Ronell, Avital. Stupidity. Urbana: U of
Illinois P, 2001.
It takes a lot of courage to write a book about stupidity. And to call
that book simply Stupidity, not even bothering to frame the
term in a way that signals your own quite intelligent mastery of
it--this really takes guts. But Avital Ronell's remarkable
oeuvre is nothing if not gutsy, and Stupidity makes
a strong addition to her formidable corpus.
It's a timely addition, too, given that the events of the last few years
have testified, yet again, to history's "brutal regressions" (44),
the serene delusion that "progress" and "understanding" have been
attained along the way. Those who before 9/11 still held out hope for
Enlightenment values, who still, despite everything, insisted that
equivalences might be drawn "between education and decency, humanism and
justice" (24), may today be more ready to leave the so-called "unfinished
project of modernity" unfinished. As if in anticipation of the violent
tragedy that hit while Stupidity was in press, as well as of
the terrifying "war on terrorism" that has since ensued, Ronell suggests
that it is time to admit it's not possible to "train thought to detach
from stupidity" (23). Indeed, she proposes that the violence to which the
world routinely succumbs "is of understanding: understanding itself is at
issue" (24). History's "brutal regressions," according to Ronell, are to
some degree the effect of an understanding that no longer doubts or
questions itself. The "dominant form of stupidity," she says, which is
also the most dangerous form, shows up as an unflinching certitude that
"doesn't allow for questions about the world," or language, or the
relations between the two (43).
Stupidity remains always open to such questions,
acknowledging that being able to point to various manifestations of
stupidity in no way indicates that one has a handle on it as such, as if
it were simply knowable, as if it could be pinned (or penned) down and
definitively understood. Stupidity is an issue precisely because it evades
our grasp, and with her signature style and wit, Ronell affirms its
elusive nature right up front: "I hesitate to say here what stupidity is
because, eluding descriptive analysis, it switches and regroups, turns
around and even fascinates [...]. While stupidity is 'what is there,' it
cannot be simply located or evenly scored" (3). Right away, stupidity is
associated both with error, where philosophy scrambles to keep it, and
with sheer thought, the near stupor and extreme surrender involved in the
poetic act. It is linked both to "the most dangerous failures of human
endeavor" and also (via Nietzsche) to the promotion of "life and growth"
(3). Stupidity is the ur-curse: "nothing keeps you down like the mark of
stupidity" (27). Yet, Baudelaire figures it as a kind of wrinkle cream
that preserves youth and beauty (88-89). And Ronell, being Ronell, won't
ignore the fact that sometimes, "in some areas of life, it is [also] what
lets you get by" (27), that "sometimes ducking into stupidity offers the
most expedient strategy for survival" (43).
Among other things, stupidity's refusal to come clean, to submit to the
movement of comprehension, Ronell observes, also throws into question
"the knowledge we think we have about knowledge." Because, she remarks, "as
as I don't know what stupidity is, what I know about knowing remains
uncertain, even forbidding" (4-5). Given that Ronell names certitude as a
basis for horrific acts of violence and terror, this statement may offer
an ethical access code to reading Stupidity, which takes the
form of a post-critical critique or a nonrepresentational analysis--a
Ronell trademark. Rather than closing in on stupidity, attempting to fix
and represent its meaning, she traces and amplifies its proliferations in
meaning, struggling to hold the work itself in meaning's open-ing.
Rigorously interrogating the conceptual "object" that goes by the name
stupidity, she moves you in so close to it that it overflows its
object-status, it dis-figures, leaving a radical and inassimilable
singularity in its tracks. Ronell engages it in all its singularity,
tailing it through its engagements with poets, novelists, philosophers,
literary/critical theorists, and preschoolers, but the closer she brings
you to it, each time, the less knowable it appears--and so the less
representable. Therefore, this approach butts heads with scholarly
tradition, which posits and propagates a causal link between rigor and
certitude (the former leading to the latter). For reasons that can only
be interpreted as ethical, Stupidity breaks this link,
offering instead an exceptionally rigorous interruption of
But let me interrupt myself here, my own futile attempt accurately
to represent Ronell's text, at least long enough to admit the extreme
anxiety weighing on me as I write--for, among other things, Ronell
points up the limits of Darstellung, which, when it trusts
itself too much, "magnetizes stupidity" (71). Still, she reminds us that
no one who presumes to write--not even if you're a Flaubert or a Barthes
or a Pynchon--is safe from stupidity's approach: there is no prophylactic
effective against the experience of abjection that writing inevitably
sparks. And I can't think of anyone who has traced out (in writing) the
indissociable connections between writing and stupidity more elegantly,
more thoroughly, or more humbly, than Ronell herself. There's really
nothing else to do, then, but to take a deep, expropriating breath, and
to just get on with it.
