The Same-Sex Couple and the State

This post was contributed by Naomi Smith, Birkbeck graduate and current intern in External Relations. Naomi recently attended a Birkbeck public lecture hosted by Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, featuring Professor Robert Aldrich of the University of Sydney

Image copyright torbakhopper (Flickr)

Image copyright torbakhopper (Flickr)

Using French history as a case study, Professor Robert Aldrich’s lecture explored the relatively recent global shift from sodomy laws to the embrace of same-sex marriage.

As the title of the lecture suggests, Professor Aldrich chose to look at sodomy laws from a historical and transnational perspective. Having trained as a historian of France, he is now a Professor of European History at the University of Sydney, although his work spans a much more global remit than this suggests.

Aldrich began by observing that ‘the movement for marriage equality has gone global’.

Next, he suggested that whilst the State often acts as an agent of oppression, it is also, at least in potential, an agent of emancipation. He noted that this is particularly obvious when the State manages to free itself of ‘certain notions of nature and sexuality that have much to do with traditional religious beliefs’; this generally involves a challenge to the state by sexual, legal and constitutional activists.

The cause of reform in attitudes

Aldrich proposed that two major changes or contexts could be identified as the cause of reform in attitudes, both social and legal, to marriage equality. Firstly, the belief in the State as the guarantor of rights, rather than the agent that denies rights. And secondly, the concept of governance that distances the State from the dictates of traditional or orthodox religious beliefs, whatever they may be.

We are only now beginning to combat what Monique Wittig called the ‘homosexual contract’, paraphrasing Rousseau’s notion of the ‘social contract’. She meant the profoundly embedded supposition that normality is relationships between a man and a woman with the intention of procreation.

Movement towards marriage equality has historically made us think about what marriage is, a notion that varies greatly from place to place, from culture to culture, from religion to religion. This includes notions of consent, ages of consent and the legality of divorce – Aldrich talked about campaigns throughout history to combat these notions and instigate legal change.


He feels that what is in opposition to the legalisation of same-sex marriage is not ‘marriage defence’ but homophobia. One of the ways that homophobia is most deeply entrenched in society is through law, although one of the key ways to fight homophobia is also through the law.

Because the State has always been so deeply intertwined with religion, one of the long term ways to break the ‘heterosexual contract’ has been bringing into question the received ideas about the relationship between the State, sex and religion. Aldrich went on to discuss this through a case study of the history of same-sex marriage and accompanying legislation in France with occasional comparison with Britain.

Interesting points included:

  • In France, a marriage is only legal if it is performed by a civil official; it is not recognised by the State if it is only performed by a priest, imam, etc.
  • The French National Assembly, in 1791, passed legislation which decriminalised homosexual acts (176 years before England). Previously, homosexuals could have been arrested, convicted, even burned at the stake, for committing sodomy. The change in the law, however, did not reflect a social change; homophobia was still considered to be a vice or evil.
  • Sodomy was decriminalised only because it was deemed to be taking place in the private sphere without causing damage to others and because the State had decided that the church should not be involved in law-making; separation between church and State.
  • Gay men continued to be a target for legal discrimination and harassment; e.g. via age of consent laws, etc. There were no laws to protect homosexuals.
  • Paris, of course, had the reputation for sexual licence. Even in the face of legal interdiction, there was ‘naughtiness’, as Aldrich put it, everywhere. Interdiction did not stymy gay and lesbian life but instead gave it a different slant.

Before taking questions, Aldrich concluded by asking ‘how widely applicable, how universalistic are the principles that govern such relationships’? Laws given to Britain and France’s colonies concerning sodomy laws were different but considered equally universal by both those they were given to and those who did the giving.

To Aldrich, the question of sodomy and the State is really about the constitution of society, about the boundaries of public and private, about relations between the individual and the polity.

