Escaping Through the Cracks and Crackles: On Cynthia Cruz’s Melancholia of Class

Book cover of 'The Melancholia of Class: A Manifesto for the Working Class'

“When the working-class subject looks
out into the world, she does not see
herself reflected back, she sees only the
middle class mirrored back to her”

Cynthia Cruz, in her new book of social critique, The Melancholia of Class: A Manifesto for the Working Class (Repeater Books 2021), explores the erasure of the working class by the ideological projection of neoliberal culture.  The eight chapters combine personal memoir, social and psychoanalytic critique, as well as the stories of the lives of other working class artists to create a picture of how the working class disappears and what consequences follow.  One of the central questions in this work asks how one may, as an artist, leave one’s working class context to enter and move through the world of the arts without abandoning those origins, while still valuing and including the working class context in one’s own art.

The discussion sets up a narrative arc that describes the individual and social progression of alienation as one attempts to resolve a working class origin against the neoliberal erasure of class perception. This arc includes growing up working class, becoming aware of the construct of middle class lifestyle, education, leisure, and consumer power, and feeling alienated in striving for that lifestyle because one loses identity grounded in the origin of the working class.  As Cruz relates, 

“These overwhelming feelings of alienation and melancholia are, for me, not connected to a specific event.  Rather, they mark the space between the world I now live in, an overwhelmingly middle-class one, and the working-class world I grew up in.  What I lost, haunts, because, as it was happening (as my working-class origins were being lost), I did not experience it.”

In the attempt to achieve middle class success, then, one experiences a sort of disavowal or forgetting of one’s working class origin and culture, occasioned by a class melancholia in which one longs for something lost, but does not remember or realize exactly what it was.

Cruz explores these transformations through personal memoir, in which she herself starts out unaware of being working class, experiences the realization and schism of not being middle class, then works to move from the working class milieu to that of academia.  Alongside personal memoir, Cruz explores the lives and work of working class artists such as the filmmakers Barbara Loden and  Joanna Hogg, the band The Jam, and the musicians Mark Linkhous, Jason Molina, Ian Curtis, and Amy Winehouse.  These artists struggled with the complexities and tensions of being caught between two worlds as artists coming from the working class.  Several of them were fated, in some way, to never completely find a satisfying or comfortable way to exist in their liminal offices; others did not receive the recognition their work merited.  

However, according to Cruz, all of these artists include in their artwork content, words, and images from their working-class daily life that helps to break the spell of the neoliberal, all-encompassing middle class.  By using the stuff of daily life, the artist engages in a kind of negation that preserves through the activation of a dialectical moment.  As Cruz explains, “By lifting and dropping these objects into our work, we are also already automatically dragging in the lost histories of the working class with us.  And by dropping objects from our everyday lives into our work we are, in the process, weaving in our memories”.  In the film The Souvenir, Hogg includes archival images of a working-class neighborhood at the beginning and during the film without providing context for the period of origin.  In Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, the impoverished environment of the streets, the gutter, the survival on hot dogs, the multitude of mundane interactions with others, all weave together to create a unique, narrative collage that disturbs the middle class surface of the city.  Cruz, herself, includes detailed scenes and descriptions from her past that invoke and bring into the present specific and forgotten context:

“I met Melanie when I was a junior.  The first time I saw her she was standing alone on the terrace on the second floor of our high school building.  She had shoulder-length chestnut brown hair cut into a loose bob.  She was tall and thin, with a boyish body, wearing a straight, crimson, wool, knee-length skirt, a fitted black, ribbed turtleneck, and black flats.  I was alone, as always, trying to look busy, trying to make myself invisible, walking the long corridors, trying to waste time until lunch period was over.”

These included objects, textures, and personal markers provide potential access to flashes of unconscious memory—for both audience and creator—that disrupt the smooth, flat sheen of contemporary, capitalist society.