So: right up front I want to note Stupidity's radically
unconventional layout and design--another Ronell trademark, this one
thanks to her longtime collaboration with award-winning page designer
Richard Eckersley. A powerful nocturnal theme and threat runs through
this work, and it is visually depicted via altering typefaces, pitch
black pages, and various illustrations of the sun, the moon, satellites,
etc. Star constellations, for example, precede the surprisingly revealing
autobiographical segments throughout the book, acknowledging that the
author herself remains mostly in the dark, even when telling her "own"
story: "no matter how strongly rooted in reference a text may be, it
still carries the trait of incomprehensibility from which it emerged"
(102-3). Ronell's autobiographical performance in this text is both
arresting in its honesty ("I avoided working in close proximity to de Man
for fear that he would crush my already nonexistent balls" ) and
touching in its humility ("I would have liked to tell you more about the
experience of stupidity, for I have done a great deal of field work in
this area, and have felt stupid most of my life" )--but it is far
from naïve. Autobiography does not depend on reference, says de Man,
but it is productive of a reference that never finally comes clean. We
might say, then, that a non-totalizing autobiography, as allegorical
performance par excellence, defies "the sham of
reappropriation" and shares with "true mourning" the tendency to "accept
incomprehension, to leave a place for it" (108). The nocturnal images
opening onto Ronell's non-totalizing autobiographical segments mark
precisely this acceptance of nonknowledge, of the inability to totalize
The book opens with the dramatic image of a full solar eclipse, and most
of the four chapters and three satellites are separated by images of the
progressively emerging sun. The Introduction, "Slow Learner," and Chapter
1, "The Question of Stupidity: Why We Remain in the Provinces," thus
proceed under the sign of completely obscured light, which forecasts what
Ronell describes in this section as the "sheer stupefaction," the
collapse into opacity, to which "the poet's courage" testifies. Chapter
2, "The Politics of Stupidity: Musil, Dasein, The Attack on
Women, and My Fatigue," is preceded by an image of the sun barely
emerging from behind the moon, thus anticipating the presumption of
light, however dim, necessary to sustain the apotropeic rituals designed
to ward off an ever-encroaching stupidity. In the case of Robert Musil's
"On Stupidity" ("Über die Dummheit"), these rituals include
unreflectively nailing the other (woman) as stupid and selecting
a title that covertly serves as a conceptual prophylactic: "Über die
Dummheit" already implies that Musil is on top of it, over or beyond it;
his title, in other words, offers a semblance of mastery over this topic,
which Ronell feels compelled philosophically and ethically to decline.
Roughly half of the sun shines on Chapter 3, "The Rhetoric of Testing,"
an explosive chapter on Paul de Man, Friedrich Schlegel, Georges
Bataille, and the ways in which language's improvised positings out us
all as stupid. The unexpected administration of witty and impossible Test
Questions closes this chapter, illustrating the fact that the light can
play tricks on you, can lead you to believe you have safely detached from
a stupidity that quietly grounds your experience of knowing. To
fully grasp the ethical, political, and intellectual stakes of Chapter 3,
one would first (among other things) need a firm grip on the material
covered by these Test Questions, each of which would demand a near
book-length response--and even then, really answering them would require
the examinee to "play stupid," to "instrumentalize the moment of the
question" so as to "escape the anguish of indecision, complication, or
hypothetical redoubling that would characterize intelligence" (43).
Truly, who could cling to a cocky sense of certitude in the face of this
Pop Quiz from hell?
