Victim culture eats one of its own

The Avital Ronell scandal exposes the absurdity of the culture of complaint.

James Heartfield

Topics Books Politics

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Scandal! New York University professor Avital Ronell has been suspended after a complaint from her student Nimrod Reitman that she had sexually harassed him. Among many allegations of sexual harassment, this one stands out, first, because the ‘harasser’ is a woman and the ‘victim’ a man. And second because Ronell has a reputation as a radical who heads the ‘trauma and violence transdisciplinary studies programme’ (which focuses, in part, on grievance and complaint), and is Jacques Derrida Professor at the European Graduate School.

The broader contextual backstory is now well known. US colleges were advised by the Obama administration to make sure that women were not denied equal opportunities at college as a consequence of sexual harassment or abuse. Colleges beefed up their internal investigations of alleged harassers under what was called ‘Title IX’ (the name of the sex-discrimination-in-education clause in US equal-opportunities law). As many people have pointed out, the Title IX investigations were often overzealous and the process faulty, leading to many false conclusions that were later overturned in the law courts (where the burden of proof is higher). (Details of the many unjust Title IX hearings and conclusions were collected in Laura Kipnis’s book Unwanted Advances.)

It was Title IX that was invoked against Ronell. Reitman says that from the moment he was offered a place studying for his doctorate, under the supervision of Ronell, she ‘created a fictitious romantic relationship between herself and her student Reitman, and asserted complete domination and control over his life, both inside and outside of his academic endeavours, repeatedly and forcibly groping, touching and kissing him on a regular basis’. In his different testimonies he went on to list many examples of her intrusive and possessive behaviour towards him.

In its own internal hearing, New York University found that his ‘learning environment’ had been damaged by Ronell’s actions, but the university could not determine whether she had sexually assaulted him. (Not satisfied, he has made a further claim against NYU, the particulars of which are copied here.)

As is the way with these things, the real cauldron of comment has been on social media, where Ronell has been roasted. Almost everybody is against her, and those few who stuck up for her have been vilified. Quite a few are sadistically enjoying her social shaming. Sadly for Ronell, the story has a special appeal to two different groups who are very vocal on Twitter and other platforms. The alt-right supporters of ‘men’s rights’ – always smarting at the accusations of sexual harassment against men – are thrilled that they can now turn the tables on someone they identify as a ‘social-justice warrior’, ‘feminist’ and (damning!) ‘close friend of Judith Butler’. To them, the case shows that feminist campaigns against groping profs are hypocritical. For those fixated on the ‘cultural Marxists’ supposed to have taken over American universities, Ronell’s extensive promotion of the French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida makes her an ideal hate figure.

On the other hand, those who have been vocal in the campaign to highlight harassment, the #MeTooers, are also condemning Ronell. Esther Wang, writing for the feminist Jezebel, judges that ‘power accumulates around influential scholars, facilitating abuse and protecting them from any real consequences’, and says that Ronell is not a real feminist, anyway. The revolution eats its own, as we have seen a lot lately. On the left, Brooklyn College professor Corey Robin has also weighed in to say that Ronell was acting out ‘a more intense, more extreme, more abusive instance of a pervasive imbalance of power in academe’. To these liberal and radical commentators, the case shows the need for more vigilance in the prosecution of domineering professors.

Those few who have stuck up for Ronell, like Judith Butler, Slavoj Zizek and the writer Chris Kraus (her novel I Love Dick is really good, but as it is mostly about stalking an academic, it might not be the best look for a defender of someone accused of stalking an academic), have been hounded. A petition was set up to demand that Butler be stripped of her title as chair of the Modern Languages Association, and she apologised for using that title in her letter of support for Ronell.

