Avital Ronell Interview

by alexander laurence
{C} 1994 Alexander Laurence

Avital was born in Prague. She has taught all over the world. Her books include Dictations: On Haunted Writing, The Telephone Book, and Crack Wars. She teaches at UC Berkeley in the Comparative Literature department. I met her at Musical Chairs, the cafe/record store. But the sound of such coffee addicts as Bach became too loud, so we retreated to the campus offices.

Alexander Laurence
Let's talk about your last book Crack Wars. When did you write it? It came out about a year ago?
Avita Ronell
The painful reality of American publishing--particularly in the case of university presses--is that it takes years for something to come out, so you write with a sense of historical urgency but it stalls in the process of getting out. For example, my reading of the Gulf War will come out in 1994. Not to mention my "definitive analysis" of the Rodney King trial! I have to write a preface explaining why we no longer remember these events. That's a political problem.
AL
We talked before about how the writing and artistic community is divided in San Francisco. One of the problems is that we don't have a big press or publishing house that publishes San Francisco writers, or magazines devoted to this where intellectual debates can be waged, arguments can be presented. On the other hand, is the speed of culture faster than the speed of assessing the culture?
AR
It could be that the experience of assessing has obsolesced. I was just saying that the time of publication is so deferred that it actually has political repercussions. It means that people who are very concerned really won't take the time to write about something, because by the time it comes out, there's the sense of a dead issue. But one could say in a more fundamental way, that the essence of the issue is never dead. We're still not quite over Vietnam for example. There's a real predicament of being out of sync with more journalistic and technological modes of transmission. So we're working with at least two or three transmission systems simultaneously. One is the fast turn-over, MTV kind of temporality, and then the more deliberate, slo-mo kinds. But these oppositions may no longer obtain: the deliberate, thoughtful, essential rapport to something vs. fast paced sound bites.
AL
Yet serious deliberate thought takes time. Thoughts become something else with time and over time. The problem with the speed culture is you're making definite judgments in an instant and moving on to the next problem.
AR
That was a theme in Crack Wars. We have judgments without having really taken the time to consider what a definition of drugs might be. We have categories and classifications. Soft or hard drugs. Or the narcotic schedules, as they're called. We have taxonomies. Before you make people serve time, no one has taken the time, or given the time, to consider what it is that we're as a culture so phobic about. Time is the major problem here. In Jacques Derrida's recent work, Given Time (Donner Le Temps), he writes, "The only thing you can give is time." The only thing you can give to a problem, to an "other," is time. There's nothing else to be given. It is the gift.

In this book of mine that is supposed to come out next year--Finitude's Score: Essays for the End of The Millennium (Nebraska)--there is a suspension between the distinction dividing the mediatic fast-track and the slow, deliberate philosophical trekking through problems. This is one of the major problems of our modernity which is the speed as Paul Virilio calls it, and also the need to resist acceleration when thinking about it.

AL
We're enmeshed in a culture that's vampiric of time. It's a difficult challenge to act constructively.
AR
California is the place where some emergency brakes are being pulled, however. It seems very "out there" with trying to Zen out and producing all sorts of attempts at de-celeration, which always seem odd and amusing, if not vaguely crazy. The opposite of that is the compulsion to get things done. That's part of our whole Western logos: to finish with something, to get it over with, to have a decisive or clean-cut decision, rather than passing things through the crucible of undecidability. Taking your time and recognizing the impossibility of making a clean-cut decision would render some of our moves more flexible, strange, deviant.
AL
Could you talk about the structure of Crack Wars. Partly it's about addictions, Madame Bovary, Heidegger's work. There are divisions in it and I'm interested in the non-linear aspects of its structure.
AR
I could track down some register and show its cohesiveness. My purpose was not to show much complicity with the metaphysics of continuity. In fact, I wanted to move with a disruptive flow chracteristic of the types of experience which we can still have which are discontinuous, rhythmed according to different moments and impulses, urges. I was trying to play precisely with the question of speeding and slowing down, and the relation of artificial injections to the way we can think about temporality. So the book is on different types of drugs, too: there's the more psychedelic moments, there's the narcotized moments where it slows down into a heroin experience, and there's the speed freak moments. Different articulations. There's different angles and approaches (or reproaches) to the problem. Since it's also trying to argue for the relationship of drugs to technology, I do try to sequence it according to this discontinuous flow, in the sense that the electronic media "makes sense" only by discontinuous flows. So it would be an instance of non-technological resistance to try to produce an uninterrupted linear argumentation. It's really timed and segmented according to the types of technologies that I link with drugs.

It would have been very odd to present something so discontinuous in a continuous, even in an archaic and traditional way. I thought that the object of inquiry posited some laws about how the book had to be written. According to different types of experience of reading that were simulated. In the beginning, there are "hits." So, in a sense, I try to addict the reader. I try to control the dosage. One of my arguments, which I hope the material aspect of the book performs, is that we're also addicted to reading. If culture implies some notion of addictive investment, then what do we hold against the addict? Anything can function as drug--music, TV, love. When does the law step in, and according to what discourse? How do we distinguish between good and bad addictions?

