The theory and practice of authority has historically been closely tied to forms of patriarchy. It is this metaphysical entanglement of authority and fatherhood that is the object of Avital Ronell’s book on Loser Sons. In particular, Ronell is interested in the legacy of patriarchy, the ‘paternal residue’, that pervades contemporary politics. Ronell’s aim is to develop an account of contemporary authority that avoids the temptation to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ authority, but which unpicks the knots which bind together political and paternal authority. This is a very important project. Yet Ronell’s text, whilst erudite and occasionally insightful, is often frustratingly opaque, reluctant to state an argument, and oddly self-referential. (Early in the book, for example, we are offered an anecdote about the author’s dislike of being invited for coffee!) ...
The key figures of the book are all ‘loser sons’, sons who feel they have fallen short of their father's expectations, and who ‘get off on defeat, whether this be construed as defeating their neighbouring others or along the lines of various forms of self-defeat’ (p. 1). If one obvious example figure of the loser son is George W. Bush, the main figures in Ronell’s analysis are literary and Biblical. Archetypes of the loser son include Isaac, Faust, and – in a nobler vein – Franz Kafka. Such ‘loser sons’, inheritors of tyrannical or deficient fathers, are stripped of authority, unable to grow up, and become set on an autodestructive path that Ronell believes to capture something of the contemporary ‘postpolitical’ condition, in which societies habitually infantilize themselves, with disastrous consequences.
Loser Sons navigates a range of philosophical and psychoanalytical interlocutors, including Arendt, Freud, Derrida, Nancy, Levinas and Lyotard. It is Kojève’s book L’Autorité, however, that sets the agenda for the book. This is because Kojève strives harder than anyone else to separate paternal authority from the state, and to lock it solely into familial structures. For Kojève, the Father figures the authority of the past and a kind of ‘ontological inertia’. Politics, by contrast, depends on the authority of action in the present, and hence on the authority of the project (for the future). Distinguishing between four models of authority (father/child; master/slave; leader/horde; judge/judged), Kojève argues that it is the figure of the Judge which offers the way to introduce the most reliable forms of authority. The judge commands authority by claiming impartiality, objectivity and disinterestedness, and authority attaches to all those who possess these qualities. This is an interesting idea that mirrors recent work by the ARN on the role of ideas of objectivity in the creation of authority (e.g. Blencowe, 2013; Noorani, Blencowe & Brigstocke, in prep.). However, Ronell does not unpack the details of this central idea in Kojèves thought, and appears to shy away from its key implication: that democratizing authority requires multiplying and legitimizing forms of objectivity and judgment.
The hero of Ronell’s analysis is Franz Kafka, the writer who turns being a 'loser son' into an extraordinary literary form. The key focus here, inevitably, is his famous ‘Letter to Father’. In the face of an abusive father, Kafka is a ‘good loser’, one who does not enter into battle with him (or others), but travels through regions of submission and makes his failure readable. The power of the letter stems from Kafka’s ability to get his own failure to expose itself in writing. Ronell links this achievement to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s argument, in a discussion of Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac, that there is a form of emancipation that arises from being able to listen to the call of the father. Rather than coming from a freeing of oneself from his voice, there is an emancipation to be found in listening to it. ‘Listening is an extreme form of obedience, of opening and giving oneself over to the voice of the other’ (p.168).
Echoing Arendt’s remark that the most powerful weapon against authority is laughter, the final figure of emancipation in Ronell’s text comes via Sarah, Abraham’s elderly wife, who lets out an incredulous laugh when told that she will be blessed with another child. Kafka too laughs at Abraham, in a short story which multiplies and serialises Abraham, creating multiple Abrahams who are ridiculous and foolish. This leads Ronell, finally, to consider the figure of puberty (including Sarah’s miraculous second puberty) as a potential model that evades the dichotomy of childhood/maturity or tutelage/Enlightenment.
Whilst I am not convinced that Ronell’s attempt to find a model of emancipation from patriarchal authority in literary writing is particularly persuasive, the bigger issue is the problem that Ronell avoids posing for herself. Despite stating a reluctance to play a simplistic game of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ authority, the entire book is about emancipation from paternal authority, and does little to develop a thinking of what new structures of authority might replace it. Yet if, as she rightly argues, authority is a necessary and inevitable aspect of social, political and familial relations, the overturning of paternal authority will be impossible without the invention of new forms of emancipatory authority relation. It is these new modes of authority that now need to be imagined and conceptualized.