A report from Salon this week claims that NYU feminist professor Avital Ronnell that has been accused of sexual misconduct once dated the underage son of famous postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida.
Avital Ronell is perhaps the most controversial figure in academia right now. Ronell, a feminist as well as a celebrated scholar in the field of philosophy, is also facing a Title IX investigation after she was accused by a male former advisee of sexual misconduct.
Now, Salon is claiming that Ronell once had an affair with the 16-year-old son of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who was a major figure in the development of postmodern philosophy. Citing the authoritative biography on Derrida, Salon claims that Ronell began dating Derrida’s son in 1979, when she was 27 and he was 16. The relationship was not illegal in France at the time.
But their relationship takes on a different coloration in Benoît Peeters’ authoritative biography “Derrida,” which reports that Ronell began an affair with Derrida’s son Pierre while she was staying with the family for the Christmas holidays in 1979, when she was 27 and Pierre was 16. They moved in together the following year (after Pierre’s graduation from high school), living for a time in a Paris apartment borrowed from one of Derrida’s colleagues. Her relationship with Pierre, Ronell told Peeters, “was a way of becoming part of the family. … For me, those years in Paris correspond to a really lovely dream.”
That liaison may look slightly unsavory in the rear-view mirror, but it was not illegal and was only mildly unconventional at the time — the teenage boy’s love affair with an adult woman is a staple ingredient of French fiction. It reportedly made Derrida père pretty uncomfortable, which may have been the point. But I think we can agree that the whole thing would be deemed off limits today, whatever the genders of the people involved.
In June, a group of feminist professors signed onto a document that defended Ronell’s innocence. The document was also signed by influential feminist scholar Judith Butler, who may now be forced to reaffirm their defense of Ronell in light of the new information about her affair with the underage Derrida.
The Salon piece, which was written by Andrew O’Hehir, argues that Ronell has damaged feminism by believing that “she was so awesome that the rules about how to behave with other human beings didn’t apply to her.”
This week, #MeToo pioneer Asia Argento was revealed to have paid a $380,000 settlement to an underage 17-year-old boy who she allegedly sexually assaulted. The age of consent in California is 18.