A Clamor in My Kindergarten Heart:
Class, Academia, and Anxious Times

Sara Appel


How does anxiety express itself, in ways that should be more often discussed and better understood, for academics from working-class and poverty backgrounds? And how might such anxiety be related to the "generalized" anxiety disorder reverberating through both the U.S. and the greater global west, where resources of abundance are withheld to enforce market-based social control? Weaving together scenes from the author's personal history with critical analysis of the politicized roots of anxiety and similar affective states, this essay discusses the relationship between the future-oriented requirements of academic production, student loan debt accumulation, and the feeling of being "always already behind" that can explicitly impact how academics lacking an individualized "safety net" internalize and grapple with the myth of upward class mobility. Considering how anxiety is lived as both an emotional "spook" and material reality, this essay aims to provoke further conversation about what true social safety—the key to disarming anxiety's impact—might look like.

Opening the Invoice

[1] It felt more like a whim than a reasoned decision when I sat down to open it. Months had passed, and though I was no longer getting the phone calls—those ominous unknown numbers, from places like Sioux City, Iowa and Fort Wayne, Indiana, that went dead on the other end the few times I’d been brave enough to answer—I still experienced a shivering sense of dread every time I thought about opening one of the Sallie Mae invoices that littered my mailbox on a regular basis. But now, fresh off the surge in self-confidence that typically follows my participation in the Working Class Studies Association annual conference— I feel a profound sense of acceptance and professional affirmation by the scholar-activist-artists who assemble there—I grabbed the latest bill from the top of a large stack that had been gathering dust in the back of my desk, took my place at the head of the Formica-top kitchen table where such business typically goes down, and with trembling fingers, tore it open.

[2] Imagine my shock, then, when I was greeted by the following:


This is a reminder that based on the information we have for your loan(s) listed below, your monthly payment due 09/28/14 is 0.00.

I read this and immediately started laughing: the kind of part-hysterical, part-relieved giggle that a low-level comic book criminal staring down the barrel of a gun might emit when the Joker pulls the weapon away and violently whispers, "Just kidding!!!" This might sound hyperbolic, but it's not; I owe the U.S. Department of Education around $140,000 in student loan debt, so one can see how a "You owe us nothing!" invoice might seem like a sick joke. But for the time being, I am safe. I breathe and laugh again, this time with an internal eye-roll at my own silliness. Though I knew my deferral was good for a year, I'd still avoided opening 10 months' worth of Sallie Mae invoices at all costs, an act of willful aversion that had only sharpened my fear of an approaching menace from which, at least for one year, I might have taken a break.

[3] Of course, it's perhaps unrealistic to expect someone who has never known a time in her life when she wasn't anxious to take a breather from that particular mental health affliction. Anxiety, after all, is about being consumed by both the past and future, to the detriment of the now—obsession with the future, however far into the oncoming distance one's circumstances may necessitate thinking, being the means through which an anxious person attempts to outrun the spooks of a past that always seem to be threatening to devour the present. As an academic from a poverty background—the first person in my family to attend college, who received a Literature PhD from Duke, whose three younger sisters all followed her on the "college track" as well—I'm well aware of the paradox at the heart of my particular anxious journey. My ultimate fear, and that symbolized by the Sallie Mae invoice, is to lose, to be ordered to give back, what little I've already accumulated—or rather, to be outed, by the specter of looming, ever-compounding debt, as never having made any gains in the first place. Couple this with a temporally discombobulating monster that has been with me even longer—the feeling of being always already behind my more class-privileged peers, of playing an eternal game of catch-up that I can never win—and it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, for me to envision a life unstructured by anxiety, or the primary affective register through which flows what Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh might call my "habit energy" (2012, 40).

[4] Indeed, many of the habits that I've adopted to cope with this anxiety have not been especially healthy. My will to avoid facing matters related to money borders on phobic (Is there a name for such a phobia: fear of money?). Despite my ability to pay them outright, parking tickets and library fines accumulate to the point where I wind up owing twice as much as the original fine. I also put off checking my bank account balance for as long as possible, ever fearful that the number will be lower than the running tab that I'm trying to hold in my head. Moreover, though it may seem petty to some, when I imagine the worst consequences of my student loan debt burden coming back to take its revenge on me (another characteristic of anxious people being that we spend a lot of time envisioning absolute worst-case scenarios), I think about having to sell or give up the few possessions that I've lovingly amassed over the years: in my mind's eye, I see Bernadette Peters' character from The Jerk as she pouts over Steve Martin's bumbling loss of fortune, "I don't care about losing all the money... It's losing all the stuuuuuuf." My two mid-century Formica-top tables and small coffee table; my nicely painted shelf full of graphic novels, the pride and joy of my personal book collection: what I point to when joking with guests, "That's where all the student loan money went."

[5] If the dreaded "Big G" (paycheck garnishment) were ever to happen, I could part with these things, as well as my studio apartment—go back to having roommates, live more frugally than this year's lifestyle allows me. In the end, we could all be this austere, could tell ourselves we didn't properly "earn" access to a class status beyond our means. But what of my beloved Formica tables? What of the elements of my anxiety that, as Carolyn Steedman has put it, might have less to do with my choices or disposition and more to do with a "social and subjective sense of the impossible unfairness of things" underscoring the ugliness of poverty, which takes what little you have while chastising you for your audacity to want in the first place? (1987, 111) And what of the physical and virtual mobilization of the "99 Percent" that took place just a few years ago? However brief the respite (and the ecstasy), I felt my anxiety decrease not as a result of drugs or talk therapy or meditation or any other clinical or personalized form of treatment, but because I found myself held by a movement, a self-echoing "people's mic" of willfully concatenated individuals with the courage to not only share their fears and struggles with each other and the world, but to attempt to enact a mode of living based on something other that hierarchies of social control.

