Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Tiny Corporealities: Public Allergies (Depression)

"What would it mean to make thinking easier? 
Or to make its difficulties and impasses more acceptable? 
What is going on when you can't write?"

Depression: A Public Feeling
Ann Cvetkovich

The Tiny Corporealities project is aimed at intense analysis of the body as matter entangled with meaning. Frequent observations will be journaled, tracing how "body," "thought," and "narrative" function as apparatuses by which corporealities emerge. Critical attention will be paid to how particular embodiments are formed and inform their social environment. 

This project arises from an engagement with a seminar 
“Alternative Materialisms led by Prof. David Mitchell at G.W.U.


I stare blankly at the computer screen. Plenty of ideas for my recent research venture are backed-up in my brain, but I can’t get them onto the page. Mainly, I can’t effectively see the screen or the page. With the effort of squinting I force the shifting images in my eyes to line up and stay put for a few seconds. The effect produces a doubled but not a trebled vision. Nonetheless, the effect is nauseating and I still have a pounding headache. Surrendering to the pain, I throw my head back and rub my eyes, trying to relieve the pressure that I feel swelling behind them. It’s not only my ideas that are backed-up, my sinus passages are clogged by a recent wave of allergens. The frozen environment is gone. The Spring thaw has arrived. I am back in DC.

While my work had continued briskly in New England, coming back to Washington signals my return to public academia. Meetings, seminars, and conferences demand an ability to focus, present a relaxed but attentive expression, and to work rapidly between one thing and the next. The drive to be constantly productive in a public sphere leaves little allotted time for allergy attacks. Yet whether it is given or not, my sinuses force me to take time. I will not write anything productive today. Having experienced these attacks for decades, I’ve come to know my limits on such days and how far I can push them. Going to the bathroom, I pop a very expensive allergy pill, wash it down with a glass of water, turn on the air purifier and sit back down at the computer. If analytical writing is beyond me, I’ll just do data entry on one of the websites I manage. These acts of self-care are not merely personal, but a part of the corporate sphere that demands certain ownership of my body. My sinus attacks are not a private matter, but a publically managed allergy.


In Depression: A Public Feeling, Ann Cvetkovich examines how the diagnosis of feelings of incapacitation, such as sinus infection or anxiety, "manages and medicalizes the affects associated with keeping up with corporate culture and the market economy, or with being completely neglected by it" (12). This moves the analysis of disability from individual bodies into the public systems that form and manage our corporealities. In the context of academia in late capitalism, Cvetkovich argues that the demands to be constantly productive make it impossible to ever say "enough." More time, more work, more physical investment are always possible and expected, so that the insistence on time-off to be non-productive become pathologized. To walk away from work is largely justified in the context of impairment: depression, anxiety, allergies, exhaustion.

By shifting the apparent cause from exploitative labor to problems in the body, Capitalism opens up further ways to expunge more capital by offering reparative market-places. Accepting her non-productivity under the diagnosis of depression, Cvetkovich writes about the parade of medical professions she was encouraged to engage. First, she saw a therapist, whose "one contribution was to recommend medication and send me on to a psychiatrist." (49). Then, she went to the psychiatrist who certified her medication. Then, she went to a pharmacist who filled the prescription. In the end, after paying for a barrage of services, she writes, "I had a six-month prescription for Prozac, and I was on my own" (50). Despite the best promises of advertisements, recreational and reparative services can never fully fix the problem of non-productivity because the issue of feeling over-worked are not localizable separate from the market economy. Even if medication, therapy, or vacations do provide enough relief to return to work with a fresh disposition, these personal indulgences are not ultimately the result of free whim but the compulsory measures through which we are encouraged to return our bodies to a work-able state.

What, if anything, might be considered an alternative? To this question Cvetkovich suggests that what we might consider non-productive states (depression, anxiety, exhaustion, allergies) might generate unrecognized forms of creativity. "Defined in relation to notions of blockage or impasse, creativity can be thought of as a form of movement, movement that maneuvers the mind inside or around an impasse, even if that movement sometimes seems backward or like a form of retreat" (21). Articulations of frustration, indulgences in sub-cultures, amateur labors of love, ritual spiritual practices, or time spend with friends and family all generate semi-public, semi-private economies of culture and affect that are not necessarily prescribed for the generation of capital. Nonetheless, each of these acts may have their own political affect: social change, reinventing canons, innovative works, communal development or enlightenment. To exist as a body is to exist as part of a public movement. It is often when we are not moving according to paths set by the market that we create alternative structures of living and living together.


What sort of creative work comes out of my allergy attacks? What happens if I don't reinforce the shame of a non-productive day or simply seek deliverance from medication, but instead "make difficulties and impasses more acceptable?" (19). What if I don't pathologize my tiny corporeality for incapacitating me, but take the inability to see or think straight as an invitation to take a break from my day-to-day work? What else happens and might be allowed to happen if I thought through my sinuses?

For one, I slept. After back to back weekends spent in airports, running to panels, writing, revising, rewriting, revising, and editing, I finally allowed my body to close my blurry eyes, relax my breathing passages, and rest. Sleep is a magical thing. As on a movie set when a director calls "cut," out from the wings a whole crew of players jump into action to repair, renew and replenish worn out parts of the body. Muscles release toxic fluids allowing for release of tension. Serotonin in the brain is refilled and neurotransmitters are reopened allowing us to feel relaxed and happy. Mucus in the nose, throat and sinus passages drain away. In so many ways, allergies which clog my tiny corporealities and knock me on my ass, force me to get the rest that allows my sinuses to function more effectively.

When I wake up and still am unable to write, I find I become a better listener. Calling up my mother, I close my eyes and shut my mouth, opening up my sinuses and opening up my ears to better hear about all that is going while I've been distracted by work. My mother had kept her job through a series of mass layoffs in her business. She is planning a trip to Boston. Her backyard has become the home to a family of birds. By stepping out of my own corporate work, I become a more attentive daughter. But because my mother is such an active kin-keeper, I become a more knowledgable sister and grand-daughter. My sister got offered a promotion. My brother is planning on buying a condo. My grandmother is settling into her assisted living home. So much else is going on while I keep myself focused on my graduate work! By the end of the day, I have not simply recovered but grown. A sinus attack did more than reveal a body managed by capitalism, but brought me back into a whole range of public relations that produce so much more than money.

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