These responses are far more articulate than what follows. Read them instead:

Natalia Cecire, “New at This”:
Keguro Macharia, “kburd: Caliban Responds”:

Still, some things I pondered this morning after reading Lisa Duggan’s Bully Blogger post (from 18 Aug) on the Ronell / Reitmar case:

(1) We shouldn’t forget the rhetorical situation of the academic letter penned in support of Avital Ronell. It uses forms of persuasion fitted for administrators and their concerns. This doesn’t mean we can’t be critical of the letter, its writers, or its language (especially its premature judgment of Nimrod Reitmar), but it is not an insignificant point.

(2) There is a longer history that is easy to dismiss or forget when rehearsing our general rules and axioms for teacher / student relationships (e.g., keep it professional, etc.). Histories, for instance, of queer / trans / nonwhite survival and kinship—histories in which the classroom became and becomes a place where some human beings found / find resources for living and flourishing, sometimes through language and community and behavior and forms of life that can appear to normative / normalizing eyes as strange, odd, twisted, bent, eccentric. Queer. Non-normative. These histories should not be an alibi for abuse or for the foreclosure of the futures of the young, of course. But they are contexts we should keep in mind and learn to honor nevertheless. We in the humanities are supposed to be sensitive to contexts in general (and to these contexts of survival and kinship in particular).

(3) All analyses miss things. #MeToo might be “one part feminist social justice movement” and “one part neoliberal publicity stunt” (as Duggan puts it). But this socio-phenomenal force is also more than the sum of these two components. For young students (especially queer and trans students) outraged by Duggan’s post, Halberstam’s RT’ing of it, and Butler’s recent editorial (which did not offer an apology to the complainant but did apologize to the MLA) something more seems to be going on. This something might be generational (the young asking those of us with institutionally-validated authority to reconsider what we are reproducing and how we might teach / advise / supervise differently). Learning to hear this rage and these gestures of revolt clearly seems like it should be part of the structural analysis Duggan calls for. Yet her post seems to dismiss or to neglect the rage of the young—as if one must push their concerns aside in order to do the serious work of cultural analysis. (Should we read their rage as symptoms of a wider “sex panic”?)

(4) While I have been calling for an evaluation of structures of harm that graduate education reproduces, I think it is also wise to interrogate our judgments of Ronell herself—and of Reitmar. After all, for some people it is quite easy to pin the case on the failings of Critical Theory. Or the Academic Left. It is also quite easy for some people to pin the case on the failures of Feminism. Or Queer Politics. How sure are we (no matter our stated political and ethical positions) that we aren’t reproducing misogyny and homophobia in our (purportedly progressive) judgments? How would we even know?

(5) I don’t yet know what to say about Duggan’s intervention here re: confidentiality. I’m suspicious of institutions and the impulse to encode and regulate permissive behavior in our legal system. I’ve learned this from great teachers and theorists and scholars. But my gut also tells me that she overstates Ronell’s position of powerlessness and downplays the powerlessness of the advisee. But then again—am I right? Who needs protecting from whom here? Do both need protection? Where is the best place to locate and develop procedures for “a restorative justice process”? Have we too quickly internalized a sense of carceral and punitive right(eous)ness?

(6) I’m still really mad at Jonathan Culler and Slavoj Zizek. Perhaps it’s safe to focus my anger here.

(7) I think we have a lot to learn from our students about pedagogical resistance and need and revision and care and caution.

(8) I feel like I don’t know anything.

(9) Someday I’ll teach Butler’s apology to the MLA beside The Psychic Life of Power (1997).

This week begins the Fall 2018 semester, and I am tasked with leading a group of 20 students through a course in Literary Criticism. Half of them are graduate students. I enjoy these courses a great deal, because I’m fascinated by the critical history of my field. I enjoy reading essays by Cleanth Brooks, revisiting the promises of reader response criticism, dwelling in the still captivating work of Roland Barthes, learning (anew) the interventions of Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Patricia Hill Collins, Barbara Smith, Barbara H. Smith, and on, and on. I even like puzzling out Lacan’s seminars as well as the many critiques of psychoanalysis that have multiplied over the years.

