As the debate on trigger warnings in the academy rages across the internet, I wondered how it is finding form in literary and artistic spaces—so I invited six writers/artists and educators with varying personal investments in the discussion to participate in an email roundtable. Over a period of about a week, our discussion confronted issues related to pedagogy, censorship, accessibility, and generational tensions. This is the second of three parts. (See Part I here.) —Megan Milks
CAConrad is the author of six books including ECODEVIANCE: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness (Wave Books, 2014), A BEAUTIFUL MARSUPIAL AFTERNOON (WAVE Books, 2012) and The Book of Frank (WAVE Books, 2010). A 2014 Lannan Fellow, a 2013 MacDowell Fellow, and a 2011 Pew Fellow, he also conducts workshops on (Soma)tic poetry and Ecopoetics. Visit him online at http://CAConrad.blogspot.com.
Jos Charles is a white genderqueer writer and founding-editor at THEM – a trans* literary journal. They have poetry published (and/or have publications forthcoming) with BLOOM, Denver Quarterly, Radioactive Moat, Metazen, as well as variously online. Jos is a founder and co-managing editor of Sol&Res. Their writing has also been featured on Huffington Post, BitchMedia, HTMLGIANT, Fanzine, The Quietus, interviews with GLAAD, and other pieces forthcoming.
Andrea Lawlor, a recent graduate of UMass Amherst’s MFA program, teaches writing at Mount Holyoke College, edits fiction for Fence, and has been awarded fellowships by Lambda Literary and Radar Labs. Lawlor’s writing has appeared in Mutha,The Millions, jubilat, The Brooklyn Rail, Faggot Dinosaur, OCHO 31, MiPOesias, and Encyclopedia, Vol. II.
Sarah Schulman’s most recent books are The Gentrification Of The Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (University of California Press) and Israel/Palestine and the Queer International (Duke University Press).
Aishah Shahidah Simmons is an award-winning Black feminist lesbian documentary filmmaker, writer, international lecturer, and activist. She is an Associate Editor of the online publication The Feminist Wire. An incest and rape survivor, she produced, wrote, and directed the internationally acclaimed Ford Foundation-funded documentary film NO! The Rape Documentary. Most recently, she authored the foreword to the anthology Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence (Lisa Factora-Borchers, editor, AK Press 2014). Presently, she teaches under/graduate courses in Women’s Studies and LGBT Studies at Temple University.
Anna Joy Springer is a prose writer and visual artist who makes grotesques – creating hybrid texts that combine sacred and profane elements to evoke intensely embodied conceptual-emotional experiences in readers. Formerly a singer in the Bay Area bands, Blatz, The Gr’ups, and Cypher in the Snow, Anna Joy has toured the United States and Europe being a wild feminist punk performer, and she has also toured with the all-women spoken word extravaganza, Sister Spit. She is author of the illustrated novella The Birdwisher (Birds of Lace) and The Vicious Red Relic, Love (Jaded Ibis). She now teaches writing at UC San Diego.
MEGAN MILKS: I’d like to talk more about the generational tensions that frequently arise in conversations about trigger warnings. We are a mixed-generation group here, which gives us a real opportunity to explore these issues.
I’m about to make a generalization that is both obvious and uncomfortable: Trigger warnings seem very much associated with younger generations, while the recent backlash against them (in the media, and in conversations I’ve seen on Facebook) seems to come from older generations. What’s going on here—culturally, politically?
CACONRAD: I don’t want to sound like an old lady before I am actually an old lady, but as it turns out it is generational. I come out of punk rock, Queer Nation, Act Up. And as a kid grew up very poor and infested with the worst kinds of communications from all directions, but I say all of this because I’m kind of surprised.
That’s how I can put it best, I’m surprised. When I’ve been confronted by young queer poets after reading my poems it’s unpleasant, it’s instructional. It’s not a conversation. And I wish it was a conversation, but the word “should” has been used to me and I have to challenge that word. I hate arguing, especially with young queers because I REALLY WANT TO KNOW about their lives, but I become this evil old lady poet to them who writes offensive poetry.
