Birkbeck, University of London

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New drive to enhance role of public intellectual



Birkbeck establishes Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and appoints Professors Donna Dickenson and Slavoj Zizek

4 January 2005

The Faculty of Arts at Birkbeck has established a Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities to promote new practices in the study of society and culture, and to offer a forum to enhance the role of the public intellectual. The new Centre will place the College at the forefront of current intellectual debate, with one of the Centre’s major tasks being public intervention on issues of current importance.

Birkbeck is pleased to announce the appointment of two leading public intellectuals to head the Centre:

Professor Donna Dickenson joins as Executive Director. Professor Dickenson founded and directed the University of Birmingham’s Centre for the Study of Global Ethics. She is a frequent high-profile commentator on ethics in the media and has had direct influence on public education and health policy.

Professor Slavoj Zizek becomes International Director. Professor Zizek, from the Ljubljana Institute of Philosophy. One of the highest profile public intellectuals, he was a presidential candidate in his native Slovenia in the first democratic elections after the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1990.

The Centre will promote interdisciplinary research, and further consolidate Birkbeck as an intellectual centre of research excellence. Initiating new areas of intellectual research and activity is one of the main objectives of the Centre. Its directors will turn Birkbeck and London into a global centre of research excellence in the arts and humanities, challenging the top American universities in the field.

The inaugural project for the Centre will be a series of lectures honouring the life and work of Jacques Derrida. These lectures, co-sponsored by the Institut Français, will be launched in 2005, with scholars and philosophers of international renown.

Confirmed speakers for the Derrida Lecture Series in 2005:

Jean-Luc Nancy and Hillis Miller: 6 May

Jacques Ranciere: 11 May

Slavoj Zizek: 20 May

Etienne Balibar: 3 June

Alain Badiou: 10 June

Other speakers include Drucilla Cornell, Helene Cixous and Gayatri Spivak. Venues to be confirmed.

Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Birkbeck, Professor Costas Douzinas, who established the Centre, says: “Arts and Humanities at Birkbeck is the strongest group of humanities disciplines in London. The new Centre will launch a series of public lectures, conferences, seminar series, fellowships and research projects on topical issues bringing together colleagues from across the disciplines and from all over the world. It will be a workshop of ideas and will promote Birkbeck as a top humanities university in Britain. The international reputation of the two Directors of the Centre and of the people who have accepted to participate in our Derrida Lecture Series indicates that the new Centre will be a significant addition to the intellectual and cultural life of London.”

For further information about the lectures or the centre, email

Profile: Donna Dickenson, Executive Director

Professor Donna Dickenson is to head Birkbeck’s Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities as Executive Director. As an expert in medical law and ethics, her credentials as a public intellectual are well established: She has had direct influence on public education and health policy through chairing an innovative Open University course on ‘Death and Dying’, which has trained several thousand UK nurses and doctors in the sensitive issues concerning end-of-life care.

At the European level Professor Dickenson has run six high-profile projects, including the Network for European Women’s Rights, which brings together organisations from Eastern and Western Europe on the crucial topics of trafficking, reproductive rights, women’s political participation and social entitlements. She recently won another European Commission grant to examine ways in which we can control wholesale patenting of the human genome and markets in tissue.

Other European policy work has included a fellowship in Paris at an overseas institute of Columbia University, where she is examining the role of the French National Bioethics Committee as a possible model for the UK. In addition Professor Dickenson is a member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists Ethics Committee, and a past member of a British Medical Association working party on children’s consent. She has been asked to contribute to many public consultations, including a commissioned paper for the Retained Organs Commission, the body charged with proposing new laws to deal with human tissue after the Alder Hey scandal.

