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 sexual performance.

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.[1]

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).[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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).[6] 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[7] 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).[8]

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[9] 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).[10]

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.[11] 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 traumas.

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 found intolerable.

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 accorded respect.

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 1996, 43).

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.[12] 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).[13] 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 sexual/theoretical panic.

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, punishment.

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 sexual/gender threat.

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 theory classes.

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.


[1] Young white male investment in and appropriation of black male identity is not new. See Jack Kerouac, 1957 and Normal Mailer, 1957.

[2] For a good analysis of the video-interpretive technique used in the trial, see Bill Nichols, 1994).

[3] See John Fiske, 1996.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] "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.

[7] 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 Burroughs, 1959.

[8] 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.

[9] 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."

[10] At the end of the passage, she points out that "basically all these dislocations are in the realm of the feminine." Juno and Vale 1991, 153.

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

[13] A slightly different version of West's essay also appears in Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Cornel West eds, 1990.

Works Cited

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.

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Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornel University, 1985.

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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.