Reading Summary: Ann Cvetkovich on Affect, Depression, Creativity (II)

Ann Cvetkovich, “The Utopia of Ordinary Habit: Crafting, Creativity, and Spiritual Practice,” in Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012, pp. 154-202.

“…meaning resides in the process itself” (197)

Cvetkovich begins this chapter by describing the work Allyson Mitchell’s art piece, War on Worries. She explains how Mitchell’s work “captur[es] the incommensurability of everyday feelings and what’s going on in the world” (154). That is, Cvetkovich admires Mitchell’s work because it highlights the centrality of ordinary life, especially domestic life, to an understanding of depression. Domesticity is cited a keyword when it comes to thinking about depression, because it challenges “the distinction between private and public spheres” (156). She says the rituals of everyday life, where depression exists, needs to be rethought and understood as a public space, or semipublic sphere; a place where depression can function as such. Drawing on Stewart’s Ordinary Feelings, Cvetkovich seeks to redefine domestic space as “the private life of public culture,” a place where the political is experienced through a complex range of feelings.

Depression is tied to the domestic because it is ordinary, another central concept in her project. Taking Stewart’s description of ordinary affects as “a place of intensities, potentials, and scenes that are not best understood or described as examples of big theoretical categories,” Cvetkovich notes how the DSM-IV’s criteria for diagnosing depressive disorders appears in everyday terms, such as “being slowed down” (157). She says that accounts of depression don’t need new terminologies. Indeed, depression requires new ways of talking about affective states that make them publicly significant through the vocabularies and stories of ordinary life. In her own words, depression floats between inside and outside, it can be a mood, an atmosphere, or a sensibility: “Depression can be everywhere as part of the insidious effects of a culture that says people should be sovereign agents but keeps weighing them down with too much (or too little) to do” (158).

This chapter explores crafting as a model for creative ways of living in a depressive culture and as an ordinary form of spiritual practice that Cvetkovich calls “the utopia of everyday habit.” Her examples, which include the cabaret artists Kiki and Herb, performance artist Leslie Hall, and the lesbian artists, Shelia Pope and Allyson Mitchell, signal new “ways of bringing new knowledge to the table and resisting a general theory of depression… to speak back to a medical theory of depression, to create problems for it, to transform it” (161).  They demonstrate the ordinariness of depression; something that resides in the art of daily living. For example, the performances of Kiki and Herb provide a model of how women’s genres maintain the power to express and transfer the complexity of the everyday.

Locating the intertwined histories of feminism and depression, Cvetkovich identifies how negative feelings that get classified by categories such as depression are better served by modes of sociality than by medication. Here, she invokes two concepts from Lauren Berlant to elaborate this connection. The first is Berlant’s idea of the “juxtapolitical,” which Cvetkovich paraphrases to mean to way that cultures of feeling adequately opt out of conventional politics and instead turn to alternative public cultures, including those based around art and creativity. The second is “slow death,” which slows down the analysis of ordinary life to challenge understandings of sovereignty and agency that presumes a rational subject in control of her desires and to surprise us with accounts of people moving laterally, spacing out, or just keeping up. For Cvetkovich, these concepts allow crafting to foster ways of being in the world in which the body and mind are deeply meshed or holistically connected; a “pedagogy of recognition” (168).

Turning to her archive of crafting, Cvetkovich carefully notes how crafting not only forges a complex set of relations to the historical past, but also provides opportunities to make art that is “usable,” “accessible,” and “reproducible” (171). Furthermore, she suggests that crafting makes a rich terrain for giving rise to new forms of collectively and politics. A particularly striking example of this is the body count mittens made by Lisa Anne Auerbach (see p. 174). Such practices, Cvetkovich maintains, have the potential to transverse public and private spheres with the aim of political transformation, because “its basis in collectivity and its connections to working-class culture has long been part of its social power” (176). Here, crafting’s redefinition of what counts as political embraces sensory interactions, especially feelings, and thus, provides an opportunity for modes of reparative reading. The art of Pope and Mitchell, Cvetkovich says, “…produces a reparative experience of depression by literally engaging the sense in a way the makes things feel different” (177).

Taking Pope’s ongoing series Common Sense, as a prime example, Cvetkovich illustrates how Pope, through the act of making her art accessible to public participation, allows for a collaborative and performative process of making and unmaking. Participants are invited to become crafters and use yarn to knit and crochet their own projects, thereby dismantling the piece over the course of the exhibition. A reparative moment is born when the unravelling or becoming undone is an occasion for making something new: “…the process and rhythm of the work is what matters, and the activity of the people who are simultaneously unmaking and making creates the magic of the commons” (182). Likewise, Mitchell’s large-scale installations, such as Hungry Purse or Menstrual Hut, seeks to challenge political depression by drawing on queer reparative strategies to see “the past as a potential ally and resource” (187). In the Menstrual Hut, Mitchell is able to explore how politics is integrated into how people live their lives through the creation space with upholstered shag rugs and mass media forms. As Cvetkovich notes, “Mitchell seeks to create alternative spaces and built environments in which daily life can be literally felt and sensed differently” (188).

Cvetkovich links these artistic practices together to suggest that crafting is connected to spirituality and sacred ritual. They are rooted in ordinate and daily life: “the extension of “spiritual practice” to encompass knitting or other textile-based crafts is possible because both can involve the reparative and regular motion of the body and its use for activities that can also be time-consuming and boring” (189). Returning to depression, she notes how crafting presents an alternative way to treat depression, which can be a positive experience as well as negative; full of “mixed feelings,” full of optimism and utopia. She insists on ordinary practices that can serve as the basis for the utopian project of building new words in response to depression. Here, see elaborates on a utopia of ordinary habit, as something that “reconceives the rational sovereign subject as a sensory being who crafts a self through process and through porous boundaries between self and other, and between the human and the non-human” (191-2 ). A process that relies on the senses to see what happens, rather than having an answer in the critical sense.

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