Brad Evans: I would like to begin this conversation by saying that I have been an admirer of your important work for quite some time. I have also detected in your writings, in both explicit and implicit forms, a notable concern with the question of violence. What does the term violence actually mean to you?
Avital Ronell: OMG, violence has had brilliant handlers, beginning with Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt in our modernity all the way through your own work, that of Vincent Emmanuelle on radio, Kathy Acker, Sophie Wahnich, Angela Davis, Allen Feldman and those who have addressed the unceasing yields of violent imposition and over-punishment. Our exposure to violence is manifold, nearly unlocatable. It is hard to extricate ourselves from codified forms of sociality that inflict pain and hierarchy, often juridically backed and meted out in terms of retribution, as Nietzsche argued. Violence swarms us, even in the form of what’s purportedly good for us. Pain and gain used to rhyme. I’ll try to be clear on these points, though the promise of “clarity” is already doing violence to a complicated set of existential givens.
We deal on a daily basis with the gridwork provided by our techno-media outlets, fielding covert as well as more virulent attacks on our personhood and histories. Sometimes the violence to which we are prey and prone is of a linguistic nature. The way we use and are used by language spills over to our zones of relatedness. We each have a place in a linguistic chain gang that keeps us limited to what can be said or done. Derrida used to say that we are stuck in the rut of paleonymy—old ways of saying, feeling, directing our actions that often are reductive, insufficient, stopping short of inventiveness and resourceful audacity. But violence takes different forms, and sometimes language itself is off limits or can’t rescue the deeply distressed. Everyone has been shut down by depressive stalls and repressed history, friendless moments, or the vacancy of being to which we are all prey, no matter how high on the food chain of protected species one may perch. There really is no violent-free zone. Birth is a breach. Violence ranges from circumscribed playing fields, including sports events, to how and what we eat. Historically, the return of the repressed exemplifies a type of violence psychically dealt and institutionally absorbed, replicated, laundered. This propensity for being absorbed and recast also means that violence undergoes changes that render it compatible with aspects of desire. The internalization of violence, its headquarters in one’s internal tribunal, what Freud discovered as the Superego, requires rigorous analysis if we are to sift through prevalent forms of violent episodes that accrue to our social body, its controlling mechanisms and repressive acts.
BE: Your return here to Freud is quite prescient as it brings into the question the psychic life of violence. How might we think here more intently on the relations between the linguistic and the politics of desire?
AR: If violence is part of a social thrall—and not merely a condition or series of ruptures that befalls us—we must also ask: Who gets off on violence? Can it be replaced with other types of aggression? Can it be dosed down? Or does it belong to the “addictionary” of unaccountable cravings ascribable to unconscious appetites? We have quite a repertoire and range of motion in this area of human behaviour, and we all have our roster of unfortunate outbursts, oftentimes miniscule and inconsequential. Returning to the tally of damages cued up by violent actions, who can measure the ripple effect of a single jiggle of injustice? The great poet Goethe thought that capital could siphon off the threat of body-to-body harm and linguistic insult that potentially occurs each time we meet a fellow being. As substitute for frontal attack, capital became the symbolic form of ruthless exploitation that could be primed to spare bodies, or postpone their demise at the hands of fellow man. That was a going hypothesis: redistribute and transfer effects of violence to an abstract account—the circulation of money—without claiming to eliminate its reach. By the way, every time (before the Pandemic) we extended our hand in greeting, we were showing that we approach the other unarmed. This means that the first instinct or suspicion in the choreography of encounter involves doing harm, or that one at least was entering a ring and wrestle of primary hostility.
But the experience of violence also implies a wake-up call, an essential jostle. Let us not forget that for violence to be violence, there must be an element of incomprehensibility attached to its execution. Otherwise, we’ve domesticated or archived what is violent as something contained and forgettable. A moment of “What happened?” and reflection follows upon violent intrusion, making us unsure of our ground. Breakage and unmooring can open new pathways when they reveal a fundamental emptiness and undermine illusory stabilities. Any serious encounter with the other provokes a shakeup in ordinary life, an abrupt jolt or “awakening,” marking breaking points that belong to the trauma family. We just need to check our playlist of welcome or dreaded incursion which moves to the beat and replicates the effect of shock. Sometimes, in order to push ahead or become alert to hidden dimensions of existence, one must first be shaken, or even shut down, strained, brought close to an experience of death. These are extremes that existential daredevils seek. I am not saying that we are not a stupid and self-defeating species. Think of the struggles of those who tried to establish peace, as in the correspondence of the young Gandhi with Tolstoy, or the “Why War?” letters of Freud and Einstein.
