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Jim Byatt

About My Research

Department: English and Comparative Literature Studies.

Supervisor: Professor Thomas Docherty

Mentor: Professor Michael Bell

Funding: Warwick Postgraduate Research Fund

Start Date: 1st October 2006

Proposed End Date: 30th September 2009

Taboo and Transgression in Contemporary British Fiction

My thesis seeks to examine the social and cultural taboos that exist in late twentieth century and contemporary Britain, and to consider the modes and functions of their literary representations. The commercial appeal of literary and artistic works that address taboo subjects is commonly acknowledged, with recent output as diverse as Jerry Springer – The Musical, Brass Eye’s paedophilia special and Gunther von Hagens’ televised cadaver dissections and exhibitions demonstrating a clear public interest in the forbidden. Often, though, taboo-breaking for sensationalist purposes serves to reinforce the taboo. As George Bataille has suggested, the functionality of the taboo is reliant on its fracture, the “successful transgression which, in maintaining the prohibition, maintains it in order to benefit by it”. Such practices tend to evade the issue of interrogating the validity and the function of the taboo, however, resorting to a default populist standpoint by virtue of their contained, and largely emasculated, excesses. The novels this thesis aims to consider are those which place this populist stance on trial by giving voice to the tabooed or excepted figure, allowing a dialogue to emerge where previously there has been only a monologue.

The novels considered in the project take in a broad range of styles, themes and degrees of commerciality, ranging from the cult crime fiction of Derek Raymond, through the social realism of David Cook and Paul Sayer, to the experimentalism of JG Ballard, early Ian McEwan and BS Johnson. What is common among them is their objective engagement with the monstrous, providing insight into the lives of figures typically denied legitimacy. The monstrous and the transgressive are interwoven in a complex relationship that frequently finds culture mirroring its polluting others, thereby becoming monstrous itself. The monstrous identities examined here include the incestuous family, disabled, disfigured and dead bodies, paedophiles, psychopaths and the insane; equally, there is a reflective tendency to identify monstrous aspects of the normalised figure. In each text, the author challenges the notion of otherness, offering a narrative which transcends the culturally-inscribed identity in order to demonstrate a logical basis for the transgressor’s deviance. These rationalisations demand a critical re-reading of the dominant assumptions concerning the transgressive figure, one that suppresses established perspectives in favour of a less biased and thus more objective approach.

In terms of methodology, the project is deliberately eclectic, adopting an interdisciplinary approach in accordance with the varied themes, target audiences, philosophies and genres of the novels in question. It has always been my intention that the project should utilise as full a methodological range as possible, in order to properly address the issues of cultural identity, taboo, legitimacy and the monstrous. To this end, the project draws upon literary theory, particularly theories of voice and narrative, along with sociological and cultural theory models, architecture, contemporary history, anthropology and philosophy in order to properly unpack and examine the primary texts. Of particular relevance are the writings of Georges Bataille, Giorgio Agamben and Mary Douglas, whose understanding, respectively, of taboo and transgression, homo sacer and the logic of uncleanness contribute significantly to my understanding of the contemporary monstrous.


James Byatt

Contact Me

j dot d dot Byatt at warwick dot ac dot uk