What if depression is not an isolated medical condition treatable through diagnosis and drugs, but instead a collective phenomena whose roots lie in social, cultural, and political dislocation? Ann Cvetkovich, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Texas–Austin, unpacks this concept in her “queer academic self-help book,” Depression: A Public Feeling.
Half memoir, half speculative academic essay, Depression grew out of Cvetkovich’s work with the Public Feelings Group, a collective of scholars that opposes a fixed divide between emotions and intellect in both academia and activism. The book begins with Cvetkovich’s own “Depression Journals,” a 6o-page collection of stories about her struggle to ad- dress depression both with medication and ritualistic everyday activity, or what she calls “the sacred everyday.” Cvetkovich’s academic contemporaries, as well as mainstream cultural critics and social justice activists, often scorn memoirs, in particular depression memoirs, as self-involved or narcissistic. But she insists that personal storytelling grants us richer language to discuss feelings of political, racial, and social despair.
In the book’s second section, Cvetkovich traces how depression has historically been framed, from its spiritual connotations in the fourth century to the secular medical status it holds today. She goes on to explore what depression looks like to people who live outside a patriarchal or capitalist model.
“The art of the domestic looks different when it leaves the confines of the normative white middle-class home, [which is] the breeding ground for what gets classified as depression,” writes Cvetkovich.
Black feminist writers Saidiya Hartman and Jacqui Alexander’s examination of despair in the diasporic experience, lesbian craft artists Sheila Pepe and Allyson Mitchell’s reworked ideas of domesticity in a capitalist society, and cabaret artists Kiki and Herb’s satirical modern domestics through cabaret all speak to experiences of depression that are expected to be managed in the privacy of one’s home.
At one end, Depression is a call to expand how we frame and engage with depression, and at the other it’s an internal appeal to academia to accept personal experience as a valid source material for scholarship. By melding the personal and the academic, Cvetkovich is creating an important new forum for how we discuss depression. Yet the awkwardness of the newborn form is apparent, and at times, exhausting. The material is totally fascinating, but the sheer breadth of cultural and historical narrative in the text could fill several books. Depression is an example of its own premise; its very structure illustrates the challenge of integrating personal narratives into a capitalist model that emphasizes scientific knowledge above all.