AL
You coined this word: Narcossism. Can you elaborate on this concept?
AR
I wanted to suggest that narcissism has been recircuited through a relation to drugs. Narcossism is supposed to indicate the way that our relation to ourselves has now been structured, mediated, that is, by some form of addiction and urge. Which is to say, that to get off any drug, or anything which has been invested as an ideal object -- something that you want to incorporate as part of you -- precipitates a major narcissistic crisis. Basically I wanted to suggest that we need to study the way the self is pumped up or depleted by a chemical prosthesis.
AL
It seems that addictions are the sine qua non of human ontology. It would be interesting to hear you describe a subject without addictions.
AR
Since I link it to the death drive and beyond the pleasure principle, the Freudian readings of pleasure that are never pure, they aren't necessarily on the side of wholesomeness and health. I try to say how that's a myth and a mystification: the virginal pure body that would be non-addicted, absolutely outside of addiction. That's why I include bodybuilding, vitamins, technology. I think that the structure of addiction is fundamental. That isn't to say that it can't be negotiated, managed, or somehow brought into a rapport of its own liberating possibility. I want to suggest that there are no drug free zones. Now, it could be that there are good and bad addictions. I don't see how one can write, or be an artist, or think without some installation of the addictive structure.
AL
Do you think that pleasure leads one towards the death instinct? Or are there two types of pleasure?
AR
The double nature of pleasure is something that I wanted to trace out. For pleasure to be what it is, it has to exceed a limit of what is altogether wholesome and healthy. Our idioms reflect this: when we like something we tend to say we were "blown away" or "It killed me," and other deadly utterances. To the extent that pleasure is something that one seeks, it also has to make us confront the limits of our being. Otherwise it's something like contentedness, which can be shown to be in fact an abandonment of pleasure. In our Constitution, we're invited to pursue "happiness" not "pleasure."

I'm interested in a certain kind of honesty about thinking what constitutes pleasure or human desire. That includes our nuclear desire. We must wish to get blown away. If we practiced Nietzschean indecency.... Nietzsche said you have to be rigorously indecent, and really think about those desires. Once desire is on the line, there's going to be destruction and a turning around of values. What I called in Crack Wars "a destructive jouissance."

AL
In Crack Wars, you list the following people as coffee addicts: Bach, Balzac, Voltaire. Were there more coffee addicts?
AR
What interested me originally before I generalized this into a book about addiction, mania, literature, was the history of coffee. In Hegel, you can see the way he grinds coffee into his argument--usually metaphorically. You can really follow the coffee bean throughout the history of philosophy, and come up with extraordinary developments. There's someone called Malsherbes who wrote about this. Just the relation to coffee as a miraculous opening. At one point Hegel writes about coffee and its substitute. One could trace the history of wars in terms of the coffee bean. Even literary history: who drank how much coffee? And where? What kind of a social space the cafe produces? The Viennese cafe and Wittgenstein, Thomas Bernhard, Arnold Schoenberg.
AL
In this section of CRACK WARS you talk about "unchanneled pleasure" and "feminine writing." I see this as a rare reference to the French writer Helene Cixous. Could you talk about your relation to Cixous?
AR
Cixous was one of my first bosses. She hired me to teach in France at Vincennes. She is someone whom I continue to admire immensely. She's brilliant, beautiful, generous, and politically very astute and active. In that regard, she's a model for me. She makes certain interventions and makes things happen according to non-traditional ways. She's also a friend. I imitate her way of teaching, which is to say, she has so-called feminist hours. She teaches every other Saturday or Sunday for nine hours, so that women can come and aren't stuck at home during the week with their children. So I've done that here at Berkeley. I teach a Sunday seminar. I have learned things like this, fundamental things about teaching, about political responsibility from Helene. The section on feminine writing owes a lot to her. Cites her work. It's about writing for pleasure, writing that's on the loose, that not phallically pointed, or doesn't make a point, or even get to make dents in referential aspects of writing. The problem of the woman who has all the equipment, yet no one to write to, is a problem of feminine writing. Concerned with the violence of non-address, it doesn't have an institutional back-up or a support system, and doesn't have a sense of its purpose or aim. That is a kind of homage to Helene's work.
AL
Generally what are the differences between the so-called French Feminists: Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Catherine Clement, and others, and American Feminism: Susan Faludi, Naomi Wolf.....?
AR
The standard spin on it is that American Feminists are more concerned with pragmatic and referential effects of their work. They seem to ease into the system to disrupt certain moments of it. They're pragmatically oriented. Of course each one of the women you named -- Cixous, Irigaray, Clement -- is very different in her work. Even Sarah Kofmann. Very often they don't get along. There's not a sense of a "feminine" community, although there are feminist tribes in France. The women you named are philosophically highly sophisticated. They're dealing with questions of the Western logos, and how to make interventions. American Feminists tend to be more empirical, and more concerned with the psycho-pathology of misogyny, which is also extremely important. At the time Helene Cixous showed up in America in the first phases of her celebrity, in the early 1970s, a lot of American feminists were shocked that she was so beautiful in a French sense: she wears makeup. She dresses elegantly and that was considered to be completely contradictory with what feminism in the American puritanical tradition would be. At that time, the French feminists probably had a lot of scorn for the American feminists. And the feeling was mutual.
AL
I think one difference was the dismissal of Freud's work by American feminists. Whereas Cixous and Irigaray were very interested in Freud's work. They read it closely and wrote about it.
AR
It could be the pivotal point of dissension. The tendency to dump on Freud I find to be somewhat anti-intellectual. In that regard, I'm more hooked on the French feminist theoretical side of things. Because the simplistic tendencies to decide what constitutes a properly feminist discourse really continues to shock me. Freud is extremely complicated. He in many ways liberated a lot of libidinal fields that were secret and repressed. There were many moments that were problematic, but a philosopher's point of view is to engage the problem and to understand it, or even genealogically to interpret it and give it a new force or a new aspect. Whereas the non-philosopher's point is often to trash the whole oeuvre. I dare say that those who trash Freud haven't read him meticulously. I think that that's what my whole work tries to address: the need for re-ambiguating areas that need to be thought about. Freud's fundamental insights are actually, as someone like Shoshana Felman will have shown, very feminist, very subversive. He was persecuted. He was, and continues to be, treated like shit. Also by masculinists, writers and men. Philosophers think he's a pansy. Only gays and some outrageous feminists like Freud. So there's a conservative alignment despite everything. Those people who dump on Freud tend to be institutionally identifiable as conservative. There's something about Freud that's not containable and not conventional at all.