To discuss generational divides we would also need to discuss class. When I was in my twenties there were a lot more working class people going to college. Depending on what school you attended class was being discussed because there was a bigger mix of students with various economic backgrounds. No matter what economic class we come from we’re all equally vulnerable to trauma, obviously. It’s the prioritizing of concerns that’s different. Twenty-five years ago ACT UP and Queer Nation were battling the dominant culture for various reasons, but still it was a collective effort to make room for everyone, demand health care and put an end to discrimination. While ACT UP and Queer Nation were on university campuses they were also part of the larger LGBTQ community, and therefore intergenerational, and contained people with many different economic backgrounds. This is important because when working class people get to play a viable role in organizing, priorities shift, giving everyone a wider lens on our world.
But where I used to find a willingness to work in a place of difference, to grow from one another because of difference, I’m feeling a push to normalize behaviors through tempering language. Not long ago I performed at a large house party to raise money for a progressive Philadelphia political candidate. It was in a queer collective, this function, and someone thought it would be COOL to invite my old friend Lisa to MC the event. Lisa is my age, and she’s an African American transwoman, and we have a lot of friends who were also African American transwomen who are now dead. Dead from AIDS, dead from murder, suicide, overdose. Lisa’s been through a lot, and she says what’s on her mind. Her humor isn’t politically correct, and she’s afraid of no one. I was surprised she was invited to MC because the house is mostly formed by upper middle class, mostly white university students. But they all love Lisa’s drag shows she’s been hosting for years at a bar downtown.
Lisa was being Lisa at the microphone. She’s incredibly smart and witty, but she uses terms like tranny, and other non-PC terms. A few of the young people in the audience started to correct Lisa, demanding she not use certain words. Lisa considered them hecklers, and she handles hecklers with tremendous grace and speed, shooting them down by making fun of them. Lisa wasn’t saying ANYTHING she didn’t normally say at the drag shows at the bar, but asking her to MC in this mostly white, mostly non-working class environment made what was COOL in the bar suddenly seem inappropriate. It was a disaster. The kids started to leave in groups, angered by Lisa’s refusal to take their vocabulary lessons to heart. It was one of those experiences where I could see the gap, how large it is, but I still don’t know what we’re supposed to do to close it. And we do need to close this gap. We do need to be working together, now more than ever. The choice to walk out on Lisa made me sad. I’m at a loss about where to start building a bridge.
Trigger warnings remind me of the mid-80’s PMRC battle. Tipper Gore and others wanted to institute warning labels on music CDs containing “explicit material” to protect U.S. American children. Frank Zappa was one of the opposing witnesses at the congressional hearing, making it clear that you cannot protect children from the contents of the world. Another witness was John Denver. Denver talked about how his song “Rocky Mountain High” was censored from radio stations when it first came out because station managers were under the impression it was a song about getting stoned. His argument was that policing language on any level runs the risk of shutting down the conversation, sometimes a conversation you didn’t even know you wanted to have.
JOS CHARLES: In my experience it’s predominantly queer punk spaces that have embraced trigger warnings, progressive stacks, etc. That might be an anomaly, I don’t know. It’s been writing spaces, the academy, university affiliated queer groups, i.e. liberals, who I’ve received the most push back about trigger warnings. CA and I talked briefly offline about how sometimes folks invoke trigger warnings (from hereon TWs) despite not being triggered by any content, not knowing anyone who would be triggered by the content, etc. While I don’t see this as any critique of TWs as practice it does point to how TWs in certain spaces can function as shorthand for a set of political beliefs, rather than a material necessity for (some) victim’s recovery.
This gets into all the messiness of, if we allot TWs, what counts as triggering. There are TONS of valid criticisms that folks have been bringing up (shout out to Aishah) in this discussion regarding this. The word “triggering” itself, as CA has pointed out, covers a wide range of reactions across a wide range of power dynamics and relationships (thinking hypothetically of someone panicking over being ‘called out’ for being a rape apologist asshole versus a rape victim having a flashback over a rape apologist asshole). I think this is why many people opt for CWs (content warning) over TWs, though there are limits with warning about ‘content’ as well.
Notably, womyn-born-womyn only spaces (ie spaces that exclude trans women and trans femme folks) mobilize ‘trigger’ language in fucked up ways. The classic argument is ‘well a trans woman is surely going to whip out her penis and surely a rape victim is going to be there and surely she’s going to be triggered’. That certain women’s genitalia are narrated as triggering to the exclusion of other’s is a product of trans misogyny. That certain aspects of a body, here a penis, and not others (white women aren’t excluded from these womyn-born-womyn only spaces despite their whiteness being potentially ‘triggering’ for women of color at such events), is telling.
