It is important to introduce Ann Cvetkovich's background when reviewing Depression: A Public Feeling, a memoir cum critique cum speculative essay. After all, it is her background with depression that motivates the book's central arguments: that depression should not be medicalized because it emerges as a result of social inequality, that the term "depression" does not even do justice to the collection of affects that it has come to name, and that this collection of affects is useful for developing and experiencing creative work.
For Cvetkovich, depression is full of productive possibilities, which is not to say that she moves to recuperate depression as an ultimately rewarding experience. It is instead a painful journey produced, at least in the North American context, by a long history of racism, colonialism, genocide, and oppression. But she does characterize her investigation of depression as "an exploration of pleasure, joy, and vitality" rooted in a recognition of "the sorry state of the world" and which maintains "plenty of room for unhappiness" (190). These explorations lead her to conclude that depression is political; it is a "public feeling" produced by overwhelming injustice. The individual may suffer from it, but depression develops as a result of much larger social, historical, and material forces.
Cvetkovich literalizes this expansive approach to depression through a multi-genre scholarship style, embodied in her book's two parts: a memoir and a more-or-less analytical section. The memoir recounts the time she first began dealing with depression—when she was finishing her dissertation, beginning her academic career, dealing with the pressures of scholarly writing, and finding and keeping a job. She relies on this experience to give her the street cred to pull off her particular "Prozac memoir" in which she offers a "polemic against drugs" (15) by describing her embrace of everyday life habits and rituals that serve as her keys to managing depression. In this way she engages the much-debated topic of the place of reflexivity and confession in disability studies (see articles by Rinaldi and O'Toole in DSQ 33.2 for two discussions of the implications of public disclosure in scholarship). Cvetkovich clearly comes down on the side of disclosure, at least as far as this text is concerned. Writing her memoir about everyday academic life is part of her larger argument that depression itself is "ordinary" and needs to be discussed publically and outside of the typical genres of self-help books or medical articles.
Cvetkovich's particular location in academia is central to the analytical part of her book as well, what she calls her "speculative essay." While the demands of her academic career—first as a graduate student and then as a professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies—occasioned her early experiences of depression, her academic training and position provided, and continue to provide, the critical apparatus and space to analyze the political structure that she says induces depression. Here she maintains that two of her goals are to make a case for using everyday language in scholarly writing and to embrace description more than argument as a means to honor the feelings produced by the world, even as many of the scholars she uses to give weight to her positions—figures such as Lauren Berlant, Giorgio Agamben, Judith Butler, and Wendy Brown—treat scholarship in a quite different way. In any case, her grounding in affect theory and feminist and queer studies enables her conclusion that US society is suffused with depression that can be understood through a wide variety of theories and approaches. Here she creates a "depression archive" that brings together critiques of popular books about depression with a diverse range of texts including the writings of early Christian monk John Cassian, Anna Deavere Smith's play Twilight: Los Angeles, Jeffery Smith's memoir Where the Roots Reach for Water, Allyson Mitchell's feminist collages and installations, the critical race theories of Jacqui Alexander's Pedagogies of Crossing, and a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace, among many other texts.
If this sounds like a wide-ranging list, that is because the book is wide-ranging, though it is not scattered because Cvetkovich highlights in detail her rationale and method to explain and connect her ideas and inspirations. Indeed, the book itself is written as if it is a product of an intensive talk-therapy session: constantly evaluating and explaining its motivations, sources, methods, and rationale. Because it highlights process and bibliography so frequently, the result is a deeply self-conscious style that paradoxically makes the book feel genuine. As an example, here is Cvetkovich explaining her use of memoir as a research method:
As enabling as the process of writing it has been, I've had mixed feelings about the decision to publish "The Depression Journals" [memoir], and my uneasiness has taken a number of predictable forms: that the writing in not good enough, that even if the writing process was useful the product need not be published, that telling this story makes me embarrassingly vulnerable, that sharing my experiences (including my ambivalence) constitutes an unseemly flaunting. (74)
In the spirit of Cvetkovich's confessional text, I should admit that I too had reservations about her memoir. So much did I dread it that I read "The Depression Journals" section last—even though it starts on page 29. Academic memoirs hold little interest for me. (Since I live this lonely and sometimes self-absorbed scholastic life, I don't want to read about it too.) But it is Cvetkovich's sincerity that overcame my resistance here as in other parts of the book where her self-conscious method might have felt excessive in another writer's hands.
