Avital Ronell on authority
22th November 2014, Novotel Confluence, Lyon
Clifford Armion: How do you relate to authority? How did you come to work on this particular notion?
Avital Ronell: It may be enigmatic and surprising that I have worked on authority because I come from a generation that has been dedicated to questioning authority, trying to kick some doors down, entering spaces of knowledge and non-knowledge that are not dominated by concerns with authority. In fact I’ve had problems with authority and they have problems with me. Nonetheless, as a responsible teacher and reader of political philosophy and literature, I needed to return to questions concerning authority, precisely because I thought I knew what it was. I also thought I knew my position which was one of recalcitrance, reticence and critical rejection. I’m always very suspicious of my own certitudes which have a very short shelf life. I went to the problem of authority and found to my surprise that the great political philosophers like Hannah Arendt, Marcuse (he is more critical) or Kojève... in the end, even though they are considered in many ways to be progressive and, if we might still map things in this way, left wing, they have a real need for authority and really asked for its come back on many levels. That surprised me. Then I had to dig deeper and find out why authority would be something that is desirable and what our need might be for authority. As a Nietzschean I always go after what we need or why we need things. Why do we need authority according to people as respectable and reliable on many accounts as Arendt and Kojève? What they have noted is a phenomenon that we could classify very quickly as the disappearance of authority. In other words authority is vanishing and we no longer have a real rapport to it. For them this is catastrophic. This is really problematic, particularly in times of historical panic when you need something like authority – and it is very difficult to define – to stare down and to take down ruthless prises de pouvoir or real threats to something like the dignity of man and woman. These are questions and utterances that I won’t deconstruct. We could look at dignity and man, where that comes from, what it’s history is, does it have a pernicious underbelly. That’s my job always to be hermeneutically suspicious. I am trained by deconstruction and Derrida to ask a lot of questions and dig up some dirt on even the most refined and virtuous notions and concepts that we depend on. We depend on authority, even from our earliest days, our pre-political moments, when, before we can even count, we count on those who take care of us, who feed us, who change our diapers. There is a certain authority that comes with the other who is in charge of you.
Clifford Armion: How do you define authority?
Avital Ronell: Philosophically, authority is very difficult to define. We don’t even know what it is. We barely know what it was. We do know how it came about, as an emergency plan, insinuated and instituted by Plato. But we barely have a phenomenological grip on it or any kind of reliable grasp because authority doesn’t show itself. It’s not ostentatious; it’s subtle, on a low energy sonic level. It doesn’t make noise about itself. I’ll give you an example. If you’re a doctor or a professor let’s say, or anyone who has an office, and someone burst in it and intruded upon your space in a menacing way and you wanted them to leave immediately, how would you manifest your authority? If you started yelling at them or calling for security and picking up the phone and calling the guards in the building, that shows that you lack authority, because you need a lot of assistance and a lot of noise for back up. Let’s say though that you just had to shoot a certain look or lift your eyebrow and the person started slithering backwards and running away, THAT is authority. Now how do you describe this philosophically? It’s not easy, it resists description, it resists analysis and yet we need to have a sense of it. For Heidegger what is important – and what we have a real relation to – is what withdraws. In German he says: "entzug ist ereignis", withdrawal is an event. The withdrawal of authority, its vanishing and disappearance, is an event that I am trying to understand. It certainly has a lot to do with teaching, with pedagogy, with being somehow exemplary and having people surge up with something like a mimetic excitement about what you do and how you do it.
Clifford Armion: What part does authority play in education then?
Avital Ronell: If you do have to resort to disciplinarian and authoritarian methods, or if you have to push and be coercive and prod in an excessive way – I’m not against prodding and putting some energy behind what you’re doing and saying and teaching – but if you have to excessively push on the student body to get your points across, then you lack authority. So it is not really hopeful if pedagogy tries to do its thing in the absence of authority’s possible manifestations. Authority is almost the opposite of authoritarian behaviors and grammars or impositions. The one with authority has a certain grace, gravity and lightness at the same time and is able to convey things with a kind of sweet tonality that opens people’s ears. I know that ears are the organs that don’t close as Freud reminds us, but a lot of pedagogical behaviors still need to think about psychoanalysis in certain ways: the way the ear is penetrated, what goes on in the transferential scale of a teaching scenography? For example how does authority come across? Does it enter the body? How does it map the student body? I have written a lot about what happens in a pedagogical situation that flies beneath empirical radar; what kind of transferential energy do you have to bring up and get the kids to attach to? What kinds of traumatic events occur if learning is supposed to take place? Some say that learning can only take place through trauma and that is something we have to work with and investigate further and see how we can make good use of that and not sinister exploitation or moves on it.
