The ‘trigger warning’ school of literary criticism

by josieappleton

Why are ‘trigger warnings’ now stamped on everything from the Great Gatsby to Ovid?

The notion of being ‘triggered’ by a book or film is an extension of ideas of ‘offence’ or feeling ‘uncomfortable’. In all these cases, the individual’s encounter with a cultural product is experienced as somehow harming or impinging upon that person. The work or idea is experienced as hostile, corrosive of the self and their identity.

These new terms replace the idea of disagreement or critique, which formed the basis of people’s relationship to books or works of art in the classical public sphere. Each work was held at arm’s length, scrutinised and weighed, probed in all its elements. A disagreement was stated precisely: this work is incorrect or flawed for x or y reasons.

Now, a person’s disagreement with an argument or a book is experienced as an unravelling of the viewer. The dissonance between individual and work is experienced as an affliction: rather than probe the work, the individual is undone by it.

Over time, the nature of the harm supposedly inflicted by an artwork has become increasingly subjective, wordless, and automatic.

The idea of ‘offence’ came first. Offence still contains something of the idea of disagreement – the notion that a person’s specific opinion or belief has been contradicted – even if only in an emotive form. Then came ‘uncomfortable’, with students saying that a particular book or particular ideas made them feel uncomfortable. Uncomfortable is a more degraded form than offence, because it is inexpressive and purely subjective. When people say they feel uncomfortable they are expressing only the subjective feeling of being infringed or unsettled.

‘Triggering’ is the end point of this process. Here, the unravelling of the individual in an encounter is much more extreme. Being triggered is a form of total breakdown, like a panic attack or another point when the self is entirely undone. The ‘trigger’ is like a sudden attack, and the breakdown of the self is instant and automatic, like the firing of a gun or flicking a switch. ‘I suddenly and quite dramatically feel all-encompassing panic spread through my entire body’, said one woman, describing her experience of ‘being triggered’ (the passive verb form indicates the passive role that the individual is playing in relation to the object).

Trigger warnings began in relation to sexual assault victims on discussion sites, and have spread to every possible phobia (spiders, small holes), negative experience (violence, mental illness, self-harm), and then further to the content of opinions with which a person disagrees (sexism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia). In this process, trigger warnings moved from a specific context to the wider public sphere, to structure the way in which people engage with cultural products.

Sexual assaults and phobias have started to take on a general and metaphoric resonance, as being in some way emblematic of people’s encounters in the public sphere. Sexual assault becomes a metaphor for our encounter with books or films with which we disagree: we are being undone, violated in the most intimate manner.

The trigger warning moves beyond the subjective perspective of the person being triggered, and starts to become an actual system for organising cultural products and people’s relationship to them. Websites such as ‘thiscouldbetriggering’ or ‘whatsthetriggerwarning’ have begun the encyclopaedic project of organising the works of humanity according to their specific trauma-causing qualities.

Works are given tags, labels: the Great Gatsby gets ‘violence against women’ and ‘sexism’. A Streetcar Named Desire gets: domestic violence, suicide, homophobia, rape, statutory rape, and mental illness. The tendency over time is for these categories to escalate, and people are encouraged to write in suggesting new tags or new areas of cultural life to consider in this manner: Can you add a transphobia tag? Can you add ableism? Can you also do songs? The answer is always yes.

Therefore, with the trigger warning we see how the subjective feeling of offence, or discomfort, has been raised into a system in public life: it becomes a school of criticism, a way of systematically reading a work and categorising it. While the triggered person is undone, wordless, the author of the trigger warning is clinical and systematic. One US student had the perseverance to read the works of Ovid and count the number of sexual assaults: she clearly maintained her wherewithal throughout. People work their way through whole television series, or literary tomes, systematically allotting works their respective labels.

These trigger warning critics have the same indifferent clinical approach as a state board of film classification. Everybody recognises that the board of film classification tells you nothing about a film: the statement that a film ‘contains moderate nudity and extreme language’ is a category slapped by officials on the world of culture.

Trigger warnings, by contrast, are produced by the public itself, and become part of the way in which people engage with and categorise artworks. As a result, trigger warnings start to transform the meaning of a work; they are not seen as an external imposition, slapped on, but rather start to become a system that structures interpretation and evaluation.

A novel or film is tainted by its trigger warning in a way it was not by the Board of Film Classification. One novelist described how his reading of Lolita had been forever tainted by his literary professor’s statement that it ‘represented the systematic rape of a young girl’. A work he had looked to for inspiration was reduced to this single negative dimension. A work that ‘contains’ sexism or racism, as opposed to nudity or strong language, becomes subsumed by that negative judgement. In the novelists’ phrase, the trigger warning is a ‘pre-emptive defacement’. A novel or artwork becomes its label; it cannot be looked at in the same way again.

This ‘trigger warning’ school of literary criticism has the peculiar detachment of state censors, whose only concern in a love scene is the precise parts of the anatomy revealed. A book about slavery is found to ‘contain racism’, even if it ultimately is a condemnation of such oppression. The dimensions of the work are flattened out, so that an essentially humanist text can be turned into its opposite.

The trigger warning is a tag which dissuades people from encountering the art object. The warning is there so that you can leave the room, put down the book, turn off the television. Therefore, the individual need never undergo the experience of dissonance with an artwork; they need never encounter the things they find disturbing or the views with which they disagree. The trigger warning, as a system, becomes a guide through the world of culture, such that dissonance can be avoided.

The individual is defined by their tags, the specific elements in the world which undo them. Their exchange with the cultural world can be negotiated, such that clashing tags need never meet. People who are triggered often have friends who watch films for them, test them out, before they are declared safe to be viewed. They move through the world like a paranoid king who fears that every food item or gift contains poison and must be tested first.

The university professor Todd Gitlin criticised his students’ dislike of anything ‘uncomfortable’ and defended the importance of discomfort in teaching. It is the experience of dissonance which takes us out of ourselves, shocks us with another view, and so forms us; it is in the encounter with our contrary that we are developed. This is why negative experiences can often teach us more than positive ones. One psychiatrist argued that trigger warnings even go against treatment of genuine trauma and phobia: it is in repeatedly encountering the object of their fears that the person is reinforced, made self-sufficient, and eventually can face the world again.

The works of art and literature should be cleaned of these defacing warning signs – we must defend the free encounter between individual and artwork, and the developmental value of dissonance.

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