Medical Humanities in a time of broken-heartedness: an interview with Felicity Callard

The Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research will host their 4th Annual Congress online from 2123 April 2021. The Polyphony has been delighted to publish interviews with all four keynote speakers in the build-up to the Congress. In this final week before Congress, Congress organiser Ruben Verwaal talks to Felicity Callard, Professor in Human Geography at Glasgow University.

Ruben Verwaal writes:

Felicity Callard is currently Professor in Human Geography at Glasgow. She gained her doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 2002 with a thesis titled “Forms of agoraphobia: Accounts of anxiety, space, and the urban dweller from the 1870s to the 1990s”. She went on to work at Queen Mary, King’s College London, Max Planck Institute, and Durham University. In addition to publishing numerous articles, she co-wrote and co-edited Mental Illness, Discrimination and the Law (2012), Rethinking Interdisciplinarity (2015), and The Restless Compendium (2016). In 2020 she was awarded a Leverhulme Research Fellowship.

Felicity Callard. Credit: Wellcome Library.

Callard’s work may be characterised by being provocative, interdisciplinary, and rooted in her own experiences. Her research interests include such personal experiences as fear, restlessness, fantasy and daydreaming, as well as the university itself. She promotes new ways of doing interdisciplinary work, pushing for collaborations across the neurosciences, social sciences and humanities. Callard’s work is embedded in her own experiences. In Spring 2020, she showed all the symptoms of COVID-19: a new body of research has developed out of this experience developed new research, including the articles “Epidemic Time: Thinking from the Sickbed” in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine (2020), and “How and why patients made long Covid” in Social Science and Medicine (2021).

RV: Where did you study and how has this shaped you?

FC: My PhD is from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore; I was based in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering in the School of Engineering (with David Harvey and Erica Schoenberger), and my doctoral committee included academics from The Humanities Center (Ruth Leys) and History (Judith Walkowitz). I took courses and learned from those in many disciplines; I did not grasp till later how this kind of multi-disciplinary training was not necessarily true of all graduate school experiences. The Living Wage campaign of the Student Labor Action Committee, which operated in coalition with local activists, opened my eyes to universities’ highly racialized and racist employment practices, and stirred my ongoing preoccupation with the work of, and work in, the university. While at Johns Hopkins, I often felt overwhelmed by the intellects of many brilliant academics as well as peers. Looking back now, I realise that it took me a number of years and a lot of psychic work, post-PhD, to find my own desire in academia – to envisage an imagined reader who might allow me to find ways of continuing to write.

I was taught to read Freud during my Master’s at the University of Sussex in Critical Theory. Sussex had recently begun its MA in Sexual Dissidence and the emergence of queer theory was deeply exciting.  During that one year of study in Brighton I also met my (future) partner, as well as friends who are very close to me to this day. I was a geography undergraduate at the University of Oxford, and my closest friend, Clare Connors, in English, showed me what it means to read texts. I’m happy to offer the cliché that attending lectures on Marx and the history of capitalism by the geographer David Harvey also changed my life.

RV: What made you decide to pursue a career in Medical Humanities?

FC: Life in the highly casualized, exploitative academy today largely obviates the possibility of deciding on careers in particular (inter)disciplines. I don’t readily narrate lives – including my life – using a language of decisions and of career.

From the time of my doctoral research on agoraphobia and panic disorder in the 1990s onwards, I have been preoccupied with trying to think through how our so-called internal worlds articulate with the worlds ‘outside’. The patch of ground I stood on at that point was called human geography – a geography that was in constant contact with the humanities and other social sciences. When, a number of years on, I ended up working as a service user researcher in close collaboration with clinical researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry (King’s College London), I became even more intrigued with the profound heterogeneity of epistemologies and ontologies used to account for psychic and bodily suffering. ‘Medical humanities’ – particularly when I joined what was then the Centre for Medical Humanities at Durham University in 2012 – was a powerful site through which to continue thinking through how the question of subjectivity is addressed in medicine and other human sciences. (I have also found Monica Greco’s writings particularly helpful in thinking through the stakes of this question.)[1]

RV: In your career as teacher/researcher, what are you most proud of?