- If Paul de Man undermined the possibility of true autobiography, why
does the author include autobiographical material about herself?
What is the relationship between stupidity and unintelligibility?
Does the author establish a link between singularity and
unintelligibility? If so, how would this link affect Gasché's
Can Schlegel's kick in the ass be read allegorically?
What is the author's point of view concerning de Man's disciples?
What is the relationship between allegory and history?
How can the author imply that de Man both refused to offer a reading of
stupidity and was responsible for inscribing its implications and
What is at stake in the works of Schlegel, Bataille and de Man in terms
of the figure of testing?
Why does the author make claims for the democratic underpinnings of
scholarly and philosophical journals? Are these principles upheld
today? Give an example.
A) Discuss the relationship of friendship and nonunderstanding, using
the instance of Schlegel and Schleiermacher as your starting point;
show how Friedrich Schlegel's anti-hermeneutics of friendship illuminates
what Blanchot and Derrida have to say about the politics of friendship.
The "Kierkegaard Satellite" also falls under this half-shining sun, which
then emerges three-fourths of the way to introduce Chapter 4, "The
Disappearance and Returns of the Idiot." This three-part chapter offers a
sustained and very moving reading of Dostoevsky's The Idiot
across a Levinasian-inspired ethics, which is situated at the very edge
of consciousness, preceding and exceeding all intentionality. Here the
ever-expanding light of the sun is aligned with the "solar systems of
cognition," which, no matter how bright, are (over-)exposed in this
chapter as inadequate grounds for responsible responsiveness. The
"Wordsworth Satellite" falls under this image of three-quarters of the
sun, as well, tracing with rigor and tenderness the inarticulable
adventures of Wordsworth's beloved Idiot Boy. Though the "story" takes
place, in this sense, in broad daylight, it remains a "story" that cannot
be told: where Johnny's gone, what he's seen and experienced, is not
available for articulation. The poem itself remains a "perplexingly
sustained thought where utterance is reduced to repetitive hoots and
stammers" (6). Yet, "part of the poem recognizes itself in Johnny's
nonsignifying language," Ronell suggests, "and holds with him vigilance
over the silent experience of poetry." What "The Idiot Boy" does as a
poem, Ronell observes, "is to relate to [Johnny's] flight without
relating; it cannot tell what has happened--it cannot become a story--but
can only tell of an ungraspable event, a missing present, the enigma of
its source" (275). The poem tries "to articulate singularity, the
absolute singularity for which the idiot stands and stutters [...]. What
could the idiot have experienced or lived? it asks us." The poem cannot
say; it can't go there. And yet, says Ronell, it "must go there, indeed,
has already been there. [...] poetry is the idiot boy" (276). What poetry
lights up, in other words, is precisely the eclipse in cognition that is
at its source--its light sets out to expose the utter deprivation of
And finally, the Kant Satellite, "The Figure of the Ridiculous
Philosopher; or, Why I am so Popular," which closes the book, begins with
a double-page spread featuring the full (smug) face of the sun, the moon
fading out of sight. In this satellite, Ronell bounces Kant's dry,
laborious, and "manly" writing requirement off French theory's rigorous
and poetic style, which "carries thinking elegantly, with
rhetorical finesse" (283), in order to suggest that the "entity" called
French theory "is a way of avoiding having to decide between literature
and philosophy" (282), a way of embracing the linguistic (that is:
stupid) ground of (even philosophical) thought. Stupidity
thus moves the reader steadily from darkness to light, from the nocturnal
communications of Hölderlin and other courageous poets, who affirm
and share the "secret experience of stupidity" (9), toward the "solar
systems of cognition" (248) that found Kant's obsession with "clarity,"
his struggle to protect philosophy from literature, knowledge from style.
What becomes apparent as one is moved through the text, however, is that
the light of "clarity" cannot be opposed to the night of stupidity; the
latter is the former's very condition of (im)possibility. This is what
Stupidity exposes and embraces from beginning to end, in
content and in layout.
All we really can claim to "know at this juncture," Ronell tells us in
the opening pages, "is that stupidity does not allow itself to be opposed
to knowledge in any simple way, nor is it the other of thought" (5).
