Reading Ronell

Reading Ronell

by Diane Davis

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Avital Ronell has won worldwide acclaim for her work across literature and philosophy, psychoanalysis and popular culture, political theory and feminism, art and rhetoric, drugs and deconstruction. In works such as The Test Drive, Stupidity, Crack Wars, and The Telephone Book, she has perpetually raised new and powerful questions about how we think, what thinking

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Avital Ronell has won worldwide acclaim for her work across literature and philosophy, psychoanalysis and popular culture, political theory and feminism, art and rhetoric, drugs and deconstruction. In works such as The Test Drive, Stupidity, Crack Wars, and The Telephone Book, she has perpetually raised new and powerful questions about how we think, what thinking does, and how we fool ourselves about the troubled space between thought and action.

In this collection, some of today's most distinguished and innovative thinkers turn their attention to Ronell's teaching, writing, and provocations, observing how Ronell reads and what comes from reading her. By reading Ronell, and reading Ronell reading, contributors examine the ethico-political implications of her radical dislocations and carefully explicate, extend, and explore the paraconcepts addressed in her works.

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"This collection of energetic essays engages the writing of Avital Ronell while contributing fresh, sophisticated thinking to such fields as philosophy, rhetoric, feminism, and literary criticism. . . . Highly recommended."—Choice

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University of Illinois Press
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1st Edition
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5.70(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.80(d)

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Reading Ronell

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2009 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07647-3

Chapter One

Jean-Luc Nancy Addressee: Avital

I address you, Avital. I address myself to you, the living, the vivacious, the vital. But I'm also addressing Abital, wife of David, mother of Shephatiah, whose name is also written as Avital, which is a man's name and which means "father of the dew." I address myself to the dew, which in Latin is also the drop, and thus also to the father, because what is a father if not a drop? What is a father if not the morning dewdrop clinging to a leaf or a flower that will exhale at sunrise? I address myself to life, which is itself nothing other than address, because life says nothing but this, nothing other than "to life!"—as a dispatch, a call, an offering, a dedication. Life dedicates itself to life, and, of course, as a result, to the death that lives in and through it. Life addresses life to the death [à la vie à la mort] according to the formula of the most sacred sermons. Life addresses itself: that is what it does, and what it lives on. Life is neither produced nor reproduced, it is neither formative nor conservative; it aims at itself [s'adresse], and with this, it addresses [adresse] the living: it calls them, sends them, exposes, and ships them off to death for life [à la mort à la vie].

I am addressing myself to you first of all because it would be difficult for me to write "about you" here because my inadequate English prevents me from reading you in the way that would be necessary in order to respond to you properly. But also because the objects that you work—ghosts, telephones, addictive substances, tests, finitudes, and other stupidities—are transformed and appropriated by you to such an extent that they are rendered unrecognizable and thus impossible for me to consider approaching by their more common concepts. I am addressing myself to you, finally, and above all, because before and beyond all these books of which you are the author, you are the actress, and thus an incessant address: a call, an invitation, a challenge, a provocation, an invocation.

It is rare that you speak without also making a call, that is, without making your interlocutor show themselves in person, whether it is in the guise of a witness or a guilty party, a friend or an enemy, a suspect or a confidant. All your sentences silently say "to you": this is for you [pour toi], I am sending it to you, catch—catch this as best you can—and then, it's up to you [à toi], it's your turn, I'm awaiting your words, your answer, your refusal or your assent, but above all your humor and the tone of your voice right now.

I am addressing to you, therefore, a few pages on the subject of the address, of this vital address without which between us—between all of us, you and me, but everyone else as well—nothing would ever happen anywhere. And I begin by that which differentiates my language, French, from some of yours, English or German (because you certainly speak others, among them French): the two homonyms of—or in—the address: To you [à toi], therefore, Avital, it's your turn.


There are two addresses in the French language. The first comes from adrecer, to set up [dresser], to raise, which led to the reflexive s'adrecer, to go toward, and adrecer in the sense of to direct. In 1177, an adresse is a direct road; in 1820, it is direction, the right way. In the fifteenth century, it becomes the action of calling upon someone for help. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one begins to see two words for adresse. The first still means a direction, but also "directions," that to which something leads: the place where someone is to be found. The second word is contaminated by adroit, which in 1559 means "able." Adroit comes from dexter, which means in Latin "to the right," "on the right side," but also "able." Dexter is opposed to sinister, the left side: the side of dexterity against the side of the sinister, the mortal, of missing (one's goal) and of unhappiness (happiness also means ability, address). This contamination results in address as ability. But the contamination of meanings here is even older and more complicated: in the vocabulary of medieval chivalry, "adroit" meant svelte, elegant, that is to say, thin, well planted on one's feet or on one's warhorse, but also "striking one's target." The two adresses thus mix together to set up [dresser], to direct, and to attain (one's target). Behind this combination, there is a proximity and contagion between the two droits, one coming from dexter, the other from directus: at once the root deks, to the right, and the root reg, straight ahead [tout droit]. The ability that knows how to aim for and go straight attains its objective, accurately.

