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.
The more celebrity-focused an academic field is, the less substance in its work.