- Our Common Traumas
We are trained, in academia, not to make ourselves vulnerable. Whether our assertions are conservative or bold, we sound them with authority. The implication of the house style seems to be: my conclusions are unassailable, so you should stay out of the way. But Ann Cvetkovich’s new book, Depression: A Public Feeling, comes across more like an empathic question: how can we best acknowledge and adapt to the feeling that there is so much already getting in the way? Thanks especially to a fifty-four-page memoir section (“The Depression Journals”) that comes immediately after the book’s introduction, Cvetkovich draws us into her own encounters with various obstacles and leaves us with the sense that all the insights she has gained have been unexpected gifts—earned through lots of hard work, but still contingent, provisional, uncertain. If you have ever been a struggling academic, you will relate, and you will feel grateful.
Cvetkovich’s approach comes across as all the more refreshing and disarming in the context of American studies scholarship. A huge body of work insists that modern American culture was founded on a conquering imperialism and an individualistic belief in success, with consumerism providing a convenient dose of therapeutic escape, especially for those not lucky enough to feel successful. Scholars have of course skewered this ethos, sometimes with great wit, but the irony is that the scholarship itself often sounds almost imperial in its sense of superiority. We have found few ways to avoid adopting the mind-sets that are the targets of our critiques. (Perhaps this has something to do with our own dominant discourse of success in the academy?) But Cvetkovich, from the start, seeks to humble herself and to dwell honestly on “the sense that customary forms of political response, including direct action and critical analysis, are [End Page 235] no longer working either to change the world or to make us feel better” (1). The reader is then freed to ponder a compelling paradox: I am convinced that scholarly production does not matter very much, but as I turn these pages I sense my worldview starting to shift, and I am even beginning to feel a little less anxious. Perhaps it is possible, with a sense of humor and an ethic of care, to have faith in what I am doing (that is the only way that my work will get done)—but maybe I also need to consider some new approaches. Maybe the whole enterprise should be more about being open to the different ways to understand culture and history, and less about convincing other scholars of the force of my claims. Maybe my “success” depends on acknowledging my failings, my ignorance, my insecurity, and on a willingness to work continually with my fellow travelers to serve some sort of common good. (And of course there has always been a strong minority group espousing this approach to academic work in the humanities.)
Cvetkovich’s great theme is the possibility of resilient survival within an overwhelming and unjust society, which requires a commitment to utopian visions and to the constant work of rebuilding. Together with other scholars of affect like Kathleen Stewart and Lauren Berlant, Cvetkovich, over the last decade or so, has been making a strong case for seeing trauma in ordinary, everyday life.1 That argument represents a major challenge to trauma studies, which has focused, understandably, on exceptional events like wars or crimes or war crimes. Cvetkovich first pressed her point via queer theory, most compellingly in the opening of An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (2003), which analyzes homophobia partly to unpack “the incommensurability of large-scale events and the ongoing material details of experience.”2 Most scholars working on trauma in this context would probably gravitate toward a study of hate crimes rather than address the day-to-day grinding despair...