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Elizabeth Denise Riley was born in Carlisle in 1948. She was educated for a year at Somerville College, Oxford, and graduated from New Hall, Cambridge. As an undergraduate, she studied English Literature, then Moral Sciences and Fine Art at Cambridge. She completed an MA at the University of Sussex in 1974 on European Philosophy; Social and Political Theory. Her doctoral thesis, also completed at the University of Sussex between 1975 and 1980, ‘Psychology, Politics, Policies: Theories of the Child and Mother’, formed the basis of her book ‘War in the Nursery’, published by Virago in 1983. She began publishing poetry in the 1970s. Her works include: ‘Marxism for Infants’ (1977), ‘No Fee’ (1979, co-contributor, Wendy Mulford), ‘Dry Air’ (1985), ‘Stair Spirit’ (1992), ‘Mop Mop Georgette’ (1993), ‘Selected Poems’ (2000) and ‘Say Something Back’ (2016). She has also published critical and academic works on feminism, political theory, intellectual history, philosophy and affective language, including: ‘War in the Nursery: Theories of the Child and Mother’ (1983), ‘Am I That Name?: Feminism and the Category of Women in History’ (1988), ‘The Words of Selves: Identification, Solidarity, Irony’ (2000), ‘Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect’ (2005), ‘The Force of Language’ [co-contributor; J-J Lecercle] 2004, and ‘Time Lived, Without Its Flow’ [2012].

She holds and has held various research and teaching positions, including at North East London Polytechnic; Goldsmiths College, University of London; Brown University; the Tate Gallery (writer-in-residence); the London Consortium; Birkbeck College, University of London; the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton: the University of Michigan; Johns Hopkins University; Cornell University (A.D. White Professor-at-Large); the European Graduate School; Sheffield University: and the University of East Anglia (currently as Professor of History of Ideas and of Poetry, in the Department of  Literature, Drama, and Creative Writing).