Can the Triggered Generation Speak?

In a welcome letter to all incoming students in the Class of 2020 at the University of Chicago, Dean of Students John (Jay) Ellison writes, “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Chicago Maroon tweet about Ellison ltr Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 11.55.42 AM

In light of the renewed discussions about trigger warnings and safe spaces that have followed the publication of this letter, I wanted to post comments I made at a panel discussion on Trigger Warnings and Neoliberal Classrooms: Rethinking Pedagogy in Our Time of Precarity organized by graduate students Michelle Ho and Joy Schaefer at Stony Brook University on February 18, 2015. I presented along with my colleagues Kadji Amin, Nerissa Balce, and Michael Kimmel.


Can the Triggered Generation Speak? Some notes on safe spaces, pedagogical genres, and snuff culture

I organized my comments in 4 short sections in the hopes of generating a discussion.

  1. On safe spaces

I am a member of the Safe Space Program at Stony Brook, and have been since its inception in 2008. I have a sticker on my office door that identifies it as a place that LGBTQ students could come should they find themselves in a difficult situation. My understanding of the responsibility that I have taken on by participating in this program is that I would listen and try to help should someone come to me with a problem. That the program focuses in particular on LGBTQ students is in recognition of a history of outright discrimination and sometimes violence, and subtle and not-so-subtle forms of pathologization of individuals and whole groups of people because of their perceived sexual and sexuality difference. It’s important to note that the designated safe space is my office and not my classroom. This isn’t because I create an unsafe space in my classroom, but because there are many, many more variables at play in the classroom, and in practice, my pedagogy works against the notion of any one person’s, even the instructor’s, capacity to control an environment, let alone make it safe.

I have never included a trigger warning on a syllabus, nor, frankly, am I very good at warning students in advance about what they might feel upon seeing or discussing something in my classes. This may be because all of my classes deal with painful issues and texts that might make a student, or her teacher, feel angry or sad, vulnerable or uncertain, fascinated or empowered, again depending on many factors, including the always fluid composition and dynamics of a class from one semester, day, moment to the next. In general, then, I agree with one of Jack Halberstam’s main points in his blog “You are Triggering Me!” and in the related presentation he gave at Stony Brook in fall 2014: that we can’t predict what will happen when we show or discuss a particular text, idea, experience, event. And why would we want to try? The question is both ethical and pedagogical, or we might say: the question suggests a pedagogical ethics that isn’t about the content of a particular class but about practices of teaching and learning that attempt to open up rather than shut down thinking and feeling, and that work in indirect as well as direct ways.

  1. On pedagogical genres

In his blog, Halberstam doesn’t actually take up pedagogy very explicitly. In fact, his gripe seems to be more about things that he has witnessed and suffered while on the academic conference circuit rather than in the classroom. At Stony Brook, he added a sub-text, what he described in his “under title” as “The Pedagogics of Unlearning,” and he assembled together the key points made in the triggering blog (uploaded on July 5, 2014) with a version of a presentation, “‘A Path So Twisted’: Thinking Wildly With and Through Punk Feminisms,” he had given at the Pedagogics of Unlearning Conference at Trinity College, Dublin in September 2014 in honor of Jacques Ranciére. In the updated presentation, Halberstam provided a Rancieran pedagogical supplement to his polemical discussion of trigger warnings. This juxtaposition—of the pedagogical and the polemical—consolidated for me a nagging feeling I had when I first read Halberstam’s blog, which was that the blog’s polemical strategy overstated for rhetorical effect the problem of the trigger warning—trigger warning as cultural metaphor, if you will. Here I’m in agreement with Sara Ahmed, who, in her Feminist Killjoy blog, argues that, “the rush to critique [that we see in commentary like Halberstam’s] almost warrants the term ‘moral panic’ . . . because of some of the inflationary logics in use. These critiques tend to inflate what is intended by trigger warnings (from a specific technique for dealing with PTSD to a more generalised culture of warnings about any or all potential harms) and they also take form as narratives of crisis: trigger warnings have been identified as causing the demise of academic freedom, as being anti-intellectual, as a symptom of neo-liberalism, as evidence of narcissism—almost as a sign of the ‘end of education’ itself.”[1]