[6] Anticipating as well as responding to the 2008 economic collapse and the mass-scale global resistance movements arising in its wake, a number of cultural scholars and activist groups have recently published work advocating for what Ann Cvetkovich has called a "shared and social rather than individual" consideration of emotional health (2012, 107). [i] Influenced by Walter Benjamin's concept of "left melancholy" as well as accounts of the medieval condition of acedia (a "weariness or distress of the heart"), Cvetkovich stages an analytical account of her own longtime struggle with depression as a means to politicize a condition typically viewed through a narrow clinical lens. Suspicious of dominant medical models of depression that "simultaneously relieve one of responsibility (it's just genes or chemicals) and provide agency (you can take a pill)," Cvetkovich argues that depression may have more to do with racism, colonialism, and other "invisible forces that structure comfort and privilege for some and lack of resources for others" than biochemical imbalances (24-25). Conjuring associations of acedia with sin and even demon possession that have much to do with the kind of ascetic condemnation of restless wanderers and "idle" souls that informed later incarnations of the Protestant work ethic, Cvetkovich reclaims such allusions to frame depression and similar affective states as caused by "demons that visit from the outside"—rather than the inner demons typical of clinical ideology—that can therefore only be exercised through social means (105). Through her involvement in queer activism and Public Feelings projects committed to exploring how "affective responses, even negative ones... are both a necessary part of politics and a possible resource," Cvetkovich remains invested in the social justice potential of emotions (109). [ii] Such an embrace, she believes, can help counter "the loss of hope in how to bring about political change" that she sees as central to the contemporary spiritual sickness characteristic of societies that belittle forms of strong affect—anger and despair among them—as damaging to individuals indoctrinated with the imperative to remain tirelessly productive and complacent to the demands of the neoliberal market economy.

[7] Cvetkovich spends much of her memoir-analysis discussing how her own case of "political depression" lead to productive impasses in her academic life, [iii] and also mentions the close affinity between depression and anxiety. She cites academia as "[breeding] particular forms of panic and anxiety leading to what gets called depression," a point that I can readily elucidate (18). The feeling of being "always already behind" (stuck in the past), when coupled with the intensely future-oriented requirements of academic production—to always be thinking months, if not years ahead when it comes to the job market, article and monograph publishing, and tenure—has lead me to lengthy periods of depressive paralysis and emotional exhaustion (of the acedia-like variety) that I will discuss in greater detail momentarily. My interest in the relationship between class, academia, and my experiences with an anxiety that I cannot help but attribute to the sort of political "demons" that Cvetkovich exposes has been further fueled by "We Are All Very Anxious," an April 2014 manifesto-style blog published by the Institute for Precarious Consciousness (Plan C). Here, an anonymous cadre of radical leftist activists based in Manchester, UK, name anxiety as the "dominant affect" or primary "control strategy" characteristic of the current phase of capitalism in the global North. [iv] The group briefly historicizes its claim by discussing what they take to be the dominant affects of previous capitalist phases: misery, in the modern era ("until the postwar settlement"); and boredom, post-World War II until the Reagan-Thatcher 80's. "Anxiety," they write, "has spread from its previous localized locations (such as sexuality) to the whole of the social field." It has become our contemporary "public secret," shared by all but openly acknowledged by few.

[8] Describing the transition from postwar boredom to a pervasive social anxiety enmeshed in the rise of "New Right discourses blaming the poor for poverty" as well as the kind of medicalized therapies and individualized forms of emotional management that Cvetkovich problematizes, the Institute conflates anxiety with precarity. They make a point to stress, however, that "precarity differs from misery in that the necessities of life are not simply absent. They are available, but withheld conditionally": a withholding that, if uncontested by the masses, leads to a "generalized hopelessness; a constant bodily excitation without release." The way to combat this directionless excitation, they believe, is to devise channels "through which the public secret itself can be spoken": to share stories of anxious lives, in a "new style of precarity-focused consciousness raising" that might give the public means to transform "unnameable emotions, and a general sense of feeling like shit, [into] a sense of injustice... and a reactivation of resistance."