Ronell has publicly replied, rejecting Reitman’s allegations. She points out that NYU did not find that she had assaulted Reitman, but only that the communications were intrusive. Ronell says that Reitman’s communications were just as affectionate and flirtatious – reproducing many of them on a Ronell-defending website, including this:

‘Sweet Beloved, I was so happy to see you tonight, and spend time together. It was so magical and important, crucial on [sic] so many ways. Our shared intimacy was a glorious cadence to our time in Berlin. Thank you for these moments of togetherness and utter and pure love!…Infinitely, – n’

As it turns out, we know a lot about what Ronell thinks of the process of complaining, because her new book, Complaint: Grievance Among Friends, focuses on it, and was written in part around the time she herself was complained about. The book is in the deconstructionist style, so it is rather hard to pin down. Still, we do get some choice insights into Ronell’s frame of mind: ‘As chief symptomologist and head of the Existentialist Complaint Bureau’, Ronell jokes (about the trauma and violence interdisciplinary programme), ‘I learned the hard way that we are trapped in a grid of grievance’, before going on to say that she is ‘allergic to snivelers and complainers’ and their ‘chronic sense of disturbed privilege’.

In Complaint she sets herself the goal of working out whether ‘the registry of complaints by which we are seized constitutes a bug or an essential feature of the conditions of our [society]’. And in doing so, she talks compellingly and sensibly of the culture of complaint and the way it depletes society and, most of all, those who give way to moaning.

A complaint, she writes, is ‘a gnawing, bellyaching, grumbling and mean-spirited missive of revulsion’ that ‘heads nowhere on fast triggers, squeezing out drops of stifled rage’. Complaining drains social resources, she says: ‘One is responsible for one’s moods, for the way one upholds Mitsein [here meaning something like “civility”] and goes about the practice of social justice every time one faces others.’ For that reason ‘one must desist from fatiguing the interlocutor and friends with utterances borne of foul humour, avoid the unleashing of corrosive complaints… Bitch-moan, bitch-moan, blah-nag, blah-nag.’ It is, she writes, ‘within your power to stop approaching the tipping point of bad sociality: the invasive arrogance of presenting and pressing and pushing a rotten mood’.

Preparing for a 2014 seminar series on complaint, which formed the initial impulse for Complaint, Ronell reads psychoanalyst François Roustang’s book La Fin de la Plainte (2000), warming to his sharp attack on the narcissism of complainers. She quotes Roustang on these Narcissi: ‘They think they can subdue the suffering that emanates from their mad search, but in fact they lock themselves into what they claim they have overcome. There is no exit for them other than an appeal to pity or compassion.’

Complaint, as Ronell reads Roustang, is not consolation or overcoming, but hanging on to injury: ‘The complaint is an effect of the refusal to grow up… the cherished self of the childhood that remains frozen in a pout.’ This acerbic criticism of the culture of complaint seems like a powerful position for Ronell. Sadly, though, she does not stick with it. Just as she dismisses the narcissism of complaining, Ronell turns back on herself and makes a case for a kind of good complaining, complaining that will lead to positive change.

‘In order to be in a position to complain, one must presume a right to something – to a better deal, a better world…’. Ronell, following Werner Hamacher, asks ‘who (or what) has the right to complain?’, and ‘who represents those who cannot even complain?’. She is scandalised that ‘the poorest of the poor’, those ‘stuck in miserable circumstances’, seem to be the ones who most often say, ‘I can’t complain’ – her examples here, though, are of stoical and determinedly cheerful people, coping. She thinks that there are some things that one ought to complain about: ‘I cannot hold it down when the vulnerable… are insulted: belittling injury would be my heart-thudding grievance, my staple complaint.’ Ronell complains that ‘the non-complainers get all the credit, staying within the boundaries of coded gracefulness’. ‘It is not graceful to complain’, but ‘I must complain’.

Following Derrida, Ronell invites us to ‘heed the ghostly, non-present other, to turn towards those who are voiceless, in some senses silenced and inhibited… their dimmed grumble calls for ethical responsiveness… We advocate for those whose presencing is compromised [that is, are unable to represent themselves].’ (Later, Ronell amends this, again citing Derrida, drawing attention to the pitfalls of ‘presuming to speak for those who will not speak up’. ‘What kind of violence occurs when you take up the cause and casualties of another?’, she queries, adding a useful qualification to the claims of advocacy.)