"Stupidity is not so stupid as to oppose thought" (23), she observes, but
instead consists "in the absence of a relation to knowing" (5). It is
therefore discovered right at thinking's origin: it names the wonder or
stupefaction (thaumazein) that inspires thought. On the other
hand, stupidity also names the limit of all knowing and comes very close,
Ronell observes, to "Blanchot's sense of nullity--the crushingly useless,
that which comes to nothing." Still, the "bright side of nullity" (29) is
that all possibility originates in it: indeed, it is the "secret
experience" of the poets, who "know from stupidity, the essential dulling
or weakening that forms the precondition of utterance" (5).
The poet, "holding back the values associated with the intelligence of
doing, the bright grasp of what is there" (6), rides the work of language
(figuration) all the way (back) through to its un-working
(de-figuration), where it drops him/her into the abyssal impossibility or
nullity that precedes and exceeds all possibility. "Poetic courage
consists in embracing the terrible lassitude of mind's enfeeblement,"
Ronell writes, "the ability to endure the near facticity of
feeblemindedness" (6). It involves an utter surrender to "the
dispossession that entitles as it enfeebles the writer, disengaging and
defaulting the knowing subject who enters into contact with the poetic
word" (7). Reading Hölderlin's "Dichtermut" and "Blödigkeit,"
Ronell suggests with Benjamin that the poetic act involves a
"self-emptying" in which the poet "yields entirely, giving in to sheer
relatedness" (8). The poet's courage appears to consist in letting go of
all tropological security systems, in dropping even the figural shield of
the "I": it consists, Ronell says, in "taking the step toward [...] pure
exposure" (9), toward the "pure indifference" that is "the untouchable
center of all relations" (8). From here, "the poet is not a figure," she
writes, "but the principle of figuration." Thus, the poet/poem begins in
"nonlife" (9), in an essential nullity that names a sort of
transcendental stupidity: stupidity, then, is located at the very origin
of "life," of "world."
Ronell suggests that the poet testifies to a fundamental stupidity that
operates structurally, at and as the very ground of our being and
being-with, to an existential structure of exposedness that precedes and
exceeds the bounds of the subject--which indicates that the relation to
stupidity is pre-originary: "we" are with it even before "we" are with
our Selves. Stupidity is what "throws us," Ronell says, "marking an
original humiliation [...] that resolves into the everyday life trauma with
which we live" (11). So whereas Robert Musil acknowledges that we are
occasionally given over to stupidity, Ronell's formulations
indicate that we are never not given over to it--even our moments of
path-breaking brilliance are grounded in it. Heidegger taught us that
language is the house of Being, but what Ronell demonstrates in this work
is that a transcendental stupidity is the house of language.
And if there is "a moment when the thing of stupidity sparkles with
life," when "the prohibitions on stupidity are lifted" so that you can
finally be stupid, Ronell suggests that it may be when you're in love.
Jean-Luc Nancy is an important interlocutor for Ronell throughout this
text, and his essay "Shattered Love" may have been one inspiration for
this thought. Love, according to him, is an exposition of exposedness in
which "the singular being is traversed by the alterity of the other."
Blowing the notion of immanence right out of the water, love, he writes,
"re-presents I to itself broken," irremediably open to and
broken into by an inappropriable exteriority. Testifying to a
structure of exposure that marks the failure of immanence, love signifies
a kind of finite transcendence in which an outside announces itself
inside--indeed, love "is this outside itself," Nancy writes,
"the other, each time singular, a blade thrust in me, and that I do not
rejoin, because it disjoins me" (97). Inasmuch as love kicks off an
"upsurge of the other in me" (98), introducing (me to) an internal
alterity, it also assures me that "my" heart, the very heart of "my"
singular being, cannot be totally my own. The philosophical subject comes
into being by appropriating its own becoming through the dialectical
process; however, it is not completed by this process, he reminds us,
because, for one thing, its very heart remains exposed and so radically
inappropriable. Love is always "the beating of an exposed heart," says
Nancy, and it is this heart that "exposes the subject," exposes it "to
everything that is not its dialectic and its mastery as a subject"
(89-90). In "Shattered Love," Nancy redescribes love as what exposes me,
time and again, to my radical exposedness.
