies Review
"Important contribution ... a beautiful and timely book."—Political Theory

"In addition to its importance for the ongoing readers of Ronell's work, this book will be automatically a requirement in the field of study of authority. A beautifully written and composed study that sets new highest standards."—Laurence A. Rickels, author of Aberrations of Mourning: Writings on German Crypts

"Loser Sons will endear and fascinate the theoretically curious and will speak to intellectually and politically adventurous audiences. A welcome intervention in the art of political physiognomy and progressive seismography, both redeemed from their most violent and delusional of expectations."—Hent de Vries, editor of Religion: Beyond a Concept

"Important contribution. . . . a beautiful and timely book."—Political Theory

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Loser Sons

Politics and Authority
By Avital Ronell

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03664-4


Wrestling a Bad Object

This work was long in coming. During the time that I was preparing its elephantine birth—I have stopped counting the years—other works and responsibilities commanded my attention, averted my gaze, and gnawed at me like undeflectable energy vampires. It's hard enough to set apart some sheltering space in order to write. In our age of deficit it is moreover hard but essential to justify the work that we do, to have writing even qualify for a prevalent concept of work or to get filed as part of some labor force. And maybe this is as it should be. Still, it is difficult not to lose courage when so many are underpaid or unemployed, and still others, closer to my own job description, are prevented from publishing and teaching, regardless of how well-trained and talented they prove to be. If I may register a complaint, I can say that in my corner, I give up a lot of energy. Does anyone know how exhausting it is to teach, write evaluations and letters of recommendation, administrate, participate in colloquia, stay close to the artistic pulse, travel, feign a life, push back the false unconscious—maybe I should leave it at that, before I trip into a memoir or pitch myself into a confessional abyss. I look at my colleagues and see brilliant scholars ground down by the institutional praxeology, turned over to the bureaucracy of teaching, its unending evaluations and businesslike downgrades, as if "results" could be yielded in the traumatic precincts of learning. This type of consistent demotion to a result-oriented quotient belongs to the subject (and hell) I would want to raise here. I cannot seem to break away from the feeling that so much wracks the committed scholar, the artist, poet, and the burnt-out student body these days. I certainly do not want to ring up an inventory of excuses. I am well aware that others are truly compromised, dragged down by material inequities, insult, distress, and they don't even get to the starter's position, much less to the purported finishing line.

Of course, many people wouldn't want this job—its implication of searing solitude, the haranguing drills of a sole sentence's fate, and the inescapability of relentless autocritique. It may be pointless to indicate at the beginning of a work what a grandiose hassle it all was when the rhetoric of these things dictates that one should speak of its urgency and ineluctability, its sense of mission or accomplishment. Whom does that sort of opening statement reassure or convince—that you, too, could barely make it? When following Nietzsche's style sheet, you don't take the laurels for having initiated a work, but say it seized or befell you, you were just in some outfield of thought when it came at you. You leave out the part about struggling with your radical passivity, somehow sustaining the crushing overload that has one bowed in receptive anticipation. Let's just say it the way I started off: this work was long in coming. In some respects, it sat out the Bush years over which it was watching. Stupefied yet receiving signals and taking hits, it was benched.

Many friends and colleagues urged me to get the book out before the Bush-Cheney years were over, so that I could make a timely contribution to political thought. This perspective had its merits and scored some bullet points with me. Yet I decided (permit me the illusion of decision here) that in this case I would not produce a chiefly reactive text, but keep my vigil, absorb the damages, wait it out. Those years are not over. The damages are colossal, the indignities still to a great extent uncounted. Even in the palpable sigh of relief that we call Obama, the corruption of historical narrative, the material poverty of means, and corrosion of constitutional integrity cannot be easily repaired, much less recounted. Maybe I am bringing up the rear (like all latecomers, I am fated to rear-end history); maybe I'm speaking from a lookout point in the future, from the event of returns and revenants that have always borne down on my texts. Please allow me the ambiguous situation of staying close to a troubled past that swings over to the future, demanding that a serious analysis be attached to its stealthy gait.

Some points hang in suspension, awaiting their time, or they are allowed to vanish into the thin air of a speculative leap. Some leaps are calculated to land in something like an ungroundable anahistory that requires a different kind of approach—an alternative universe of writing, probing, and piercing. Anahistory, holding us as firmly as history and its tally of traumatic punch-outs, calls for a different tenor of the cri/écrit, the nocturnal expanse of a thinker's anguish. Partnered to history, it introduces different registers of thought that accumulate around inoccurrence and the subterranean maneuvers of eventfulness. It is not only a matter of discerning disavowed horrors, though anahistory hunkers down with such unearthable narratives, but also requires us to scour something like the national unconscious, even when this turns out to be a "false unconscious." Both Freud and Lacan make allowances for the false unconscious, a repository of traces that shadow unconscious receptors and create their own mess of jumbled surges.