In German, it's different: the proximity of the two senses of Geschick: the outcome, or the destiny, and ability. Both come from the first sense of schicken, to send, to expedite. From this also come to prepare, to arrange, to make something happen, and the word Schick, which first designated form, manner, or usage before taking on the sense of the French chic—the origin of which we still do not know, whether, that is, it itself comes from the German word by way of Alsatian or Swiss German.

But in English, to address is first of all to speak to, to address oneself to, and also to speak of, to take up a question: for example, to address the question of address. In the plural, addresses can be good manners, attentions, those that one makes when one is courting someone. May I address you, dear Avy?


What public am I addressing here? Which readers of essays devoted, dedicated, and addressed to Avital Ronell? How can one anticipate, discern, or transcendentally schematize such a public? And yet, I'm supposed to aim for this public, to go ably to it, to "target" my discourse for it. Or rather, to target this concept as necessary, the address, and to address myself to it in order to conceive it with precision, and to conceive it keeping in mind this public to whom I address myself in writing this. For this, someone addressed themselves to me; someone addressed themselves to the "philosopher." The assumption is that philosophy is the right address to send the message "how do you address Avital Ronell? (in English, how to address AR?)" or "how to address oneself to her?" Because I have been asked to read her, to do a "critical reading," which is supposed "to address her work" but which also implies, in the strong and Schlegelian sense of criticism, an address at her, that is, to target and hit the quality that is proper to her, her singularity—and I have already decided that it would be found in the address and that this is the concept I must unfold. I decided, I was obliged to decide that it had the character of address—to vital [à vitale].

The assumption is that the philosopher should have the address necessary to extract, analyze, or configure the concept: but this one not more so than another. He (or she) is asked for the conceptual address of the concept of address. However, what is address in this sense, if not the art and the manner—the savoir faire, the know-how, technè? It is necessary to understand that address itself, the concept as much as the thing, is of the order of technics, or art. It concerns the practice of arts: what, therefore, is a painter without address? An awkward dancer? Address is an element of the arts in all senses of the word, indeed the most general element—or even, the goal. The assumption is that the address is addressed to artists, or they to it. One assumes that it is a matter here neither of Avital's art nor her technique or techniques, abilities, resources, or ingenuity—which is inexhaustible—but rather of Avital herself as manner, turn, gift, address, as artist perhaps, as a manner of an artist to whom the philosopher addresses himself.

Or, on the other hand, no one has assumed anything. Someone addressed the word "address" to themselves without a specific goal in mind. They want to find the address of the address itself. Because they have put the address on the program, with the definite article: the absolute address, its essence. From where and to what does the address address itself? It's as if someone were asking themselves from where and to what is addressed the whole of language, the whole of thought, the whole of direction—all gathering, all sense of direction, all destination. It's an exorbitant, vertiginous request. Avital likes that.


Let's decide, resolve, and address ourselves to one of the sides here supposed, between art and philosophy: to my side, the bank of the river from where I hail Avital on the other side....

How and to what does philosophy address itself? One might think that it addresses itself first in the mode of exhortation, or incitation, between command and counsel: for example, know thyself. This is in some way the initial statement of philosophy, that of the oracle to Socrates, of Socrates to others. It's an address to the person, or to the subject, however one wants to describe it. It has a precise aim: it is not knowledge, it's not a matter so much of knowing what I am for knowledge, but rather of putting a wisdom to work. This address aims at wisdom. Wisdom is a know-how with myself: if I learn to know that I don't know anything, I will be wise. Not more knowledgeable, but knowing how to deal with myself, and with man in general, but with the man in general in me: able, therefore, to guide myself in my humanity in order to not be the victim of its desires, its agitations, and its sufferings. Capable of removing myself from humanity: at bottom, a betrayal.

One might also think that philosophy itself produces direction: the sure path of knowledge, directio ingenii, method, therefore, because this word signifies "the road." The general method of knowledge, which supposes that the idea itself of knowledge is given, and that one already knows something essential on the subject of knowledge itself. One is already in absolute knowledge, insofar as it well has to be knowledge-of-self, selbtwissen, originally and finally. The address is then only the address of knowledge to itself: at bottom, a manner of going in circles. (A kind of stupidity, she says.)

One can also think this differently. One can take up again the two preceding addresses and submit them to questioning. One will see that they still hide something, one and the other, and one like the other. They hide the same thing: what is outside the human and what relates only to itself, what is impassive and always there from beginning to end; why not give it its name, being? Philosophy brings itself into view under this invitation, under this call—indeed, under this intimation (which is also intimidating): to go right to being, insofar as it is.

