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Escape Velocity, or, There Must be 50 Ways to Queer ‘The Family’

19 Feb

By Lisa Duggan

I’m teaching an introductory undergraduate course in LGBT history and politics this spring, encountering anew the alternating confusion, resistance and delight of students as they start to take in the full implications of the simple claim that gender and sexuality are historically constructed. As they arrive in my classroom, most understand LGBT “identities” as inborn or otherwise fixed; they bring with them an understanding of politics shaped by the marriage equality movement (though some come with versions of radical, genderqueer politics already well developed). They take the ride with me through Freud and Foucault, reading history, anthropology and queer theory texts with eyes wide open, questions flooding the room. It’s always fun to hear them work through ideas that challenge their working assumptions.

But eventually we arrive at an impasse. Having shed notions of biological or psychic fixity, having worked through ideas about historically embedded social and cultural construction, many feel frustrated. They want to know how some of us come to embrace dissident gender and sexual practices, while others do not. They want to know how gender and sexual identities come to feel so real, and for some so innate and fixed. Something is missing: how do we link the historical forces that shape genders and sexualities with lived subjectivities? Queering psychoanalysis goes some way toward addressing these questions, but for students with a keen awareness of transnational and temporal variation, those theories can be too universalizing.

I struggle with ways of addressing these questions, this frustration. Dissident gender and sexual practices and modes of living emerge in specific contexts, there is no way to generalize, to abstract any “cause” beyond local conditions and meanings. For myself, I have come to understand my own “difference” as an exit strategy, more about making an alternative world than about abstract sexual desire or gender identity.

I grew up in the Vortex of Hell, located in the spaces in and between Richmond and Virginia Beach, Virginia. Born in 1954, I first learned about family and the bonds of intimacy from my alcoholic Irish Catholic father and reserved, caustic lapsed southern Baptist mother in a ticky tacky suburban tract house, and from the gleefully sadistic nuns at Star of the Sea elementary school.   My father was intermittently violent, and my mother clinically depressed. The nuns provided a model of alternative, non-family living so horrifying in its manifest meanness that Sister Miriam Patrice effectively controlled us by threatening to make us live with them if we misbehaved. Both settings taught me more about the stoic endurance of church and state approved long-term commitments and the twisted paths of confined desire, than about the vicissitudes of human interdependence and intimacy.

Under the circumstances it was hard to know what to want.

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By high school, heterosexual dating looked like a viable exit plan. Though I announced to all assembled in any setting that I would never marry (that path had not worked out well for my mother), I plunged into sex and romance with gusto. My mother interfered at every turn, restricting my choice of boyfriends, policing my attire, telling me my “emotional dependence” on boys was pathetic. Her ambivalence about the actively heterosexual life was palpable. She wanted me to be Mary Tyler Moore of the TV show, a respectably straight and ladylike but largely celibate professional.

Clearly this was the unlived life for which she yearned. Born on a Mississippi dirt farm, raised in poverty and partly in an orphanage, she aspired. Her mother, Golden, shot and killed her own father at the age of eleven to stop him from raping her. She married Claude Green, becoming Golden Green, and considered naming my mother Olive. They settled instead on a made up southern name composed of two aunts’ names, Marinelle. Divorced, remarried, and repeatedly violent toward her step children, Golden was treated with electroshock therapy. My mother and her sister were sent to live with their grandmother on the farm, then left at a southern orphanage (that she referred to as a “boarding school”) for a number of years.

Marinelle Green honed her focused aspirations and planned her escape. With steely determination she put herself through Louisiana State University working as a police reporter on the night beat. But after World War II options for women contracted, she married a Catholic and popped out two infants in quick succession, then found herself trapped by her own adherence to the rules of gendered respectability. Her class aspirations drove her forward then stopped her dead in her tracks, tied to an alcoholic who sold concrete for the mobbed up real estate industry in Virginia Beach. She began to use abstinence as birth control and withdrew into depression. She was personally offended when a highway near her house was named the Powhite Expressway.

Marinelle wanted me to escape. Her plan: I should have no feelings. Because she believed feelings led to heterosexual marriage and childbearing, this plan would keep me from ending up like her. The problem: I wouldn’t cooperate. I was passionate—angry, rebellious, sexual. She was disgusted. A pitched battle raged through my teenage years. She wanted me to stay home, read Victorian novels, and aspire as she had. Instead I hiked my skirt hems and dated a football player. I fucked my boyfriend in the living room and left the condom under the rug—risky behavior before Roe v. Wade in a Catholic household. In hindsight I realized my mother wasn’t all wrong to be worried. I moved out just after high school graduation, and borrowed the money to go to UVa.

There were other people in my childhood world, though I barely noticed. My father had his own backstory of misery and near escape. Born into a long line of Irish alcoholics, his brother poured gasoline on him and set him on fire when he was seven. The charity hospital saved his life with experimental skin grafting techniques. His father beat and humiliated him. His mother died with the delirium tremens in the state mental hospital. He joined the army, natch. My biggest fight with him as a teenager, after a childhood filled with his attacks and creepy sexualized efforts to make up after, featured my sitting in the living room reading The Communist Manifesto and his angry claim to have fought the communists in World War II. I calmly pointed out, as he stood over me swinging his belt, that he had fought with the communists in World War II. This further enraged him, as a historian was born.

After military service and marriage David Duggan went to college on the GI Bill, a psychology major. He then got the job selling concrete and went into and out of employed status with the rhythms of the local real estate economy and his drinking. My mother ridiculed him, he raged. When I engage in a favored practice I call Diagnose That Relative, I label him a narcissist with borderline tendencies. My mother I see as a depressive schizoid. The whole scene was later described by my brother’s social work professor as a “maximally distant” family constellation. That’s one way of putting it. I certainly didn’t learn much about close connection. I learned a lot about how to escape, something everyone in my family set out to do at some point, with disappointing results.

At UVa from 1972 to 1976 I joined a reading group at Black Flag anarchist press and co-founded the Radical Feminist Union. I listened to Joni Mitchell sing “we don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall.” But when my mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 1974, I married my political theory instructor in blue jeans and work shirt in front of a Justice of the Peace who told us the story of Adam’s rib. It wasn’t that I was close to my mother. We hadn’t spoken in nearly a year. But I panicked, unmoored and suspended at the point of free fall. I didn’t yet understand why. I had no clue then that even the most abusive relationships of childhood form our internal worlds and patterns of intimate connection. I knew nothing of complicated grieving. I was a political theory major, though my new husband was training to be a psychoanalyst. I fled into marriage as into a bomb shelter during an air raid.

It lasted longer than one would think—three years. Enough time for the claustrophobia to set in. My husband Richard was a nice guy, fundamentally egalitarian, not in any way a patriarch. But we socialized with other married couples, mostly leftist male grad student instructors and their wives who divided up by gender for conversation and chores, who expected the wives to care for future offspring. A few of the guys cheated and lied to their wives. The other guys knew and kept their secrets. I needed an exit strategy. I followed a butch lesbian librarian named Purple home and crashed her parties. I got stoned and had sex with the bisexual co-founder of the Radical Feminist Union and her girlfriend.

