Debbie Hu

Slow Mood Movement


Illustration by Claire Bidwell


I spent this past winter being a sad community organizer.

I stared out from bus stops and CTA platforms six days a week, commuting from Hyde Park to Chinatown in the Chicago winter. My office was in a three-story titanium building. Everyone smiled at each other all the time.

“I don't know if I can keep doing a job that's so irrelevant to the fact that I'm depressed,” I joked to my friend Austin a few weeks into the job. It was true: I'd never had to be so efficient while being such an emotional wreck (privilege). I was a recent college graduate. The corporate mode of relating with people, where you communicate so that you can help each other administrate, the logistical mode of relating, was really hard and alienating. Plus I was the organizer, which meant that I was supposed to be a leader—radiant with positivity.

I'm not sure if depressed community organizing is impossible in general (although see TWENTY REASONS by Feel Tank Chicago), but it was impossible under the Organize for America-influenced model of electoral organizing used by my organization. Among other things, the model we used demanded a spectacle of certainty and enthusiasm, through which any exhaustion, depression, or doubt could surface only as a secret or open secret. This makes some sense.

Still, the environment felt so oppressive—the workday bustled briskly forward by the smiling efficiency of three hundred pragmatic employees—that I fantasized about “coming out” to my coworkers as “depressed.” Here's an email I wrote at the time:

i feel like i want to come out to my coworkers and other people as depressed. the idea makes me happier. like right now i am this moody person who is an outsider, but if i came out to them as being depressed it would be more legible to them why. and it would be like, this is a fact about my subjectivity that might be different from your subjectivity. and it's kind of like any coming out, right, like eve sedgwick coming out as a fat person, it's like probably they already can tell that i'm depressed, or at least a little bit, otherwise why do i show up at work and sort of glare and sort of shut myself in my office. but then it could circulate.

but i don't know. it's probably less risky than coming out as a gay person? but still risky. like would they stop trusting me. or would they feel annoyed at me, or sort of not believe in being depressed as a real thing, or sort of feel like i am a sick person and always try to make me feel better. like no, i just want being depressed to be part of who i am, something that i may or may not get over eventually, but something that other people who treat me have to respect and deal with. and maybe it means, like, i want them to ask me questions and check in with me about being depressed. and i want to be able to tell them, like, yeah, it takes me two hours to leave my apartment every morning because all i can do is stare at a point on the floor and listen to jewel. and sometimes it is impossible for me to do my work. but there are ways for me to still do my work, it is just different from someone who isn't depressed or who is less depressed.

This is not a story of how capitalism caused the attrition of my subjectivity, since I was working for a non-profit and doing political work. Except that it kind of is that story, because the model of work we used was profoundly market-based (being more efficient, getting more volunteers, making more contacts, getting more votes, for what? “Power.”). In this environment, what was more difficult than feeling sad was the feeling that sadness had to take on the status of a private extravagance, that there was no room for my sadness while there was work to be done and people to lead. If there was room for my sadness, it would only be to fix it in the name of greater productivity.

II. What's political about moods?

I introduce this anecdote as a practical/personal/political framework for thinking about what's important about the work of writers of sadness such as Rachel Glaser (in case you don't know who she is, I'll introduce her later), Lydia Davis, Tao Lin, and Mary Gaitskill. I'm interested in reading their work as a kind of realism about sadness. I think that these writers and others are trying to do the imaginative work of creating space in the world for people to be lost and feel bad, to create a form that can hold dull feeling and make the dull feeling interesting again.

The political importance of these texts, for me, lies in their generous treatment of emotion. In this political environment of austerity, I read these texts as positing the opposite of emotional austerity, a kind of emotional sumptuousness. In these texts, characters and narrators dive, roll, and stuff themselves with their feelings, creating a buffer zone against moral severity. In other words: after Sienne Ngai, I believe that bad feelings often beget secondary bad feelings:

For the morally degraded and seemingly unjustifiable status of [ugly] feelings tends to produce an unpleasurable feeling about the feeling (a reflexive response taking the form of “I feel ashamed about feeling envious” or “I feel anxious about my enviousness”…)

But the indulgence of these texts allows them to be sparing in their self-reflexivity about feeling. The fidelity with which they move with their moods may, perhaps, account for an austere, minimalist writing style, which does not pass judgment on these shades.

I'm interested in how emotional (not just self-)generosity might be, not an answer, perhaps, but a counterpoint to political calls for economic austerity, and how this might dovetail with the slow mood movement, which is a recent political movement that's trying to reclaim the time to feel our moods out.

