Comics, Corn, and the Queer Phenomenology of Depression
Grounded in analyses of two graphic memoirs, Ellen Forney's Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me and Allie Brosh's "Depression (Parts One & Two)," this article draws from Sara Ahmed's 2006 book, Queer Phenomenology: Objects, Orientations, Others, in order to theorize the "queer phenomenology" of what gets called depression within many Western psychiatric, medical, and cultural discourses. Arguing that queer desires orient the subject away from (hetero)normative objects (or "happy objects," as Ahmed calls them, because they promise a life of happiness), Queer Phenomenology suggests that the subsequent turn toward queer objects produces feelings of dis-orientation in the subject. Noting the similarities between Ahmed's idea of queer disorientations and my own disorienting experiences of depression, this essay posits that depression similarly constitutes a turn away from"happy objects" andtoward objects which, through their newfound prominence in the depressed person's life, may appear as strange or even queer.
queer, phenomenology, depression, comics, Allie Brosh
Dear, dear! How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, that's a great puzzle!—Alice, from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland1
Suddenly finding herself over nine feet tall, Alice is perplexed by how "things" have changed, as if overnight. Seemingly unbothered by the question of why, exactly, this abrupt growth spurt has occurred (that surely can't have been any ordinary cake), Alice shifts her attention to a much more pressing matter: "Who in the world am I?" With the exception of any modifications to my height, which has hovered around a static 5'2" for most of my adult life, I have awoken countless times over the last decade and a half to find myself in a similar position to Alice. My brain foggy, my body heavy and out of sorts, and my ability to carry anything on "just as usual" thwarted, I have tried to put the puzzle of "Who in the world am I?" back together time and again with mixed results. Certainly, waking up to find oneself "changed" somehow is, as Alice notes, a rather "queer" experience. Though the epigraph to this essay recounts Alice's foray into Wonderland, it could just as easily be describing the experience of what various modern Western cultural, medical, and psychiatric discourses call "depression." Although depression sometimes sets in surreptitiously, it also often arrives without any precursors or warning at all. It prevents things from going on "just as usual," and, perhaps most dangerously, it alters one's phenomenological reality by creating new and unfamiliar object-worlds. [End Page 96]
Although queer affect scholars have written extensively on the potential for impossible desires and negative feelings to serve as bases for queer political action, their accounts have focused largely on the "feeling bad" aspects of queerness (for example, how queerness has been culturally constituted by melancholia and "historical injury,"2 or how the social structure of homophobia oppresses and depresses queer subjects).3 In this essay, I consider instead the queerness of bad feelings to ask how the experience of what gets called "depression" might constitute a queering of subject-objects relationships through a turn away from "happy objects," and how that turning away may cause the depressed subject to feel strange, peripheral, "out of line," and "out of place"? In considering these questions, I look to Sara Ahmed's Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, in which Ahmed posits queerness as a changed experience of spatiality and embodiment. Arguing that queer desires orient the subject away from (hetero)normative objects (or "happy objects," as Ahmed refers to them, because they promise a life of happiness), Ahmed suggests that the subsequent turn toward queer objects produces uneasy feelings of reand dis-orientation within the subject. Noting the similarities between Ahmed's idea of queer disorientations and my own disorienting experiences of depression, this essay adapts Ahmed's queer phenomenological lens to argue that depression constitutes a turn toward unusual objects, which, through their newfound prominence in the depressed person's life, can appear as imposing, strange, and even queer (in the word's meaning of "odd from a conventional viewpoint" or "deviating from what is expected").4 In anchoring my analysis in two graphic memoirs, Allie Brosh's two-part "Depression" comic and Ellen Forney's Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me, I hope to show how these authors' turns toward strange or unhappy objects might open up new ways of thinking about both happiness and depression.
