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Professor Steve Connor

(Elected 2012)


Following his DPhil at the University of Oxford, Steven Connor was appointed as a Lecturer in English at Birkbeck in 1979. He became Senior Lecturer in 1990, Reader in Modern English Literature in 1991 and Professor of Modern Literature and Theory in 1994.

He has served the college in many capacities, including as Pro-Vice-Master for International and Research Students from 1998 to 2001 and as College Orator from 2001 to 2012. From 2003 to 2012, he was Academic Director of the London Consortium Programme in Humanities and Cultural Studies. Not only through his many books and essays, on a huge variety of topics, but also in his extensive work for radio, he has enlarged the scope of English studies and opened up new methods and subjects in cultural history. From October 2012, he will be Grace 2 Professor of English in the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Peterhouse.

‘As College Orator’, says Professor Connor, ‘I have presented more than 40 fellows at graduation ceremonies, and have seen how deeply it affects even people used to pomp and circumstance to be honoured by an institution such as this. Researching and writing these orations has often been the beginning of strong friendships. To be admitted now myself to a fellowship of such astonishing distinction in so many fields is truly both humbling and uplifting.

‘Fellows of Birkbeck have the opportunity to represent its work and ideals in the world of education and beyond, an opportunity I am eager to seize. I am quite convinced that, having been for so long an honourable and defiant anomaly in higher education in this country, Birkbeck is now moving irresistibly into the centre of things, as a model for what the future of education must be.

‘Birkbeck students know and show that intellectual life is not a retreat from the world but a way of moving out decisively and transformingly into it. Though I am myself moving out into the world beyond Birkbeck, I will be grateful to be able to continue my association with a college that has given me so much over 33 years, and I look forward to offering what support I can to Birkbeck’s unique and luminous mission, as it moves towards its third century of existence.’


President, Master, Distinguished Governors, Graduands, Guests, and Colleagues.

It my great honour to present Professor Steven Connor as Fellow of Birkbeck.

In the first sentence of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adam Smith argued that through acts of imagination, other people’s lives are made manifest, “and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels”.

In all truth, though, there are few writers who can do this for us. In fiction, we have Virginia Woolf; in the theatre, Samuel Beckett; in film, Pasolini; in poetry, Adrienne Rich. Scholars of literature and culture generally don’t rank. Steven Connor – one of the intellectual giants of our times – makes the ground shake when he chooses to pass by.

Connor was born in Bognor Regis (famous for causing King George V to utter an exceedingly rude word, for holidaying families in Butlinland to emit banalities, and for birdmen to fling themselves off the pier in desperation). At the tender age of eleven, Connor was trussed into the absurd blue coat of Christ’s Hospital School, near Horsham. Founded in 1553 as a hospice (that is, a place of refuge for “poor children of Christ”, rather than somewhere to go in order to be nicely drugged up on the way to meeting your Maker), this boarding school commands all entering its library “turpe nescire”, that is, “it is a disgrace to be ignorant”. Like Samuel Coleridge, whose ghost still haunts that library, Connor also “brooded” and fixed “mine eye… with mock study” on his books.

Seven years later, and for reasons I hesitate to dwell upon, he was expelled. The remainder of his youth was spent at Bognor Regis Comprehensive.

This was followed by a spell reading English at Wodham College, Oxford (under the tutelage of, among others, that formidable Marxist critic Terry Eagleton). After a period absorbed in Coleridge’s notebooks and the unsettling children’s stories written by Lucy Clifford (whose Anyhow Stories with its themes of abandonment and the perversity of affection encouraged his talents for disguise and impersonation), Connor finally settled down to write a D.Phil thesis on prose fantasy and mythography.

Then came that fateful job interview. In 1979, after bragging to the head of the English Department at Birkbeck about his tap-dancing skills (which no one seems to have ever witnessed), he was appointed lecturer. As Connor would say, Time passed.

He became a critic. Connor has, I have noted, a nasty habit of following every noun with its etymology – so, perhaps I should say, Connor then became a “Critic”, a word that comes from the Greek kritikos, which means “cutting” or “able to make judgements”.

