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The Midnight Sun

Matmos’ Drew Daniel reveals darker half in academic book

Photo: Christopher Myers, License: N/A

Christopher Myers

Drew Daniel, half of the duo Matmos, in his office at Johns Hopkins University, where he’s an assistant professor of English


This is not another self-help book about depression. In fact, in The Melancholy Assemblage: Affect and Epistemology in the English Renaissance (Fordham University Press), Drew Daniel argues that the titular affliction is less an individual malady and more of a collective effect that we share with others. As an assistant professor of English at Johns Hopkins University, half of the collaboration-centric electronic duo Matmos, and a underground-culture essayist, Daniel knows a thing or two about audiences and how they’re affected.

His inquiry leads him through sources familiar, esoteric, and labyrinthine, touching, for instance, on two difficult 1,000-plus-page texts from different eras that represent a mixture of melancholy and outright madness: Walter Benjamin’s early 20th-century survey The Arcades Project and Robert Burton’s early 17th-century sprawl The Anatomy of Melancholy. Like the internet, “both texts engage in a relentless appropriation and framing of found materials, and both refrain from a directly polemical argument about how we should respond to those materials,” Daniel writes, adding later that the texts build an “intellectual form of suspense” that brings a dramatic portrayal of melancholy into academic prose.”

So it’s appropriate that William Shakespeare’s actual dramas of melancholy bear the brunt of Daniel’s analytic effort; by his reckoning, the Bard’s theatrical classics prove fertile ground for melancholy as felt experience, prose, and Machiavellian shadow play. The tortured namesake of Hamlet tantalizes antagonists and audiences alike with conflicting signals as regards his malaise following the death of his father at the hands of his uncle, while The Merchant of Venice interprets “melancholy pitched oddly between opportunity, challenge, and therapeutic responsibility” via the one-upsmanship of the primary male characters.

Be forewarned: this book is an unabashedly academic work that can feel at times as exhaustive and exhausting as Benjamin or Burton’s studies, even as Daniel takes pains to inject his point of view into the proceedings.

In early April, Daniel spoke to City Paper by telephone about the long, winding path Assemblage took from idea to reality.

City Paper: How long did this book take to research and write?

Drew Daniel: If I’m completely honest, it was 12 years—which is not to say that I woke up every morning and went right to work on this book.

The Melancholy Assemblage is the result of a dissertation that I wrote to earn my Ph.D. from Berkeley. It took about six years. In the middle, three chapters in, I was invited to go on the road with Bjork, to tour Vespertine. So there went three years. I may have spent a year just on the Merchant of Venice chapter. For the last six years I’ve been teaching at Johns Hopkins University, revising. It was in that time that I added the concept of the “assemblage,” asserting that melancholy is not just an emotional state inside of one person but a socially extended phenomenon, something that connects bodies, signs, symptoms, and persons together. When you are watching a production of Hamlet, you are experiencing his suffering as a problem, something you have to interpret and resolve, and you are pulled into a melancholy assemblage with Hamlet. The atmosphere of dread in the play isn’t just Hamlet’s private problem—it’s something you inhabit and participate in.

Melancholy figures are seen as cut off from society, but that feeling is shareable. Negative emotions don’t necessarily separate people—they can be the thing that unites communities. It’s a paradox, but it’s something that we can see around us, and not just in Renaissance culture.

That said, I find as I keep reading the play I’m gear-shifting from identifying with Hamlet; now that I am older and wiser and full of advice for young people, I identify more with Polonius. What I love about Shakespeare’s plays is that he sees melancholy as an attention-seeking trick and he exposes it as a tactic that works. Melancholy works because it is legible even and especially when it is “mysterious.”

CP: Were there any examples or texts that you considered for your narrative that didn’t quite fit?

