When Bad Girls Do French Theory:
Deconstructing National Trauma
in the Shadow of 9/11
Last fall semester, a graduate seminar I was teaching (Advanced Film
and Literary Theory) came to an abrupt halt one afternoon, when one
of the students called the author of an article we had read for the
class a "deconstruction slut." When pressed to explain, the student
complained that the author's prose was dense, that he didn't
recognize many of her references (which nonetheless struck him as
contradictory) and that the author herself dressed like Lydia Lunch.
The remark foregrounded gender issues in ways I never could have
orchestrated. Previously in the class, male authors who are as
theoretically complex and playful as the author under consideration,
and just as flamboyant in their dress and manner, had been critiqued
on the basis of their work alone, not on the basis of their
performativity, sexuality, or personal style. For that very reason,
many of the students in the class felt the remark was sexist. In the
ensuing discussion about the term "deconstruction slut," it became
obvious that what was at stake for many students in the class was the
larger question of who exactly gets to do theory in a patriarchal
society? What kind of women can perform theory in a libidinally
charged academic space? And what kind of theory can they perform?
What exactly does it mean to be a "deconstruction slut?"
Interestingly, the essay which sparked the classroom debate I
describe was Avital Ronell's "Video/Television/Rodney King: Twelve
Steps Beyond the Pleasure Principle," an essay which uses
Deconstruction techniques to discuss Rodney King and the Simi Valley
trial. I say "interestingly" because the Rodney King "event," as it's
euphemistically come to be called, also raises important theoretical,
performative and pedagogical issues, a confluence of issues, if you
will, which informs both "Video/Television/Rodney King" and most of
Ronell's other work. That is, the essay itself foregrounds many of
the issues of theoretical performance which emerged in my class
discussion, with the notable exception that it links them to
technology, race and class privilege, rather than to gender and
What the class discussion perhaps unwittingly revealed, then, was the
stake that certain gender and sexual performativities have in
technology, race and class. In raising the question of who gets to do
what kind of theory and in what context, the class discussion
revealed the degree to which some white men in the class felt that
race and class were masculine issues, issues which should not be
addressed by a woman they regarded as theoretically promiscuous--a
"deconstruction slut." But more importantly for our purposes, it also
revealed the degree to which they wished to protect certain areas of
cultural experience from what some students saw as the "feminizing"
discourse of deconstruction; it enacted a retreat to a kind of male
cultural privilege (and privileging) which they themselves would
ordinarily regard as a highly suspect theoretical maneuver. The fact
that this cultural privilege was invoked in the name of--or around
the absent image of--a black man was ironically noted by the students
themselves, who began to wonder how and why the Rodney King episode
had come to speak so forcefully to and for them.
This article analyzes and attempts to deconstruct some of the issues
which arose as a result of the outburst in my class. In a larger
sense, though, it uses that outburst to investigate the sometimes
contentious relationship between French Theory and Cultural Studies
in American Universities-as mediated by the professorial body. For if
it's true that in America we have " 'post-structuralism,' Derrida and
Lyotard and Foucault schools," as a recent SubStance conference call
for papers asserts, it's also true that in America we have a stunning
theoretical backlash which comes into play whenever French Theory
steps outside the rather narrow confines to which it has been
consigned. And that backlash is the most pronounced whenever French
Theory seems to be mediated through/(re)presented by a woman.
The Rodney King "event"--the beating shown on George Holliday's
video, the Simi Valley Trial, the protests following the verdict
given in that trial, and the subsequent re-trial of several Los
Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers in a civil
case--encompasses an entire social narrative of revelation,
appeasement, and atonement. But most interestingly for academics, it
also encompasses the entire procedure through which we attempt to
make sense of media images. And it does so in ways which
Ronell--rightly, I think--links to pedagogical practice and style.
Contrary to the implications of its name, the "event" remains an
extended episode, an episode in which the body of a black man became
a spectacle for thousands of television viewers, and in which
processes of formal video interpretation and exegesis were carried
out in ways that made many media scholars profoundly uncomfortable.
As Ronell says, "the trial focused on questions of how to read or, at
least, how to produce effects of learning" (Ronell 1994, 294), and in
so doing it called attention to the way that the tools of academic
analysis and discourse are complicit in, or at least can be made to
serve, white privilege and sociopolitical hegemony.
The technique the defense attorney used in the Simi Valley trial was
the same one we see used in the trial scene in Oliver Stone's JFK
(1991). The video footage of the beating was shown frame by frame
to the jury-- as a series of still photographs. By NOT showing the
video as a continuously MOVING document and by stopping the video at
certain key moments, the defense was able to give its own spin to the
images on the monitor. Thus, a scene where King's arm bounced up
could be interpreted as a scene of potential violence TO the police
officers surrounding the black man (rather than as an involuntary
physical response to being pushed). As Ronell notes:
The chilling effects of warping video into
freeze-frame photography cannot be overlooked
--even where overlooking can be said to
characterize the predicament in which
testimonial video places the law. For the
duration of the trial, the temporization that
reading video customarily entails was halted by
spatial determinations that were bound to
refigure the violence to which Mr. King was
submitted. No one needs to read Jacques
Derrida's work on framing in order to know
that justice was not served in Simi Valley, California.