Connor made merry in the church of Charles Dickens (a book in 1985), Samuel Beckett (1988), the English novel (1995), and James Joyce (1996). In between, he huffed and puffed at the tinderwood houses of Realism, with two epistles – an introduction to postmodern culture (1989 and still the defining text in the field) and Theory and Cultural Value (1992). In 1994, he was finally recognised as a prophet in his own land when he was made Professor of Modern Literature and Theory.

Having been given a chair and ordered to sit still, Connor immediately hopped off and threw himself into researching a history of ventriloquism (the book came out in 2000), skin (2004), “bits of winged shit” (his book on flies: 2006), the ethereal (2010), in 2011, a book on the “lives of things” and another on the philosophy of sport (he is an arsenal fan, and for me, a Spurs follower, it is no mystery why a Gunner needs philosophy to cope with the boredom of his team’s performances).

If this recitation of Connor’s books has been a tad overwhelming, then take a deep breath. He also edited six books or editions and penned 75 chapters in edited books and 55 essays in journals – and I make have missed some because I found a headache coming on and so went for a lie down. …..

But not before I noted his contributions to the academy. In 1992, with Paul Hirst, Mark Cousins, Colin MacCabe, and Richard Humphreys, he helped develop the innovative London Consortium, an interdisciplinary graduate programme between Birkbeck, the Tate Gallery, British Film Institute, and the Architectural Association. In 2002, he took over as its academic director.

He served the College as Pro-Vice-Master (which is not as dirty as it sounds) for International and Research Students from 1998 to 2001 and preceded me (with immeasurably greater wit and grace) as College Orator from 2001 to 2012. He left us that year, to become Grace 2 Professor of English in the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Peterhouse.

So what is it about Connor? It is his expansive vision that fills friends, colleagues, and students with wonder. He seeks not simply to talk to the animals like an exalted Doctor Doolittle; rather, he wallows in a joyous celebration of humans, animals, machines, and things – stuff. If, for others, stuff happens, for Connor, stuff matters. He is disdainful of 4 “autistic humanism” – that is, the arrogance of those people who “think and write as though they were alone in the world”. The everyday excites him. Flies are “more than just occasions of representation”. They “exert distinctive forms of pull and pressure on the work of meaning”. His language is swollen with lush metaphors, esoteric associations, goosebumpinspiring leaps of imagination.

Like Connor’s flies who, he informs us, were not merely symbols of sin and corruption but were also a kind of painterly defacement of art, Connor regularly thumbs his nose at intellectual pretension. Typically, when I invited him to speak at a forum on “The Intellectual”, he launched into a remarkable diatribe against EggHeads, employing every intellectual trick known in to the esteemed profession. Like the pianist Glenn Gould who always preferred to practice to the sound of the Hoover – or like Salvador Dali who explained that he liked to paint while being “devoured by flies” because they “drove me to feats of agility I would not have been capable of without the flies”, it seems that Connor thinks while running half-marathons (he is known for “inhuman levels of fitness”) and prefers to mark essays while sweating on his exercise bike. Some colleagues told me, in all seriousness, that he doesn’t eat at all and just drinks black coffee (although more astute observers notice that he does an entire days’ worth of eating and drinking after classes end at 9pm).

Connor also sings, and acts, and mimics the voices and mannerisms of all around him. He played the title role in the Birkbeck Players’ production of Dickens’ farce The Strange Gentleman, at one stage kneeling and hammering on the floor shouting “I’ve nailed him! Nailed him to the spot!”. He produced Samuel Beckett’s unfinished play about Samuel Johnson. He did a particularly decadent Duke in Middleton’s Women Beware Women and an even more evocative devil in the medieval mystery play, The Crooked Rib, once disguising himself as a Serpent with the head of a woman in a platinum wig, a tail made out of an old green bedspread, and wings made from a broken green umbrella. The highlight of the 5 department’s Dickens’ Days was his dramatized readers. Students adored him. And administrators were wary of his habit of changing in his office.

In one of his many insightful articles, Connor writes about the act and art of signalling approval by clapping. Perhaps, he suggests, clapping evolved from the act of jumping and slapping, which is characteristic of primates in states of excitement. Perhaps, it developed as the first systematic music produced by humans. Whatever the case, the most effective clap, Connor explains, “aims to compress and explode a little bubble or bomb of air, compressing and accelerating the air momentarily trapped between the palms”. As such, it is a kind of magical action, releasing a vital force, like those early primates who perhaps whooped and hollered in adoration of their fellow who used a stick to create a spark that warmed bodies, hearts, minds.