But today I enter a new classroom, and I’m faced with the potential consequences of assigning Jonathan Culler’s A Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory after also having read this morning his comments in this LARB blog post. In response to a question of whether or not he regretted signing a letter sent to NYU in support of Ronell (a letter that also included the signatures of Butler, Spivak, Emily Apter, and many more), especially after hearing of the evidence presented in the New York Times, Culler writes,

I think that signatories to Judith Butler’s letter probably varied a lot in how much they knew about the accusations. I certainly don’t regret signing, because I don’t believe the accusations of sexual misconduct. Professor Ronell certainly does write over-the-top emails, as all her correspondents know.

Jon Wiener, author of the blogpost linked above, continues, “[Culler] accepted [Ronell’s] defense that Nimrod ‘reciprocated,’ and pointed out that if Nimrod had been ‘upset’ by the emails, ‘he could have chosen to work with someone else’—which indeed often happens with grad students.” I really can’t fathom this response.

Honestly, I can’t.

How do I square the perceptive analyses of Culler with the human being saying these things?

I’m not judging the impulse to support a friend.

I would probably want to do the same.

But I do judge the stupidity of Culler’s proposed solution.

And I do judge him for his refusal to see that (the appearance of) reciprocity is not always (probably usually isn’t) a sign of equality.

There are many lessons to learn here, and I continue learning a great deal as I read the reactions of my friends and my colleagues to this case.

But today I want to be open with my students about this case. I want them to know that the humanities are better than this—that scholars and teachers who almost never find their name in newspapers or who do not have high honorarium expectations when they travel or present their work (but who are rockstar researchers all the same) are here at the University of South Dakota—ready to listen to, to teach, to guide, to honor, and to learn from them and their work.

I hope I can live up to this ideal.

What Is Life?
John Clare (1793-1864)

AND what is Life?—An hour-glass on the run,
A mist retreating from the morning sun,
A busy, bustling, still repeated dream.—
Its length?—A minute’s pause, a moment’s thought.
And happiness?—A bubble on the stream,
That in the act of seizing shrinks to nought.

What is vain Hope?—The puffing gale of morn,
That robs each flow’ret of its gem,—and dies;
A cobweb hiding disappointment’s thorn,
Which stings more keenly through the thin disguise.

—And thou, O Trouble?—nothing can suppose
(And sure the Power of Wisdom only knows),
What need requireth thee:
So free and liberal as thy bounty flows,
Some necessary cause must surely be.
But disappointments, pains, and every woe
Devoted wretches feel,
The universal plagues of life below,
Are mysteries still ’neath Fate’s unbroken seal.

And what is Death? is still the cause unfound?
That dark, mysterious name of horrid sound?—
A long and lingering sleep, the weary crave.
And Peace? where can its happiness abound?—
No where at all, save heaven, and the grave.

Then what is Life?—When stripp’d of its disguise,
A thing to be desir’d it cannot be;
Since every thing that meets our foolish eyes
Gives proof sufficient of its vanity.
’Tis but a trial all must undergo;
To teach unthankful mortals how to prize
That happiness vain man’s denied to know,
Until he’s call’d to claim it in the skies.

The Windhover
Gerard Manley Hopkins

To Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!     

   No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

I’ve looked at (and used) several introductory textbooks to literary and cultural theory over the years.

Most of them approach this subject matter in the same way: once there was undisciplined “Old Criticism,” then there was “New Criticism,” then all hell broke loose and literary studies disaggregated into schools, lenses, movements, approaches, etc.

