Alan Sinfield: A Committed Intellectual Life

This month on the Raymond Williams Society blog we have David Alderson’s obituary of Alan Sinfield which first appeared earlier this year in issue number 16 of Key Words. David will join Andy Medhurst, Madhavi Menon, and Lynne Segal at King’s College, London on Tuesday 11th December to discuss the life and work of a remarkable intellectual.

David writes…

Alan Sinfield was a pioneering figure in the fields of English Literature, Cultural Studies and Queer Studies, and a passionate advocate of the cultural materialist tradition he came to embrace in the 1980s. The sheer range of the work he has left to us is prodigious: ranging chronologically from the Early Modern period to the contemporary, it engages with cultural production in its most expansive sense, and if he took a specific interest in Shakespeare it was very much an iconoclastic one. Indeed, Alan made a point of disavowing conventional modes of cultural valuation, and frequently made it his business to interrogate the institutions, norms and ideological presuppositions of critical analysis itself. In the process, he consciously sought to engage audiences beyond the academy through work that was nonetheless characterised by impeccable scholarship.

Alan was born in 1941, and his work was shaped by his experience of postwar Britain: by the aspirations of welfare capitalism towards inclusion, and more so by its failures; by the New Left and countercultural movements in which he participated; and by the Thatcherite attacks on both. His mother, Lucy, faced distressing challenges in bringing up her children on an inadequate combination of war pension, family allowance and casual work, having contracted early-onset Parkinson’s disease after the death in action of his pilot father, Ernie, in 1944. ‘Lucy’s largely thwarted life was and remains for me the perfect figure for the impoverishment and indignity which has continued to afflict disadvantaged people’, he once wrote.


Alan himself was nonetheless the beneficiary of the improved educational opportunities that had been made possible for children of his generation, and this, in turn, led to his involvement in political movements that were substantially centred on the campus. An increasingly cosmopolitan life made it possible for him to be openly gay. The reversals of the 1980s therefore opened up for him a deeply ambivalent perspective onto the past, and it is not difficult to see how this history should have prompted a career focused on power and resistance, their complexity and contradiction, as well as their various, often surprising, transmutations. Towards the end of his life, he was enthused by Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party.

Alan was appointed a lecturer in literature at the University of Sussex in 1965, after graduating from UCL (the same institution awarded him a Master’s in 1967 and a DLitt in 1987). Sussex was the ideal location for him, given its early commitment to interdisciplinarity. It is no exaggeration to suggest that his presence there at the heart of a diversely radical community of Humanities scholars from the 1980s on, helped to make it one of the most remarkable centres of engaged intellectual activity anywhere, attracting large numbers of postgraduate students from around the world. With Jonathan Dollimore, he established the Master’s programme in Sexual Dissidence and Social Change, the first of its kind in Britain, in 1991. Alan also made Brighton itself, a city he loved for its casual bohemianism, his base for life. The attic of his four-storey house had an impressive view of the coast, and it was here that he spent his final years, cared for above all by his partner, Vincent Quinn, once Parkinson’s disease had made its network of staircases too challenging.


Alan’s professional academic career, however, was not initially that of an overt dissident. His first book, The Language of Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1971) remains an authoritative and celebrated account, influenced predominantly by structural linguistics and new criticism. The academic training that went into it, however, was formative in ways that outlasted his early critical practices: it demonstrates a capacity for informed, nuanced close reading that is a consistent feature of his work. And it is no doubt that this in part explains the sometimes open, sometimes grudging respect he has always won from those whose traditionalism he took such pleasure in challenging – often mischievously, but always with serious intent. (Interestingly, though, the combative spirit of Political Shakespeare (1985), which Alan edited with Jonathan Dollimore, elicited a somewhat equivocal endorsement from Raymond Williams in his ‘Afterword’.)

Alan returned to Tennyson in a book published in 1986 that frankly acknowledged the distance he had travelled since the earlier one. It opens with an account of the social revaluation of poetry under Victorian bourgeois hegemony that has been widely influential: poetry was incorporated for its conformity to dominant ideals, marginalised through the presumption that it should deal only with primarily private, subjective matters, or simply relegated, dismissed. Other chapters engage critically with poststructuralist and psychoanalytic theory. But the book is also one of Alan’s first published engagements with representations of what he was to label ‘same-sex passion’ in order to avoid a misleadingly anachronistic and essentialist terminology of homosexuality: Tennyson’s attempt to express his grief for Hallam in In Memoriam entailed complex gendered identifications prompted by the intensity of his love, identifications Tennyson himself came to regard as problematic in the context of later nineteenth-century moral disquiet about the potential for specifically sexual relations between men. This was the first direct, detailed and theoretically informed treatment of this topic.

It is worth pointing out, however, that, if this second book was less straightforwardly appreciative of Tennyson, it did not represent some kind of final settling of accounts. As Alan tirelessly argued, meaning and value are never fixed and may always be refashioned, sometimes by being appropriated. One of the readings at his funeral was from In Memoriam (section VII).

It was really, though, a book from the early 1980s, Literature in Protestant England, 1560–1660, that decisively established what were to become key features of Alan’s later critical practice and outlook, a number of which it is worth remarking on. First, it evinces an awareness that literature and culture ‘as we involve ourselves in it, constitutes an invitation to agree that the world is, importantly, thus’. Disagreement, then, was not only a possibility, but often an urgent necessity. Second, there was the emphasis on socially determined contradiction as a constitutive feature of literary texts: ‘it’s not the critic’s job to help literature cohere’, he used to say. This was crucial because the more general ideological incoherence that literary texts in many ways rendered more evident held the potential to facilitate dissident perspectives (he would later theorise this in more detail in Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (1992); Macherey was an important influence here). Third, there was the preoccupation with humanism; here, with a Christian humanism that had been misleadingly projected onto the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but elsewhere with humanism more generally as it appealed to universals that he believed were in practice likely to be prescriptive, and thereby limiting and oppressive.


