Read an ExcerptThe ÜberReader Selected Works of AVITAL RONELL
By AVITAL RONELL University of Illinois Press Copyright © 2008 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
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Introduction Diane Davis
Gustave Flaubert once said "the worth of a book can be judged by the strength of the punches it gives and the length of time it takes you to recover from them." According to this calculus of evaluation, typically reserved for literary texts, Avital Ronell's exceptionally hard hitters are works of inestimable value. It's not unusual to take tiny hits in a critical work that advances a specific position or viewpoint; however, the distinguishing feature of the Ronellian punch is that it's the effect of no positive knowledge claim. Ronell's critical texts operate not as formal arguments but as the obliteration of any possible argumentative ground, and that's what delivers the KO blow.
Each of Aristotle's twenty-eight general topoi or commonplace strategies of argumentation-argument from opposites or analytic division or cause and effect, etc.-presumes some steady ground, some prior knowledge against which to push off. And indeed, Ronell's texts are seductively oriented around sites of apparent familiarity: who doesn't suppose s/he knows a little something about the telephone, drugs, writing, opera, or military maneuvers? But rather than building an argument or inquiry on that potential point of stasis, Ronell's texts abruptly dissolve it, generating such a tight zoom on the putative object of knowledge that it slips from your appropriative grasp, withdrawing into a foreign space. The telephone Ronell analzyes, for example, turns out to be something unfamiliar, unlocatable, uncanny-not an originary site at all but a haunted one, a presence that cannot be situated securely within the present. The destabilizing force of Ronell's extreme close-ups institutes a break, an interruption in inherited meaning. And the punch takes place in this feat of ironic destruction, in or as this devastating withdrawal of understanding that leaves you with no recourse to anything like counterargument. "Nevertheless," Ronell reminds us, "interruption may always be a sign of life." Inasmuch as the deracinating suspension is also an opening, it aligns itself with futurity and the sober potentiality of Nietzsche's "open sea." Ronell's punch is simultaneously her gift: wherever knowing falters, thinking and reading can begin.
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The editor's introduction is typically responsible for situating the force and significance of an author within a philosophical, political, or historical framework. Anyone familiar with Avital Ronell's oeuvre will, however, appreciate my dilemma: How to situate a writer whose signature move is to sweep away the grounds by which one might do so? How to locate on an intellectual map these texts devoted to radical remappings, including those urged by "literature and psychoanalysis but also by the logic of teletopical incursions that has supplanted ground and grounding"? I have no excuse, nothing to say for myself about what follows except that attending faithfully to a body of work like this one may mean breaking here and there with generic expectations.
Ronell's work has a sharp ironic edge and is, in this sense, reminiscent of the works and inroads of the great German ironists. Although she likes her theory "with a French accent" and is considered one of America's leading deconstructionists, she is first of all a Germanist whose approach and perspective owes a great deal to her studies in German philosophy, music, and literature. She often claims to have a dusty philological side, and indeed her work is, we might say, solidly grounded in this rich tradition, many of the underlying histories and presumptions of which she nonetheless disrupts-an effect of what she calls her "irreverent type of reverence." Ronell's intellectual trajectories are extremely complex, and one finds in her work an extraordinary confluence of several distinct scholarly traditions: it's tempting to suggest that she does French theory American-style within a Germanic frame and marked by a Talmudic meticulousness. But that description wouldn't begin to cover it because, among other things, in Ronell's texts "scholarly tradition" is itself endlessly hassled and interrupted by ironic asides and biting critiques that constitute a kind of a chorus of street-level resistance. At once a consummate scholar and the anti-scholar, Ronell can be read as another double-edged figure punctuating the German tradition.
In the early 1980s, Ronell's translations of Jacques Derrida's work helped to introduce deconstruction to the American academy, and today her own texts-intriguing works of art as well as exacting works of scholarship-have been translated into several languages, including French, German, Spanish, Polish, Norwegian, Swedish, Hebrew, Arabic, Danish, and Japanese. Critically engaged with pressing social issues, Ronell was the first to theorize rigorously the new technologies and the first to write philosophically about AIDS. At the height of the war on drugs, she undertook the first sustained and comprehensive-philosophical, literary, and psycholanalytic-inquiry into drugs and addiction, opening and sketching the possible trajectories for what we now call addiction studies. Ronell has performed dazzling (re)readings of everything from schizophrenia, Rodney King, and the Gulf War to Being and Time, the SCUM Manifesto, and Madame Bovary. Throughout her extensive oeuvre, and with her trademark style and wit, she has offered up jaw-dropping redescriptions that unsettle the language of certitude and judgment: for example, she has defined Moses and Aaron as a telephone, portrayed testimonial video as television's "voice of conscience," depicted "Goethe" as an effect largely produced by the "lip-syncher" Johannes Peter Eckermann, and described writing as a certain form of drugging, offering Emma Bovary (the first "trash body") as an exemplary figure for the so-called "geniune" writer.