All this backlog of indeterminacy is hanging over our heads today. You can choose not to go with it, keeping yourself from plunging into the depths of near unintelligibility. In my case it's not a matter of choice. I have to go in where things get messy, or sometimes I see myself walking through the unyielding frankness of deserted fields, scanning the wreckage, maybe on the lookout for a sign of life, a breeze, or an unexpected sound.

* * *

An ongoing provocation, the thought on authority was pressed into these pages by several considerations and not a few urgencies. To the extent that I felt compelled by the themes constituting this work, I was stalled and undermined by the sway of their worldly cast, the anxious pinch of timeliness to which they bear witness. As it happens, I am a creature of the untimely, coached by Nietzschean temporal leaps yet put through my paces by obligatory relapses into what one might call "tradition." This is the only way in which I might be considered conservative, or a conservationist—by adhering to the demands of traditional narratives and their often-silenced partners. That is to say, in part, that I am in my comfort zone when ferreting out the heavily sedated traces and repressed remnants of historical eventfulness. Trained on the sidelines of the master discourses, I advocate a kind of untimely activism, driven home by the joint closure of the philosophical and the political. The long conversation within the philosophical and political partnership has reached in many ways, and by necessity, a lull. Yet, powerful inroads persist, together with a store of untapped reserves. If something has not been accounted for, I want it. The least probable cause, the darkest and most unavailable docket, sparks my curiosity (curiosity: itself a philosophically devalued motor for investigation). I scour the peripheries, the often-abandoned sites of ethical reconnaissance.

Given these constraints and the way I curb the so-called object of contemplation, I like to stay away from the dominant trends and approved protocols for reading politics. Especially where "politics" becomes censorious and inevitable, unconditional (or as Arendt puts it, "total") and thus, in terms of the way discursive containers are regulated and managed, kind of DOA, as so-called contemplative objects go. (Well, I suppose anything submitted to contemplation shows up de facto DOA. Let me clarify. I mean more mangled or disfigured, more subject to Entstellung, disturbed by displacement, than even language habitually demands—barely recognizable or plainly obsolesced in terms of its presentation. That's when it comes my way.)

I honor and read my colleagues, those known to me and those unfamiliar, some of whom have sat on panels with me or have run the other way, who make it their life's work to put unceasing pressure on the elaboration of social formations, and bravely continue to work through the mires of a relentlessly agonistic politics. But, for me, whether by default or theoretical perversion, there's another way of going about things, another hand that can be played when it comes to the domination of the political and the necessity of sizing up its implications. I start off by conducting nano-analyses, following minor or minoritarian tracks that may lead nowhere or, suddenly, they may flip into "the big picture" to function as the rush of canaries in a political coal mine.

Growing into small spaces in order to bear hard upon big issues has its advantages, and I'm not the first to try this scholarly diet. Still, there are pitfalls and dramatic dissolutions. At the same time as one may be motivated by Kafkan velocities to interrogate the fate of a speck—at the same time as one senses the surprising advance of nano-traces, evicted conceptual shells or the itineraries of imperceptible systemic disruption—one is also arrested by the magnitude of oversized concerns that bind to existence. One is compelled to return to the fundamental structures that keep us going, if only in the mode of stationary mobility and according to archeophiliac determination—meaning that one is magnetized by the return of and driven by the return to ancient objects, concepts, formulae when piecing together the remnants of world.

Even if one may favor the miniaturized portion of heavy-hitting problems, one sometimes crashes against the wall of their magnitude. Though preferring the speck to the spectacular, I must take my questions—well, they are not really questions, they are calls—I take these calls, given a choice (though it is not a matter of choice, but let us go on); they should, these calls, in order to be worthy of presentation, light up only when and if they arrive beyond themselves, from where they loom—big, barely manageable, yet nondialectically allied with the speck. The calls may seem marginal, yet they require sizable backup from the tradition, the books, textual fronts, historical feints, and referential pretenses that increase their expanses. By chasing down the motif of the loser son—where big meets little, constantly exchanging attributes—I am attacking a cluster of issues that has been heckling me from the philosophical bleachers and that asks, in a way that won't let up, these questions: Where does the political pose problems? How is the very possibility of peaceful coexistence undermined by apparently unbreachable structures?