Alan’s antihumanism converged with Foucaultian emphases elsewhere widely endorsed in those academic fields to which he contributed – Early Modern and Queer Studies – though he repeatedly corrected those who saw cultural materialism as a minor, dissenting (and British) strain within new historicism. Foucault was also an important influence on his theorisation of subcultures in the final chapter of his magisterial work, Literature, Politics and Culture in Postwar Britain (1989). Here he explicitly critiqued his own earlier views as these had been shaped by what he called ‘Left culturalism’, the sense ultimately indebted to welfare capitalism that the established culture was a good to which all should have access, a bit like health. ‘“Man” is a powerful concept, but I cannot regret its loss to the left’, he wrote. ‘A divided society should have a divided culture: an (apparently) unified culture can only reinforce power relations.’ Recognition of this, he felt, must be a crucial aspect of Left renewal in the wake of Thatcherite defeats, not least because the subcultures that made those divisions apparent were already in place (and it is important to note that he regarded the New Left itself as one).

Even so, subcultures needed to be theorised, and in developing a specifically cultural materialist account of them, he avoided any tendencies to romanticise them as the repositories of political authenticity: they were not for him synonymous with the counterculture, for instance, as is the case in much queer theory. Instead they were produced within and across a variety of institutions that determined both the potential and limits of whatever social, cultural or political life took place within them. It was possible to organise subcultural activity in theatres, universities, bars and clubs, as well as to produce film and television, but these would necessarily be shaped to some degree by their institutionalisation: there could be no purely subcultural politics or agenda.

If it was wrong to presume that such movements or groups would necessarily be radical, then it was also important to question the very desirability of an ill-defined radicalism. Alan was consistently distrustful of avant-gardism – aesthetic, queer or Marxist – for its elitism. ‘How transgressive do we want to be?’, he asked in Gay and After (1998), and in an exemplary critique of Leo Bersani’s take on Jean Genet as advocating a potentially revolutionary ‘antirelationality’ through the alleged impersonality of homosex, he demonstrated instead that Genet’s complex identifications and desires were fashioned by a highly specific social experience. In a later work, On Sexuality and Power (2004), he went on to argue that power in various respects – and specifically gender, age, class and race – governed desire because sexual relations were not somehow antithetical to socialisation, as is too often supposed. This was not something to be celebrated, but rather to be both self-conscious of and sensitive to as we advocate the kinds of social change that would ultimately transform desire.

If some have understood Alan’s suspicion of universals and his commitment to subcultural work as going with the grain of postmodern trends, however, they have not read his work attentively enough. The faith that some came to place in transgression and the mobility of identities in the 1980s was misguided: ‘any notion that Postmodernism signals a general dispersal and weakening of power in the social system is extraordinary in the decade of Reagan and Thatcher’, he wrote in Postwar Britain. In fact, he understood himself to be an organic intellectual of what he called the les/bi/gay movement, a role that enabled him to raise socialist concerns within it, as well as to commend the legitimacy and insightfulness of its thinking and strategies to other socialists. For a time he contributed reviews of academic work to Gay Times. 

Hence the principled, but democratic, spirit that suffuses all of Alan’s writing. Indeed, what I have described as its scholarship is better understood not as a professional bid for authority, but a genuine desire to engage with others. The critic does not speak from a position above or beyond the social world, but is actively engaged in the production of meanings and values within particular constituencies or communities. There is nothing showy about Alan’s style: he did not write to impress, but rather to communicate – rationally and emotionally – and the pleasure of reading his work resides in part in the sense of being addressed by a purposeful voice: his last book, again on Shakespeare, was subtitled ‘unfinished business in cultural materialism’.

The business remains unfinished in fact and in principle, as Alan would be the first to acknowledge, because ‘the dominant may tolerate, repress, or incorporate subordinate formations, but that will be a continuous, urgent, and often strenuous project’, he reminds us in that last book. If his work self-consciously testifies to the impossibility of having anything like the final word, it has nonetheless illuminated cultural history to an extent that few have rivalled from whatever perspective. In one sense, his cultural materialism was exceptionally orthodox – committed to Williams’s own convictions that hegemony was a dynamic process, and that institutions were formative of cultural production – but he also succeeded in making that tradition more heterogeneous, both in the theoretical resources it might draw on and in its sensitivity to forms of power. Above all – and here it seems appropriate to invoke the Gramscian word he favoured – there is an organic quality to his writing that appears spontaneously to dissolve the commonplace distinctions between personal, professional, social and political. It quite simply is the record of a committed intellectual life.

David Alderson is Senior Lecturer in Modern Literature at the University of Manchester. He has written widely on gender, sexuality and the neoliberal transition, and is author of Sex, Needs and Queer Culture (Zed, 2016) and co-editor of For Humanism (Pluto, 2017). He is a member of the Raymond Williams Society executive committee and on the editorial board of Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism. In 2015 he edited Key Words 13 on ‘Queerwords: Sexuality and the Politics of Culture’ which can be downloaded for free here.

‘Rethinking Queer Theory through Alan Sinfield’ takes place at King’s College, London on Tuesday 11 December from 4pm. Register here.