And Ronell takes off from there, situating love within a jaw-dropping
string of non-synonymous substitutions, including finitude, irony, and a
kind of transcendental stupidity, each of which, in and on its own terms,
names the endless disruption of the appropriation of meaning and being.
Ronell reminds us that irony, after Schlegel and de Man, is no mere
trope but the permanent interruption of the meaning that tropes
are charged with transporting; irony, then, she proposes, is "another way
of saying finitude," another way to mark "the experience of sheer
exposition" (144). Inasmuch as both are non-stoppable interrupters,
perpetual resisters to closure, to totality, to the work of
appropriation, irony and finitude are semi-substitutable para-concepts
that confound understanding; or, as Ronell also writes, both irony and
nonunderstanding are ways of saying finitude (144). And love--so long as
it is not conceived "on the basis of the politico-subjective model of
communion in one," (Nancy, Inoperative 38), inasmuch as it
is instead based, as Ronell suggests, "on the unrepenting recognition of
difference, separateness, and [...] nonunderstanding"--takes its place
within this disruptive (non)synonymy as precisely what "preempts the
exchange of self-identical rings." Tweaking Schlegel, Ronell suggests
that love "is itself ironic," or that "irony, truly, is love"
(150), signaling the permanent interruption of
(self-)appropriation and so the humbling predicament of finitude, which
is also the predicament of nonunderstanding, of a transcendental
Indeed, Ronell tags love as stupidity's secret agent, love being "one of
the few sites where it is permitted publicly to be stupid," where you are
free to call one another by "stupid pet names" and to engage without
apology in the various "imbecilic effusions of being-with" (89-90). When
it comes to love, in fact, even the Law backs off, granting the lovers a
pass: "Laws legislating social intelligence and sense-making operations
are suspended for the duration of language-making scenes of love" (90).
What this means, Ronell suggests, is either that "you have to get real
down and prodigiously stupid to fall for love, or that stupidity is a
repressed ground for human affectivity that only love has the power to
license and unleash" (90). With a nod to Schlegel but against the grain
of philosophical hermeneutics, Ronell situates a transcendental stupidity
at and as the very ground of love and of friendship--in fact, of all
experiences of community. After all, falling in love is not something
that a self-enclosed, autarkic subject could experience. The subject's
very propensity to fall indicates its structural non-self-sufficiency,
its irreparable exposure to an inappropriable alterity, which operates
both as its condition of possibility (its abyssal ground) and as its
inevitable impossibility, its inevitable (and perpetual) undoing.
According to Ronell, then, love's subject is always already the exposed
subject, the subject (
subject) of stupidity.
Of course, philosophy cringes in the face of such formulations and has,
for the most part, assimilated any thinking of stupidity "to error and
derivative epistemological concerns" (20). Ronell suggests that this
delimitation and reduction of the question of stupidity is a futile
attempt by philosophy to protect "the domain of pure thought" from the
stupidity that is both its guarantor and its original inhabitant.
According to Deleuze--whom Ronell says in part inspired her project,
posthumously putting her on assignment--what prevents philosophy from
acknowledging stupidity as a "transcendental problem is the continued
belief in the cogitatio" (20). If the motivation is no longer
simply a belief in the thinking subject, then it may at least be the
continued scramble to shield the subject from further contamination, to
rescue it. A similar but more narcissistic scramble may be behind the
link between stupidity and cruelty, the fact that the "really stupid" can
inspire bloodlust (83). Given that you are an exposed being, ex-centric
(an outside-inside), your desire to "make dead meat of the stupid" may
indicate a panicked denial of the stupidity-in-you. That "the stupid make
you want to kill them" (84), in other words, may be a symptom of
stupephobia, a terrific struggle against the stirrings of attunement,
against an extimacy that would out you, too, as stupid. Ronell exposes a
"taste for straightforward cruelty" in Musil's musings on stupidity, if
not in his "lady"-smashing anecdotes (Ch. 2)--though her meticulous
reading of his work is considerably more nuanced and psychoanalytically
complex than I'm suggesting here. Still, throughout
Stupidity, Ronell catalogues various atrocities committed
against the feminized and minoritized other in the name of erecting
stupidity-shields--in the name, that is, of maintaining the phantasmatic
border/boundary between the cogitating self and the stupid other.
