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Gillian Rose, 1947-1995

Gillian Rose, 1947-1995


illian Rose died on the evening of 9 December 1995 after a long and
courageous struggle with cancer. The hour of her death coincided with
the closing moments of a conference dedicated to her work at Warwick
University. Although her rapidly deteriorating health prevented her from attending
as planned, the conference was inspired by the presence of her work, above all by
its questioning of the division between the political and theological faces of

From the beginning, in her exegesis of Adorno in The Melancholy Science,
Rose sought a reading of Hegel free from the opposition between left ‘political’

and right ‘theological’ Hegelianism. This reading was consummately realized in
Hegel contra Sociology (1981), for many readers her finest and most accomplished
book. In it Rose insisted on the necessity of ‘thinking the absolute’ at the same
time as elaborating an aporetic Marxist politics. The inspirational and profound
scholarship of this book nourished Rose’s impatience with what she increasingly
regarded as a refusal by contemporary philosophy seriously to work through the
difficult political heritage uf Hegel. This impatience exploded in her polemical Dialectic of
Nihilism: Poststructuralism and Law (1984), in which she attacked leading contemporary French
thinkers for simplifying Hegel’s thought into a totalizing system, a reduction which for Rose
masked an evasion of politics, or, which was for her the same thing, a refusal to think the absolute.

The polemic was continued in the essays which make up ludaism and Modernity (1991), in which
Rose questioned what she saw as a romantic and sentimental construction of Jewish thought as
the ‘other’ to a modern philosophical experience compromised by its association with totalitarian

Rose’s own Hegelianism was always indirectly communicated by means of masks, some of
which, much to her delight, were taken at face value. Indeed, the mask and the masked are in a
continual state of alternation and free play in Rose’s writings, producing a parodic phenomenology
which on occasion verges upon comedy. This is evident in the shifting masks of The Broken
Middle (1992), which alternates between a careful negotiation of the dialectical aporias of violence
and law and an affirmative, excessive, ‘speculative’ Hegelian experience figured in the
intoxication of the Bacchanalian revel. The point of crossing between the dialectical and
speculative directions is a sustained ironic reading ofthe masks and pseudonyms of the ostensibly
anti-Hegelian theologian S0ren Kierkegaard. A similar play with appearances also characterizes
Hegel contra Sociology, which is dedicated to WaIter Benjamin’s ambiguous figure of the
intriguer, thus evoking the teasingly sober scholarship ofthe latter’s own ironic Origin of German
Tragic Drama.

ludaism and Modernity revealed an essayistic talent which Rose developed to a point of
consummate artistry in the sombre late essays that make up her posthumously published Mourning
Becomes the Law (1996). This artistry was evident too in the remarkable Love’s Work (1995),
written under conditions of extreme dereliction following the failure of medical interventions to
control her cancer. Apparently an autobiographical memoir, Love’s Work is an exercise in
affirmation, one which does not shy from the violence that comes with saying yes to life, even, or
especially, in the face of untimely death.

Gillian Rose’s texts live on, as do the memories of her teaching and the example she set of the
pleasures of the philosophical life. Her students from Sussex and Warwick Universities will
remember a tough but inspirational teacher, one whose disdain for mediocrity solicited an often
painful effort to do justice to what could seem to be impossible demands. Gillian’s friends will
remember her ascetic hedonism and irreverence along with the fierce commitment and unstinting
support which she brought to her friendships. Even close to death, Gillian was still thinking,
writing and, in spite of the pain, enjoying life and the visits of her loved ones. With the passing of
this extraordinary philosopher it is not only philosophy which is left the poorer.

Howard Caygill

R a die a I P h if 0 sop h y 7 7 (M a y / J u n e 1 9 9 6 )

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