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Denise Riley - Biography

Denise Riley, Ph.D., is a critically acclaimed writer of in the fields of both philosophy and poetry. She is a professor of literature and philosophy, as well as a poet. She was born in the United Kingdom in Carlisle, in 1948. 

Denise Riley is a feminist theorist and poet 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 could better negotiate this antithesis. There is a clear interaction between her academic and literary work, which is most noticeable in her engagement with the topics of language, emotion, and identity.

Initially she wanted to become a painter but she would study English at Oxford University, only to end up transferring to Cambridge University in order to study philosophy. She would start 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”. Until recently she was Professor of Literature and Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, England. She is currently A. D. White Professor at Cornell University in the US. In the past she has also been a Writer in Residence at the Tate Gallery in London, and has been awarded visiting fellowships at several universities in the US, as well as at Birkbeck College in the University of London. She has taught continental philosophy, art history, political philosophy, and poetics, as well as creative writing. Denise Riley 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, and 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 could 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, she tells us, a failing in self-characterization that should be seen as negative. On the contrary it can be a constructive non-identity. Irony here is important 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 suggests that while the emotional power of language is impersonal, this actually lies at the heart of 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 embarrassment. 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 new study of the emotions embodied in everyday language.

Denise Riley is the author of several important poetry works, including Marxism for Infants (1977), which got its title from The Road to Wigan Pier (George Orwell, 1937). Also, 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.  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 discus their practice. The Force of Language (Denise Riley 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).

 

She 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 or 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. 



Denise Riley is an English Poet and Philosopher. (1948 - ).