However, as Ronell repeatedly demonstrates, these evasive and protective
maneuvers are always already too late. "Stupidity, which cannot be
examined apart from the subject accredited by the Enlightenment," Ronell
writes, "poses a challenge to my sovereignty and autonomy" (19); it
therefore poses a challenge to any notion of ethics based on this
sovereign and autonomous subject. And Stupidity offers
nothing less than a post-humanist rethinking of ethics, a sustained
interrogation of the potential for responsible responsiveness in an age
that, despite everything, is still given to "brutal regressions."
It's important to remember that when Ronell embraces the irony of
understanding, the impossibility of understanding fully, she
simultaneously affirms the never-ending struggle to understand.
"There is a hermeneutic imperative," she says, echoing Schlegel (161).
"This imperative is bequeathed to us as gift and burden, it names a task"
(161). But inasmuch as understanding endlessly eludes us, it must be
affirmed as an infinite responsibility, an imperative to attend to the
demand of a relentless uncertainty, a measureless inability to have
understood. "Assuming understanding were to be resurrected without an
imperative lording over its provenance," Ronell observes alongside Werner
Hamacher, "this could happen only by turning away from what is
There is no ethical or logical past tense to understanding, in other
words; it is a process (which does not necessarily imply progress) that
is never finished. One abdicates the responsibility to alterity implied
in this imperative at the instant one presumes to have accomplished it.
The moment one presumes to have understood, one has already turned away
from the incomprehensible, from what sparks the struggle to understand in
the first place. And to turn away from the incomprehensible--that is,
from the other--is to turn back toward the Same. Certitude is purchased
by shooting a U in the face of a fundamental aporia: faced with the
unassimilable other, understanding swerves back around, toward itself,
toward what it already knows or what it is already programmed to
assimilate. When Ronell, on the other hand, affirms the perpetual
struggle to understand, the inability finally to know, she is embracing
an ethical disposition dedicated to the other and to the responsibility
for the other.
Contra the exhausting argument that postfoundational thought
ditches responsibility, Ronell demonstrates that responsibility grows
unfathomably e-n-o-r-m-o-u-s when it exceeds the tiny bounds of the
subject's intentions. In a sense, what she's suggesting is that to act
with presumed certitude is to be irresponsible because to be certain is
already to have turned away from the other for whom one is responsible.
Both understanding and responsibility are infinite, endless, and this
leads Ronell to suggest that the only possible ethical position would
have to be: "I am stupid before the other" (60). Putting a kind of
Levinasian ethic into play, Ronell makes noncomprehension the
(non)ground of ethical attunement, of responsible responsiveness. It is
in order to "explore the extreme limit of such responsibility" and to
determine "what can be assumed by the limited subject," that Ronell, in
Stupidity, appeals to "the debilitated subject--the stupid,
idiotic, puerile, slow-burn destruction of ethical being that, to [her]
mind, can never be grounded in certitude or education or lucidity or
prescriptive obeisance" (19).
The debilitated subject of choice in this case is Dostoevsky's epileptic
Idiot, Prince Myshkin. There is no way to gloss this rich chapter, but I
do want to note that it foregrounds the stupefying conditions of
embodiment, continuing a devotion evident in much of Ronell's work to a
kind of corporeal hermeneutics. Elsewhere she has mapped out, for
example, the mysteries of the addicted body, the wild circuitry of the
technologized body, and the corporeal predicament thematized by the punk
hairdo; she has offered meticulous symptomatological readings of the
Wolfman's constipation, Freud's cancer of the jaw, and George Bush's
inability to age (to grow, to mourn). And in Stupidity,
Ronell turns her attention, via Prince Myshkin, to the finite body
abandoned to the "mute chronicity of illness." Zooming in on the "sheer
facticity of bodily existence" (179), she exposes the ways o
the body operates as a "massive disruption of inherited meaning": "The body
is in the world and pins down the vague locality of world," she writes,
"but when brought into view, it threatens the solidity of the world. As
with television, when things get very local, there is something uncanny
and incomprehensible about materiality: it gets delocalized" (180). There
is no way to know the body, not even your body: "there is no
epistemological stronghold, no scientific comfort or medical absolute by
which to grasp your body once and for all, as if it were ever merely
itself, once and for all." The body, Ronell observes, "never stays put
long enough to form self-identity." All we can really hope to learn about
body is "maybe how to feed it, when to fast, how to soothe, moisturize,
let go, heal." Still, incomprehensible as it is, body has enormous
"claims upon us" (180); there is no losing it. It is both your absolute
limit and what makes "you" possible at all. You are stuck with it. And
Ronell sticks with it, taking us into "the meeting grounds where psyche
runs into soma" (26).