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Universities and entrepreneurship: Achievements and challenges

This post was contributed by Nick Eisen, reporting on business engagement for Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics

Karan Bilimoria

Karan Bilimoria

Support for entrepreneurship in UK universities has come a long way over the past 30 years, according to Lord Bilimoria, CBE, DL, Founder of Cobra beer.

He was speaking with Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck and Fellow of the British Academy, in a conversation that comprised this year’s Lord Marshall Memorial. The discussion was titled, “The Role of Higher Education Institutions in Developing Enterprising Students: The life, career and considerations of Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea, CBE, DL”.

What emerged from their conversation were specific ways in which universities can help those with entrepreneurial potential develop tactics and strategy as well as ideas to take to market.

Hosted by the Department of Management, part of Birkbeck’s School of Business Economics and Informatics (BEI) and held annually since 2013, the lecture series commemorates Lord Colin Marshall, former Chairman of Birkbeck’s Board of Governors (2003-2010) and Chief Executive then Chairman of British Airways (1983-2004). Speakers are invited on the basis of their achievements in academia, public service or commerce, and began with Willie Walsh, Chief Executive of International Airlines Group (made up of British Airways and Iberia), followed by David Bernstein CBE, Chairman of the British Red Cross.

Entrepreneurship as vital economic driver

Professor Bourke’s deft questions drew out Lord Bilimoria’s passion, optimism, concerns, observations and reminiscences about entrepreneurship through reflections on his experience and stories from his life, from precociously talented student to continent-spanning business leader and voice for enterprise in the House of Lords.

Lord Bilimoria noted that entrepreneurship, once widely regarded in the UK as unworthy of academic or professional attention, is now seen as a vital economic driver: “We’re behind the curve but… we’re catching up.”

Illustrating this trend, he cited Cranfield’s Business Growth Programme; the popularity of student entrepreneur societies at Cambridge and Oxford; and initiatives such as Cambridge’s Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning, and Enterprise Tuesday, where members of the University’s community could learn about activities including raising finance, business planning and marketing, hear speakers, enter a competition and earn a certificate. He was also positive about the commercialisation of ideas from university research into business.

Birkbeck’s contributions here include continuous development of its enterprise offering for students and activities in the Department of Management, the expansion of which into the Clore Management Centre and into Stratford testifies to the Department’s rapid growth and achievements.

In addition, nearly 200 years of innovating to adapt study to working lives helps Birkbeck develop its own spirit of practical enterprise and nurture that spirit in its students and their projects, as does the University’s openness to considering partnerships and joint initiatives with other organisations.

Lord Bilimoria: Lifelong learning for entrepreneurship

With his impressive background in education and training, Lord Bilimoria could be seen to personify the value of lifelong learning for entrepreneurship. He qualified as a chartered accountant with Ernst & Young (EY) – a profession that, he noted, requires its members to undertake continuing professional development (the kind of development, perhaps, that could also benefit entrepreneurs in taking their ideas to market); he graduated in law from Cambridge, and is an alumnus of the Cranfield School of Management, London Business School and Harvard Business School.

As well as keeping up with fresh approaches and theory, he also found direct, practical benefits through such learning. On the Cranfield Business Growth Programme (“where every participant was a fellow chief executive founder entrepreneur”) he described how he would have two notepads: one for taking notes from the class; the other for jotting down ideas gained through the teaching and through talking with his classmates; and that he would take those ideas back to his business.

He also spent nine years on the Harvard course (“I’m a slow learner!”) and has returned repeatedly for refreshers to keep up with changes.

Asked if, looking back, he would do anything differently, he replied: “I regret not having done a proper doctorate.” Perhaps he would like to remedy that at Birkbeck,Tricia King, the University’s Director of External Relations, suggested good-humouredly.

Entrepreneurs themselves, as well as their ideas, require development and, as Chancellor of University of Birmingham, Lord Bilimoria has focused on teaching, introducing the Teacher of the Year Award, with winners chosen by students. Here the entrepreneurial quality of innovation has proved important in the selection of nominees: “When you read the citations… you see… they think outside the box.”