FC: The process of writing is one of the most important places where thinking happens. Writing collaboratively – and hence thinking collaboratively – has formed who I am both as a researcher and, I hope, a teacher. That I have found ways to write collaboratively with many people has been a way to make academia more habitable. Sometimes this has meant writing with people with whom I share (other) intimate parts of my life; at other times it has been with those whom I have, to this day, never met. Sometimes this has involved grunting alongside co-authors sitting at the very same table; at other times it has meant shooting off my unsatisfactory drafted sections via email in the early morning to colleagues far away. Co-writing – both when I was, for a time, working outside of the academy, and, then, when I re-joined it – became for me a way of finding a way to live. I think of it as carving collective epistemological and political trajectories that make it easier to bear, and to find ways of contesting, the current historical moment. I am extraordinarily privileged to have a salary that supports me to do this.

RV: What advice do you have for young aspiring scholars in Medical Humanities?

FC: Somehow, in the midst of the bonfire that constitutes most labour in academic, para-academic, and clinical sites, today, to find ways to continue combatting the assault on thinking that constitutes our current political moment. Interdisciplinary sites such as the medical humanities are particularly good sites to observe and analyse and work to change the systems and structures that characterize institutions that produce knowledge. (I am indebted here to the writings of Abigail Boggs and Nick Mitchell, who have written brilliantly on the ‘crisis consensus’ surrounding the university, as well as on fantasies that underpin the interdisciplinary site of ‘ethnic studies’ in the USA.)[2]

From the vantage point of such (inter)disciplinary sites we can ask: How is work distributed? Who is doing what kinds of labour? Who is bearing whom in terms of sustaining projects and agendas? What kinds of relations keep things going? How are exploitative practices variously consolidated and undone by new modes of collaboration and interdisciplinarity in and across medical humanities? What kinds of futures might be made possible – materially, epistemically – in and indeed beyond such spaces?

For me, medical humanities is one of many places in which to try to force into the world new institutional forms that might help remake social relations more broadly, as well as the relations making up so-called ‘society’ and ‘medicine’ and ‘the humanities’.  This has to involve collectively making and practising new subjectivities to combat the thin neoliberal subjectivities on offer today.

If this counts as advice, and I’m not sure it does, it’s certainly not addressed specifically to the young and/or to the aspiring.

RV: What three emotions would best describe how you feel about presenting at the NNMHR 2021 Congress?

FC: I was a bit stumped with this question. The months of ‘lockdown’, and all the dampening of emotions that has accompanied such restrictions, have overshadowed other, smaller, feelings.

I needed something a bit like the smell training exercises that might help you regain your smell after anosmia. I did these when I was recovering from COVID.

‘Train your nose to smell better’, the AbScent website states. I feel like I need to train a part of my body to feel better.

So I picked up Tiffany Watt Smith’s The Handbook of Human Emotions: An Encyclopedia of Feeling from Anger to Wanderlust to help prick emotions might be circulating, in subterranean fashion, around NNMHR 2021. Two entries, then, from Tiffany’s book: 1) Anticipation; 2) Collywobbles, The. (Sorry: I can’t make out a third.)

RV: Which twentieth-century thinker/scholar has been most inspiring to you?

FC: Living my life without reading and re-reading Freud would have meant living a very different life, I think. ‘Inspiring to me’ isn’t the phrase I would choose to describe this situation, though.

RV: Considering the current pandemic, how do you think Medical Humanities scholars can contribute?

FC: This question, asked at a time of such broken-heartedness , brings to mind Ed Luker’s poem, ‘We Owe It to the World Not Yet Here’.

It contains the lines:

We believe in the world

that they withhold from us,

and we will make justice shine.



[1] For example, see Greco, M. (2013) “Logics of interdisciplinarity: the case of medical humanities” in Barry A and Born G (eds.) Interdisciplinarity: Reconfigurations of the Social and Natural Sciences. London; New York, NY: Routledge; and Greco, M. (2008) “On the Art of Life: A Vitalist Reading of Medical Humanities.” The Sociological Review 56 (2): 23-45.

[2] For example, see Boggs, A. and Mitchell, N. (2018) “Critical University Studies and the Crisis Consensus.” Feminist Studies 44(2): 432–463. DOI: 10.15767/feministstudies.44.2.0432; and “The Fantasy and Fate of Ethnic Studies in an Age of Uprisings: An Interview with Nick Mitchell”


For more information about Callard’s keynote and the Northern Network for Medical Humanities 4th Annual Congress 2021, please visit

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