In her recent book Depression: A Public Feeling, Ann Cvetkovich examines the experience of depression through the genre of memoir as well as by the construction of an archive of depression. Her archive includes sources ranging from John Cassian’s discussion of the way monks experience acedia to analyses of depression as the result of racism and colonialism, to suggestions for spiritual practices of transcendence – daily habituated actions of repetition and physical wellbeing – that might contribute to rendering depression manageable if not curable. The book, part of the Public Feelings project, is fascinating for the scholar of religion on multiple levels.
First, in terms of teaching and mentoring, Cvetkovich’s analysis of depression as reflective of real states of affairs in the world, rather than as a (mere) biological fact, speaks to an experience that I, and no doubt many others, have every year. At some point, an activist student (usually but not always female) will either email me or ask for an appointment to talk about struggles she’s been having. These students are usually heavily engaged in struggles for queer causes, in learning about intersectionality, reading critical race theory or Karl Marx for the first time, or discovering feminist theology, and trying to live into such modes of analysis in their personal relationships as well as in their ‘public’ lives as activists, members of churches, future clergy members, or the like. And unsurprisingly – and very familiarly – such students get to a point where they ask questions about how to remain engaged in such struggles when the opposition – personal and structural – feels so overwhelming. What do I do when I’m at a party and one of my friends says something heterosexist? How do I remain committed to the cause to which I’ve devoted my energies when I see so many other causes needing support? I’m worried that I’m alienating my family by the ways in which I’m changing. How ought I to relate to parishioners who think that opening a soup kitchen constitutes the pinnacle of meaningful service to God and neighbor?
I never have answers to such questions, but I try to lead students through an analysis of their own deepest commitments, of where they find that they have to draw a line (I’ll speak up in these circumstances but not others; I’ll see this experience as a teaching opportunity but I won’t engage my family on this topic for the next year, and so on), and in consideration of which practices of self-care will allow them to remain lifetime activists rather than succumbing to the burnout that many of us know so well. Cvetkovich’s approach to depression is enormously helpful in this regard. It serves as validation, as a form of hearing into speech experiences that feel deeply personal and individual – and are – that yet reflect structural inequities, and that have real emotional costs for the persons involved. The next time I have such a conversation with a student, I’m grateful for new modes of analysis that Cvetkovich allows me to employ – and perhaps I’ll suggest reading Cassian!
Second, Cvetkovich’s turn to spirituality and forms of transcendence (paying attention to the ordinary through yoga, meditation, or crafting) as ways of managing depression, and her correlative defensiveness about such a turn, is enormously interesting and telling from the perspective of religious scholarship. Cvetkovich suggests that “spiritual practice” may serve as a “utopia of ordinary habits” (pp. 197-198), but she’s extremely concerned about the associations that such language might evoke in her readers. She takes for granted – and in most cases is probably right – that the spiritual or transcendent carries with it implications of escape from the ordinary, depoliticization, and a refusal of the materially existing world in favor of some bad-faith utopic alternative or privatization. Of course, the relation between immanence and transcendence is one of the dividing lines between Christian (and feminist) theologians working in the field today. Some believe that transcendence must be relativized or abandoned in order to take the presence of the divine in the ordinary seriously. Others suggest that it is just transcendence that permits a recognition of the radical intimacy of God to the world.
Wherever one might stand on such issues, Cvetkovich’s plea for scholarly seriousness around practices of spirituality, however construed, and her analysis of the racial and colonial implications of dismissal of such practices, opens another kind of door for scholars of religion to contribute to vibrant conversations around the nature of the self, the intersubjective and public aspects of ‘emotion’ or feeling (Cvetkovich works in a conversation known as ‘affect theory’), and the potential for religion to serve as a resource (as well as so often a hindrance) in recognizing and living inside a world filled with radical injustice as well as everyday glory.
Finally, since one of the ordinary habits that Cvetkovich examines is crafting, and its recent importance as a feminist practice, Cvetkovich raises important questions about the nature of feminist politics currently, about its limitations, transformations, and possibilities. Crafting as a political and anti-depressive act seems both promising and reflective of just the forms of privatization that others might associate with a category like spirituality. I’d be interested to hear from readers who practice crafting or participate in knitting circles about whether and to what extent such participation serves as a spiritual, political, social, or ‘ordinary habit’ that opens up ways of living into feminist forms of life.
(I wish to acknowledge Larisa Reznik, PhD candidate at the University of Chicago and feminist theologian extraordinaire, for directing my attention to the book in the first place, and for raising a slightly different version of the final question in private communication.)
Linn Marie Tonstad is assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She is currently completing her first book, tentatively titled God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology.