One of the main discourses to constitute social differentiation as hierarchy and domination is that of binary opposition. –Janet Jakobsen, 1998                                                                         

Is this the way the world ends? When groups that share common cause, utopian dreams and a joined mission find fault with each other instead of tearing down the banks and the bankers, the politicians and the parliaments, the university presidents and the CEO’s? Instead of realizing, as Moten and Hearny put it in The Undercommons, that “we owe each other everything,” we enact punishments on one another and stalk away from projects that should unite us, and huddle in small groups feeling erotically bonded through our self-righteousness. –Jack Halberstam, 2014


If there exists a madness that is laughable, it can only be one compatible with the general health of the mind,—a sane type of madness, one might say. Now, there is a sane state of the mind that resembles madness in every respect, in which we find the same associations of ideas as we do in lunacy, the same peculiar logic as in a fixed idea. This state is that of dreams. So either our analysis is incorrect, or it must be capable of being stated in the following theorem: Comic absurdity is of the same nature as that of dreams.–Henri Bergson, 1900


I’ve been thinking about Jack Halberstam’s brilliant and provocative piece on trigger warnings quite a bit this past week, especially in light of the many comments it provoked—which he aptly referred to as a “screeching apex of venom” in a clarifying post on his facebook page—as well as the flurry of responses, both critical , laudatory, and otherwise, that came soon thereafter. While my describing the piece as brilliant from the forefront clearly betrays my own position on the matter, I am also quite sensitive to a number of the critiques raised against the conclusion and/or implications of Halberstam’s argument.

Perhaps I read Halberstam incorrectly, but I did not perceive in his critique of our reliance on and quickness to use (demand, really) trigger warnings—signified in and through the “weepy white lady feminism” of the 1970’s and 80’s and representative of a broader trend that emphasizes personal trauma and a particular politics of discursive sensitivity over and against structural change and coalition building—a critique of trigger warnings in toto.  Rather, I read his blog as a call for a directional shift, a suggestion that, bested in part by neoliberalism, we’ve had some adventures in missing the point—which have been adventures that have cost us.

One of the themes that most struck me about the conversation thus far, at least the parts of it I have been following (which, admittedly hasn’t been too much, given that I am taking comprehensive exams in less than a month now!!) has been how it has assumed clear binaries between, well, between a lot of things: tragedy and comedy, the personal and the social, trauma and privilege, identity critique and identity politics.

It seems in some ways that this is something Halberstam too does at times in the essay, casting individual pain as necessarily individualizing and psychologizing harm rather than being a reflection of structural and systemic violence and therefore a resource for critical analysis and action against it. [Brief pause… having. small panic attack at the realization that I am saying something somewhat critical on a public forum about/towards one of my favorite theorists…ok, continuing on…] I think this is a something that Natalie Cecire gets at in her blog post on this topic when she brings up how Halberstam in ways assumes a neoliberal logic of resilience in arguing against neoliberal rhetoric, as well as when she briefly calls into question whether the oppression of queer youth is “really the non-problem that Halberstam claims it is.”

In thinking about these themes, I wonder if Elizabeth Povinelli’s fantastic book The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality  might be a helpful addition to the conversation. In the text, Povinelli, an anthropologist, critiques the assumed divide between individual freedom, what she calls the autological subject and social determination, or, as she puts it, the genealogical society. Supporting her thesis through an examination of two communities: the indigenous community of Belyun in northern Australia and the radical faerie communities in the U.S., Povinelli explores how these discourses are concomitant, intersecting forms of discipline that are constitutive of late liberal governance.  Or, as she puts it, “The strong argument of this book is that the social imaginaries of the autological subject, the genealogical society, their modes of intimacy, and their material anchors emerges from European Empire as a mode and maneuver of domination and exploitation and continue to operate as such” (16-17). Povinelli wants to reject what she sees as a false dichotomy between autonomy and individual freedom, on the one hand, and social determination on the other, suggesting that the polarization of autonomy and determination is constitutive of “the discursive content of the liberal governance of difference,” evidenced in and perpetuated in “small routines of everyday intimacy.”[i]  Povinelli suggests that these two poles function to discipline and regulate immanent social life, preceding and underlying in a way the ways this “discursive fold is apprehended differently. because [it is] striated through gender, sexual, and racial difference…” (90)

I wonder if, in addition to the routines of intimacy that Povinelli examines, that the discourse of individual trauma and the role trigger warnings play in relation to this discourse, also reflect this divide. For example, in an interview about the book, Povinelli offers the instance of “kissing our lover goodbye,” this “small routine of intimacy” as an “anchor point because it seems…to be the densest smallest knot where the irrevocable unity of this division is expressed” (92).  She goes on to explain:

What do I mean by an irrevocable unity? In the intimate event the subject says two things simultaneously. On the one hand, the subject says “this is my love, nobody can choose it for me, I am the author of my intimacy.” Love is thereby treated as uniquely and unequivocally autological. Forget Marx, the only thing that we have that is really ours is love! But at the same time, the subject also thinks, feels, evaluates love in terms of its radical unchosen quality: “love happens, I fall in love, I hope it happens to me,” like I were struck by lightning. And the intimate event is an unavoidable anchor point. Even those people who might say that they will not love, that they hate love, that they do not want to love, must have to have a relationship to love (92).

Isn’t trauma, like love, to put it simply (and somewhat reductively) both individual and social—both something that happens to individuals but shapes and is shaped by structures and norms and institutions. I mean, we do talk quite a bit about rape culture, don’t we?