I didn’t come to lesbianism via the standard 1970s coming out narrative. I never experienced a suppressed inner desire for women that finally found expression, both personal and political. I hit on lesbianism as an exit strategy, an escape narrative, a way not to repeat my mother’s life, my own childhood domestic confinement. I experienced gender dysphoria in that femininity felt like a trap, but I liked the clothes a lot. At first I tried the then currently fashionable androgyny, in flannel shirts and boots. But I left my flannel shirts unbuttoned below the décolletage, and felt desire for creatures with many so-called masculine features. I was thrilled to discover that I could find thrillingly sexy masculine partners who could not, or would not, reproduce the gendered norms of domesticity and sociality. I could wear skirts without regrets. In that time and place, queer life appeared to me as a free zone, a place for experimentation and innovation in the forms of gender, intimacy and social life, a landscape for desire as yet uncolonized by the lifelong monogamy of the couple form legally enshrined in wedlock.

Of course this vision was largely a mirage in the desert of my marital confinement. It took me awhile to make a transition to a more complex and less utopian world than I imagined. But still. It was worth the effort. I went to graduate school and followed the first butch I found down the street into a world of ecstasy, possibility and trouble. I never made a monogamous commitment (though I often practiced de facto monogamy) and I never learned to cook. My bonds with friends and comrades defined my life more fundamentally than my sexual or romantic partnerships.

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But this is not a story of simple escape from suburban domestic confinement to a utopia of radical politics and queer nirvana. The social and political worlds I inhabited marked my existence with conflict, loss, pain, confusion and profound hurt as fully as with connection and engagement. Any history of this period will elaborate. I understand my own path, not as a kind of pilgrim’s progress, but as a trajectory shaped by my childhood, my race, gender and class, and the time and places that I lived.   For many others, families and/or religious communities have provided the intimate context and foundation for progressive politics. Kinship, domesticity, religious faith and reproduction have widely varying meanings across time and space.

My own story leads me think of gender and sexual desire as always deeply embedded and context dependent—generating strategies rather than identities. For me, a queer life generated the escape velocity I needed to break intergenerational continuities, and attach to the other worlds and ways of the kind that my beloved friend José Muñoz both lived and wrote into being.

Looking for the same: On homonormative je ne sais quoi

8 Feb

By Eng-Beng Lim

Look FotoIf only the queer value of a traditional saying, “one man’s trash is another’s treasure” could substitute for the over-earnest, self-same search of gay looking, the online vernacular on m4m ads and dating apps that goes roughly like this, “Good looking masculine guy looking for the same,” might have a different referent. “Trashy looking for the same” just seems so much more interesting. But until then, the erotic prerogatives of this libidinal economy need no justification as a tradition of looking with an established visual vocabulary around what counts as “the look,” who gets to look, and who is put on display.

For the uninitiated, this is the planetary vulgate of white Gaytriarchy-speak with all the contours of liberal consciousness. The search is also a call for a common experience based on the visual logics of the market, private sexual preferences, and swipe-able “likes.” Tinder right, or tinder left, among other interfaces, is its new, fingering practice. What is there not to like? Who doesn’t like stories of beautiful white gay men looking for other beautiful white gay men? Well, such rhetorical questions as a starting point are precisely one of its many problems.

HBO’s original series, Looking, isn’t nearly as completely narcissistic but its romantic conceits navigate the same self-same terrain with the privileged “I” struggling with familiar racial phobias, liberal guilt, and the all-too-human foibles of gay men in San Francisco. There is a certain level of purity about its hegemonic gay vision that expresses itself ever so earnestly in the show, and its singular achievement is the dramatic makeover of white Gaytriarchy-speak into the dulcet tones of homonormative je ne sais quoi. This is perfectly played by lead character, Patrick Murray (Jonathan Groff) whose nerdy sense of wonder at everything, renders a sweet, boyish affect as unthreatening as a bowl of noodles, or a kind of modern day, Castro district Peter Pan.

But Patrick’s day job as a video game designer puts him squarely in the conversation about the city’s “ruthless gentrification” by tech companies, an issue that is heavily sugar-coated by his inter-racial romance with Richie Ventura (Raul Castillo). The gay bar, Esta Noche, in the Mission District, a dive-y latino institution for drag queens, which inaugurated their romance is closed in real life to make way for “another swanky cocktail bar geared toward 20-somethings with disposable income.” The uncanny semblance of Patrick as a representative of that demographic, and his subsequent phobic reactions to Richie’s working class background are all part of the emotional fissures of gentrification.

But the show misses the opportunity to deepen an exploration of their tumultuous relationship through the lens of economic and racial violence. Generating an inter-racial encounter between Patrick and Richie appears to be the limit of its commentary. It turns the story instead into Patrick’s emotional histories involving his privileged upbringing, and his relationship with a persnickety mother. We know, in contrast, nothing about Richie’s background, or for that matter, any of the other characters. If there was any doubt Patrick is the central character of the show, the focus on his family, albeit short, puts that to rest. The show could well be retitled, Looking for Patrick, Looking with Patrick, or Looking like Patrick. He is, shall we say, the new poster child of gaytriarchy’s troubles.

Richie is, in this regard, no more than an emotive emollient or an exotic cipher for Patrick’s superficial psychic pain and class anxieties. His love for Patrick is poignant for its indescribable yearning to enter a world he has uneven or no access, and the show is both frank and brutal about this negative treatment. This makes the normative romantic contrivances of their extended date, lovingly captured in one episode where they become “tourists” in their own city, deeply problematic. It depicts Patrick’s openness to dating someone outside of his race and class as heroic while designating Richie as the good latino boyfriend. But as the show progresses, it is evident Patrick is not even really looking at Richie as a viable option.

In contrast to this slum dating, Patrick and his boss Kevin Matheson (Russell Tovey) have an affair with all the conventional markings of shiny gay desire, including brief sex scenes that invite our pornographic gaze on their bodies of ecstasy amidst material wealth.

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The illicit dimensions of professional and emotional crossing in this case (Kevin has a boyfriend) are celebrated as dangerous and exciting, a version of the “good looking, masculine guy looking for the same.” But like the other sex scenes in the show, they are tantalizing snippets that draw on more mainstream imaginations of gay sex. In other words, they are discreet peepholes into gay sex acts, invoking what is deemed improper, including inter-racial threesomes, as a form of excitement. If they also seem readily consumable, it’s for a reason: they show nothing!

Looking is the product of our homonormative times with a sweet, blue-eyed, white gaytriarch bottom as a leading character. If Patrick’s gaze, a throwback to the 90s, is a way of looking, what does this mean for contemporary queer looks in the U.S.? How is it possible we are seeing a lot of different races and cultures but what is solely visible is the pink race of the gay middle class? Is diversity merely a front for the gay’geoisie-mode of living and looking? While Patrick is pondering on his next moves with his set of gay friends on the lookout (also an actual bar in Castro), we might turn to the avenger website, Grindr douchebag, to address the banality of gaytriarchal racism and class entitlement so painfully obvious to everyone except its perpetrators, including those smiling je ne sais quoi lookers so caught up with their own foibles to see what they are doing to their neighbors.