The textbooks do what they can to organize this disaggregation into manageable chunks (Structuralism, Deconstruction, Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, Queer Theory, Postcolonial Theory, etc.). The most recent textbooks or most recent editions even try to include Eco-criticism, Cognitive Approaches, Animal Studies, Affect Theory, Disability Studies, Posthumanism, and so on.

No matter how inclusive a textbook appears to be, however, there is consensus that the best way to teach theory is from the beginning.

First there was formalism.
Then a bunch of French theory.
And then things get political, ethical, and historical.

But what if one begins elsewhere?

What if one doesn’t begin with the intentional fallacy or with the signifier and signified but with intersectional feminism?

What then?

Perhaps someone might say: students need to know what later branches of literary study were reacting to.

They need to know New Criticism before Feminist Literary Criticism makes any sense.

But if Sara Ahmed is correct that learning theory is like learning any language, then it follows that the best way to learn theory is not necessarily through a linear, chronological method but, rather, through immersion in what might (initially) seem a foreign tongue.

Immersion in queer feminist of color theory.

My graduate students are spending five weeks on feminist theory before we rewind on Week 6 and begin the normative move through the history of theory and criticism.

What will it be like to read Wimsatt and Beardsley, Saussure, Derrida, Freud, Marx and Engels after already having spent so much time with Wollstonecraft, Woolf, Gilbert and Gubar, de Beauvoir, Cixous, Wittig, Zimmerman, Rubin, Halberstam, Mulvey, B. Smith, Bordo, and Ahmed?

I can’t wait.


The final sentence of Deleuze’s Aristotle section asks, “. . . does not difference as catastrophe precisely bear witness to an irreducible ground which continues to act under the apparent equilibrium of organic representation?” (DR 35).

Implication: if philosophers want to conceptualize “Difference in Itself,” perhaps they should start with/on/around this ground.

I. One More Rehearsal

Without rehearsing in too much detail the many steps of Deleuze’s engagement with Aristotle (which took me far too long to unravel and which I’m too untrained to access accurately), I want to remind myself of a few conclusions he comes to about Aristotelian difference:

1. “Specific difference”—which Aristotle identifies as the greatest kind of difference—”refers only to an entirely relative maximum” (32, emphasis added). It’s clear, for instance, that a greater difference exists between a rock and a bird (generic difference) than between a bird and a lizard (specific difference). Thus, specific difference fails to provide material necessary for “a universal concept” or “an Idea” that expresses “a differenciator of difference” (31-32).

2. The logic of specific difference “rests upon the condition of the identity or univocity of concepts in general taken as genera” (32-33). In other words, species A and species B can be said to belong to a single genus in one and the same sense. The logic of generic difference, however, is wholly other. While related species require the identity of the genus that encompass them, genera do not require a super-genus that encompasses them; they “are not subject to the condition that they share an identical concept or a common genus” (32). The only possible super-genus would be Being. However, in Aristotle, there is no univocal concept of Being but, rather, an “equivocity” best illustrated by the categories (substance, quantity, quality, etc.). The categories provide us with classes of entities (beings) that can be said to be but not in one and the same sense. 

3. For Deleuze, the univocity of the genus that characterizes its species and the equivocity of Being that characterizes diverse genera do not constitute a “fracture” in Aristotle’s thought (33) but comprise a “complementary double inscription” of difference within organic representation (34). Skipping a few steps of Deleuze’s argument, difference is thus “fully subject to the identity of the concept, the opposition of predicates, the analogy of judgement and the resemblance of perception”—the “quadripartite character of representation” (34-35).

So Aristotle’s Metaphysics crafts four unbreakable chains for difference.

Deleuze response? “In effect, difference . . . recovers an effectively real concept only to the extent that it designates catastrophes” (35). Difference and Repetition aims to unleash this catastrophe—”difference is monstrous” (29)—to bring us face-to-void with the Being that Aristotle had suppressed and dispersed into equivocal beings.

II. Back to Being

Best not to start with beings, then, when conceptualizing difference in itself. 