BE: I find these connections between a certain primary hostility as you call it and the struggle within oneself, ever warding of our own wilful captures of the self, to be most enriching. Can you elaborate more on how this connects to your own research and current concerns?
AR: In the work I’ve signed off on, I shift the emphasis and try to fathom the philosophically downplayed cousins to violence, involving often overlooked yet injurious traces, the way we do ourselves in, crash and burn, hit the walls of unintelligibility when it comes to understanding the obscured hotspots of our own existence. In this regard I amp up some of the yields delivered to us by Nietzsche and Melanie Klein, the throw of social demolition that knocks you out with resentment and piles on the envy of others, even when delivered in homeopathic doses, numbing and dumbing you down day by day, creating subtle episodes of disoriented stress. I am especially concerned with undecidable boundaries that contrast with the sure-fire rants of overzealous moralizers (Btw, I refer to the rant since, for the most part, we are no longer dealing mainly with rational discourse or Platonic reason).
The way we speak and field questions, address one another, is important to note if questions are to survive current forms of linguistic aggression, the speech of know-it-alls and blustering dogmatists, the horde of language-bullies whose imperatives one routinely confronts. Sometimes I view my task as protecting the question, especially where it is blocked off in political discourse. Not to twist or complicate things unbearably but as a scholar I feel I must raise a flag of caution here, since Derrida has questioned the primacy of questioning that still prevails in thought, especially in the work of Heidegger who never fully abandons the philosophical habit of raising questions. Can we philosophize without the question? In French, question also means “torture:” The philosophical sensibility is wracked by questions, another micro-form of violence done to thinking and not unrelated to brutal interrogation techniques.)
BE: I am really taken with this phrase concerning the “undecidable boundaries that contrast with the sure-fire rants of overzealous moralizers”. To my mind at least, contemporary politics (especially in certain leftist quarters) now all too easily slips into forms of theology. Though as always with your work, I sense here far greater intellectual depth in your respone than the immanent politics of twitter!
AR: When I say “undecidable boundaries” of violent incursion, I am referring to philosophers Emmanuel Lévinas and Martin Heidegger who explored the Stoß, the prod or push, the philosophical poke that makes you think harder. When a teacher goads you to push the envelope or think beyond a limiting horizon, does that provocation constitute an invasive offense or rather an instructive way of coaxing or inducing thought? Or both? Can one even awaken to thought without absorbing a traumatically landed jolt? How does learning take place if not by some kind of unnerving prod, sometimes trained on the cellular level? The basically upsetting experience of learning, being exposed to the prod of something new, can be integrated as a form of astonishment or awe—as long as we retain a trace of the awful in “awesome.” We can ask ourselves what inspires awe, as when one is beside oneself, exceeded by an event or blown away by an encounter, unsure of its meaning.
Nietzsche says that everything is a matter of dosage, including history and the amount of it that we can bear. He makes us ask, Is any learning possible without a hint of trauma? Ever since Freud formulated the reality principle, we are hounded and limited by harsh strictures that limit the range of the pleasure principle. We are hit with a “No!” or “Don’t do that!” in the earliest pursuits of pleasure and life-affirming activity. For a philosopher or psychoanalyst it would be foolhardy and irresponsible to think that violence doesn’t assail you from early on, shortening your existential leash. This is not a matter only of violence coming from a circumscribed outside, or waiting like a SWAT team to take you down.