That is what I propose we do now, as we as a group as opposed to a mere aggregate of individuals, welcome Professor Steven Connor as a Fellow of Birkbeck.

Professor Steve Connor's reply

President, Master, Distinguished Governors, Graduates and Guests.

I want to thank the College Orator for her amicable and exorbitant words today. Only she will know how well I know what this is like for both of us. For it is something of a tradition, you see, that an incoming orator can expect to be asked before very long to practise her arts upon the outgoing or expiring orator – it happened to me, and to my predecessor, and his before him. I have inflicted this ordeal of death by a thousand compliments on many others, possibly around 50 victims who have been placed in the Chair of Repentance while I heaped praise on them (I think I must be the Ryan Giggs of academic rhetoric). So I did have some inkling what it might be like. Given that my eminent assailant on this occasion is the author of a forthcoming history of pain, I feel lucky to have got off with as few lacerations as I have. It really could have been much worse. I don’t think the Birkbeck orator has ever been required to speak in Latin, but the Oxford orator is, and I must admit to cribbing from their orations on the occasions when we have been welcoming to Birkbeck as a fellow somebody who has already been honoured in Oxford. It became clear to me, as I toiled through these effusions with my battered Cassell’s Latin dictionary at my elbow, quarrying for inspiration, that the advantage of speaking in Latin is that you can say more or less what you like, about the subject’s political views, their favourite football team, and their taste in clothes, without anyone being any the wiser.

It is part of my function to offer sage advice and I might just use this opportunity to pass on a hint to my successor that these ceremonies can bring out a skittish side in the Master. Once you are established in your role, you may find that he is starting to dream up interesting challenges for you as orator. I remember once, for example, when he rang me in the US where I was lecturing, and told me that he would like me to welcome as a fellow a very distinguished and very generous benefactor to the college, who had specified strictly that nothing at all about her or her life was to be mentioned n the oration. (How we laughed.)

If we needed any reminding, it would have been plain from the memorial service yesterday for Eric Hobsbawm, who joined us in 1947, that Birkbeck is a very hard place to leave, and even if you do manage to make a run for it, and get past the dogs and searchlights, it turns out that it never relinquishes its hold on you. I spent 33 years here. When I first became a lecturer, I was 24, and consequently almost always the youngest person in the room. Motherly middle-aged ladies would come up to me after lectures and say things like ‘I think you did very well’. By the time I left I felt that I was probably getting the hang of a few things, but Birkbeck students never let you take anything for granted. In Cambridge by contrast, I have encountered a strange kind of intoxication, that can overtake you at the end of a five-hour stint of supervision, as the young and trusting troop in to be instructed in various mysteries, when you begin to feel that you could give a class on anything, from fluid dynamics to Minoan vase-painting, with equal credibility and with as little chance of being rumbled. It was never like that at Birkbeck, where things matter too much to students for teachers ever to get away with anything. This is why teachers at Birkbeck never recover entirely from the Imposter Syndrome, that has even grizzled veterans of the seminar room waking up in the middle of the night clawing at the air in terror that they are about to be exposed as frauds and nincompoops. For that is the condition of real knowledge, and if you are absolutely sure of what you think you know, you can be sure you have not understood it.

So I am grateful to Birkbeck for the inextinguishable curiosity and unsquashable bolshiness of its students. Birkbeck is a hotbed of yesbutism – which is manifest when, having laid out in a lecture what you think is a complete and unanswerable case about something, a hand goes up at the back, and its owner says, ‘yes, but…’ Yesbutism is thus the opposite of despotism. But I’m grateful too for the opportunity I had as orator to see the outcomes of the work that students did on occasions like this. Birkbeck students, who have knocked around and been knocked around quite a lot more than the tender young calves and colts who populate other universities, pride themselves rightly on being pretty worldly citizens, and therefore not likely to be knocked off-centre by the flummery of an occasion such as this. But I was warned by my predecessor, Michael Slater, that just reflecting on a day like this, on what you have given up, and what you have gained, against the odds, could produce unexpected ambushes of emotion even in the toughest nuts, so that I should prepare myself to look out on a sea of glistening eyes and heaving bosoms. He was, and is right. You may do more important things than this in your life, but if you do, it’s doing this that
will probably have made them possible.

