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Depression: A Public Feeling

Sally Munt on a critical guide to the economic system’s baleful effects on the individual mind

Ann Cvetkovich is well known for her work on public feelings, and here she tackles depression as a public rather than a private feeling. Despite being suffered by many people (including academics), depression remains an affliction to be ashamed of, to disavow, to conceal. In the book, which is part personal memoir, part cultural critique, Cvetkovich discusses her own struggles with bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression). Using a range of approaches, she reads through her own depression in order to reach an understanding of something more social, institutional and political. She asks: what if capitalism makes us depressed? And what happens to those unproductive subjects whose refusal and passivity puts them outside a meaningful life?

Cvetkovich was raised a Catholic, which I think gives her a critical distance from the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant disgust directed at depression and its malingering fools. She resists, too, the simplification that comes from vilifying medical models or pharmaceutical intervention, and recognises that although it is tempting to pronounce judgement on biomedical models of depression, these strategies can also be essential in alleviating distressing symptoms and loss of hope.

Her insight here is to challenge the analysis of depression as “individual fault”, and she asks us to consider instead how the illness might constitute a cultural “mood”, or as Raymond Williams would have put it, “a structure of feeling”. This then lessens the burden on the individual to carry the blame for her condition.

Disappointingly, however, Cvetkovich does not discuss either the Great Depression or the current global recession, which I think would have made terrific economic case studies. But she does make a brief but powerful segue into American colonialism, genocide and slavery in order to reframe the cultural politics of race around the depression that such a catastrophic history produces.

It may not just be catastrophic, however: depression also has very ordinary manifestations. Cvetkovich addresses how in class terms it can be the outcome for so many ordinary Americans of the failure of the American Dream. She discusses the mundanity of depression and the fact that many of us struggle with daily inertia and feelings of being overwhelmed, seeking comfort in a range of routine responses. Given its mundanity, however, perhaps it is in daily routines, habits and behaviour that steps out of depression can be found.

Cvetkovich turns to spirituality (finding the extraordinary in the ordinary) in order to tackle depression’s effects. In this, her book may be part of a small recent trend in queer studies to challenge the roots of dominant secularism by calling on white bourgeois heteronormativity to query its most basic suppositions, such as its investment in rationalism. This overtly rationalistic and attenuated discourse has produced a whole set of exclusions, not least those spiritual beliefs that have come from minority ethnic cultures.

For those individuals it latches on to, and for cultural groups as well, depression is an intransigent condition. It is the outcome of trauma, and for many global citizens capitalism has been traumatic, creating lifelong injuries that millions writhe and thrash under in a bid to escape or merely to exist. Depression needs to be understood as a systemic and structural injury as well as an individual one.

Cvetkovich offers us an introduction to thinking critically about depression’s causes and its manifestations as well as, perhaps, the localised tactics that are necessary to enable recovery. At the end, she turns rather sweetly to crafting as one reparative habit, partly because of the aesthetic of connectivity that it can stimulate. Knitting yourself out of depression: it’s kind of folksy, but I liked it.

Depression: A Public Feeling

By Ann Cvetkovich

Duke University Press

296pp, £64.00 and £15.99

ISBN 9780822352235 and 2389

Published 25 November 2012

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