In this piece, I do some slow reading. I follow the trail of my associations, leave the text I'm reading behind, and, occasionally, find my way back to it. I rudely bring up new texts and quote from them extensively without much introduction, because sometimes I don't know exactly why they're important. I hope this isn't too frustrating for the reader. I'm asking for time to digress, perhaps partly because hyperlinked schizophrenic interruptions of new content is how the internet has wired my brain to work.

This article comes after Lauren Berlant's paper “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency),” which was the first paper I read that was really curious about the question, “what are people doing when they're not acting in a life-building way?” and does such a wonderful job of folding a story about subjectivity into a larger political story, in its adamant disarticulation of the spaces and pleasures of eating fat with the spectacle of the obese person. In a similar way, I'm trying to use the texts in this piece to feel out the spaces (and pleasures?) of moods that are tangential to those that are conducive to the production and reproduction of life under capital, moods that might not comply with our role as docile efficient pleasure-seeking rational self-interested agents, consumers, and workers.

III. Away from sadness as crisis: Mary Gaitskill and the “Also Good”

In other words, maybe we don't necessarily need to find a way to stop being anxious or sad. My friend Hannah Manshel's B.A. thesis, “This is a story about Mary Gaitskill…,” does some good thinking along these lines. She thinks about wavering and rolling in emotion, forms of movement that aren't about finding ways out of a mood but about finding ways in, ways to blend with rather than antagonize a mood.

It's about having a bad feeling and being able to move into another valence of that feeling to make it feel less bad, allowing for mobility, traveling along the edges and the tangents, wandering into the landscape of [Mary Gaitksill's] Veronica to see what these feelings really do feel like, and to try to find a voice or a genre that's adequate to this amalgamation of literature and theory through feeling.

In the quotes from Veronica that Hannah returns to in this paper, I find much that's forgiving, that's about making space, accepting, or indulging states of being that others might deem stupid, trivial, or ugly. One example is the concept that she derives of “the also good:”

Here is Alison's description of her friend Lilet who works with her as a flower vendor in the seedy part of San Francisco: “She wore thick high heels and she walked proudly, thrusting out not only her breasts, which most girls did, but her stomach and her jaw, too, like they were also good” (33). Alison admires this quality—you could call it shamelessness—in Lilet, who says Alison, “lived like music”, which Alison aspires to do.

What is this kind of good? […] It's a capacious idea of good that incorporates failure and imperfection, for which damages need not be erased. It is, in precisely Gaitskill's terms, an “also good,” a good that makes space for models and sluts and broken girls, that gives them a place to be proud and angry, and even powerful. The also good is a space of possibility that only some people know is worth longing for.

To de-demonize, de-shame our moments of passivity, weakness, shame, stupidity, to see these moods as movement and to move with them. It's not that the less obviously fetishized parts of the female body, the stomach and the jaw, are "failure and imperfection," but that, like small everyday moments of what might be deemed "failure and imperfection," they are there too (thanks to JR Martin for making this point). It's just that people often don't see fit to strut them. But why not? Why not have sad pride for stretches of nothing? Pathetic Pride? It's worth working towards a world in which one can have slow sad moments and really have them and express them to others without the expression having to take up the status of a humorous aside. Without finding one's self dismissed as merely attention-seeking, histrionic, a whiner, a downer, self-obsessed, childish. But like a queen who finds a way to make gayness funny, perhaps the intermediate stage between this world and that one requires writers who can make dullness interesting.

Take, for example, this excerpt from Lydia Davis' The End of the Story:

I called him, letting the telephone ring fifteen times. I hung up and then drove over to his apartment. His car was there outside the building but his lights were off, and I was sure he was not alone. I went up to his apartment and knocked at the door. He opened it for me in the dark and went back to bed. He lay completely still and did not respond when I got into the bed and tried to talk to him. I got out of the bed. I said I was leaving, and he said nothing, unless it was 'Goodbye' or 'Whatever you like.'

At home I lay down on my bed and ate a slice of bread and cheese. I got up and brought another slice of bread and cheese. I got up and brought another slice of bread and cheese back to bed, and then another. While I ate, I read a book of poems by a friend, a book that had come recently in the mail, so that while I was filling my mouth with food, I was also filling my eyes with the printed pages and filling my ears with the sound of my friend's voice, and all this filling, all this feeding into different channels, did at last change my condition, whether it really filled something or simply calmed something.

For the narrator in The End of the Story, feeling translates into drifting. There's something automatic about this description of her movements, something passive about the way she stays in lockstep with the logic of her obsession, as though to describe how she “feels” at each juncture in this narrative would be redundant.