But, possibly, if one had concerned oneself with the entire
problem of the frame, its installation and effects of violence-
indeed the excessive force that acts of framing always
imply-then it would have been imperative to understand
what it means to convert in a court of law a videotape into
a photograph. (Ronell 1994, 278)
For Ronell, this conversion of the media image from a temporized,
moving sequence into a series of "spatial determinations," the
conversion of a videotape into a series of still photographs, has
profound political significance. While Holliday's original video (and
the televisual broadcast which transmitted it) had temporarily
unmasked the continued existence of institutionalized racism, the
conversion of this tape into a series of still images becomes a
necessary institutional precursor for reinstating the black Otherness
on which such racism depends. More importantly, it does so,
irrespective of the content of the image. Following Derrida, Ronell
sees the act of conversion itself-- the attempt to re-render moving
images as still images-- as always already suspect. Linked to the
attempt to halt the free play of textual and linguistic signifiers
and to "fix" a definitive meaning, such a conversion inevitably
reintroduces the binary oppositions on which political (and
philosophical) oppression depends.
It also allowed the Defense to re-introduce a kind of logo-centrism
into a case that originally threatened to eclipse the logos
altogether. Once the video was re-rendered as a series of still
images, it was necessary to provide some kind of narration that would
link them all together. This narration became the testimony of the
"witnesses," who were continually asked not to tell the jury what
they remembered, or what they saw the night of the beating, but to
describe what they were seeing now, on the screen, in the
courtroom. The only role which memory played in the construction of
the event was in the construction of a frame story which might
contextualize the beating in ways that made sense. And, as Ronell
suggests, the frame story that was used was one which already had
strong politico-cultural resonance, the story of a black man on
drugs. The event was "articulated...as a metonymy of the war on
drugs" (Ronell 1994, 279); that is, it was inscribed within a frame
that was designed to legitimate the LAPD's excessive use of force.
In the Simi Valley trial, then, the act of analysis/interpretation
became one both of framing and of performance. The defense attorney
wished to persuade the jury that the police had sufficient reason to
assume that King was a dangerous man on PCP--that is, a man stronger
and more deadly than his size would indicate. In that sense, the
attorney wished to seduce the jury with an intellectual reading of
the tape that might differ markedly from the jury's own, and to
provide a narrative in which police violence might make sense. To do
so, he had to reframe the tape as a series of still photographs--to
reconfigure the text to fit his meaning (this is precisely what many
of our students accuse us of doing to the literary and film texts we
analyze in class--putting our own interpretation and spin on things,
reading too much into them); Counsel for the Defense had to convert
the courtroom into a classroom. In so doing, he demonstrated the
degree to which analysis is power; the degree to which the
attorney/the teacher who controls the kinds of questions that can be
asked about any given text, the one who controls the way such
questions are framed, also controls the kinds of answers juries and
students might be expected to deliver. The Simi Valley performance
enacted by the attorney was simultaneously one of seduction,
reframing and violence; and it pointed up many of the power issues
underlying academic scholarship and performance. In fact, it laid
bare the degree to which Foucauldian notions of discipline and
knowledge (Foucault 1972; 1977) commingle in both classrooms and
courts of law. Which is why, I believe, scholars have been both
fascinated by the Simi Valley trial and repulsed by it.
Ronell doesn't discuss the techno-violence perpetrated as part of the
Defense's strategy in the trial. This is surprising since her
meditations on the King event are part of a larger meditation on
television and video, a meditation on media technology's
"irreversible incursion into the domain of American 'politics'"
(Ronell 1994, 281) and on television's preoccupation with trauma
(Ronell 1994, 287). If she had written on the re-technologizing of
Holliday's video prior to its use in the courtroom, it might have
added an extra dimension to her analysis of video/TV itself, which is
apt to strike media theorists and cultural critics as a bit naive or
uninformed. But her analysis of the figure of Rodney King, and of
the way he was "framed," provocatively points up the confluence of
cultural meanings which circulated around and through the King event.
Not only does the Rodney King event become here a "metonymy of the
war on drugs" (Ronell 1994, 279), it is "equally that which opens the
dossier of the effaced Gulf War" (Ronell 1994, 279); Rodney King
himself, "the black body under attack in a massive show of force,
showed what would not be shown in generalized form: the American
police force attacking the helpless brown bodies in Iraq" (Ronell
1994, 289). For Ronell, King is framed both as the representative
(the metonym) of a larger racist "war" at home and a larger racist
war abroad. And Holliday's tape, which had the effect of verifying
what John Fiske calls "Blackstream Knowledge" (the institutionalized
racism which the dominant media prefers to ignore), becomes the
"screen memory" for all the race trauma which haunts the nation's
collective unconscious. It becomes the signifier of a crucial
televisual transmission gap.
For the student who most vociferously attacked
"Video/Television/Rodney King," the issue was not WHAT Ronell said,
but rather the way she said it. Using deconstruction techniques-- in
which textual meaning is revealed or de-constructed through the
continual free play (some would say "free fall") of language--Ronell
writes a poetic prose which is, as the student maintained, "dense."
