Depression: A Public Feeling by Ann Cvetkovich

Depression is a powerful feeling. As anyone who suffers it understands, depression can suck the vitality out of life thereby reducing your daily experience to the grey blur of redundancy. There is no controversy over living with such a condition- everyone agrees that no one should have to endure meaninglessness. Yet what isn’t agreed upon, however, is the cause of depression and the best way to treat it. Most mainstream accounts fall heavily in the medical arena; anti-depressants such as Prozac are usually the medical solution. Even so, not everyone believes drugs to be the best way to treat depression; some, like Cvetkovich, advocate for alternative methods while asserting that the medical discourse surrounding treatment ignores the historical roots of the illness.

Cvetkovich’s thesis is this: that depression is caused primarily, if not totally, by the oppressive anti-humanist aspects of modern society; that the disparate threads of contemporary capitalism and racist ideology have generated a material and social landscape which stripes people of their identity effectively pushing them into a mental state which generates what is now known as depression and melancholy. While she is by and large against the medical model, it is important to note that she does not discount wholesale the taking of drugs; she mentions how if the drugs work for those who take them than they should continue treating themselves as they have been. Yet she simply wishes to stress that due to the historical roots of depression, it is possible to treat the disease within a more holistic, secular manner.

The author makes her case in an unusual format. While most academic books have a linearly divided mode of argumentation (chapters covering a different aspect of their theory while building an overall case), Cvetkovich eschews such normality and opts instead for what she calls a “critical memoir.” Sometimes called “creative nonfiction”, the concept here is for the author to make an empirical statement utilizing personal experience as part of an anthropological initiative directed towards new modes of understanding and thinking about daily life. For the author this means sharing her experiences with depression in academia, what it is like to have it as a female person with Queer affinities. Her narrative takes the form of “The Depression Journals.” After these interlocking autobiographical pieces she proceeds to what she views as the historical roots of depression; African diaspora makes an entry here as her set-piece backing up the environment bound thesis and its eventual, and equally environmental, end-game.

Though the author’s method of self-medication sounds precariously close to the New Age mumbo jumbo self-help crap, she is quick to discount those methods for what they are: white, middle class garbage consumed by yuppie hipsters. While mimicking some of their language it is clear that Cvetkovich’s position is far from pseudo-theism. For her Spiritualism means fostering healthy medicating habits away from the pills. Habits which nourish the mind while speaking to the individual. Writing, arts and crafts, and expression of cultural, ethnic, and sexual diversity thus carries the day as means to counter the depersonalizing effects of bourgeois civilization.

Throughout the book Cvetkovich remains fair and balanced. And while I maintain that while ultimately her own narrative and admissions defeats her thesis of “anti-drug, pro-action”, she still make some interesting claims about the social roots of depression which warrant attention. Her story is one perspective of a large view on contemporary depression and should be viewed as part of a continuing dialogue on interpersonal relations; on developing new means of social solidarity and political action regarding the treatment of socially generated mental grievances. As someone who is a Queer academic himself, this book was a much needed breath of fresh air from the usual pieces published. And while I do not agree with the entirety of Cvetkovich’s concept, I do find that there is enough worthwhile in her thesis to find it a must read for anyone interested in a different view of the menace ravaging millions of Americans.

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