Phew, I don’t know about you, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, but I haven’t been able to tear myself away from watching seemingly every major literary and theoretical academic showing their ass at once, defending Professor Avital Ronell since the original New York Times article last week exposed former student Nimrod Reitman’s Title IX case against the scholar. With Ronell suspended without pay for a year from her position at New York University, a new defense of Ronell seems to pop up daily from inside the academy (of course, there seems to be a huge divide between those with swank university positions and us outsiders, as well as anonymous grad students–not to say there aren’t those inside academia critical of Ronell’s behavior). It’s as if the people who spend all their time dissecting power never stopped to analyze their own.
If you haven’t been paying as much obsessive attention as I have, faithful Filthy Dreams reader, I’ll catch you up. Last September, Nimrod Reitman, a former NYU PhD student, filed a Title IX harassment complaint against his advisor Ronell, detailing ongoing harassment and general skin-crawling behavior. Now a fellow at Harvard, Reitman, as the Times reports, “says that Professor Ronell kissed and touched him repeatedly, slept in his bed with him, required him to lie in her bed, held his hand, texted, emailed and called him constantly, and refused to work with him if he did not reciprocate.” While the touching and kissing are certainly crossing the line, the ongoing communication between Ronell and Reitman, as laid out in the full suit Reitman recently filed against Ronell and NYU, is staggering to say the least. It details an ongoing monopolization of Reitman’s time by Ronell who wrote him with romantic pet names and fantasies like, “My sweet delight, dear Nimrod, … I miss you strongly! … I will hold you close to my heart silently, as I once did, and just listen to your intimate rhythm, heart, heart, your breathing, heart, heart. I liked when you would drift off and I could lose myself in your soft breathing. I’m not sure you remember, because, well, you had drifted off. I asked for those moments to last forever! …”
Some of the attention on this accusation may have to do with the switch in gender dynamics in this #MeToo era, but the case probably wouldn’t have exploded without the publication of a letter penned in defense of Ronell by some of the biggest names in academia–figures that you recognize by just their last names like Butler, Zizek, Spivak, Apter and more. In the letter, dated May 11, 2018 and addressed to NYU President Andrew Hamilton and Provost Katharine Fleming, the academics support Ronell, while also admitting to not knowing all the details of the case. Their reasoning? “We testify to the grace, the keen wit, and the intellectual commitment of Professor Ronell and ask that she be accorded the dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation.” You know who else has a keen wit? Louis C.K. and Woody Allen.
The letter, for which Judith Butler has penned a half-assed apology that ends up more enraging in its admission that this letter was based primarily on hearsay, was published on the blog Leiter Reports, which Jack Halberstam called on Facebook, a “right wing philosophy site” as if that somehow changes the tenor and contents of that letter.
Perhaps because of the criticism that letter has garnered, other academics are now circling their wagons, jumping on board with more ill-advised hot takes, including Lisa Duggan at Bully Bloggers and Chris Kraus on some strange pro-Avital Ronell site that I thought at first was a joke. Each essay seems to be more eye-opening than the next as these academics mirror the language and behavior of the Trump administration with accusations that Reitman leaked information to the Times (what does that change about the case?) and a hefty dose of victim blaming. Duggan even gets personal by implying that Reitman is able to pursue the case because his husband is “a member of a wealthy New York real estate family.” I guess, Lisa, he was asking for it.
I went to NYU and I studied under one of the letter’s signatories and each new defense feels fresh and appalling as these academics enact the same toxic power structures they critique in their work. But, what has been nagging at me the most has been the use of camp to gaslight those outside academia into thinking that Ronell’s relationship with Reitman wasn’t abusive, but a fruitful form of “queer intimacy,” as Duggan writes, between advisor and advisee. While other writers have deftly laid out the power dynamics inherent in this troublesome exposure of the academic star system, as a connoisseur of camp, I feel compelled to weigh in. Even tenured professors can be wrong about camp.
On her swooning correspondence to Reitman, Ronell explained: “Our communications — which Reitman now claims constituted sexual harassment — were between two adults, a gay man and a queer woman, who share an Israeli heritage, as well as a penchant for florid and campy communications arising from our common academic backgrounds and sensibilities. These communications were repeatedly invited, responded to and encouraged by him over a period of three years.” She dug in further by telling the German publication Welt that their exchanges were examples of a “hyberbolic gay dialect.” Get camp out of your mouth, lady! And using queerness to excuse bad behavior also plays into the assumption that all queers are pervy deviants (which nothing against pervy deviancy as long as it’s consensual and without problematic power imbalances!).