Her analysis interpellates the reader as something of an intuiter, as
nuances segue into other nuances, and meaning is revealed through an
impressionistic series of definition clusters.
The article is divided into twelve "channels," given in descending
numerical order. And the choice of "twelve" is not arbitrary. As the
title of the essay makes clear, Ronell is explicitly alluding to
twelve step programs, which--she has suggested elsewhere--"cure"
addiction by substituting one form of dependency for another (Ronell
1992, 25). But she's also playing with the word "step."
The empirical gesture through which the violence
erupted on March 3, 1991, was linked to Rodney
King's legs. Did he take a step or was he charging the police?
The footage seemed unclear. The defense team charged that King
had in fact charged the police. "Gehen wir darum einen Schritt
weiter," writes Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle --a text
which brings together the topoi of charges, repetition, compulsion,
violence, and phantasms. "Let us take another step further," and
another, and as many as it takes, in order to read the charges that
are electrifying our derelict community (Ronell 1994, 280).
The use of the word "step" here-- as well as the playful riff on
"charges"-links, in one paragraph, the Rodney King event to both the
"twelve steps" named in the title and to a specific work by Sigmund
Freud. It links the legal system to what Ronell calls "narcopolemics"
(Ronell 1992, 19), as well as to Freudian scenes of "repetition,
compulsion, violence and phantasms." And it implicitly refers the
reader back to several previous works--Freud's Beyond the Pleasure
Principle, William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch and two of
Ronell's own previous books Crack Wars and Dictations: On Haunted
Writing. The fact that only one of these texts is explicitly named
in the paragraph and that the connections between the Law,
psychoanalysis, racism and drugs are never elucidated helps to
explain my student's frustration with the text. In addition, the
segueway between the "twelve steps" of the title to the "twelve
channels" which comprise the article also implies a thematic
relationship--a link between substance abuse, rehab, and
television--which Ronell never clearly defines.
Furthermore, the text of the article is regularly interrupted by
italicized blurbs of "Headline News." These Jenny Holzer-style
interventions serve as both disruptions to an already-fragmented main
text (in the way that commercials and "headline news" briefs disrupt
or fragment television programs) and as links from it to other
philosophical and psychoanalytic works (further "steps"). Like
Holzer's aphorisms, they often take the form of conundrums.
Separating "CHANNEL TWELVE" and "CHANNEL ELEVEN," for example, is the
following: "Headline News: Testimonial video functions as the objet
petit for justice and the legal system, within which it marks a
redundancy, and of which it is the remainder" (Ronell 1994, 277).
Between "CHANNEL ELEVEN" and "CHANNEL TEN" we find "HEADLINE NEWS
Read the step digitally :crime serials/serial murders." Allusive
rather than-- strictly speaking-- expository, these "headline news"
briefs open the text up so that it, like television, begins to speak
with a multiplicity of (theoretical) voices. What they circumvent is
any attempt (on the reader's part) to construct a formal linear
analytic narrative. Like TV, this essay operates through what Ronell
calls "interruption or hiatus," "fugitive intervals" which serve, she
believes "to bind us ethically" (Ronell 1994, 282; 283) and which are
always "haunted" by the ghost images of other events/other people she
doesn't always name (Ronell 1994, 286).
Even footnotes here tend to be allusive and somewhat ghostly rather
than straightforwardly informative. In one note, for example, Ronell
writes, "I am assuming the reader's familiarity with the well-known
essays by Mary Ann Doane, Meaghan Morris, John Hanhardt, Jonathan
Crary, Patricia Mellencamp, Gilles Deleuze and others" (Ronell 1994,
footnote n. 5; 343). But what if one isn't "familiar" with these
"well-known" essays? What if one doesn't recognize the
tongue-in-cheek tone of this passage--or simply does not find it
funny? What if one resents the fact that the author has sacrificed
specific bibliographic information in the interest of getting an
appreciative chuckle from the cognoscenti?
In my classroom what happened was the eruption of the same (and this
is what surprised me) reductive narrativizing strategy which the
students recognized and critiqued in the Simi Valley trial. Faced
with a discursively unruly text, at least one of the students
attempted to "frame" its author, to "fix" or situate her within a
recognizable and manageable "stock" narrative
structure--"deconstruction slut." The fact that this narrativizing
strategy (calling a woman a "slut") is itself informed by the
mechanisms of cultural and social power, that this narrativizing
strategy has in fact served as one of the major historical means by
which women have been socially scrutinized and controlled was
precisely what offended many members of the class. Women were angered
that a male student had "reduced a renowned female scholar to a
sexual stereotype." Several felt he was attacking Ronell "at the
level of the body," or perhaps, more pointedly, "reducing her to a
body," rather than explicitly critiquing her ideas or her theoretical
method. Male students, too, were uncomfortable with the form their
colleague's objection had taken. While many of them didn't like the
essay, felt that there was something wrong or perhaps even immoral
about discussing the Simi Valley trial in Ronell's allusive and
elusive style, they also recognized that she was being dismissed in a
way that authors of other provocative (and unpopular) essays had not
been dismissed. And they recognized that she was being dismissed in
this way because her essay was, in some way, threatening to the
speaker. One of the men who liked "Video/Television/Rodney King"
voiced his concern in the form of a simple question. "What's wrong
with being flashy?"
