Five Questions with Dr. Phillip Barrish


Today we continue our ever-popular series, 5 Questions, where we sit down with American Studies faculty and affiliate faculty members to chat about their research and teaching. Today we bring you an interview with Dr. Phillip Barrish, Professor of English and author of The Cambridge Introduction to American Literary Realism (Cambridge UP, 2011).

What has been your favorite project to work on and why?

Luckily for me, my favorite project is the one I am working on right now, which has to do with the medical humanities. More specifically, I’m interested in what I’m calling the Healthcare Policy Humanities, or the Healthcare Humanities. A lot of work by literature scholars in the medical humanities has focused on representations of doctors, patients, and the illness experience, as well as on narrative medicine, which has to do with the stories patients tell doctors and the stories doctors tell patients—that is, the patient-doctor interface. I’m really interested in how literature and narrative relate to what could be called the political economy of healthcare, that is, for example the kinds of issues we are grappling with now around Obamacare and the healthcare crisis in our country. How has literature reflected, directly or indirectly, on questions such as who pays for healthcare, who has access to what kinds of healthcare, what is the role of government in providing healthcare? What role do stories, language, and metaphor play in the dynamics of how institutions, individuals, practices, and professional modes messily intersect to produce a healthcare system.

There are plenty of excellent books by historians, sociologists, political scientists, and economists about the historical evolution and current state of the U.S. healthcare system, but I want to look at those issues through a literary lens. (I’m an Americanist so it’s the U.S. context that most interests me, at least for now.) For example, I have an article in the most recent issue of the journal American Literature called “The Sticky Web of Medical Professionalism: Robert Herrick’s The Web of Life and the Political Economy of Healthcare at the Turn of the Century.” I’m currently in the early stages of researching an article/book chapter provisionally called “Healthcare Policy and Dystopian Fiction.” Here I’m less interested in dystopian works that extrapolate from the often disturbing implications of cutting-edge developments in medical technology, many of which have to do with reproduction: genetic engineering, cloning, surrogate pregnancy, but also such things as new organ-transplant technology. As fascinating and disturbing as such literature often is, I want to focus on a related but different aspect of dystopian medical imagining—dystopian literature and films that focus at least as much on the seemingly more quotidian issues of healthcare access, distribution, and funding. Two great recent examples are the 2013 movie Elysium, directed by Neill Blomkamp and starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, and Chang-Rae Lee’s 2014 novel, On Such a Full Sea. If anyone reading this interview has additional ideas for texts, I’d love to hear them!

How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations within and outside of academia?

Throughout my career, I’ve tried to be conscious of how my scholarly work might speak to issues, tensions, and problems that are important to us today. I think this dialogue is clearest in my current project, because the question of healthcare’s political economy is one that obviously a lot of people are thinking about and debating. Indeed, elections may turn on it.

What kinds of projects or people have inspired your work?

I went to graduate school in the early 1980s at Cornell, which was known for having a theory-heavy English department. I was fascinated by post-structuralism and by the emphasis placed by post-structuralist literary critics on close reading, which I had come to from a more old-fashioned training in college in formalist close reading. Some of the early people who inspired me in graduate school would be Barbara Johnson at Harvard, who died tragically several years ago from cancer, and Jonathan Culler and Mark Seltzer at Cornell. Since then I’ve not gone against my training, because post-structuralism still informs my own thinking and reading practices, often in subtle ways, but I’ve extended my graduate student training into looking at literature in its relation to other discourses and practices in our society. Among American Studies scholars, for example, I love the work of Janice Radway, whom I was able to take classes with as an undergraduate. Not untypically for scholars of my and subsequent generations, I’ve been inspired by feminism, critical race studies, new historicism, cultural studies, queer studies, and affect studies.

What is your scholarly background and how does that background motivate your teaching and research now?

I grew up in a New York City, middle class, third generation Jewish immigrant family. When I was in college and even my first couple years of graduate school, a lot of my favorite texts were British. For a long time I thought about working in nineteenth-century British literature. But I had a feeling then that I wanted to be able to address the kinds of issues and problems American writers were dealing with in the U.S. context. Ultimately, I went into academia because I felt I was better at it than I was at some other things. I thought I’d go to graduate school for a few years and see if I liked it. I did like it, and here I am.

What projects are you excited about working on in the future?

It’s always hard for me to think beyond my current project, especially when I’m still in the early stages. My mind is so full of different directions in which I might take my current work. So I’m going to have to defer answering that question. Ask me in a couple of years.

In one sentence, what is American Studies to you?

American Studies means, to me, mutually stimulating disciplinary approaches to issues and histories I care about.

Phillip Barrish is the author of American Literary Realism, Critical Theory, and Intellectual Prestige, 1880-1995 (Cambridge UP, 2001), White Liberal Identity, Literary Pedagogy, and Classic American Realism (Ohio State UP, 2005), and The Cambridge Introduction to American Literary Realism (Cambridge UP, 2011). His current research explores fictional representations of health-care systems in the United States from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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