“… Without a sense of identity, there can be no real struggle…” ― Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
An odd scenario has evolved in how we negotiate art, politics, and interpretation when considering the relationship between intersubjectvity and the circulation of meaning in the teaching of literature. A new morality has emerged: forget a ‘spoiler alert’ and you’ve committed a punishable heresy. Who dies at the end of a season of Breaking Bad? Serious business, people. Existential necessity. Just Good manners. But as for ‘trigger warnings’ [TW]? Shit, that’s just crybaby neoliberal self-petting for the snowflake and kleenex crowd, for those disposed to “fragility of mind“.
Now, I’ve procrastinated on writing on this topic in the same way I sidestep “death of the humanities” debates. The arguments are vociferous and dispersed, with a conglomerate of tenured professors siding together in detecting a “chilling effect on our teaching and pedagogy“, with the frigidity of puritanical TW advocates and millennial whingers collaborating in the straight jacketing of literature and its magnanimous task to challenge the naive. You’d need a page to list the entire bibliography of this point of view, which has enjoyed a fair whack of “father knows best” in big academic publications.
However, those supporting trigger warnings or content notices have either been ignored, miscast as proponents of censorship and pedagogical restriction, or just unremarkable ableism that implies that those of soft constitutions should best stick to Archie comics. There have, however, been several very good defences — I recommend Shakesville and Samantha Field for start. And, this morning, Julia Serano proposed some evaluations, in an essay over 6000 words. Serano notes a generational issue in play, but I’m not so sure of that. Regardless, one does sense that an older professoriate has absorbed too much Admin-think; and they now preach that tough love is the TruthHurts.edu for the weak-soled kids of the now.
Really, I would probably have jogged past the subject, throwing my hands up in dismay at the fray, if not for a scholar I greatly admire, Jack Halberstam, offering a much-discussed intervention into the field.
In terms of joining the debate, Halberstam’s essay felt like a second-half substitute of another striker in football (soccer), a fresh pair of legs rushing onto the pitch to replace a wearied captain playing midfield. To put it another way, Halberstam brings flash where for too long we only heard administrative arguments against TW. Halberstam’s dazzling style of aggressive play, albeit appearing somewhat late in the match, is mostly tooth and less tactics: “all social difference in terms of hurt feelings and that divides up politically allied subjects into hierarchies of woundedness,” he writes gnashingly of TWs.
With the dozens of heavy footed pieces out there, I realize the contribution I might make is how I — as an openly transsexual woman in university classrooms — use TW in my syllabus and course dynamics
Shortly after my transition, I taught John Keats’s “The Eve of St Agnes” in a second year survey of English Romantic poetry. The text is very serviceable: replete with stylistic refinery and sensual finesse. Moreover, the poem demonstrates some of those fundamental features one wishes to impart to students about the Romantics. Stanzaic juxtaposition of dichotomous forces, the trilling rush of Keats’s aesthetic indulgence, and a fairly allegorical story of lovemaking, transcendence, and the vigour of youth in pursuit of sexual and spiritual oneness. Archetypally adept at depicting Idealist notions of leaving the body for neo-Platonic unions, the poem narrates steadily enough as a moral taste of passion over reason.
Or so that’s how the poem was taught by generations of establishment professors, brokering the Dead Poets Society sentiments of steamy mandates of roses, religions, and men getting their muses.
The poem might have continued to enjoy this carnal storm story of young love — the anima and animus of adventurous Porphyro and his castle rescue of the comatose maid Madeline . . . but as Jack Stillinger noticed — there are many discomforting, licentious aspects to the sexual act in the poem that reveals an act more or less of rape. In the paradigm changing publication “The Hoodwinking of Madeline” (1961), Stillinger argues persuasively that the poem, shed of its glamour and opportunistic mystery, reveals an act of aestheticised violence in which Porphyro, far from heroic resuscitator, is a male rapist getting his pleasure from a non-consenting woman.
My students were quite surprised when I introduced Stillinger’s view in my lecture on Keats. Content to see the poem as a commemorative sacrament of the free-love sense, many of them — mostly men, I note — were shocked by my statement that the poem champions the subjugation of women’s bodies through coercive sexuality. My argument developed from Stillinger’s, with a contemporary turn of phrase: one either has %100 consent, or none at all. There is no partial, no heat of the moment, no “special occasion” or “you owe me” or “do this one thing and I’ll save you” or “Madeline was actually into it” when it comes to sex. There’s a sleeping woman and the man who has infiltrated her room and violated her when she was incapable of giving assent. It’s rape. I repeated once more: %100 consent or none at all. I was not a popular professor that day.
In my office hour, a female student came to discuss the work’s readings. Mostly, she told me, she wanted to thank me for being so adamant about what constitutes consensual sexual relations. During my lecture on Keats earlier, she confided to me without emotion and in monotone, she came to understand that she had been raped recently, despite whatever pleas to partial agreement she’d been threatened into accepting as terms of her silence.
Here’s something I need you to understand: the vast majority of students when ‘triggered’ don’t write howlers to department heads or flip laptops over in crowded classrooms for YouTube counts.
