On Power and Aporia in the Academy: A Response in Three Parts

Amy Elizabeth Robinson
16 min readAug 19, 2018


This “idea of justice” seems to me to be irreducible in its affirmative character, in its demand of gift without exchange, without circulation, without recognition or gratitude, without economic circularity, without calculation and without rules, without reason and without rationality. And so we can recognize in it, indeed accuse, identify a madness. And perhaps another sort of mystique. And deconstruction is mad about this kind of justice.

…‘Perhaps,’ one must always say perhaps for justice.

— Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law”

Part One: The Mundane (Personal)

Twenty years ago I turned down a fellowship at a university I admired, that would have allowed me to work with a historian I admired even more, because of power.

This scholar worked on power — its construction, insinuation, and transmutation inside of and through social and cultural relations. She was doing innovative work on the intersection of race, gender, and empire. She deployed the exciting theoretical work of Michel Foucault and literary theory in an empirically-grounded way. Her writing was lucid, compelling, daring — in a word, powerful.

When I arrived for a visit on campus two things happened. First, I was hit full force with the fact that a man who had been my Resident Adviser in college, and who had slept with me when I was a depressed freshman under his charge, was one of her students, and at some point soon I would need to cross paths with him and navigate the embodied memory of sexual abuse. Power.

Second, it snowed. Her graduate students gathered in a dingy apartment and poured out hard alcohol. In order to do well at the school, they said (after a few drinks), I would need to be like her. She likes students who are mini-versions of her, they said. Plus, she might not be here very long, they said. She is au courant and being sought by other schools. So you’ll have to be like her and then learn to live without her. Or follow her. Power.

I chose a different school, Stanford, a university where I was more free to choose my own path, but also where I felt fairly untethered. I carved out my own subfields and worked with people across geographical boundaries, and started dating a computer engineer with absolutely no connection to campus. I felt kind of lost a lot of the time. Still, I made it through as myself. For that I am thankful.

The historian I admired spent one year as a Visiting Fellow at Stanford while I was taking classes, and I signed up for her course — on gender and power. It was packed to capacity, students from multiple departments spread around multiple tables. When it was time to volunteer for class presentations, I raised my hand and she caught my eye. She looked right at me, and then looked slowly around the room. “Aaa-my will take that week,” she said, drawing out the short, easy syllables of my name. “Amy is here. You got Amy.”

It is hard to describe how time slowed down, practically froze, in those moments, how three simple sentences could feel like such a threat. I stayed in the class for a few weeks, and watched. Then I dropped it. The theoretical and empirical weight of her mind was not worth the discomfort I could not shake. Power.

Part Two: The Extraordinary (Political)

Over this past week I have been thinking almost incessantly about scholarship, feminism, and power. Four days ago I awoke to a Facebook post about the case of Avital Ronell at NYU. Ronell was accused of sexually harassing a male graduate student, and has been suspended by the university for one year (she was cleared by the university on charges of sexual assault, stalking, and retaliation). The former student, Nimrod Reitman, used Title IX as a way into his own case. Title IX reads:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

Note that the wording of Title IX contains no explicit reference to feminism, “women,” or conventional gender binaries. According to the New York Times coverage of the story, the 11-month Title IX investigation found Ronell ‘responsible for sexual harassment, both physical and verbal, to the extent that her behavior was “sufficiently pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of Mr. Reitman’s learning environment.’”

The Facebook post to which I awoke, though, did not solely include a link to the article. It was actually a short lament, about a now-infamous letter. “Butler, Caruth, Culler, Nancy, Scott, Spivak!!” the writer exclaimed on a feminist historians’ page. “And others whose work I’ve admired through the years for their knife-sharp dissections of power. How could they fall prey to their own aporia?”

First, context. Eventually, we’ll tackle aporia.

In early May, a letter was drafted, and some version was sent, to the President and Provost of NYU. It was signed by “long-term colleagues of Professor Avital Ronell.” Among the signatories are feminist and intellectual luminaries such as Judith Butler (seemingly the author of the letter), Cathy Caruth, Jonathan Culler, Joan Wallach Scott, Catharine Stimpson, Jean-Luc Nancy, Manthia Diawara, Gayatri Chavravorty Spivak, Diane Davis, and Slavoj Zizek.

I have never studied with a single one of these scholars, but I have read work by many of them. It is all about power.

The letter, however, is about celebrity. It is about the cult of genius. It is lifting an individual outside and above the structures of power and hierarchy that the signers have spent so many years claiming to dismantle. It blames (or at best pigeonholes) the victim, assuages the dominant, and calls into heartbreaking question the genuineness of the signers’ seemingly radical work.

I’m going to break the letter down into the parts that shook me.