Transparent (2014): The Highs, the Lows, The Inbetweens

7 Jan 140924143230-amazon-transparent-show-620xa

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I was willing to go with the non-trans casting of the excellent Jeffrey Tambor for the role of the father who comes out to his children as a woman later in life. I was willing to overlook the stereotypes of lesbians as domestic snuggle bunnies blissed out on home improvement and less interested in hardcore fucking; I was even willing to tolerate the dweeby brother who, despite being a deeply irritating human being, manages to pick up one interesting lady after another. But the final straw for me, late one night, deep into a binge watching cycle of Transparent, was when Dale, a transman, struggles to get his sex toy out of its child proof packaging in anticipation of hot sex with his fem date, Ali, and then drops his dildo on the floor. In that moment, I felt my faith in the series slipping away as fast as Ali’s desire, and when she turns to leave, giving up for now on the potential of a heated and sexy exchange, turning her back on the fallen Sparkle Unicorn tool, I was ready to go with her. But, like any good binge watcher, I continued watching, being lifted by its high notes, disappointed by its low blows, and somewhat entertained by everything in between.

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220px-Solowaydirectorsphotocrop1-1Transparent, created and directed by Jill Soloway, received much acclaim for its first season. Rolling Stone credited it with “making the world safer for trans people”; Out dubbed it as the first show to properly handle not only transgenderism but also bisexuality; and, The Advocate called Transparent, simply, “great television.” Telling the story of a dysfunctional Jewish family in Los Angeles that falls apart and regroups around the patriarch’s revelation of her desire to live as a woman, Transparent covers a lot of new ground for television. The acting is uniformly great in this show, and its refusal to trade only in positive images of trans people–never mind Jews, lesbians, female rabbis, and butch security guards–makes it a unique media event in the history of queer representation. In a nutshell, the show gets a lot right, but as a footnote, it also makes some rookie mistakes. Now, some four months after its release, after allowing the dust it kicked up to settle a little, let’s reassess the highs and the lows of Transparent.

The Highs

  • The Writing – “No one has ever seen me except me” (Maura). The challenge with Transparent lies in its ability to represent a specific trans experience without making it representative of all trans experience. The show manages to convey, with some subtlety, the relief of coming out, the stress of feeling exposed, the sadness of being late to the table. Maura is a multifaceted character and a uniformly talented cast backs her up.With a writing team that includes the great Ali Liebegott and a consultant team that includes Zachary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, Transparent made the wise decision to work with trans people’s own narratives rather than to cleave faithfully to Jill Soloway’s autobiographical story. Soloway’s experience with her father’s transition still forms the spine of the piece but it is well rounded out with a clutch of other stories about aging, sexual experimentation, addiction, sibling tension and so on
  • Transparent7.5The HumorFour out of Five Pfeffermans Now Prefer Pussy.” When Ali (Gaby Hoffman) explains to her siblings Josh (Jay Duplass) and Sarah (Amy Landecker) that her date for the “Trans Talent Show” is the handsome trans man across the room (played by Ian Harvie), Josh first struggles to incorporate more new information about gender flexibility and then blurts out the line of the season: “Four out of Five Pfeffermans Now Prefer Pussy.” It is a great line and like much of the humor in the show, perfectly delivered. Eschewing the sit-com laugh-line humor for a more self-deprecating style that mixes defeat and disappointment in healthy doses with wry self-awareness, Transparent actually hits a few new notes for comedy.
  • The Acting – Jeffrey Tambor really draws out the fine shading of his character and while the siblings perform their hysteria (Amy Landecker as Sarah), paranoia (Jay Duplass as Josh) and neurosis (Ali) to the tee, some of the best acting falls to the minor characters like Ian Harvie, Judith Light and Carrie Brownstein. Brownstein’s show stealing turn as Ali’s best friend in love with both Ali and embroiled sexually with her brother, was magnificent. And both Harvie and Light are totally convincing and more in their roles.tumblr_ncji0riq271r4aenjo5_500
  • The Brutally Realistic Appraisal of the Fucked Up Family: Davina to Maura: “In five years you are gonna look up and none of your family are gonna be there. Not one.” Resisting the Hollywood-ready narrative of the ever-expansive family network that bends and bows to embrace the good and the bad of its flawed members, Transparent is willing to dig into the fragility of family ties. Family, the show reveals, hangs too much upon the pathetic alibi of blood bonds and longevity and these connections, dependent as they are upon custom and routine, cannot incorporate new information well. Family, more often than not, is convenience, parasitism and laziness, a group of people stuck in hell and too idle to leave. And queer community, at least prior to the installation of gay marriage, offered one important alternative to biological bonds. One of the greatest contributions made by Transparent, indeed, lies in its willingness to expose the rotten core of American family life and offer alternatives even if they come in the form of bad sex, infidelity and addiction!

The Lows

The Writing – while mostly I loved the writing, there are numerous missteps. In one episode, for instance, Syd tells Ali she is a “vaginal learner” (huh?), “you have to stick stuff in there to see what it feels like…” And, in another, Sarah asks her ex husband, Len, whether her tits were “too overwhelming” for him. Later, in much telegraphed post-breakup sex, Len tells Sarah that, since she is now with a woman, she must be missing his cock. And so on. These interactions seem to be playing to another audience, a straight audience perhaps, an audience who often has to be instructed in what Len calls “dildo-ology” or in the variations within the category of transsexual. Who can argue with a little pedagogical push, but when push comes to shove, the show seems to orient too much to a straight audience, the one most identified with sleazebag Josh, and most invested in familial stability.

The Pathos – I am all for a little pathos. Hell, I am all for a lot of pathos especially when it is used judiciously to spring a coming out narrative out of the mine field of clichés and to place it in the all too human terrain of loss. But sometimes, Transparent divvies up and distributes the pathos in ways that make it seem like simply part of the terrain of transgenderism. Pathos, we all know, is the foundation of heterosexuality, maybe of all sexuality, but in the show, sometimes, especially in the trans-talent episode, pathos seems to be the hallmark of trans life and this despite the deep and wide and magical archive of queer performance scenes that the producers all participate in and could have drawn upon. Given the incredible contributions to art, film and performance made by Drucker and Ernst and considering the eclectic writing career of Ali Liebegott, there is just no reason that the drag show had to be so bad, so sad, so pitiful.

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The Trans Sex Scene

And so, we circle back around to the Sparkle Unicorn in the room, the dildo on the floor, the trans sex scene that never happened. Ian Harvie has answered questions about this scene in various interviews and has insisted, rightly, that the scene must be considered in context. The scene is intercut with a failed sexual interaction between Josh and the female rabbi, Raquel and so the theme of the episode is detumescence. This is all well and good but while Josh simply fails to get it up, Dale cannot handle his dildo, and the banter between Ali and Dale leading up to the failed sex scene is kind of cringe worthy. The “shave-your-pussy” scene just seems like one major buzz kill.

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So, in between the highs, the lows and the lousy, there is much to admire in this new series and while I am still waiting for a dildo-sex scene to rival the one that Kim Peirce shot for The L Word back in 2006, I have faith that the Sparkle Unicorn will survive its fall from grace and return to offer a real lesson in sex, gender creativity and magic.

Katherine McKittrick, author of Demonic Grounds, on Trigger Warnings

17 Dec img_art_15112_6902

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Katherine McKittrick is Professor of Gender Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston ON. McKittrick is the author of Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2006) and the co-editor with 

the late Clyde Woods of Black Geographies and the Politics of Place (South End Press, 2007). McKittrick is also the editor of a forthcoming anthology titled Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis (Duke UP, 2014). In addition, she is completing a monograph titled Dear Science And/Rejoicing the Black Creative Sciences which is on the promise of science in Black poetry, music and visual art.

