Ann Cvetkovich: Depression as an intimate, cultural and political phenomenon

Karin Michalski, The Alphabet of Feeling Bad, Performance: Ann Cvetkovich, Filmstill, 2012, HD, 13 min Karin Michalski, The Alphabet of Feeling Bad, Performance: Ann Cvetkovich, Filmstill, 2012, HD, 13 min

Ann Cvetkovich's work, starting from her first book on Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism (1992), has been highly influential in the understanding of the complex modes of entanglement of affect and politics, and the multiple ways in which affect can work to sustain, stabilise or resist hegemonic forms of power.

Exposing what cannot be rendered visible with the suffering male body in the “hidden abode of production” in Marxian analysis, affect in Cvetkovich’s work contests the dominant hierarchies of suffering and pain, and makes us think feelings as multiple forms in which subjects experience capitalism and skin-feel structural and sustained forms of misogyny, homophobia, racism and other forms of inequalities and violence.

Her work has tackled non-normative public cultures (counterpublics) organised around experiences of trauma inflicted and suffered in insidious, but everyday emotional distress and rhythm, publics that engage and transfigure, without denying, the traumatic experiences that cannot be recognized nor be dealt with within the hegemonic extraordinary, privatized, pathologizing and medicalized models of understanding trauma.

The "archives of feelings" gathered and explored by Cvetkovich in her work demonstrate in persuasive way how different forms of love, rage, depression, grief, shame, intimacy can provide basis for new queer cultures and world-building projects, and offer directions for different understandings of what politics and political resistance is or might be. This work also challenges the dominant modes in which our understanding of what an archive is, and what constitutes the legitimate and recognizable material of national archives, opening venues for unusual and ephemeral archival practices and spaces.

Combining personal memoire and journal of her experience of depression, blockage, being stuck, anxiety and political hopelessness, with critical essay that contest medical models of understanding and treating depression, Cvetkovich in her latest book Depression: A Public Feeling writes about depression as a cultural and political phenomenon that underlies our lived experience of neoliberal capitalism.

With a genealogical and historical analysis, Cvetkovich explodes the allegedly universal and transhistorical understanding of depression within the psychiatric and pharmaceutical discourses, and offers accounts of non-convential archives of feeling bad and despair, including the Christian acedia, cultural texts connected to the histories and legacies of slavery and colonialism, and utopian visions and spaces residing in lesbian feminist practices of writing, crafting and other everyday habits and practices. With “Depression”, Cvetkovich prompts us to reconsider the centrality of somatic, felt, affective and sensory experience in political activism and social transformation.

IPAK.Centar and BEFEM Festival in Belgrade organized a public talk and discussion with Professor Cvetkovich. Titled as After Depression: The Sovereignty of the Senses, the informal talk offered reflections on her latest book Depression: A Public Feeling (Duke 2012).

The talk started with the question: If feeling bad constitutes the lived experience of neoliberal capitalism, how are we to live? By way of response to that question, Cvetkovich discussed how her work on affect has been informed by art practices that have inspired a new project that aims to articulate notions of sovereignty, democracy, and freedom in affective and sensory terms. A full recording of the lecture is at the end of the article.

Slavcho Dimitrov: Professor Cvetkovich, I would start this interview with a very basic and general question. Namely, why are affects and feelings taking such an important place in your thinking, especially in their complex entanglements with politics? How can affects influence our thinking of politics, political oppression, political resistance, political mobilization, and in the final instance, what do we understand to be politics? How do these notions, but also, how do these lived experiences of feelings and affective intensities help us reimagine and rethink politics?

I am asking you this question especially by taking into consideration that this region has the ex- socialist and left-wing oriented past, while at this present moment we are living in a completely different political reality. Hence, we would like to see how can the affects – politics nexus help us think our times, in this specific context?