Here you have to ask whether Ronell has looked far enough into the nature of complaint. All complaint, as a demand for redress, is addressed to an authority that will restore the proper order. It does seem fundamentally conservative. Of course, she thinks that the injunction not to complain is conservative, meaning ‘put up with what you have’; but I wonder whether it would not be possible to frame optimistic hopes for a better world less as complaints (to the authorities), and more as a refusal of authority, and a determination to change.

Moreover, one feels that Ronell needs to be able to distinguish between what are petty personal differences and what is a substantial claim against the social order. The sociologist Michel Foucault convinced many that power is not in a singular dimension of oppression and oppressed, but rather distributed throughout society in myriad power relations. It was an idea that was shortened into ‘the personal is political’. Unfortunately, this blurs any distinction between real domination and unpleasantries between individuals. Ronell’s analysis of complaint might be better if it could separate the personality clashes from the broader social conflicts.


There is a lot of self-pity in Complaint. ‘It was never easy looking for a job’, she writes: ‘No matter how well I cleaned up, I was never an obvious choice or sell for an academic career… I was for a spell more or less blacklisted.’

After complaining about her career struggles, she turns to complain about her students: ‘The endless preps and rewrites of lectures, unacknowledged letters of recommendation, doctoral training and thesis edits, job marketeering under impossible circumstances, how I knock myself out on their behalf’, she writes, foreshadowing the relationship between herself and Reitman. Yet, in a moment of clarity, she asks herself if ‘the corrective compulsion they [the complaining students] betray’ is ‘not also a shadow of my own propensity for raging around the complaint’ (in the trauma and violence transdisciplinary studies programme)? That is, is the foregrounding of complaint in her teaching an invitation to disgruntled students to strike back in the same terms? ‘Maybe I should stifle my own species of restless indignation before going after others, less malicious in their plaintive habits, less ready to murder their benefactors’ – as Nimrod Reitman has now set out to finish off Avital Ronell, or at least her career.

Ronell and Derrida

Given her own trouble with her students, it is worth looking at the model of an intellectual master-student relationship that Ronell draws upon – her relationship with the grand magus of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida. The choice of Derrida was not so much a choice, as ‘a call’, she says, adding later that ‘resolving on your mentor is in some regards choosing your weapon’. She tells her own students that ‘they sail out under our flag’, suggesting that committing to Ronell’s deconstructionist team demands loyalty. That was her experience with Derrida. Playing on his proposed ‘Grammatology’, she sees their work together as ‘a sort of deprogrammatology’, deconstructing regimens of thought, from Saussure’s linguistics right through to the Rodney King trial.

Sometimes, though, in the choice of a supervisor, ‘the deal tanks’. Ronell thinks there is a kind of conflict written into the relationship, which she calls ‘negative transference’, like the transference that psychoanalysis patients feel when they fall in love with their analysts, except that the students come to hate their tutors. She warns that ‘it is hard to switch teams after a certain point, though – here’s the rub – you get extra points for doing so: just look at anyone who has turned on their teacher’. That’s the way of things, Derrida advised her, ‘even if you … handled their emergency calls, monitored and encouraged their emergent language spurts, diapered them academically, and so on and so forth’.

There is something of seduction in teaching, as there has been since the days of Alcibiades the Greek, and there is an element of bullying, too. But as the profession developed, those elements are properly submerged, and shifted on to an intellectual plane, for fear that their visceral meaning would overpower and corrupt the goal of teaching. The young Ludwig Wittgenstein found that out when he lost his job as a schoolteacher after the parents found out he beat their children.