 

In an interview with Peter James Hudson titled “Canada and the Question of Black Geographies,” McKittrick comments on the privilege of presuming or even demanding that the classroom be a safe space. We asked McKittrick if we could post this section of the interview on Bullybloggers as part of our ongoing series on the politics of Trigger Warnings.

The full interview appears in The CLR James Journal Volume 20, Number 1, Fall 2014.clrjournal

TOWARDS THE END OF THE INTERVIEW, HUDSON ASKS:

PJH: On twitter, you (depressingly, brilliantly) wrote, “I’ve never glimpsed safe teaching (and learning) space. It is a white fantasy that harms.” I’m wonder­ing if you could expand on that as it pertains to the Black student in Canada? How does such a vexed space inform your own pedagogical practice?

KM: Yes. I wonder a lot about why the classroom should be safe. It isn’t safe. I am not sure what safe learning looks like because the kinds of questions that need to be (and are) asked, across a range of disciplines and interdisci­plines, necessarily attend to violence and sadness and the struggle for life. How could teaching narratives of sadness ever, under any circumstances, be safe!? And doubled onto this: which black or other marginalized fac­ulty is safe in the academy, ever? Who are these safe people? Where are they? But there is also, on top of this all, an underlying discourse, one that emerges out of feminism and other “identity” discourses, that assumes that the classroom should be safe. This kind of “safe space” thinking sometimes includes statements on course outlines about respect for diversity and how the class (faculty? students?) will not tolerate inappropriate behavior: rac­ism, homophobia, sexism, ableism. This kind of hate-prevention is a fantasy to me. It is a fantasy that replicates, rather than undoes, systems of injus­tice because it assumes, first, that teaching about anti-colonialism or sexism or homophobia can be safe (which is an injustice to those who have lived and live injustice!), second, that learning about anti-colonialism or sexism or homophobia is safe, easy, comfortable, and, third, that silencing and/or removing ‘bad’ and ‘intolerant’ students dismantles systems of injustice. Privileged students leave these safe spaces with transparently knowable op­pressed identities safely tucked in their back pockets and a lesson on how to be aggressively and benevolently silent. The only people harmed in this pro­cess are students of colour, faculty of colour, and those who are the victims of potential yet unspoken intolerance. I call this a white fantasy because, at least for me, only someone with racial privilege would assume that the classroom could be a site of safety! This kind of privileged person sees the classroom as, a priori, safe, and a space that is tainted by dangerous subject matters (race) and unruly (intolerant) students. But the classroom is, as I see it, a colonial site that was, and always has been, engendered by and through violent img_art_15112_6902exclusion! Remember Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy?! How wretched are those daffodils!?! I am not suggesting that the classroom be a location that welcomes violence and hatefulness and racism; I am suggesting that learning and teaching and classrooms are, already, sites of pain. We cannot protect or save ourselves or our students by demanding silence or shaming ignorance or ‘warning’ the class that difficult knowledge is around the corner (as with “trigger” moments—the moment when the course director or teaching as­sistant says: “look out, I need to acknowledge a trigger moment that will make you uncomfortable: we are going to talk about whiteness!”) All of this, too, also recalls the long history of silencing—subalterns not speaking and all of that. Why is silencing, now, something that protects or enables safety? Who does silence protect and who does silence make safe and who does silence erase? Who has the privilege to demand tolerance?

In my teaching, although this is a day-to-day skirmish for me because the site where we begin to teach is already white supremacist, I try very hard to create class­room conversations that work out how knowledge is linked to an ongoing struggle to end violence and that, while racist or homophobic practices are certainly not encouraged or welcome, when they do emerge (because they always do!) we need to situate these practices within the wider context of colonialism and anti-blackness. This is a pedagogy wherein the brutalities of racial violence are not descriptively rehearsed, but always already demand practical activities of resistance, encounter, and anti-colonial thinking.

Trauma Lives Us: Affective Excess, Safe Spaces and the Erasure of Subjectivity

6 Dec

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Let me start by situating myself. My background is in the clinical practice of psychoanalysis, not in the academy. Much of my work revolves around the treatment of trauma. Over the years I have seen traumatized patients in outpatient and inpatient settings and I have worked with political asylum seekers in the court and immigration systems. In my private practice I regularly treat patients who have suffered from systemic and non-systemic forms of neglect as well as from physical, sexual and emotional violence. While I work with academics and students –and as such, the debate and range of feelings about trigger warnings have inevitably poured into my office- I do not have direct experience with how these matters play out in the classroom per se.

What I can offer, however, is a set of psychoanalytically informed reflections on traumatic experience, memory and safety. Highlighting trauma’s intrapsychic and unconscious dimensions I discuss how our relationships to trauma, our own and others’, are vexed and conflicted, underwritten by both horrified fascination and excited repulsion. Further, I suggest that when the particular kind of anxiety that gets aroused to protect from further traumatization (signal anxiety) is responded to by avoidance, trauma becomes ossified. This ossification runs the risk of short-circuiting the process by which a political and social consciousness is formed. Last, I propose that the hope that one can be spared from traumatic recollection draws heavily on the fantasy of a receptive and caring other who is capable of offering this kind of protection. And I explain how that fantasy entails the unintended erasure of that person’s complex subjectivity.

Trauma both compromises and constitutes us

As a psychoanalyst I am trained to attend not only to what people say about their experience, but also to how they act and what they do with their affect. So this summer, when Jack Halberstam’s post originally hit the web and the avalanche of responses to it started appearing on my facebook newsfeed, what drove home for me that we were in the territory of trauma was less the content of what was being talked about than the nature and pace of the discourse. Its affective tone was heated, it sizzled with an excited agitation as more and more bloggers joined in to defend, to vilify, to call for recognition, to critique, to amplify, to apologize, to acknowledge, to condemn. With each voice added to the chorus came the thrill of highly charged affect states, the flow of manic intensity and phobic excitement that is fueled by the vitality of pain and of anguish. Issuing from the maelstrom of this un-metabolizable affective excess the back and forth of the exchange escalated into a state of contagious urgency. This is the territory of trauma: it comes with a certain kind of high-voltage jouissance, a frightening and vertiginous bliss that is painful yet irresistible.

Trauma has an adhesive quality that furnishes it with its tenacious complexity. That it both makes us and breaks us is one of its most potent mindfucks: against our consent and despite our protests trauma does more than compromise us. It also constitutes us. And in doing both, it also further rattles and perturbs us. This is one of the most tragic but also poignant dimensions of traumatic experience: it enters and instantly colonizes us such that what has invaded us from the outside mates with who we are, with the past and with memory, ultimately becoming part of our very subjectivity. Even when it materializes in the highly permeable, unsteady border between the intrapsychic and the social -as, for example, when it arises from structural systems of injustice and oppression- trauma becomes an internal dictator. We don’t live trauma. Trauma lives us. Trauma lives us ardently and against our consent. And however much we work through it, trauma always marks us. Of course the degree to which we are marked by it varies as does the extent to which we are able to manage its affective and embodied residues. Indeed, it is thus that we may become capable of living, actually of even living well. But even in the best of cases, our traumata never quite leave us alone.

