Discussing 'Unseen City'

Date Published: 21.03.2022

A PhD focus on the history of hysteria in Victorian melodrama which resulted in her book, 'Aesthetic Hysteria', combined with an enduring interest in psychoanalysis, led to the latest publication by Wadham Fellow and Tutor in English, Ankhi Mukherjee.

Professor of English and World Literatures, Ankhi Mukherjee joined the Warden Robert Hannigan and alumni guests Dr David Russell and Dr Natalya Din-Kariuki at an online event to discuss her ground-breaking book Unseen City:The Psychic Lives of the Urban Poor.

“I almost became a psychoanalyst” said Ankhi of her career trajectory during graduate school. It was after reading Elizabeth Danto’s book Freud’s Free Clinics that she wanted to explore the places outside Europe where the free clinic movement had travelled to. “Freud had written about how necessary psychoanalysis is for the poor person – comparable to the ‘lifesaving help offered by surgery’” she said, and she was keen to investigate the international repercussions of this mental health cooperative movement led by a generation of activist psychoanalysts.

Ankhi’s resulting book, Unseen City, is a work of literary and cultural criticism which examines the relationship between global cities, poverty and psychoanalysis. She argues that a humanistic and imaginative engagement with the psychic lives of the dispossessed is key to an adapted psychoanalysis for the poor, and that seeking equity of the unconscious is essential for poverty alleviation.

The book explores the causal relationship between precarity and mental health through clinical case studies, the product of extensive collaborations and knowledge-sharing with community psychotherapeutic initiatives in six cities across three continents. These are layered with twentieth- and twenty-first-century works of world literature that explore issues of identity, illness, and death at the intersections of class, race, globalisation, and migrancy.

Commenting on the book, former student Dr David Russell (Merton 2001, Modern History and English), Fellow and Tutor in English, Corpus Christi College (Oxford), said: “Unseen City’s interleaving of the fictional and journalistic accounts of cities with case histories of therapeutic organisations is highly suggestive. Ankhi’s book reminds us that the shared principle of literary criticism and psychoanalysis, at their best, is a careful listening to the individual case and only then building up the frameworks of general conclusion.”

Dr Natalya Din-Kariuki (Wadham 2009, English), Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick, remarked: “The book offers brilliant insights into psycho-geography, relating the psyche to space, urban infrastructure and to the psychic power of acts of walking, wandering, rambling – it’s a book about psychoanalysis on the move and is a book that emerged out of movement in Ankhi’s travels to the various free clinics which she studies.”

Thanking her students and colleagues for their support of her work, Ankhi also thanked the Warden, commenting on the importance of Wadham College in providing her with a secure ‘home’ from which to work, saying: “Wadham is an environment which is extremely conducive to experimental thinking.”

Watch the full discussion of Unseen City here.

Professor Ankhi Mukherjee