The point I want to make is related to Ahmed’s, and about pedagogy, or what I am calling pedagogical genres. Although I think the polemic form has many uses, it doesn’t suggest for me a pedagogics of unlearning, in fact it suggests quite the opposite—according to the OED, a polemic is, “A controversial argument; a strong verbal or written attack on a person, opinion, doctrine, etc.; (as a mass noun) writing or opinion of this kind. Also: (in sing. and pl.) aggressive debate or controversy; the practice of engaging in such debate.” A polemic affirms a single point of view and opposes another. In Halberstam’s argument, this is what the trigger warning does too. The irony, then, is that Halberstam’s polemical argument against trigger warnings itself acts as a kind of trigger warning. This is precisely because the effects of trigger warnings in Halberstam’s argument are taken to be direct and always the same: a trigger warning can only lead to one outcome—censorship and the impoverishment of freedom. Precisely, as the meme included in his blog jokes, YOUR TRIGGER WARNINGS ARE TRIGGERING ME!!!!!!!

  1. Can the “triggered generation” speak?

Halberstam begins his blog with the blasphemous humor of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which he is certain would never make it into cinemas today, before moving to the figure of the humorless feminist and a rather potted history of changing political times from the 1960s to the present, with the 1990s, hurrah!, as the period when“people began to laugh, loosened up, . . . got over themselves and began to talk and recognize that the enemy was not among us but embedded within new, rapacious economic systems.” Oh, how I miss the 1990s!! I know you do too, even those of you born in the 1990s. What gets slipped in, subtly at first, is that Halberstam is talking generationally, and he’s sounding a little crotchety about a younger generation of queers not interested in learning from their elders, who are of course the real rebels. He calls this younger generation “the triggered generation,” and deplores them, both for not being political at all, or political enough, and, worse, for having no sense of humor! “What does it mean,” Halberstam writes, “when younger people who are benefitting from several generations now of queer social activism by people in their 40s and 50s (who in their childhoods had no recourse to anti-bullying campaigns or social services or multiple representations of other queer people building lives) feel abused, traumatized, abandoned, misrecognized, beaten, bashed and damaged? These younger folks, with their gay-straight alliances, their supportive parents and their new right to marry regularly issue calls for ‘safe space.’”

This statement pains me. Not only because it is a generational cliché trotted out—well, let’s see—Every. Single. Generation, and as such is not really very funny (cue Monty Python’s “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life”), but also because it signals for me a trauma, what we might call a trans-generational trauma of political life, and as much analysis on trans-generational trauma suggests, the triggers for this feeling are often indirect.

Tactically, then, calling on postcolonial and feminist critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s pedagogical deconstructive practice in “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” I would like to reinvent this trans-generational problem in a sentence, or two, in order to attempt to transform it into the “object of simple semiosis” (92).

Recall that Spivak invents two sentences in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in order to condense the complex interactions between race, class, gender, sexuality, colonialism, and nationalism in relation to the particular case of the practice and performance of sati (a widow’s immolation on her husband’s funeral pyre) in India, and the problem of confronting the consciousness of the subaltern woman:

Colonialist sentence: “White men saving brown women from brown men.”

Nationalist counter-sentence: “The women actually wanted to die.”

The sentences I have invented condense feelings of past and present political life. I’m not sure they are entirely successful (and I know they are not nearly as succinct and brilliant as Spivak’s), so please feel free to let me know if you have other sentences to encapsulate this particular trans-generational problem.

Past political life: Post-structuralist queers saving politics from cultural (and radical) feminists, and never once losing their sense of humor.

Present political life: Young people today don’t have to go through the shit we had to go through.