The discussion of these artists helps to develop Cruz’s critique of a society in which those wishing to make art, and who happen to come from the working class, must assimilate to a significant degree of neoliberal social identity.  This assimilation occurs not only in the sense of personal appearance or lifestyle, but also with respect to the audience, place of residence, and physical outcome of the art itself—a process Cruz, herself, points out that she endured.  These same artists, though, provide us with examples of how to focus on and maintain the presence of a working-class reality and representation.  As illustrations, they help to combine the registers of social critique, psychoanalysis, and memoir with discussion of film and music, thus providing concrete examples of Cruz’s analysis.  The artists give way, in part, to an exploration of process, as well.  Mark Linkhous, as Sparklehorse, made songs “that he would then smear over with crackle and noise.” For Cruz, this process of making texture and distortion part of the art provided an important crack in the conventional modalities expected in the product.  As Cruz discusses, “[t]his act of ‘dirtying’ the songs performs a resistance against the slickness of the music world.  At the same time, the songs incorporate ruptures or interruptions, enacting a dialectic,” and this dialectic allows a conduit through which the worlds of the past and future, the working-class and the middle class, might connect within the artist.  

Ultimately, though, Cruz understands many of these artists as individuals who, despite finding a way to create as working-class artists, only found release from melancholia through a death drive that led to suicide or premature death.  These stories become case studies that illuminate the tensions and dynamics with which Cruz sees many people in her situation engage.  But also, along with Cruz’s own life, the inclusion of these artists’ lives throughout the book parallels the inclusion of textures and objects in their own artwork that allow the cracks and crackles to come through and disrupt the audience’s reception, jolting them into involuntary memory and a resistance against the tropes of neoliberal illusions.  The artists Cruz discusses feature in their work the real narratives (instead of the neoliberalized versions) of living in poverty, include the objects, sounds, and textures from the working class context that resist the consumerist sheen of equality and classlessness, and in general look for ways to resist co-option of personal energies by the late capitalist version of success and happiness.  They, and by proxy, Cruz, look for and find ways to escape through the cracks and crackles they make in the neoliberal facade.  Regarding images, Cruz, in discussing the film The Souvenir and its archival images of a past that no longer exists, mentions that “[s]uch images, I believe, can provide a form of rupture—providing an entry to a past the current world would rather us not have access to […] Their work and their existence provide ruptures in an otherwise endless bland stream of homogeneous images.”

This book works with several theoretical lenses as it describes an arc that leads to melancholia.  Jaques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Pierre Bourdieu, Mark Fisher, and Walter Benjamin count among the thinkers that help illuminate the erasure of class.  One lens that strikes me in particular involves Benjamin’s use of mémoire volontaire and mémoire involontaire, ideas that have already been alluded to peripherally in this review.  Voluntary memory might be described as writing or narrative that adheres more closely to conventional, homogenized language (or image, sound, etc.) and excels at communicating data.  It constitutes a kind of communication that the audience does not experience so much as accept as a given. In involuntary memory resides experience: memory that has been locked away or submerged, hidden touchstones that might spark a path into buried depths. As with French novelist Marcel Proust and the madeleine that, upon being eaten, flooded him with childhood memories he could not recall beforehand, including objects and textures in art that have been filtered out by middle class culture provides the audience the possibility of experiencing the artwork itself, opening them to sudden vistas of sense and memory that have been erased or suppressed by contemporary culture.  This confluence of elements in art creates, as Cruz explains, an “intricate web, or what he calls the Textum, […] the prose of what Benjamin describes as the storyteller, one who weaves his own experience into his work and, as a result of this weaving, also drags his community, as well as his community’s history, with him.”  However, in order to create and reach these points, one needs a certain leisure time in order to dissociate and find objects, textures, and moments that access involuntary memory:  

“These time-wasting activities can bring about dissociation, and moments of zoning out such as drawing, writing poetry, walking, or making music or art can bring about instances similar to Proust’s chance encounter with the madeleine.  Without such downtime, one is always in what Benjamin called ‘day-to-day-goal-oriented living,’ which destroys the possibility of mémoire involontaire.”

And, as Cruz points out, “[t]he ability to do nothing is a luxury, and one not intended for the working-class.”  This situation makes it much harder to create a representative body of work, to find and carve out the time to make from the voice of a place that resists the neoliberal consumer dream.  But Cruz makes clear the dire need to claim one’s place in class struggle and to work towards a communal negation that counteracts the assimilation to a culture that attempts to sweep so many under the rug of its system.  As she states, regarding the search to escape a consumer world to find place and time to create:  

“Claiming our place in the class struggle will help clarify the truth of our experience and awaken us to what is actually happening.  This awakening can only result in a choice between attempting to assimilate into the middle-class capitalist culture or to be honest with ourselves, recognizing who we are and where we come from, and align ourselves, instead, with the working class.”

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