Trauma and signal anxiety

As an actual experience of helplessness, trauma is that which overwhelms the ego’s capacity to cope. For Freud, a traumatic situation arises when a subject estimates how her ‘own strength compare[s] to the magnitude of the danger and [when it culminates] in [her] admission of helplessness in the face of it’ (1926, p. 166). That ‘admission’ is tormenting, laced with anguish. For someone who has already been traumatized there is an advantage in being able to ‘foresee and expect a traumatic situation … instead of simply waiting for it to happen [again]’ (Freud 1926, p. 166).

This frightened anticipation of a danger-situation produces a particular kind of anxiety that Freud called signal anxiety. Signal anxiety is a very complicated phenomenon because inasmuch as it is preoccupied with expectation, it concerns itself with the future. It draws on memory and on the recollection of an event that has occurred out there in the past and it aims to prepare us in here for the future by mobilizing us right now, in the present. If trauma is injury, signal anxiety is the state of preparedness anticipating that more injury is to come (Laplanche & Pontalis, 1987).

The term signal, however, can be misleading: the phenomenology of signal anxiety is not that of a benign warning sign but it is, oftentimes, a paralyzing, overwhelming cascade of emotional and physiological responses commensurate not with the anticipation of danger but with the experience of the danger itself. It can lead to symptom formation (e.g. anxiety attacks, phobias, psychosomatic phenomena) whose links to the traumatic experience are neither linear nor easily detectable because by nature signal anxiety is unconscious. We experience and observe its effects but its causes and ties to history are not always discernible or even expectable. Because of that, we are often surprised by what it is that arouses our traumatic response. Because of that, we become jarringly and unexpectedly flooded with overwhelming mnemic traces. Paradoxically then, in the attempt to protect from further trauma signal anxiety may birth symptoms that are tormenting in their own right and which may even reproduce some of trauma’s effects. In that sense, signal anxiety can do more than warn: it can re-traumatize.

Signal anxiety is one of the traumatic sequelae from which one seeks immunity when anticipating being exposed to triggering material. Of course what will be triggering or not is impossible to predict because the particular mnemonic ties established between the traumatic event and its registration are quite unforeseeable: a song playing in the background, a visual pattern on the ceiling, the odor of sizzling onions in the kitchen. Not only can these signals not be anticipated and reliably protected against but also, to the extent that protective measures may ironically themselves endanger traumatic reactions, re-traumatization may at times be inevitable. The degree and depth of re-traumatization varies across situations and individuals but, the more widespread the original source of trauma is, as in structural inequalities that generate traumatic experience, the more likely it is to be encountered often and unexpectedly. And, as such, the more vigilant the ego needs to become in order to anticipate sources of traumatic re-activation and repetition. This process is nothing short of emotionally exhausting. It requires the subject to remain always on alert, a kind of harsh, watchful posture that ravishes internal resources.

Trigger warnings in that sense aspire not to insulation from trauma itself but from the associated affects linked to its recollection. The classroom is obviously an infinitely complex space within which to negotiate such challenges. It is not a setting that can provide a traumatized subject with the individual attention of having the trauma tended to in the way that it deserves. Professors do not, nor should they be expected to, have the clinical tools with which to help hold some of the epiphenomenal effects of traumatic reactivations. But more importantly, I am feeling skeptical that the kinds of protections trigger warnings might be thought to provide are of the sort that any human being is able to fully extend to a traumatized other. Even in the consulting room when trauma can be explored in a carefully and thoughtfully crafted intersubjective space and worked with in depth, the unbidden is always upon us and traumatic reactivations occur in the most unexpected and unpredictable of ways.

Amidst all this complexity we cannot lose track of the fact that inherent in the call for trigger warnings is the understandable wish to avoid pain. Pain is not always the de facto villain it’s made out to be. Counterintuitive though it may sound, the avoidance of pain oftentimes encysts and calcifies trauma. Think of it as trauma in formaldehyde. Avoidance reinforces and buttresses the experience of helplessness that originates in the traumatic event and which may or not necessarily continue to apply in the present. Avoidance can then generalize to a more overall phobic and timid approach to the world. Even in cases where current conditions are not that different from those of the traumatizing past (think here, for example, of racial trauma) possibilities as to how to respond to traumatic events may fan out into a wider range if one is freer to think and respond in the present. Under the aegis of fear, anxiety does what it’s supposed to do: it can send the traumatized into a state of hyper-arousal.

It is precisely at this point that working with pain rather than against it becomes crucial. Wrestling with that which one cannot manage is how growth happens. It’s not where we feel comfortable and it’s not where we feel safe but it is where we grow. It is in this very activation of signal anxiety that one can become acquainted with trauma, so that they may work through, own, and at times even enlist it.

Art and political activism are the examples par excellence of how pain and trauma can be productively enlisted. Contact with pain can be generative not only on the individual but on the collective level as well because it can become the paradigmatic site for the formation of political consciousness. Pain and disturbance are necessary conditions if we are to exist ethically in a world plagued with injustices and crowded by inequalities. The experience of pain is where one learns that hurt may be experienced internally but it is, oftentimes, not the exclusive property of the person who has been captured and scarred by it. The inadvertent shock of recognition that one’s pain may be the single person manifest of larger social and structural problems may be jarring and disorienting but it is ultimately a critical ingredient to developing a social consciousness. I am not arguing that trauma should not also be respected as perimetered, individual space-but I am saying that the very registration of trauma’s injuries and the ability to reflect through its paralyzing effects, may make it possible for the subject to recognize that trauma is both intimate and, at times, social, emanating from large-scale inequalities and structural coercions. It may make it possible for us to become alert to how the social is always implicated in the sphere of the seemingly private and internal. This recognition can usher in the vital role of collectivity, making community building and activism imaginable. In its best iterations, political consciousness builds its density by borrowing from our most deeply personal experiences. That disturbance is more than a purely cognitive exercise, it is one of veritable and deep pain. To put it differently, anesthetizing oneself to one’s pain is both an individual and social liability.

Safety, idealization and the illusion of a trauma-free zone.

Signal anxiety and traumatic recollection is the affective topography the call for trigger warnings seeks to evade. What is the psychic environment, though, that trigger warnings may be trying to establish? The hope, it seems to me, inherent in the call to trigger warnings is that a safe perimeter may be instituted where the traumatized subject does not have to be constantly on watch, where the rigidity of one’s defensive vigilance may be relaxed so that internal resources may become oriented –in the case of the classroom- towards learning.

There are some important parallels between this wish for safety in the classroom and the kind of safety that patients envision when coming for treatment to a psychoanalyst. So I will start with speaking from my experience of the latter first.

Patients routinely seek psychoanalysis in the hope of finding a safe space. I understand that request in two ways: one is a very particular wish for privacy and confidentiality, for me to not deliberately abuse the power of my position, and to be thoughtfully engaged in how I listen and speak to those who seek my help. There is also, I think, another -oftentimes unconscious- dimension to that request. The plea, as I hear it, is: ‘as I am about to make myself vulnerable to you, promise me you won’t hurt me.’ This is a plea that reverberates across all human relationships but which we don’t often articulate to each other except in the most intimate of circumstances. When patients bring up the idea of a safe space, I can promise to do my best as far as the former is concerned. When it comes to promising that I will not hurt those in my care, however, the matter is infinitely more complicated. Even within the protections of a relationship that is conducted in small doses and with the benefit of reflective intentionality, the establishment of a safe space is, under the best of circumstances, highly dubious. This is not because I would want my patients to feel hurt or because I want to be careless but because any encounter between two human beings carries the potential for injury. If, in fact, the relationship sustains itself long enough, the potential for injury becomes an unintended inevitability. Where trauma has pre-existed, new injuries carry the potential to activate the past by stumbling upon its remnants, and to thus evoke signal anxiety and risk re-traumatization.

