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Avital Ronell - Biography

Avital Ronell, Ph.D., was born in Prague. Her parents were Israeli diplomats who returned to Israel before going to New York. Avital Ronell studied at the Hermeneutics Institute in Berlin with Jacob Taubes, ultimately earned her doctorate at Princeton University, and then worked with Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous in Paris. She was professor of comparative literature and theory at the University of California at Berkeley for several years before eventually returning to New York, where she currently is chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literature and teaches German and comparative literature and theory – in addition to her yearly Fall semester seminar about Derrida – and where she continues to churn out a breathtaking range of deconstructive rereadings of everything from technology, the Gulf War, and AIDS, to opera, addiction, and stupidity.

As one of the first translators of Jacques Derrida’s work into English, she in effect introduced his work to the American academy. Avital Ronell has continued the deep reading projects of her former teachers (and friends), focusing her attention on such varied assumptions as the telephone directory, Rodney King, Madame Bovary, Martin Heidegger and schizophrenia. Though often labeled a philosopher (as well as a key player in critical and political theory, cultural and literary criticism), Avital Ronell’s work, thoroughly transdisciplinary, consistently slips the bounds of traditional academic castes, earning her accolades from often disparate spheres of the cultural milieu. Her work is often determined to be deconstructive, Derridian, Heideggerian, post-feministic, post-structuralist, psychoanalytic, and yet her writing continually works beyond these labels remaining utterly singular. In her most infamous book, The Telephone Book, Avital Ronell seems to seek to undermine, or at least 'address' through direct intervention, commonly held views of the addressee and the author. Using fonts and texts that seem to explode from the page and which at times become illegible, Avital Ronell mimics the dislocating and alienating nature of the fractured telephone conversation to question the role of both author and reader. Avital Ronell’s published works include Telephone Book (1989), Dictations: On Haunted Writing (1993), Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania (1993), Stupidity (2001), The Test Drive (2005), and recently, in 2007, The Über Reader (ed. Diane Davis).

Avital Ronell's oeuvre is informed and facilitated by a wide range of (post) philosophers – including, for example, Jacques Derrida, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Jean-Luc Nancy – but when it comes down to it, as Eduardo Cadava observes, 'Ronell's work remains absolutely different.' From her first book, Dictations, through her latest one, Stupidity, Avital Ronell calls the established questions into question, zooming in on whatever 'withdraws from immediate promises of transparency or meaning' and/or tracking what she calls the 'rhetorical unconscious of a text' ('Confessions' 249). A hybrid of high theory and street talk, Avital Ronell's texts are remarkable both for what they say and for the extraordinary way in which they say it.

In her first book, Dictations, Avital Ronell tells us that she 'has never entertained any illusions concerning the objective nature of scholarship, no matter how tedious or dusty it can appear to be.' Each of her works goes after a seemingly recognizable and knowable signifier (Goethe, the telephone, the drug addict, the television, the test, the greeting, stupidity, etc.) but then tracks it so closely that it quickly becomes unrecognizable, exceeding its object-status, overflowing itself as a concept. Explicitly breaking with scholarly tradition, a tradition that values mastery and certitude, Avital Ronell engages her 'object' of study at the level of its finitude, of its radical singularity. In Stupidity, for example, Avital Ronell begins with the concept of stupidity, tracking it through poets and novelists and philosophers and literary/critical theorists, and pre-schoolers – but the closer she gets to it, each time, the more it exceeds itself as a concept. The closer she brings us to it, the more unknowable it appears.

