Unseen City: The Psychic Lives of the Urban Poor

Date Published: 08.12.2021

'Unseen City: The Psychic Lives of the Urban Poor' by Wadham Fellow Professor Ankhi Mukherjee goes on sale in UK bookshops this week.

"Unseen City is an extraordinary, brilliant, and important book that re-draws the lines between literature, psychoanalysis, post and anti-colonialism, and activism in bold and urgent ways."

Lyndsey Stonebridge - University of Birmingham

This work of literary and cultural criticism examines the relationship between global cities, poverty, and psychoanalysis.

Spanning three continents, the book reads fictional representations of poverty with each city's psychoanalytic and psychiatric culture, particularly as that culture is fostered by state policies toward the welfare needs of impoverished populations.

It 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 global cities. 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.

In Unseen City, Mukherjee 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 key to poverty alleviation.

Why is a Professor of English Literature writing on mental health? Let me tell you a story.

Marking the launch of her book, Ankhi reflects on her research in this fascinating blog: 

"Latife Tekin’s novel Berji Kristin: Tales from the Garbage Hills (1984, English translation 1992) is set in a hillside shantytown in Istanbul made of mud and chemical waste. The characters are either stock – scavengers, wreckers, policemen, garbage traders – or exaggerated caricatures. In the second category belong Garbage Grocer, Nylon Mustafa, Liverman, simit-seller Mikail, Lado the gambler, their identities deformed by commodity fetishism like their names. This category also boasts of author figures: Poet Teacher, who writes “innumerable poems” on the garbage glitter over Rubbish Road, or Honking Alhaz, the genealogist. The narrator is an accidental witness, invested nonetheless in holding the ramshackle community together.  

In the psychoanalytic treatment of poverty, public and private worlds – “the historical event” and the “vicissitudes of the soul,” to use the anthropologist Stefania Pandolfo’s terms – seem indistinguishable. In Berji Kristin, malady is contextualised, but without subsuming the individual or the malady in the slum milieu. One of the tales describes a child who suffers a hysterical episode after one of the many demolitions the Flower Hill populace endure. 

Sırma stood trembling before the ruins, embracing a complete, undamaged brick. As the other children gathered stones and bits of tin all over the hill, her trembling increased. Then she began to struggle and kick. She put down the brick and lay on it, tearing out handfuls of hair and throwing them to the wind. . . . Exhausted with suffering, she fell quietly on the ground, her hands tied, and her eyes enormous. 

With chronic stressors suffered by shanty-town communities, the psychopathological reaction may not happen belatedly, as with onetime traumatic phenomena. However, this too is a traumatic overload, with the patient’s mind unable to process and represent the event. Sırma is brought to Güllü Baba for succour: he is blind in both eyes and the slum dwellers come to believe that his tears of empathy have magical healing powers. Güllü Baba is presented neither as therapist nor Imam but an ad hoc mixture of the secular and religious ministering of souls expected of each role. “Seeing” Sırma’s affliction, he is “seized by grief” and cries copiously. 

The cause of Sırma’s affliction is known, but why is it pathogenic for one child, not the other children? When it comes to blueprints of social change, the poetics of Berji Kristin, depicting Sırma’s singularity or the blind seer’s embrace of the penumbra of knowledge, leads the way. My new book, Unseen City, describes free psychotherapy initiatives in global cities, where lay counsellors provide mental health support in last mile communities. An interdisciplinary work of literature and psychoanalysis, it shadows many a barefoot healer who sees Sırma and talks to, not at, her: “don’t cry, little dove, they’ll free your hands; go and gather tin.” She calms down and starts to collect tin again as the peri-urban settlement embarks on rebuilding homes in the landfill that are, or will soon be, rubble."

Professor Ankhi Mukherjee

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"The pandemic represents a historic opportunity to reimagine the world's health systems by demonstrating the profound limitations of a narrow, biomedical framing of what is, ultimately, a social crisis... Unseen City, at the interface of diverse disciplinary perspectives, and grounded in the lived experiences of diverse actors in three countries, offers insights into exactly what such a reimagined mental health care system might, and should, look like in the future."

Vikram Patel - Harvard Medical School