In Queer Phenomenology, Ahmed revisits the writings and spatial experiments of twentieth-century phenomenologist Maurice MerleauPonty in order to probe the relationship between objects and (sexual) orientation.5 Suggesting that, "to be oriented is … to be turned toward certain objects," Ahmed subsequently argues for an understanding of queerness as an orientation toward objects (both physical/thingly [i.e. a "same-gender" lover or a The Butchies cassette tape] and abstract [i.e. shame]) that fall "out of line" with what is constructed as "natural" [End Page 97] and "normal" within dominant sociocultural discourses.6 Ahmed goes on to suggest that the question, then, "is not only how queer desire is read as off line, but also how queer desire has been read in order to bring such desire back into line."7 She notes how so-called deviant desires are often subjected to "straightening devices" in order to draw queer subjects away from "bad" objects, or, as Ahmed calls them in her book The Promise of Happiness, objects of "unhappiness," inclusive of anything that challenges cisheteronormativity, reproductive futurism, neoliberal capitalism, white supremacy, or other entwined systems of oppression.8 "Straightening devices," which might include anything from heteronormative relationship scripts to explicit threats of homophobic and transphobic violence, police non-normatively gendered or sexualized bodies and subjects by persuading them to disavow objects of "unhappiness" and to reorient toward objects that are representative of the "good life" (most notably heterosexual marriage and family).
Like queerness, depression can also be understood as a disengagement from or an outright rejection of "the good life" insofar as it constitutes a turn toward objects of "unhappiness" that threaten capitalist productivity and the social imperative to optimism that sustains the flow of that productivity. In Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me, a graphic memoir that recounts author/illustrator Ellen Forney's struggle with bipolar disorder, Forney describes a walk she took once while experiencing a severe depression where she literally veers off-path to avoid happy objects (including a "happy couple," "happy dog-owner," and "happy dog") (Fig. 1). A queer woman herself, Forney's need to avoid the "happy" heterosexual couple (as far as gender can be decoded from each stick-person's hairstyle) in order to avoid causing herself undue pain illustrates Ahmed's assertion that we become alienated when we do not experience pleasure from objects that are supposed to make us happy. Nevertheless, for Forney, following the "half-hidden path" as opposed to the main route leads to an interaction with what Forney deems a very strong, quiet, and maternal tree that ends up providing the scene for, and bearing witness to, the artist's affective catharsis. Though "out of line" with what might be considered normative forms of comfort, the tree leaves a tangible imprint on Forney's body and mood, and provides her with queer connection even as she appears to others as a "crazy woman alone."9 Here, the "bark imprint" that is left on Forney's cheek exemplifies Ahmed's idea that the spaces we inhabit and the objects toward which we are oriented impress upon, shape, and contain our bodies, a concept I will return to in my discussion of the bed and the effects of depression's orientations on the physical, embodied, and psychic self.10 [End Page 98]
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Within medicalized discourses, the turn away from "happy objects" is one of depression's key indicators. Anhedonia, defined as "the loss of interest in things once found pleasurable," is even listed as one of DSM-5's criteria for Major Depressive Disorder.11 If we extend Adrienne Rich's concept of "compulsory heterosexuality"—the idea that heterosexuality is naturalized as the "assumed" or "default" sexual orientation into which we are all born—to all social norms (including but not limited to compulsory cisgender identification, compulsory colonialism, compulsory able-bodiedness, and compulsory optimism), we can partially conceive of depression as any loss of interest in the status quo, the essential structures of which we are expected to find pleasure in.12 This idea is epitomized by the Mad Pride slogan that it is "no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society" and echoed in Ann Cvetkovich's re-working of Raymond Williams to consider how depression might describe the "feeling of structures," including the structures of racism, colonialism, and capitalism.13
Sometimes, however, depression might also result from or describe the experience of being "straightened"; that is, of being reoriented away from queer objects and toward normative "happy" objects. Allie Brosh, author/illustrator of the webcomic Hyperbole and a Half, captures this phenomenon and the despairing affects it produces in the opening panels to her comic "Depression Part Two" (Fig. 2). Using her characteristically crude drawings, with their sketchy linework, stick limbs and handwritten text, Brosh offers an astute metaphor for her experience of falling into a depressive episode. Recounting peculiar feelings of loss, detachment, and ennui that she experienced as she began to outgrow her childhood pleasures, Brosh writes:
