“After Depression: The Sovereignty of the Senses”
Ann Cvetkovich’s keynote lecture at the Affect and Inquiry Symposium held at the University of Iowa, 3/29/2014
In the third keynote lecture at the Affect and Inquiry Symposium, Ann Cvetkovich addressed the connections between her prior works, specifically Depression: a public feeling,” and her upcoming book on the sovereignty of the senses. Cvetkovich divided her lecture into two parts: mediations on the queer method of working with artists and a turn to her new project, “After Depression: The Sovereignty of the Senses.”
Part I: Mediations on the Queer Method of Working with Artists
In this section, Cvetkovich considers the work of queer artists, such as Allyson Mitchell and Sheila Pepe, as sites of exploration. Cvetkovich opens the lecture with the statement that her discussion of crafting (the final section in Depression: a public feeling) emerged through being in and working with spaces of art and discussing art with her “fellow travelers,” meaning the artists themselves, to engage forms of conviviality and collegiality.
Cvetkovich describes art as having a tension or, more specifically, embodying contradictory feelings of being. Tension, argues Cvetkovich, provides a talisman or a touchstone for her work. To illustrate, Cvetkovich turns to Mitchell’s work “Hungry Purse: The Vagina Dentata in Late Capitalism.” The installment both interests and repulses the viewer in a “cringy, grimy” way. Mitchell’s installation demonstrates the complex relationship between art and capitalism. “Hungry Purse” demands we confront the tension and examine how aesthetics and politics work together. Additionally, Cvetkovich questions, “What are the political stakes of pursuing a career as an artist?”
An Archive of Feelings: A Sequel
Cvetkovich addresses her own work, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, which develops a queer approach to trauma. She discusses her relationship with artist, Tammy Rae Carland, who borrows Cvetkovich’s title for an art installation that uncovers the historical narrative of queer trauma. Cvetkovich uses Carland’s work to illustrate how an object can quire affect solely based on the feelings attached to the object. In addition to Carland’s work, Cvetkovich also considers the work of A.L. Steiner, Ulrike Muller’s “Herstory Inventory” and Allyson Mitchell’s “Girl’s Journey into the Well of Forbidden Knowledge.” Ultimately, these projects illustrate the importance of archival work and affective intensities of lived encounters.
Cvetkovich addresses the relationship between the public and private spheres. She asks, “What happens when we bring the private into the public arena?” To demonstrate, Cvetkovich turns to her relationship with the visual artists. She argues that brining the creative into scholarship allows for social and affective networks that focus on the queer method and document the relationship between different genres.
Discussing her scholarship on Depression, Cvetkovich describes her own bibliographic altar which consists of different stacks of objects for each chapter of the book. These stacks include songs, books, photographs, and various trinkets and objects. Cvetkovich defines her disparate archives as having separate affective feelings. Cvetkovich’s bibliographic altar makes concrete and material what can be inchoate and abstract. She claims that the altars make room “for crazy thoughts to become reality” and labels their physical surfaces as places “to find ideas.”
Transitioning into a discussion of genre, Cvetkovich addresses the different modes of writing in Depression. She posits that what is learned in scholarly, academic spaces can work in tandem with the visual and textual arts. She suggests that, although creative modes of writing may seem experimental, they represent another way of thinking. She calls for the defamiliarization and collapsing of binaries between scholarly writing and creative works. We might, maintains Cvetkovich, embrace crafting as a new way of writing that is attuned to the senses; affect, she states, is a transmutual atmosphere.
Part II: “After Depression: The Sovereignty of the Senses”
Cvetkovich begins the second section of her lecture by discussing crafting as a mode of forging a connection between mind and body. This project, argues Cvetkovich, arose from moments in Depression that needed further articulation; these moments, according to the author, “felt messy.” She particularly points to her description of Lauren Berlant’s concept of “slow death.” Using Berlant as a framework, Cvetkovich wants to understand sovereignty as being learned and experienced over time. By placing sovereignty alongside the senses, Cvetkovich is able to give the term “sovereignty” a queer feeling and orientation. Moreover, this move allows Cvetkovich to rethink what she calls the “good life,” or mediations of happiness. Cvetkovich posits that we don’t always know what happiness is and we can’t always trust our feelings and emotions. To illustrate the concept of “feeling messy,” Cvetkovich speculates that “I now know I should end [the title of my project] with a ‘?’” Taking a cue from Cvetkovich, and reading the title as “After Depression: The Sovereignty of the Senses?” allows readers to connect the messiness of knowledge production to sensory experience of affect studies.
Cvetkovich turns to high theory and queer affect studies to better understand sovereignty. The author claims that theory allows her to “stitch together” disparate bodies and understandings of sovereignty from African diaspora studies, slavery, and ownership; ultimately this “stitching” makes room to grapple with the ongoing depression surrounding the legacy of slavery. Cvetkovich suggests that sovereignty is essential to indigenous studies that raises very real questions of land and land rites. The focus, then, is on the tension between cultural forms of sovereignty (notions of home, attachments to land) and politics.
Queer affect studies opens possibilities for dialogue and cultivates forms of aliveness. For Cvetkovich, it’s a relationship between sensory experience and art. Her interests lie in the environmental installments of queer art and its relation to sovereignty.
To illustrate her project, Cvetkovich turns to Zoe Leonard’s visual project with the camera obscura, a metaphor derived from Marxism to depict the ideology as the world upside down. Leonard’s camera obscura asks its viewers to feel and sense as a mode of knowledge production. The project questions, “How does seeing take place” and invites viewers to consider their positionality in relation to sight.
Cvetkovich asserts that she wants to think about art through an indigenous frame. She concludes by asking, “How do we see land, history, culture and contested spaces?”
This summary and analysis are not meant to be comprehensive but, rather, are the key points I understood and took away from Cvetkovich’s lecture. I hope that these moments (or events) will capture the interest of others who attended the lecture and offer a spring board for conversation. I would like to spend a brief moment touching on my favorite part of the lecture: Cvetkovich’s bibliographic altar.
Cvetkovich’s concept of the bibliographic alter raises many questions about what is present / absent in traditional academia. While this discussion was briefly taken up during the Q&A, I would like to elaborate on it here. A scholarly bibliography accounts for what is read and understood but leaves out (and possibly erases) the affectual responses of its author. In this way, traditional bibliographies are inadequate for documenting emotion. Cvetkovich’s own bibliographic altar coupled with Tammy Rae Carland’s “Archive of Feelings” create space to account for affect in the process of knowledge production. These types of object-oriented archives seem very important, then, in considering our own positionality and lines of sight. They allow us to consider sensory and affectual experiences and, in doing so, embrace multiple perspectives of understanding.
post by Heidi Renée Aijala