This sentiment is verified by the Birkbeck Excellence in Teaching Award (BETA), this year won by Dr Wendy Hein of the Department of Management for her innovative and inter-disciplinary teaching.

Asked about diversity, Lord Bilimoria emphasised the value of different perspectives that different backgrounds and cultures can bring, acknowledged much remained to be done, particularly in terms of gender diversity, and rigorously questioned an immigration policy that inhibits institutions from attracting and retaining the most talented staff and students and prevents them from contributing to wider UK society.

This event also illustrated something Lord Bilimoria was clearly too modest to say himself: that universities can provide platforms from which achievers could inspire potential achievers – even towards insights that perhaps only experience can offer.

Many such insights emerged from Lord Bilimoria’s own story. He learned about focus by observing his father: “Clear desk, clear mind”.

He experimented with different ideas, developing the idea for Cobra Beer, and went into business, experiencing the moment of choosing: “Ideas are one thing, action is another… To take that risk, that leap is the first decision…”

Working on the business taught him about partnership: “I teamed up with a business partner… you can’t do it alone…”

When a chance encounter introduced him and his partner to the biggest brewer in India, he also learned about luck, which he defined as “when determination meets opportunity – If you’re determined you’ll see the opportunity, otherwise the opportunities pass you by.” He added: “Luck is something they don’t teach you [at] business school; there are no case studies on luck.”

His determination also served him well when running the enterprise from his home in a small flat (which taught him about every aspect of the business), when spotting opportunities to bounce back from mistakes and from events such as the 2008 financial crisis, and perhaps when seeing the determination in the applicant who was to become a legendary salesman for the business.

Lord Bilimoria’s approach was to hire the best accountants, designers, public relations and advertising agencies and treat them as part of the team, inviting them to annual general meetings (AGMs): “As we grew we realised… we would need to leverage in terms of bringing in advice, because there were very few of us… How could we get people to advise us but treat us as more than just a client?… I remember once overhearing a senior member of the advertising industry and a senior designer saying: ‘I’ve never been to a client AGM before in my life.’”

During the intimate discussion in the Keynes Library other areas were touched upon including the role of philanthropy and the support of  Lady Bilimoria throughout the entrepreneurial journey.

In a moving personal tribute, Lord Bilimoria then said a few warm words about his late friend and mentor, Lord Colin Marshall, his kindness, generosity and sense of humour.

Birkbeck students and staff can watch the full video online (ITS username and password required)

Pictured left to right: Professor David Latchman CBE, Master of Birkbeck; Lady Lynne Heather Bilimoria, Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea, CBE, DL; Professor Joanna Bourke, FBA; and Professor Philip Powell, Pro-Vice Master (Enterprise and Innovation) and Executive Dean of the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

Pictured left to right: Professor David Latchman CBE, Master of Birkbeck; Lady Lynne Heather Bilimoria, Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea, CBE, DL; Professor Joanna Bourke, FBA; and Professor Philip Powell, Pro-Vice Master (Enterprise and Innovation) and Executive Dean of the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

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Owl origami is a #bbkhoot!

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer for Birkbeck, University of London

#bbkhootThe stretch between being offered a place at university and actually commencing studies can seem like an eon when you’re looking to start the next chapter of your life.

To help while away those foot-tapping hours and days, we’ve found a great solution (well we think so anyway!) The bright-eyed, bushy-tailed students who have been offered a place on one of Birkbeck’s many undergraduate programmes which begin in September have been sent a paper-based challenge, featuring a proud emblem of everything Birkbeck represents: the owl.

The Birkbeck owl is not only a symbol of the College’s evening mode of study, but of our students’ collective drive for knowledge and wisdom. And it also happens to be great to construct out of paper!