[9] The remainder of this essay will focus on what I have to contribute to the discussion to which Cvetkovich and the Institute provoke me to add my voice: the particular ways that class has embedded itself in my life as an anxious academic. To elucidate this entrenchment, I will share and analyze memorable moments from my personal history as an anxious person in three distinct refrains, in methodological solidarity what I believe the Institute has in mind when it suggests a form of "consciousness-raising" meant to help its participants come to terms with how it feels to live in a society that withholds resources of abundance in order to enforce market-based social control. In the first part of my story, "Indoctrination," I will account for "unnameable emotions" that influenced my personal investment in education—at a very young age—as my "way out" of poverty, drawing from sociologist Kathi Weeks' discussion of the Weberian relationship between anxiety and the condition of never fully believing yourself to be among the "worthy elect" (2011, 45). In part two, "Deprogramming," I will delineate my "general sense of feeling like shit" as it relates to the ever-mounting student debt that I accumulated during my years as a graduate student at Duke University, drawing further from Cvetkovich to illustrate how my growing sense of myself as a temporarily-deferred future debt "peon" framed the bouts of extreme depression I experienced during this time. Finally, I will gesture toward hopeful transformation—where the "sense of injustice" underlying the shitty, defeated feelings finds outlets for both personal and collective expression—by discussing what has enabled me to manage my anxiety most effectively: involvement in activist movement, which at its best serves to re-orient futurity away from a cynical association with the productivity mandates of capitalism, toward imagining into existence a new value basis for the kind of "[life] that we might want" that many of us have begun to envision (Weeks 2011, 232).

A Kindergarten Tale

[10] One of my first memories of school was also the first and last time I was ever punished for misbehaving. As my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Griffiths, handed out the day's math assignment, me and Cody Wallace—a cute, mischievous kid who would die from brain cancer in middle-school—were goofing off, giggling and nudging each other instead of sitting there quietly like we were supposed to. To my horror, Mrs. Griffiths instructed us both to go sit in respective corners, our faces to the wall. [v]

[11] One might think that the humiliation of being made to stick my nose in the corner would have been the trigger for this memory, but it wasn't. The problem was that, while I was turned away from the class and out of earshot, Mrs. Griffiths was explaining how to do the math worksheet, an exercise that involved filling in a series of Tetris-like blocks with various colors according to a legend. When I returned to my desk ten minutes later I sat there, dumbfounded. Not only did I not know how to do the worksheet, but I'd fallen behind the rest of the class. Racing to catch up, I scribbled in the blocks with crayons willy-nilly, knowing full well that I wasn't doing the assignment correctly. Frustrated, and my face a deeper shade of red than it had been in the corner, I threw the paper down, tears welling up. I told myself I would never, ever get in trouble again.

[12] "It's hard to say where all your anxiety came from," my mother said to me over the phone recently. I can say with certainty that my mom, someone with more memories of skipping class to smoke weed with her friends on the Florida coast than inclinations toward overachievement, never pressured me to succeed in school, as proud as she has always been of my accomplishments. She does have a couple of plausible theories, though. "As poor as we were, life really was just painfully dull, most of the time," she speculated. Indeed, growing up in a small, rural lumber mill town on the Columbia River that we rarely left and never took a proper vacation from, my sisters and I saw school as a place where there were things to do, and resources to do things with (some "stuuuuuf," to bring Bernadette back for a moment): clay and watercolor paints to use for art projects; playground equipment to horse around on; Beverly Cleary and "Choose Your Own Adventure" books in the library; and later, as I'd been dreaming of for years, the opportunity to join the school band, where I quickly became what my few begrudging acquaintances ("you also didn't have many friends," mom reminds me) referred to as the "clarinet diva." Still—and with an awareness that I'm writing this in the midst of the corporate "teach to the test," anti-arts curriculum movement that was not yet in full swing when I was young—I knew a lot of equally poor kids growing up who never seemed to give a damn about school, who messed around and got put in the corner and did it again, with glee, and didn't stress about missing worksheets or getting less than a "E" (for excellent) or being placed in the mid-level rather than high-skill first grade reading group. The institutional effects of classism, I realize, caused many of my working-class peers to invest very little in a school experience they viewed as punitive and dismissive of the conditions of their everyday lives (Beegle, 2003). But what made me care so much? How was it that I, at five years old, had internalized a belief that falling behind on a math worksheet could mean something very, very bad for me in the future—or, more devastatingly, say something very bad about who I was as a person?

[13] My mother's next theory regarding my precocious, obsessive coupling of "doing well" in school with acquiring forms of future power or significance that my kindergarten mind couldn't possibly understand corresponds with what Kathi Weeks has described as "the rise of neoliberalism in its fundamentalist mode" (2011, 180). Though I have few specific memories of what became an everyday, normalized part of my upbringing, my mother cried constantly throughout my childhood and adolescence. "I cried about your father never having steady work, and going to the bar every night instead of staying home with us—but mostly, I cried about money," she remembers. Under-the-table construction jobs that seemed to just end whenever it rained (which, in Northwest Oregon, was pretty much all the time); the hefty ambulance bill that caused my mom much more stress than the broken collarbone, never properly healed, that she acquired when she was hit by a car riding her bike home from a late-night bar shift; the constant around-town moving between any number of drab, poorly maintained two-bedroom homes as rents were raised beyond my family's ability to pay. My mother cried through all of this, symptomatic of an "economic fatalism" that Weeks ascribes to the onset of Cold War-era "there is no alternative" politics that allowed Reagan ammunition for an anti-labor, safety-net slashing crusade that set the stage for decades of like-minded socioeconomic policy (180-181). Meanwhile, my father continued to be the kind of man, as Carolyn Steedman has described the father of her own 50's working-class English childhood, who exhibited "singular unimportance" in the workings of our daily lives, who simply didn't matter in the ways he would have needed to in order to lighten my mother's burden (1987, 19).

