On Thursday, October 22, 2015, Cultural Counselor Bénédicte de Montlaur honored distinguished philosopher Avital Ronell with the insignia of Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The award was presented during a ceremony at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York City.
Good evening. It is my pleasure to welcome you all here tonight as we honor the philosophical pioneer Avital Ronell.
Usually, I begin a speech with the question: Who is this person? But with Avital, that question takes on a philosophical significance.
Avital has spent much of her career immersed in a kind of complex theory called “deconstruction.” That means she trains us to question the questions. She teaches us to critique the concepts that we use to understand the world. And under her guidance, we always find that things are more nuanced than they appear.
The same could be said of Avital herself. Avital has made a career of defying labels, so to ask, “Who is she?” might be the wrong question. Instead, we can let her work speak for itself.
Avital, your prolific writing and endless insights have won praise and turned heads. Your expansive style shines with the influences of philosophical greats like Heidegger, Nietzche, and more. But you’ve woven your influences into a unique, new perspective, making you a major figure in philosophy today. And all this has been possible because you are an independent, creative and rigorous thinker, unafraid to challenge convention.
For all these reasons and more, it is my pleasure to honor you here tonight.
Your sense of intellectual daring is perhaps best demonstrated by your connection to French philosopher Jacques Derrida. You were one of Derrida’s first English translators, and you helped introduce his ideas to America. Early in his career, people said he wasn’t a philosopher. Established figures like John Searle picked fights with him. The Anglophone academy wasn’t ready for him. But you were. To embrace and translate a difficult and, at the time, unpopular brand of philosophy demonstrates true intellectual independence.
According to Derrida, when you met him in 1979, you told him your name was “Metaphysics!” Soon, though, he learned your real name and you began to study with him in Paris. You went on to become Derrida’s co-teacher at New York University and one of his first English translators. You helped convince him to come to NYU. And by leading his seminars when he was away, you made it possible for him to teach. So between translating Derrida’s thoughts and teaching them, you have helped confuse thousands of college students!
As Tom Bishop puts it, you and Derrida were on the same wavelength. For helping Derrida cross the Atlantic, American thinkers owe you a great debt.
Your affinity for France and French philosophy goes beyond your connection to Derrida. Tom Bishop calls you an honorary member of NYU’s French faculty, and you have worked alongside French philosophers like Jean-Luc Nancy, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Emmanuel Levinas. You taught with Hélène Cixous in Paris and were inspired by her “feminist hours.” So subsequently, at Berkeley, you held Sunday seminars for women who were stuck at home during the week. You skillfully imported a French philosopher’s thoughts through your own multifaceted American lens.
Your work blends multiple modes of thought into something brilliant and unique. At the “Found in Translation” panel at the Villa Gillet’s “Walls and Bridges”Festival, you spoke about what we can gain when we move between languages. And as a thinker who speaks English, French and German fluently, you epitomize those gains: new perspectives, new layers of meaning in familiar words.
By integrating French thinkers into your own groundbreaking work, you have done much for French philosophy in the United States. And by working with French philosophers and publishing in French journals, you have also done much for French philosophy in France!
The diversity and inventiveness of your work never ceases to astound. At NYU, you are a professor of Germanic Languages, Humanities, and Comparative Literature. At the European Graduate School, you hold the Jacques Derrida Chair of Philosophy. Today, you are known for your original readings of topics as diverse as AIDS, addiction, and the Gulf War. And since your days at Princeton, you have carefully blended philosophy, literature and psychoanalysis. You’ve crafted a singular mosaic that is all your own — yet one that harkens back to the ancients.
One of your longstanding philosophical interests is language. Fittingly for someone who challenges implicit meanings, you have a complex relationship with words. Your writing is witty and accessible. According to your friend Emily Apter, you take everyday exchanges, even mundane logistics at NYU, “and infuse them with Nietzsche, with poetry, with humor, compassion, and celebration of the other.”
You stick up for academic prose that others dislike because they don’t understand it. In a letter to The New York Times, you wrote that academics “have the good taste to stick to the rigors dictated by their work — even if this should not easily translate into publicly approved language usage.” For you, meaning is not a static quantity in one’s head — but something that emerges and transforms as we speak and write to one another.
Your work has attracted a large audience. I think this is in part because you’ve created a philosophy that exists in the real world. You don’t isolate your work from every day social issues – you embrace them head on. You ask questions people care about.
You were one of the first critical theorists to investigate the AIDS crisis. Artforum called your essay on Rodney King “the most illuminating essay on TV and video ever written,” and Ariana Reines made a play out of your work, “The Telephone Book.” You hosted “Selon Avital Ronell,” a series of conversations at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. At one point, you and Judith Butler took the stage together while dancing to Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman!” Not what the audience expected from a pair of respected theorists — but they loved it anyways.
Then again, it’s not surprising, seeing as convention isn’t really your style. According to your onetime editor Diane Davis, you seek to blur divisions between philosophy and rumor, headline and literature — “the very distinctions through which academia sustains itself.” And you are suspicious of meaning and certitude — two things that philosophy has long pursued. You have said that “the emergency supplies of meaning that are brought to a given incident are cover-ups, a way of dressing the wound of non-meaning.” This truth may be unpleasant for a philosopher, but you did not shy away.
As Marcel Duchamp said: “Je me suis forcé à me contredire pour éviter de me conformer à mon propre gout” or “I force myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.” Like Duchamp, you pinch yourself to keep from falling into the slumber of old tropes and stale thoughts. And when you pinch yourself, you pinch, us too.
Avital, your use of language is bold. Your commitment to creativity is unflinching. And your tremendous command of philosophical tools makes you all the more effective as an insurgent. You acquainted the United States with one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers. You helped introduce America to a new way of thinking, one that had roots in France. And in your work, you have expanded our horizons while also reminding us how little we know about things right under our noses. Avital, yours is a career worth celebrating. And we are sure you aren’t done yet.
Chère Avital Ronell, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.