Professor of Poetry and Philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS.
Denise Riley (b. 1948) is a critically acclaimed poet and philosopher who powerfully reconfigures familiar problems of identity, expression, language, and politics. One of the most fundamental questions she asks is whether we speak language or if it is instead language that speaks us—or rather, how we can better negotiate this antithesis. There is a clear interrelation between her academic and literary work, which is most noticeable in her engagement with the topics of language, emotion, and identity.
Born in Carlisle, Denise Riley initially wanted to become a painter but instead studied English at Oxford University, only to transfer to Cambridge University to study philosophy. Her work began to be published in the 1970s. Critics have praised her for being “a thinker of great originality, working at the intersections of creative writing and phenomenology.” She was a professor of poetry and the history of ideas at the University of East Anglia, and is presently A. D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University. She has been Writer in Residence at the Tate Gallery in London and has been awarded visiting fellowships at several American universities as well as at Birkbeck College in London. Denise Riley has taught continental philosophy, art history, political philosophy, and poetics, as well as creative writing. She lives in London.
Denise Riley’’s writings are famous for their paradoxical interrogation of the self, and this is perhaps best exemplified in her poetry. Her other critical writings about the history of feminism and the philosophy of language are also recognized as important contributions to these fields. Her first prose book, War in the Nursery: Theories of Child and Mother (1983), looks at the history of child psychoanalysis, its impact or otherwise on employment policies for women after World War II in Britain, and at the rhetorical formulations invoking ‘women.’ In Am I That Name?: Feminism And the Category of ‘Women’ in History (1988), Riley discusses changes in the concept of ‘women.’ She examines, somewhat in the same way as the French philosopher Michel Foucault might have, shifting historical constructions of the category of ‘women’ in relation to other categories central to concepts of personality, soul, body, nature, and the social. Denise Riley argues that feminist movements often have had no other choice but to work with the notion of the indeterminacy of women. This is evident in oscillations since the 1790s between the concepts of equality and difference. To fully acknowledge the equivocation of the category ‘women,’ she maintains, is often a necessary condition for an effective political philosophy.
The Words of Selves: Identification, Solidarity, Irony (2000) is a work in which Denise Riley wonders why the requirement to ‘be’ something or other should be so difficult to satisfy in a way that sounds true in the ears of its own subject. Riley argues that neither the hesitations nor the awkwardness in embodying many of the categories associated with personhood, which includes those proposed by identity politics, are proofs of political weakness. On the contrary, according to The Words of Selves, whether we espouse identity or non-identity, neither of them is quite convincing. Even though such shortcomings should be acknowledged, this is not, Riley tells us, a failing in self-characterization that should be seen as negative. On the contrary, it can be a constructive non-identity. Irony is important here for it can give rise to a self-presentation that can be an opening, as distinct from a closing-off. Indeed, the extensive meditation that Riley offers to us here on the language of the self in contemporary social politics considers the historical status of irony, together with the possibility of a solidarity that is firmly focused on non-identitarian thinking and uses of language.
In 2005, Denise Riley published Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect, in which she examines the everyday emotional and philosophical issues of speech and listening. Her provocative mediations suggest that while the emotional power of language is impersonal, this actually lies at the heart of the personal. Through nine related essays, Denise Riley skillfully demonstrates the rhetoricity of the absurdities and emergencies of life. This includes its consolations as well as its embarrassments. She analyzes the emotional complexities of the affective power of language and ironically refers to the ‘right’ to be alone in the midst of the compulsion to be social. Impersonal Passion reinvents questions of linguistics and the philosophy of language, as well as cultural theory, in an illuminating study of the emotions embodied in everyday language.
Denise Riley is the author of several important poetry works, including Marxism for Infants (1977), which takes its title from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). She also wrote: No Fee (1978), Dry Air (1985), Mop Mop Georgette: New and Selected Poems 1986-1993 (1993), and Penguin Modern Poets 10 (with Douglas Oliver and Iain Sinclair, 1996). The volume Denise Riley: Selected Poems (2000) provides an excellent selection of her poetic works, known for catching the reader by surprise with innovative rhythms. Other non-fiction work includes Poets on Writing: Britain 1970-1991 (1992), in which contemporary poets discuss their practice. The Force of Language (co-authored with Jean-Jacques Lecercle, 2004), shows how the philosophy of language can be integrated directly with questions of political thought as well as those of emotion and affect. Denise Riley’s chapters offer an illustration of this through the practical case of defensive strategies against violent language. She gives a comprehensive analysis of inner voice as a test case for a new approach to language, particularly as a way to radically rethink the usual contrast between the inside and the outside. Denise Riley is also the editor, together with Stephen Heath and Colin MacCabe, of The Language, Discourse, Society Reader (2004).
Denise Riley has raised three children as a single mother. Her chapbook, Time Lived, Without its Flow (2012), reflects on how one’s perception of time may be altered after the sudden death of one’s child, and why inhabiting this sharply new temporality stops one’s habitual modes of telling. Neither tearful memoir nor testament of hope, this essay charts a vivid experience of such a suspended time and discovers an unsuspected intimacy between time and language. Although a life inside this ‘arrested’ time resists being described, it’s neither exceptional nor pathological; to outlive one’s child is historically common enough, but—because of this felt suspension of the usual flow of time which enables narration—it leaves few literary traces.
Riley, Denise, “Dark Looks.” Critical Quarterly Vol. 50, No. 1-2 (2008): 143-144.
Readings – The Inner Voice
Riley, Denise. “Readings – The Inner Voice.” Harper’s, June 2005.
All mouth and no trousers: linguistic embarrassments
Riley, Denise, “All mouth and no trousers: linguistic embarrassments.” Critical Quarterly Vol. 46, No. 3 (2004): 26-32.
‘What I Want Back Is What I Was’: Consolation’s Retrospect
Riley, Denise. “‘What I Want Back Is What I Was’: Consolation’s Retrospect.” Diacritics Vol. 32, No. 1 ( 2002): 49-62.
The Right to Be Lonely
Riley, Denise. “The Right to Be Lonely.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies Vol. 13, No. 1 (2002): 1-13.
Riley, Denise. “Bad Words.” Diacritics Vol. 31, No. 4 (2001): 41-53.
Invisible Colours: A Visual History of Titles
Riley, Denise, and John Welchman, “Invisible Colours: A Visual History of Titles.” The London review of books Vol. 20, No. 18 (1998): 18.
Is there linguistic guilt?
Riley, Denise. “Is there linguistic guilt?” Critical Quarterly Vol. 39, No. 1 (1997): 75-110.
Reflections in the Archive?
Riley, Denise. “Reflections in the Archive?” History Workshop Journal 44 (1997): 238-242.
Ali ima zgodovino?
Riley, Denise. “Ali ima zgodovino?” Translated by Eva D. Bahovec. Časopis za kritiko znanosti 136-137 (1991): 41-60.
There is an Old Fiction of Reliability
Riley, Denise. “There is an Old Fiction of Reliability.” Feminist Review 18 (1984): 36.
The Free Mothers: Pronatalism and Working Women in Industry at the End of the Last War in Britain
Riley, Denise. “The Free Mothers: Pronatalism and Working Women in Industry at the End of the Last War in Britain.” History Workshop 11 (1981): 59-119.
War in the Nursery
Riley, Denise. “War in the Nursery.” Feminist Review 2 (1979): 82-108.