  1. Coda: On snuff culture

In Testo Junkie, Beatriz Preciado links the emergence of the punk movement in the 1970s with what Preciado calls “snuff politics.”  Preciado writes, “At the beginning of the twenty-first century, no cultural production has entailed such a punk dimension as much as snuff has—the filming of death (or its representation) as it happens.”[2] Preciado describes the “notion of snuff” as “radically postmodern” in its opposition to the “dramatic or simulated and mimetic quality of all representation. On the contrary,” Preciado continues, “it affirms the performative power of representation to modify reality, or a desire for the real to exist in and by representation.”[3] Preciado mentions “snuff film catalogues” that provide images of assassinations, executions of prisoners of war and other wartime atrocities, 9/11/2001, etc., and asserts: “Politics has become snuff: extermination by and for representation.”[4]

Yet, I contend, snuff is not simply how we do politics, it is the everyday milieu in which we live our lives. And, in such a climate, how can we not be triggered?

To conclude, then, I want to bring the question back to pedagogy: What can pedagogy do in the context of a culture of snuff? I’ll end with a small, indirect gesture against this culture of snuff as articulated in a tweet and a comment regarding the Berkeley lynching effigies that were hung, apparently in protest of the decision not to indict New York City police officers in relation to the killing of Eric Garner, a killing which of course was filmed and has circulated widely—the new snuff. A “Bay Area collective of queer black and PoC artists” claimed responsibility for the effigies, and explained the statement they were making, while apologizing “solely and profoundly to Black Americans who felt further attacked by this work.” We might read @deray’s tweet (“Y’all I don’t even know what to think”) as a trigger warning and @4tunate4’s response (“Seeing images like this… I can’t!!!!!! I could be wrong but I can’t.”) as the reaction, “you are triggering me.” But I would prefer to read the expressions of uncertainty and emotion in both as entry points into thinking anew about the trans-generational trauma of political life, and as the beginning not of a polemic against trigger warnings but of a pedagogics of unlearning that is trans-generational.




[2] Beatriz Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era (New York: The Feminist Press, 2013), 344.

[3] Preciado, Testo Junkie, 345.

[4] Preciado, Testo Junkie, 346.


Graphic Medicine 2016: Stages & Pages

It was lovely to spend a weekend in Dundee, Scotland for the Graphic Medicine Conference at the University of Dundee. Despite coming on the heels of the Brexit vote (or perhaps because of–Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in Europe), the city and university provided a perfect location for doing graphic medicine. The University of Dundee is home to the Scottish Centre for Comics Studies and the vibrant DeeCAP (Dundee Comics/Art/Performance) scene. Participants were treated to fabulous keynotes (by Elisabeth El Refaie, Al Davison, and Lynda Barry, who also taught a comics and writing workshop with Dan Chaon). Check out the #stagespages hashtag on Twitter.

Comics&Medicine cfp image

I presented on a panel with Ariella Freedman (Concordia University), Andrew Godfrey (University of Dundee), and Sarah Hildebrand (CUNY-Graduate Center). Andrew was one of the main organizers of the conference and created the fabulous image for the conference above.

Our panel,”Performing Illness,” blended the theoretical and the personal in order to reflect on “illness as performance” in graphic narratives. Calling attention to both form and function, we analyzed how the genre shapes and is shaped by the experience of being ill, and how we might more critically engage with Graphic Medicine by making our own readings more performative. We asked: If comics are indeed stages upon which authors perform their illness, how might Graphic Medicine be used as a filter through which to view and respond to other people’s experiences, as well as our own? How might the subject “become” through drawing? And how might a better understanding of the performativity of patienthood help us break down obstacles to care?

Below is the abstract to my paper, “Drawing en abyme: staging illness and identity in graphic narratives” (for the sake of time, my paper focused mostly on drawing en abyme in Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?).

Jules Valera, a comics artist from Dundee, sketched our panel presenting our papers. You can’t get more meta than being drawn while presenting on drawing en abyme! That’s Jules on the right with her drawing of Sarah and Andrew in the middle presenting his own drawing en abyme.

