Trouble With the Academic Star System

It remains to be seen how the Avital Ronell affair will play out. The letter presented in her defense and signed by well-known theorists and many lesser figures has evoked more scorn than sympathy, and it may signify a generational turn in literary studies.

There is one element of the whole thing, however, that seems beyond question and is entirely uncontroversial. It is the characterization of Professor Ronell and her supporters as celebrities and stars.

One of Ronell’s colleagues said in a New York Times story that Ronell was “one of the very few philosopher-stars of this world.

A piece in Frontpage Mag termed the letter writers “lefty celebs.” Jezebel called Ronell a “superstar,” while Haaretz characterized signers of the statement “superstars like Judith Butler, the current high priestess of gender studies, and Slavoj Zizek the moral conscience of international human rights and perhaps the world’s most famous living philosopher.”

Apparently, the eminence and prestige of these individuals is a leading part of the story, whatever the specific facts of the case may be. Or, rather, not really their eminence. Celebrity is a different thing. Eminence has more grounding in the academic work a scholar and teacher has produced. When you discuss a person’s eminence or renown or distinguished profile, you turn to the ideas, theories, discoveries, and intellectual impact and influence.

Celebrity, on the other hand, has more a social meaning. It applies to the realm of fame, gossip, name-recognition, and networking. A celebrity professor may be known more for his clothing than for the arguments in his essays. In the stories on the Ronell case, you find little information about or description of The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech, Ronell’s 1989 study of texts, typography, and communication. We don’t even get a smattering of her ideas and interpretations. The most the reporters do is cite her dominant forebears, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan–in other words, other celebrities. It’s the status that counts.

Of course, in institutions putatively founded on intellectual criteria, status fixations are a sign of decadence. When they grow too strong, we know that the disciplinary grounds of the field have deteriorated. To call the leaders of the field “stars” is to assume a star system operating within it, a competition for prestige and renown that always threatens to slide into the wrong kinds of rivalry. A star system shifts the focus from the objects in a discipline, the artworks and such, to the subjects, the practitioners of it. Ideas rank less than who is who and who is where.

The adjustment is heightened when jobs are scarce. If there are 100 tenure-track openings in Medieval literature each year, the plum positions at Berkeley and Chicago don’t draw as much covetousness as they do when there are only 15 openings across the nation. The precious few who win those elite posts don’t evoke as much envy from people who end up at Arizona State and Colorado College. In fact, when the job possibilities are multiple, they may not envy that Princeton hire at all, knowing that she faces six years of pressure and, perhaps, dim chances of tenure.

To be sure, much of the reporting on the “star” aspect of the Ronell case is due to the gossipy nature of the reporting itself. The newspapers loved the juicy details, and the fact of Ronell’s lesbianism and her accuser’s homosexuality only added to the sensationalism. They could see it as an enticing episode of “Lifestyles of the Academically Famous.”

But reporters don’t talk this way about scientists, even when scandalous or strange elements are involved. They include the messy stuff, but they also tend to identify the scientific reasons why the scientist became famous in the first place. When the film A Beautiful Mind came out in 2001, stories in the press followed that highlighted mathematician John Nash’s mental illness and erratic behavior. Nonetheless, they tried to explain the developments in behavior and game theory that brought him the Nobel Prize and other recognitions.

The reporters in Ronell’s case didn’t even attempt to outline her vision and writings. Maybe they started to look up her work and found sentences such as these from The Telephone 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. To crack open the closural sovereignty of the Book, we have feigned silence and disconnection, suspending the tranquil cadencing of paragraphs and conventional divisions.”

Imagine a reporter trying to make sense of that. They can’t. It’s the idiom of 1980s theory, accessible only to true believers in Derrida and Lacan. Writing such as this doesn’t present a discovery or an idea. It’s a performance, one of a thousand rehearsals of deconstructionist and (French) psychoanalytical notions from that time. Ronell simply did it better than the other disciples and did a lot of them (her output is massive). It made her a star in the tiny universe of cultural theory–and that’s all the journalists could say.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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3 thoughts on “Trouble With the Academic Star System

  1. I had no idea who this high priestess was until it was noted that she was of gender studies. It was then that I realized I didn’t need to know who she was.

    However, as a STEM graduate, I am concerned that there are some (perhaps this star) that wants to convert STEM to STEAM (A as in liberal arts). Getting a STEM degree is difficult and now very expensive. Adding an A should be forbidden.

  2. Now, those two professors — one from UT Austin, one from Kyoto — who won the Nobel prize in medicine and physiology today, for their pioneering work in cancer immunotherapy — to me, they are academic stars!

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