On Public Feelings

Debbie says:

A couple of months ago, Jessa Crispin at Bookslut was very actively recommending Depression: A Public Feeling by Ann Cvetkovich. I’m not prone to depression and I had never heard the phrase “public feeling,” but Crispin’s comments made me curious, and I picked up the book.


[the] idea that depression can come from feeling activist fatigue or feeling like your work doesn’t matter or feeling out of touch with the larger culture is really resonating right now. That it’s possible to resist the idea that depression is a medical disorder that needs medical attention, and look at the larger forces at work.

Cvetkovich is an academic who has herself suffered from disabling depression. She is also involved with a group called the Public Feelings Project (also “Feel Tank”). “The feel tank is organized around the thought that public spheres are affect worlds at least as much as they are effects of rationality, rationalization, and institutions.” I’ve always been a believer in public feelings, but I didn’t have the simple phrase, or the clear concept that feelings belong in the public sphere.

In finding public forums for everyday feelings, including negative feelings that can seem so debilitating, so far from hopefulness about the future or activism,t he aim is to generate new ways of thinking about agency. The concept of political depression is not, it should be emphasized, meant to be wholly depressing: indeed, Feel Tank has operated with the camp humor one might expect from a group of seasoned queer activists, organizing an International Day of the Politically Depressed, in which participants were invited to show up in their bathrobes to indicate their fatigue with traditional forms of protest … The goal is to depathologize negative feelings so that they can be seen as a possible resource for political action rather than as its antithesis. This is not, however, to suggest that depression is thereby converted into a positive experience; it retains its association with inertia and despair, if not apathy and indefference, but these feelings, moods, and sensibilities become sites of publicity and community formation.

I did not love the book. Most of it is relentlessly academic, except for the long personal depression narrative, which is much more accessible. I can read academic prose; I’ve just designed my life so I don’t have to most of the time. I think Cvetkovich’s topic–and her readers–would have been better served by something that wasn’t quite so academic-jargon-intensive and had more interspersed anecdote.

Putting aside the style and tone, however, Cvetkovich has some hugely important takeaway points.  She is not so much searching for a cure as she is for a place to stand and look at what the condition is–historically, socially, personally–and develop approaches to deal with it based on what she learns. A related concept to “public feelings” is her discussion of “left melancholy,” which is a conception of (some) depressive feelings as a response to a feeling of political futility and the inability to change the world. (This, of course, raises the question of why people who are not politically driven become depressed, but it still resonated with me–as it did with Jessa Crispin.) She also makes the very important leap from sociopolitical aspects of depression to racial/colonial/class aspects.

“What if depression, in the Americas at least, could be traced to histories of colonialism, genocide, slavery, legal exclusion and everyday segregation and isolation that haunt all of our lives …?”

Her 50-page chapter on “Racism and Depression” includes an analysis of two major depression narratives by black women: Lose Your Mother by Sadiya Hartman, and “Pedagogies of the Sacred” in Pedagogies of Crossing by Jacqui Alexander (apparently another weaving of the academic with the personal history). She also looks at two class-intensive depression narratives (Sharon O’Brien’s The Family Silver and Jeffery Smith’s Where the Roots Reach for Water). Her straight-on engagement with race, class, and queer theory is both refreshing and enriching.

Cvetkovich, while not being anti-psych meds, has moved away from them for herself. She seems to be more concerned with the medicalization of depression than the medication of it–making the always useful point that medicalization individualizes depression, and makes it something individuals can address and ideally solve, rather than something that requires a social response.

Her two primary routes to managing depression are both choices that can be intensely personal and still involve the social: engagement with crafting (focusing on crafters/artists Allyson Mitchell and Leslie Hall) and engagement with the spiritual, very widely defined. One of her most reiterated messages is that the responses to depression that seem to work, both privately and publicly, are about habit, daily engagement, and creativity.

She makes a point which has been in my mind for a long time, that “depression” is an oversimplified term for a wide range of emotions/behaviors/reactions: “One of the problems with medical discourses, whether about trauma or depression, is not just that they pathologize but that they homogenize and universalize a nuanced range of feelings.”

I always read the endnotes to nonfiction books, but I rarely find myself interested in most of the bibliographical references. This book, while I found parts of it unsatisfying, made me want to read more about almost everything she talked about. That, plus giving me a context for my own sense of the importance of “public feeling” is more than enough to make me want to send Jessa Crispin a thank-you note.