Ronell's texts operate against the grain and in the face of the most outspoken authorities, complicating presumptions of certainty by unworking the work of the concept with fearless tenacity. Within a political and philosophical climate still disproportionately given to Enlightenment values, Ronell dared to spring stupidity from conceptual confinement, exposing it not simply as the other of intelligence, but as both our transcendental predicament and philosophy's abject and largely repressed condition of possibility. And in response to the contemporary conviction that nearly everything must be tested-from weapons systems, elementary school teachers, and paternity to hair products, urine samples, and loyalty oaths, including those of friendship-Ronell zeroed in on the figure of testing itself, scrutinizing its effects and exposing the terrible ambiguity of a will to test that constitutes ever-new realities but that also, as Nietzsche warned, tends to leave uninhabitable test sites in its tracks, making "the wasteland grow."
As this random sampling already indicates, it's not possible to situate Ronell's pioneering oeuvre securely within disciplinary borders. Not simply philosophy or literary theory or media studies, her work also relinquishes safe harbor in critical theory, political theory, legal theory, and cultural studies. In fact, her thoroughly transdisciplinary interventions overflow the boundaries of the academy, earning her the acclaim of a radically diverse network of outlaw writers, filmmakers, digital artists, painters, photographers, and musicians. Her work stubbornly resists-by exceeding-established classification systems and ready-to-hand labels, including those with which it is most often tagged: deconstructive, psychoanalytic, (post)feminist, Derridian, Heideggerian, Nietzschean, and so on. Although Ronell's texts openly discourse with and operate within a circuit of voices that is only partially indicated by these labels, they nonetheless retain an undeniable singularity, which is as impossible to ignore as it is to grasp and articulate. There is, in other words, a kind of resolute quality to Ronell's texts that keeps labels from sticking, and this quality invites some pause or stammering among those of us who attempt to write about her work. It is also at times responsible for prompting astonishing feats of competitive mimesis. In the introduction to a special section devoted to Ronell in the journal diacritics, Jonathan Culler notes that, among other things, her work "is striking ... for the response it evokes, as those who write about it seek to imitate or outdo her in discussing the texts she and they engage."
A Question of Style
Culler proposes that Ronell has "put together what must be one of the most remarkable critical oeuvres of our era," and he locates the ungraspable difference within the strange and powerful force of her language: "Avital Ronell produces sentences that startle, irritate, illuminate. At once hilarious and refractory, her books are like no others." He doesn't attempt to articulate what it is about her writing that makes it so remarkable, but he does point to this specific aspect of her unprecedented style: "[Ronell yokes] the slang of pop culture with philosophical analysis, forcing the confrontation of high literature and technology or drug culture." Even a quick glance through her major works indicates that this confrontation very often takes place visually, as well; the visual and the textual operate synergistically to forge explosive connections that challenge established distinctions between so-called high thought and marginal notation- between philosophy and rumor, literature and headline news, revelation and chatter. Already at the level of style, Ronell's work threatens the very divisions on which the university sustains itself-which may account, at least in part, for her large and fiercely loyal extra-academic following. It's also one reason that her texts tend to hit so hard within the academy, where they have set off some very powerful reactions.
Ronell's writing is characteristically tough in both senses of that term: it's difficult because of its theoretical sophistication, its philosophical and psychoanalytic vocabulary, and its enormous scope and depth; and it's also edgy, gutsy, and rough, slipping seamlessly in and out of a street vernacular that's relentlessly shrewd and cutting. Within Ronell's texts, sophisticated theory-head meets wise-ass street punk, and an odd scuffle breaks out. Or, in a recent interview, Ronell describes it more precisely as a "class struggle":
There is a class struggle in my texts: there's the girl gang speaking, the little gangster, the hoodlum; there's the high philosophical graduate student who studied at the Hermeneutics Institute in Berlin; and there's the more sophisticated Parisian, and so forth. There are different voices, compulsions, denials, and relations that emerge in the texts. But there is the continuity of the more "prolo," proletariat, and very often wise-ass girl who is watching this stuff happening and commenting on it-again, like the chorus or the buffo-who's ironic and whose narcissism involves a kind of sarcastic, biting, meta-critique of what is going on but without ever becoming anti-intellectual.