Although we have no access to the confidential dossier, we have all worked for many years in close proximity to Professor Ronell … We deplore the damage that this legal proceeding causes her, and seek to register in clear terms our objection to any judgment against her. We hold that the allegations against her do not constitute actual evidence, but rather support the view that malicious intention has animated and sustained this legal nightmare.

Joan Wallach Scott, esteemed historian of power, how could you sign something that claims to know, without even opening the archive, what constitutes “actual evidence,” that dismisses even one voice? How can allegations that are refused as “actual evidence” consequently be used to support any view at all, let alone a view that “malicious intention” stands alone behind the otherwise emptied-out claims? Are we living in relationship to the same kind of due process, of historical inquiry, of law?

We have all seen her relationship with students…

Have you, really? Hasn’t almost every case of sexual harassment or abuse included dissimulation of some sort? What do you really know?

…and some of us know the individual who has waged this malicious campaign against her.

They know, evidently, that he is guilty before being proved innocent — like most female-bodied victims of harassment or assault. (We know what she was wearing… we know she’s just a climber… we know she wanted it … we know, we know, we know.)

There is arguably no more important figure in literary studies at New York University than Avital Ronell whose intellectual power and fierce commitment to students and colleagues has established her as an exemplary intellectual and mentor throughout the academy. As you know, she is the Jacques Derrida Chair of Philosophy at the European Graduate School and she was recently given the award of Chevalier of Arts and Letters by the French government.

Here, I feel almost hit in the chest. One wishes that they had actually read their own letter as closely as the texts they examine, pull apart, consider in their work day to day. For in space of one sentence, the letter invokes Derrida, an icon of literary deconstruction and persistent (albeit slippery) resistance to the authoritarian solidity of state power, and the authority of the French state. With no sense of self-awareness or irony.

And it gets worse.

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.

What do grace and keen wit — such astoundingly clichéd feminine properties on the spectrum of conventionally-ascribed sexual difference — have to do with justice? And “international standing and reputation”? Woody Allen is witty. Harvey Weinstein is famous and awash in awards. What of that?

It turns out that Derrida, in his own time, penned a letter defending another sexual harasser. In an epistle to UC Irvine in 2004, on behalf of Dragan Kujundzic, Derrida deployed much of the same rhetoric as Butler et al have deployed in their own: “Even though I am not qualified to make a judgment concerning a confidential file,” he wrote, “I believe it is my duty to bear witness….” (Although we have no access to the confidential dossier…)

On the character and motives of the accuser: “how can she claim to have the right to initiate such a serious procedure and to put in motion such a weighty juridico-academic bureaucracy against a respectable and universally respected professor?… I know him to be absolutely incapable of using or abusing his power with students.” (some of us know the individual … we know, we know, we know….)

And then the threat: One cannot imagine or measure the gravity of the damage that a sanction, no matter how light, would do to our university,… if a sanction of whatever sort were allowed to sully both his honor and the honor of the university, I would sadly be obliged to put an end, immediately, to all my relations with UCI.”

And here is the current letter, with its own threat:

If she were to be terminated or relieved of her duties, the injustice would be widely recognized and opposed. The ensuing loss for the humanities, for New York University, and for intellectual life during these times would be no less than enormous and would rightly invite widespread and intense public scrutiny.

They go on. Ronell possesses “singular brilliance,” holds (in case you missed it the first time) an “international reputation,” has created an “illuminated world.” (She also sent a graduate student emails calling him her “baby love” and “cock-er spaniel,” among other things, and asked him to touch her breasts.) “She deserves a fair hearing, one that expresses respect, dignity, and human solicitude in addition to our enduring admiration.”

It makes me nauseous. I can’t stop thinking about it. Power.

But here is what makes me most uneasy: not the letter itself, but a comment made by Diane Davis, chair of the Department of Rhetoric at UT Austin, to the New York Times:

I am of course very supportive of what Title IX and the #MeToo movement are trying to do, of their efforts to confront and to prevent abuses, for which they also seek some sort of justice… But it’s for that very reason that it’s so disappointing when this incredible energy for justice is twisted and turned against itself, which is what many of us believe is happening in this case.

This comment is haunting me. Even with its later qualification (Davis said the Times left out a section in which she said “I stand with — I mean, obviously — every male, female, transgender, and nonbinary victim of abuse, sexual or otherwise, inside or outside of the academy,”), its invocation of some mythic energy moving in the wrong direction feels replete with a disturbing certitude. Because here is Joan Wallach Scott in the essay that made her reputation as a historian, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis”:

We need a refusal of the fixed and permanent quality of the binary opposition, a genuine historicization and deconstruction of the terms of sexual difference. We must become more self-conscious about distinguishing between our analytic vocabulary and the material we want to analyze. We must find ways (however imperfect) continually to subject our categories to criticism, our analyses to self-criticism. If we employ Jacques Derrida’s definition of deconstruction, this criticism means analyzing in context the way any binary opposition operates, reversing and displacing its hierarchical construction, rather than accepting it as real or self-evident or in the nature of things. In a sense, of course, feminists have been doing this for years. The history of feminist thought is a history of the refusal of the hierarchical construction of the relationship between male and female in its specific contexts and an attempt to reverse or displace its operations.

