The Melancholia of Class—Cynthia Cruz
Without a single nod given to intersectionality, Cynthia Cruz’s class-exclusive analysis of working-class artists will read either as a welcomed throwback to a time when the imperative behind politically committed intellectual work was to establish common ground amongst diverse populations, or as a willfully limited and limiting critical approach to artmaking from the margins of US society. Of course, it can also read as the two things at once, leaving it to the reader to parse and make sense of the illuminating and blinding aspects of each reading.
On the one hand, the author’s focus on class is revelatory, as it allows one to track how life-defining class distinctions are wiped out of the mainstream American imagination. According to Cruz, the working class is at once viewed as a “monstrosity” and rendered invisible, as middle-class values, tastes, and concerns frame the way the American public views itself. As a result, she writes, “working class people have experienced a symbolic death.” On the other hand, this single-minded focus makes the text seem dated, especially as Cruz does not consider the increasing precarization of the American middle class—purposely and inexplicably conflating it with the ruling class—along with the dramatic changes in work and work culture that have led scholars to offer a more nuanced approach to who and what exactly constitute the working class. Admittedly, the book is perplexing in this regard.
Then again, this is only an issue if you read The Melancholia of Class as a sort of academic treatise, which is not what Cruz has set out to do. This is a manifesto. As such, it can very much afford to be, and perhaps must be, brazenly incomplete, unapologetic, and uncompromising. It should also be high stakes. Thus, the book is strongest where the writing turns personal, vulnerable, and ultimately more daring. Consider, for example, the author’s radical interpretation of her own experience with anorexia. Cruz writes:
“My attempts at controlling my body through controlling what I put in it has never been a desire to conform to society’s norms. Rather, it has been a prolonged insistence of making my body what I wanted to make of it: a language through which to convey my interior world but also, at the same time, a liminal space within which I could exist.“
At the center of the book is how working-class artists’ existence is threatened by the socio-economic conditions in which they grew up. Cruz, a poet, excels in crafting compelling passages of what ethnographers would term “thick description” to give readers a moving sense of what it is like to come from where she comes from:
“We wait for days in waiting rooms and then, once we are summoned to speak with someone, we are told we need to fill out an additional form, go to another office, go home to retrieve another document. The unspoken assumption is that we have no work, that we have nothing better to do. It feels like a form of punishment…“
These oppressive conditions lead aspiring artists, musicians, and writers to leave their homes. Because, yes, otherwise they will not be able to make it as artists. But also, because otherwise they would risk not making it at all. The catch, however, and as Cruz convincingly argues, there is always a catch when it comes to class in America, is that artists will find themselves caught between the home they cannot afford to go back to and the middle-class society they will never truly be a part of.
Cruz builds her argument by narrating her own experience as a writer and academic, and by engaging with the life and work of musicians, filmmakers, and artists that have been influential in her formation: Jason Molina, Barbara Loden, Amy Winehouse, Clarice Lispector, among others. She traces how each grappled with the trappings of unbelonging, and how they managed to stay true to their roots by resisting middle-class impulses related to the content, form, and affective and political affinities of their creative work. Their body of work can thus be viewed as a radical and radicalizing archive of working-class life that serves to offset its mainstream invisibility. Cruz explains:
“Though leaving one’s working-class home does, necessarily, result in a type of death—of the self, the actual day-to-day experience of living in one’s working class community among one’s family, friends, neighbors, shops, community centers, objects and landscape—when we carry this world within us, we can, in some sense, preserve who we are.“
In this sense, The Melancholia of Class is very much a book about building solidarity, finding solace, knowing, and staying true to oneself and one’s creative process in the face of a sociocultural and political machine bent on erasing—or sanitizing—any trace of your existence. It is a work of love, and pain, that bets on the revolutionary potential of artmaking.
GIULLERMO REBOLLO GIL reviewer
Guillermo Rebollo Gil (San Juan, 1979) is a poet, sociologist, and attorney. His poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Fence, Feed, Mandorla, Spry, Second Factory, Trampset, Trampoline, FreezeRay, and Anti-Heroin Chic. His book-length essay Writing Puerto Rico: Our Decolonial Moment, a careful consideration of the potentialities of radical thought and action in contemporary Puerto Rico, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in their New Caribbean Studies Series. He belongs to/with Lucas Imar and Ariadna Michelle. Happily so.
Cruz, Cynthia. The Melancholia of Class: A Manifesto for the Working Class. Repeater Books (2021)