I remember being endlessly entertained by the adventures of my toys. Some days they died repeated, violent deaths, other days they traveled to space or discussed my swim lessons and how I absolutely should be allowed in the deep end of the pool, especially since I was such a talented doggy-paddler. / I didn't understand why it was fun for me, it just was. / But as I grew older, it became harder and harder to access that expansive imaginary space that made my toys fun. I remember looking at them and feeling sort of frustrated and confused that things weren't the same. / I played out all the same story lines that had been fun before, but the meaning had disappeared. Horse's Big Space Adventure transformed into holding a plastic horse in the air, hoping it would somehow be enjoyable [End Page 100]
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for me. Prehistoric Crazy-Bus Death Ride was just smashing a toy bus full of dinosaurs into the wall while feeling sort of bored and unfulfilled. I could no longer connect to my toys in a way that allowed me to participate in the experience. / Depression feels almost exactly like that, except about everything.14
Here Brosh recalls finding herself caught in the awkward interstitial space between childhood and adulthood, confounded by her sudden inability to derive pleasure from her toys. As an adult now longing to recapture the once-gleeful relationship she had to play, Brosh positions herself as a "backward-looking" subject. Heather Love considers this backwardness to be "a key feature of queer culture," offering up the example of Camp—"with its tender concern for outmoded elements of popular culture and its refusal to get over childhood pleasures and traumas"—as a "backward art."15 As Jack Halberstam has argued, the queer subject's frequent refusal to follow the teleology of assumed heterosexual life paths position homosexuality as a kind of "arrested development" and immaturity.16 The pathologization of immaturity therefore serves as a kind of "straightening device" that brings subjects back "in line" with "happy" heteronormative institutions of intimacy.17 In connecting this early memory of losing interest in her childhood games to her experience(s) of depression later in life, Brosh offers up an interpretation of depression as a queering of subject-object relation-ships—a shift from what one knows to be true or "normal." My use of queering in this context draws from Eve Sedgwick's evocation of queer's etymological origins meaning twist, as well as from the slang expression "queer the pitch," meaning "to frustrate; to upset arrangements," or to "spoil the business at hand."18 Like queerness's spoiling of heteronormative maturation, depression's frustration or disruption of chrononormativity—what Elizabeth Freeman defines as "the use of time to organize individual human bodies toward maximum productivity"—is also partially responsible for its classification as a pathology.19
But while queerness disorganizes the more abstract objects of heteronormative maturity, depression reorganizes one's perception of literal/physical objects (the stuff of life) such that the world itself appears, as Alice notes, changed. Objects that were once peripheral to the subject's consciousness set up camp in the foreground; for example, at one point in "Depression Part One" Brosh discusses how she spent "months shut in [her] house, surfing the Internet on top of a pile of my own dirty laundry, which [she] set on the couch for 'just a second' because [she] experienced a sudden moment of apathy on [her] way [End Page 102] to the washer and couldn't continue" (Fig. 3).20 Brosh's soiled pile of clothing in this instance becomes central to her field of perception; it "is an effect of towardness; it is the thing toward which [she is] directed and which in being posited as a thing, as being something or another for [her], takes [her] in some directions rather than others."21
Correspondingly, objects that were once deemed worthy of being invested in recede into the background, and with them, the worlds that they create for the subject. As Ahmed writes, "the disappearance of familiar objects might make more than the object disappear."22 When the depressed Brosh literally turns away from the set of pins at the end of a bowling lane, she instead faces questions spurred by existential angst: "For the past three hours, I've been knocking things over with a ball … What's the point? … Does it matter? … Does ANYTHING matter?" (Fig. 4). The disappearance of the pins makes "more than the [pins] disappear"; in other words, Brosh's literal and figurative "turn away" from the game constitutes a dis-investment in the world of meaning that the game once created, causing her connections with others to fade away as well.
More commonly though, a depressive episode involves a turn away from objects that once cohered the fabric and rituals of everyday life, and a turn toward objects that deliver the immediate comforts or refuge necessary for coping. In the example (if not trope) of the depressed person who is unable to get out of bed, the object/site of the bed becomes the central axis around which life itself is organized, while other objects (the telephone, which opens one up to a world of social communications; the toothbrush, which signifies the maintenance of the body; the refrigerator, which stores fresh produce for nourishing meals) recede into the periphery. In Marbles, Forney illustrates the hyper-presence of the bed with a sluggish sequence of images. Here, the recurrent drawing of the bed depicts it as an (undesirable) anchoring object within the author's then-reality (Fig. 5).