On the one hand, this classroom episode is a depressing reminder of
the persistence of sexism and the emergence of what Susan Faludi
calls "backlash" even within the privileged space of an academic
classroom (Faludi 1991). But in part it is about deconstruction
itself. In terms of theoretical performance and performativity,
there's always been something sexually transgressive and
feminine--sluttish, if you will--about deconstruction. Emphasizing
the technologies of meaning-- meaning as a process rather than as a
fixed, immutable entity-- deconstruction configures its analysis
around the playful slippages between words, allusions, multiplicities
and proliferations (or promiscuities) of nuance. It legitimates
"loose connections." In that sense, it's linked to what Baudrillard
terms "seduction" (Baudrillard 1990), and what -Ronell--following
Baudrillard-- calls "deviant forms of knowledge"(...'the Other to
so-called 'science') that have been historically associated with
women; it perpetrates "uncanny technologies...which break up
classical taxonomies of knowledge and suspend what we think we know"
(Juno and Vale 1991, 153).
It's easy to see, then, why deconstruction might be perceived as both
the best and worst way to approach an issue like the Rodney King
event. The Holliday tape was explosive because it already disrupted
or caused many television viewers to suspend what they thought they
knew about society (that the Civil Rights movement had extended equal
opportunity to all American citizens and that 'cops would never do
that'), and it can be argued that there simply is no linear way
--using "classical taxonomies of knowledge"--to make all the cultural
connections which such a disruption implies. In fact, it could be
argued--in fact, I expect that Ronell would argue -- that any
attempt to impose a linear structure on something as diffusely
traumatic and traumatizing as the King event is to necessarily
frame the episode, freeze it in time and space, and contextualize it
away. That is, from a deconstructive point of view, any attempt to
impose a strict linear rational order on the event is to risk the
same kind of hegemonizing maneuver that the Defense performed in the
Simi Valley trial. It risks re-instating the dominant ideology
through a masking of the nation's real suppressed cultural and racial
On the other hand, to deny such a linear analysis is also to deny the
possibility of any timely social change. Derrida himself has
commented on the seeming irreconcilability of the terms
"deconstruction" and "social justice" (Derrida 1992). And for many of
my students Ronell's essay simply served to illustrate Derrida's
point. The depressing thing about "Video/Television/Rodney King"--and
all of Ronell's social critiques-- is that it paints an image of a
society whose sickness has so many snakey tendrils--reaching so far
back in time--that nothing except years and years of intense cultural
psychotherapy could possibly make a difference. Even then, it might
be too late. "It is possible," Ronell writes in another context,
"that we have gone too far" (Ronell, Finitude's Score, 1994;
xiii). And it is the intimation of that possibility of finitude in
"Video/Television/Rodney King"-- the impossibility of immediate
rational socio-political intervention-- which many of my students
The "Video/Television/Rodney King" assignment was "haunted," as
Ronell would say, by the phantasm of another piece which several of
the students had read, the "Avital Ronell" interview in Andrea Juno
and V. Vale's Angry Women. Here Ronell appears as an "ivory tower
terrorist," the author of "the first political deconstruction of
technology, state terrorism, and schizophrenia," and as a kind of
performance artist (Juno and Vale 1991, 127). The point of Angry
Women is to enact the very kind of dislocation and slippage which
Ronell would recognize as de-constructive or Derridean. Linking such
unconventional scholars as Ronell and bell hooks to Diamanda Galas,
Annie Sprinkle, Lydia Lunch, Karen Finley, Kathy Acker and Susie
Bright, the volume emphasizes the performative and sexual aspects of
scholarship (it constructs teaching as performance art) and
simultaneously locates both unconventional art and unconventional
teaching in an eroticized, bad-girl zone. It was in part because of
this interview that my student made the connection between Ronell and
Lydia Lunch. More importantly, in his mind, the fact that Ronell had
allowed herself to be interviewed for such a volume, the fact that
she had herself fostered a kind of connection with Lydia Lunch,
somehow removed her from a professional arena in which she should be
Interestingly, he did not feel that way about bell hooks, who also
"appears" in the volume. The difference, he said, lay in the
photographs accompanying the interviews. While hooks' interview
includes only one photograph, a shot of the casually-dressed (but
still appropriately clothed) author leaning against a wall, Ronell's
interview includes something of a photographic spread. Three photos
represent her as the bad girl of high theory. Dressed in black,
wearing heavy eyeliner and a chic metal collar necklace, she does
bear some resemblance in these photos to both Lydia Lunch and to
Andrea Juno (with whom she poses in one shot, 147). The three other
photos show her covered in leafy vines, an invocation of naturalist
kitsch. It's these last three which, for my student, posed the
biggest problem. In constructing herself, or allowing herself to be
constructed, via photographs, as an objet d'art --a kind of set
piece-- Ronell, the student felt, forfeited her claim to be taken
seriously as a scholar.