I say this all to say, I wonder if the debate about trigger warnings  and language can have the tendency to falsely focus on the individual or the social, as opposed to recognizing the interconnections between them, the ways discourse functions through the very distinction in order to organize and regulate social life.

In defense of the critiques, I do think Halberstam’s blog post can be read in some ways as flattening individual trauma in a way that doesn’t paint the whole picture. I think Povinelli’s critique of the “antisocial” vein of queer theory (i.e. Edelman, Bersani) that emphasizes queering as “the shattering of a given sociality, identity, or community without the desire or promise of a new sociality, identity or community,” is apt. Povinelli admits that, though she personally finds these spaces and moments “exhilarating,” she nevertheless worries “that a blanket valorization of these moments of liquification, shattering, and dissolving dangerously undertheorizes the unity of such shattering” (94). She continues, musing:

What are the consequences of this kind of shattering… when your life is already shattered, is shattering all the time…because the liberal structures, said to recognize your worth, are instead constantly shattering your life-world? Thus, I think queer theory needs to do two things. First, yes, it needs to define queer on the basis of the shattering of subjectivity and the sheering of normativity, but also, second, it needs to demonstrate how this shattering is not itself a unified phenomena (94).

I’ll concede that Halberstam might have too quickly reduced young queers’ accounts and experiences of hardship as “hypersensitive” as “communities of naked, shivering, quaking little selves—too vulnerable to take a joke, too damaged to make one,” that he perhaps too quickly subsumed all of the calls for trigger warnings under the umbrella of “weepy white lady feminism,” not taking into full consideration the particularities of the different social worlds people find themselves a part of.

In fact, Halberstam actually acknowledges that he is “flattening out all kinds of historical and cultural variations within multiple histories of feminism, queerness and social movements,” but defends it, noting he is “willing to do so in order to make a point here about the re-emergence of a rhetoric of harm and trauma that casts all social difference in terms of hurt feelings and that divides up politically allied subjects into hierarchies of woundedness.”

While I am becoming less sure of Halberstam’s willingness to do this sort of flattening the more I think about Povinelli’s argument, I do think he rightly calls attention to the hierarchies of woundedness that tend to occur with the emphasis on trigger warnings and language (a point that even some of the most vociferous of critiques acknowledged as valid), and I think what he is ultimately calling for is in line with what Povinelli calls a politics of “thick life;” that Halberstam, even in the acknowledged flattening, suggests that  discourses of trauma as trigger warnings themselves flatten. I’m thinking here of his note about how he rarely goes to a conference or event anymore “without a protest erupting about a mode of representation that triggered someone somewhere”—I read this, through the lens of Empire of Love, as a sort of contemporary instance (and lament) of the failure of making “the density of social representation meet the density of actual social worlds” (Empire, 21).

In terms of applying this analysis of/call for a politics of “thick life” to trigger warnings and trauma, I’m not sure what exactly it might mean “to resist the choice between individual freedom and social determination as the only foundation for governing love, sociality, and the body” (9).

In her interview about the book, Povinelli turns to Foucault’s analysis of neoliberalism in Birth of Biopolitics. She explains that Foucault

argued that neoliberalism is not laissez-faire anymore. It is not about leaving the market alone. It is about aggressively expanding the logic of the market to all aspects of life so that the market principles actually become human principles that organize life, government, intimacy, etc. Thus, in neoliberalism “caring for others” becomes removing the social resources of care and inserting market evaluations and values. The arts of governance use the same word across the shift, “care,” but the social organization of care has changed dramatically.

Are trigger warnings, at least at times, a sort of market evaluation of care, as opposed to a provision of social resources? What might it mean to envision and engender social resources beyond/in addition to warnings, in the classroom and/or elsewhere?  To either try to make or at least point to, “safe spaces?” And I don’t mean safe spaces as in the absence of possible triggers, or in no sense of challenge on whatever kind of level. Rather, I’m thinking of Ann Cvetkovitch’s articulation of safe spaces in An Archive of Feelings, where she remarks that “the power of the notion of safe space resides in its double status as a name for both a space free of conflict and a space in which conflict and anger can emerge as a necessary component of psychic resolution” (87).What might it look like to think more broadly about trauma and sociality and to work to develop tactics of resistance beyond (though not necessarily in place of) trigger warnings, to employ what Chela Sandoval in Methodology of the Oppressed calls “differential consciousness,” (44) or what Halberstam in Female Masculinities calls “scavenger methodology” (13), methods that acknowledge that they function within–and yet somehow, hopefully, beyond–predominant ideologies?




[i] Kim Turcot DiFruscia, “Shapes of Freedom: An Interview with Elizabeth A. Povinelli,” Altérités, 7,1 (2010), 92. Parenthetical citations following this endnote refer to this interview.

2 thoughts

  1. Brandy,

    Thank you for an excellent piece.

    “When groups that share common cause, utopian dreams and a joined mission find fault with each other instead of tearing down the banks and the bankers, the politicians and the parliaments, the university presidents and the CEOs? Instead of realizing, as Moten and Hearny put it in The Undercommons, that “we owe each other everything,” we enact punishments on one another and stalk away from projects that should unite us, and huddle in small groups feeling erotically bonded through our self-righteousness.”

    We need a progressive version of the Bill of Rights. Perhaps something akin to FDR’s Four Freedoms.

    Freedom of speech
    Freedom of worship
    Freedom from want
    Freedom from fear

    (Fresh, potable) water security four example is under attack in Detroit.

    With unity around a “joined mission,” dialogue can continue about other topics about which there is less agreement.

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