Of the many (many, many) books on depression that have weighed down our bookshelves and clogged our Amazon searches in recent decades–the self-help guides, the memoirs, the debunked memoirs, the sordid tales by sort-of made-up authors–very few fail to share two assumptions. The first is that depression is a personal problem. The second is that it is a medical condition, often best treated by pharmaceutical drugs.
If that sounds oversimplified and unsatisfying, that’s because it is–not only for the millions of people who find themselves depressed–or as Ann Cvetkovich sometimes puts it in her new book, Depression: A Public Feeling, plagued by “bad feelings”–but for those who look to social and political contexts in search of more collective, creative and lasting ways of addressing one of the most pervasive (or at least pervasively discussed) problems of our era.
Cvetkovich, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin, puts herself in both camps. Depression is part of what has come to be called the “affective turn” in academia, one that holds that emotion is a legitimate area of scholarly concern–a shift that originated largely in women’s studies. “Even before I had access to an explicit feminism,” Cvetkovich says, “I was curious about what feelings were and why they were considered so suspicious. Feminism helped equip me with a sense that it was possible and important to transgress scholarly norms.”
Recounting her own struggles with depression, as well as the ways in which she sought and found relief, she connects her experience as an activist to a “political depression,” a fatigue and hopelessness around the ineffectiveness of collective action and recognition that the conditions of capitalism make widespread depression practically inevitable.
More than ferreting out a causal connection, she says, “my interest is how capitalism feels. What does it feel like as a living, breathing, perceiving, sensing being to occupy the world we live in? There are many different ways in which people are made to feel depressed or defeated about their degree of agency with respect to both their own lives and their capacity to make an impact collectively on the world more generally.”
Suspicious of the medical model, Cvetkovich includes a chapter on acedia, a now-archaic term once used to describe a condition suffered by monks, one that had the qualities of both spiritual crisis and physical ailment. She sets this conceptualization of “bad feelings” against more recent manufacturing and marketing of depression as a medical condition.
Expanding outward from her critique of depression’s characterization as a “genetic mishap”–an individualized pathology suffered by persons usually (if invisibly) assumed to be white and middle-class–she explores the connections between racism, genocide and depression through texts by African American writers Saidiya Harman and Jacqui Alexander and others who capture the experience of depression as displacement. Referencing Cornel West’s thoughts on the differences between African American and white cultures when it comes to expressions of depressions and sadness, she sees a model for theories of depression that recognizes that expertise is “embedded in a range of different disciplines or idioms, which of course cuts along race and class lines, but also arguably other lines of social hierarchy as well.”
Cvetkovich draws parallels to writer David Foster Wallace–an interesting case, she says, “because he was able to diagnose or describe very well what was going on, but perhaps confronted certain impasses about what to do. As smart as he was about the nature of what it’s like to be a feeling, thinking human in contemporary culture, that could not save him from despair: Being smart can’t save you.”
Cvetkovich’s exploration of what can save you takes us to some delightful places - examples of the “queer, arty” cultural work she holds up as examples of survival and reclamation: The “maternal melodrama” of camp lounge duo Kiki and Herb; the craft-oriented performance of gem-sweater celebrationist Leslie Hall; and work that draws on and recasts “feminist legacies” of domestic reinvention and embrace of the feminine, particularly knitting, crocheting and crafting–in both the gallery and museum installations of Allyson Mitchell and Sheila Pepe and the street-oriented, overtly activist work found in the “knit-bombing” art of Knitta Please.
Crucial to this recovery is the idea of depression as ordinary and a corollary vision of an alternative “utopia of everyday habit”–recovering one’s everyday life and agency through movement, ritual, domesticity, community and spiritual or creative practice. She holds these things, along with her utopian ideal, as possibilities, not prescriptives.
“It’s never going to be a pure utopia,” she says. “It’s sort of a utopia that’s carved out of available resources, and it’s kind of makeshift and a little patchy. But rather than that foreclosing all opportunities, it kind of makes some interesting mash-ups.”
Cindy Widner is a writer and editor living in Austin, Tex. Her work can be found in The Austin Chronicle, Bitch magazine, Pop Culture Press, and other publications. Full disclosure: She is a former undergraduate student of Dr. Cvetkovich’s.