warning — a speech act that may be left implicit, but perhaps never unambiguous.
Saying “There is a bull in the field,” J.L. Austin notes, could be a warning or merely “describing the scenery.”A warning is something you know is a warning, and nothing less.
Just saying “There is a bull” could, taken as an extract, be part of two speech situations. On the one hand, a speech situation in which the bull is already perceived as a threat — where, in short, some proceedings of the ceremony (or whatever structure of action it is) could have prefigured the appearance of “There is a bull” as a warning. (Exemplary instance of this: “I do.”) On the other hand, another speech situation — that of just “describing the scenery” — assumes mutual spectatorship, not “perceiving” as such, where perceiving is a matter of surviving — where “in the field” bears all the weight.
A warning, then, must work unambiguously to lay out the performative dynamics of what’s about to happen. Or, if not unambiguously, then at least the “performative formula” must — in order to even be identified as an act of warning (“perhaps” it isn’t) — assure that “the procedure in question [be] sufficiently explicitly invoked.”This is to say that warnings can come in inexplicit forms.
A performative formula may become intelligibly vague to the extent that other networks of action impress themselves so severely on the situation that merely gesturing to the object locks reference in, perhaps with the sensation of “threat.” Or, to use Austin’s example, one could say that, insofar as a ritual form may assume itself to be basic, central, and self-validating — like the act of marriage, at least heteronormatively —it may also, on the basis of that assumption of being centrifugally shared, clip its utterance down to something barely referential — “I do.” (Even though this is not actually the formula, it persists as the emblem of that formula.)
What’s openly secreted in the act of marriage is, for some of its history, the premise of an economic exchange among men around which affective exchanges among women decorously flit. Others are on the scene too, but for now I will confine it to its own logic. Marriage assumes, in other words, a gender binary — it makes those divisions strict, explicit, and unquestionable. It makes bodies appear in a series of gendered figures — bride, bridesgroom, bachelorettes, best men, etc. — and those figures may leave off important contours. One’s ability to cope with those excisions — to stay in figure —would seem also to trace one’s capacity to aspire to the kind of universality offered by the ceremony.
Heteronormative marriage is a speech situation, in other words, in which an explicit ceremony — the central figures of bride and groom — collects inexplicit but also openly secreted speech acts around its periphery. And, in collecting these speech acts, it allows some to settle into their figures comfortably and others to feel constrained or “ill-fitting.”
What does this tell us about trigger warnings? It tells us, first, that classrooms in which a trigger warning is issued make the performative formula explicit.
One model for the issuing of trigger warnings (genre?) is that used on tumblr — posts sometimes come tagged with warnings (#tw violence, #tw rape, etc.). With this model, one relies on the non-facial architecture of the site to let a machine screen out what isn’t otherwise indicated by other kinds of interactions. In short, on tumblr one may use Chrome extensions to sort posts by their tags and then screen out the ones tagged with something one doesn’t want to see.
More pragmatically, where would one put trigger warnings on course material? Course description? Syllabus? For each book, or for overall subject matter? Where is the contract elaborated? On the syllabus, we were taught.
Let’s say one puts an explicit performative formula — “I warn you that this course will deal with x y and z” — on one’s syllabus. Or one lists it out — not in a sentence, but as a kind of bulletin.
Warning students means organizing reading in advance. Or it could disclose various scales of reading: the upsetting detail, or re-traumatizing scene, or immersion in atmospheres that suffocate, or entrapment in plots of social death, abandonment, and dispossession.
Does this mean they necessarily spoil the plot? By making it unsurprising — because, the way things are now, those plots are in many ways structurally unsurprising. What’s the difference between a spoiler (which comes with its own mode of warning) and a trigger warning?
At the same time, one might generalize the nomenclature — though this means, of course, making it non-negotiable in certain ways — codifying the sensitivities that feel most pressing. One could align these codifications with the dictates of an identity politics, but even there it seems like identity is not exactly what’s at stake. Trigger warnings don’t tell us anything about identities. All they do is point to topics that a certain kind of identity politics has identified as important: scenes of exceptional violence against / violation of and spectacular, unproductive, and malicious degradation of women, people of color, people living with disabilities, queer people, trans people, and, most broadly, anyone who belongs to groups historically and structurally traumatized by the hegemonic complexes of heteropatriarchal white supremacy.
It would make more sense, of course, to work with students to figure out what triggers them and at what level of detail. If the force of a trigger warning is ultimately to keep somebody in conversation with something that wounded them, then it seems like it would make sense to figure out where to tread lightly. Many things that are wounding occur within the categories put forward by the groups of people described above. Affirming these categories — but also letting them open onto revisions, refinements, or more complete articulations, implicit or explicit — has to happen before one can ethically approach texts together. Is that the argument?
Austin may show an alternative: namely, an analysis of what can still be left implicit without leaving a weak spot for an encounter with something that makes you feel fragile — and what networks of action have to be in place in order to support those implicit orders
Does genre matter at all in the consideration of triggers? Which is to say, are some genres more likely to be triggering than others? Also, can a scene be triggering when it occurs within the work of one genre and not when in another?
Where, in short, does the trigger warning start looking like a device of Gothic suggestion?
It’s interesting to think about this in terms of identity politics because it exceeds identity politics : embracing the trigger warning as a device need not make any claim to inhabit somebody else’s identity.
Anyone who is angry about trigger warnings seems more worried about being outsmarted / shut down by their students. Outsmarted because it’s a confrontational scene (at least in the phone conversation I overheard on the bus) — students not yielding to my program or my expertise — and infantile “pussys” because they can’t take a joke — and so letting your students have any prescriptive leverage over the material is tantamount to losing control of your classroom.
Getting angry means you feel threatened.
What’s threatening about students having input in the syllabus? Presumptiveness, naivetee, disrespect, entitlement? Or is it more about wanting the course to be all yours?