On the contrary, they most often shut down and collapse into numbness.
I don’t know if, at that stage, a ‘content notice’ would have helped or not; but I have since used them effectively and proportionately in all of my syllabus, including the course I am teaching next fall. So, before commencing my more analytical sense as to what I believe trigger warnings offer, let me first make this point clear. In my application, TWs require only a brief amount of preparation, make excellent introductory discussion points to begin classroom interaction, promote an awareness to how all texts function as cognitive events in our interpretations, demonstrate a commitment to respect and conversation, and expand into an ethics of intersubjectivity. Alain Badiou made me think about how every social situation, including an education one, involves a multitude of beliefs, interests, and preferences. Trigger warnings, for me, are one of those devices that help us to collaborate our discussions at the group level. Far from shutting down dialogue, they create moments for discussion rather than assumption. For me, they are one part of an overall pedagogy of resistance.
Now, I am fond of Jack Halberstam’s scholarship: The Queer Art of Failure causes me to cheer out loud in several places. Thus, in reading so many of the responses to him, I’m shocked at how little authors seem to have actually read him in detail: a tepid grad-school takedown, lecturing blithely about Althusser and “grand narratives”, overlooks exactly what Halberstam’s philosophical arguments have been for over a decade, as well as their placement in contemporary queer politics.(Indeed, why Nussbaum/Butler debates from decades back? I’m thinking of Halbertsam as connecting to Zizek’s post-Marxist point that some minority politics sustain their identity through a deliberate doomed-to fail scenario). And really the Halberslam twitter account can be amusing. Whatever your take, Halberstam has read his trauma theory and very much understands recent consternation in theorizing trauma, testimony, and the capitalization of affect. The “neoliberal” recrimination in Halberstam’s essay isn’t hard to shake off, especially as queer studies now addresses the secession of queer politics to capitalist profit margins.
Nonetheless, I think my major concern has been how trigger warnings have been misrepresented, thus making it difficult to make sense of how they’re being dismissed. Informed by excellent conversations with my friend and academic colleague Miriam Novick, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the discussion is further dispersing from the actual implementation of trigger warnings and how we, as profs, use them. The following is not an exhaustive list, but a compendium of purposes that I have practically derived, through experience, of teaching difficult texts and their personal and political dimensions . Whereas I see authors such as Halberstam downgrading TW to the status of unruly brat pack megaphone blasts, I truly see them as proper to the pedagogy of resistance.
Having lived until this point with a severe visual disability, I’ve trained myself to be sensitive to shadows as well as light in measuring the depth of a room so I can walk through. I use TWs exactly the same way: not to make safe space automatic, but at least recognizable. TW enhance the flexibility of approach and interaction, taking up cues and signs normally ignored, for the possibility of safer space — not as comfy entitlement but instead a cooperative endeavour. We know there is no such thing as safe space — I live in this world as trans, after all. Some utopic circle of protection? On the contrary, I make it clear these discussions will be on the table and that they can be decidedly unsafe, and I offer students a chance for reflection as to how they might contribute (or drop the course altogether, if that suits them. Interestingly, very few do.)
When I comment on anti TW essays: the flexibility of approach and interaction, the promotion of safe space — not as automatic attainment but a cooperative endeavour. Trigger warnings, or content notes, situate the factors of trauma, cognition, event, and interpretation in the personal and intersubjective work of discussing a text in powerful and insightful ways. By implementing them, I as a professor assert the sense of personal responsibility and communal impact of our work together not just as a “lecture” — I say it, you listen — but also a creative exchange — what are you saying back to what I am saying, or the text is saying. I do not assume my students are frail sandcastles doomed to the inevitable tide, nor do I stamp TW on my syllabus like Tipper Gore era B&W scare labels on 80s rap cassettes. I’m with Andrea Smith when she says on ethics and collectivity: “They came out of the recognition that we are not unaffected by the political and intellectual work that we do. These practices also recognized that the labor of healing has to be shared by all.” And trigger warnings, by their very introduction, initiate mindfulness of trauma, subjectivity, and cultural power. Far from shutting down conversation, we become sensitized to cooperation in our analysis. I’m not the one trying to eliminate books or “sanitize the curriculum”; I’m the one willing to teach the trans stuff, the gritty queer theory, the politics of contemporary women’s bodies — courses, I hasten to add, that I routinely fill up in an era in which the overall enrolment numbers in my department are free falling so fast they might as well have helmet cams attached.
My notion of content notes are initial advisories. I employ them to acknowledge the complexities of texts and our emotional reactions to them, to de-stigmatize mental health and reconsider what is group discussion and the possibilities of community support. We stick up posters advising students to seek professional help if they’re considering self-harm, but balk at properly articulating both “harm” and “help” in the books we share and with whom. As Miriam Novick writes, “My students are fully dimensional human beings with experiences like and unlike my own.” And I concur emphatically with Andrea Smith, who states, “TWs are intervening in liberal presumption that ‘real’ intellectual work is disembodied with no material effects on folks.” This seems to be absolutely instrumental in teaching literature as material events with casual relations that are not classroom analysis or isolated theoretical edifices. Content notes are not ‘advisory’, but they are engagement: we call into account that which is far too often not counted, and its ‘common sense’ logic of domination. Instead, we endeavour to rearrange the reading of the potential subject as weak, unequal, and in need of paternal care. Trigger warnings are active and not passive: rather than trying to “elude’ discomfort, or offer some emotional prophylactic against it — we challenge collective practices that have, for too long, been assumed as ‘proper pedagogy’ under the mantel of authority and its decorum of self-satisfaction to its teleological purpose.