Meta-drawing-en-abymePerforming IllnessJules Valera's drawing of Sarah Hildebrand


“Drawing en abyme: staging illness and identity in graphic narratives”

In a reading of Jacques Derrida’s use of the concept of mise en abyme[1] as a “fundamental operation of the text” that is “synonymous with textuality” itself, art historian and critical theorist Craig Owens argues that what the mise en abyme does is show how representation is staged in the text.[2] For Derrida, the mise en abyme stages the staged-ness of textuality—textuality en abyme. With this double operation in mind, Owens discusses photography in general and several photographs with mirrors in particular—a “photography en abyme,” arguing that what is depicted in such photographs is not some truth of identity, but “the process of becoming self-reflective.”[3] I want to extend Owens’s extension of Derrida’s use of the concept mise en abyme in order to explore the double operation of what I call drawing en abyme in graphic narratives. Graphic narratives work formally to deconstruct subjectivity in general and the experience of illness in particular. By emphasizing the subject as becoming through drawing, graphic narratives work to render the subject not as something one is, but rather as something one does, in relation to nonhuman objects and other human subjects.[4] Through particular formal elements, including drawing en abyme, graphic narratives demonstrate the ongoing and recursive processes of subjectification and de-subjectification. In this paper, I will explore in particular the way the representation of illness and identity is staged through the doubling of mirrors, photographs, and other imaging technologies in the graphic narratives of Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, and Brian Fies.

[1] According to the OED, the phrase “mise en abyme” describes the heraldic device in which a shield includes a smaller version of itself at its center. Andre Gide borrowed the term from heraldry to suggest the device of self-reflection in psychological novels.

[2] Craig Owens, “Photography en abyme,” in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 20.

[3] Ibid, 22. Owens discusses Brassaï’s “Groupe joyeux au bal musette” (1932), Lady Clementina Haywarden’s “At the Window” (c. 1964), and Robert Smithson’s series “Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1-9).” In his essay, Owens is interested in historicizing the device of photography en abyme in relation to the changing understanding of subjectivity in modernity and postmodernity. Although beyond the scope of this essay, I find Owens’s analysis useful in contemplating the concept of self-reflexivity expressed in the age of the selfie.

[4] I am, of course, drawing on Judith Butler’s theorization of gender as something we do, and are compelled to do, not something we are or have as a kind of attribute, as first articulated in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York and London: Routledge, 1990). I am also drawing on the work of Annemarie Mol, who describes illness as “something being done to you, the patient. And something that, as a patient, you do,” The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002), 20.

Compassion: Keywords in Medical Humanities and Health Studies at MLA 2016

I was thrilled to participate in the inaugural session of the new Medical Humanities and Health Studies forum at the MLA. Catherine Belling organized an invigorating lightning session on Keywords in the Medical Humanities and Health Studies. Here is the list of keywords and presenters:

Pathology (Catherine Belling, Northwestern University)

Care (Sally Chivers, Trent University)

Empathy (Ann Jurecic, Rutgers University)

Compassion (Lisa Diedrich, Stony Brook University)

Mortality (Erin Lamb, Hiram College)

Disability (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Emory University and Allison Hobgood, Willamette University)

Health (Kari Putterman, Virginia Polytechnic University)

Life (Matthew A. Taylor, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)


We had five minutes each to cover these complex concepts. Here’s what I had to say about (and against) compassion:

In order to consider the term “compassion” in relation to Medical Humanities and Health Studies, I will discuss two recent rhetorical shifts in the use of the term that I argue might help us to diagnose the condition of the Medical Humanities and health care in late liberalism.

The shifts in usage I will discuss are 1. from compassion to compassion fatigue (compassion as modified) and 2. from care to compassionate care (compassion as modifier). I argue that these shifts in usage are signs (or etymological structures of feeling) of the condition of the Medical Humanities and/in health/care in late liberalism.