Ann Cvetkovich: It's a big question, since, essentially, it describes the research agenda for my entire career, and across a number of different projects, including, of course, each of the books I’ve written, but also a number of smaller projects as well. Let me name a few important influences. The first is feminism: the mantra of 70s feminism - the personal is political - has always fascinated me, including critiques of the concept. As a graduate student in the 80s I drawn to questions about whether the expression of feelings could be a force for a liberatory politics, or, to put it in theoretical shorthand, I was working between feminism and Foucault.

Another key influence was trauma studies, which was circulating in theoretical contexts by the 1990s in the US academy in response not only to Holocaust cultures but also to cultures of public memory around histories of slavery and their relation to ongoing racisms. I became particularly interested in the intersection of trauma and testimony, and in how testimony, as the public expression of felt experience, could do social justice work. Once again, I brought critical questions to the public circulation of testimony so as not to assume any kind of automatic liberatory power for it in response to historical and political violence.

A third influence on my public feelings work was AIDS activism and queer theory, which addressed the politics of affect and feeling in response to the impact of loss and death on intimate life, friendship, and sexuality. For example, how do we negotiate pleasure in the context of danger, and how do we develop practices of safer sex that entail different negotiations of intimacy in ordinary and everyday life? I was interested in the affective life of political mobilization and the need to think about the feelings that activists experience, whether it be the exhilaration of protest, or the disappointments of failure, setbacks, or internal conflict within political movements. My experience of AIDS activism also led me to think about other social movements, such as feminism, decolonisation, and transitions from one social and political order to another. This has proven to be a complex and multifaceted project that enables ongoing dialogue and exchange with others. It certainly piques my curiosity when talking to people in the Balkans or former Yugoslavia, because there’s a particular urgency here about how politics works itself out across generations, and what the affective experience of that might be.

Related to this first question, you do seem to be navigating through very risky and ambivalent terrains, working with cultural material which is impregnated with ambiguities, and has been very often dismissed politically. For example, in your first book Mixed Feelings, you've been very careful, which makes your argument particularly strong, by not letting yourself be naïve about any straightforward meaning or function affects and feelings can have in relation to politics. In working, for example, with Victorian sensational novels. I am saying this in particular considering a longer Western tradition in which feelings have been treated.

As you've claimed in your book, affect can, one the one hand, be a locus for resistance and revisiting the ways in which power structures operate and are being inscribed in bodily and emotional experiences in everyday life. But, on the other hand, the naiveté in considering affect as natural, self-expressive, transparent, or even repressed as something to be natural, as a thinking of affect that has pervaded the political debates, has been unequivocally contested in your writing. So can you elaborate on how you see and why you emphasize this ambivalence, without dismissing each of the sides and possibilities that lay here?

Well, it's no accident that my first book was called Mixed Feelings, a term meant to describe the tensions between feminism and mass culture, but also applicable to conflicts between Marxism and feminism, between Marxism and psychoanalysis, and between the psychic/affective/personal and the social/political. I’m glad you are bringing up that earlier work because it is another way of explaining how my allegiance to or training in a certain kind of feminism has informed my broader interests in the politics of feeling, including the complexity of ambivalence as an experiential and political category.

Your question alludes to a history of the politics of feeling that emerges from women's culture in the 18th and the 19th century. That’s where my work began – with the Victorian sensation novel – and I was influenced by feminist scholarship on women’s popular genres more generally, including a body of work on Hollywood cinema that linked melodrama in film to melodrama in 19th century theatre and fiction.

I also found very useful work in American studies on sentimental and domestic fiction, which were seen as inferior aesthetically and suspect politically – that women's feelings were being whipped up into a frenzy by the culture industry, that there were political and cultural dangers to popular forms that put people into an agitated state. It's very useful to have a historical perspective on popular genres that continue to be alive even now in the 21st century. I think there's still much to be learned from work on the politics of sensation and sentimentality that can be helpful for critical analysis of the forms of liberal sentimentality that can be present in discourses of human rights, archives of testimony, and practices of oral history that seek out subaltern or minority voices. Although I'm sympathetic to efforts to document memory and affective experience, the politics of sentimentality can be used to contain dissent and to produce well-intended but problematic representations of suffering people who deserve our sympathy. Understanding the history of affective genres has been very useful for looking at contemporary efforts to produce affectively charged representation in the interest of cultural justice.