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In that sense, I find the term safe space problematic. An analyst’s consulting room is never a safe space. It is, in fact, one of the most terrifying places one can find oneself in—sharing with another being our most intimate relationships. Which is why patients are oftentimes terrified to come to treatment in the first place, as well they should be. The most terrible things get (re)visited in an analyst’s office. And yet it is only under the false truth and necessary illusion of safety that patients may make themselves vulnerable in the first place. With time also comes the mourning of the notion that any intersubjective space can ever be fully safe–and eventually the begrudging, always incomplete acceptance of the fact that placing ourselves among others always carries the risk of wound and injury. Knowing that is not merely an intellectual exercise–most of us, after all, ‘know’ that others will hurt us. Knowing it on an emotional level is a hard-won and painful truth.

But there is also another reason why the provision of a safe environment is ultimately an unrealistic goal. There is an unrecognized and thus uncontested premise underlying the idea that a caring and competent caretaking other can ensure our safety. That is the belief that it is within the other’s power to provide the experience of security if only they so decide. And yet, the subject to whom the call for safety is addressed–the analyst and, in the case of the classroom perhaps the professor as well–may also have been impacted by trauma. They, too, would then be subject to its defensive operations and may also be assailed by its unconscious effects. As my own lengthy analysis has revealed to me, I too have my own unconscious, I too act outside of my awareness and, at times, despite my best intentions. My own traumata and anxieties do at times exceed me. Ideally my personal psychoanalysis and my rigorous training help ensure that this happens less frequently to me than it does to my patients and yet it is to some degree inevitable. It is, of course, not my patients’ job or responsibility to bear my trauma or to examine my unconscious. But to the extent that analysis–as in fact, is true of all interpersonal interactions–consists of two subjects with their respective unconscious lives reciprocally impacting each other, it does inevitably become a problem lived out in the dyad. In the consulting room, my patients and I do not bear equal responsibility for that of course. As an analyst, I am ultimately responsible for myself and for my patient. But we do inevitably both have to bear its impact.

While clinical psychoanalysis has taken up this problem and has even come up with ways to address some of it in the treatment room, I suspect that this issue may be far more challenging in the classroom setting. Take, for instance, the example of a trigger warning request issued to a professor who is herself scorched by trauma and whose body may have been breached by violence. To the extent that she is fractured by her own traumatic experience, this professor is subject to the range of defensive maneuvers all subjects unconsciously deploy to manage pain. Defenses of this sort, like dissociation, denial, reaction formation, manic reversals, and so on operate outside awareness and may, despite her best intentions, interfere with her capacity to attend to her students’ requests. What happens to the trigger warnings discourse if we imagine a professor who is constrained by her own traumatic experience? A professor who may be compromised by blindspots unconsciously installed by trauma’s unwavering impact and which will, in turn, curtail her ability to issue a trigger warning?

This may be especially true of the very kind of professor to whom the call for trigger warnings is most routinely addressed. The professor who teaches courses related to social inequalities and institutional oppressions–race, sexuality, ability, gender, class–is perhaps herself more intimately familiar with their impact on her personal life. What are the limits then to how she can respond to the student’s plea for care? What are her duties in communicating those limits to her student after she becomes aware of the scotomas of dissociation? Should space be made for privacy, for the dignity of personal space? Would it be appropriate or even desirable to confess a history of trauma as a way of indicating that it is not for lack of care that the student’s concern could not have been met? And if so, would that not risk reproducing in the student the kind of caretaker/caretakee reversal that is endemic to so much of trauma to begin with?

There is an additional function served by the construal of the other as fully psychically available for this kind of protective work. Imagining an un-traumatized other affectively subsidizes the notion that a trauma-free zone exists. It dreams up, we might say, a caretaking figure that can omnipotently and omnisciently anticipate, attune and respond to the traumatized individual’s needs. I am reminded here of Melanie Klein’s (1940) remarkable insight that, in fact, the more injurious our early experiences with our caretakers have been (and I would add culture here as the ambient traumatizing parent) and the more protracted the trauma experienced in their hands, the more tenaciously one develops the belief that there is indeed out there a receptive mind who can be available to us as a reparative object. As traumatologists have been insisting for a while now, the most deleterious effects of trauma have to do not only with the event itself but, primarily, with the relational failure that permitted the event’s occurrence in the first place. It is the absence of witnessing, the absence of recognizing and acknowledging the injustice that has occurred, that renders trauma impossible to metabolize. This imaginary other can restore both the damage done to us and to our injured belief in humanity. The more hurt we are the more desperately and persistently we look for that idealized object who can attend to and witness our pain.

Fantasies of reparation, especially when underwritten by the fiery synergy of past and present emergencies, can operate with a force that may be experienced as coercive. In their inadvertent erasure of the helper’s subjectivity, the person to whom the call for safety is addressed may begin to feel a sense of discomfort or even of resentment in how the other’s demands for safety obfuscates one’s own complex humanity. Since much of trauma is underwritten, to begin with, by the erasure of the trauma survivor’s subjectivity, the inadvertent reproduction of this erasure may itself activate a cascade of traumatic responses. This may, in turn, ignite in the subject to whom the request for safety is made a defensive attempt to protectively distance oneself from the source of traumatic recollection/reliving. In following the dizzying back and forth of the trigger debate online this summer I, in fact, often wondered whether a dynamic of this sort was at play. Could posts that were read as shaming students for trigger warning requests, as urging them to ‘stop complaining’ or as being ‘overly sensitive, have, on some deeper level, been attempts to distance their authors from the pangs of memory and to wrestle some personal space? Could we construe the conflict that ultimately came to be framed along the lines of ‘academic freedom’ versus ‘safe environment’ as a struggle for autonomy that, in both directions, also ultimately felt negating to both parties’ needs and subjectivities?

Even if my hypothesis is correct, it is important to keep in mind that the request for safety and for recognition is ultimately issued to those who are believed to be most able to bear and witness injury and pain, the ones to whom the traumatized is most intimately attached. Whether this need is or is not possible to meet in the academic setting, it seems important that we do not lose track of the fact that, even from within the maelstrom of the powerful doer-done to dynamics (Benjamin, 2004) which get activated in the course of this debate, students come to the table asking the most of those they trust the most, the ones with whom they feel–and with whom they want to feel–safer. How does one keep in mind the tension between the fact that the most powerful transference magnet for the materialization of those reparative wishes, might after all be subjects who may themselves be the most highly permeable to trauma–the professor whose intellectual commitments lie in areas that take note of and speak back to structural and social inequalities?

Dr. Avgi Saketopoulou is a NYC based psychoanalyst trained at the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. 