Depression's creation of new object-worlds causes not only reorientations, but disorientation. Drawing on James Aho, Ahmed argues that "if … 'every lifeworld is a coherency of things,' then queer moments happen when things fail to cohere."23 Social theorist Harvie Ferguson takes this notion one step further to contend that the non-coherence of things threatens not only the world, but also the "core idea of self-identity in modern western society[, which] might be expressed in the idea that self-identity is the coherence of everyday life."24 Thus, the reorganization of everyday objects and rituals can be a destabilizing experience for selfhood; recall Alice's disoriented cry: "if I'm not the [End Page 103]
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same… Who in the world am I?" Such disruptions can cause new self-identities to form in the wake of depressive episodes, a phenomenon that Forney exemplifies in her statement that, "manic, I knew the 'up' me was the true me ('I'm exponentially me!'); depressed, I knew the 'low' me was the true me (a waste of space)."25
These acute destabilizations of subject-object relations, and consequently of self-identity, can, as Ahmed claims, also produce parallel crises of embodiment; they can "shatter one's sense of confidence in the ground or one's belief that the ground on which we reside can support the actions that make a life feel livable."26 If phenomenal worlds are made up of all and only that which can be subjectively perceived through the senses, then we must also account for how [End Page 105] bodies mediate, receive, and create such worlds ("Orientations shape what bodies do," Ahmed writes.)27
Consider again the example of the bed. The depressed subject's orientation toward the bed demands a particular bodily position (most often horizontal, sometimes staring up at the ceiling blankly, other times buried deep into the mattress) that also brackets a particular field of perception. The newfound primacy of the bed in the depressed person's life demands that they also assume a different bodily orientation, and subsequently, that they come to inhabit spatiality anew. The word "depression" itself also evokes spatial orientation; the affective experience of depression is often described as being in a "low mood"; moreover, one definition of "depression" is "the action of lowering something or pressing something down," while a second is "a sunken place."28 In geometry, "the depression angle" is formed by a line of sight that juts downward, below the observer's horizon, to perceive an object beneath.
Similarly, the (bodily) "horizon" for Ahmed is what designates the very edge of one's perception, circumscribing "what bodies can reach toward by establishing a line beyond which they cannot reach; the horizon marks the edge of what can be reached by the body."29 As previously stated, the various horizons drawn through the relocation or reorientation of the depressed body in space mean that different objects can be "reached"/are "reached" for by depressed people than by others. While these objects sometimes include cigarettes, Kleenex, pills, and old slippers (think Tracey Emin's 1998 installation My Bed), other times they are bizarre in their unexpected mundanity and transformative in their potential to open up new lines of inquiry, ways of thinking, or shapes of life. The latter is perhaps best exemplified near the end of "Depression Part Two," when Brosh recounts an anomalous interaction she had with a single kernel of corn (Figs. 6 and 7). Brosh explains that she encountered this kernel of corn while she was "crying on the kitchen floor for no reason."
As was common practice during bouts of floor-crying, I was staring straight ahead at nothing in particular and feeling sort of weird about myself. Then, through the film of tears and nothingness, I spotted a tiny, shriveled piece of corn under the refrigerator. / I don't claim to know why this happened, but when I saw the piece of corn, something snapped. And then that thing twisted through a few permutations of logic that I don't understand, and produced the most confusing bout of uncontrollable, debilitating laughter that I have ever experienced.30 [End Page 106]
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Brosh's interaction with the peculiar object of the discarded kernel of corn only occurs as a result of her new orientation (lying on the floor, crying, peering into the dark abyss of the refrigerator's underbelly.) Her brain swiftly disregards "the more relevant things it could be thinking about" and instead focuses solely on the corn, momentarily transforming this tiny kernel into the linchpin of her (perceived) reality; as Ahmed writes about the act of concentration, "What is before [End Page 108] you becomes the world. The edges of that world disappear as you zoom in."31
Brosh's encounter with the corn is absurd in the sense that it "has no rational or orderly relationship to human life."32 It occurs outside of normative everyday rhythms and rituals, and it proves dis-orderly in that it shifts attention to the "tiny unimportant piece of corn" and away from other objects or thoughts. In this way, the encounter is emblematic of the notion that depression constitutes a queering of subject-object relationships because, as Ahmed writes, "to make things queer is … to disturb the order of things."33 While this capacity to disturb (the status quo, the "normal," the "natural," the familiar, and/or the everyday) is often the force behind queerness's revolutionary and transformative potentials, disturbance is not always comfortable or pleasant—even for those who ultimately benefit from the changes it spurs. At worst, disturbances can throw subjects into complete and irreparable disarray, but at best, they can open up spaces for unpredictable affects and worlds to transpire.