My interest in ambivalence or mixed feelings also comes out of conflicts within feminism around feelings of pleasure, including sexuality, and feelings of danger, vulnerability, or victimization. The 1980s ‘sex wars’ in the US, i.e., disputes within feminism about the politics of sexuality, including arguments over pornography, SM, and butch femme, had a big impact on me. Watching people whom one might expect to be united around similar political goals having very serious disagreements with one another has piqued my curiosity about the vehemence of political conflict around affective or intimate desires. It's been useful for me to explore ambivalence as it pertains not only to individual experiences but to collective ones as well.

What has also been particularly interesting in your different research projects are the archives that you're dwelling in. As you've called them in Archive of Feelings, these fragmented, ephemeral archives do not comply to the traditional notion of how archives are understood and what is considered to be a legitimate archive, especially in terms of how archives are being inserted into national cultural heritage and how are they co-opted in the creation of national narratives.

So, why have archives been so important in your thinking, in particular for thinking these complex relations between politics and affects? What have you learned from archives, what potentials have you seen in various archives, and what has been so thought-provoking for you in this non-standard, non-conventional, non-normative, non-unified archives?

It's something that I came to quite accidentally, but it has subsequently expanded as a key category for me. In relation to the work on trauma and testimony that I mentioned earlier, the effort to document traumatic experience entailed the production of new and different kinds of archives, including the process of gathering them and the creation of repositories for them. For documentary projects that emerge from traumatic experience, are people really able to talk about their experiences? What happens to affective experiences – can they be put to language? One important strand of trauma theory suggests that trauma is unrepresentable, in which case the construction of an archive may be at some level impossible.

These questions of method also have very practical dimensions. The archives of people's everyday lives can be ephemeral and affective experience does always take the form of language or story but has more to do with collective experiences, moods and atmospheres, and the life of the body, which is particularly relevant for those of us who are interested in documenting subcultural life or minoritarian experiences. I've learned a lot from anthropological critiques of ethnography about the challenges to archival practice. What methods can we invent in order to create archives of affective life but also what are the ways in which it always exceeds our grasp or requires us to create a flexible scholarly and research practice.

My next question is set by taking into consideration the general context within which affect theory throughout different disciplines is taking place and has been developing in the last decade or two, especially in these last years, intensely as never before. We have a whole lineage of philosophies and cultural theories that adhere to a Spinozian and Deleuzian legacies, including feminist thinkers, like Rosi Braidotti who has insisted much more on the life-affirming and joyous affects. Yet, you seem to be much more aligned to another thread of queer and feminist affect theories, including the theories and concepts on ‘backward feelings’ (Love), ugly feelings (Ngai), the feminist killjoys, the unhappy queers and melancholic migrants in the work of Sara Ahmed. Or to put it in a nutshell, a line of feminist and queer thinking that wants, the insists on dwelling on those broken places, experiences and worlds, that have been embodied by different socially and historically oppressed groups.

So, why, for example in Archive of Feelings, you deal with trauma, you dare to go into places such as early childhood rape experiences and how those experiences have been dealt with in queer, feminist or lesbian punk cultures? You dare talk about trauma, although putting it into completely different context. Unlike the extraordinary, spectacular, big shock shell trauma narratives and war experiences etc., you focus on trauma as it is experienced in the insidious, everyday sites of life. And then, in your latest book, you stick to depression, you want to talk about depression, stay on that place and think it over from multiple perspectives.

To put it briefly, my question is why talk about these backward feelings, these broken experiences, these personally and collectively devastating affects that, within the contemporary heroic and pride political narratives, seem to be put in the background? What potential do you see in thinking and analyzing them, what routes for political struggle and critique do they open?