According to Melanie Klein, you swiftly generate your own factory of violence. One has to contend with one’s own propensity for violence, which leads to all sorts of tussles with guilt and remorse, paranoid retreats and killer fantasies—even when good things happen: when, from Day One, you chow down on the maternal breast, which doesn’t nurture enough, or is imagined to be withholding and thus too sovereign about establishing a feeding schedule, jerking your dependent self around, instigating Baby’s vindictive retaliation. Our earliest capacity for violence is directed toward good objects that offer nurturance and a dream space, revealing that we come equipped with a rejecting mechanism and a heightened sense of encroachment. One’s fledgling alert system endangers self and other at the slightest prompt. Few species are more dependent at the starting gate than a human infant. A little one knows and resents radical dependency and may not be able to quash the violence that arises with an utterly dependent predicament; the infant may quickly turn the pathetic and helpless state of things against herself. Melanie Klein tracks raging envy and its unconscious power grabs that accompany us into ostensible adulthood.
Klein goes further into the corners of flustered existence. One gets the feeling early on that we’re primed to ruin everything. The propensity to pollute and spoil the “good breast” makes us cringe at our own capacity for destruction, wrecking even the bit and bite of nurturance proffered. It is not easy to cherish what is offered in life and one must be awfully mature to desist after a certain age from mangling a doll and throwing it against the wall… In short, I believe it’s necessary to explore what excites violence before imagining that humans are the least bit capable of securing zones of non-violent cohabitation. It could be that very few of us prove adept at growing out of the primal jubilation of destructive pushback. The practices attached to co-existence are riddled with violent impulse and difficult adjustment. This extends to our earth-plundering rackets that routinely attack a maternal configuration, the imaginary contours and material fragility of Mother Earth.
BE: Evidently the shadow of the paternal authority here (so often defining in theorisations of sovereignty and security by a beastly Leviathan who will keep us safe from harm) is looming large over the types of violence you describe. But what I detect here is a ruthless inversion on your part?
AR: Bringing up Baby has never involved an easy retreat from practices inscribed in a violent repertoire. Kant makes us wonder if we’ve ever met a truly mature person. Why do history and representation invest the Anthropocene with masculinist protocols? Does not “man” consistently crave violence and invent new forms for its execution—very often under the cover of good intentions and in the name of peaceful ends? The Atom Bomb was considered a good thing, meant to prevent incessant carpet bombing raids… Nietzsche and Derrida are very skilled at blowing the cover of our so-called good conscience. They relentlessly take us to task for professedly good behaviours that lead to dogmatic posturing. Even Kant gave up early on a human dial down for peaceful interaction, leaving his essay on “Perpetual Peace” incomplete. I guess we should perpetually scour the unconscious impulses that fire up violent stances and commando reactivity, no matter how muffled, disavowed, or seemingly inconsequential their expression.
In my own work on violent encounter I tend to go after micro-coercions, focusing on the speck rather than the spectacular, though that difference switches up quickly as with the imperceptible viral attack corps by which we’ve all recently been floored. In terms of political philosophy, I analyse what happens when you don‘t have the power or strength to assure your position. In those instances you pull up other types of assertion, for instance those exemplified in authority. Can one exercise authority in a way that flattens the curve of unreasoned expression and ensuing upheaval? For Arendt and quite a few others the vanishing of authority was a problem, because then all these lunatics are running the show. They carry little authority and have earned no respect but are running on the fumes of sheer power. Sound familiar? As a philosopher it is hard to describe how or why some figures command authority to the point of neutralizing violence yet others become authoritarian, stoking our social vulnerabilities and reactive readiness.
I tend to go into areas that others don’t readily frequent. In broad phenomenological terms, I often take off ramps before returning to major paths. Nowadays I am exploring the ambivalent histories of the vaccine and it’s dialectical intrusion since the time of Kant. For some issues or problem clusters I don’t think one needs my special ops to sift through serious instances of wrongdoing, though I am on that beat as well—gender violence, war crimes, rhetorical tabulations of unconscious payback, the incessant destruction of the poor, the “existential” of care (Sorge) in German philosophy, our exposure to losers and their vindictive playbooks of false supremacies. On that topic, let me just clarify something that may have been misleading in the reference to Plato’s recourse to reason. Sadism and cruelty are not opposed to the law or reason. Ever since Plato, the “tyrannical soul-structure”—the despotic mindset—emerges as an effect of the law, speaking and acting in terms of law: thus every tyrant has his supplement of a William Barr around to impose a legalization of cruelty and sadistic intent. I could pledge more paragraphs to developing this argument, along with Derrida, Deleuze, Sade, and Sacher-Masoch, the Viennese professor who donated his name to “masochism.” Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of the phantom force of the police is crucial here as well: the police are everywhere, even where they are not. One is unavoidably subject to intrusive policing, censorship and representational v-chips. Policing goes very far and comes in very close.