Clifford Armion: Is it possible to conceive an education that would not be based on authority, or the recognition of a figure of authority?
Avital Ronell: We have to understand what education implies. To educate means to pull out of the other. There’s a pulling, there’s a little violence. I’m sure that education does take place without authority, if we understand by that a certain, measurable, examinable, testable level of acquisition and performance. However if you want to truly inspire, to accelerate and quicken and enliven the pulse of the student body, then authority would probably be an important premise. You can’t require it but people who are deeply impressed and motivated by a teaching scene probably do need to be encouraged by the authority of the one who loves their work, can convey that love and can also make one come up with some mimetic desire that they want to be like you. It is very hard for language teaching because you have to be always inventive, energetic, almost entertaining the students. I think that especially for language teaching there is a burden that one carries because it is at a level of transition and daily harassment of the student. They have to practice and they have to do more and different kinds of homework than is fun to teach. How do you turn that into delight and also something that bears the consequence of authority? Something that is taught with authority and toward authority, meaning that its importance comes across. Authority is different than persuasion and than coercion or force. It had a traumatic background. Plato was shocked and shattered by the state’s decision to eliminate his teacher and mentor and friend, Socrates. According to Hannah Arendt that remains a trauma for us, that the state would be hostile to forms of learning, to forms of teaching and can crack down on you like a fly swatter at any point. This is something that still resides within us even if we think we’re safe and cool and not at all looking for trouble or asking for any kind of troubleshooting correction. Nonetheless the teacher’s position is always precarious because there’s something like seduction at play. Plato discovered that philosophy didn’t manage to persuade the state, he discovered the rhetoric of persuasion didn’t work and that philosophy is disarmed: it doesn’t have the power or powers to go up against the state. That’s why he invented something that could transcend those weakening positions, between the rhetoric of persuasion, and a kind of armed retaliation. Plato invents authority which means that everyone stops resisting. That would be one definition of authority according to Kojève that the other stops resisting what you have to say and teach. You can’t stop the resistance – if it is possible to stop the resistance – by coercion or persuasion. It is only by the manifestation of authority. I don’t know if that is possible but that could be what Kant calls a regulatory ideal: something you want to aim for, understanding that you won’t necessarily make it, but it could be part of our horizon of teaching.
Clifford Armion: Does it mean that authority involves a power relation between the teacher and the student?
Avital Ronell: Relation to power indeed, but where power is renounced. In other words authority doesn’t come in like a SWAT team or a police force, it renounces its own manifestation or behaviors of power. Yet it is still powerful. It’s very hard to define and that is why it excited me as an intellectual project. What is this power concept – Kojève calls it a notion (la notion de l’autorité) – how does it manage to manifest if it is something reticent and if it resists definition. It is certainly a kind of emanation of power but without needing to enforce or force itself on the other. It is a situation where the other wants to more or less kneel down before what you represent. So again it is an antipode to authoritarian behavior and that is a difficult thing to capture and integrate and incorporate and shine. How do you shine on the other without blinding or dazzling, without forcing anything? Now there are other philosophies as Derrida and Levinas where they say – and it might seem scandalous but it’s not – that the other wants to be a little violated, meaning that in order for something to happen or register there is a registry that hurts somehow. This is very abstract and I’m not proposing or promoting corporeal punishment or anything too sadomasochistic but to deny that there is a power, a sort of rapport de force when you are in the position to evaluate, grade, determine the future of these kids, would be also to proceed in bad faith. So I think it’s not bad to assume your power, understand that it has real consequences on their lives and that there is a real asymmetry in the relation between the teaching and the student body. It doesn’t mean that you’re not also in something like a dialectic described by Hegel as master/slave: the students can always knock you out of the game in some ways, but that’s not the normal procedures I hope!
Cette ressource est publiée dans le cadre de la troisième saison du festival "Mode d'Emploi", organisé par la Villa Gillet.
Pour citer cette ressource :
Avital Ronell, Clifford Armion, "Avital Ronell on authority", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), décembre 2014. Consulté le 01/12/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/avital-ronell-on-authority