There seems to be two parts of your question. The first has to do with the different theoretical resources that have been useful for exploring affect, and to what extent, for example, the Deleuzian strain is central. In my own work, for example, the Deleuzian lineage has not necessarily been the most important one in part because I want to draw from multiple sources and put my theoretical training in dialogue with work by artists, as well as putting poststructuralist theory in dialogue with critical race theory that remains attuned to the specificity of racialized experience within the US.

I take another version of your question to be about whether an emphasis on positive or negative affect can be traced to particular theoretical predilections. I am hesitant to be categorized as falling into one category or the other because it has been very important to me to see it not as either/or, not as positive or negative. Even as I have focused on trauma or depression (and hence negative affect), I’ve also wanted to think about modes of survival and creative practices around experiences of loss, suffering, and pain. In fact, some people have found my work on trauma to be quite joyful.

And I have a shared affiliation with people working on the utopian in queer studies, such as José Muñoz, Jill Dolan i Jack Halberstam (kao i Avery Gordon). It's never been either/or for me -- the turn to the negative or to feeling backward (in Heather Love), or the refusal to be happy (in Sara Ahmed) has never seemed to me to preclude the focus on more positive affects. It’s been a way to get to them by depathologizing the negative, by refusing to dismiss it, and instead pausing to look at how it might be available as a resource. And I think some of that comes out of an interest in the complexity of everyday experience and affective life.

I think people are complicated, and the ways they live their lives are complicated and cannot be predicted in theoretical terms, hence my interest in practices of archiving subjectivity, such as oral history and memoir, that could seem to be naïve, and yet also can be practiced with a good deal of sophistication. We should suspend our expectation that people must represent themselves in palatable ways, which is sometimes the case with identity politics. I always want things to be messier, and the turn to the negative isn’t always in the interest of negativity, but instead manifests a curiosity about the myriad and unpredictable ways in which people live their lives.

Related to this question, how does the work on these affective experiences actually mediate a rout that leads you to the concrete material effects of abstract social systems? In a way, I think it is related to your critique of classical Marxian analysis, although you align yourself with Marxian heritage and his critique of capitalism and workers’ sufferings. Does dwelling on depression, for example, help you to undo, to uproot and unlock the concrete material effects of abstract analysis of social systems like capitalism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc.

My interest in the politics of affect comes out of a Marxist framework that gives us the challenge of mediating between the evidence of felt experience and a systemic explanation for those experiences. Some versions of Marxist theory have tended to privilege the systemic analysis over the lived experience, to subsume the evidence of lived experience to a larger analysis. I'm interested in moving more slowly because the turn to the systemic can lead to reductive accounts at the level of lived experience. So it's been useful for me to develop better tools for documenting the complexity of lived experience and also to move with some caution to a systemic analysis of capitalism as what’s wrong with us. But I want both -- I want to be able to take the evidence of experience and use it as a way into a broader analysis of what’s going on but with a flexible set of tools for being able to make those kinds of larger claims.

This has led me to alternative forms of documentation and experimental forms of writing that carry with them theoretical frameworks without always announcing them as such. It’s important to do the work of documentation with a finer tuned sense of the many different kinds of information that might be relevant to the project of narrating how we’re living now, what the problems are, and what is to be done about them.

Can you tell us something on what your forthcoming work is about, considering that in your Belgrade talk you've been also tackling your new research on Sovereignty and the sovereignty of senses? Where do your initial questions lead you to?

I want to try to suspend certain theoretical categories and tools in order to be able to look more closely at the lived experience or sense of sovereignty, or radical democracy, or freedom. I am still at a very preliminary stage because I am trying to read across different bodies of theory in order to acknowledge political understandings of sovereignty, but also put them in dialogue with what sovereignty might look like if it is understood in sensory terms. I'm interested, for example, in how Lauren Berlant uses the category of non-sovereignty to talk about the ways in which we experience the world from a state of decomposition or awkwardness or discomfort, or again, ambivalence or mixed feelings. These are states of feeling that don’t easily fit conventional models of sovereignty as the experience of rational self-control.