BE: Speaking of Derrida and the policing of thought, it is a shame to say that some still need reminding of the influential role you played in introducing his work to the English-speaking world. Thinking then with the ghost of his articulations, I want to press you about the question of presence and absence – or perhaps to be more specific, the concept of haunting. Do you find yourself haunted by the Spectre of Derrida? And why should we continue to read him today?
AR: As with many vital relationships of long duration—or even a split-second traumatic layover—if you don’t check in with your unconscious, you can court trouble. Having a strong mentor can induce transferential turbulence and confused ownership. One morphs into the other who has been introjected and preserved in privatized ways. To my knowledge I have not been in unconscious competition with Derrida, as can happen when one wants to get ahead, and I have not taken the parricidal path—trying to mow down your teacher and discount a benefactor to whom you owe so much, more than you can acknowledge. It is easier in some respects to vacate that account, void the structure of debt that keeps one tethered to a great teacher and maybe mimetically bound, repeating their syntax and investigatory hunts.
Many people think they can shake off their influencers and take over their territory, or at least negotiate a time-share. Some are content to open a resentment account and fault-find, partially turning their backs on their incubators and instigators. I am on the whole a more devotional type of scholar, infused with gratitude and the philosophical off-kilter disposition of astonishment. As Nietzsche said of Wagner, he was a windfall. But Nietzsche went sour, and that’s another story…
While I enjoyed the privilege of sustained proximity to him, Derrida always had a dimension of non-presence, leading a kind of spectral colloquy with forgotten or muffled voices during the time of his greatest vitality. As the end of his earthly stay neared, I assumed the role of Thomas de Quincey to his Immanuel Kant, moving to Paris to help his wife Marguerite and him with the last months of his life. Having spent a good part of my academic career in Berkeley, I had learned all sorts of healing arts in California that we practiced in his home in Ris-Orangis, including visualizations and meditation—though he preferred Descartes’s Meditations to the end.
I am a haunted Dasein, daughter of German-Jews and decimated family trees, stumps. Derrida’s haunting is more benevolent than historical stomping grounds. He shows up when I’m in deep yogurt, as we used to say in Berkeley, when I’m strained by circumstances or at the writing desk. I continue to consult him when I’m reaching for a spiritual GPS. This spooky continuity is probably common to many friendships, a correspondence in afterlife. Some of the smackdowns I’ve endured were dealt, I am convinced, as a love letter to “Derrida, Inc.” of which I was a mere sentinel or alias. It is remarkable to note that such a breakthrough thinker is still accumulating hostility, prone to the second death syndrome, which his buddy, Lacan, has analysed. Sometimes the departed attract a second round of rancorous contestation, and are not dead enough for a horde of detractors. But this goes along with an increasingly strong contingent of interlocutors and readers that have grown around his work.
I’d say that we need him more than ever now, if we’re ever to get beyond the rhetorical superficialities and conceptual impoverishment that plagues our public discourse today. If things are meant to change materially and improve, we must get a handle on the origins and continued domination of controlling social imbalances bequeathed by Metaphysics, our philosophical heritage still at the wheel. Along with Foucault, but following a different ground plan, Derrida has interrogated our penitentiary culture and the erection of the carceral subject that Foucault describes. He went after the underpinnings of the death penalty, exposed covert forms of racial injustice, and tirelessly analysed human destructiveness and autoimmunity, graceless inequity, the unceasing infliction of cruelty and the status of those opiates, including religion, to which we take recourse. Derrida probed the foundations of our ethical convictions and political actions. He was a major downsizer of the ego-driven cravings of our species, so full of itself. His way of displaying a sceptical attitude may have p.o’d a lot of people, including humanists who still want to see Enlightenment values win out. I would be all for cautious optimism myself, if it didn’t prove to be part of an irresponsible stagnation of thought, often doling out fake IDs and some “feel good” falsifications about human dignity.
Derrida seems to go after everything we hold dear, leaving no philosophical stone unturned. He asks about the way we evade “inconvenient truths” and deploy discriminatory logic, how we fail to offer forgiveness or unconditional hospitality, asylum, reluctant to provide institutions that would honor rather than wear down those who seem strange, alien or incomprehensible to us according to inherited presups and prenups, our philosophical sendups. What’s not to hate? All this poking around uncovers traumatic territory that he relentlessly puts up for review and critically recasts, including the ravages of our historical amnesia. His tone and inquiry are not about “have a nice text,” but make your head break open and heart squeeze. I understand the cries of the non-readers. But given so much failure pumped by our discursive traditions, isn’t it our task and responsibility to interrogate the groundwork that supports so many flimsy and appalling actions?
In addition to the heavy lifting he also rehabilitated the incomparable slam and importance of poetic utterance, the witnessing and freeing owed to art and other forms of creativity that have been side-lined in the scientific epoch.
All in all, Derrida approached the citadels of power with a mixture of nuance and scepticism, applying to his inquiries a strong dose of “hermeneutic suspicion”—taking little for granted, even things that appear to have solid grounding. He was attuned to ambivalence and respectful of complexities when tapping a persistent logic of injury embedded in the history of philosophy and its abrupt offramps onto zones of referential impact. His refusal to simplify could serve us well now, as a flex of basic decency. Derrida’s work follows the logic of the other, never reducing minorities, foreigners, so-called aliens of any encounter, to objects or objections. Derrida went after the decoys of exclusionary operations, tagging fringe episodes together with unpredictable margins of philosophy and their central operators. An umbrella, a protest movement, carnivores, or “patriarchival” stubbornness could bring about a comprehensive rethinking of our foundations. It gets better.
Some of his conclusions display a series of cuts that sting to this day, inviting rollbacks and erasure, institutional forms of memory loss, distortion, wanton flip offs, and secondary revision. At this point of his rollout, we still have a lot to learn about where we’re coming from and how we profess sincerity, care and understanding.
When it comes to calling out philosophically backed supremacies, Derrida has stuck to his guns. Together with Freud, his work argues that it is still necessary to track back to our shared history in order to weigh the pressures of patriarchal overload, including the misogynist slams that have all of us reeling, regardless of where we stand on the sliding scale of dominant forms of power. The disturbed endowment of the paternal throw down, a prodigious source of power, has Freud saying to the end that something is amiss: We have yet to contend with the victory of patriarchy. He puts it out there as if duty called, assigning a task not to be shirked, sounding an injunction. In this regard Freud joins Nietzsche when doling out self-legislating responsibility—shaping something we owe ourselves to confront, an ongoing trial of thought by which we are tested and from which Derrida drew a number of critical lessons.
BE: Without revisiting some of the well documented controversies regarding his life and work, I want to now turn here to the figure of Martin Heidegger who was also so important to Derrida in terms of his own thinking. Recognising from our many exchanges what is particularly troubling you in this moment, I want to ask you about how we might see both their concerns with technology (and by that token the wider battles with art and poetics) playing out in the world today?
AR: It’s important to learn from the way Derrida maintains tensional qualities in philosophical relationships that prevent ambivalence from flipping into stubborn avoidance. He contests Heidegger without cancelling him or presuming to call off his thought. Derrida recognizes what remains to this day crucial in a thinking whose human carrier disrupts idealizations of the philosopher king, a figure enthroned by Plato as the most just among citizens. Heidegger was tagged out in terms of his political wrong turns and ethical shortfalls but should not be discarded as a necessary if contested figure who exposes the abysses of his time. By the way, Heidegger’s time is not over; it’s still ticking down. The return of destructive tropes and born-again fascism proves that we have to go by a different timer and that audacious thinking outlives its signatory in unpredictable ways. January 6 brandished Nazi emblems and the rise of white supremacy propped on Germanic myths of national rootedness shows us that history is not merely “historical” but returns, bloated with narratives routed through unconscious channels. The phantasms of historical myth-making and nationalist rhetoric go into latency and bounce back in regressive lurches. One is never merely done with human forms of cruelty and slams of injustice built on endangering language usage and distorted thinking. Heidegger nailed some of our most devastating problems and put them in a frame that still is viable. The technological Weltbild still holds sway, as an often pernicious gridwork that has us in a stranglehold, sometimes invisibly so. Yet who isn’t plugged in and a replicant of medial broadcast, with its different valences and uses?