Nietzsche is a more difficult case because he'll rant and rave against women. And before you know it, he's turning around, and he's a woman. His ear was inseminated by a woman, with his great thought, the eternal return. She's the father of his thought, he claims: Lou Salome impregnated Nietzsche's ear! He's the womb. His itinerary is so complicated. I think Derrida dealt with that. What happens when men hysterically rant and rave, and yet nonetheless identify themselves with women, creates a far more complicated mapping than one can grant. Throwing away Freud and Nietzsche can produce a ghetto of fairly homogeneous feminism.

AL
The ideas of "self" and "identity" continue to be interesting ideas. What are we talking about? What is "the self?" What are we referring to when we say this?
AR
It's a very complicated notion and it's certainly historically derivable from the Romantics. The positing of self and also the undermining of the possibility of even having a pure, autonomous, strongly willing self is part of the Western philosophical tradition. I think what we mean by it nowadays is completely different. We tend to call it agency or identity politics. Nowadays, we have a borrowing system. We don't necessarily believe in an essential self, but we seem to want to borrow attributes from technology and from cultural entities. There's more of a transaction taking place, in the economy of pumping or building up the self. There's an awful lot of rhetoric from technology. Already "attraction" indicates a magnetic field. You're magnetized by someone. They turn you on. They push your buttons. One would have to study the rhetoric that makes "self" possible and then undermines it. One would want to interrogate the ideology that posits self as such a powerful figure. The very fact that we're seeking identities means that we don't have them. We're always dispossessed. There's no "proper" self."
AL
The acquisition of self is phallic in nature. Is that acquisition void? All the collage and technology that the self absorbs is fundamentally empty and void.
AR
That resembles what Jacques Lacan would say about the phallus. It's powerful but empty. This is not to say that "nothing means anything anymore." That kind of vulgar nihilism gets confusedly thrown at deconstruction. The effects of deflating the phallus or positing a self are tremendous, constitutive, and performative. The effects of the notion of autonomy or self have produced history. That doesn't mean that at bottom there is this absolute sovereign kernel of being that radiates selfhood. There are reasons for having produced these ideologies.
AL
Is Post-Modernism dead? In Larry McCaffrey's Avant-Pop, there is mention of this notion. In the new Review of Contemporary Fiction, the writers William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace talk about this. Kathy Acker has also said Post-Modernism is dead.
AR
I would have to think about that one. But I think it was always already dead. Wasn't it? (laughter).
AL
Why does Acker say this, when everyone knows she's as post-modern as anyone?
AR
It could be her irony. Or her negotiation with the border, the border patrol of what constitutes one episteme or another. Maybe she's crossing over to another region of her work and production, and she's clearly disassociating herself from what she's nonetheless allied with. First of all, art has always been dead since from at least the Greeks. Since then, we have learned the terrible lesson of Greece's finitude. Art has never again been alive and in communion with the gods. It's passed into aesthetics, which is its burial plot and stillborn child. And of course Hegel reminded us that art was dead, and that was a very late reminder. So any time someone says that anything is dead in the field of art, it has to be considered a little ironic. Acker's work can be considered promethan, in the sense that it continually rises from the ashes of modernism.
AL
Could you talk briefly about your new book? Finitude's Score: Essays for the End of an Millennium.
AR
It's a book about AIDS, media technology, and the police. I work on the police. On their omnipresence, and how they're everywhere, even where they are not. They're always present, but not in the mode of presence. Even without that kind of monumental structure of a panopticon. Just with electronic taggings, absolute surveillance and monitoring, which becomes internalized. I try to explain why it is not enough to "Fuck the Police." It also includes essay on Nietzsche, Goethe, Freud and a requiem for "GeoBush."


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