It is striking that these complaints Ronell lays against her students mirror the complaints that her student Reitman laid against her: the students are needy, demanding ungrateful – all the things Reitman says about her, the teacher.


At the conclusion of Complaint, Ronell seems to want to make a general point about the state of America in the age of President Trump. ‘As I approached the finish line of this work,’ she writes of the election of Trump, ‘the problem and culture of complaint blew up in the face of a stunned citizenry’. (Given it was the citizenry who voted in the culture of complaint, it was perhaps less of a surprise to them than to Ronell.) ‘The “whiner-in-chief” [had] secured his entry into the body politic’, she writes: ‘One cannot underestimate the traumatic whacks coming from the institutional forms of hatred, the storm of grievances revealing the downside of blistering complaint – the complaint of privilege.’

Here one feels that there is a failure to understand that the ‘grievances’ that led to Donald Trump’s election were not all about privilege, but that he, too, spoke to the dispossessed in a way that the rival Democratic campaign seemed unable to. Still, Ronell says that the Trump election is ‘the mark of a protest gone bad, very bad, tremendously bad’. She hopes that there will be a different order of complaint, from ‘the righteous indignant, the defeated and sublime whimperers, the ones awakening to another logic of complaint’. She awaits ‘instructions daily from the community of warrior-agitators and other highly articulate activists on the ground in order to see how to move up against the impossible’.

But just as Ronell was hoping for ‘another logic of complaint,’ Nimrod Reitman was laying his complaints against her with NYU’s Title IX investigators. And it is not just Reitman who has accused Ronell of cultish domination. Other students and co-workers have gleefully hissed stories of Ronell’s ‘emotional abuse’.

There is one gaping hole in all of these accusations, namely that these are graduate students – adults. There is no sense in which Reitman was not free to say ‘no’ to Ronell, at any time. In fact, he is a broad-shouldered 37-year-old man; she is a slight 66-year-old woman. How can we take seriously that he was intimidated by her? All he had to do was to refuse, ask for another supervisor.

When I say this to people they pull back with horror, claiming that he is wholly at her mercy, to keep his place on the course, and for letters of recommendation, her withholding of which could – surely would! – destroy his career. This does not wash. Reitman is not a helpless proletarian at the mercy of the theory capitalists. He has already had considerable professional success, as both an accomplished pianist and as an art curator. He has resources at his disposal. He is married to a property developer. His mother has been a lawyer and a judge. He was free at any time to escape from Ronell’s clutches. More plausibly, Reitman chose to flirt and cuddle with Ronell, as the best strategy for getting through his course – a strategy that was insincere. It is not a picture that reflects well on either of them, but it makes sense of the evidence.

Culture is not kind to older women’s romantic dreams, casting them as pathetic and deluded old hags, like the Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales, or Kath in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane. Reitman told friends that Ronell was ‘a witch’ and a ‘monster’ – even as he was writing love letters to her. If Reitman has suffered at Ronell’s hands, the events recounted in his deposition to the courts have damaged her reputation, too.

If she is not guilty of sexual harassment, she is surely responsible for the vituperative relationships that she has made with her students. The analyst’s model of ‘transference’ is not a good one for the classroom, still less ‘negative transference’. Familiarity breeds contempt. The real damage she did was to her authority as a teacher. Moreover, as Ronell suggests in Complaint, there is perhaps something about the approach that she and the other leaders of the ‘trauma and violence transdisciplinary studies program’ took, which encouraged students to magnify their challenges into full-blown complaints. Focused so purposefully on grievance, it was maybe to be expected that the students would understand grievance as the currency recognised in this particular market and start to bank it. Perhaps summoning so many bitchy queens under the same roof was not such a great idea. Now they have turned on her, like cats about to eat their old lady owner. It sounds as if there was not enough teaching, and too much complaining.

James Heartfield is author, most recently, of The Equal Opportunities Revolution, published by Repeater. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Complaint: Grievance Among Friends, by Avital Ronell, is published by University of Illinois Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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