Avital Ronell, or How to Transform Philosophy into an Artistic Performance ?

AvitalBorn in Prague to Israeli diplomats, Avital Ronell’s cultural background appears quite diverse. The Jewish family moved from Prague to Tel Aviv to New York. After receiving a Bachelor or Arts from Middlebury College, Vermont, she went to Berlin to study at the Hermeneutics Institute under Jacob Taubes. She ultimately earned her Doctorate in German studies at Princeton University with a dissertation on Goethe, Kafka, and Hölderlin. She met Jacques Derrida in 1979, with whom she came to develop a friendship and later taught an annual seminar on Literature and Philosophy at New York University. In the 1980s, she translated the philosopher’s works and also worked together with Professor Hélène Cixous at Université Paris VIII. Deeply influenced by deconstructionism as both an academic and a performance artist, she was described by her editor Diane Davis as at once “a consummate scholar and an anti-scholar”. Avital Ronell subsequently taught at the University of California at Berkeley from 1984 to 1995. Since then a Professor of German, Comparative Literature and English at New York University, her areas of interest range from literature to philosophy (particularly deconstruction), psychoanalysis, feminism, technology and media, trauma and violence studies, and performance art. She retains strong ties with Europe, and famously worked with French philosophers François Noudelmann, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy. She also regularly teaches at the European Graduate School, in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where she holds the Jacques Derrida Chair of Media and Philosophy.

A bold and pioneering philosopher, she is considered one of America’s leading deconstructionists. According to Diane Davis, “it’s tempting to say that she does French theory American-style within a Germanic frame and marked by a Talmudic meticulousness”, which would prove quite an accurate depiction, if it were not for her acute sense of irony towards scholarly tradition. She strives to widen the scope of philosophy to yet unexplored areas, using ontology, phenomenology, metaphysics and ethics in order to elaborate on stupidity (in her eponymous essay), addiction (Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania), telephony (The Telephone-Book: Technology-Schizophrenia-Electric Speech), AIDS (Finitude Scores: Essays for the End of the Millenium) or the human compulsion towards testing and being put to the test (The Test-Drive).

Avital Ronell’s corpus offers stimulating perspective on what happens on the contemporary stage, as for instance when, in an interview with Anne Dufourmantelle, she comments on the way technology redefines the contour of the “post-human body”, or her reflection on the television screen (a prop that proliferates in performances today) and the concept of spectrality. If her works cannot be said to provide a philosophical framework to drama strictly speaking, they contribute to explode the traditional disciplinary borders and thus to redefine theatricality.

Avital Ronell turns performance philosophy into a performed philosophy. When she does not perform herself (as in the 2010 What was I thinking? lecture performance/play), she actually stages language in her texts, resorting to a creative, calligrammatic layout mixing texts, drawings and an original use of punctuation. In writings such as Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania or The Telephone Book, the textual matter becomes a visual performance, and even a score. Ronell thus dramatizes philosophy. In Stupidity, she combines biographical elements (such as her subjective experience of stupidity during a Tai Chi class in New York) with literary references to American and European authors and philosophers.

Avital Ronell is a unique philosopher who strives to enact philosophy and, as she words it herself, to “crack open the closural sovereignty of the Book”.

Selected bibliography (English):

