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.”
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.
- 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.
- 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.”
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!!!!!!!
- 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.
- 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.” 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.” 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.”
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.
 Beatriz Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era (New York: The Feminist Press, 2013), 344.
 Preciado, Testo Junkie, 345.
 Preciado, Testo Junkie, 346.