Another of the privileges of being College orator has been being able to get to know in such detail the extraordinary thinking and inventing, and exploring and discovering that has been done at this place. Of the many Birkbeck colleagues whose work I have had the pleasure of celebrating, I want to single out just one, the crystallographer Alan Mackay. Alan was celebrated among many other things, for having discovered that fivefold symmetry, which is impossible in nature – you just try arranging pentagons without a gap on your kitchen floor and you’ll see – actually isn’t. I was coached intensively by another Birkbeck crystallographer on the circumstances in which crystals can exhibit fivefold symmetry, and so well, in fact, that I was able to retain this knowledge for almost the whole of the ten minutes required to explain it on this platform. But Alan was a poet as well as a scientist and deeply committed to the principle of what he called the Floating Republic of Knowledge, an idea that I think about almost every day. You are graduands, soon, once this is all over, to be graduates – from Latin gradus, a step (see, you’re getting a bit of Latin after all). You have all made the grade. But, despite the fact that academic life can be so infatuated by grades and classes and degrees, the Floating Republic is characterised by a kind of terrifying egalitarianism. As in the Roman Republic, there are no grades or distinctions between citizens anywhere in this floating republic. Once you are in the Republic of Knowledge, whether in Bloomsbury or Bombay, Ithaca or Uttar Pradesh, you are absolutely in, and your vote and your responsibility is as great as that of a Nobel prize-winner. And you become a citizen by deciding that you would like to be, and opening a book, or asking a question, or saying ‘yes, but…’

Birkbeck has had to fight hard to maintain its unique position in the university system. Birkbeck lives permanently on the brink of extinction, we find it invigorating. But I predict that we will look back at this historical moment and recognise that Birkbeck has in fact already won. I am wagering to you today that, within your lifetimes, if perhaps not in mine, every institution of higher education will have become a kind of Birkbeck. If you really think that human beings living for 91 years or 101 years are going to let the 21-year-olds continue to corner all the thinking and learning for themselves, then all I can say is I have to admire your

It is a very great honour and privilege to be able to accede today into the ancient privileges and prerogatives that attach to the position of Fellow of Birkbeck. I look forward, as tradition demands, to opening the bowling in the annual Fellows v. Freshers cricket match, and to at last being able to pasture my sheep legally in Russell Square.

Unlike many other Professors of English nowadays, I must confess to having very little interest in or respect for psychoanalysis. Still, I do have great admiration for particular psychoanalysts, among them the English psychoanalyst Wilfred R. Bion, who worked in London from the 1950s onwards, having begun his career before the War by spending a year and a half analysing the young Samuel Beckett, a job you wouldn’t wish on a dog. Bion had been a tank commander in the First World War and was offered, but declined, a Military Cross for gallantry. I admire him, not so much for turning the medal down, as for the reason he gave. He said that almost all the people he had known who’d accepted a military decoration got themselves killed soon afterwards, trying to deserve it. I hope I won’t have to go to such lengths to deserve this Fellowship, but you have my word I will try.

In fact we all have a lot to live up to. Completing a Birkbeck degree, you have all, as Philip Larkin once wrote, surprised in yourselves the hunger to be serious, and it’s a hunger that it is hard to assuage. I wish I could say to you that you’ve done well, and that you can now put your feet up, potter in the garden, walk the dog, go to the pub and tell stories about how universities have gone to the dogs since your day. But, thinking and learning being such potent addictions, I fear the worst for you. I fear you may all find that henceforth you will only ever be able to be at best in remission from learning. And, when you do finally succumb to temptation, Birkbeck, like all good purveyors of addictive substances, will be waiting for you, with a dose of the hard stuff. Indeed, I hope that Birkbeck has each one of you as hopeless a case of addiction to thinking and learning as it has me, as I salute you as graduates of Birkbeck, and Citizens First Class of the Floating Republic.