Unlike her other turns toward the mound of dirty laundry, her bed, the couch, or her Tracey Emin-esque assemblage of laptop/television remote control/numerous empty mugs/cookie crumbs/and potato chips, Brosh's turn toward the kernel of corn does not exacerbate her negative affective state. Rather, fixating on the corn creates an "infinite loop of laughter" that Brosh cannot understand but nevertheless experiences as an unleashing of "every unfelt scrap of happiness from the last nineteen months" as well as the "exact moment where things started to feel slightly less shitty."34 Although Brosh attempts to make sense of why this particular disturbance is a pleasurable (albeit still somewhat unsettling) one, her efforts to do so through (ironic representations of) logic and reason ultimately fail. She imagines telling other people about this moment, trying to make them understand why the first sign of her depression lifting was a tiny yellow kernel, trying to make them find humor in that shriveled, lonely piece of corn, too. Ultimately, though, she knows that the affective response she takes in this experience is a solitary one, and that to try to convince others that floor-corn ("cloorn," as Brosh calls it) might be its own kind of "happy object" is a fruitless pursuit.
If the objects around which we gather become anchoring "orientation devices" for the creation of new phenomenological worlds, [End Page 109] what kinds of worlds might emerge from taking cloorn as a primary orientation device (rather than more normative objects—such as the refrigerator, or the domestic kitchen itself)? What other experiences might we stumble into if we continue to follow paths that lead us away from normative "happy objects" and toward maternal trees? While the orientations toward "absurd" objects represented in Marbles, "Depression Part One," and "Depression Part Two" cannot redeem the disorienting, painful, and despairing experience of depression, they may offer alternative anchoring options to objects from which undesirable worlds often unfold. While these new orientations may not necessarily realign the depressed subject with the objects, rituals, and rhythms through which they construct and maintain a so-called useful version of their "self," the shift in subject-object relations might make space for unpredictable and previously unimaginable emotions and effects. Though we cannot keep the oppressions and difficulties of the "real" world at bay forever, "queering" our perception in order to temporarily inhabit a different reality might offer the reprieve necessary to live another day.35 Perhaps most critically, the experience of being reoriented may remind us that things have and can be different. We haven't always been ten feet tall, and we might not continue to be ten feet tall forever; or as Brosh suggests, "even if everything still seems like hopeless bullshit, maybe it's just pointless bullshit or weird bullshit or possibly not even bullshit."36
Robin Alex McDonald is an Art History instructor at Nipissing University and a SSHRC-funded PhD Candidate in the Cultural Studies Department at Queen's University. As a hybrid scholar-writer-curator, Robin's artistic and academic interests span modern and contemporary art, visual culture studies, queer theory, trans theory, affect and emotion, and madness and disability studies. Robin's published work can be found in TheatreForum, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, n.paradoxa, nomorepotlucks, Spiffy Moves, Guts Canadian Feminist Magazine (with Elly Clarke, Amanda Turner-Pohan, and Michelle Ty), the Graduate Journal for Social Sciences (with Dan Vena), and the edited anthology Plant Horror: Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal (with Dan Vena).
3. See, for example, Heather Love, Feeling Backward; Sara Ahmed's chapter "Unhappy Queers" in The Promise of Happiness; and David Halperin and Valerie Traub's co-edited volume Gay Shame.
13. The slogan was originally credited to Jiddu Krishnamurti, but the phrase has since been taken up within Mad Pride discourses (for one example, see Seth Farber's discussion of Erich Fromm's The Sane Society in The Spiritual Gift of Madness). Cvetkovich cites Raymond Williams's "Structures of Feeling" in Depression, 13.
17. I borrow the term "institutions of intimacy" from Lauren Berlant, who uses the term in the title of her essay "Feminism and the Institutions of Intimacy" as well as in "Sex in Public," which she co-wrote with Michael Warner (553).
20. Figure 3 is taken from Brosh's blog, where "Depression Part One" first appeared under the name "Adventures in Depression."
35. This notion is at the core of "mindfulness" practices which, although largely appropriative when instructed by (white/non-Buddhist) psychological practitioners in the West, aim to re-direct focus away from negative thoughts or emotions by redirecting it to immersive feelings, smells, sights, tastes, and sounds in the present.