Best start with—best risk—Being.

“There has only ever been one ontological proposition: Being is univocal” (35). Whether one looks to Parmenides, Duns Scotus, or Heidegger, Deleuze asserts, “it is the same voice which is taken up, in an echo which itself forms the whole deployment of the univocal. A single voice raises the clamour of being” (35). For these philosophers, in other words, all of whom sought to articulate something about the “irreducible ground” of beings, all beings have to be said to exist in one and the same sense.

III. A Propositional (not Analogical) Illustration of Univocal Being

By insisting on Being’s univocity, Deleuze is not claiming that it must be understood (contra Aristotle) as a genus. (This would loop difference back into the representational logic of identity.) Rather, he seeks to displace the model of analogy and judgment altogether—i.e., the model that distributes Being into categorical entities—and to replace it “with that of the proposition” (35).

What does this mean?

To illustrate Being’s univocity, Deleuze will use the model of a single proposition (particularly an ontological proposition, like X is Y) to replace Aristotle’s analogical model (which illustrated Being’s equivocity).

So what are the components parts of a proposition?

  1. The Sense: “what is expressed in the proposition”
  2. The Designated: “what expressed itself in the proposition”
  3. The Expressors or Designators: “differential factors characterising the elements endowed with sense and designation”

(Think of “sense” as “meaning.” Think of “the designated” as the thing to which X refers in the proposition X is Y. Think of “the expressers or designators” as the particular Xes and Ys in the proposition X is Y. )

I’m not entirely sure what the origin of Deleuze’s terminology is here, but he does try to clarify these terms by offering some examples of how ontological propositions model the univocity of Being. (It is important to note that Deleuze is not yet attempting to justify his position; only to clarify and illustrate it.) 

He writes:

We can conceive that names or propositions do not have the same sense even while they designate exactly the same thing (as in the case of the celebrated examples: morning star—evening star, Israel—Jacob, plan—blanc). The distinction between these senses is indeed a real distinction [distinctio realis], but there is nothing numerical—much less ontological—about it: it is a formal, qualitative or semiological distinction. . . . What is important [here] is that we can conceive of several formally distinct senses which none the less refer to being as if to a single designated entity, ontologically one. It is true that such a point of view is not sufficient to prevent us from considering these senses as analogues and this unity of being as analogy. We must add that being, this common designated, in so far as it expresses itself, is said in turn in a single and same sense of all the numerically distinct designators and expressers. In the ontological proposition, not only is that which is designated ontologically the same for qualitatively distinct senses, but also the sense is ontologically the same for individuating modes, for numerically distinct designators or expressers: the ontological proposition involves a circulation of this kind (expression as a whole).


So what might we make of this?

A different sense/meaning is conveyed when I identify the “morning star” or “evening star.” There is the star that appears in the morningThere is the star that appears in the evening

However, it is the same star that I am designating. The sense is different, but I am designating the same planetary body (Venus, which appears in the morning and the evening).

There is nothing numerically or ontologically distinct between Venus as evening star or Venus as morning star. There is a real distinction in sense/meaning, but the morning star and the evening star exist—they are—in the same way. The being(ness) of Venus, “this common designated” (as Deleuze puts it), always is in “in a single and same sense” no matter what expressers or designators one uses (35).

Moreover, the is in any ontological proposition involving the evening star or morning star would convey that being(ness) “in a single and same sense.”

But what sense is that?

How do things exist? How are they?

They differ and repeat.

They repeat and differ.

The ontological proposition does not designate a static entity—this would, again, return us to the shackles of organic representation. Rather, it designates an entity that exists in perpetual individuation/becoming.

Beings express themselves as circulations—repetitions—of differences that continue to differentiate. The univocity of being, then, is a chorus, “a single and same voice for the whole thousand-voiced multiple” that is every being (304, emphasis added).

Deleuze’s formula is: Univocity = Multiplicity.

Reading on . . .