Still, the intimidating hardness of Ronell's work is also cut here and there with a level of humility and compassion unprecedented in scholarly texts. And the synesthetic impact of this strange mix is intensified by the fact that Ronell has a buffo-like tendency to break suddenly with the conventions of scholarly distance to speak to "you," addressing you directly and putting you on the spot. Sometimes this abrupt address is gentle: "I have gotten into the habit of tagging my moods and monitoring the energy channels as I approach you, every day, a few hours every day, trying to figure you out." Other times it's not so gentle: "This sounds very remote indeed from the lofty peaks that you thought philosophy was scaling. You were wrong. You didn't read close enough, with your nose to the ground." Either way, things suddenly seem very close-range and onto you, and this effect can be somewhat jarring, perhaps especially because you weren't ready for it, because it wasn't supposed to happen to you in a scholarly work.
The visual performance that takes place in so many of Ronell's texts can be jarring, as well. The Telephone Book was her first and most intense visual production, and when the University of Nebraska Press first released it in 1989, its outrageously unconventional layout and design were unprecedented in the American academy. The Telephone Book instantly became a collector's item, valuable both for its artistic and its scholarly performances. A product of Ronell's first collaboration with award-winning page and graphics designer Richard Eckersley, this oddly sized tome eschews standardizing templates, granting each individual page the freedom to perform a reading of the text it presents. The exploding typography sometimes flows over the expected margins of the printed page, graphics occasionally substitute for letters, and every now and then the text itself becomes visually unreadable, blurry, before slipping into various static symbols that are followed, at times, by gigantic periods that amplify the click of disconnection. Legitimate scholarly texts generally sport a clearly contained and orderly layout designed to silence the noise and interference out of which any writing emerges; offering a sense of clarity and closure, they confirm the author's mastery. The Telephone Book, on the other hand, scandalously performs the noise, cranking it up and allowing it to rattle the pages of the text.
The twin aims of this extravagant performance, as Ronell herself puts it in the User's Manual that opens the work, are to "engage a destabilization of the addressee" and to "crack open the closural sovereignty of the Book":
The Telephone Book is going to resist you. Dealing with a logic and topos of the switchboard, it engages the destabilization of the addressee. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to learn to read with your ears. In addition to listening for the telephone, you are being asked to tune your ears to noise frequencies, to anticoding, to the inflated reserves of random indeterminateness- in a word, you are expected to remain open to the static and interference that will occupy these lines. We have attempted to install a switchboard which, vibrating a continuous current of electricity, also replicates the effects of scrambling. At first you may find the way the book runs to be disturbing, but we have had to break up its logic typographically. Like the electronic impulse, it is flooded with signals. To crack open the closural sovereignty of the Book, we have feigned silence and disconnection, suspending the tranquil cadencing of paragraphs and conventional divisions. At indicated times, schizophrenia lights up, jamming the switchboard, fracturing a latent semantics with multiple calls. You will become sensitive to the switching on and off of interjected voices. Our problem was how to maintain an open switchboard, one that disrupts a normally functioning text equipped with proper shock absorbers.
If The Telephone Book comes equipped with any sort of shock-absorbing mechanism, it is certainly not a proper one. Unapologetically putting forth the lowly image of telephone chatter as a frame through which to approach this highly philosophical work, Ronell orchestrates an industrial-sized collision between high thought and small talk. Figuring the author as an addressee struggling to take the multiple and static-filled calls that it visually depicts, The Telephone Book shatters the very concept of an original work and, in the process, throws a wrench into the academy's credentialing machine.
Each of Ronell's later books-Crack Wars, Finitude's Score, Stupidity, and The Test Drive-engages its own very distinct visual performance, and each one orchestrates, in its own way, a certain high-low collision. Crack Wars, for example, allows a street-drug trope to introduce the intellectual inquiry: the book opens with a section called "Hits," which delivers mostly single-paragraph doses of mind-blowing insights, each individually packaged in its own double-page spread. Stupidity evokes a powerful nocturnal theme and threat via altering typefaces, pitch black pages, and illustrations of the sun, the moon, satellites, and so on. Star constellations precede the surprisingly revealing autobiographical segments throughout the book, acknowledging that the author herself remains mostly in the dark, even when telling her own story. The book opens with the dramatic image of a full solar eclipse, and most of the four chapters and three satellites are separated by images of the progressively emerging sun. What becomes scandalously apparent, however-visually and textually-is that the light of clarity cannot be simply opposed to the night of stupidity, that the latter is the former's very condition of (im)possibility.
Excerpted from The ÜberReader by AVITAL RONELL Copyright © 2008 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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