[14] I, however, was going to matter, was going to be someone important—someone, in the parlance of Max Weber, who would stand among the "worthy elect." But this is where the issue of anxiety comes roaring in; or perhaps where, as Lauren Berlant has put it, the "magnetic attraction to cruel optimism" through which my desires took shape began its frustrating pull (2006, 35). Unpacking the stickier parts of Weber's discussion of how the Protestant work ethic not only survived but in fact strengthened its ideological potency over its transmutation from being the driving force behind Puritan religious devotion to the secularized linchpin of the capitalist wage labor system, Weeks names anxiety as a crucial psychological component of how the Calvinist doctrine of predestination functioned for believers:

As Weber explains it, the doctrine encourages the believer to work as if working were an end in itself, but not because by doing so one could earn a place among the chosen; one's fate was predetermined and could not be altered through performance of good works. Commitment to work is prescribed rather as a way to assuage the anxiety produced by such uncertainty and to strengthen one's confidence in being among the worthy elect... hard work and success are not a means to salvation, but at most signs of it (2012, 45).

Wishing to be someone who would never have to cry about money in the way my mother did, I committed myself whole-heartedly as a kindergartener to "the promise of social mobility," that most American of dreams that by the late 19th century had all but supplanted access to the afterlife as the rationale for "(dedicating) oneself fully and methodically to work" (46). Not being remotely interested in any of the less secular components of my early education on the grounds of Grace Baptist church, I would nevertheless prove myself worthy of grace. I would work to ensure my self-promotion, in the form of upward class mobility, in this life—sacrificing less ambitious neighborhood friends, and definitely any goofing around that might result in setbacks to my plan, to ensure my salvation. My efforts also exemplified an explicitly postmodern version of what Weeks refers to as the "adaptability of this ascetic ideal as it spans time and travels across space": my hard work, in addition to being my ticket to (at least) middle-class promotion, would serve as a path to "individual self-expression, self-development, and creativity" (46). I became a member of Odyssey of the Mind, a group for Talented and Gifted kids interested in writing and performing in their own theatrical productions; from third through eighth grade, I hot-glued buttons on costumes and ran lines with the daughters of doctors, businessmen, and school administrators, all of whom I was too ashamed to invite over to the places I lived that I disdainfully called "home." The clarinet also factored heavily into my sense of self as a Chosen One. It was rumored that I was the first freshman to ever be appointed first chair, a status I had to duke it out for with junior Lucy Moretti through a competitive "challenge" system that could get as nasty as a World Cup match. Moreover, in a display of especially commendable Puritan zeal, I saved up money from my first job working at a burger joint to buy a Buffet R-13, the granadilla wood clarinet that was industry standard for professional orchestra musicians. I would need such an instrument, my band director explained, when I enrolled at Julliard.

[15] Despite such "signs" of my rising toward the heaven on earth known as middle-class security, anxiety continued to color my life. When I was 16, and most of my friends (rather, acquaintances) were busy primping for prom, my family of six were moving yet again, this time to the dreariest, most cramped 1 ½ bedroom house we'd lived in yet; my parents slept in a queen bed in the living room, and my two youngest sisters got bunk beds in the half room, a glorified closet. My mother was still crying, and my family's ongoing poverty confused me. How could I be sure—really, sure—that all my hard work, talent, and ascetic willpower would amount to anything? What if I wasn't going to get that promotion after all? What if I did everything I was supposed to, and evil forces—demons, maybe—still conspired against me getting into college, or doing well enough in college to land a job that would pay the bills and grant me the sense of personal fulfillment that was to be my reward for investment in work as an "end in itself"? (Weeks 46) Underneath the ambition, competitiveness, and fair share of my own frightened tears—I perceived anything less than perfection as what might tip the scale toward getting stuck in a town I'd reduced to a symbol of abject despair and immobilized dreams—a low-level feeling of dread continued to rumble. What if my plan didn't work? What if I just wasn't enough, for myself? What, if?

Clarinet for Sale

[16] Perhaps the first real clue that my middle-class promotion might turn into a Jelly-of-the-Month Club membership came when I decided to sell my wooden clarinet the summer after my first year in graduate school at Duke. Busy with mountains of coursework, RAing for fastidious star professors, and doing my best to adjust to a collegial environment where prep school educations and cosmopolitan savvy were status quo, I'd hardly played the instrument at all, and not with any seriousness since my freshman year at the University of Oregon—where, in a surge of spirited rebellion against the injunction to shun "the spontaneous enjoyment of life and all it had to offer," I decided that I preferred the way of my high-school mother (fun and actual friends) to hours cloistered away in practice rooms, and quit Wind Ensemble (Weber 1958, 166). Even though I still had my old plastic clarinet from fifth grade, I cried (once again) when I mailed my precious R-13 to the retired Boston doctor who'd bought it from me on E-Bay for the more than reasonable price of $1200. I'd done a decent job saving money throughout the school year by living in a roach-infested five-bedroom house with a bunch of republican statisticians, and had a summer temp job lined up answering phones at a place that made refrigerator magnets (a company called, no joke—Magnetic Attractions—to perhaps further underscore the "cruelty" of Berlant's formation). But I still didn't feel like I'd have enough money to make it from May through September 30th, when my first 2nd-year PhD stipend check would come. If I ran out of money, I'd have nowhere to turn for help, and the 1989 Plymouth Horizon hatchback I'd bought when I moved to Durham was a pit of problems just waiting to devour my extra cash. Furthermore, considering that my student debt burden coming out of undergrad was only around $20,000—all federal loans, in deferral until I finished my degree—I didn't think it was a good idea to begin my grad school tenure by taking out more loans.

