by Richard King
Good news for US exports this month. Australia, my adoptive country, has also adopted the trigger warning. Taking its lead from US campuses, Melbourne's Monash University has obliged its academic staff to review their course materials with the aim of identifying content that may be “emotionally confronting” for students, and is set to attach fifteen advisory statements to subjects dealing with, inter alia, racism, torture, homophobia and colonialism. All very exotic in a country revered for its colourful language and casual racism, but that's the power of globalisation. And they say the American Century is over.
Not everyone is happy about the new arrival. Following their US counterparts (the reaction, too, has an imported feel), critics of “political correctness” have declared the adoption of trigger warnings to be a new front in the culture wars and the heir to such PC atrocities as affirmative action and university speech codes. According to this line of argument, trigger warnings are a Trojan horse from which the polo-necked Foucauldian foot-soldiers will emerge the moment Professor Tomnoddy brandishes his Amontillado-stained copy of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. “Sensitivity” is code for censorship and the imposition of radical values on the entire academic cohort.
Notwithstanding the muscular, male-menopausal, almost vaudevillian liberalism with which their animadversions come served, these critics aren't completely wrong. Trigger warnings are political and do derive, via a circuitous route, from the cultural “turn” in leftwing politics in the late 1960s and 1970s. But they are not political in the way conservatives or classical liberals think they're political, being neither an assault on “academic freedom” nor a Marcusean attempt to drive the sacred cows of tradition, “Western Civ.” etc. towards the abattoir of Cultural Marxism. Possibly there's a bit of that, but my strong sense is that what we're dealing with here is a new form of subjectivity that regards the expression of personal hurt, not just as a form of political agency, but as the very stuff of politics itself. Like their close cousins “safe spaces” and “microaggressions”, trigger warnings represent a new political epistemology.
But let's go back a bit. The “trauma trigger” has its roots in the 1960s, when the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder first began to emerge around studies of soldiers returning from the Vietnam War. Essentially it describes a stimulus that may be reminiscent of some earlier trauma and as such has the power to trigger symptoms – emotional and even physical – associated with it. Scientifically, its use is uncontroversial, PTSD having been incorporated into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980 and expanded to include not only other soldiers in other combat situations but also victims of natural disasters, rape and other violent encounters. But while the science behind trigger warnings looks sound, their importation into the political/educational sphere remains controversial. This process began around fifteen years ago, when trigger warnings began to appear on discussions within the feminist blogosphere, for the very good reason that many of the topics discussed in such forums were, strictly speaking, traumatic. But just as Carol Hanisch's assertion that ‘the personal is political' spread from feminism to other forms of identity politics in the 1970s, so PTSD has spread from feminism to the competitive solipsism of (some) student activism. It has been politicised and generalised (rather ironically, given the sensitivity of the relevant cohort to “appropriation”).
Again, there is something self-congratulatory about much of the criticism of this campus phenomenon. The characterisation of the modern student as a ‘snowflake' is all a bit sergeant-majorish, the Gen-X version of the bluff old codger who makes a big show of his thrift and resilience and accuses the contemporary adolescent of wasting his money on takeaway coffees, iPhones, and smashed-avocado breakfasts. But the PTSD stuff is a laugh, obviously. The idea that all but a handful of students are going to be triggered by course content is a nonsense, and those that are are as likely to be triggered by something else entirely: the sight of a German Shepherd, the smell of marijuana, the sound of a passenger jet flying lower than normal. Plenty of psychological experts can be brought forward to say that, in this regard, PTSD is being incorrectly invoked, and while those who tend to cite these experts often end up “therapising” the classroom in a different way, treating it as the site of aversion therapy for those in search of emotional wellness, their key point is a good one: the idea that on any given weekend you can hear “nigger” repeated two hundred times in the latest Tarantino debauch, witness Syrian toddlers gasping for breath as the result of a poison-gas attack, see women objectified on TV and hoardings, be inundated with filth from Breitbart, and then fall apart as the direct consequence of reading Mrs Dalloway is bullshit. Our culture is now steeped in pornography and violence. The demand that the university become, itself, a “safe space” – that it act in loco parentis – is just dumb.
What, then, is going on? How did a concept from traumatology become associated with student activism?
Part of the answer has to do with the absorption of a set of assumptions about language and politics, and about the relationship between language and politics, into contemporary western culture. Broadly speaking, these assumptions, which have their roots in the 1960s and began to flower in the 1990s, give a privileged role to “discourse” and “representation”, which are taken to mediate reality to such an extent that they effectively create it. This idea, which is strongly associated with Foucault, represented a move away from the Marxist view of ideology as a false representation of a (material) reality that was prior to the representation. When it was combined with identity politics, an idea grew up that the status of blacks, women, gays and other minorities could be improved through sensitive, empowering speech. This idea acquired the name “political correctness”, which, whatever its initial uses, quickly became a propaganda term for anything conservatives didn't like, which was pretty much everything associated with the left and the kind of people it tended to stand up for.*
As Terry Eagleton and others have argued, the emergence of this politics of representation and discourse should be characterised as a crisis of the left. By the early 1990s capitalism had achieved its ultimate victory: it had disappeared as a topic of conversation. The socialist critique that had served for almost a century to throw the capitalist system into relief devolved into the “third way” politics of Clinton, Blair and their analogues, and in its stead grew up a politics of anti-harassment and anti-discrimination the aim of which was to improve the lot of minorities in the system as was. This was the political environment in which “therapy culture” was able to thrive.
Now, the students who grew up through it have left university and entered the workforce, where those who studied humanities subjects, and were thus exposed to a greater degree to the politics of representation and discourse, now dominate the fields of knowledge, culture, creativity and media production. That ours is a time in which these “industries” have gained a centrality to the economy that they did not have thirty years ago means that this group has plenty of opportunities to advocate, not only for its politics, which tend to be liberal/progressive, but also its way of doing politics, which coincides with the kind of work it does: work in which information and language have a centrality they don't have in, say, manufacturing. Thus the schizophrenia of contemporary culture, where a hyper-violent, hyper-sexualised Hollywood sits side by side with a situation in which a politician or celebrity can be hauled before the court of progressive opinion for employing an off-colour epithet, and where the appearance of Trump and Bannon in the White House is regarded not just as a political disaster but as a kind of category mistake.
It is, I think, from this political culture that a new generation of progressives are taking their cue: not all of them, by any means, but enough of them to drown out, for now, the emergence of a far more impressive group of socialists/materialists who we could characterise as “the new old left” (think the bright young things of Syriza and Podemos). In thrall to a new kind of identity politics, “intersectionality”, the effect of which is to multiply identity categories ad infinitum, they are pursuing a “post-material” politics of personal liberation at exactly the time that materiality – questions of distribution and ownership – has re-entered the ideological arena. Trigger warnings, safe spaces and microaggressions are the symptoms of this politics, and reveal, not a peculiarly coddled cohort, but one for which the personal is less political than the political is personal – a shift to which the frequent appearance of personal pronouns on protest banners – “Not in My Name”, “No Blood on My Hands”, “Not My President” – attests. With no mass radical politics in prospect, personal trauma/unhappiness/angst becomes the means through which global “trauma” is addressed.
Well, it's a theory; and if there's one thing we love – we former humanities students – it's a theory. At any rate, it will be fascinating to observe the progress of the trigger warning in our sunburnt country girt by sea. This and the new MacBook Pro in one month! It's all too exciting for words.
*I've attempted to anatomise this dynamic in my own, strangely neglected book, On Offence: The Politics of Indignation. Try to get your hands on one of the rare unsigned copies …
Or visit me at The Bloody Crossroads.