A frequent commentator on national radio and television programmes, including, most recently, Radio 4 You and Yours and ITV news, Professor Dickenson has 20 books and 60 articles to her credit. Her publications extend from medical ethics and feminist theory to literature and biography. Her critical biography of Emily Dickinson was favourably reviewed by Peter Ackroyd in The Sunday Times and she followed this work up with studies of George Sand and the American feminist Margaret Fuller, as well as with two poetry collections, radio plays and a novel. This unusual breadth of interests will give Professor Dickenson the right background to bring together the many disciplines working together to create the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

At the University of Birmingham Professor Dickenson was the first director of an innovative new interdisciplinary Centre for the Study of Global Ethics, looking at such issues as human rights in the context of globalisation. She hopes to build on this experience in creating the larger Birkbeck Centre.

“We need more than ever to bring intellectual life into public life, even though we in the UK tend to view them as incompatible,” says Professor Dickenson. “Other countries such as France do not. With the pressures towards seeing universities merely as places where people go for training before taking up jobs, it is vital that we retain our ideals about the good life as including the life of the mind. As a philosopher, I suppose I would say that, but it is an old wisdom that we ignore at our peril. In fact I don’t think people in general do ignore it: during my 20 years of teaching adults at the Open University, I found many people who were doing their course not because of what it could bring them in the way of advancement, but for love of learning. Birkbeck was founded to promote just such ideals, and I greatly look forward to joining the College as the first Executive Director of the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.”

Profile: Slavoj Zizek, International Director

World-renowned public intellectual Professor Slavoj Zizek is to take up the post of International Director of the new Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at Birkbeck in the summer of 2005.

Professor Zizek has published over 50 books (translated into 20 languages) on topics ranging from philosophy and Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, to theology, film, opera and politics, including Lacan in Hollywood and The Fragile Absolute. He was a candidate for, and nearly won, the Presidency of his native Slovenia in the first democratic elections after the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1990. According to a recent profile in The New Yorker, Slovenia has a “reputation disproportionately large for its size due to the work of Slavoj Zizek”. He has been courted by many universities in the US, but has resisted offers until the International Directorship of Birkbeck’s Centre came up.

Explaining why he was attracted to this new role, Professor Zizek says: “I like what was offered to me by Birkbeck, that is, to promote the role a public intellectual, to be intellectually active and to address a larger public. It’s not only good for me, but also for Birkbeck and the country. We need to ensure that a wide range of intellectual arguments get a voice to re-establish the balance of debate. When you speak out from the left today, you are seen by many as either harking back to the nostalgia of the miners’ strikes, or some kind of postmodern madman… but there is another perspective that is not well represented in the public arena.”

“Political issues are too serious to be left only to politicians,” he continues. “We need intellectuals – not to make decisions, but to make clear what the issues are about. A politician is not even expected to be coherent, they simply play a propaganda game in an election campaign, and then do a different thing, and it’s accepted as such. That’s the problem with today’s democracy: we may be free to decide, but we know less and less what we’re deciding about.”

Taking George Bush’s re-election as an example, Professor Zizek adds: “Part of the problem is that intellectuals from the liberal left limit themselves to making fun of this new right-wing Christian fundamentalist populism and dismiss the voters as crazy lower middle-class fanatics. This type of arrogant intellectualism is a problem because it doesn’t address the issues. John Kerry’s problem was precisely that all the intellectuals were on his side. Let’s remember the old communist wisdom that in socialism, the force that drives progress is self-criticism. It’s not about intellectuals arrogantly teaching the people from their ivory towers – we should teach ourselves.”

But Professor Zizek is reluctant to lay the blame at one door in particular. “It’s way too easy to simply blame one agent – whether it’s academia itself, the media, politicians or some abstract market force. I am tempted to accept that part of the blame goes to us intellectuals. Academics often use obscure jargon that nobody really understands, but people are ashamed to admit it so everybody plays with the game.”

For further information about the lectures or the centre, email

Catherine Doherty, Media and Publicity Officer
External Relations, Birkbeck, University of London, Malet Street, Bloomsbury, London WC1E 7HX
Tel 020 7631 6569
Fax 020 7631 6351