DD: Oh yeah, lots of things. Part of the trouble with an obsession is that when you live inside of it, you see it everywhere. I think there needed to be more on Milton’s poem “Il Penseroso” and the way melancholy and sorrow are treated in Renaissance love poetry. These protestations of sorrowful, frustrated passion are a key part of how melancholy becomes a fad in the period.

CP: A lot of blogging and aggregating amounts to doing what Benjamin and Burton did in their studies, i.e. presenting something that exists in the world and offering minimal comment. Would you say that there’s something melancholy in that?

DD: I think a lot of the sort of attitude toward authority that characterized the work of Benjamin and Burton is now part and parcel of how we approach knowledge. The internet itself is a mass of found knowledge. In The Arcades Project Benjamin aspired to a model in which he would just quote a source and not add anything. Burton would have loved the web. But there are, of course, key differences: One doesn’t just print out 10 years’ worth of blogging and present it as a unified work. Burton’s prose can be savored for its humor and arch attitude; you just have to adjust yourself to its tempo. I realize that it’s hard to get people to read 1,000 pages of 17th-century prose. But Burton’s run-on sentences are very much of their time. Burton would not have loved Twitter! [laughs]

CP: Is the internet essentially an unknowable ocean of arcana, and couldn’t that intractability translate into the strain of depression you treat here?

DD: Is the internet itself already a melancholy assemblage? The value it places upon how many followers you have or likes you get—that seems to me to rest upon a desperate, narcissistic longing for love and a fear of rejection. There may be a melancholy component to that deep need for approval and recognition. Though now it’s something that we think of as more muted and solitary, Renaissance people also regarded manic, chatterbox-like verbosity as a possible symptom of melancholy.

If you’re looking for a modern version of “the melancholy assemblage,” I think you could see a similar phenomenon in the Occupy movement, and in particular in the [posts on to We Are the 99 Percent] blog, in which all of these people, one at a time, expressed their economic disenfranchisement and personal struggles to make ends meet in images and stories that were linked together into a virtual community based upon a shared feeling that wasn’t just personal. That was a contemporary example of melancholy assemblage.

CP: Is there anyone in public life today whom you think of as profoundly melancholic?

DD: I think that a lot of the films of Gus Van Sant are bound up with feelings of melancholy longing, and melancholy ways of looking with desire at human figures. I also sense this in the so-called “depressive black metal” of a one-man band like Striborg. I’m particularly interested in the Renaissance idea of melancholy, which is a more flexible emotional state than 19th-century definition of the term, which tends to predominate now. But I see that weird mixture of aggression and sorrow in Striborg and Van Sant.

Every time you write a book, you define your audience and figure out what they already know. A great book could be written about melancholy in modern music, but that would be for people who are already consuming lots of music and music journalism. My goal was to do justice to the early modern representation of melancholy as a social phenomenon, which I hadn’t seen done elsewhere. It was also a way to spend time with something I really, really care about: the weird feedback loops between negative emotions and the construction of community.

CP: Was the experience of writing this book a depressive or enlivening one? Did you make a lot of unexpected discoveries in the process?

DD: It’s changed so much over the course of its life. There were certain times when I felt that I was living inside of this awful, endless dark cloud that would follow me everywhere. Just this deep burden and the endlessness of Burton’s text looked like this allegory for my own project. At the same time there was this sort of manic joy in tightening up the chapters and finishing the book. I didn’t expect it, but there was a joy to it.

It’s funny; my next project is looking at exemplary moments of self-killing in a range of Renaissance texts and Greek tragedies. I am looking at some writing from the Renaissance that alleges that Jesus killed himself. You could draw comparisons with Huey Newton and the Black Panthers’ ideas about “revolutionary suicide,” and with contemporary debates about martyrdom and terrorism. I’m thinking about self-killing as something more complicated than suicide.

Hopefully I make it out of this subject alive, but there’s no way I’m spending 12 years on it. I think there’s a sort of statute of limitations when it comes to revisions. I have a friend who’s been working on her debut novel for 10 years. The working title is Any Minute Now.

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