The issue here is what Joanna Frueh has labeled "critical erotics;"
the incursion of the seductive "feminine" into an academic space
(Frueh 1996, 2). And seduction is indeed the intellectual model which
Ronell privileges in the Angry Women interview. Speaking about the
emphasis on the "natural" in certain constituencies of the feminist
movement-- particularly Andrea Dworkin's-- Ronell identifies a
"Puritan core...a politics of self-preservation which is still
ruled by a metaphysics of self-presentation that doesn't consider
current thinking about artifice..." and doesn't consider theory. "The
lines between pragmatic American feminism...and French theoretical
feminism were drawn along eyeliner marks," she says, "artifice,
seduction (that a lot of French feminists still believe in;
seduction as the power to create distance, to dis-identify with
one's self, to mask and play around, and to perform different
versions of oneself." (Juno and Vale 1991. 128).
Such a vision of seduction-- both theoretical and personal-- is
closely related to Ronell's ideas about teaching and is the
antithesis of the Simi Valley courtroom scenario (which I earlier
compared to a certain mode of classroom demonstration). Here,
seduction and dis-identification destabilize meanings by putting them
in motion rather than by trying to freeze them in a single frame. In
this way, they are closely linked both to deconstruction and to a
certain deconstructive style of teaching. As Joanna Frueh puts it in
Fuck Theory, "the teacher"--in this case Ronell-- "liked to fuck
around. She played with bodies of ideas, which she called
philosophies of seduction, and with the palpitations of language"
(Frueh 1996, 43). In Frueh's semi-autobiographical piece, one of the
"teacher's" students tells her that she teaches erotically. "The
teacher, in the flesh," Frueh writes, "embodies knowledge" (Frueh
This libidinally-charged teaching/writing mode, a mode Frueh calls
"critical erotics," unites two kinds of female behavior traditionally
demonized (or trivialized through comedy) by the patriarchy: female
sexuality and female intellect. And it does so in a way that's highly
reminiscent of classic French feminist thought. The danger,
however, of such a playful, eroticized form of teaching--as I tried
to show at the beginning of this article--is that it can do its job
too well. Some students are made uncomfortable. And in the face of
that discomfort, the classroom itself can become a kind of courtroom;
the miming, seductive woman-the sexual embodiment of libidinal
knowledge-- can herself be put on trial, can herself be "framed."
In part, then, the outburst in my class was based on the belief that
theory (the serious business of Academia) and seduction (artifice,
playfulness, sexualized "femininity") are mutually exclusive. In part
it was due to a battle over theoretical turf, not just male and
female turf (who gets to do theory, when, and where), but
philosophical turf (what kind of theory can be used to discuss what
kinds of problems). I don't believe the class discussion would have
been so heated if the article in question hadn't suggested a
real-life confluence of politics, race, trauma and gender. That is,
if the article had used the same analytic techniques and distancing
strategies, but had been about a novel, I don't believe the student
would have felt the need to "frame" the author in quite the same way.
But the essay was about history and racial politics, things which
matter in the real world, things which have material physical
consequences for people (often, as the Rodney King event attests,
horrific consequences). And, rightly or wrongly, the student felt it
was an injustice to speak about such things the way that Ronell was
speaking about them. To an extent, then, the issue was one of
theoretical orthodoxy and representational control. What is the
proper way to represent a grim real-life event, and what is the
proper analytic language--the proper discursive mode--to use in
analyzing it? Who has discursive control of the things that count?
This is never a disinterested question, but it becomes even less
disinterested-and perhaps even more compelling--when the event in
question engages issues of race. As Herman Gray notes, "there is
always the danger that in the postmodern condition...representations
will and often do displace and subsequently stand in for the very
material and social conditions in which they are situated.
Accordingly representations themselves can and often do become 'the'
crisis. Absent any social and cultural context, the crisis of
representation...on the issue of race and blackness can become
hyperreal" (Gray 1998, 44). Gray is speaking here about the media,
but I believe his comments can be extended to what happens in the
classroom, as well. Many students come from privileged backgrounds
and have no experience with racial violence, except through
representation--what they see in the media, what they see and read
for class. In this sense, classroom discussions can and do become
hyperreal. Not only do they seem to "take the place of" the real
events they describe, but the racial/political dynamics they unleash
are frequently the only radical racialized encounters that students
are likely to have. That is, the classroom is frequently the only
place where white students are asked to confront the issue of white
privilege, and this confrontation often makes them uncomfortable.
One positive way students negotiate this discomfort is through what
Cornel West calls "the new cultural politics of difference" (West
1993, 204). That is, they "align themselves with demoralized,
demobilized, depoliticized, and disorganized people in order to
empower and enable social action and, if possible, to enlist
collective insurgency for the expansion of freedom, democracy, and
individuality" (West 1993, 204). But while students and scholars, who
practice this "new cultural politics of difference," (what we might
otherwise call a form of Cultural Studies) tend to align ourselves--
across a triple axis of race, class, and gender--with marginalized
groups, we do not always identify equally with each marginalized
position. More to the point, we can sometimes play marginalized
discourses against one another. That was certainly the case during
the outburst in my class, when the perceived imperatives of racial
analysis seemed to unleash real gender hostility and
As the above discussion indicates, I don't think there is one tidy
explanation for the classroom outburst I've described. Culturally and
socially, the Rodney King event "reaches deep into the white psyche
and history, it revives guilt and fear, it recalls lynchings and
castrations" (Fiske 1996, 142). And it's to this last
term--"lynchings and castrations"--that I would like to give
attention now. If the "Video/Television/Rodney King" assignment was
"haunted" by Ronell's sexualized theoretical performance in another
piece, it was also "haunted" by the spectre of black emasculation.