[17] For $1200, I sold that clarinet—what, at the time, was the most valuable possession I'd ever owned. $1200: roughly the same amount I would owe per month if, in some world that I don't live in, I were able to pay my $140,000 in student loans back on the recommended 20-year plan. On the more reasonable yet still largely unaffordable 30-year plan (where I'd pay roughly $800 a month, my current studio apartment rent), things get even more absurd: by the time my loan interest finishes accumulating, I would owe over $300,000. [vi] Be that as it may, if I could do it over again, I would have just gone ahead and taken out a summer loan and kept my Buffet R-13.

[18] How this all came to pass, though, is a complicated tale, one in which "always already behind" meets academic future-orientation requirements in a perfect storm of desperation, denial, defiance, and receding hope. Per my admissions packet, I did receive five years (ten semesters) of funding from the Literature program, and also managed to acquire two further semesters of dissertation write-up stage funding from the graduate school. In addition to the more general issue of the high cost of acquiring a PhD from one of the most expensive private universities in the country, however, two factors influenced my mounting debt burden like no other: May-October of each year, the summer semester not covered in my funding packet; and the fact that it took me nine years and a summer to finish my dissertation. Though I'll expand on the significance of each of these issues in a moment, a terrible realization dawned on me in graduate school, insinuating itself into my "habit energy" in perfect mathematical proportion to my increasing student debt burden. I began to fear that what was supposed to have served as a pathway away from the poverty of my childhood—a PhD, my ticket to a job teaching and doing research at a university—could become the albatross around my neck ensuring that I would never escape that particular demon.

[19] In their discussion of the effects of the precarity typical of life under capitalism—"constant over-stress, the contraction of time into an eternal present, the vulnerability of each separated (or systemically mediated) individual"—the Institute rightly emphasizes that "anxiety is a real, material force—not simply a spook." Anxiety's sources, they continue, "are often rooted in spooks, but the question of overcoming the grip of a spook is rarely as simple as consciously rejecting it." But what of the material spookiness of student loan debt, with its deferrals, forbearances, and compounding interest? What happens when a form of "psychological blockage" like anxiety— to which the institute ascribes "illusory power"—intersects with a sense of blocked futurity that feels far more real than illusory: the specter of debt peonage?

[20] The first of the new loans came the summer after my second year in grad school. Though I'd thought about volunteering with Common Ground in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, I worried that such an immersive gig would take me too far afield of things I needed to be doing to prepare for the following Fall. I was nervous about teaching my first-ever undergrad Literature class, which in my mind necessitated an immense amount of preparation, and also felt that I needed to spend time envisioning and planning a dissertation project and psyching myself up to approach potential committee members: forms of intellectual and emotional labor that, though unpaid, still had to get done. Taking out a loan would therefore be a means to buy myself the time to take care of these things. It was so easy, too; I just walked into the campus loan office, met with a woman named Betty who would become a "frenemy" of the highest order over the next several years, signed some paperwork, and walked out with the assurance that $4000 would be deposited into my bank account sometime over the next couple weeks. Though I would have to make sure to register for graduate school continuation, Betty reminded me. In order to qualify for loans you technically had to be enrolled, meaning an additional $3000 fee tacked onto every loan I would take out.

[21] I did generally manage to find summer work, usually teaching classes through either Duke Literature or Women's Studies: which, though welcome opportunities, were often cancelled due to low enrollment at a school where only athletes and premed students stuck around for the summer. Even at full enrollment, these classes did not pay enough to make it through five months unfunded, so taking out summer loans became a way of life. And again, there were always new scholarly requirements that necessitated future-oriented preparation, with summer also being free of coursework and the more intense teaching and TA gigs of the school year. Prelims, funding applications, and of course the dissertation writing itself were on the horizon, always requiring mental, emotional, and material forms of labor. Moreover, in an issue I haven't seen addressed explicitly by others writing about why students take on college debt (Ross 2013; J. Williams 2006, 2008), I also always took out enough money to ensure that I would have a "safety net" of at least $1000 extra in the bank. If something happened that required an immediate ability to throw down cash—car repairs, dental work, a sudden professional opportunity—I would have no one to turn to for financial help. In this sense, student loans allowed me to assuage present-oriented forms of anxiety, to anticipate the "fires" I knew I would have to put out at some point, of my own accord (Robin Kelley 2002, 11). More subversively, a part of me also felt that I had every bit as much a right to feel safe in my own financial skin as my colleagues who had always been able to afford this privilege—and every bit as much of a right to attend a school like Duke, high enrollment fees be damned. "Elect" or no, I still felt that I was worthy of such grace.