Address: to being. Questions arise immediately: where? But there, everywhere, within hand's reach. How do we go there, then? In effect, there is perhaps no way. One is already at the address. What does "to be at" mean? Or rather: "to be there"? Are we there? What is the "there"? The place of being. But is there a place of being that is itself something other than being? There isn't, it is self-evident. Like all evidence, it grows obscure in the very moment one looks at it. No place for being, and being itself is not a place. It is not a space-time. How do we address ourselves to that which is nothing, nowhere, at no time? Philosophy begins with this vertigo: the disappearance of all address: no direction, nor even the ability to find the way or take aim. A worrying situation, without home or horizon.


What is it that one calls "art"? (By "one," I mean philosophy. There can only be a determination of art as such from philosophical conditions. As soon as one leaves these conditions, "philosophy" and "art" are together wiped away, dissolved into religion. The latter is no longer the business of address: it is the business of observance. For example, Avital has the religion of medicinal plants. Observance and address mutually exclude each other in principle. This does not mean that, from the heart of this mutual exclusion, they do not address each other in some manner, indeed in that they observe one another—but in what sense? That's another story.)

One calls "art" the know-how-to-take-place. Art is first and foremost a place. It exposes, it performs, it installs, it frames, it hangs, it poses. Art is always sedentary and local. Not only is this the case in general, it is true insofar as art never is "in general": It is always such and such art. Art, these are artistic places, taking-places of an "art in general" that has no place anywhere. It is called painting or music, sculpture or video, architecture or literature, a garden or cinema, and sometimes one doesn't even know what to call it. One says "intervention," "installation," "action," "work," and one even says nothing at all, and some take the opportunity to say that it's "whatever." Whatever, if you will, but not wherever or whenever, nor even however. Somewhere, sometime, it takes place, it performs. If not, there's nothing, no "artistic action." The artist himself does not much like to speak about art, nor call what he does "art." On the contrary, he quite likes to say "what I do"—which implies, for example, "I hope that what I do turns its back to 'ART.'" The capital letters, obviously, are conceptual, and one can say that the concept of "art" is today always determined by the tone in which one utters the word, that is to say, by the nature and the aim of the address contained in the fact of using or not using it.

You, Avital, you hardly ever speak of "art." It's not your manner, it's not your way of doing things. Perhaps you are the one who has most spoken about art, or at least of artists, in speaking about addiction, in order to say that the practice of art supposes an addiction. Addiction or rather submission, receptivity, passivity, tolerability, susceptibility: it's always a matter of being receptive [sensible] to an address, of allowing oneself to be addressed by another, by others, from the outside, from a foreign country, from the foreign. It's a matter of finding oneself there where the address arrives, and to not impose upon its direction. To be at the place of address—that is what distinguishes "art" from knowledge or from calculation. (One can also speak of "faith.")

But this place of art that art is, this place of the address of art and this place from where it addresses itself (address as in a postal address), this location that is the gesture of the artist ("to praise," properly speaking, it is "to place," to situate) is not made to allay philosophical worry. It possesses neither a home nor a horizon. It does something else entirely. It tells us: your address is here. It's thus a place that addresses itself, and which thus gives itself as address. It tells us: this way, come this way, straight ahead, this is the place itself.

Therefore, the question is not that of being, but rather of being there [y être]—or of going there [y aller], coming there [y venir], going by there [y passer], and perhaps also of arriving there. And it's not a question. Just an address: go there [allez-y]. In familiar French: "Go on!" [vas-y] can signify "go to this place" or even "do it!" or "give it a shot!" Go on, try—try to see this shot, this turn, this address, this manner of going about it [s'y prendre] in order to be there [y être], to be somewhere—nothing but an instant, perhaps, but for this instant, to not be nowhere. Do nothing but pass by. A matter of the present. An artist's work always makes present a present (of eternity, if one wants to say it that way, or an instant).


Philosophy is essentially employed in undoing the present, in throwing itself into its interval, which has neither place nor time, in disjoining it in order to let being be—never anywhere present.

From being to place: therein lies the tension.

There is the tension of which it is really a question of here, and that the words "art" and "philosophy" only cover very partially and very awkwardly. After all, one could invert the roles, or the places. One should not take the split [partage] I've just sketched too literally. I wanted to begin by playing out a sort of expected opposition, one that is supposedly understood—but, as Hegel says, what is "well known" is not known at all.

Nor must one presuppose what "art" and "philosophy" are, nor, consequently, what may allow them to address one another, or to address one against the other.


Excerpted from Reading Ronell Copyright © 2009 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.
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Meet the Author

Diane Davis is an associate professor of rhetoric & writing, English, and communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the editor of The ÜberReader: Selected Works of Avital Ronell.

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