Big claims + no time = lightning presentation!

The first definition for “compassion” in the OED is “Suffering together with another, participation in suffering; fellow-feeling, sympathy,” but this usage is now obsolete. The current use shifts the emphasis from suffering with another to feeling for or being moved by the suffering of another. Fellow feeling disappears from the definition, and is replaced by a dichotomous and unequal relationship between the one who suffers and the one who is moved by the suffering of another.Even more recently, however, the etymological structure of feeling of the meaning of the word moves us, paradoxically, from feeling (with or for) to the absence of feeling or “compassion fatigue,” first used in the U.S. in 1968 and defined as “apathy or indifference towards the suffering of others or to charitable causes acting on their behalf.”[1] The most frequent early use of the term referred in particular to the numbed response of people in countries with a large and seemingly sudden influx of refugees. Here, a geopolitical phenomenon becomes about the capacity (or lack thereof) for individual feeling. The term is added to the definition of the word “compassion” in March 2002, and currently stands at the end of the entry, almost as if all compassion eventually and inevitably leads to compassion fatigue.

The other rhetorical shift I want to briefly mention is the increasingly frequent use of the phrase “compassionate care.” In the past, care could be good or bad (and everything in between), but when and why did we come to emphasize that our care is or should be compassionate? I contend that this shift happened around 1980, which is also the same time that the phrase “compassion fatigue” became increasingly popularized.

What does the rhetorical redundancy of the phrase “compassionate care” tell us about how we care now?

Emergence of the use of “compassion fatigue” and “compassionate care”: circa 1980

“compassion fatigue” “compassionate care”
0 in 1950-1960

0 in 1960-1970

0 in 1970-1979

117 in 1980-1990

915 in 1990-2000

1241 in 2000-2010

0 in 1950-1960

0 in 1960-1970

2 in 1970-1980

77 in 1980-1990

567 in 1990-2000

992 in 2000-2010

I argue that the redundant phrase is a sign of what we might call, paraphrasing feminist anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli, the culturalization (and depolitization) of care in late liberalism.[2] It is also a sign of a phenomenon that critical theorist Steven Colbert has described as “truthiness.”

Colbert Truthiness

In fact, I would go so far as to say that compassionate care is to care as truthiness is to truth = the quality of seeming or being felt to be true/compassionate, even if not necessarily true/compassionate.

Colbert No thinking Colbert Head bad heart good

Colbert’s axioms of truthiness emphasize feelings as opposed to thought: “No Thinking”; “Head Bad, Heart Good”; “Check Gut.”

My work seeks to consider these shifts in relation to the emergence of the Medical Humanities as a new discipline—a feeling discipline—in medicine in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the attempts to institutionalize practices of feeling in medicine in the four decades since. I am interested in this phenomenon in relation to the emergence around the same time of the hegemony of biomedicine and evidence-based medicine. The logic of biomedicine maintains an illusion of separate spheres between science/medicine and art/feeling—that is, compassion as supplemental to rather than internal to medicine.

Thus, I argue in general that compassion has become the “disciplinary imperative”[3] of the Medical Humanities. I conclude by offering three problematizations of the field in relation to this disciplinary imperative: 1. Medical Humanities is the spatial and temporal repository of feelings in and for medicine; 2. Medical Humanities participates in rather than challenges the instrumentalization of care in medicine;[4] and 3. Medical Humanities promulgates a negative disposition toward theory and abstraction that suggests that theory hurts. I offer an alternative that is against compassion, not in the sense of being opposed to feeling in general and compassion in particular, but in the sense of being proximate to it. Such a position helps avoid the trap of Medical Humanities as the soft place where doctors get to feel good about themselves as feeling human beings rather than a hard place of thought about the practice of medicine.[5]


[1] For an even more extensive genealogy of the word, concept, and practices of compassion, see Marjorie Garber, “Compassion,” in Lauren Berlant, ed. Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion (New York and London: Routledge, 2004): 15-27. Garber’s essay and Berlant’s introduction historicize the term in relation to the political discourse of “compassionate conservatism” around the turn of the 20th century. This feels like a very different moment politically, with the popularity of Donald Trump as reaction formation against a social expectation of the performance of compassion. Berlant seems to anticipate such a reaction formation noting that she was “struck by an undertone accompanying the performance of compassion: that scenes of vulnerability produce a desire to withhold compassionate attachment, to be irritated by the scene of suffering in some way,” “Introduction: Compassion (and Withholding),” 9.