[22] But of course, as Weeks, the Institute, and Cvetkovich all emphasize, the problem with trying to address systemic issues—unequal distribution of wealth, access to education and other resources --on an individual level is that my "savings" plan was bound to fail: and I, materially and psychologically, would have to absorb the fallout of this failure. As Andrew Ross and others have put it, what I'd been doing amounted to taking out a mortgage on my future in order to make the present more bearable, a move that could only at best defer—or chronically entrench, with more likelihood—the anxiety I was hoping to lessen. [vii] The safety net I'd made for myself, though a real thing in the sense that it did help me make car repairs, afford trips home to see my family, and enjoy a better quality of life than the utterly austere, pleasure-shunning variety that punitive discourse suggests is the only acceptable mode of living for the "deserving" poor, was still only illusory from the perspective of capitalist futurity. The market is all about futures, with student loan debt being a significant and timely means through which it enforces peonage to what David Graeber has called the "company store" (2011, 349)— or the imperative to continue to work on behalf of profit accumulation, for the benefit of a corporate elite to which our bills remind us we are beholden.

[23] It is hardly surprising, then, that the more years I spent in graduate school, the more often the anxiety about money that I'd tried to calm with such temporary safety measures began to express itself in periods of debilitating depression, leading to the kind of creative and productive impasses that made it difficult for Cvetkovich to complete her own dissertation. It would be disingenuous, however, to chock my depression entirely up to class—even, and perhaps especially, at an elite institution like Duke. Academia, Cvetkovich argues, is one enclave of the professional-managerial class in which "an epidemic of anxiety-induced depression has taken hold." This epidemic, though "widely acknowledged informally but not always shared publically or seen" (echoing the Institute's sense of anxiety as a "pubic secret"), manifested in especially potent ways within the humanities and social sciences grad student culture I was a part of for nine years (Cvetkovich 2011, 18). Nearly every grad student I was close to—mostly women, but some men as well—was treated for depression at one point or another. "The fear that you have nothing to say, or that you can't say what you want to say" (or in the way you'd like to say it, I'd add), or that what you do have to say is "not important or smart enough"—all of these sentiments, coupled with a judgmental inner critic shaming us into thinking that we shouldn't be feeling tormented due to our privileged status as intellectual workers, were shared between my friends and I with regularity. In such a context—one that contains an extra valance of dread for junior scholars trying to sandbag a relentless flood of gloom-and-doom stats and stories regarding the shrinking tenure track, adjunct misery, and other well-worn topics—depression more often than not "takes the shape of an anxiety to be managed, a failure of productivity that is then addressed by a lucrative pharmaceutical industry and a set of accompanying discourses that encourage particular ways of thinking about the self and its failures" (18). Prozac or Welbutrin? Adderall or Ritalin? What about Klonopin for getting to sleep at night? Amidst romantic dishing or hesitant discussions of our dissertation progress, and usually over beer or other increasingly legalized forms of self-medication, these were the things we talked about.

[24] Moreover, although I didn't find my scholarly and activist direction until I discovered the Working Class Studies Association while tearing through several volumes of autobiographical writing by first-generation academics and others from working-class backgrounds (Ryan and Sackrey 1984; Tokarczyk and Fay 1993; and Tea 2003, among others), I also didn't feel the deep sense of alienation from my peers and university environments expressed by many such scholars and college educated artist-activists (Kadi 1996; hooks 2000; Allison 2002, 63-72). I'm certain that my white privilege has much to do with this, but I also can't stress enough how loosening the worldly ascetic yoke to which I'd tethered myself pre-college—allowing myself to become a social person, cultivating and prioritizing true friendships rather than sacrificing intimate forms of relationality in the way we're told we need to in order to be "successful"—has spirited me through my bleakest periods of emotional exhaustion and despair. Furthermore, as my debt continued to rise, a powerfully subversive message began fighting for affective life beneath the hopelessness: a message that takes this conversation back to the Protestant work ethic and what threatens its undoing. As Cvetkovich points out, depression's effect on a body and mind involves not only sapping the depressed of the motivation to work (to produce), but also keeps you from enjoying or even acknowledging your accomplishments. Having secured her first book contract, "one of the most important milestones in an academic career," Cvetkovich nonetheless "couldn't feel it; the good news made no impact on an unrelenting sense of dread that now had no end in sight" (2012, 63). But just as medieval acedia was never simply a "state of not caring," but also a restless "caring too much," depression has often caused me, perhaps paradoxically considering the dullness also characteristic of this state, to consider more clearly the "puzzle of our motivation [to work]" that Weeks raises in her discussion of the differences between a "calling" to work for God and the calling to work as an end-in-itself with no necessary or even expected payoff (Cvetkovich 2012, 18; Weeks 2011, 46-47). If my student loan debt burden serves as evidence that I am indeed not among the worldly elect—that my investment in upward class mobility, in other words, is not going to get me out of poverty in the way I so desperately hoped it would—then what reason do I have to adhere to the demands of, as Weber puts it, the "ethical compulsion" to work in service of a false promise? (1958, 182) A state of anti-motivation and not doing from the perspective of capitalist productivity imperatives, depression can serve as an affective starting point for radical reconsideration of the rules by which we work and live.

Taking Care of Myself in the World
"We Want!"

