Going Nowhere, Slow (book) – review

In Going Nowhere, Slow: The Aesthetics and Politics of Depression Danish scholar Mikkel Krause Frantzen studies the psychopathology of depression as it is represented in four major cultural works of the past 30 years. For Frantzen, depression is not “just” an individual psychopathology – albeit with moral, political, and economic implications – but a fundamental cultural and philosophical problem as well. Depression, he argues, is inextricably linked with the problem of time. More specifically, he views depression as “the pathological feeling that history has come to an end, that the future is closed off, frozen once and for all” (6). And indeed, one major symptom of depression is the feeling that there is no improvement possible, no cure available. Phrases like “it will pass” or “tomorrow will be better” become incomprehensible. One feels stuck in a torturous present that extends into the future indefinitely. Or, as Frantzen says, the future becomes a thing of the past, a fait accompli. Frantzen connects this conception of depression to the situation of Western society in general. American philosopher Frederic Jameson has said that it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than an alternative to capitalism. This perceived impossibility to even imagine a future that is different from the present, that is not merely a continuation of structures already in place, forms the basis of this book. The examination of the fiction of Michel Houellebecq and David Foster Wallace, the installation art of Claire Fontaine and Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia occurs along these two lines: how do they represent the individual, affective dimension of suffering from depression, and how is this linked to a sense of being stuck in time, a loss of future for Western society as a whole? But also: what do these works tell us about a possible solution? Is there a cure for depression, both on the individual and the societal level?

In the four chapters this book comprises, Frantzen offers detailed, rich and original readings of the artworks he examines. When it comes to the fiction of Wallace and Houellebecq, discussed in the first two chapters, he provides a close reading of selected passages from some of their major works: Whatever, Atomised and The Possibility of an Island, and Interviews with Hideous Men and Infinite Jest, respectively. He draws our attention to how depression is represented both in terms of form (grammatical tense, style, narrative perspective) and content. Frantzen shows himself a subtle and sensitive reader, fleshing out what these depressed protagonists actually suffer from, what role their mental suffering plays in these literary works, and how this relates to the problem of futurity. Similarly, in the last two chapters, which concern Claire Fontaine’s installation art and Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia, Frantzen is at his strongest when discussing what, following the subtitle of the book, can be called “the aesthetics of depression.” His descriptions of Claire Fontaine’s installations and Melancholia’s scenes are lively and meticulous, and his arguments for interpreting the individual, affective dimension of depression as a feeling of “being stuck in time,” an impossibility to imagine a future, are compelling and specific for each artwork. In order to substantiate his interpretation of these artworks, Frantzen places them in the broader perspective of the respective artists’ oeuvre, compares his reading to those of other interpreters, and supports it by referring to a host of different philosophers and writers. Among the thinkers discussed are Kierkegaard, Levinas, Husserl, Heidegger, Freud, Jaspers, Latour, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, the aforementioned Jameson, Baudrillard, Mark Fischer, Sarah Ahmed, Deleuze and Guattari – and this list is by no means exhaustive.

Frantzen relies on these philosophers to substantiate not only his conception of the individual dimension of depression as a chronopathology, but also for his analysis of contemporary Western society as haunted by “futurelessness.” This broader, political dimension, however, remains somewhat tentative and speculative. This is due partly to the structure of the book itself. Frantzen warns the reader that there is no linear, progressive argument being made, but that rather the book entails a series of arguments, following “hesitant, lateral and crab-like movements” (17). As a consequence, the force of the arguments varies. For example, the problem of being stuck in time under capitalist neoliberalism is alluring with regard to Claire Fontaine, whose artworks are expressly political and directly engage with the happiness-industry and financial debt (debt being, of course, a quite literal fixation of the future). Yet, Frantzen is less persuasive in his reading of Houellebecq as a “phenomenology of the political economy,” which seems somewhat idiosyncratic. The protagonists of Houellebecq’s works are definitely depressed and stranded, but that the source of their suffering is particularly ideological-economic is a slightly one-sided reading. That being said, the charge of idiosyncrasy is perhaps neither surprising nor particularly problematic, since it is a fine line between originality and idiosyncrasy, and these artworks are examined in order to substantiate a particular Zeitdiagnose, a cultural analysis of our time. Still, we have to wonder to what extent this Zeitdiagnose succeeds. Even if one accepts that an inability to imagine a different future is a defining characteristic of depression, can it be said that we, not as individuals but as a society and as a culture, are depressed? Does it make sense to apply psycho-pathological concepts to a society at all? To this reviewer, Going Nowhere, Slow does not provide a conclusive answer.

Notwithstanding the remarks above, the book fits perfectly in the stable of publisher Zero Books, the independent publishing house co-founded by Capitalist Realism-author Mark Fischer, whose influence is strongly felt in the present work. Going Nowhere, Slow is a compelling read for anyone interested in conceptualization and representations of depression, or the relation between contemporary culture and mental illness more generally. Frantzen’s writing is high-paced, erudite and at times humorous. Despite the subject matter, the author never romanticizes depression or succumbs to pessimism or fatalism. Instead, he uses the artworks discussed to establish a possible way out of the perceived dualism between escapism and maintaining the status quo. Whether it is Wallace’s insistence on empathy, Claire Fontaine’s call for collective action or Von Trier’s depiction of eschatological salvation, Frantzen’s message is that there is hope amidst hopelessness. Deeply critical and sharply written, Going Nowhere, Slow is an inspired and inspiring work.