Likewise multiple times I’ve called someone out for having transphobic or sexist shit in an article or poem and their response was ‘but I have a trigger warning’ as if the act alone was grounds to put the author beyond responsibility.
I say all this to say, yeah, there can be hella problems with TWs. I am very critical of how lots of folks use them, most obviously, when folks use them as a means of deferring responsibility for their complicitness with oppression. I address when I was raped in multiple poems, using graphic language. I don’t apologize for the language I use and the responsibility and ache these poems demand. It would be my dream to read one of these to a room full of rapists and make them sit and listen and sit and listen and not be able to leave. I want to demand of them. But there is nothing shittier than reading one of these poems and hurting a fellow survivor, not just in terms of my ego or something, but in terms of their recovery and physical safety.
To me, that’s the dilemma the TW’s purport to solve and, I think in their way / with respect to their limits / being aware they can be mobilized in fucked up ways, they do. They signify to victims not in a place to hear the poem they can leave while still holding oppressors and folks who privilege off their oppression captive.
ANNA JOY SPRINGER: I was talking to my friend Melissa Chadburn who wrote a story in which a character’s trauma was staged in literary scene. She received angry responses and grateful responses. If I understand the sequence of events correctly, one of the responses to her piece came in the form of an essay by the writer Roxane Gay, published on the online literary site, The Rumpus. This essay opens:
When I see men who look like him or his friends. When I smell beer on a man’s breath. When I smell Polo cologne. When I hear a harsh laugh. When I walk by a group of men, clustered together, and there’s no one else around. When I see a woman being attacked in a movie or on television. When I am in the woods or driving through a heavily wooded area. When I read about experiences that are all too familiar. When I go through security at the airport and am pulled aside for extra screening, which seems to happen every single time I travel. When I’m having sex and my wrists are unexpectedly pinned over my head. When I see a young girl of a certain age.
When it happens, I feel this sharp pang that runs right through the center of my body. Or I get nauseous. Or I have to vomit. Or I break into a cold sweat. Or I feel myself shutting down, and I go into a quiet place. Or I close my fingers into tight fists until my knuckles ache. My reaction is visceral and I have to take a deep breath or two or three or more. I have to remind myself of the time and distance between then and now. I have to remind myself that I am not the girl in the woods anymore. I have to try to convince myself I never will be again. It has gotten better over the years.
Her essay articulates many of my own thoughts. Trying to imagine what sort of literary representations might retraumatize a member of the audience seems impossible to me. I personally have an extreme physiological-psychological response to hearing Rachmaninoff, though I do not know why, but it prompts great unsoothable sorrow related somehow to my father and/or The Father, two mental formations my consciousness can not entirely untangle. I see a movie, Rachmaninoff is part of the score, and I experience unwanted extreme results that last for a couple days. You could make a Rachmaninoff weapon that would work very effectively upon me, though not as effectively probably as one that penetrated my body in other ways, for instance ways that forced the release of blood, organs, or cum. I have come to put different kinds of suffering on a scale of worse to worst, though ranking is mobile as I learn more.
Gay’s essay goes on with the statement, “When I see trigger warnings, I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel protected. Instead, I am surprised there are still people who believe in safety and protection despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
I don’t know about Gay’s history with content warnings, but as I came of age in the 80s, the mandate to provide content warnings and to rank artistic material on a scale of “normal” to “harmful” came from the far right. So I associate trigger warnings with the content warnings that artists’ products were labeled with, and that meant the difference between having one’s visual art, film, or record distributed or not. That was one of the many material results of the institutional mandate for content warnings. One of the less-visible results was a reiteration of what content was helpful and what content was harmful. So of course, we would want to ask, “helpful for what or whom?” and “harmful for what or whom?”