Then she eats and reads to pacify herself, which brings to mind the Gaitskill description of a character, Freddie, who “has the face of someone who, after the beating is done, gets up, says 'Okay,' and keeps trying to find something good to eat or drink or roll in.” As Hannah says, “Alison likes Freddie's diving. She likes that he leaps into the murky shit of the canal regardless, that he faces his own submersion literally head-on, that he takes ownership of it but does not try to conquer it.” Just as Freddie faces the beating without passing judgment on the beater, so Gaitskill's description of him describes without diagnosing, brushes up next to him with a metaphor without making him the subject of a claim about psychological origins.

To return to the Davis quote, “filling your channels” and “pacifying” yourself may look like passive avoidance, but what the text demonstrates is that fixation can be the opposite of stuckness. The character in The End of the Story is moving, and it might not be forward, and it might be spreading. But the movement is such that it respects the intentions embedded in her mood, which might be a different kind of intention from her moral, rational intentions. It makes possible the idea of the “mood swing” not (just) as a vertiginous state with no center, nor as an alien force obstructing your competent, productive, form-bearing self, but as something that can be ridden.

It's important what your psychology is. I like riding, rolling, filling, feeding movement metaphors because they can be escapism one moment and confrontation the next, or even both simultaneously—can we say with certainty whether she's “facing” or “avoiding” her feelings?

IV. Rachel Glaser, Breathing, Bits of Wet Paper

In a lot of celebrated “poetry of the everyday,” I find very little of my everyday. I guess there's the everyday and then there's the everyday. There's the details and the flux and then there's the way those details feel, an affective mapping of the everyday—the everymood?—which might be really different for different people—that only a few writers have ever done for me. David Foster Wallace was maybe the first, and then I lost the thread for a few years, and picked it up again in the work of Lorrie Moore, Tao Lin, Lydia Davis, Mary Gaitskill, Megan Boyle, and, most recently, Rachel Glaser. Rachel Glaser is a writer who is not especially canonized yet though her genealogy can be traced pretty easily into the current young internet person literary scene. She has written a few stories about sad, anxious, lost girlfriends. They are really good. Here are two excerpts to start out with:

From The Chemical Mist:

There were several boyless months. At first she read The New York Times online until she forgot who she was. Her brain became temporarily up-to-date and genderless. Then she just read the headlines, as if reading a New York Times Online poem. Then she just skimmed the headlines as if conjuring the aura of the day's events.

From The Sad Girlfriend:

It can seem that nothing is happening. The clouds do their thing over buildings. The commercials cue up at commercial breaks. A story meanders slowly without any discernible plot. But behind these blinds, a world is breathing breaths on top of breaths already breathed. Brad Pitt is slowly falling out of love, and into new love. Matter into energy, energy into light.

The sad girlfriend paints her nails with polish. She decides to change outfits before the polish has time to dry. It smudges. She does not cry. She wipes the smudged nail on toilet paper and the toilet paper sticks to the smudged nail. So, she uses nail polish remover, which gets her high. Or it doesn't get her high. Or it does get her high. She checks gmail. She checks gmail. She checks gmail.

To paraphrase these last two paragraphs, there's a kind of willing, in these stories, for it to feel like "something's happening" even when it seems like it's not. For slowness, distraction and acedia to be also good. “A world is breathing breaths on top of breaths already breathed” makes me think of an Anna Nalick song and also a Dashboard Confessional song, both of which are about how breathing is a basic thing you can do that performs being okay and makes you okay thereby. In these songs, each slow breath is a panic attack avoided. It also reminds me of “Breathe” by Faith Hill, which is about a zero-degree kind of relationality, breathing together as a kind of basic, effortless affirmation of togetherness (although the music video makes me think that maybe it's about masturbation, which also requires breathing).

But breaths on top of breaths are an accumulation of nothings that nevertheless form a history that can be narrated. The accumulation of sentences in these paragraphs flatten differently sized events (reading the New York Times versus reading the headlines versus skimming the headlines), putting into proximity acts that are more 'responsible' with acts that are less, acts that are more 'natural' with acts that are less, acts that are more 'interesting' with acts that are not, and asking that you consider them as part of a continuous life, trying to do the imaginative work of creating a history out of non-events—like checking Gmail. This is life, too.

Glaser's writing then, is writing that at once gains perspective on/stands above/stands “sovereign” over the thing it's describing and also refuses to tear it down, deciding that it's also good and making this “also good” apparent. Writing here is the performance of a kind of composure that doesn't crowd out or shame discomposure, like the perfect comeback to a stupid put-down.

And what is it about sticking toilet paper? It returns later in The Sad Girlfriend, as the main character rides home on the subway late at night.

In 2000 when everything was going to fuck up and then nothing fucked up at all. The whole next millennium lay open, its ten centuries available, its decades in rows. No one is watching us lay toilet paper on the wet public toilet seats. The babies becoming grandmothers.

