Gillian Rose: Against Love by Marcus Pound

Pound, Durham, TheologyThis January the Department of Theology and Religion is holding a colloquium in honour Gillian Rose on the 20th anniversary of her untimely passing from ovarian cancer. Her influence in both theology and social theory remains extensive, reaching from the Radical Orthodoxy of John Milbank to the radical atheism of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. However, specific attention to Rose remains marginal.

Rose was by many standards an exception: she studied Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at St Hilda’s College Oxford in the late 60s, going on to complete a doctorate on Theodore Adorno, later to become The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno (1978), recently reissued by Verso. Along with her sister Jacqueline Rose – the literary critic – she was instrumental in the reception of continental philosophy in England from the mid-nineteen eighties onward. She was Reader at the School of European Studies (the University of Sussex) and then Professor of Social and Political Thought at the University of Warwick from 1989 to 1995.

Nonetheless, much of her writing is a polemic against post-structuralism, especially Derrida’s deconstruction and Foucault’s genealogy. Her critique was unfashionably driven by a recovery of a post-foundational reading of Hegel. A student for Anthony Gidden’s she derided sociology for its Kantian leanings, berated Marxists for failing to take the idealist element in Hegel seriously, and attacked post-structuralists for ceding the foundations of social theory to Nietzsche’s theory of power. And she remains today one of a handful of scholars who struggled to develop Kierkegaard’s thought for social theory. Although she is best remembered for her autobiography written in the months up to her death, her death-bed conversion from Judaism to Anglicanism ensured she remained a controversial and ambiguous figure to the end.

Arguably only now, as a new wave of writers critical of post-structuralism and postmodernism propagate a new universalism (e.g. Slavoj Žižek), can we retrospectively appreciate the prescience of Rose’s thought (notwithstanding the criticisms she might have made of Žižek). Rose argued that postmodernism is an extreme reaction to modernity; the crisis of reason and metaphysics leads postmodern writers to eschew rationality and metaphysics altogether in favour of ontology and ethics, thereby dispensing with jurisprudence (a failing she imputed to modern philosophy more generally). In their passing, philosophy opts for either a “ruined Athens” or a retreat into Jewish ethics, the type of which characterises the work of Jacques Derrida or Emmanuel Levinas.

As Rose argued through a parable of friendship: “Suppose a friend whom you trust more than any other, who taught you the meaning of friendship, lets you down suddenly, and then persistently, ceases to fulfil the expectations which, over the years, you have come to take for granted… Would you give up all your friends? Would you change your expectations of all your friends? Would you simply avoid that particular friend? Would you try to have it out with your friend and wait to see if you could discuss the problem together and see what might emerge from a frank discussion?”[1] Likewise, does not postmodernism take the extreme measures of renouncing reason in toto?

It was for this very reason she expounded the need for political theology: “In the wake of the perceived demise of Marxism and of Heidegger’s Nazism everybody is looking for an ethics. But in fact they should be looking for a political theology. We need to think about God and the polis, not about this anodyne ‘love ethic’.”[2]

Rose’s point here is not that love has no place in the political sphere but the very opposite. What is to be rejected is the fetishization of love as the ethics of Otherness such that the encounter stupefies the difficult decisions we must make. Yet Rose was no romantic. She understood modernity as irrevocably born out of the very caesura of religion and politics, the private and public, reason and faith – modernity’s diremptions (divorce); this split is not to be ‘mended’ through an appeal to some irenic Holy City, nor through the transgression of all existing law. Rather, we must understand them in terms of the ‘speculative’ relation accorded by Hegel. That is to say, rather than see the two as distinct, one must transpose the very difference between them into each other. This means not simply recognising the theological underpinnings of political ideas, but also the political function which underlies theology – such that the misrecognition of the other is read back into the misrecognition of ourselves. This is philosophy done from the ‘middle’, the real work of love.

Our forthcoming Conference brings together some of the foremost scholars on Rose’s work to discuss her continued relevance for social theory, politics, Marxism, Jewish and Christian theology, Hegel and Žižek, amongst other critical streams.

Speakers include: Rowan Williams, John Milbank, Andrew Shanks, Peter Osborne, Irene Lancaster, Andrew Brower Latz, and Marcus Pound.

Gillian Rose, Durham University: 9th January 2015, 10.00am—18.45pm £50 (buffet and refreshments included) To register or to enquire about student concessions


[1] Rose, G. Judaism and Modernity, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), p. 2.

[2] “Interview with Gillian Rose” by Vincent Lloyd. See (last accessed 06/10/2014).

Dr. Marcus Pound.  Dr. Pound is a lecturer in the Department of Theology and Religion and the Assistant director of the Centre for Catholic Studies.  His interests are theology at the intersection of continental philosophy, and psychoanalysis as well as receptive ecumenism.  Dr. Pound’s theological approach is greatly influenced by the French post-war Catholic theological movement called Ressourcement theology and currently supervises post-graduate research students that focus on the intersection of theology, social theory, and continental philosophy. More information can be found on the Contributors page and the Department website.

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