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​English Seminar | Pretty Please: Begging, Demanding and the Pragmatics of Petition

Published on: 04-Sep-2019

3 - 5 PM

Asking, or asking for almost anything, directions, help, love, money, even for the time, is asking for trouble, so we take a world of trouble with the way we ask in order to head this trouble off. Asking is difficult not just because asking may seem like an aggressive imposition, or because of our awareness that being asked means having to respond to a demand; making anything asked potentially a big ask. For asking is an intimate act, or an act which intimates intimacy, and so is always attended by moral, emotional and political tension. Nevertheless, from the time of infancy onwards, when we are by definition dependent for survival on acts of asking, appealing and demanding, the petitionary relation in human society is absolutely central (as it is in fact among many animals), though it has rarely been noticed and never systematically studied. This talk will propose that we develop an anthropology of the entreaty as the demand-side counterpart to the theory of the gift. It will consider the many forms, pragmatic, ceremonial, religious and institutional, that petition takes, whether in begging, praying, sexual solicitation, fundraising, legal pleading or political demand. It will enquire in particular into the weak potency of petitionary force, the paradoxical blend of aggressive demand and humble self-diminishment that is characteristic of petition.

Speaker: Professor Steven Connor

Steven Connor is Grace 2 Professor of English in the University of Cambridge and Director of the Centre for Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). He is a writer, critic and broadcaster, who has published books on many topics, including Dickens, Beckett, Joyce, value, ventriloquism, skin, flies and the imagination of air. His most recent books are Living By Numbers: In Defence of Quantity (London: Reaktion/Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2016), Dream Machines (London: Open Humanities Press, 2017) and The Madness of Knowledge: On Wisdom, Ignorance and Fantasies of Knowing (London: Reaktion/Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2019). His book Giving Way: Thoughts on Unappreciated Dispositions, a critique of the contemporary cult of ‘agency’, will appear from Stanford University Press in October 2019. His website at includes lectures, broadcasts, unpublished work and work in progress.

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