As Robyn Wiegman has pointed out, the black male body is perpetually
gendered-- differently from white male bodies-- in locus extremis.
On the one hand, the historical legacy of lynching and the repeated
occurrence of police violence have fostered the image of a black man
who exists outside the realm of masculine rights and privilege,
within a realm one might characterize as "feminized." On the other
hand, since the 1960s, Black Liberation struggles have "turned
repeatedly to the historical legacy of race and gender in order to
define and articulate a strident Black masculinity" (Wiegman 1995,
85). That is, the struggle for Black power has been historically
grounded in what Michele Wallace has dubbed "Black macho" (Wallace
1990), a cultural position which seeks to rebuild the African
American community by restoring the position of the black male and
"the priority of the black phallus" (Wiegman 1995, 85). As a pointed
example of cultural schizophrenia, then, the black male body has come
to symbolize both emasculation and machismo. This is not an
either/or proposition. As Wiegman shows, "Black macho" grows directly
out of the experience of emasculation (lynching, castration), as a
means of restoring African American pride. But manifestations of
black male power are profoundly threatening within a racist society,
and must be suppressed. As a result, further acts of emasculating
violence are committed. I don't mean to suggest here that
African-American men bring racist violence on themselves. But rather
that the dominant white cultural image of the black male always
involves both hyper-masculation (too sexual, too violent) and
emasculation; both male privilege and abjection, castration,
For many, the beating of Rodney King is just one more example of
white patriarchy's drive to contain/control/emasculate an always
potentially threatening black man. In fact, as John Fiske points out,
one of the subsidiary framing tales which surrounded the case had
explicitly sexual connotations. In the manuscript of his book on the
King event, Officer Stacy Koons constructs a frame tale which
emphasizes the sexual threat the black man supposedly posed to
Officer Melanie Singer. King, Koons writes, "grabbed his butt in both
hands and began to shake and gyrate his fanny in a sexually
suggestive fashion. As King gyrated, a mixture of fear and offense
overcame Melanie. The fear was of a Mandingo sexual encounter" (Los
Angeles Times; May 16, 1992, B2). Koons later admitted that he chose
his words to purposefully "draw out the antebellum image of a large
black man and a defenseless white woman. 'In society,' he said,
'there's this sexual prowess on the old plantations in the South and
intercourse between blacks and whites on the plantation. And that's
where the fear comes in, because he's black'" (Los Angeles Times).
As Fiske notes, one of the things this quote lays bare is the sexual
dimension of racism (Fiske 1996,146). Here King's beating becomes
metonymic not only for the war on drugs and the Gulf War, but also
for an entire white history of beating, lynching, and castrating
black males. It becomes metonymic for a larger emasculating project.
Given this backdrop, the sexual intensity of my student's response to
Ronell's article makes a little more sense. As I've already
indicated, the student's hostility to Ronell was due in part to the
violence which, he believed, her article had done to him. Derrida
writes that there is something of a "strike and the right to strike
in every interpretation, there is also war" (Derrida 1992, 39). And
certainly in adopting an interpretive strategy which excludes and
alienates certain academic readers, and sometimes denies needed
information (the incomplete bibliographic citations, for example)
Ronell, my student felt, had effectively thrown down the gauntlet.
She had made him feel stupid and patronized. The fact that his
(counter)attack was immediately framed in sexual terms indicates
perhaps the degree to which he subliminally equated such feelings
with a form of intellectual emasculation. Certainly, they indicate
the degree to which he saw Ronell's theoretical performance as a
The fact that such a threat should be enacted around an episode which
itself raises troubling issues of masculinity, emasculation, and the
ultimate (de)gendering of the Black male body--the students had seen
the Holliday tape and had read several background articles on the
King event--goes a long way, I feel, toward explaining the intensity
of the response. But even in the light of what Freud might consider
extreme psychological provocation, the student's response troubles
me. I'm bothered by the rapidity with which he retreated not only to
a primal psychological zone, where oedipal anxieties seem to outweigh
everything else we think we know about the world, but to a
patriarchal academic zone as well, where women are suffered to speak
only if they speak clearly about things which do not immediately
threaten or engage men.
In the months since I first began writing this piece a new national
trauma has emerged, one which makes it, I believe, even more
imperative that we seriously examine the status of continental theory
in the U.S. classroom. That event is, of course, the Sept. ll, 2001
attack on the World Trade Center and The Pentagon (and the downed
plane in Pennsylvania). Like most of the nation, I watched in horror
as the spectacle of two airplanes jamming into the WTC was repeated
again and again on CNN. Like many others, I was glued to the
television for days, so hungry for information that I welcomed Rudi
Giuliani's announcements about subway lines ("the Lexington line is
running") as though they were prophetic pronouncements. And like so
many others I was completely captivated by a spectacle of mourning
that allowed me to lose myself in something other than the inevitable
wait for the phone to ring ("Have you heard from Tom? Is he safe?"
