In a competitive, capitalist culture, the descriptor ‘brilliant’ tends to refer to somebody who makes connections others have not, or perhaps to have made them faster, or first. It is to burn the brightest, to out-do, to dazzle to the point of disbelief.

Brilliance, in this sense, is the fake currency of the elite humanities academy – the fissile defence that protects against wrongdoing; the light that shines so brightly it cannot touch, nor recognise, shadow. Under these conditions, sunshine may be the best disinfectant, but brilliance drowns it out and dries it up.

This process has been demonstrated recently by the some 50 professors who have publicly come to the defence of their colleague, New York University (NYU) philosopher Avital Ronell, against allegations that Ronell sexually harassed one of her graduate students, which the university is currently investigating.

In a letter to the NYU president and provost that was leaked and published online, the profs – including luminaries such as Jean-Luc Nancy, Slavoj Žižek, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak – ‘deplore the damage that this legal proceeding causes [Ronell], and seek to register in clear terms our objection to any judgment against her’.

Ronell is not culpable and should not face any consequences, they say, on account of the professor’s ‘singular brilliance’. Ronell is responsible not only for ‘building the field of literary studies at New York University, but also throughout Europe’ which has occurred ‘as a result of her brilliant scholarship and spirit of intellectual generosity’. They ‘ask that she be accorded the dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation’. They also claimed to know that the student was deliberately ‘[waging] a malicious campaign against [Ronell].’

Anyone familiar with the elite formula for protecting those who conduct sexual abuse and related intimate misuses of power will see its repetition here. The accused should be spared accusation / could not have done it due to their high cultural status and commitment to the art form; the alleged victim is not / cannot be credible. Indeed, the leading signatory to the letter, Judith Butler – philosopher and author of books with names like The psychic life of powerhas since apologised for the letter having made both those moves.

In academia, as in art and politics, brilliance can have the kind of morality that is often attached to beauty in the fashion or modelling industry. Where in fashion it is a certain kind of physical beauty, in the humanities academy the morality of brilliance is knowing – knowing better, knowing more. In her comments on the current allegations against Ronell, graduate student Andrea Long Chu observes of academics that ‘we cannot stand believing what most people believe. The need to feel smarter is deep.’

‘We get high on finding meaning others can’t,’ Chu continues.

We hoard it, like dragons. We would be intellectually humiliated to learn that the truth was plain: that Avital quite simply sexually harassed her student, just as described.

On the same topic, former academic Amy Elizabeth Robinson refers to the ‘devotion to knowing’ – and the impossibility, for those whose currency is brilliance, of ‘just not know[ing] the truth’.

In other words, when you know like this, you know so well and so magisterially that you are beyond question. All you need to do is activate that aura of knowing and all doubt falls away. You can make the moths fly in reverse.

Commentary on the responses of Chu, Robinson and others has a small tendency to reproduce this atomistic economy of intelligence. One highlighted the ‘brilliance’ of Chu’s take, another disagreed with it ‘despite’ Chu’s brilliance. Others have been understandably able to resist throwing the ‘so-called brilliance’ of Ronell and her colleagues back on them (like I just did above, to rebuke and expose Butler), as though individual brilliance is still what might get us through to collective justice.

While Lili Loofbourow can’t help but note that ‘Ronell – a brilliant theorist of language – positions herself, in effect, as a linguistic bumbler unaware of her language’s effects’, she also suggests that a better use of brilliance is to put it to work ‘innovating’ on the intimate front of power and justice that #MeToo has marked. Loofbourow thus pushes the discussion into community restoration – and beyond the weird, sequestered worship of ‘brilliant creatures’, as we might call them in Australia.

This collective horizon, surely, is where the humanities academy will have a worthwhile future if it is to have one at all.

Because in the current, dominant economy, only a scarce few can be brilliant – that is, smarter, more successful, qualitatively better than others. Brilliance is rare and singular, almost impossible to obtain; thus too precious to diminish in any way whatsoever. And so the brilliance of brilliance is that it outshines accountability. This is a brilliance that brilliance has needed, because as an individual, higher-order trait, the western academic history of brilliance is nothing short of eugenicist. In this history a Black person, a First Nations person, a woman, a working-class person, a person with disability, can rarely be, if ever, brilliant. Repeated in concepts like the Enlightenment and the equation of blindness with stupidity, excessive intelligence is the province of men, the able-bodied and white people.

The discourse being assembled through #MeToo may yet form a collective sunshine of such quantity that it trumps individualistic brilliance. This is the daily sunshine that anybody can know – feeling it on our faces when it’s out from behind clouds or ascendant in the dawn. That which finds the light in everyone.


Ann Deslandes

Ann Deslandes is an Australian researcher and writer who lives in Mexico City. Most recently, her words have appeared in Ms. magazine,’s Across Women’s Lives, and Overland. She is a proud member of the MEAA and former activist with the Australian Services Union and National Tertiary Education Union.

More by Ann Deslandes ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays