Dr Matt Phillips

Personal profile

I joined the School of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures in January 2019 as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, for a project on the subject of 'Depressive Texts: Mental Well-Being and the Contemporary French Novel' (see 'research interests' below).

Prior to joining Royal Holloway, I worked as a postdoctoral collaborator for a project on 'Affective Dynamics and Aesthetic Emotions' at the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences (University of Geneva), and as a lecteur d'anglais at the University of Paris 7 (Paris-Diderot).

Research interests

My research interests include modern/contemporary French literature and literary theory, theories of emotion/affect/mental health, and the uses and values of literature and the humanities.

My current project - 'Depressive Texts: Mental Well-Being and the Contemporary French Novel' - focuses on works depicting characters in various states of depression. While some argue reading and writing literature might play a 'therapeutic' role in mental health (arguments in which I am (cautiously) interested), my starting point is less how literary works might promote mental well-being, than how they critically engage with debates surrounding the causes and nature of depression, and the question of what well-being today could or should look like. I am interested, too, in how literary engagements with depression often become tangled up with anxieties about the (declining?) place of literature in contemporary culture; my research is thus informed by work in the sociology of literature/art, as well as that of mental health. I am currently working with texts by Virginie Despentes, Michel Houellebecq, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Lydie Salvayre, Georges Perec and Régine Detambel.

Research interests (continued)

My first research project - Unsettling Interpersonal Relations with Post-War French Writing: Empathy's Messes, begun as a PhD at the University of Cambridge and now in preparation for publication with Liverpool University Press - focused on the concept of empathy, a concept that has attracted a great deal of both public and academic attention in recent decades; my thesis explores empathy through works by modern French writers Jean Genet, Roland Barthes and Annie Ernaux. It critically dialogues with two notions popularised by moral philosophers and cognitive scientists: that empathy is the hard-wired human capacity that should allow us to overcome the social ills that beset us; and that reading and studying literature might play a role in realising this potential, by promoting empathy. My readings of these three French writers, meanwhile, demonstrate the diverse ways in which literary texts can challenge or ‘mess with’ their readers’ empathic engagements. I argue these works instead allow us to examine and experiment with the diverse (and not always edifying) roles empathy plays in our personal, social and political lives. The four chapters discuss: with Genet, how the emotions that contagiously pass between individuals might themselves be antagonistic or ‘non-empathic’; with Barthes, how his relations to Brecht and to Proust differently twin identification with emotional distance; and with Ernaux, a contradiction between empathy as an intellectual tool for understanding other people, and as an emotional experience of recognising oneself in another.

My published research includes notably an article on the place of love in bereavement, discussed with particular reference to Roland Barthes but also Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein and Hamlet (this article was based on a piece awarded runner-up in the 2016 Paragraph Essay Prize); and another on the relationship between empathy and conflict, explored through a reading of Virginie Despentes's Vernon Subutex as well as the work of psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen.


ML2206: Histories of Representation (CLC)

FR3003: Advanced Translating Skills

FR1701W: Pratique du français (écrit)

Educational background

BA in Modern and Medieval Langauges (French with Spanish), University of Cambridge, 2012

MPhil in European Literature and Culture, University of Cambridge, 2013

PhD in French, University of Cambridge, 2017

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