"The circuits are busy; I can't get through").
There is a tremendous amount that can and needs to be said about the
Sept 11 attack and about the U.S. national response to it. The
national media has moved from an uncharacteristic initial aphasia
(offscreen newscasters muttering "there are no words" as the footage
of the assault on the twin towers endlessly replayed) to the highly
verbal need to construct a rationalist linear narrative to "explain"
the event. In the process, absolute binaries have been reinscribed
and codified (Bush's pronouncement, for example, that the nations of
the world have to be put on notice; you're either with the U.S. or
against it--no fudging allowed). Language has become totally
slippery, decentered and contaminated-although more in the viral
tradition of newspeak than of Deconstruction. In a country in which
civil liberties now seem to be under reconsideration, "mourning" has
been confused with "nationalism," "nationalism" with "militarism,"
and "patriotism" with absolute conformity to the will of the Chief
and Commander of the U.S. Armed Forces. There has been very little
public space in which those of us who are critical of U.S. Foreign
Policy and wary of war can come together to simply mourn our dead.
And there has been something profoundly unsettling to me in the
political "analyses" which I've been reading. Both conservative and
progressive pundits seem to me to be missing key issues, and rather
pointedly NOT asking many of the troubling questions that need to be
asked. Of course, Theory has been largely absent from the public
response-- even the public academic response-- to the event. With
the exception of CTHEORY and a few renegade philosophy listservs,
intellectuals seem to feel it would be in bad taste to be too
intellectual, too abstract at this moment. Those who are speaking
out are doing so in largely material terms-- this is the U.S history
of foreign policy, this is what we've done in the Middle East, this
is why a counter-attack is not such a hot idea. Of course, there is a
certain urgency to all this; news channels have now packaged their
continuing coverage of the event's aftermath as "America Strikes
Back," --an attack on Afghanistan-- has been haunting many of us. But
I am saddened by a rhetorical move which seems to reduce theory to
some kind of academic parlor game-something we do when there's
nothing really at stake. And I'm more convinced than ever that theory
(of the kind that Ronell invokes in her Rodney King piece) is the
best tool for understanding the full complexity of the situation-both
the reasons behind the initial attack and the U.S. racist violence
that has been proliferating in its aftermath. Indeed, to paraphrase
something I wrote earlier in this piece, any attempt to deny
theory-to impose a linear structure on something as diffusely
traumatic and traumatizing as the Sept. 11, 2001 attack-- is to
necessarily frame the episode, freeze it in time and space, and
contextualize it away. From a deconstructive point of view, any
attempt to impose a strict linear rational order on the event is to
risk the same kind of hegemonizing maneuver that the Defense
performed in the Simi Valley trial. It risks re-instating the
dominant ideology through a masking of the nation's real suppressed
cultural and racial traumas.
It is in that spirit that I return to the student outburst in my
class. The student's response to Ronell's article is emblematic, I
think, of a certain set of assumptions-- and forms of intolerance--
which (especially beginning) students may and sometimes do bring to
class, assumptions which have to be challenged if we're ever going to
get anywhere in Cultural Studies (and anywhere in the "real" world).
To what extent do students believe, even subliminally, that there are
privileged speakers and privileged positions from which to speak? To
what extent are the concerns of class, race, gender, sexuality--the
issues which seem to form the crux of Cultural Studies engagement--
really given equal weight? To what extent are certain
categories/traumas given more social legitimacy--at least by some of
our students--than others? And what do we tell students who retreat
under pressure into familiar patterns, and use one form of
marginalized discourse to marginalize another group? Or, to put it
more bluntly, invoke race in order to degrade gender, sexual
preference or class? How do we deal with lingering issues of race and
gender privilege in the classroom?
These aren't easy questions to answer, and framing them may indeed
invoke the "excessive force" which Ronell says that "acts of framing
always imply." But however one frames the episode I've described, I
believe it is "imperative to understand" what it means to convert in
a university classroom a woman scholar into a "deconstruction slut."
It is imperative to understand gender politics if we're ever going to
have a meaningful conversation about race or class in the Academy.
And I believe it is imperative that we keep theory-high theory,
difficult theory, continental theory-in the mix if we're ever going
to understand what's happening to us as a people. In the meantime,
I'm hoping that Avital Ronell (or some other high theory bad girl
will) write an inciteful and maddening theoretical analysis of the
trauma we've just suffered. I promise I'll teach it, and whether
whatever new outbursts such a piece might occasion in my advanced
A special thanks to Bob Rehak. Our conversation about theory and the
Sept. 11 attack helped me to clarify and refine many of the ideas
expressed at the end of this essay.
 Young white male investment in and appropriation of black male
identity is not new. See Jack Kerouac, 1957 and Normal Mailer, 1957.
 For a good analysis of the video-interpretive technique used in
the trial, see Bill Nichols, 1994).
 See John Fiske, 1996.
 John Fiske's discussion of the re-technologizing of the video and
the effect which such re-mastering had on the outcome of the Simi
Valley trial is excellent. See Fiske, 1996.