I am not an enemy of technology but one cannot deny seeing how warfare and modalities of human aggression depend on what Heidegger called the essence of technology, which is more than algorithms, probability theorems and network machine. At one point Heidegger likened his thought to television, and Lacan saw the projections encouraged by television as a way of understanding racism, our imaginary relation to the Other. From Alan Turing to Friedrich Kittler, the German techno-scientific theorist, technology has been seen to supersede the subjective attitude or illusions of human agency—a discussion that would take many pages to back up. When George Bush had second thoughts about conducting the initial stages of the Gulf War, he said that the technologies had already been set and could not be humanly retracted. Trump has been partially shut down by Twitter and other media technologies, which make or break the power that a so-called human actor may wield. For Heidegger technology also represents a flex and fold in Being, so something vital is exposed in our relation to the world and its breaking points. The world has been shattered, polluted, severely undermined by the technological encroachment that human effort may or may not be able to repair or counterbalance with a fresh batch of technological pushback. It gets more complicated, but basically for Heidegger we are now in the grips of a voracious force, technically constellated, whose imposition in the human realm also accounts for the uncontrolled proliferation of killing machines.
BE: While I feel we are only scratching the surface here and there so much more you might further contribute; I want to end on a more affirmative note. If I think back to my earlier joyful intellectual encounters, what drew me to thinkers such as Derrida, Deleuze and others including yourself, was an attempt to stake out a theory of the intolerable. How could we confront the real abysmal and complex depths for this wondrously tragic thing we might call the human condition? However, whilst I find certain forays here gesture towards something we might call the outrageous in thought, I often find myself slightly bemused as to why figures such as Oscar Wilde haven’t featured more purposefully in many of their works. Mindful of the fact that you have taught a course on “outrageous texts”, do you think there is even a possibility for such a transgressive ethical sensibility today? And can we think outrageously in the time we live?
AR: I am so glad that you pull up the joyful disposition of early encounters with these thinkers and their breakthrough deliveries. One awaited each new book with thrilled anticipation. An announced work was received with gratitude: it was an event, and we counted on our supply line! Oscar Wilde is the subject of a new project by Shoshana Felman, who has focused a lot of her thought on persecutable objects, traumatic upheaval and the opacity of testimony. You are right to single him out. I myself have tried to revive the remains of those who have been mercilessly tortured and silenced, including Alan Turing, to whom we owe the ending of World War II when he cracked the code of the Enigma.
Apart from hosting wayward figures and marginalized themes, a lot of the texts (and films) I introduce as part of my teaching dossier open ecstatic horizons, free up covert anxiety zones and tend to bring joyful assertion on the other side of dark and tragic insight. Serious students are relieved to meet unwieldy texts that depart from the demand of sanctioned social structures. But nearly every text has its freedom with transgression at some level of articulation. You are right to wonder if one can still teach texts that are not manicured, polite, ponderous and, in some regards, pompous (I love these works, too!). Even classics have to be restrained from their incomparable penchant for violating their own ground rules of sober representation. There’s always a tipping point when a text turns against itself or ironizes its predicament. The possible downturn of outrageous texts as teachable objects is a sad and sorry story. We are more or less forced to clean up textual acts, render life more perky and confident than anyone can bear. This censorious introject is an insult to the creativity of our inner wild horses, who must be broken nowadays if we are to pass inspection rather than ride or write a ticket to untried futures. Serious scholarship has in many cases been replaced with a psychotic overuse of “ethics,” simplistic and misconstrued. In my view, universities need to be relentlessly critical and curb the over-moralizing zeal of those who are not appointed to pitch sermons but to keep the social body questioning and on edge, if not on the edge of their seats. There is no human condition that does not reveal a trace of outrageousness as one of its pulsing sectors of remarkable activity, daring, and singularity. We need to support our sanitation department, but not in matters of thought, which, since Immanuel Kant, came with a special permit, establishing a kind of wild life preserve—the humanly urgent sanctuary where thought in the context of the exemplary “beautiful form” could run free and renew itself. As wild as this repurposed political aesthetics may seem, it actually emerges from a hyperactive sense of responsibility toward a shareable future that would not bend to mere prescription.