Prince Myshkin's body, she says, "points to the generality of the human
predicament: idiocy has something to do with the nearly existential fact
of being stuck with a body" (180-81). It hardly announces itself in times
of health, when body is "on your side," but illness, when it hits,
"exhorts the body to reveal something of itself," to produce "resistant
signs of itself," signs that remain "unremittingly opaque" (181, 186).
Body does not hide, it presents itself, but it presents itself obscurely,
offering us a sense of it that does not lead to knowledge--body is
"elsewhere when it comes to cognitive scanners," Ronell writes (187).
Still, "somewhat surprisingly," Ronell suggests with Nancy that "the site
of nonknowledge that the body traverses, and of which it is a part," is
related to thought, to acts of thinking. Indeed, inasmuch as Heidegger's
distinction between knowing and thinking holds, it's possible to say, as
Nancy and Ronell do, that the body thinks and that thought itself is a
body, a body, then, that "throws itself against the prevailing winds of
philosophical tradition" (187). There is no writing the body--body is
uninscribable; it's that which "exscribes everything," including itself.
And yet, as it turns out, the thinking body writes: "the sweat,
the nausea, sudden highs, certain crashes, headache, stomach weirdness"
and other somaticizations are the writings of an "inappropriable text"
that body leaves "in its tracks." And this text, Ronell insists, "cannot
simply be ignored" (26). The writing/thinking body demands a perpetual
reading, even if it discloses nothing but "the exposition itself,"
nothing but its own exposedness (188-89)--which, of course, is not
nothing. It may be everything: a constant reminder of your
non-self-sufficiency, of your irredeemable stupidity, and so of your
In his cover blurb for Stupidity, Christopher Fynsk writes:
Avital Ronell has dared to approach a topic that effectively undoes any
"knowing" or analytic posture, even any questioning stance. Advancing in
full awareness of her vulnerability (and demonstrating constantly how
this vulnerability exceeds awareness), she confronts the philosophical,
psychosomatic, and ethico-political effects of her non-object through
brilliant readings of a host of writers for whom stupidity (or idiocy)
has become a haunting obsession or a kind of ambiguous promise.
What I want to note here is that while Ronell's latest work demonstrates
stupidity's all-pervasiveness, it simultaneously
acquires and requires the descriptor "brilliant." Not
because Ronell, finally, is the subject who knows, but because this work
evokes with such intensity the impossibility and nonknowledge--the
stupidity--that grounds all knowing, including her own. It is
brilliant inasmuch as it exposes the impossibility of detaching
brilliance from a kind of transcendental stupidity. Granting the reader
the chance (or the permission) to affirm his/her own "grounding" in
stupidity without freaking and without violently projecting, Ronell
offers the sujet ne supposé pas savoir (the subject
not supposed to know and who doesn't suppose it knows) as a
figure of ethical attunement. Stupidity's most important
contribution to thinking and to ethics may be that it embraces, and
therefore makes it possible to embrace, a post-humanist ethics and
activism that begins with the impossible utterance: "I am stupid before
Division of Rhetoric and Department of English
University of Texas at Austin
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from Kant to Celan. Trans. Peter Fenves. Stanford: Stanford UP,
Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Inoperative Community. Trans. Peter
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---. "Shattered Love." Trans. Lisa Garbus and Simona Sawhney. Nancy