But, Ronell isn’t the only one evoking camp. In the LA Review of Books’s newly published piece on the saga/shit show, Harvard prof and one of the aforementioned letter signatories John Hamilton said: “I signed the letter to support a friend I’ve known for 30 years and who always acted respectfully. Avital can be flirtatious and I could imagine her crossing lines in a campy way; usually it was nothing more than fun. Obviously this person didn’t feel that way, and these accusations have to be taken very seriously.” Looking past the paradox of “always acting respectfully” and “crossing lines,” Hamilton again evokes camp in order to contextualize sexual harassment.
To be thorough, I read through the entirety of Reitman’s suit to try to see if I could find some genuine examples of camp, but what I found instead were instances like these: “I’ll see you at the orifice, I mean office, and we’ll have our sacred and beautiful time together, something that each time exceeds all expectation,” “My Nimrod, sweet companion-prince, … I will wake you up every day in New York to celebrate with you … Every day. The nights I will shower you with poetry, whether you are near or indwelling according to other proximities, ever close to my heart. …” or “it’s your cock-er-spaniel calling.” These are…something, but camp isn’t what I’d call them.
And why not? Because the power shift enacted by camp is antithetical to the one set up by Ronell, as well as preserved by her defenders. Now, this misunderstanding of camp is partially due to camp’s unmooring from its subversive and political beginnings as a coded language between queer people. I mean, even conservatives are using camp now. In his essay “Notes on Camp/Anti Camp,” Bruce LaBruce also sees a switch in the cultural understanding of camp: “I would go so far as to argue that “camp” has replaced “irony” as the go-to sensibility in popular culture, and it has, at the risk of generalization, long since lost its essential qualities of esoteric sophistication and secret signification, partly owing to the contemporary tendency of the gay sensibility to allow itself to be thoroughly co-opted, its mystery, and therefore its power, hopelessly diffused.” Concluding that the “whole goddamn world is camp,” it makes sense that eventually camp would be used as an excuse for harassment and a means to gaslight. If it no longer signifies anything concrete, why not try it?
But, if we return to the original use of camp, camp, unlike the celeb scholar and lowly submissive advisee, rejects the star system. Sure, camp has always had its divas and role models, but camp drags them along with everyone else into the gutter. As Quentin Crisp, that master of camp, writes in The Naked Civil Servant, “Never keep up with the Joneses. Drag them down to your level. It’s cheaper.”
While Ronell may have been trying to be funny in some of the communication, her lording over Reitman and her overpowering ownership over him are also quite apparent. Camp, on the other hand, as Sontag wrote, is “a seriousness that fails.” If one thing has been clear from the beginning of this entire discussion, it’s that Ronell and her supporters take the given academic hierarchy VERY seriously. In contrast, David Caron noted in an unpublished lecture, quoted in David M. Halperin’s How To Be Gay, “Far from reproducing an exclusionary class structure, camp simultaneously produces and is produced by a community of equals” (190).
More than just equalizing a community of similar aesthetic sensibilities and even, marginalized identities, camp also can undermine hierarchies. Halperin later states in How To Be Gay, “Camp is about deflating pretension, dismantling hierarchy and remembering that all queers are stigmatized and no one deserves the kind of dignity that comes at the expense of someone else’s shame” (207). Precisely. Clearly, here, Ronell’s attempt at camp came at the expense of someone else’s shame. And dismantling hierarchies is precisely what these academics don’t want, which explains some of the ire coming from the academy as they worry they might be moved down a peg or two, or (gasp!) have to submit to a more equalizing power structure. Halperin continues, “That is also why camp, as we have seen, is inclusive and democratic, why it implies a world of horizontal rather than vertical social relations” (207).
“Camp doesn’t preach; it demeans. But it doesn’t demean some people at other people’s expense. It takes everyone down with it together,” says Halperin (191). While Ronell’s harassment isn’t camp, that taking everyone down together just might be exactly what needs to happen in academia. So if you truly want camp, academics, get ready to get in the gutter with the rest of us, Mary, both in and outside academia.