Literary and Critical Theory Avital Ronell
by
Diane Davis
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0052

Introduction

Avital Ronell (b. 1952) is one of the most important critical thinkers in early-21st-century United States. Her work embraces a synergistic mix of approaches—deconstructive, psychoanalytic, (post)feminist—and contributes to an array of disciplinary fields, including philosophy, literary theory, media studies, cultural studies, and political theory. In the early 1980s her translations helped to introduce her teacher Jacques Derrida to the American academy, and his profound influence remains palpable in her texts; Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Kafka, and Lacan are other consistent influences and interlocutors. Ronell’s reflections frequently involve extreme close-ups that destabilize the object of her attention, undermining presumptions of full presence and the originariness of site, and reveal instead an irremissible and always-prior tele-logic at the very heart of meaning and being. Ronell performs excruciatingly meticulous analyses with an ironic and irreverent edge that’s reminiscent of German ironists. Critics often turn their attention to Ronell’s singular style, describing the visually performative aspects of her books, some of which are themselves works of art, and trying to identify in her unusual use of language the source of its affective force. Several commentators have noted that Ronell’s style tends to prompt in response a kind of competitive mimesis, an attempt among her critics to out-Ronell Ronell. But her style is inextricably tied to the content of her analyses, which endeavor to work with “paraconcepts”—testing, stupidity, the telephone, authority—that fly beneath philosophical radars and can’t claim the stature or grandiosity of a concept. To demonstrate the impossibility of simply detaching or gaining safe distance from her so-called objects of contemplation, and to evoke something of what cannot be philosophically pinned or directly articulated, she works with her “objects” as if they were reducible to concepts, and then subjects her own conceptual analyses to various modes of interruption. This performative style, in other words, is for Ronell an ethico-political practice. This article could not possibly offer a comprehensive portrait of Avital Ronell and her work. Its aim is instead to spotlight some of her most significant books and essays, along with a handful of helpful secondary sources and significant scholarly responses and engagements.

Interviews and Overviews

Ronell’s works are theoretically sophisticated and draw on a diverse mix of thinkers and writers, so introductory overviews and interviews with her about her work provide helpful orientation and elaboration of her major themes. Ronell and Dufourmantelle 2010 is a series of interviews in a conversational style about major influences and issues. A moving tribute to her teacher, Ronell 2014 offers a glimpse into her own approach. The winter issue of diacritics (Culler 1994) published three significant essays in a special section devoted to Ronell’s work. Davis 2000 focuses mainly on writing and ethics in Ronell’s work, and in Davis 2014, Ronell reflects on anahuman relations. Davis 2009 is a collection of essays on Ronell’s work, and Berrada 2006 is an introduction to this American thinker for a French audience.

  • Berrada, Omar. “La philosophe à venir: Avital Ronell.” L’Humanité: Les Lettres francaises, 4 November 2006.

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    Published in a leading French newspaper to introduce Ronell’s work and approach to a French audience, this overview coincides with the simultaneous publication in France of three of her books—The Telephone Book, Stupidity, and American philo. It addresses Ronell’s scholarly trajectory and influences.

  • Culler, Jonathan, ed. Special Issue: The Work of Avital Ronell. diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism 24.4 (Winter 1994).

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    This issue of diacritics includes an editor’s introduction by Jonathan Culler, “On the Work of Avital Ronell,” and essays devoted to Ronell’s works by Eduardo Cadava, Franc Schuerewegen, and James Slawney.

  • Davis, Diane. “Confessions of an Anacoluthon: Avital Ronell on Writing, Technology, Pedagogy, Politics.” JAC 20.2 (Spring 2000): 243–281.

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    A substantial interview between Ronell and a rhetorical theorist in which Ronell discusses major themes in her work and offers critical insights into her relation to writing, performativity, and ethics.

  • Davis, Diane. “Breaking Down ‘Man’: A Conversation with Avital Ronell.” In Special Issue: Extrahuman Rhetorical Relations; Addressing the Animal, the Object, the Dead, and the Divine. Edited by Diane Davis and Michelle Ballif. Philosophy & Rhetoric 47.4 (2014): 354–385.

    DOI: 10.5325/philrhet.47.4.0354E-mail Citation »

    In this sustained dialogue with a rhetorical theorist, Ronell offers a far-reaching commentary on the limits of the Anthropos, contemplating the scene of responsive engagement with and among anahuman others, including plants, animals, machines, gods, the dead, and the undead.

  • Davis, Diane, ed. Reading Ronell. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

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    A collection of fifteen essays by world-renown thinkers reading and engaging with Ronell’s works and signature themes. Includes pieces by Jean-Luc Nancy, Judith Butler, Laurence Rickels, Werner Hamacher, Samuel Weber, Peter Fenves, Susan Bernstein, Elissa Marder, Pierre Alferi, Gil Anidjar, Hent de Vries, Shireen Patell, Thomas Pepper, Tom Cohen, and Elisabeth Weber; also includes an introduction by the editor.

  • Ronell, Avital. “Teacher’s Pet.” Oxford Literary Review 36.2 (November 2014): 289–295.

    DOI: 10.3366/olr.2014.0136E-mail Citation »

    This essay on her teacher Jacques Derrida offers a nice overview of his influence on her work and its trajectory.

  • Ronell, Avital, and Anne Dufourmantelle. Fighting Theory: Avital Ronell in Conversation with Anne Dufourmantelle. Translated by Catherine Porter. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

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    Twelve interviews conducted with Ronell by acclaimed psychoanalyst and philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle about key elements in Ronell’s oeuvre. Together, these conversations offer a concise and accessible overview of Ronell’s thought and a taste of her provocative style. Translated from the original French, American philo: Entretiens avec Avital Ronell (Paris: Editions Stock, 2006).

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