But what “reversals or displacements” of hierarchy are considered legitimate? Only the ones that institutionally powerful feminist scholars legitimize? And are these signatories perhaps more comfortable with reversal (wielding power rather than being subjected to it) than with displacement (a disruption in the anticipated flow of power)?

When the Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed Scott about her signing of the letter (in June, before the NYU investigation results or the emails were released), she was only mildly self-critical.

When asked if the letter suggested that Ronell’s should be treated with dignity because of her international reputation or if the signers were trying to influence the outcome of an investigation, Scott agreed that the letter had some “inconsistencies” in it.

“Many people who signed the letter knew more than they could say,” she said. She added that it was written and signed quickly because some of the signers had a growing and urgent sense that they had to do something. “The idea was to somehow testify that this was somebody who was beyond reproach not because of her international reputation, but because there have been no other allegations of this kind against her,” Scott said.

First, let’s quickly note the dismissal of the claims to “international reputation” as a special defense, followed by the logically (not to mention ethically) inconsistent claim that Ronell is beyond reproach because she has never before been reproached. Then, let us consider the matter of urgency. Derrida had something to say about that. Urgency and aporia.

Around 1990, Derrida was asked to give a talk on the theme of “Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice.” From this talk emerged a paper, “Force of Law,” that addresses, among other things, “several aporias, those in which, between law and justice, deconstruction finds its privileged site — or rather its privileged instability.” These aporias, he says, included “épokhè and rule,” the “ghost of the undecidable,” and the “urgency that obstructs the horizon of knowledge.”

I went back and read “Force of Law” two evenings ago. When I was not laughing at the rambling self-aggrandizing obfuscation, or holding my head in agony, I was noticing some things. I would love to be able to pull out a few pithy, relevant quotes to share, but of course Derrida is not like that. He is like this:

There are no doubt many reasons why the majority of texts, hastily identified as “deconstructionist” — for example, mine — seem, I do say seem, not to foreground the theme of justice (as theme, precisely), or the theme of ethics or politics. … [Still,] it goes without saying that discourses on double affirmation, the gift beyond exchange and distribution, the undecidable, the incommensurable or the incalculable, or on singularity, difference and heterogeneity are also, through and through, at least obliquely discourses on justice.

And this:

…this anxiety-ridden moment of Suspense-which is also the interval or space in which transformations, indeed juridico-political revolutions take place — cannot be motivated, cannot find its movement and its impulse (an impulse which itself cannot be suspended) except in the demand for an increase in or supplement to justice, and so in the experience of an inadequation or an incalculable disproportion. For in the end, where will deconstruction find its force, its movement or its motivation if not in this always unsatisfied appeal, beyond the given determinations of what we call, in determined contexts, justice, the possibility of justice?

Still, I will take a deep breath and try. “Deconstruction,” Derrida tells us,

would like, in order to be consistent with itself, not to remain enclosed in purely speculative, theoretical, academic discourses but rather…to aspire to something more consequential, to change things and to intervene in an efficient and responsible though always, of course, very mediated way, not only in the profession but in what one calls the citd, the polis and more generally the world. Not, doubtless, to change things in the rather naive sense of calculated, deliberate and strategically controlled intervention, but in the sense of maximum intensification of a transformation in progress, in the name of neither a simple symptom nor a simple cause (other categories are required here). In an industrial and hyper-technologized society, academia is less than ever the monadic or monastic ivory tower that in any case it never was.

Not, doubtless, to change things in the rather naive sense of calculated, deliberate and strategically controlled intervention, but in the sense of maximum intensification of a transformation in progress — is this what Butler was going for? Was she, in penning that letter, trying to find a “privileged site” between law and justice? To create or simulate a “privileged instability”? Did she realize that her privilege was obstructing her view?

There are “equivocal slippages between law (droit) and justice,” Derrida says.

Every time that something comes to pass or turns out well, every time that we placidly apply a good rule to a particular case, to a correctly subsumed example, according to a determinant judgment, we can be sure that law (droit) may find itself accounted for, but certainly not justice. Law (droit) is not justice. Law is the element of calculation, and it is just that there be law, but justice is incalculable, it requires us to calculate with the incalculable; and aporetic experiences are the experiences, as improbable as they are necessary, of justice, that is to say of moments in which the decision between just and unjust is never insured by a rule.