The style of Depression: A Public Feeling is one more aspect of Cvetkovich's larger argument that because depression is ordinary it demands alternative critical approaches and genres that embrace the vocabularies of everyday life. At the crux of her opposition is the claim that people find medicine helpful because it "relieves them of debilitating forms of responsibility and self-blame" (16). It is here that a critic may want to ask Cvetkovich to be as generous to the possibility of medical treatment as she proposes that her readers be to the alternative approaches she endorses. For many people, medical/pharmaceutical approaches to mitigating depression, which she describes as the medical model and places in opposition to political and social accounts of depression, are an important part of daily survival. Such medical approaches do not by necessity fly in the face of a sociopolitical approach to disability. (See, for example, the post on "mad identity" and medication from the blog "Malingering Normal.") Cvetkovich's own embrace of tongue-in-cheek femininity that is part of her depression archive—which includes public sing-alongs of cheesy Brittney Spears songs, queer melodrama, transgender cabaret, and politically savvy craft projects—evinces her adept use of negotiated reading practices and tenderly ironic comedy. Surely many people's relationship with the medical model is also a product of such a negotiated, ironic, and complex outlook.
Indeed, Cvetkovich admits that she had previously dismissed biological explanations of depression as part of a larger critique of the medical model, but later revisited this position realizing that she may have drawn too bright a line between categories of the social and the biological. This admission leads me to wonder why she would not finesse her assumptions of the medical model as well. After all, in many actual people's lives, the model of depression as a pathology treatable with medicine is more circumspect and partially accepted than the way it is represented, say, in a Cymbalta ad.
In any case, for Cvetkovich, a better way to deal with depression than resorting to chemical help is to feel the depression and work through it by maintaining daily routines—exercising, helping others, flossing her teeth—as well as unleashing inner creative impulses by undertaking projects that "emerge from the ambivalent status of women's culture as the site of both struggle and renewed opportunity for feminist politics" (168). She finds crafting particularly helpful since it is "a way of being in the world that requires not just knowledge but practice, or the 'pedagogy of recognition' that Eve Sedgwick, herself a crafter, describes in relation to Buddhism" (168).
Cvetkovich argues that feminist and queer knitting practices have emerged as a key element in contemporary politics inheriting the position of DIY punk feminism of earlier eras. She positions the knitting store as the early twenty-first century equivalent to the '70s feminist bookstore and the '90s sex-toy store as "a public space for feminist thinking and activity" (171) that reworks domestic Americana to its full kitschy capacity while also creating a space for (I can't write it without cringing) "craftivism." Cvetkovich persuasively examines some fairly impressive examples of political knitting and activist needlepoint including Sheila Pepe's crocheted site-specific installations; Lisa Anne Auerbach's Take this Knitting Machine and Shove It; and the funniest example, Betsy Greer's These are Dangerous Times, which features a cross-stitched rendering of an anthropomorphic old-school round bomb with a lighted fuse as it reads a newspaper with the headlines "These are Dangerous Times." These works demonstrate that the political is not only personal but that it can be ironically personalized in a cross-stitch.
In all these examples and throughout Depression: A Public Feeling, Cvetokovich wants to move depression and the approaches to dealing with it into the public sphere where it can be experienced and addressed communally. Her goal is to contribute to a new critical practice that takes feelings seriously as both a worthwhile subject and a useful method for liberationist politics. This is a deeply significant aspiration, and it's one at which Cvetkovich succeeds.