  • Ronell, Avital. « Stormy Weather: Blues in Winter. » The New York Times. February 2, 2013.
  • Ronell, Avital. Loser Sons: Politics and Authority. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012.
  • Ronell, Avital, Jacques Ranciere, Jean-Luc Nancy, Claire Denis, Alain Badiou, Jean-Christophe Bailly, Étienne Balibar.  “Save the Greeks from their Saviors!” Liberation. February 22, 2012. Translation into English by Anastazia Golemi and Drew S. Burk.
  • Ronell, Avital. « The Shock of Puberty. » European Graduate School Lecture, 2011.
  • Ronell, Avital. Fighting Theory: In Conversation with Anne Dufourmantelle (translated from French by Catherine Porter). Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Have I Been Destroyed? Answering to Authority and the Politics of the Father. » Differences. Vol. 21, No. 1, 2010, p. 48.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Nietzsche Loves You: A Media-Technological Start-up. » Discourse. Vol. 31, No. 1-2, 2009, p. 161-179.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Untread and Untried: Nietzsche Reads Derridemocracy. » Diacritics. Vol. 38, No. 1, 2009, p. 158-171.
  • Ronell, Avital; Davis, Diane (ed.). The ÜberReader: Selected Works of Avital Ronell. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
  • Ronell, Avital and Kac, Eduardo. Eduardo Kac & Avital Ronell: Life Extreme: An Illustrated Guide to New Life. Dis Voir, 2007.
  • Ronell, Avital (Editor) and Carla Harryman (Editor) and Amy Scholder (Editor). Lust for life: on the writings of Kathy Acker. Verso, 2006.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Surrender and the Ethically Binding Signature: On Johnson’s Reparative Process. » Differences. Vol. 17, No. 3, 2006, p. 129.
  • Ronell, Avital. The Test Drive. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Koan Practice or Taking Down the Test. » Parallax. Vol. 10, No. 1, 2004, p. 58-71.
  • Ronell, Avital. « The Testamentary Whimper. » The South Atlantic Quarterly. Vol. 103, No. 2/3, Spring/Summer 2004. p. 489-499.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Proving Grounds: On Nietzsche and the Test Drive. » MLN. Vol. 118, No. 3, April 2003. p. 653-669.
  • Ronell, Avital. « The Experimental Disposition: Nietzsche’s Discovery of America (Or, Why the Present Administration Sees Everything in Terms of a Test). » American Literary History. Vol. 15, No. 3, Autumn 2003, p. 560-574.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Special Topic: On Poetry – On the Misery of Theory without Poetry: Heidegger’s Reading of Holderlin’s « Andenken ». Publications of the Modern Language Association of America. Vol. 120, No. 1, 2005, p. 16.Ronell, Avital. Stupidity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Testing Your Love, or, Breaking Up ». European Graduate School. Lecture by Avital Ronell. August 2002.
  • Ronell, Avital. « On the Unrelenting Creepiness of Childhood: Lyotard, Kid-Tested ». European Graduate School. Lecture by Avital Ronell. August 2001.
  • Ronell, Avital. « The Uninterrogated Question of Stupidity ». Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies8.2. Summer 1996, pp. 1-19.
  • Ronell, Avital. Finitude’s Score: Essays for the End of the Millennium (on War Technology, Medical Ethics, Philosophy and Literature). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Our Narcotic Modernity. » in: Verena Andermatt Conley (Editor) and Peter Andermatt (Editor). Rethinking Technologies. University of Minnesota Press. November 1993.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Support Our Tropes I: Reading Desert Storm. » in: Frederick M. Dolan and Thomas L. Dumm (Editor). Rhetorical Republic: Governing Representations in American Politics. University of Massachusetts Press. Amherst, September 1993, pp. 13-37.
  • Ronell, Avital. Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Video/Television/Rodney King: Twelve Steps beyond the Pleasure Principle. » Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 4.2. 1992, pp. 1-15.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Support Our Tropes II (Or Why in Cyburbia There Are a Lot of Cowboys). » in: Yale Journal of Criticism 5. Spring 1992
  • Ronell, Avital. « The Walking Switchboard. » Substance 61. 1990, pp. 75-94.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Namely, Eckerman. » Laurence A. Rickels (Editor). Looking After Nietzsche (Suny Studies in Intersection : Philosophy and Critical Theory). State University of New York Press, 1990.
  • Ronell, Avital. The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
  • Ronell, Avital. « The Worst Neighborhoods of the Real: Philosophy-Telephone-Contamination. » Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 1. 1989, pp. 125-145.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Starting from Scratch: Mastermix. » in: Socialist Review 18.2. 1988, pp. 73-85.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Goethezeit. » in: Smith, Joseph H. (Editor) and William Kerrigan (Editor). Taking Chances: Derrida, Psychoanalysis, and Literature (Psychiatry and the Humanities, Vol 7). Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
  • Ronell, Avital. « The Differends of Man. » Diacritics 19. Fall-Winter 1988, pp. 63-75.
  • Ronell, Avital. « The Sujet Suppositaire: Freud and the Rat Man. » Jonathan Culler. On Puns: The Foundation of Letters. Blackwell. 1988, pp. 115-139.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Hitting the Streets: Ecce Fama. » Stanford Italian Review 6. 1988, pp. 119-140.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Doing Kafka in the Castle: A Poetics of Desire. » Alan Udoff (Editor). Kafka and the Contemporary Critical Performance: Centenary Readings. Indiana University Press. Bloomington, 1987, pp. 214-235.
  • Ronell, Avital. Dictations: On Haunted Writing. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Street Talk. » Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 11, Fall 1986, pp. 105-131.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Taking it Philosophically: Torquato Tasso’s Women as Theorists. » MLN 100. April 1985, pp. 599-631.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Sutura Goethei: L’Articulations Freud-Goethe. » Cahiers Confrontation 12. Autumn 1984, pp. 131-140.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Queens of the Night: Nietzsche’s Antibodies. » Genre 16. Winter 1983, pp. 405-422.

Selected works (French):

  • Ronell, Avital, Jacques Ranciere, Jean-Luc Nancy, Claire Denis, Alain Badiou, Jean-Christophe Bailly, Étienne Balibar. Sauvons le peuple grec de ses sauveurs!, Liberation. February 22, 2012.
  • Ronell, Avital. Lignes de Front (translated from English by Daniel Loayza). Paris: Stock, 2010.
  • Ronell, Avital. « L’indélicatesse d’un interminable fondu au noir. » Europe : Revue littéraire mensuelle. Vol. 88, No. 973, 2010.
  • Ronell, Avital. Test drive : la passion de l’épreuve (translated from English by Christophe Jaquet). Paris: Stock, 2009.
  • Ronell, Avital and Marcel Detienne. « Chroniques – Sans Commentaire. » Commentaire. Vol. 32, No. 127, 2009, p. 765.
  • Ronell, Avital. Addict : fixions et narcotextes (translated from English by Daniel Loayza). Paris: Bayard, 2009.
  • Ronell, Avital. « Ravages de l’impossible. » Europe : revue littéraire mensuelle. Vol. 86, No. 949, 2008, p. 274.
  • Ronell, Avital; Dufourmantelle, Anne. American philo : entretiens avec Anne Dufourmantelle. Paris: Stock, 2006.
  • Ronell, Avital. Telephone book : Technologie, schizophrénie et langue électrique (translated from English by Daniel Loayza). Paris: Bayard, 2006.
  • Ronell, Avital. Stupidity (translated from English by Céline Surprenant and Christophe Jaquet). Paris: Stock, 2006.

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A propos de l'auteur : Julien Alliot

Julien Alliot est agrégé d’anglais, doctorant à l’Université Paris IV-Sorbonne, membre de VALE et du LAPS, actuellement professeur en Classes Préparatoires aux Grandes Écoles au lycée Raspail de Paris. Sa thèse en cours, intitulée « La fête paradoxale : mettre en scène le sujet en crise de Samuel Beckett à Mike Leigh » tente d’articuler les multiples discours théoriques sur le phénomène festif avec sa représentation esthétique dans le théâtre britannique contemporain, afin de dégager les modalités d’une nouvelle mimesis propre à un sujet contemporain affecté par une crise protéiforme.