Justice is incalculable. Overflowing with the performative. Dependent on speech acts. Derrida on the relation between justice and language:

It is unjust to judge someone who does not understand the language in which the law is inscribed or the judgment pronounced, etc. We could give multiple dramatic examples of violent situations in which a person or group of persons is judged in an idiom they do not understand very well or at all. And however slight or subtle the difference of competence in the mastery of the idiom is here, the violence of an injustice has begun when all the members of a community do not share the same idiom throughout.

Ronell has defended herself by proclaiming that she and Reitman shared a “penchant for florid and campy communications arising from our common academic backgrounds and sensibilities.” Zizek asserted that she is “a type of her own,” a “walking provocation,” and evidently anyone who doesn’t understand her is not eligible to judge her relations with students. (we seek to register in clear terms our objection to any judgment against her… we know, we know, we know…)

And now, finally, urgency. The third aporia: an “urgency that obstructs the horizon of knowledge.” Remember Scott: “It was written and signed quickly because some of the signers had a growing and urgent sense that they had to do something. The idea was to somehow testify.” (Testify, verb, give evidence as a witness in a law court. Actual evidence?) Derrida writes: “a horizon is both the opening and the limit that defines an infinite progress or a period of waiting.” Could they truly not wait for the investigation to run its course?

“But justice,” says Derrida, “however unpresentable it may be, doesn’t wait….

It is that which must not wait. To be direct, simple, and brief, let us say this: a just decision is always required immediately, ‘right away.’ It cannot furnish itself with infinite information and the unlimited knowledge of conditions, rules, or hypothetical imperatives [we know, we know, we know what we know…] … The instant of decision is a madness…decision of urgency and precipitation, acting in the night of non-knowledge and non-rule.

It strikes me that in writing and signing and sending the letter these privileged scholars were deploying a rough and urgent form of justice (we seek to register in clear terms our objection to any judgment against her), held up against the calculations of law, perhaps acting with a sort of panicked madness, at a moment of “anxiety-ridden suspense,” in “the night of non-knowledge and non-rule.”

Will they plead temporary insanity, when the “widespread and intense public scrutiny” falls on them rather than on NYU?

Part Three: The Aporia

Derrida says an aporia is a “non-road,” an inability to traverse the space between two things. “There is no justice without this experience, however impossible it may be, of aporia,” he says. “Justice is an experience of the impossible.”

The dictionary says that an aporia is “an irresolvable internal contradiction or logical disjunction in a text, argument, or theory,” a state of “a perplexity or difficulty.” Aporia are sometimes compared to Zen koans. As a Zen student and community leader, I work with Zen koans. So I might have something to say here.

The first thing to say is: I mostly don’t understand Derrida. I could pretend to “get” Derrida, but mostly, reading Derrida is like swimming with a headache and no goggles. And I would much rather do the swimming and get on with what feels like my work. But the way that Derrida has been held up, in academic thought and practice (the deployment of authority by invoking his “Chair,” in this letter, for example), seems to require some response.

The second thing is: I do not work in academia. I have no precarious job or post-doc or tenure track to protect. I long for more intellectual community, but not the academic hierarchy, and — for now — I can say what I want. These scholars wield no clear institutional power over me. Though power is relational and distributed diffusely and unevenly through the social field, right? So who knows.

The third thing is: a koan is something you live with and inside, not something you overcome. I think that the same could be true for aporia. (Though in the Platonic tradition, which deconstructionists are good at relentlessly picking apart, the teacher helps pull the student across the aporia towards an answer. I would just say: it doesn’t have to be like that.) One beautiful and intriguing koan goes like this: Not knowing is most intimate. What does this mean? You need to live with it, keep it company, in order to find out. And its meaning, invariably, will be about your very own life.

The entire text of that letter is saturated with a devotion to rank, privilege, reputation, acclaim, but above all a devotion to knowing. “How could they fall prey to their own aporia?” lamented my fellow feminist historian, about these scholars who wield such “knife-sharp dissections of power.” But I don’t think they “fell prey” to aporia. I think they were trying to climb out. Justice would have been better served if they stayed put. If they had acknowledged the horizon they desired, wondered at their own bewilderment (and Ronell’s quite literal displacement), yet found the moral courage and ethical discipline to put down the pen, and just not know the truth.

Joan Wallach Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” in Feminism and History (Oxford UP, 1996).

Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: The “Mystical Foundation of Authority.” Cardozo Law Review, July-August, 1990, Vol.11(5–6), p.920–1045.

Note: This essay was subsequently republished on the Society for U.S. Intellectual History’s blog. Many thanks to editor L.D. Burnett for that platform.