‘Depression: A Public Feeling’ by Ann Cvetkovich
Author: William Burton
February 10, 2013
Ann Cvetkovitch’s new book, Depression: A Public Feeling, is a strange animal: memoir-cum-theoretical essay collection, a personal story of depression combined with professional academic cultural analysis. Though not always elegantly executed—perhaps on purpose, as Cvetkovich indicates early on in the text—Depression succeeds at opening up a public discussion on certain kinds of depression that are often dismissed as trivial, like the stress of academic labour. In the process, the University of Texas – Austin professor looks at depression from a number of different angles, basing her views on her own experience and that of a number of academics, writers and artists. Through her readings of these texts and artworks, Cvetkovich manages to revisit depression as a phenomenon not just biological, but with deep historical roots and with manifestations specific to certain groups; and as a spiritual goad to everyday healing practices. Cvetkovich explores depression, then, as an instructive feeling, a feeling productive of different kinds of knowledge. Although the author Cvetkovich ambivalence about self-help books, she nevertheless compares Depression to that genre, writing that “her self-help book for depression would be directed at an audience of academics and queers, especially those who remain curious about the genre despite their reservations and disidentifications.” I am going to take Cvetkovich at her word, and I will respond to her work as a queer and an academic, eschewing the habitual criticism of cultural theory as obscure, because it uses the technical, professional jargon of its field.
However, it is worth noting that Cvetkovich’s work is theory-heavy and jargon-laden. I don’t bemoan this fact, but I would urge readers who dislike theory or who find it difficult to follow to persevere through (some parts of) Depression, because there are aspects that are really worth exploring. Cvetkovich’s book emerges from the context of a new school of thought in the humanities called affect theory, in which emotions—or feelings, as Cvetkovich prefers to call them—are the privileged means of exploring cultural artefacts. (I should note that the distinction between affects, emotions, feelings, drives and so forth is hotly debated within the field of affect theory. This review is not really the place for such jargon-related niceties, however.) While the theoretical language of affect theory may seem impenetrable to those without training, its emphasis on the autobiographical and the emotional allows Depression to have a humanity and an accessibility that much academic writing fails to render and achieve.
The introduction is the most difficult part of the book to finish. Cvetkovich spends much of it touching on the theoretical bases of her project—affect theory, critical race theory, queer theory—without going into much detail about each of these influences. The result feels like a litany of names and ideas without much content; this is a larger problem with Depression, and its presence in the introduction I found rather discouraging.
The rest of the book is divided into two parts: “The Depression Journals,” a memoir of Cvetkovich’s experience with melancholy; and “A Public Feelings Project,” a series of interconnected pieces on forms of depression.
The “Depression Journals” section is readable and very relatable. In it, Cvetkovich narrates her history of grappling with a kind of often low-lying depression that is not taken very seriously in North America—the sort of depression that doesn’t stop you from accomplishing what needs to get done (buying groceries, teaching), but leaves you “blocked” in all but the most basic forms of living and working. As the depression stretches on for a number of years, Cvetkovich joins the early adopters of anti-depressants, only to wean herself off eventually through the creation of everyday rituals and habits—like the building of stone altars or knitting—that give her back a precious sense of control over her body and her life. Throughout this account, the writer bravely exposes her own idiosyncrasies and her fight with a less-than-respectable form of mental illness (for lack of a better word).
The journal section leads into Cvetkovich’s reflections on the memoir form. This section of part I of Depression establishes an unfortunate trend: Cvetkovich frequently gestures at a goal, rather than achieving it. In creative writing speak, you would call this telling, rather than showing. So when I read a line like: “‘The Depression Journals’ implicitly argues for terminology and definitions that emerge from the practice of writing, which adds emotional and personal meanings to historical and scientific ones,” I mainly wished the author had used that space to make that argument more explicit, to reinforce it, in “The Depression Journals,” not after.
This tendency was especially a problem in the first analytic chapter, on the medieval concept of acedia, in which Cvetkovich frequently alluded to her project, without quite accomplishing what she declares was her aim. “[O]ne potential value of turning to acedia rather than melancholy to historicize depression and political feelings,” she writes, “is to explore whether its sacred and religious dimensions can be useful rather than a liability.” Elsewhere: “[M]y archive—which includes not only early Christian monks but indigenous spiritualities, political burnout, and queer subcultures—is far outside the orbit of medical science.” I kept wishing—again, in particular in chapter one—that Cvetkovich would stop describing her project and start “doing it,” letting the reader come to such conclusions.
The following chapter, however, is quite remarkable. Entitled “From Dispossession to Radical Self-Possession: Racism and Depression,” the second section of part two is a fascinating series of interrelated readings Cvetkovich performs of academic-writing-cum-memoir by Black North American authors about the African diaspora and of depression memoirs by White American writers. Connecting these texts to writings about Indigenous sovereignty by the Mohawk legal scholar Taiaiake Alfred, Cvetkovich attempts to understand, not only how the symptoms and treatment of depression might differ for people from different racial, ethnic or class origins, but also how North America’s history of “rupture”, “genocide and colonialism” and dispossession engenders and shapes depression for some people in the working class, the African diaspora, or in Native American and First Nations communities.
In this section, Cvetkovich is able to elegantly weave together the disparate threads of depression that seem most interesting to her: political agency in the face of (histories of) racial and colonial domination; the sacred as an everyday practice that enables us to persevere in the face of injustice. The textile metaphor is no accident, for chapter 3 is devoted to recuperating “feminine” arts like crafting and knitting, in particular in queer and disabled communities and in the practice known as “craftivism.” It is in these latter parts of the book that Cvetkovich is most focused, clear and helpful with a vision for overcoming melancholy through a transformation of everyday life.
Depression: A Public Feeling
By Ann Cvetkovich
Duke University Press
Paperback,9780822352389, 296 pp.
 The following sentence best exemplifies the confusing nature of this section: “The affective turn is evident in many different areas of inquiry: cultural memory and public cultures that emerge in response to histories of trauma; the role of emotions such as fear and sentimentality in American political life and nationalist politics; the production of compassion and sympathy in human rights discourses and other forms of liberal representation of social issues and problems; discussions of the politics of negative affects, such as melancholy and shame, inspired in particular by queer theory’s critique of the normal; new forms of historical inquiry, such as queer temporalities, that emphasize the affective relations between past and present; the turn to memoir and the personal in criticism as a sign of either the exhaustion of theory or its renewed life; the ongoing legacy of identity politics as another inspiration for the turn to the persona; continuing efforts to rethink psychoanalytic paradigms and the relation between the psychic and the social, the persistent influence of Foucauldian notions of biopower to explain the politics of subject formation and new forms of governmentality; histories of intimacy, domesticity, and private life; the cultural politics of everyday life; histories and theories of sensation and touch informed by phenomenology and cultural geography.”