These prods have brought me to a register of concern that makes me wonder in what way the victory of patriarchy is still something to contend with. What happened when metaphysics elevated the "paternal metaphor" to the status of authority? To what extent is the son's failure-to-be bound up with claims made for authority's rule? Riding on this putative authority, how does the impossible figure of the father, whether split or faux unitary, still hold sway? Freud himself, zeroing in on problems of filial remorse and the construction of legacy, has remarked that we cannot point to the authority that bolsters the father, except to the extent that this very stature remains an effect of "the victory of patriarchy." Unauthorized yet pumping meaning, the values associated with Father continue to mark the limit where politics meets psychoanalysis and generates questions of power. At once phantomal and commanding, the paternal, like Hamlet's father, directs the way the whole house comes down, falling apart around a shared name that seals the demise of a split son.

Similar scenes, though less eloquently equipped to handle the historical blow, occur in many households where paternity retains a trace of sovereign right. This trace is what interests me here—archaic, nearly effaced, although vibrant in an ineluctable yet dreary kind of way. Thus I am also trying to create a chart for the largely unmarked and phantomal spread of paternal residue, to see where its seepage begins in the glacializing spaces of cruel bureaucracies, among implacable administrators, in terms of religious gridlock, alongside the regulatory state, and other rule-productive structural oppressions that take off from Father's tracks.

The figure of father, as ordinary as it sits, also enthrones the unfathomable and is riddled by an enigmatic grid. Even the unfathomable has a history, boasts a lineage. It is very likely that the persistence of the paternal incursion, its often stealth logic, has created a legacy of mutant breakdown—a fissuring of a special stripe. Irrevocably connected, these calls, or bullet points, bring into view the particularly modern phenomenon of a loser inheritance. I'll try to make this contention intelligible by keying into a number of telling texts and crucial idioms that speak to the pervasive sense of our impoverished political existence, even where the political brings hope and assuming the political and existence still match up credible prints. In any case, I will examine the edges of archaic contamination and draw up a map of prevalent forms of aggressive coexistence.

Although recognizably modern in its articulation, there is nothing as such new about the mark of humiliation borne by the drummed-out or divested son. Isaac would fill in as biblical ancestor to such a figure—benched before he could be sacrificed, counted out in the squabble between two representatives of killer paternity, the submissive and the dominant versions, both murderous. Spared but forgotten, left to dwindle in the desert solitude of a discarded filiation, he is at once elected and faded, chosen for the journey to Mount Moriah, on a mission that must be aborted, taken up only to be put down in the hollow of paternal testing grounds. That is one way to run the narrative, by casting light on the emptiness that followed upon the failed sacrifice: he lost out on the transcendental leap, receded from history into a mold of inoccurrence. This inoccurrence still speaks to and imprints us, however.

Another type, if not archetype, to fill in the blank of what I am trying to draw out would be represented by Faust, the celebrity Streber or striver, who inherited the burden of a deficient father, a doctor who by lazy but persistent acts of malpractice was responsible for dozens of deaths. An embarrassment to Nietzsche and nearly everyone else in the reader's circle, Faust, after the embrace that he holds with Mephistopheles, must be saved in the end of Goethe's rendition by the intercession of a divine father, redeemed from a more terrestrial struggle with his inherited nullity. Stripped of the mantel of authority, or unable to grow under the pressure of aberrant assertions of paternity (though aberration may be the rule), Isaac and Faust, in differing but related ways, are set on autodestruct, losing a legacy—maybe only at the end of their stories, but also from the get-go—when they try to break through to historical narrative. In the end, they are bound by a restraining order from which they cannot cut loose, or to which they remain blindly stuck and submissive. In itself, this would not be a bad thing.

The unconscious billing system that attacks the world and relentlessly escalates aggression causes the trouble that I want to track. Poetic or scriptural "dummies" such as Isaac and Faust help us think through the default of the political—which, given problems of grounding or founding or of merely shallow depths, remains wholly indistinct if not rhetorically depleted, philosophically flamed out. At the same time, despite considerable theoretical obstacles, political rigor and vigilance require an ongoing critique of models, motifs, and ideologies that have served to indicate how coexistence is mapped and regulated. Many of these models come from totalitarian vocabularies that still stand in their rooted if wobbly monumental ways, or are frankly resuscitated with no apologies offered. There are ways to get past some of these abiding theoretical insults, even where they tend continually to rerun through history's more deliberate projections.


Excerpted from Loser Sons by Avital Ronell Copyright © 2012 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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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; The Test Drive; and Fighting Theory.

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