Classrooms and Their Dissed Contents

27 Nov

Ann Pellegrini

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“Oh, what a beautiful mornin’! / Oh, what a beautiful day! / I’ve got a beautiful feelin’ / Ev’rythin’s goin’ my way.” These lines are from the opening moments of Oklahoma, the 1943 musical that is widely credited as the founding example of the complete “book musical.” Now, I would like to focus my entire blog post on this musical and its liberal fable of democratic harmony bursting forth amidst social differences. Can the cowman and the farmer be friends? Yes, they can! Alas, we cannot always get or do what we want, whether in the classroom, blogs, or elsewhere. So, instead I will focus my brief remarks on something else, albeit something not unrelated to a certain fable of democratic belonging: namely, the fantasy of beautiful feelings and everything goin’ my way. This fantasy is foundational to neoliberalism and its immiserations. Speaking and, perhaps, singing along with Lauren Berlant, I would even suggest that Oklahoma, although it pre-dates neoliberalism, is one of the soundtracks of “cruel optimism.”

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Trigger warnings are alarm codes of neoliberalism. Right now the demand for trigger warnings is a student-led movement that has prompted impassioned debates at numerous colleges and universities (not to mention across the blogosphere) as well as exasperated, and predictably cherchez la feministe, coverage in The New York Times and other mainstream media outlets. To date, no U.S. university has mandated trigger warnings as a matter of university policy. In her contribution to this forum, Lisa Duggan importantly distinguishes between politics and policy and cautions about what happens when the former get taken up by university administrations and turned into enforcement measures disconnected from original on-the-ground debates and animating politics. Trigger warnings may promise students safety, but, as an administrative and enforceable policy, they will in fact serve to indemnify universities while putting some faculty at heightened risk for sanction and, even, firing.

As has been pointed out by Elizabeth Freeman, Brian Herrera, Nat Hurley, Homay King, Dana Luciano, Dana Seitler, and Patricia White, in a jointly written essay on “Why Trigger Warnings Are Flawed”:

Faculty of color, queer faculty, and faculty teaching in gender/sexuality studies, critical race theory, and the visual/performing arts will likely be disproportionate targets of student complaints about triggering, as the material these faculty members teach is by its nature unsettling and often feels immediate.

Untenured and non-tenure-track faculty will feel the least freedom to include complex, potentially disturbing materials on their syllabuses even when these materials may well serve good pedagogical aims, and will be most vulnerable to institutional censure for doing so.

Ironically, then, an unintended but entirely predictable effect of trigger warnings is to intensify the precariousness of precisely those faculty who are most likely to empathize with student concerns about the violence and traumatic afterlife of homophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia, and the like.

The admirable goal behind student initiatives for trigger warnings is to create more breathing room in the classroom and minimize students’ pain. In practice, though, trigger warnings too easily become yet another disciplinary mechanism that the corporate university can use to promote consumer (and donor) satisfaction as the highest good. Forms of neoliberal value$ ultimately do little to nothing to look after the well-being of individual students or make structural changes that would ameliorate, let alone prevent, suffering. Instead, we get a rhetoric of “zero tolerance” for rape and sexual assault (which sure makes me feel better) and calls for “civility,” “tolerance,” and “respect” as the conditions of possibility for the flourishing of a university community. That word “community” makes me wanna run for the hills, but not in a Sound of Music kinda way.

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We’ve seen a version of this discipline and punish in the highly publicized “un-hiring” of Professor Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a decision made at the highest level of the Illinois system. The U of I Chancellor Phyllis Wise justified her decision to rescind the offer of tenure made to Salaita in the name of protecting students from “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them. We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.”

As John K. Wilson points out on The Academe Blog, this is a bizarre statement: do viewpoints have feelings or some inner personality that can be demeaned? Chancellor Wise’s last name would be risible if the joke weren’t so serious for Salaita and his family first and foremost, but for educators and students across the country as well. The bright line the Chancellor wants to draw between classroom content that challenges a students’ assumptions and “respect” for students’ “rights as individuals” cannot hold. By Chancellor Wise’s un-wise logic, an Evangelical student who objected on religious grounds to the teaching of evolution could cry foul in a biology class. For such a student, the teaching of evolution might be experienced as profoundly “disrespectful” to his or her rights as an individual. And that student could even appeal to a rights-based discourse – religious liberty — to legitimate the grievance.

There is a dangerous collapse going on here, and one that refortifies feelings as facts and reduces education and politics, as well, to a matter of feelings. Hurt feelings are to be avoided; good feelings (and satisfied consumer-citizens) are to be maximized. The good feelings of some citizens, that is. U.S. history is replete with examples of laws and policies arranged to optimize the comfort of the majority, at the expense of minoritized subjects.

But disagreement and difference are not obstacles to our ability to share the world with others; they are its necessary conditions, even its psychic and, perhaps even, physio-psychic starting points. Thus, we might do well to distinguish, as the Chancellor does not, between feeling personally “abused” and being personally demeaned and abused. Personally, I think exposing students to quote unquote objectionable viewpoints — and being exposed to them myself, as a teacher — may be one of the goals of a university education.

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In calling for the classroom to be a “safe space,” the movement for trigger warnings ends up closing down one of the crucial places where students (and teachers, too) can experiment having and surviving the hurt feelings that may result from differences in viewpoints and differences in moral values. Learning that disagreement does not kill you — and that you need not kill someone who disagrees with you — could even be considered a kind of laboratory in democratic social relations. How do we make the classroom a place simultaneously of safety and risk? Call it the “safe-enough” classroom, a place where — as Audre Lorde once wrote about the “uses of anger” — we can “listen to the content of what is said with at least as much intensity as we defend ourselves against the manner of saying.”

This distinction between content and manner of saying and hearing (what we could also call affective delivery and affective uptake) is crucial if we are to avoid the collapse of feelings and facts. When feelings become facts, it becomes difficult if not impossible to distinguish between, say, feelings of unfairness and practices of unfairness. If you belong to a group that has traditionally enjoyed unquestioned social dominance, any expansion of fairness for historically marginalized groups — such as people of color, LGBT people, and non-Christians — might feel like a loss, might feel “unfair,” when your taken-for-granted social privileges and legal position are suddenly challenged. In contrast, legally protected discrimination not only feels unfair; it is.

Distinguishing feelings from facts — even as we also see how they become braided together — requires stepping back from the personal or, put another way, stepping differently in relation to it. When someone says something racist or sexist or homophobic or transphobic, let’s put some air in the room and say: what you said is racist or sexist or homophobic or transphobic, not you are. What a world of difference exists between these two formulations. I suggest this rewording not simply because it might make it easier for people to take the risk of not-knowing with each other and with themselves, but because the capacity to analyze and alter the embedded structures that reproduce social inequalities and sometimes murderous violence require precisely this separation. Let me also make clear that this proposed shift away from criticizing who someone “is” to what someone said or did (and saying is a powerful form of doing) is not a call to spare the anger or avoid hurt feelings. Both are an unavoidable feature of our lives with others.

It may be that part of what drives the movement for “trigger warnings” on college campuses is a desire for some place safe and beautifully secure from the multiple precarities of our age as well as from the internal contradictions that ever haunt the self. That the campus is imagined as a safe zone is a painful paradox given the astonishing debt load so many of our students are taking on – are mortgaging their futures to – in order to be in our classrooms in the first place.

In a context of precarity, many students ask, not unreasonably, for care. What does a pedagogy of care look and, crucially, feel like? I do not have a settled answer to this question, but I want to raise it both as shared challenge and as call to listen between the lines to what some (many? most?) students are asking for when they ask for advanced notice about texts or other class content that might upset them. I do not provide such warnings in my own classrooms, but I do try to take care. Offer care. Practices of care and caring are not strangers to the classroom, even as such practices will not and cannot feel like the practices of care on offer in a therapy session.

