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Elizabeth Cullingford, Chair CAL 226, Mailcode B5000, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-471-4991

From performance art to critical reviews, people are talking about Professor Ann Cvetkovich’s 'Depression: A Public Feeling'

Posted: June 7, 2013
Production still from The Alphabet of Feeling Bad by Karin Michalski (featuring Ann Cvetkovich)

Production still from The Alphabet of Feeling Bad by Karin Michalski (featuring Ann Cvetkovich)

Professor Ann Cvetkovich’s latest book, Depression: A Public Feeling, published in October by Duke University Press, has sparked a conversation about depression, activism, and queer theory that spans a wide range of media. In the book, Cvetkovich tackles depression in academia through the lens of both personal experience and analysis of a queer cultural archive in order to suggest the ways in which depression can be seen as a widespread social and political phenomenon rather than a medical one.  From performance art to book reviews, public response to the book has ranged from the experimental to the academic, perhaps inspired by the fusion of critical essay and memoir that Cvetkovich structures the book around.

Depression: A Public Feeling was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in the LGBT Studies category and received a one-sentence review in the New York Times.  The book was also interpreted through the medium of performance art as a part of “Otherwise: Queer Scholarship into Song,” an event that sought to bring the ideas of queer scholars to life through a cabaret-style performance.  In a New York Times article about the evening, Jennifer Schuessler describes Dynasty Handbag’s representation of Cvetkovich’s book as “a manic send-up involving a sad medieval nun sent into a vision involving Rachel Maddow and radical craft.”  Although perhaps less colorful than a performance art interpretation, the book has also attracted attention from heavy-hitting scholars.  Distinguished feminist Elaine Showalter reviewed the book as part of a lengthy meditation about modern academic approaches to depression, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Although Showalter is critical of Cvetkovich’s focus on academia as a particular site of depression, she describes the book as a “funny and oddly endearing…academic response to depression that turns it into a field, organizes conferences and protests with special and entertaining dress requirements, recommends cures for writing blocks, and appropriates American anxiety in the interest of getting academic work published.”

Find out more about Cvetkovich’s thoughts on these responses to her work in the Q&A below.

Feeling Public Blanket

Q&A

What prompted you to connect your personal experiences with depression to your theoretical scholarly work?  What was the impetus for this book?

The book came out of collective conversations with Public Feelings research groups, as well as my previous work on trauma.  These projects have been motivated by a desire to explore large-scale social systems through everyday feelings and questions like “how does capitalism feel?”  I was also inspired by “political depression,” the concept developed by Chicago’s Feel Tank to describe feelings of despair about the state of the world and how to change it. And I had been doing more personal writing about my own experiences of depression, one goal of which was to transform the term “depression” so that it could be understood as an ordinary feeling – “feeling bad” or “feeling down” -- rather than a medical diagnosis.  It was quite natural to merge the scholarly writing on depression with the more personal writing because I’ve long been interested in the use of the personal voice in academic work especially as it facilitates feminist and queer approaches to the study of feeling, affect, and emotion.

Showalter's article quotes you describing how "the knitting store has now joined the feminist bookstore of the 1970s and the sex-toy store of the 1990s as a public space for feminist thinking and activity."  Why do you think knitting has become such a site of community for feminists?  Did you become interested in crafting communities by way of your own crafting or by way of the community?  

I’m not myself a regular knitter but I do aspire to return to the pleasure that I got from knitting, crocheting, sewing, and weaving when I was an adolescent and before I got so busy with the craft of reading and writing that I felt I had to leave textiles behind!  For that reason, I am an avid follower of the many permutations of the current crafting craze, and I linked the knitting store to other feminist spaces such as book stores and sex-toy stores in order to suggest the creative uses to which intimate and domestic life can be put.  These different queer and feminist public cultures use everyday activities to generate collectivity, including ones that are too often dismissed as immoral, such sex, or trivial, such as knitting.  As important as reading has been for me and others as a site of liberation and resistance, it can sometimes be a solitary activity as well as one that is more mental than physical, and I like to embrace sex and craft (or bodies and hands) as important ways of bringing people together.

How would you answer Showalter's question: "How does focusing on academic anxiety bring light to the discussion [of depression] in general?"  What role do you want your book to have in public and scholarly discourse about depression?  Do you have a response to her skepticism about academia as a particular "culture of depression"?

I thought Showalter’s response to my book was very interesting, not least because I was pleased to see someone who has been so central to feminist literary studies reading my book!  But it was also ironic to see her call for more politics and less feeling at the end of her review because I have so often made that same critique, including in response to her generation of feminist critics.  Her review exhibits the persistent ambivalence that cultural critics often display towards their own feelings and the privileged spaces they inhabit such as academia and middle-class domesticity; I wanted to take the risk of taking those feelings seriously, even if it makes people uncomfortable or seems self-indulgent.  If the reception of my book thus far, including Showalter’s review, is any indication, people are eager for ways to articulate their everyday feelings, including feelings about the academy that can seem insignificant or like “first world problems,” and to connect them to broader forms of social and critical analysis.  I’m also pleased to see the very personal responses that the book has generated – I’ve had a lot of lovely fan letters, especially from struggling grad students and other scholars.

How did Depression: A Public Feeling come to be a part of "Otherwise: Queer Scholarship into Song"?  What inspired the event?  What were the highlights of the evening?

One of my nearest, dearest, and most inspiring colleagues, Kay Turner, who has a PhD in Folklore (from the University of Texas) and co-founded the ground-breaking lezzie rock band Two Nice Girls with my girlfriend Gretchen Phillips, and thus bridges the worlds of academia and performance, came up with the concept of putting scholarship into song to celebrate a number of new books, including her Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms.  It was a blast to see our words put into songs that make pop refrains from phrases such as “cruising utopia” (an homage to José Muñoz’s book of that name) and “a world in which everyday time is itself experienced as wondrous” (in Gretchen Phillips’ rendition of Carolyn Dinshaw’s How Soon Is Now?).  It was a dream come true to have our scholarly concepts become the stuff of rock anthems.  Or in my case, a performance art piece, since Dynasty Handbag, who was assigned to my book, broke the rules and rather than using my words came up with her own sound and movement collage about nuns in the monastery, jazz improvisation, and knitted utopian spaces!

What are your upcoming projects?  What did you present at "Hidden in Plain Sight"?

While finishing this book, I’ve been working on a cluster of new archive projects that update my Archive of Feelings book. I’ve been visiting LGBTQ archives that are enjoying increased visibility, collaborating with artists who are working with archives, and exploring the queer dimensions of places like UT’s Harry Ransom Center.  I’m also excited by affect theory’s new accounts of vulnerability, sensory experience, and social life, which I’m using to think about what a radical democracy might feel like.

I got to present new work on affect and archives at “Hidden in Plain Sight,” an amazing arts festival in Glasgow organized by Arika, a production company that specializes in sound, dance, and experimental media.  They bring together academics and artists, and I was thrilled to do a workshop on archives and a lecture on public feelings alongside dancer Trajal Harrell, experimental filmmakers Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz, Vogue-ology theorists Robert Sember and Michael Rogerson, and my fellow queer theorist Jack Halberstam.  Because my work is so often inspired by artists, I was honored to be included in collaborative conversation with them.

Links to coverage of Depression: A Public Feeling:

Lambda Literary Awards

Otherwise: Queer Scholarship into Song” 

Queer Theory May Not Have a Beat, but Academicians Can Still Dance to It,” Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times

Our Age of Anxiety,” Elaine Showalter, The Chronicle of Higher Education

You can also keep up with Ann Cvetkovich’s current projects at her website, AnnCvetkovich.com.

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