Malaise and Methodology
Ann Cvetkovich crafts a radical approach to considering depression
In the epilogue to her new book, Depression: A Public Feeling, Ann Cvetkovich calls on Lynda Barry, whose wonder of a graphic memoir/writers' manual, What It Is, lays down the will-sapping questions that have hamstrung everyone who has ever tried to create something: "Is this good?" and "Does this suck?"
Barry's book includes illustrated versions of those questions – twin demons, one goading grandiose confidence, the other slamming it down – to which Cvetkovich adds a couple of mental self-taunts specific to her project: "This isn't scholarship," and "You're a full professor; you can do what you want!"
Cvetkovich is indeed the (tenured) Ellen C. Garwood Centennial Professor of English and Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, to be exact – so presumably she's not putting her job on the line. Nevertheless, she has taken some huge risks with Depression. Rather than building a traditional academic argument with research and theory, the book combines stylistically distinct and potentially disparate parts that add up to a highly readable, relatable, radical treatise that provides many points of entry and fresh thinking on one of the most overexamined subjects of the past few decades.
Cvetkovich's biggest leap might be starting her book with a chapter called "The Depression Journals," a first-person memoir of her own struggles, in an act of risky vulnerability regardless of any potentially critical academic response. The full critical/scholarly reception will take some time, Cvetkovich explained over the phone by way of Marfa, where she was visiting before the start of the semester, but "initial reactions have been very enthusiastic, especially from students – including someone who said it should be required reading for grad students." (Full disclosure: I'm a former student of Cvetkovich's.)
"I kind of jokingly called the book a queer academic self-help book," she said, "as a way of mocking its very specialized demographic niche – but also because there's a self-help book, and a memoir, for every kind of predicament."
"Then again, I'm not actually treating people, and I don't have the responsibility to make them feel better," she added. "So I'm freed up to write about what I think and/or what works for me, and if other people find it useful, that's great."
Noting that "a ton of artists" – from musician Kathleen Hanna to visual artist Ulrike Müller and writer Eileen Myles – attended her NYU reading and citing her inclusion in KUT's ongoing Views & Brews series, Cvetkovich said that "it looks like there will be interest outside the academy, too."
That possibility is not surprising, given that, while Depression looks at the issue from several perspectives, its ultimate vision of a "utopia of ordinary habit" focuses on beloved bastions of radical feminists and queer communities: twisted lounge act Kiki and Herb, performer and gem-sweater enthusiast Leslie Hall, crochet sculptor Allyson Mitchell, radical crafting, and nontraditional spirituality. In addition, the inclusion of creative and academic figures with even larger pockets of devotees (Barry, Cornel West, David Foster Wallace) is likely to pique even more interest.
"My intention is to show that depression can look many different ways, and that it's going on inside many different kinds of people," Cvetkovich explains. "I want to broaden the ways we think about depression, so that it is not just a medical category and so the experts on depression aren't just doctors – but also humanities scholars, artists, ordinary people."
KUT will host the discussion "Mental Illness and Creativity," with Cvetkovich, Dr. Carrie Barron (The Creativity Cure), psychology teacher KayLynn Fenn, and musician and author Thor Harris (Swans, Shearwater) on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 8pm, at the Cactus Cafe in the Texas Union on the UT campus (2247 Guadalupe). Free; donations accepted at the door. Cvetkovich will also deliver a free lecture entitled "The Secret Life of the Counterarchive: Queer Artists and Their Archives" on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 7pm, at the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302, on the UT campus.