The Rhetoric of Depression Listening to "Listening to Prozac" in a Pandemic

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Judy Z. Segal


This essay examines the persuasive elements of one of the most influential books of the current era in psychiatry: Peter Kramer’s 1993 Listening to Prozac. That book, a text laden with the value of the hyperthymic (optimistic, charismatic, confident)
personality, has been praised for illuminating questions of mood and identity, and blamed for ushering in an era of “cosmetic pharmacology”—and for making Prozac an object at the center of promiscuous prescription. The essay revisits depression, Kramer’s signal concern, in a post/pandemic exigence when millions, perhaps billions, of people come to meet the diagnostic criteria for that “disorder.” In many cases, mental-illness diagnosis, as a rhetorical act and a speech act, shifts a problem from social conditions of precarity and inequity, for example, to personal conditions of pathology. How did Kramer participate in making a capacious and biological view of depressed mood so persuasive, and why does it matter that he did?

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