[25] I tend to experience anxiety as one might a sneaker wave on the Oregon coast: I'm walking along, enjoying some rare sunshine through the mist, and it hits me, threatening to suck me under and away from my life. It's shattering, to feel a sense of relative peace, and then that number pops into my head again: $140,000, or "more than $300,000," accompanied by a panorama of future consequences—less money next year when you move to Income-Based Repayment, which means less savings when your car (a 1994 Honda now) breaks down again. A standard of living that will be lowered and, considering the loan payment adjustments that the "company store" will always make when my income increases, perhaps never rise again. And, despite the well-tuned critical consciousness and sophisticated understanding of systemic injustice that are largely the result of my first-rate humanities education—a priceless asset that, short of a lobotomy, they can never repossess—it remains momentously difficult not to revert to an individualized, "systemically mediated" discourse of self-shaming over the bad choices that must have prefigured my peonage (Plan C blog). As the Institute emphasizes, anxiety asserts its affective dominance in the political and social sphere by calling on a "neoliberal idea of success" to "inculcate (surveillance) mechanisms inside the subjectivities and life-stories of most of the population." Phone calls from obscure Midwestern cities that go dead on the other end; bi-monthly invoices, despite having a year of economic hardship forbearance (can't they just leave me alone for a while?); relentless bureaucratized reminders of what my "options" will be when it's time to pay Sallie. Such positioning in this "field of the perpetual gaze of virtual others" disciplines through forcible delinkage of those of us—most of us—whose stories share similar refrains, leading to a severance of "coordinates of connectedness" that might otherwise be drawn on to fight doctrines of individual responsibility that render us vulnerable and alone. In the sense discussed by Deleuze and Guattari, we become lone wolves separated from a pack that grants us our agency as political beings, anxiously stammering "What if? What if?" rather than seeing the possibilities contained in a perpetual "and..." of abundance (1987, 25, 29)—a concept banished to the fray of our imaginations amidst the ideologies of scarcity, austerity, and private securitization so central to the dominance of the neoliberal order.

[26] But I haven't always been walled up in a studio apartment in Pittsburgh, nervously avoiding and rarely opening invoices that seem to mark either my momentary safety or imminent doom. I know that I am part of a pack; I've felt my subjectivity, amidst the webbing of a safety net made of stronger material than I ever could have imagined as a kid with my nose in the corner, as a member of a "wolf-multiplicity" (25). A seething sense of outrage, a desire for things to just be fair in a way that they clearly were not, was also clamoring for room in my kindergarten heart. The Occupy Movement provided me with my first "peak experience," as the Institute calls it, through which I felt empowered to act on behalf of ideals that ran deeper than my plans for promotion to the middle class, an experience that also assuaged my anxiety more profoundly than any form of personalized treatment ever has. I helped organize marches on banks and rallies against corporate personhood; there's a video of me out there being yanked out of a "mic check" on Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf by one of his private security goons in which I appear to be growling. Just as tangibly, I also developed the realization that the skills I'd acquired in graduate school—persuasive writing, critical thinking, the ability to mediate conversations and speak (somewhat) eloquently when put on the spot—could be useful outside humanities academia, where we are often discouraged from imagining our degrees as leading to anything but university teaching and research: a luxurious vision that, at a moment where nearly 70 percent of us will likely not be joining the tenure track, we cannot afford to maintain. [viii]

[27] But most importantly, I really lived during this time. Brief flicker that it was, Occupy allowed what José Esteban Muñoz has so poignantly described as the "reveries in a quotidian life" to shine in a way that "challenged the dominance of an affective world, a present, full of anxiousness and fear" (2009, 25). Aside from the General Assemblies and marches, we were just a bunch of little people doing nothing, for the most part, but hanging out. Dissertations got put on hold, and unemployment lines shunned, for the sake of many an "unspectacular Friday" where all that "bodily excitation without release" assumed the character of a public, anticipatory joy rather than a private cul-de-sac of nerves (Muñoz 24; Institute). In "the linearity of straight time," we were going nowhere, but it didn't matter (25). We were reclaiming future-orientation, yanking that concept away from the tyranny of the Protestant work ethic, for more utopian aims.

[28] In their call for a reanimated activist present, the Institute laments how a "generalized production of anxiety"—currently so virulent amidst our "new normals" of low-wage work, endless war, Supreme Court vigilantism, around-the-clock surveillance, environmental disaster, and a corporate-owned mainstream media intent on shrugging it all off—has caged many a radical within the individuated, self-silencing modes of life that capitalist precarity uses to enforce its regime. They call for a new kind of machine to fight this process: a machine that, they feel, did not solidify in the Occupy movement or other western protest movements of the last several years due to our adherence to strategies, based largely in nostalgia, drawn from movements enacted to fight boredom rather than anxiety (the 60's counterculture, namely). Inspired by the Situationists, they urge us to flip our perspective—to stop chanting "Fight the power!," or "Power to the People!"—and learn to see "from the standpoint of desire instead of power." While teaching an undergraduate course on the American Dream recently, I was disturbed and moved by how intensely I identified with Clyde Griffiths, the protagonist from Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy, who dies in the electric chair for murdering one girl so he could be with another: a girl with beauty, status, and most crucially, money; a girl who represented everything he'd so desperately longed for, but was never meant to have, in his anxious, miserable, impoverished life (1925). I feel my $140,000 debt as a loss of freedom—"freedom from want," or even legal recourse (the things they might take), may never be mine. But I do not blame myself for the wanting, the same desire for the "things of the earth" that turned Carolyn Steedman's mother into a bitter person who would die alone, "out of touch with reality" (1994, 1-2). In learning to see from the perspective of desire instead of power, what if, instead of chastising ourselves for longing for what the powerful have but continually withhold, we let the outrage beneath the longing do the work it longs to do? As a collectivized rather than personalized slogan, how much potential for revolutionary change might there be in a grabby, ungrateful, wholly disrespectable chant?: "We Want!"


