Belonging Nowhere: Cynthia Cruz’s The Melancholia of Class

Alexander Billet

Cynthia Cruz employs a unique and unorthodox approach to class in her new book, The Melancholia of Class—one that seems bound to spark debate. Themes of loss, rootlessness, and general foreboding are common across Cruz’s work, in her poetry and essays alike. But in this latest text, a hybrid of memoir and cultural criticism, she argues that these are endemic in a society that beats the catechisms of success and achievement into our heads, only to inevitably reveal them as a mirage.

The result, argues the author, is that:

“We end up split, doubled: caught between the world of our origins and the middle-class world we now live in. Existing in neither, the working-class subject belongs nowhere. Having abandoned her working-class origins, coming up against the threshold of the middle-class world (which will not allow her access), she is neither working-class nor is she middle-class. She is a ghost, existing between worlds, a haunting.”

Cruz theorizes the tolls and traumas of class—particularly the experience of being working-class—through a psychoanalytic lens, drawing on Freud and Lacan, along with Marx, Walter Benjamin, and Mark Fisher. In The Melancholia of Class, she primarily illustrates her notion of working-class melancholia through the examination of cultural artifacts, particularly film and music.

While some of the figures she looks at (e.g. Amy Winehouse, Joy Division’s Ian Curtis) are household names, most—the ones discussed in this article—are known and appreciated only in the insular quarters of independent music and arthouse cinema: the kinds of artistic expression that lie just beyond the periphery of contemporary monoculture, always there but never fully in sight.

This presents an apparent obstacle: the more obscure the art, the harder it is to universalize conclusions about it. But there is also a virtue in the obscure; the culture industry has always put the most money behind that which it deems most marketable. Works that trade in ambiguity or problematize the chorus of Horatio Alger stories are often consigned to the margins.

Those artists who manage to break out of obscurity and achieve a level of fame will have their most compelling characteristics essentialized into more palatable and marketable versions of themselves. Cruz briefly examines the music of Charlyn “Chan” Marshall, better known to the world as Cat Power. In her first five albums, the author hears “a conduit through which the melancholia of the working class, and specifically the working class from the American South, moves directly.” After being “discovered” by the fashion industry, lauded by the likes of Marc Jacobs and Karl Lagerfeld, both she and her songs had all their rough edges filed off.

“Her music, previously deeply informed by the blues and traditionals,” writes Cruz, “became unrecognizable pop… her voice lost under the overpowering effects of overdubbing.” A question that is immediately raised is how these kinds of sounds and narratives might find their way into mainstream consciousness without being diluted, still retaining their critical and subversive potentials. Cruz doesn’t offer any solutions to this quandary, but that’s not really the point of the book. Reading The Melancholia of Class, one gets the sense that Cruz is trying to piece back together the insurgent and proudly working-class “popular modernism” that Mark Fisher held dear, and that, at its best, achieved this subversive explosivity. For all its melancholy, Cruz’s book cleaves to the idea that a class can liberate itself on its own terms, transforming the whole of society along the way.

Arguing that the virtual entirety of mass culture has come to reflect values of “classlessness,” Cruz identifies this as a cornerstone of the working class’s social dislocation. From an early age, we internalize hegemonic values that over time become our bedrock assumptions: Gramsci’s “common sense.” When we can’t achieve in ostensible meritocracy, we become despondent and confused. The onus of structural failings are placed on the individual’s shoulders. After all, if class doesn’t exist, or at least isn’t a hindrance to upward mobility and success, then who else is there to blame but ourselves? Or, as Cruz asks rhetorically, “What is being lost if there is no such thing as social class?”

It’s here that annihilation and assimilation enter the picture, serving as thematic tentpoles throughout The Melancholia of Class. Surrounded by signs we should be succeeding, and unable to pinpoint why we aren’t, we turn the rage inward. Or, for a few of us, we attempt to be someone else: someone more gifted, or someone who simply already has more. The problem with assimilation though—at least according to Cruz—is that it brings with it its own kind of annihilation.

This is borne out by comparing Cruz’s analysis of two of the films covered in the book: Barbara Loden’s 1970 film Wanda, and Joanna Hogg’s 2019 The Souvenir. The former (largely inspired by Loden’s own dirt-poor upbringing in Appalachia) features its protagonist trying and failing repeatedly to run from her destitute circumstances She has no real plan, and rarely more than a few cents in her pocket. When her petty criminal accomplice remarks that those who don’t own anything “may as well be dead” in America, Wanda simply responds, “I guess I’m dead, then.”

