On death, dying, and depression in academia

At the end of December, as so many queers are to do, I purchased an enamel pin. My mother was at my side in a romance bookstore in Culver City. The pin reads, in large pink letters, ALIVE. I got it as a celebration for making it through the year. I still haven’t pinned it to my denim jacket. I do not yet feel as if I have earned it. 

The irony is not lost on me that a pair of tumors my mother kept from me were making their way across her right kidney – 4 and 5 centimeters each. 

“I didn’t want to stress you out,” she said over the phone to me a few weeks later. “It’s just that now we have a surgery scheduled.”

My mother had cancer and then, suddenly, she didn’t have cancer anymore. The doctors (for whom this is their job) took their special magnifying glasses to x-rays or MRIs or infrared ultraviolet pictures or what-have-you, and decided for sure. And then a couple of other doctors decided for sure. And now she gets wheeled around to a doctor every other week or so to make absolutely, 100% sure. I suppose that’s what it will look like for the rest of her life.

I lay in my sun-kissed white-linened bed in southern California surrounded by books waiting quietly for some urge to do anything other than die, and my mother carefully pencils in a partial nephrectomy. She always uses pencil in her datebook.

“You have to be prepared to erase, Kathryn.”

It feels garish to write on my mother’s condition in the same line as my struggles with an impasse in academia. I can’t help it. As I walked to lecture, I watched my reflection walk to lecture in a mirrored wall and wondered how many academics were kept from publishing to tend to sick families, to process death, to grieve. My job is simple: do not die and produce good work. I cannot say I have been doing particularly well with either. 

The other day on Twitter (and no story which ends up well begins with that) a prominent philosopher made a slight jab -- a small joke, really -- referring to the suicide of a colleague. You know, just one of those topics rife for joking. This move, abhorrent and distasteful, I saw minutes after closing Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling. Her book discusses the depression which kept her paralysed through much of her academic work, interrupted by bursts of manic productivity. It is part memoir, part cultural theory, navigating an affective turn toward sentimentality and feeling in contemporary theory work. “How does capitalism feel?” Cvetkovich asks. How can this focus on “sensation, tactility, and feeling…resist what have sometimes been overly reductive models within Marxist theory for analyzing the mechanisms of social change”?

As I read about Cvetkovich’s struggle with depression, I can’t help but think of Mark Fisher and his own. 

Is there any writer who is not so constantly plagued by the push and pull of productivity and self-flagellation in its absence?

Berardi has argued that the intensity and precariousness of late capitalist work culture leaves people in a state where they are simultaneously exhausted and overstimulated. The brain is exhausted by too much to do. The feminist postcapitalist thinkers J.K. Gibson-Graham resist the mind/body dualism which spurs late capitalism, in turn. They resist the idea that thinking operates somehow in a “register above and separate from untamed bodily sensation.” And yet, of course, we have all experienced the feelings which accompany new knowledge – how the body folds inwards upon hearing devastating news, or tremors of joy when receiving the opposite. 

In a stark example, I remember my own bodily response in the months following the 2016 US general election. In that great fog of depression, I was sick with cold after cold after cold – bedridden in ways I had never before experienced. I kept my partner up nights, coughing and coughing. They, in their impossibly British way, attempted to soothe me with apologies: 

“I’m so sorry you’re coughing.”

“No, I’m so sorry that I’m keeping you up.”

“No, no, I’m sorry you’re not getting any sleep!”

I could write for ages and ages about sleep – how it entices and eludes, how the Silicon Valley tech bubble promises an escape from its weight on productivity. It’s cliched and useless – Ariana Huffington has already made her way to it. I try and only dip my toes into this late capitalist fever for insomnia, de-eroticizing a culture inundated with people always up, always working. This is Berardi, again, who tells us that the art of seduction takes too much time for the contemporary. The mysteries of culture are lost to us, and so we make up that time in the sludge of feeling which we then, of course, guilt ourselves for having. 

I am unable to min-max my output, no matter how many flow charts or bullet journals or time spent meditating. Worse, perhaps, is the overwhelming feeling that the goal centered in my research, abolishing metrics for success outside of the affective, is unobtainable in any feasible way. “No one is going to want to take on these models,” I whine to my advisor. “No one will hire me if I say they should be giving more of their money away, or that they should incentivize post-capitalist forecasting.” I berate myself for writing over-indulgent essays about my academic impasse.

Yesterday I sat in the sun outside the mechanics, waiting to hear how much repairing a broken head gasket will cost me. I called my dad on the phone to check in. “Your mother had a pain-free day yesterday,” he said. I decide that is pretty good, as far as things go.