With this in mind, flat-packed origami owls have been winging their way (pun unabashedly intended) across the city and beyond, along with handy instructions on how to bring them into three-dimensions.

To offer an extra helping hand to our next wave of students, we’ve put together a quick series of photos to show you how your owl should look at the various stages of construction.

And what then? All you need to do is personalise it (if you wish, but why wouldn’t you want to?) and #bbkhoot it! Send us your photos on Twitter (@BirkbeckNews) and Instagram (@birkbeckuni) with a little message to say why you chose Birkbeck. We look forward seeing your designs. Prizes will be awarded to the top three owls at Orientation on 26 September.

Click on the top left pic below to start the slideshow…

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Behind the scenes extras…

As an added bonus, here’s a picture of our owl (created by Naomi Smith) taking part in its very own photo shoot. You’re welcome.


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Curating Feeling: Understanding Sentimentality in Victorian Art

This post was contributed by Madelaine Bowman, writer, and soon-to-be student on Birkbeck’s MA Modern and Contemporary Literature

Curating-FeelingExploring the representation of emotion in nineteenth-century works of art, Curating Feeling, organised as part of a wider conference on the Arts and Feeling in Nineteenth-century Literature and Culture, offered fascinating insights into the relationship between human emotion and cultural artefacts of the Victorian era.

Influencing interpretation

Curator Alison Smith of the Tate Gallery was the first to speak and got things started by looking into how the ways that artefacts are displayed in a space can affect the ways they are observed and how they make us feel.

Using images from previous Tate exhibitions, Smith talked us through how the layout and colour of the spaces in which artworks are exhibited, as well as the language that is used to describe their history and meaning, can play a part in influencing how they are perceived and interpreted.

She made the point that, whilst it is no longer the curator’s job to care for cultural artefacts, it is their purpose to create a certain mood and to display items in such a way as to tell a story without or over-influencing the emotional effect that they have on the viewer.

Meaning derived from spectator’s own emotion

Next up was University of Warwick Professor, Michael Hatt, who questioned whether it’s possible to curate feeling, arguing that cultural artefacts do not speak for themselves when it comes to the feelings which they convey. Instead, he suggested, meaning is derived according to the spectator’s own emotions, which are projected onto artworks at the time of observation.

Focusing on sculpture in particular, Hatt concluded by suggesting that Victorian examples may at first seem devoid of sentiment, but that what they are really doing is asking the viewer to explore their own emotions rather than telling them what or how to feel.

Curating traumatic experience

Toward the end we heard from Dr Victoria Mills, who shared some of the challenges that she has faced whilst curating the forthcoming exhibition on fallen women for The Foundling Museum (runs 25 Sept 2015 to 3 Jan 2016).

With non-marital relationships being severely frowned upon in Victorian Britain, many of the women in question petitioned to leave their illegitimate babies in the care of the Foundling Hospital, where they would be looked after until they were old enough to work.

The petitions give intimate details as to how the women became pregnant in the first place, some referring to instances of rape, violence and stalking, which, Mills told us, has made choosing which of them to share and how to share them in a respectful way very difficult.

Understanding through that which is not present

Adding to this was Birkbeck School of ArtsProfessor Lynda Nead, who argued that whilst it’s easy to view the women’s petitions as hard evidence of tragedy and trauma, it could be due to their fear of exclusion from society rather than truth that they were inclined to give details of sexual assault to explain their situation.

In a society which disregarded female sexuality and desire, the women may not have felt comfortable sharing information about adulterous or non-marital relationships with men who they were in fact in love with. Nead finished by stating the importance of considering collective emotions when considering the sentiments attached to artefacts from the era, as it may be those feelings which are not present that enable us to better understand.

Raising important questions about the nature of nineteenth-century sentimentality and the factors which affect our interpretation of emotion in artworks from the era, this conference offered fascinating insights into a subject which is becoming a growing area of interest for scholars, and which I am also now keen to learn more about.

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