Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling

Frederic Jamison’s statement that it is impossible to imagine alternatives to capitalism under capitalism hangs behind this book, which seems to assert that responses to adverse events (including capitalism, but also wage theft, disenfranchisement, and its other results) can and should bring about feelings of change, even if they also bring despair. Cvetcovich begins her analysis by asserting that depression is not just negative; it can be used to generate hope and action. Pushing against the melancholy leftism of the 2000-10s, this book, and the Public Feelings project, wants to generate the affect of hope that’s missing from modern politics. In this aim as well as in its title, it seems to participate in the same engagement as scholars like Barbara Rosenwein and Rosemary Garland-Thompson– feelings are sites of social participation and are shaped by those around us.

She defines depression in her introduction as “a way of being stuck” (26). I can’t help but feel this is metaphorizing depression, although maybe that’s my resistance to a pure social model showing. Cvetcovich is clearly part of critical psychiatry, although she spends a lot of time in the “memoir” section of this book noting that she has been helped by medication. Rather than subscribing to the social model, she is mostly reacting against the medical model, while also searching for a new model that can work for her. On the other hand, the affect of stuckness is very relevant to my own explorations of melancholy as a non-productive state, outside of feeling or expression.

Her first analytical chapter is focused on acedia, a medieval emotional category related to sloth, in a Christian context. She’s using it as a model for thinking about depression in a contemporary context (it is not pharmaeceutical and it’s also not agential, but it does leave room for hope).She later describes it as “carelessness”, which I think is closer to a definition I would agree with. She connects acedia, which she defines as always spiritual in nature, to contemporary activists’ feelings about failure and political disappointment (86). In contrast to someone like Rosenwein, who cautiously connects feelings to a history generated by descending communities, this comparison seems more like the general comparison between depression and premodern feelings adjacent to melancholy, which I am still working out how to respond to in my own work. Connecting acedia directly to political malaise doesn’t sit right with me, in the same way that metaphorizing depression doesn’t sit right with me. But at the same time, I do want to acknowledge the importance of making connections between medieval and modern emotional/affective realities.

It becomes clear that she is writing this against Andrew Solomon’s description of acedia as something from the “dark ages” in his book The Noonday Demon. She also brings up Carolyn Dinshaw, whose work “embraces forms of transference and affective connection that link past or present” (87). It is clear that Cvetkovich is not trying to make acedia and depression seem like the same thing, and indeed she says this several times, but she is trying to use acedia mostly as a mirror for contemporary reactions to (and specifically the medical model of) depression– which is in and of itself reinforcing the centering of modernity that Dinshaw discourages against. If I were to compare this work to a medievalist’s, I would think of the spiritual model of disability that has been theorized as a premodern alternative to current models, which I cannot find the creator of– sorry. While I disagree with this as a replacement model, since there is plenty of evidence that the social and medical model of disability can work just fine in a medieval context, it is important as a dimension of medieval emotion, and Cvetcovich rightly points out that acedia has been passed over in favor of Renaissance/Aristotelian melancholy (creative/dispositional melancholy). All these things are true, but positioning acedia as the predominant form of melancholy in the medieval period, and using it chiefly as a point of connection for contemporary emotions, doesn’t work for me. I guess I am just irritated at the use of medieval people as a “pure” status analogous to anti-medication/diagnosis stances today– of course there were not antidepressants in the fourteenth century, but there were treatments across different symptoms and causes and implying otherwise is not accurate.

Nevertheless, this chapter and on the whole this book is an in-depth intervention into a field, the memoir/critical text, that has historically been crowded with medical-first accounts and little critique of medication. If I find myself resistant to Cvetcovich’s approach, I also have to admit that there are parts of it I find compelling, especially her analysis and critique of left melancholy, which lines up with some of Mark Fisher’s work as well as some perspectives from apocalypse studies/ecocriticism– particularly the assertion that “bad feelings” are necessary for political action, not just a liability. Her critique of the history of melancholy as one that follows humanist trajectories as a teleology from ancient to modern while skipping the medieval is one that I also agree with. Finally, this section from her epilogue has stuck with me: “One solution to the challenges writing this book presented for me was to turn doggedly to thinking of my scholarship as creative work whose only importance might be that it mattered to me. Or as Lynda Barry astutely puts it, “We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay” (205).