Wet toilet paper disintegrates. It is near impossible to get it to be its compliant square flat self after you get it wet. It never absorbs all the water. Bits of it come off in your hands, in the cuts in your face, on your legs. It's not good for much. It leaves a trace where it sits. It lets the wetness through on the toilet seat. It's disposable. Lynda Barry would have you make art with it. This from Hannah's B.A., again:

In Picture This, a sometimes comic sometimes how-to manual on drawing, Lynda Barry writes “Sometimes in life when we are very sad, it is good to make a chicken in winter.” A chicken in winter is an outline of a chicken with cotton balls glued to it. She writes: “please note: There are times when all we can do is ball up paper and glue it down.” She provides a chicken outline to copy, if you can't seem to make your own. Many pieces of what has become this paper began as my chickens in winter: kinds of writing like wadding up cotton and gluing it down.

I didn't mean for that to be an ah-ha moment, except insofar as the slow sad performance of mooding is kind of a proud performance. This is what's hard to understand about it—does it really want the world to view moods differently so that it could be otherwise?

In a recent Jacket 2 interview, an interviewer asks Tao Lin, essentially, why his book of poetry Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is such a sad book, if, according to a lay understanding of cognitive behavioral therapy,

emotions are brought about by thoughts which are brought about by behaviors and it's this cycle of irrational thoughts that lead to depression. So typically, when we're trying to overcome depression we avoid negative thoughts, but it seems like in [your poetry collection] Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, you've done the opposite of that.

TAO LIN: I think I would prefer in my life to not just block out every negative thought but to learn to have the negative thoughts sort of just like pass through me. I'm not sure how that fits into cognitive behavioral therapy.

The fantasy of sad thoughts passing through is like a fantasy of breathing, drifting with one's feelings. Sadness makes questions of scale difficult—it sometimes feels like sadness must either be a catastrophe or else irrelevant. I think the writers here are trying to imagine a life in which sadness has relevance, before it gets to/without having to see it as having crisis proportions.

We're in a softer, more drifty space here, but that doesn't mean that everything's the same! Things are still funny/absurd/frightening/sad. Maybe the difference is that each moment is allowed to stay or go for as long as it takes, rather than trying to stay with the sad moments for less time and to stay with the funny moments for a longer time. It's about trying to have your experience be whole.

The sad girlfriend may die a terrible death of terrorists. There will be no children there to watch with honest eyes. The analyst will be so upset. The sad girlfriend had tried to watch the world news, but the stories lacked the details needed to engage her. Brad Pitt fell for a girl that doesn't wear shoes when she doesn't want to. To have a boyfriend is to play in the privileged center of a story. To be sad is to hang low, matching mind to gravity, to feel the indoors and outdoors so hard it makes your head ring.

This story, like Glaser's other story “Pee on Water,” feels like it could keep turning and include a million other people and events—Brad Pitt, the analysts, the clouds. There's an indifference to these facts, but an indifference that's different from the world news which lacks “the details needed to engage”—every detail in this story is particular and focused. The evenness with which the list turns draws attention to the feeling of being no longer at the center, being decentered, boyfriendlessness. What results is life-as-tangent, being on edge, and the task of the imaginative writer is to make this count as life, too.

V. The Slow Mood Movement

In the previous sections I have forborne telling people “what to do” about sadness or giving a narrative about how it arises. Instead I have tried to elaborate an atmosphere found in certain writers' works. I like the Slow Mood Movement because it wants to make a movement out of the belief that moods take time and that feeling can be more like eating.

I came across the Slow Mood Movement four days ago in Slingshot!, which is a radical newspaper based out of Berkeley. There was an article called “The Rise of the Brain-Self: How Pharmaceutical Companies Hijacked Our Brains” that developed a narrative about how the modern psychopharmaceutical industry tries to reduce us to the functioning of our brains, which can malfunction and which need the support of their drugs. The article tries to think about what we might be giving up when we give up the means of the production of understanding our moods. Towards the end of the article, it introduced the slow mood movement.

The slow mood movement takes its cue, obviously, from the slow food movement, all the way to its subtitle: “resisting the buying and selling of fast moods.” Like the slow food movement, which wishes to take food out of the contexts of industry and efficiency, to reclaim eating as a pleasure, a communal activity, and a slow process, so the slow mood movement wishes to reclaim mooding.

The sad girlfriend had tried to watch the world news, but the stories lacked the details needed to engage her.

I'd like to put these details back into public narratives and political movements, not just in the cheesy news media sense of “personal stories” but in the more complicated sense of what's sad, unproductive, and tangential in our emotional experience.

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