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`Spaces of Decivilization': Norbert Elias' Theory of Civilization and the Phenomenon of Violence in Contemporary American Fiction

Primary Advisor: Prof. Dr. Dietmar Schloss

In modern, `civilized' societies violence can be regarded as contradictory phenomenon: although it seems largely controllable and is no longer part of normal social behavior, modern culture and literature are obsessed with depictions of violence. Based on these apparently paradoxical observations, in my PhD project I will analyze different contemporary American novels which are notorious for their depictions of violence. By doing so, I will especially focus on the following questions: What motivates the fascination with violence in contemporary American literature? How do these representations of violence square with the notion of a `pacified' and `civilized' society? The basic assumption that underlies the project is that such novels (e.g. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis and Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk) offer not only entertainment and thrill, but can be read as socio-analytical novels, which present a quasi-sociological analysis of the role violence plays in postmodern American society. From this perspective, the main aim of my thesis will be to make these socio-analytical and, to a certain extent, socio-critical aspects of contemporary `novels of violence' transparent. In order to do so, I will draw on rather uncommon theoretical sources: Besides more recent sociological research on violence, which focuses on the `facts' of violence itself rather than on its causes, I will use Norbert Elias' `theory of civilization' as theoretical background for the interpretations of the novels. Although Elias' theory is rather uncommon for literary studies and has been applied only rarely to an American context, I consider his approach of modernization and modern society as well as his writings on the sociology of modern sport as a promising and fruitful theoretical model for analyzing both the `sociological' and aesthetical aspects of contemporary novels of violence. From an Eliasian perspective, the literary and cultural fascination with violence and the reality of `pacified' modern societies are not contradictory, but rather complementary facts. Considered as `spaces of decivilization', in which the civilized order momentarily collapses, literary representations of violence can be read as a means to highlight the authors' specific views of contemporary American society and to (critically) examine the forces which structure and organize it; at the same time, violence is presented as a last resort to break free from these very forces. Beyond the individual `worlds' of the novels, the Eliasian approach

will thus also help to shed new light on the various restraints and self-restraints that establish social discipline and peaceful cooperation in `civilized' Western societies as well as on the cultural role of real and imaginary violence in this context.


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