 Ronell says that trauma exists in two ways "both of which block
normal channels of transmission: as a memory one cannot integrate
into one's experience, and as a catastrophic knowledge that one
cannot communicate." Ronell 1994, 287.
 "If Freud was right about the apparent libidinal autonomy of the
drug addict," Ronell writes, "then drugs are libidinally invested .
To get off drugs, or alcohol (major narcissistic crisis) the addict
has to shift dependency to a person, an ideal, or to the procedure
itself of the cure." Ronell 1992, 25.
 Ronell explicitly acknowledges Burroughs' "algebra of need" in
Crack Wars. And her question-- "what if 'drugs' named a special
mode of addiction, however, or the structure that is philosophically
and metaphysically at the basis of our culture"--is basically a
paraphrase of Burroughs' own use of the junk pyramid as a metaphor
for the social construction of power. See Ronell 1992; 15,13; and see
 TV scholars refer to this more positively as "flow," claiming
that the total TV text is one which comprises the program's context
and entire broadcast. So, commercials and public service
interruptions become part of the "flow," as well as the program
lineup in which the show appears.
 Even the terminology is sexualized -- or libidinized -- to
reflect the libidinal play and economy which, for Derrida, lays at
the heart of language. "Dissemination," a word which he says sounds
as though it contains both "seme" (meaning) and semen;
"insemination," "hymen" (the space betwen viriginity and
consummation); "phallus;" "difference"/ "differance."
 At the end of the passage, she points out that "basically all
these dislocations are in the realm of the feminine." Juno and Vale
 I was a graduate student teaching assistant at the University of
California at Berkeley at the time the Holliday tape was shown on
television, and I saw a marked shift in the attitude of my white
first year comp students--AWAY from the notion that African-Americans
enjoy the same privileges and opportunities that whites enjoy in this
society TOWARD an uncomfortable recognition that African-Americans
grow up in an unequal and unjust world. Every white kid in my class
knew instinctively that he would not be treated the way Rodney King
had been treated, no matter how recklessly he'd been driving, no
matter how many drugs he'd taken. In the face of that recognition,
student attitudes temporarily shifted away from the hegemonic naiveté
of the Reagan/Bush years to something we might recognize as more
realistic, certainly more nuanced.
 See for example, Luce Irigaray, 1985. Both Frueh and Jane Gallop
have written impressively about the positive impact a woman
professor's seductiveness can have on students, about the powerful
impact a woman professor's seductiveness had on them, when they
were students. See Frueh 1996, 44 and Jane Gallop 1997, 14.
 A slightly different version of West's essay also appears in
Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Cornel West eds,
Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch. New York: Grove Press, 1959.
Derrida, Jacques. "Force of Law: The 'Mystical Foundation of
Authority.'" Trans. Mary Quittance. Deconstruction and the
Possibility of Justice. Drucilla Cornel, Michel Rosenfeld, and David
Gray Carson Eds. New York and London: Routledge, 1992. 3-67.
Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.
New York: Crown Press, 1991.
Fiske, John. "Los Angeles: A Tale of Three Videos." Fiske, Media
Matters:Everyday Culture and Political Change. Revised edition.
Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. 126-149.
Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. M. Sheridan
Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972.
Discipline and Punish. Trans Alan Sheridan. New
York: Pantheon, 1977.
Frueh, Joanna. Erotic Faculties. Berkeley and Los Angeles:
University of California Press, 1996.
Gallop, Jane. Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment. Durham and
London: Duke University Press, 1997.
Gray, Herman. Watching Race: Television and the Struggle For
"Blackness." Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press,
Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter
and Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornel University, 1985.
Juno, Andrea and V.Vale. Angry Women. San Francisco: ReSearch
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York and London: Penguin 1957.
Mailer, Norman. The White Negro. San Francisco: City Lights, 1957.
Nichols, Bill. Blurred Boundaries: Questions of Meaning in
Contemporary Culture. Bloomington and Indianapolis :Indiana
University Press, 1994.
Ronell, Avital. Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania. Lincoln
and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
Dictations: On Haunted Writing. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1986.
"Preface." Finitude's Score: Essays for the End of
the Milennium. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press,
"Video/Television/Rodney King: Twelve Steps Beyond the
Pleasure Principle." Culture on the Brink: Ideologies of
Technoloby. Gretchen Bender and Timothy Druckrey, eds. Seattle: Bay
Press, 1994. 277-303.
Wallace, Michele. Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman.
London and New York: Verso, 1990. A reprint of the 1979 edition.
West, Cornel. "The New Cultural Politics of Difference." Cultural
Studies Reader, Simon During, Ed. London and New York: Routledge,
1993. A slightly different version of this essay also appears in Out
There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures. Russell Ferguson,
Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-Ha, and Cornel West, Eds. New York: The
New Museum of Contemporary Art and Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990.
Wiegman, Robyn. American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender.
Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995.
Joan Hawkins is an Associate Professor in the Dept of Communication
and Culture at Indiana University Bloomington. She is the author of
Cutting Edge: Art Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde (U of
Minnesota Press, 2000) and is currently working on a book on
experimental film culture of the 1980s and 1990s.
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