Category Archives: Institute for the Humanities

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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School’s IN for summer: Reports from the London Critical Theory Summer School 2015

This post was contributed by Matthew McManus who is attending the London Critical Theory Summer School 2015, which is run by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities

Summer-SchoolAcademics sometimes forget what motivates them to start the masochistic project that is a multi-year graduate degree. It can be all too easy to become wrapped up in one’s own research; huddling indoors insulated against distraction with a beaten copy of Discipline and Punish glaring at you accusingly from the table.

One of the pleasures of the Birkbeck summer school (aside from giving everyone the chance for some fresh air during a uniquely beautiful London summer) has been the feeling of reinvigoration and dynamism that permeates the whole atmosphere.

The surprisingly international cabal of students-many of whom converge for just this event every summer-bear the unmistakable marks of intelligent and creative critical theorists everywhere. One can’t walk through the room without hearing someone mentioning Hegel, Lacan, or, of course, Marx and Marxist political economy.

While such can occasionally be a breeding ground for pretension and competitiveness, the program seems mercifully free of that. Participants share war stories, ask questions of each other, and probe the nuances of each other’s projects with generosity.

Of course, this is because everyone draws inspiration from the greats, and the roster this year has been exceptional. Wendy Brown, Balibar, Harvey and Douzinas are all excellent lecturers, and bring sagacity and often dry wit to their subject matters.

Political theory

There is surprisingly little overlap in lecture themes-a blessing when you don’t think you can hear another word about the expropriation of surplus value after going through it for two hours-but there’s no doubt each lecture topic contributes to the other.

The general theme this week seems to be political economy. Specifically, each lecturer wishes to situate themselves in relation to Marx’s epochal critique of capitalism. Various Marxist categories are interrogated and applied to the contemporary neo-liberal situation our world faces. Sometimes it seems there is significant life in the movements of the dialectic yet; at other points the lecturers are candid in admitting the task may lie with us to look for new sources of inspiration.  Perhaps the lecturers on Lacan next week will provide some inspiration, or at least allow us to manifest the inner neurotic lurking beneath the skin of every graduate student.

Becoming friends

The night life around town has been quite enjoyable as well. Quite surprising given London is a quaint little place….After a few genial days of getting to know one another, everyone has become quick friends. Being in England, this naturally means the sarcasm and friendly jibes (not to mention the pints) have started to flow freely. Many of the best conversations had taken place on a patio over a beer, as the subject of the days’ talks are reflected over and criticized.  This is naturally when people’s real opinions start to show themselves, and one begins to filter the Derrideans from the Deleuzians.

With any luck these connections will bear interesting fruit down the line.  Speaking personally, I’ve already bitterly returned to my dissertation with a number of frustratingly accurate objections in hand. What more could you want?

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Equal Rights for All: a new path for Israel-Palestine?

A two-day international conference at Birkbeck, University of London, 14-16 March 2015

This post was contributed by Professor Lynne Segal, of Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies.

For all those who hope to see an end to conflict, the climate of uncertainty, fear and for many, despair, grows year on year in Israel/Palestine. The collapse of every state-brokered ‘peace’ initiative, the continuing devastation from Israel’s bombing of Gaza last summer, alongside Israel’s ongoing annexation of Palestinian land and the constraints and humiliations that occupation inevitably loads on Palestinian lives daily, means that it becomes hard to see any way forward for Israel-Palestine. The horrifying terrorist targeting of Jews in Europe recently has been exploited by Netanyahu to insist more strongly than ever that he speaks and acts as “a representative of the entire Jewish people”. It is therefore imperative that the voices of Jews working for peace and justice are heard. Netanyahu has never spoken for us.

Given the gargantuan imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians, externally brokered peace agreements have proved entirely futile. Rather than simply despair, our aim in organizing this conference is to join with progressive people and governments everywhere searching for fresh ways to surmount the complex political and juridical hurdles necessary for enabling Israelis and Palestinians to live together in peace. One way of doing this is to refocus on the rights and responsibilities that make co-existence possible. That is the alternative direction that this IJV conference hopes to facilitate. It means creating a broad platform for all those working together at present to promote joint Israeli-Palestinian movements for reconciling competing nationalisms, and sharing of civil and political rights across Israel and Palestine. It is an old dream, and one that we believe offers the only hope for peace.

At this conference, we will hear from others who have been venturing along this path for many years. Our sessions include politicians such as Mustafa Barghouti and Avrum Burg, scholars such as Avi Shlaim and Bashir Bashir, alongside a host of other community leaders and minority rights organizers, from Gaza, the West Bank, as well as their supporters near and far, whose voices are less often heard. Our aim is not just to learn about progressive movements in Israel/Palestine, but also to make hope possible, in what many see as this most hopeless of all conflicts. The goal is also to deepen and expand the strategies for increasing international pressure for change to end this conflict, rather than – as so often happens – allowing other issues to divert our attention from it. We hope you will join us in supporting this initiative, knowing that, as Raymond Williams always said,  ‘To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing’.

Interested? Find out more


Shoulder to Shoulder: Female Suffrage, Second-Wave Feminism and Feminist TV Drama in the 1970s

This post was contributed by Charlotte Knowles, an intern at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities.

Thursday 15th May 2014, Birkbeck Cinema.

This film screening and Q&A, held at the Birkbeck cinema, was the first part of a two day event celebrating Shoulder to Shoulder, a BBC mini series first aired in 1974, which told the story of the early women’s suffrage movement in Britain (1890s-1919). The event began with some reflections from the event organisers on the enduring importance of the series, and a screening of the second episode entitled ‘Annie Kenny’. The episode explored the involvement of northern mill girl Annie Kenny in the suffrage movement, reflecting on the central part the working classes played in obtaining women’s suffrage.

The event enabled reflection on the representation of the historical imagination in the media, as well as considerations of the way in which women’s voices still remain unheard today. The event sought to reconnect women’s voices from across history, exploring the way in which the suffrage movement resonated with issues of second wave feminism in the 1970s when the programme was aired, as well as questions of feminist liberation still alive today.

The episode screening was followed by a Q&A with cast and crew from the original series, chaired by Joan Bakewell. The discussion explored the changing face of the BBC, as well as developments in film and production technique – not all positive. There was keen agreement about the enduring importance of this series, celebrating Shoulder to Shoulder as a key text made for and by women. The fact it has only been aired twice on British television (both screenings taking place in 1974) was lamented, and a rallying cry for the BBC to issue and distribute this landmark series on DVD was endorsed by all.