Review: Depression: A Public Feeling

Depression: A Public Feeling. Ann Cvetkovich. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. Pp. xi + 278.

Depression: A Public Feeling takes strides away from the prevailing, Western model of depression as a biochemical ailment and toward the claim that depression is a socially and politically constructed feeling as well as a rational response to the of the world rather than a tragic disease. As such, the book posits that depression cannot be definitively bound by textbook definitions or standardized treatments like pharmaceuticals and therapy. Instead, Cvetkovich encourages alternative methods of coping – though not necessarily curing – depression or the lived experience of feeling bad. These coping mechanisms depend largely on creativity, which she characterizes as movement (21), and ordinary habit. Through these suggestions, Cvetkovich offers descriptive options, rather than a prescriptive cure for living with and adapting to depression.

In the spirit of defying conventions, Depression is presented in two parts, the first of which is a personal memoir that details Cvetkovich’s experience with depression at the end of graduate school and her entrance onto the job market. Her early reference to what “Lauren Berlant calls the ‘unfinished business of sentimentality’” establishes part of the motivation behind the inclusion of her memoir (8). Her feminist and queer engagements with depression comprise the “affective turn” that she makes in the book, which highly values the personal. This turn is of particular importance when she argues that politics does not exist as something “out there,” but instead impresses us at an affective level, often contributing to feelings of depression. The remainder of the book adheres to the genre of scholarly writing, but through her diverse archive, even the more academically conservative sections of the text continue to resist dominant conventions of detached, obscure criticism.

Cvetkovich personally invests herself in the project and product of the book at the outset of the introduction, tracing its inspiration to her dissatisfaction with available depression memoirs and her refusal to confine her understanding of depression to the medical model that has so long claimed it. Depression is thus framed as a kind of self-help book for those living with depression, but who are dissatisfied by the drugs and therapy offered to remedy the feeling. Once the motivation behind the book is outlined, Cvetkovich details some keywords for the remainder of the book, including perhaps the two most important: “depression” and “creativity” (14). For Cvetkovich, depression encompasses a range of experienced bad feelings, manifested as numbness, anxiety, and a general sense of being overwhelmed. Creativity – the kind that she values as a remedy for depression – consists of activities often thought of as creative (like knitting, for instance) as well as activities more subtly inventive, like swimming or going to the dentist. For Cvetkovich, creativity denotes any activity whereby you engage with its processes; as a result, most movement can be creative if you focus carefully enough.

The book’s memoir portion follows the author’s struggles in the transition years between graduate school and a teaching job, as the stresses of academic life trigger insomnia, bouts of crying, and a nearly paralyzing sense of hopelessness. In one anecdote, the stress paired with a sense of guilt over not being enough of an activist in the midst of her scholarly work all combine to numb Cvetkovich to the point of being unable to sense severe pain, which should have indicated an injured ankle (30). To combat her depression, she begins to take comfort in routine activities. Habitual dentist visits, along with swimming, provide her with something easy and ordinary on which to focus her attention. While she acknowledges that each individual with depression will need to find their own soothing activities – the dentist is hardly for everyone, after all – her general claim is that mundane undertakings can help reconnect the mind to the body. Following from her argument, it is the disconnection of mind and body that causes depression, perhaps explaining why intellectuals are so prone to the condition in the first place.

Since Cvetkovich is determined to extract depression from typical medical or biochemical designations, her distaste for pharmaceuticals and psychotherapy sometimes feels adamant. One may be inclined to read her experience as exaggerating the standard stresses of an academic career and neglecting so-called clinical depression with its more mysterious origins. Her treatments – which often ask the “sufferer” to spend extra energy focusing on mundane tasks – are largely only available to individuals with the privilege to set such time out of their day. As such, both the origin of Cvetkovich’s depression and the methods that she uses to combat it come from a position of white, relative socioeconomic stability. But in spite of these caveats, one must not forget that the genre is that of a memoir. The experiences that she chronicles are personal, partial by necessity, and meant to push the reader from viewing depression as a systematic or easily categorized experience. While depression may, in fact, be a biochemical condition and medical treatment could help to alleviate it, Cvetkovich uses the memoir genre to suggest alternative ways of understanding depression outside of this medical model.

Moving into the critical portion of her book (Part II), Cvetkovich brings together a varied archive, with one chapter of historical investigation, one that considers the relation between depression and racism, and a final chapter on ordinary habits. The first chapter of Part II takes up the concept of acedia, or spiritual dissatisfaction, to move depression away from purely secular conversations. The example of one medieval abbot who placed palm leaves on the floor of his cave each day only to set them on fire once the floor was covered represents the sort of habitual activity that Cvetkovich prioritizes in combatting depression (112). While religious ritual may serve a spiritual final goal, Cvetkovich reads it not as an action with the purpose of productivity, but as a performance to soothe the soul, thus alleviating depression.

The book then moves to a discussion of racism and the way social conflicts produce widespread depressive affects. Since Cvetkovich is limited to her own perspective, inevitably engaging with racial history from a white and somewhat privileged lens, the chapter feels continuously tense. It would have been helpful to see Cvetkovich tease out her assertion that African diasporic art and crafting culture can be adopted across cultures to combat depressive feelings, since the potential of cultural appropriation appears acute at times. However, there is something useful about taking into consideration the very distinct “form of sadness” that a group outside of one’s own personal experience has had to address (115). After all, Cvetkovich’s persuasive claim that certain types of depression caused by racialized experience go largely unattended in medical discourse further supports her argument against exclusively medical and diagnostic models.

The final chapter of the book brings the focus back to Cvetkovich’s engagements with feminist and queer criticism and its investment in the mundane in order to consider how “ordinary habit” can be of benefit in dealing with depression. The book’s images of crafted installation art mirror the juxtaposition of Cvetkovich’s own genre-bending (Plates 1-14). The practice of elevating a craft like knitting to the level of installation art complements her own elevation of the memoir genre to the realm of the more respectably intellectual genre of the critical essay. By loosening the stringent boundaries between high and low art, Cvetkovich helps to re-prioritize what could be considered “unofficial” methods for solving problems and pushing past impasses, like those that either cause or are caused by depression.

Cvetkovich’s epilogue functions not to make totalizing or sweeping claims, but rather as a reflection on the book as both process and product and the creative power of writing as one method through which to deal with depression – the first section heading of the epilogue even asks “Is This Good? Does This Suck?” (203). Returning to the monograph’s title, Depression seems rather self-explanatory. But the Public Feeling that exists after the colon expresses much of what Cvetkovich accomplishes through the book: depression should not be reduced to an isolating affect, and is best combatted through communal efforts (see Fig. 3.9b). If depression is continually misrepresented as an independent ailment contained in the brain’s biochemical processes, treatment will be misguided and fail to recognize the social nature of the condition.

Hannah Widdifield