Julie, the protagonist of The Souvenir, is, in contrast, quite well-to-do. As Cruz writes, she is a stand-in for writer and director Joanna Hogg, herself from an affluent family. Julie’s romantic interest Anthony is, by all appearances, from a similar background. He is an aspiring diplomat with the British foreign office.

His origins, however, are a mystery. We learn nothing about who he actually is, though opening photos of his native city, the crumbling former industrial powerhouse of Sunderland, hint at it. His actions—including disappearing entirely at one point—go unexplained. He sneers at notions of authenticity or sincerity, even as he makes veiled allusions to his seemingly inescapable financial troubles and is increasingly unable to hide his addiction to heroin. Though The Souvenir is regarded as a work that compassionately examines the alienations of the British upper-middle class, Cruz casts Anthony himself as the titular souvenir, a man whose inability to fake his way through privileged existence has left him less man and more thing.  Unable to overcome his own unfillable emptiness, the film concludes with Anthony’s body found, dead of an overdose, in the public toilet of the Wallace Collection.

These entanglements of annihilation and assimilation are mirrored, albeit far less dramatically, in Cruz’s own accounts of her journeys through academia. Born to a Mexican immigrant mother and Mexican-American father who for a time worked in the fields, college was nowhere on the horizon for most of her family. Like many others of her background, the desperation to “get out” became overwhelming. And she did indeed get out, earning not just a Bachelor’s but two Master’s degrees and a Ph.D, authoring a handful of poetry collections and a book of essays. Still, as she tells it, she has spent much of her time in academia feeling out of place next to her mostly middle-class colleagues. Many of her professors expressed a distaste for the more aggressive tones in her poems, resulting in attempts to temper what she wrote, to make it more acceptable to the respectable. “In my flight from my working-class origins,” she writes, “I had lost who I was, and yet what I had become was nothing but a ghost of who I had been.”

If there is indeed no “getting out,” no way to effectively depart from class society as it renders us its subjects, then what is left for us? The space Cruz dedicates to working-class musicians like Paul Weller, Jason Molina, and Mark Linkous suggests that there might be a method of cultural survival that is more internalized, more somatic, that seeks not to escape one’s class origins but rather to center them, forcing the world to bend around them.

It is, naturally, healthier to let out our pains and torments than it is to repress them. There is also something unique in music that in meeting the rhythms of our minds and bodies allows us to transmit and release our traumas. But even here we encounter painful and tragic stumbling blocks.

There is an undeniable magnetism in the raw energy of Paul Weller and The Jam’s music and performances. It is true that Weller had (and has) solidly leftist working-class politics, and his lyrics have frequently reflected his dismal surroundings with brutal honesty. But the book teases out something altogether more visceral and kinetic.

“His thin, wired body seemed packed with energy,” Cruz writes. “Watching Weller’s lithe, frenetic body on stage is to watch a caged animal—imprisoned by the class system. His body never stops moving, his mouth jammed up, chewing a wad of gum. He was able, somehow, to put into words things I was not able, yet, to articulate.”

Weller is, in this description, a literal embodiment of the working-class subject in revolt. He is trapped in a world that is disgusted with his very existence. And yet, he continues to not just exist, but to force that same world to face his rage and disaffection.

Cruz also illustrates how it is that the actual sound and production of music can open the way to alternative narratives that make the dispossessed visible again. She identifies static and other imperfections in David Bowie’s Berlin albums as tiny intervals where the slickness of the music industry and celebrity are interrupted, allowing questions to arise. Citing Walter Benjamin, Cruz suggests that these “are moments when the present and the past appear as one, and access to a forgotten past becomes possible.”

This theoretical and philosophical analysis is the strongest and most interesting dimension of The Melancholia of Class. Cruz is in agreement with Benjamin and other heterodox thinkers who insist that there is something suspect in the concept of “progress” sold to us as an unqualified good. She insists that, in the notion of “progress” under capitalism, there is always a significant but invisibilized segment of the population that is left out. In this context, the discordant wails and plaintive mourning of poor and working-class artists—of those who have been exiled from history, literally made into anachronisms—create space within the cacophony of bootstraps rhetoric.

