Saturday, 27 April 2019

Remembering Simon Speck

My friend and colleague Simon Speck passed away on the 19th after a short illness. Finding words to describe the shock and accompanying numbness is difficult. It still hasn't properly sunk in.

I first met Simon at my Derby job interview - he was one of the panellists. Little did I then know we would be spending the next couple of years cooped up in a cramped three-person office. And in such surrounds, you can't fail to get to know someone well. He would talk with pride about his footy-mad daughter, Melitta, while offering caustic observations about the mums and dads who would bawl at their girls from the touchline. I'd get stories about his time in public school where he would labour under the watchful eye of a Lenin poster, revel in a reputation for being a red, and also how he developed his talents as a mimic and cartoonist to ward off the attentions of the bullies. As a boy hailing from the labour aristocracy - his words to describe his dad's itinerant oil worker/engineer job - such comparatively humble origins might have otherwise singled him out, were it not for his wit and ability to make people laugh.

When it came to matters of sociology, he could broadly be described as the department's theoretician. He ran the heavy duty social theory modules, which betrayed, how shall we say, a broad Germanic flavour. As one of Gillian Rose's PhD students, who supervised his dissertation on Hegel and Derrida, his thought was deeply immersed in the Frankfurt School and especially Adorno. His other main intellectual influence was Anna, who he spoke of frequently, and through her he had a serendipitous link to the critical culture he revered. She was born into the West German New Left, and her family participated in the rebellions of the late 1960s, the formation of the Green Party, and debates with key post-war intellectual figures, including Jurgen Habermas. It was no accident then that when, in recent years, the university gave us fully-funded "teaching and learning" trips overseas for third year students, Simon was in charge and Germany was the inevitable destination. The photo above, for instance, is from the first such outing abroad and where Simon taught the students that the hard drinking you pick up in your younger years is never a skill you entirely relinquish.

Steeped in critical theory, his chief intellectual influences, along with Adorno, were Hannah Arendt and Ulrich Beck, the theorist of the risk society. As such, he certainly retained the pessimism of the first two, but this was not the dour miserablism you typically associate with Adorno. Indeed, he had a certain fondness for Bertolt Brecht, whose own impish humour was often channelled in a wry Simon observation. Resistance therefore wasn't always futile, but it would nearly always throw up absurd, comedic results. Indeed, one of his favourite stories concerned his own spell of resistance in the mid-1980s. On a miners' picket line, he oft told in excruciating, nay eye watering detail how a copper grabbed his ghoulies and squeezed them really hard during a spell of argy bargy. Of all the methods of physical assault Simon could have experienced - a baton charge, a clip over the head, a roughing up in the back of a van - he of all people had to fall victim to the most schoolyardish of police brutalities.

Simon was especially interested in the nascent sociology of humour, and ran a successful third year Humour and Society module. Plenty of people have noted that what a society finds funny says a great deal about it, and also how the role of comedians have changed from bearing witness to political actors in their own right - see Ukraine's Volodymir Zelensky, Bepe Grillo in Italy, and to a lesser extent, Russell Brand. Simon was interested in taking this further to investigate how risk and reflexive modernity - the notion advanced societies have an unprecedented capacity to know themselves (but frequently eschew it) - inflect and inform contemporary forms of humour. For instance, he was fascinated by the British custom that everything has to be a laugh. Politics couldn't be too serious, weighty and grave matters were not for everyday conversation, and that even staring down the barrel of disaster one had to face the inevitable with a smile on your face and laughter on your lips. Why? Unfortunately, I haven't yet read his paper so will have to see how his framework can go about answering this question.

Given his intellectual roots, you might expect him to not have much time for authority. And you would be right. Simon detested managerialism, its cynicism, and its happy clappy adaptation of universities to the marketisation of higher education. Teaching and academia were very much his vocation, while the oft unnecessary bullshit accompanying it was something to be endured. I know he felt a great deal of relief when programme leadership was passed from him to me. Indeed, during the job interview I mentioned my (relative) competence as an administrator which got a "did you hear that, Simon?" from someone around the table. Sadly, his warnings that one might wake up at night with a student's name playing on your mind has proven correct on more than one occasion. Yet he was second to none in caring for the students. He wanted to make social theory intelligible in the hope they too would inhabit it and use it to critique the world, rather than a means of passing a few credits on the road to graduation. Judging by the tributes received from former students on the Derby Sociology Facebook group, he certainly had a big, and deeply appreciated impact on many.

Sociology at Derby is a small team, and we are missing Simon. We will never stop missing him. Our best tribute is to try and live up to the standards he expected of himself as a teacher and a scholar. This way he will always be with us. Andrew Wilson, the member of the Sociology dept who knew him the longest has set up this memorial for Simon. If you knew Simon please leave a contribution.

My love and sympathies to Simon's family, especially Anna and Melitta.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I taught with Simon at Derby in the late 1990s and we remained friends. I have many fond memories of long debates over theory and politics, and the similarly long evenings of pubs and parties. Simon was a rare breed- an intellectual with a scalding sense of humour, a deep political analysis and a care for his friends, family and students that shone through. It is with shock and sadness that I heard of his death. My condolences go out to his family, colleagues, friends and students.