Depression in Regard to Modes of Alertness

Lately, the class has been focused on how people experience culture. Culture affects people differently based on the extent to which an individual lives up to the culturally prescribed prototype. William W. Dressler’s model of cultural consonance targets this effect. This disentrainment to the primary cultural model creates stress and may be lead to depression. But what exactly is depression? In his 2013 article “Give Me Slack: Depression, Alertness, and Laziness,” John Marlovits describes depression as a mode of alertness.   For Marlovits, alertness can be viewed as one of many organizing principles that mediates everyday life. Specifically, depression is a process constituted by many enactments of alertness used to control what Marlovits describes as “affective currents.” These currents are recognized but not necessarily understood or categorized. Like the wind, the currents are felt yet invisible.

Marlovits’ ethnographic work in Seattle (18 months 2003-2004) left him with a sense of how different depressive enactments culminate in different modes of alertness.   Seattle was chosen for its pop culture definition of being a city in response to urban decay, a city more authentic, a city more grounded. Marlovits found that the reality of Seattle was in juxtaposition to this pop culture narrative. As represented by the dilapidated Kalakala art-deco depression-era ferryboat, Seattle as an imagined community was hopeful and nostalgic. The real Seattle could not measure up to this idea of an apocalyptic refuge and the depressive enactments of its inhabitants underscored this contradiction. For an informant named Steve, his response to a life-threatening heart attack was agency panic, meaning that he felt that something was a bit ajar after the incident but that he had the willpower to escape full on depressive symptoms. Marlovits’ coffee consumption, a habit in line with capitalism and the protestant ethic, led to a “pace” of life that was distinctly alert whereas the smoking habit of clients from a mental health clinic promoted more disengagement and “ellipsis in time.” Both coffee consumption and cigarette use are forms of self-medication and ways in which we entrain ourselves to a certain life tempo. Engagement and disengagement are thus everyday habits of alertness and help order time.

Marlovits seeks to tie alertness back to depression with the pop culture persona “Slacker” and the very real persona of Kurt Cobain. Cobain, the lead vocalist for Nirvana, represented alertness that was at once “confused” and “distorted.” His music and stage persona promoted “sensing the present,” which was a strong current in the act of self-harming. Cobain’s “passivity” and “despondency” typified the slacker identity as particularly defined in Richard Linklater’s 1991 film “Slacker.” The slacker’s inattentiveness can just be a way of disengaging to slowly “feel out” the new conditions of life. Why not “go with the flow” and eventually re-engage once the shock has run its course? Slackers are “lazy visionaries.”  Depressive enactments, acts of disengagement, are thus a way of coping with the uncertainties of life.

Rock music concert.
Rock music concert, “slamming bodies.”

I think that Marlovits makes some interesting points, but there is not a strong enough argument linking depression to modes of alertness. My question would be to what degree should depressive enactments be viewed as abnormal? As Marlovits illustrates, everyone has their own habits that promote engagement or disengagement (alertness or inattentiveness) so it seems likely that everyone at some point in their lives utilizes depressive enactments to mediate cultural contradictions or uneasy/unknowable realities.

2 thoughts on “Depression in Regard to Modes of Alertness”

  1. I really enjoyed the chapter on cultural consonance. I tried to use cultural consonance in my research methods for my proposal and this chapter was very helpful. The research mentioned above, by Marlovits, is very interesting and I’d never seen an ethnographic study quite like it before. I thought the “affective currents” was very neat but it seems like even from a participant observer point of view it would be hard to really understand these or categorize them in any way.

  2. I can see the connection between depression and states of alertness. I would also agree that how individuals are judged by their societies vary according to cultural constructs. For example, in American culture high alertness is valued. This can be seen in commercials like five hour energy, red bull, and testosterone supplements. This reflects American culture’s value on productivity. Not all cultures share the same view. I found it interesting that the author brings up the idea of a counterculture providing a platform for the expression of depression and low levels of alertness. All in all it is an interesting take on depressive states.

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