One of stupidity's many guises, Avital Ronell says several times, is the claim to absolute Knowledge or Intelligence. And it is in this context that one should read Avital Ronell's determination to remain open, exposed to stupidity's inscriptions and operations, to refrain from closing off or closing in on stupidity in order to pretend to 'get' it or to represent it accurately. Avital Ronell presents herself as somewhat 'stupid' about stupidity throughout the book, and this is not only exceptionally courageous in academia, it is also a significant ethico-political move. 'If stupidity were that simple,' if it were that comprehensible, that intelligible – 'if stupidity were that stupid,' as Avital Ronell puts it – 'it would not have traded depths for the pits and acted as such a terror for Roland Barthes or Robert Musil or pre-schoolers' (10). So Avital Ronell sticks with stupidity, tracks and traces it, opens to it, re/discovering in each (missed) encounter with it a fundamental inability to know it completely or objectively, and therefore a fundamental inability to represent it.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that there is no imperative to understand in Avital Ronell's work; clearly, her work is driven by that imperative. What goes by the name 'understanding' gets a radical update in her work inasmuch as she determines not to wipe out (objectify) the 'object' of this 'understanding' in the very rush to pin it down and define it. The link that academia posits and propagates between rigor and certitude (the former leading to the latter) gets busted in Avital Ronell's works, which are rigorous interruptions of certitude. As she notes in an interview in JAC, she approaches her 'object' of inquiry not as a police officer going after a suspect but in detective mode, turning in her badge and assuming a different rapport with the truth, one that involves breaking with standard (academic) procedure in order to remain attuned to finite singularity, in order to refrain from infinitizing finitude (as she put it in Finitude's Score).

Another striking aspect of Avital Ronell's work is its attentiveness to the materiality of language – that is, to the sound, shape, size, beat or rhythm, etc. of the words themselves. The Telephone Book, Crack Wars, and Stupidity all explicitly call our attention to the texture of the text, to the fact that language is a material that cannot not interrupt, suspend, resist, exceed, and otherwise trip up the very message it is charged to deliver. Words inevitably go AWOL, bagging their referential duty and going off on their own, connecting not to the idea they are supposed to represent but to other words – and making all kinds of 'noise' while at it. Avital Ronell affirms this noise, amplifies it, and asks us in The Telephone Book to learn to hear it by learning to read with our ears. If a foundational approach to language acknowledges that the word negates the actual 'thing' in order to bring an operational concept into being (which implies a triumph for the subject over the 'world,' or for 'meaning' over 'chaos'), Avital Ronell's nonfoundational approach embraces a language that goes on to obliterate the concept, too, by ignoring and/or exceeding it, sparking a proliferation of meaning in discourse.

Inasmuch as it showcases language's double negation, this textual performance amounts to a destructive affirmation – or an affirmation of destruction. And yet, Avital Ronell's work steers clear of 'undeveloped pronouncements of nihilism,' for in Stupidity she reminds her readers of the 'Heideggerian distinction between destruction and devastation.' 'Destruction,' she says, 'involves the force of a critical clearing and does not imply the shell-shock stoppage of devastation' (122). In the opening pages of Finitude's Score, she more thoroughly sketches out this distinction: whereas devastation 'has to do with a fundamental shutdown,' a 'pathological' drive toward 'a telic finality or fulfillment or the accomplishment, once and for all, of a Goal,' destruction, Avital Ronell says, is 'a decisive doing away with that which, already destroyed, is destructive in its continuance. To the extent that it is possible only on the basis of a new and more radical affirmation, destruction, moreover, has pledged itself to the future' (Finitude's Score xiii).

Avital Ronell's work is relentlessly destructive, relentlessly turned toward futurity, and it throws its disorienting smack in the name of what she calls 'responsible responsiveness.' Whatever the topic at hand, Avital Ronell's overarching concern is with an 'ethics of decision' for this postfoundational era – an era in which all the transcendental navigation systems are down: 'To the extent that one may no longer be simply guided – by Truth, by light or logos – decisions have to be made.' It is only in certitude's interruption that meaning's inappropriability is exposed; and it is only in that exposure that an ethics of decision becomes available: as Avital Ronell reminds us, 'no decision is strictly possible without the experience of the undecidable' (Crack Wars 58).

Avital Ronell is a professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where she teaches an Intensive Summer Seminar.