[2] Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), 26.

[3] I take this term from Robyn Wiegman, whose brilliant work on the disciplinary imperatives of various identity studies and their “proper objects of study” has influenced my thought in immeasurable ways, Object Lessons (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012).

[4] In her ethnography of responses to the epidemics of tuberculosis and suicide among the Inuit in Canada in the 20th and 21st centuries, Lisa Stevenson notes that, “Caring, as it becomes an operationalizable concept—something that can be measured and evaluated, fed through a system of best practices and evidence-based science—simultaneously becomes invested in a certain way of being in time. Caring now occurs on shifts, with most shifts between 9 and 5. It is no longer professional to care after hours. Implicit in the system of care is that the object of care must learn to mime the caregiver’s attitudes to time and to care,” Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014), 134.

[5] For more on compassion as the disciplinary imperative in the Medical Humanities, as well as a call for doing “critical medical studies,” see my essay “Against Compassion: Attending to histories and methods in medical humanities; Or, doing critical medical studies,” in Franziska Gygax and Miriam Locher, eds. Narrative Matters in Medical Contexts across Disciplines (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 2015): 167-182.



Cinema and Precarity: Treatment, Risk, Trauma

Looking forward to the NWSA Conference in Milwaukee. I’ll be presenting on a panel entitled Cinema and Precarity: Treatment, Risk, Trauma with Kristin Hole, Dijana Jelaca, and Victoria Hesford.

Here’s the panel description:

This panel brings together papers that explore multifold representational economies of screen precarity in a variety of political, cultural and historical settings. We address the Distortion/Dispossession theme of the conference in examining how controlling images of precarious lives (Butler 2004) are reiterated or countered in various films. From the AIDS crisis and recent engagement with treatment activism, to challenging notions of bodily sovereignty through film language, to female directors’ take on gender and trauma in the aftermath of a violent ethnic conflict, this panel engages in the question of what political and ethical challenges screen precarity circulates culturally. Does screen precarity, as a representational frame, inevitably fetishize bodies in physical and psychic pain, or does it also challenge political complacency (Butler 2009)? How does screen precarity, even when purportedly about past events, inevitably address present-day anxieties, and moreover, how does it stage a screen enactment of “fantasy echoes” (Scott 2001) across temporal and spatial boundaries? In examining how various forms of screen precarity might challenge standard approaches to political agency, the panel pays particular attention to the ways in which screen illness, disability and trauma circulate affective economies (Ahmed 2004) that might constitute an archive of feelings (Cvetkovich 2003) envisioned outside of the temporal and spatial frameworks of neoliberalism.

My paper, Screening Treatment Activism: The Precarious Temporo-Politics of Illness, analyzes the phrase and campaign “Drugs into Bodies” as expressing an ontology of the late capitalist present, a condensation of the complexities of the interaction of medicine, politics, and the multiple and conflicting demands of different temporalities: the emergency time of immediate action and the precarious time of reaching for new forms and phrases to articulate what is and is not yet coming into being, indirectly. I discuss two recent examples—How to Survive a Plague and Dallas Buyers Club—of screening treatment activism, in order to suggest both the ways treatment activism is depicted on screen, as well as what else these representations screen from our view.

Figure A.2

[The viewer is made to feel like a voyeur, as she watches at very close proximity the bare-chested man insert the drip into a line right above his left nipple. Screen capture from How to Survive a Plague (David France, 2012)]