This is not to say that those who opt for a musical course of expression are somehow spared the ghostly fate shared by Wanda and Anthony. Cruz points out that working-class bodies can just as easily become a “vessel for sorrow,” as the suicide of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis illustrates. The same can be said for Amy Winehouse, subject to endless amounts of derision in the media for her supposedly uncouth behavior and crude expressions, finally taken down by the same addictions for which the tabloids mocked her.

The stories of Jason Molina and Mark Linkous are especially resonant in Cruz’s argument. Molina and Linkous both hailed from blighted rural areas: southern Ohio and Virginia’s mining country, respectively. Both made music that rejected the slickness that dominated the music industry in the 1990s and early aughts. Molina’s Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. projects reveled in old-school blues and country sounds that just barely allowed critics to label them “indie rock,” while Linkous’s Sparklehorse deliberately smeared songs with the crackle and pop of analog static, dirtying the tones, giving his music an eerie, displaced quality. Both artists purposefully kept in touch with their impoverished roots, and openly rebelled against the idea that they were only as good as their relevance to the culture at large. Both also died young; Molina of organ failure related to alcoholism, Linkous of suicide.

One inevitable challenge to The Melancholia of Class is that no amount of art or culture will ever be able to liberate us. The pain and loss that makes for such compelling creative expressions will never be transcended through those same expressions. This much is irrefutable. Still, in the book’s final chapter, Cruz holds out hope that these small acts of resistance might coalesce and amplify each other, culminating in what she calls “an act of communal negation.”

Much of that same final chapter is dedicated to interpreting Laura Grace Ford’s Savage Messiah. First published in 2011 and re-released in 2019 by Verso with a new introduction and extra material, Ford’s zine/art collection is disarming and revelatory, featuring her own drawings, photographs, recollections, and reimaginings of a London squeezed by neoliberalism and gentrification.

“When cities began their class-cleansing projects,” as Cruz bluntly puts it, “the working-class lost not just their homes, as their neighborhoods were cleared out for the arrival of the suburban middle-class, they also lost the possibility for leisure vis-à-vis urban drift.” Citing both Benjamin’s One-Way Street and the Situationist practice of dérive, Cruz’s analysis of Savage Messiah makes concrete the working-class phenomenology fleshed out in the rest of the book, implying that if our spaces can be stolen from us, they can be wrested back.

In doing so, Cruz also makes the case that the struggle against the “two deaths,” the struggle for collective working-class redemption, is inherently one over time and space. The backlash against unions and social movements, the shredding of the social safety net, and the strictures of wage labor represent the confinement of the working class’s freedom to exist when and where we want.

In the face of this, the response of the isolated working-class artist can only depict; it cannot dismantle. As far as the means of accomplishing the communal negation that Cruz writes on, this gathering of small symbolic acts into large material ones, she is admittedly vague. But then, this topic is not really the aim of the book. What The Melancholia of Class does (and does well) is reclaim space, even if only in our heads, for a contemporary working-class subject. If the book returns so frequently to themes of ghostliness, it is because the spirits of these atomized, invisibilized radical subjects still remain. Like much of the art discussed in this book, they have been pushed to the periphery.

Further highlighting the difficulties of breaking out of the margins is Cruz’s fixation on class as identity. It is indeed true that the disappointments and betrayals that the working class endures play a role in shaping who we are. At the same time, identities are by their nature mutable and fluid. Is the process of separation from someone’s class roots always so traumatic as the accounts in this book? Is Cruz’s framework reliant on some degree of essentialization? Is approaching class in this way akin to shouting, futilely, the lyrics to “Common People” in the faces of the well-to-do over and over again? (No matter how much they might deserve it?)

These are valid questions. If they are left unanswered, then it is because the friction between class and identity can’t be resolved on the page. It must be answered in practice. This demands not just a subculture but a counterculture: something that can contend with a culture industry so skilled at instrumentalizing our very notion of individuality.

Which brings us back to Cruz’s “communal negation.” If this book reminds us of anything, it is that there is always an authentic self, warped and damaged as it may be, struggling to crawl out from under the weight of exploitation and deprivation. There is no point in ignoring the scars of this struggle—everyone in the working class has them. And if that’s the case, then they might in fact be necessary to find our way toward redemption, or revenge. Ghosts we may be, but we can only haunt harmlessly for so long.♦

Alexander Billet is a writer and artist based in Los Angeles. A member of the Locust Arts & Letters Collective, he helps edit its publications Locust Review and Imago, and is a producer of its podcast Locust Radio. His blog is To Whom It May Concern…

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