Allison, Dorothy. 2002. I'm Working on My Charm. In Trash: Stories. New York: Plume.

Beegle, Donna. 2003. Overcoming the Silence of Generational Poverty. Invisible Literacies. 15(1): 11-20.

Berlant, Lauren. 2006. Cruel Optimism. Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. 17(3): 20-26.

Cvetkovich, Ann. 2012. Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: University of Minnesota Press.

Graeber, David. 2011. Debt: The First 5000 Years. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.

Hanh, Thich Nat. 2012. The Pocket Thich Nat Hanh. Boston: Shambala Publications, Inc.

hooks, bell. 2000. Where We Stand: Class Matters. New York: Routledge.

Kadi, Joanna. 1996. Thinking Class: Sketches from a Cultural Worker. Boston: South End Press.

Kelley, Robin D.G. 2002. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon Press.

Muñoz, José Esteban. 2009. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York and London: New York University Press.

Plan C, Institute for Precarious Consciousness. We Are All Very Anxious: Six Theses on Anxiety and Why It Is Effectively Preventing Militancy, and One Possible Strategy for Overcoming It. «http://www.weareplanc.org/we-are-all-very-anxious#.U7IeO16yjwI», Accessed 30 April 2014.

Ross, Andrew. 2013. Mortgaging the Future and Student Debt in the Age of Austerity. New Labor Forum. 22(1): 23-28.

Ryan, Jake and Charles Sackrey, Eds. 1984. Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Steedman, Carolyn Kay. 1987. Landscape for a Good Woman. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Tea, Michelle, Ed. 2003. Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

Tokarczyk, Michelle M. and Elizabeth A. Fay, Eds. 1993. Working-Class Women in the Academy: Laborers in the Knowledge Factory. Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press.

Weber, Max. 1958. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Weeks, Kathi. 2011. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Williams, Jeffrey. 2008. Student Debt and the Spirit of Indenture. Dissent. 55(4): 73-78.

—. 2006. Debt Education: Bad for the Young, Bad for America. Dissent. 53(3): 53-59.


[i] See also: Duggan, Lisa and José Esteban Muñoz. 2009. Hope and Hopelessness: A Dialogue (from Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 19:2: 275-283); Ahmed, Sarah. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press; and groups like Resource Generation, which in addition to helping social justice-minded young people from wealthy backgrounds figure out how to redistribute their resources in community-accountable ways, also serves an emotionally supportive function for those coming to terms with a heightened consciousness of their wealth privilege/ lifetime of unearned capital. See «http://www.resourcegeneration.org» for more.

[ii] Cvetkovich describes Public Feelings projects and groups as having emerged among queer studies scholars at the University of Texas at Austin and elsewhere, "from collective meetings on the future of gender and sexuality and the question of how to give feminism a greater impact in the public sphere." Since 2001, such groups, many of them informal, have organized conference sessions and research seminars; Cvetkovich credits one such group, Feel Tank Chicago, for coining the term "political depression." From Public Feelings. South Atlantic Quarterly 106(3): 459-468 (2007).

[iii] Cvetkovich additionally credits Feel Tank Chicago, and especially Lauren Berlant, for encouraging her to "take impasse seriously as a concept and an experience. I've benefitted from being able to think alongside elaborations such as the following by Berlant: 'An impasse is a holding station that doesn't hold but opens out into anxiety, that dog-paddling around a space whose contours remain obscure" (Cvetkovich 2012, 20).

[iv] "The discussion here is not fully relevant to the global South," the Institute explain in a footnote. They argue that "the specific condition of the South is that dominant capitalist social forms are layered onto earlier stages of capitalism or pre-capitalist systems, rather than displacing them entirely... the South has experienced a particular variety of precarity distinct from earlier periods: the massive forced delinkage of huge swaths of the world from global capitalism (especially in Africa), and the correspondingly massive growth of the informal sector, which now eclipses the formal sector almost everywhere."

[v] Incidentally, this all happened at a Baptist-affiliated, in no sense "PC" mid-80's kindergarten that hadn't yet been integrated into the public school system.

[vi] I believe I acquired this figure, in one of my rare moments of facing the music with Sallie Mae, via a "Student Loan Repayment Calculator" that I found online, which you can link to here, https://www.salliemae.com/plan-for-college/college-planning-toolbox/student-loan-repayment-calculator/.

[vii] I also credit my friend Grover, a co-member of the illustrious six-figure student loan debt club, with this concept; she casually brought up the "mortgaged future" in conversation one day, and I'm pretty sure she hadn't read Ross. More research could clearly be done on the origin of this sunny expression.

[viii] From Inside Higher Ed: "(Adjunct) faculty now make up the majority of the higher education work force. As recently as 1969, 78 percent of instructional staff comprised tenured or tenure-track professors, with adjunct faculty making up the rest, according to information from the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. By 2009, the figures had nearly flipped, with a third of faculty tenured or on the tenure track and two-thirds ineligible for tenure. Of those non-tenure-track positions, just 19 percent were full-time." Flaherty, Colleen (2013, January 9). "Making the Case for Adjuncts." Online.