Halberstam’s essay, with its anecdotal observations, presumes a naivety in the twenty-first century student, who are more concerned about selfish narcissism and retweeted micro politics than real activism, like taking down the “global capitalism and corrupt political systems”. (One wonders if the university itself fits into Halberstam’s renditions of Negri). With only my own anecdotes, I beg to differ: students now account for themselves within a pluralizing of a public with imaginations resistant to Socratic dialogue and faculty club pedantry. Far from assuming their privileged histories, or lack thereof, TWs set up for us a starting point for a project of transforming rather than leaving behind in how we approach the contexts of our studies.
If you insist that trigger warnings are regressive bumper stickers that never account for the complexity that representation in literature demands, that is designed to “make students squirm“, then I suggest you’re being patronising — to students and to instructors who find them beneficial for the reasons I’m outlining. Not needing TWs does not make you better than those of us who do. Enough of that, please.
Althusser is right: identity is produced by the sound a policeman’s whistle. But what if instead of responding directly to that whistle like rats to the piper, we open up real multiplicity by interrogating why the pitched squeal causes us to move in particular directions. With TWs as a beginning, I don’t close off agency; I invite students to think about Foucault and his “care of the self” — our agency depends on how we practice ourselves as conduits of relations and self-creation, and not just head-strutting towards power. Can a trigger warning accomplish all that? Of course not. But TWs demand an investigation of texts, emotions, interpretations, and persons as more than just static whats. In thinking of identity and identification, as networked through the processes of the substance and technique of reading — of reading ourselves and, as Lévinas beseeches, reading others. As inter relational and multi referential. TWs are an aspect of pedagogy that engages in a feminist reconception of causality and freedom.
If I had to pick one unsavoury aspect of Halberstam’s essay, it’s his attention to the “tr*nny debate” . . . a topic I’ve written on — unfortunately — several times on this blog. For a male identified person to highlight this as the casus belli of hula-hoop identity politics, completely ignoring the networked solidarity of trans women speaking out against it, suggests a preference for the neoliberal point of view . . . one that promises entertainment at the cost of abjection: pay your ticket, and watch some trans women get mocked. When it comes to people and their affect, why be restrained by fair trade when you can have laissez fair? Discussion to follow (without us, of course). Halberstam inadvertently draws attention to the slippery indifference that so much anti-TW writing in fact reveals as the underlying assumption that backs the denunciation.
As a trans woman who is an adjunct professor, dependent on vanishing contracts and a departmental apparatus that sees me as a slot and not a person, I know better than anyone how my approach to trigger warnings directly influences my ability to get a job and keep one. You do not need to lecture sessionals who make dole-like wages, even teaching on the trot for the full week, with such advisories. On the contrary, as I’ve discussed with Lisa Milibank, I suspect that anti-TW types are sometimes motivated at the thought that response might spoil the dramaturgic poise of their delivery: hence why spoiler alerts are equitable to a passive audience, but TWs promote the cheap seats making noise. Maybe they just reckon the surprise psychic sucker punch trumps all other values in the spills and thrills of performance.
Not for me. As a transsexual woman, in considering a job as a professor, I must scope out the potential department to which I’m applying with subtle apprehension. Every single time, I peruse syllabus of straight cis profs regaling on The Matrix (directed by the Wachowski Bros. [sic] — come on, once you know Lana’s story the film will seem very different to you.) Or, my most memorable kick in the teeth — a team teaching position I interviewed for under the theme of “Monsters”. Alongside Frankenstein, Faust, and the ugly people in Joyce, they also listed The Crying Game as featuring the abject shapeshifter of the transsexual woman. I voiced my concerns. I got an email at 10.02 that night telling me I didn’t land the job.
I pity any trans student who has to sit through the mandatory screening of Neil Jordan’s film, as part of a course requirement, pixelled to high definition puking of a heterosexual hero/anti-hero (at least he’s cis!) for whom membership in the Provisional IRA is more forgivable than having an attraction to a trans woman. (By the way, this is a theme Halberstam explores in his excellent In a Queer Time and Place).
I pity myself, having to teach that text as part of a tenure-track team that equates “trans woman” with “penis wielding monster”.
Now that was an interview that needed a trigger warning.
When we talk about crisis and resistance, liberal politics keeps picking the iceberg, or so the anti-TW warns us. But all I can think of is that terrified trans girl, slumped in the silent back recesses of a dimmed lecture hall, having to watch all of that without any suggestion that the professoriate will address transphobia, trauma, and the realities of transmisogyny. I know that girl — because I was her, hovering anxiously at the end of class hoping for a private word with a prof that I never got.