During the period of debate about content ratings for music and visual content (always, to protect the children), I was in a state of near continual dissociation, a state that was re-animated by political and social realities I felt powerless to change. I despaired of my ability to live in a world that normalized mass and institutionalized violence and didn’t seem to see sexualized assault as a kind of open-secret mass violence or even newsworthy unless the perpetrator was a famous man of color, a mother, or the victims were Catholic boys. I despaired of living in a world where in 1991 at my phone sex job it was legal (according to FCC rules), to call the penis “a dagger,” “a pistol,” “a sword,” and “a weapon” but not “a penis.” The normalizing rhetoric AND LEGISLATION coming from the political and moral right (that penises were harmful but that weapons were helpful; that gay people were harmful, but that brutal straight men were helpful; that crazy, perverse, and poor people were harmful but that wealthy, beautiful, and powerful people were helpful ) and on and on ad absurdum with the bullshit.The large-scale theater of semiotic-materialist cruelty at the end of the millennium seemed absurd and also felt extremely dangerous. Lots of artists in my and my parents’ generation felt compelled to “heighten the contradictions” implicit in this sort of moral hypocrisy.
I write of this history in order to contextualize the part of the discussion that does seem very connected to a historical moment that, in part, defines the idea of a “generation.” I think this term is sometimes conflated with “age” or “developmental stage,” but that is a mistake. The people who’ve recently come to feel empowered as adults to enter and change the most influential public conversations have a different set of problems to contend with than I had when I first came to feel empowered as an adult to enter and change the most influential public conversations. A large part of how I think and perceive is shaped by my generational and national relationship to World War II and fears of fascism, and I suspect many Americans of Western European descent within my generation have a relationship to the threat of fascism that is peculiar to coming of age during the second half of the twentieth century, during the cold war and before global neoliberalism. My interest in generational differences comes from a deep curiosity of how broad historical changes, particularly in economic, military, and national history, affect interpersonal relations including aesthetic interactions, and vice-versa.
CACONRAD: [These] questions are not even coming close to what I really want to discuss about trauma and trigger warnings, so I’m going to veer off the track for a minute. Trauma responsibility (even trauma engineering) is something that almost never gets discussed. The release of drones, or maybe I should say the unleashing of drones upon Pakistan, Afghanistan and Palestine have immeasurable consequences on people’s lives. My friend Tara Murtha is a journalist specializing in trauma, and she has another journalist friend who came back from Pakistan and said that everywhere she went people had PTSD just from the sounds the drones make. Drones are designed to trigger trauma as they approach an area. Our government has invested billions of dollars in technology to terrify by sound, trigger tremendous fear in people, and of course shoot them by remote control.
It’s very important to me to include in our conversation trigger warnings that are invented tools for controlling a population. I’ve been in a residency at Machine Project in LA while we are having this conversation, and just the other day I did a (Soma)tic Poetry Ritual involving drones and triggering myself. At one point I listened to a recording of Israel’s “Pillar of Cloud” military operation, a fleet of drones continuously in the sky over Gaza for several days. It would be ridiculous for me to ever say that this writing ritual I performed in public could even come close to the true terror of the people who lived inside the military action, but I will say it rattled me. It was very upsetting, and I cannot begin to imagine how horrific it must be to be living, eating, sleeping and dreaming inside this activity. Here is a link to the ritual, which includes a link to the recording I listened to on a loop: http://bit.ly/1hQZGJy
We just passed the March 19 anniversary of the invasion of Baghdad. It came and went with barely a mention in the United States media. On the third anniversary in 2006 I stopped cutting my hair. Every single morning since that morning I look at the latest body counts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, (Libya at one point), and I measure the war dead by inches of hair. Then I write my poem, 2,000 pages and counting as the war lengthens, and I think not just of the dead but the many millions of survivors who have lost people they love. In 2014 it’s hard to say why I continue to do this ritual, but I do know this, that when someone I love dies, it’s the worst thing that happens to me.
There are children in these countries who know nothing except our wars with their people, for the length of their young lives it’s all they know. The New York Times recently interviewed a man residing in Baghdad named Ghazwan Naji, stating that, “…his 7-year-old son had heard so many explosions that he could distinguish the different kinds of bombs.” The day the newspaper interviewed Mr. Naji 22 people were killed and 33 wounded. This was just last week. I honestly don’t have a clue on what to do, no window into the souls who perpetrate these triggers, but I want to at the very least acknowledge their suffering.
The final installment of this conversation will be posted on Friday of this week.