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Dr Matt Phillips - Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow in French

Dr Matt Phillips - Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow in French

I am an early career researcher in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, with interests ranging across modern French and comparative literature, theories of emotion and of mental health, the Medical Humanities, and debates surrounding the (ethical, medical, social or political) uses of literature.

I also teach on several undergraduate and graduate modules, especially for the Comparative Literatures and Cultures degree programme, covering subjects including Modernism, Postmodernism, postcolonial theory, affect theory, and the Medical Humanities.

I joined the department in 2019, when I was awarded an Early Career Fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust to carry out a research project entitled ‘Depressive Texts: Mental Well-Being and the Contemporary French Novel’. For this project, I am examining the ways in which contemporary novels engage with debates surrounding the causes and nature of depression, and what well-being could or should look like. Reading novels by writers such as Virginie Despentes, Michel Houellebecq, Marie NDiaye, Georges Perec, Leïla Slimani, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint, I am exploring how their works might help us revise our understanding of mental health by rethinking concepts including psychological “burnout”, “flow”, self-help, autonomy and responsibility, and reconsidering how experiences of depression intersect with class, race, and gender. I’m also interested in debates surrounding “bibliotherapy” – especially in the French context, where claims made for the therapeutic value of literature sometimes sit uneasily with an influential notion of literature’s autonomy from pragmatic concerns.

I’m also preparing my last research project for publication as a book, provisionally entitled Empathy’s Messes: Rethinking Fellow Feeling through Post-War French Writing. This book critically engages with popular contemporary ideas about empathy. Empathy is sometimes thought of as a hard-wired human capacity that plays an important social role, by encouraging mutual understanding and cooperation; moreover, it has been suggested that reading and studying literature might help promote empathy. My readings of three important modern French writers (Jean Genet, Roland Barthes and Annie Ernaux), however, demonstrate the diverse ways in which literary texts can challenge or ‘mess with’ their readers’ empathic engagements; I show how these works instead allow us to examine and explore the diverse (and not always edifying) roles empathy plays in our personal, social and political lives. I’ve already published an article related to this subject (‘Empathic Static: Empathy and Conflict, with Simon Baron-Cohen and Virginie Despentes’), in which I contrast psychologist Baron-Cohen’s claim that empathy promotes peace with a reading of Despentes’s Vernon Subutex: my reading highlights the ways in which a person’s empathy might be both conflicted (torn in opposing directions) and conflictual (encouraging her to participate in conflict).

More information about my research is available via PURE

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