I'm also interested in sovereignty as it is being used in indigenous politics and epistemology. In the North American context, conventional notions of sovereignty from political theory acquire a different spin in the context of indigenous claims to land. There are multiple ways in which the key word sovereignty is useful for thinking about questions of lived experience and the turn to the senses that affect theory as well as the materialist turn has inspired. In trying to think at the crosswords of affect and the senses, I continue to find the term feeling useful as a way of moving back and forth between sensory experience and more social and political approaches to materiality. The new project is an umbrella for continuing to explore what it means to live inside the body as a sensory being and to think collective and political experience from that vantage point. There has been a lot of new and interesting work along these lines within the past decade, and I want to be part of those conversations.

Just for the end: How did you feel the affective atmospheres around here, in ex-Yugoslav spaces, and what did you learn from the exchanges you had here? What do you find to be for you interesting aspects or problems that could be analysed and looked at through the perspectives of affects and politics?

It's a big question, so I’ll give just a couple of quick answers. Travelling and meeting people here and in other parts of the Balkans has been valuable for thinking about political feelings. My first response is a kind of epistemological uncertainty because I find inadequate the available histories and conventional narratives about the disintegration and creation of nations. Because there are so many problematic narratives, it puts additional pressure on the felt experience of being here and encountering people as a source for alternative kinds of information. Yet, I am also aware of the limits of doing that, especially if people are reluctant to talk or to serve as native informants. So I have to sift through my feelings and observations to see what they yield! I also feel a humble appreciation for being in a place where I can sense that tremendous changes have taken place in a very short period of time in a way that is different from my home context. I find myself thinking anew about nationalism and about alternatives to nationalism.

I have also found it interesting to bring the category of political depression to this part of the world, and to ask what forms of hope, hopelessness, blocked potential, failure, and impossibility people might be feeling here. How can we use these forms of ambivalence as a way to move forward? And move forward, not in the big sense of what the nation should be, but more in terms of daily forms of survival, which look to be quite challenging based on my experience of being here and talking to people on the ground. I have been trying to listen for the experience of the political in this part of the world, and it has been very moving and transformative for me.


Ann Cvetkovich is Ellen Clayton Garwood Centennial Professor of English and Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Texas in Austin. She is the author of Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism (Rutgers, 1992); An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (Duke, 2003); and Depression: A Public Feelings (Duke, 2012). She co-edited (with Ann Pellegrini) “Public Sentiments,” a special issue of The Scholar and Feminist Online, and (with Janet Staiger and Ann Reynolds) Political Emotions (Routledge, 2010). She has been coeditor, with Annamarie Jagose, of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Her current writing projects focus on the current state of LGBTQ archives and the creative use of them by artists to create counterarchives and interventions in public history. In 2014-15, she will be a Fellow at Cornell University's Society for the Humanities, where the annual theme is Sensation.

Slavcho Dimitrov is a cultural and queer theorists and researcher, based in Skopje and Belgrade. He holds an MPhil in Gender Studies and Philosophy, both from Euro-Balkan Institute, Skopje and Cambridge University, UK. He’s been actively engaged and queer and feminist activism in Macedonia in the past decade. He is one of the founders of IPAK.Centar, Belgrade and the Summer School for Sexualities, Cultures and Politics (Skopje,Belgarde). He has published many texts and researches on gender, sexuality, culture and political philosophy. His book Impossible Confessions: Subjectivity, Ethics and Politics was just published in the end of 2014. His edited book The Art of Failure: Affective Aliens was also published in 2014, as part of the same titled art project he curated in 2014 in Skopje.

Photo credit: IPAK.Centar

Zadnja izmjena: 22-04-2015 @ 11:49