I will leave it to Avgi Saketopoulou, in her forthcoming addition to this forum, to say more about these crucial differences between classroom and consulting room. I’ll say only this: All the participants in this BullyBlogger forum on trigger warnings teach classes and/or do research that frontally engage questions of social injustice and suffering, the ravages of racism, colonialism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. Our students care about these issues, and so do we. Their political concerns and their personal histories inform how they read a given text or interpret a given image. This is part of the back-story of our academic passions, too. Maybe reading always begins from the standpoint of a certain “coloniality of the present,” to use Jack Halberstam’s phrase, in which we project ourselves and our desires backwards in time or into a particular text or film. Nevertheless, even if engagement starts from such self-interested projections, it cannot stop there. Texts are not our mirrors, and, arguably, one of the critical pedagogic tasks is to widen the circle of care beyond the self as origin or destination. “One writes,” Foucault once said, “in order to become other than what one is.” This seems a good model for reading and teaching, too. Who knows, but becoming other to oneself or, at least, to the self you thought you were and had to be is something the classroom might even share with the therapist’s consulting room. And that truly might be worth singing about.

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On Trauma and Trigger Warnings, in Three Parts

23 Nov

Lisa Duggan

This is the first of several posts adapted for Bully Bloggers from an October 14, 2014 panel at NYU:

Taking Offense: Trigger Warnings & the Neoliberal Politics of Endangerment

a panel discussion sponsored by the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality with Lisa Duggan, Jack Halberstam, Tavia Nyong’o, Ann Pellegrini, & Avgi Saketopoulou, moderated Karen Shimakawa. 

The panel was planned as a follow up to Jack Halberstam’s July 5 and July 15 posts on the subject of trigger warnings on this blog.  Trigger warnings originated in the feminist and queer blogosphere, but proposals to recommend or require them on college syllabi are now being considered on many campuses, including at UC Santa Barbara, Oberlin, Rutgers, George Washington University and the University of Michigan.  This migration to the college and university setting was the context for the Oct. 14 panel, and for the following series of BB posts.

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Part One: Personal Experience

During the 1990s, my friend Kathleen McHugh and I collaborated on two projects. We co-wrote “The Fem(me)inist Manifesto” (the most fun I ever had with a writing project) and we co-founded a little known entirely mythical underground organization—the Daughters of Irish Drunks. It was all a joke, of course, but a serious joke. At our “meetings” at the local café at the University of Illinois in Urbana, we hatched cartoonish revenge plots against our violent, sexually abusive alcoholic fathers.

This use of sophomoric humor had already become my primary coping strategy, along with a preference for direct confrontation and provocation. When I was 12 years old, I announced I was atheist, communist and a vegetarian at Thanksgiving dinner. I pretty much knew what would happen. My father chased me up the stairs with the carving knife as I ducked into the bathroom and locked the door. I loudly ridiculed him through the door. To me, it was all a Tom and Jerry cartoon. I developed a distinct preference for drawing the violence out, rather than trying to tip toe around it and wait for an eruption. A couple of decades later a therapist in New York asked me if I’d ever tried denial and avoidance? They were, she said, perfectly good defenses (and no doubt safer than provocation).

In 2002-2003 while on fellowship at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, I was seeing another therapist who asked me to color in a family genogram—with different color markers for violence, mental illness, incest and alcoholism. The chart looked like a roaring fire. The therapist wrote “culture of poverty” in the margin. I laughed out loud, crossed her words out, and wrote “cracker melodrama” instead. The therapist leaned in close and said with some intensity, “You do realize this isn’t really funny, don’t you?”

The only PTSD-like symptom I developed during my journey through childhood was the propensity to have a panic attack when I heard a barking dog. It is very very difficult to avoid the sound of barking dogs! Anywhere, any time, I might hear them. So I needed strategies to cope with the panic attacks, which could happen anywhere.

Given these defenses and this symptom, trigger warnings do not appeal to me as a method of coping with trauma. I don’t think it is possible to predict what will induce a PTSD reaction to past trauma—realist representations of trauma are not the reliable triggers people think they are. And I find all protectionist strategies patronizing and condescending. I want to face it all right now, no holds barred. Or at least I usually think I do.

Though the personal is political in many ways, personal experience and preference are actually lousy guides for political organizing and action. So what if this is my experience and these are my preferences and reactions? Other people navigate the world in different ways. In order to generate political action in response to collective experiences of trauma, we do need to do more than reference our own pain and strategies.

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Part Two: Historical Analysis

In my book, Twilight of Equality, I analyze the impact of neoliberal politics and policies on social movements during the 1990s. The general drift of change from the 1970s to the 1990s has been from the utopian to the pragmatic, from the collective to the individual, from transformative to the therapeutic. That is of course an over generalization, there is a wide range of kinds of social movement politics all through this period. We still have utopian, collective transformative activism now, and we had piecemeal, self-directed and individualist politics then. Race, class, gender, nation, religion are all significant defining boundaries for social movements. But to give some examples of the general trend I’m referencing:

*During the 1970s, some feminists exposed the widespread incidence of father-daughter incest in families, as part of their critique of the patriarchal family. During the 1980s, this critique slowly morphed into a moral panic over Satanic child abuse in day care centers (by strangers, outside the family). By the 1990s, the popular media focus was on the individual pedophile, a deranged and monstrous individual who must be tracked down and locked up to keep families safe.

*1970s feminist organizing for reproductive freedom and justice morphed in the 1980s into a focus on the individual medical consumer’s right to “choose” to have an abortion. Rather than organize to provide support and resources for a full range of reproductive freedoms (including freedom from unwanted sterilization), the overwhelming majority of feminist organizations fought primarily for abortion rights.

*1970s feminist critiques of the culture of violence against women shifted into a focus on police enforcement of laws against domestic violence (supporting the expansion of policing and prisons during the period), and into anti-pornography politics represented by Women Against Pornography in the 1980s (Women Against the Novel makes as much sense). When I attended a WAP slideshow in Times Square during the 1980s, their donor chart on the wall showed their biggest donations coming from those with a stake in gentrifying the area—real estate corporations and the city.

These very sketchy examples are meant to illustrate the dangers involved as social movement politics move into institutions (like the law, the state or the university) with shaping interests of their own. Rod Ferguson’s recent book, The Reorder of Things, provides an extended examination of the university in particular, as social movements moved into programs and centers focused on race, gender and sexuality.

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Part Three: Politics and Policy

So, what are the dangers in the path of trigger warnings as they move from a voluntary practice on feminist blogs and queer and trans tumblr to the university setting, a journey from politics to policy. One salient example for comparison is the career of sexual harassment law and policy. Feminist critiques of the sexualized power dynamics of the school and workplace moved into the arena of law, and were then taken over in the 1990s by corporate lawyers concerned with protecting their clients from liability. The workshops and policies developed at universities became more and more like military anti-fraternization codes. When I was teaching at Brown University from 1992-1994, I received warnings about the dangers of having dinner with students (lawsuits!), and learned about the 3rd party complaint procedure whereby one student could complain about a relationship between another student and a professor that might put her at a competitive disadvantage.

Sexual harassment law and policy ultimately put a process in place that is easily exploitable by lawyers, administrators, reactionaries and stalkers, by gay panic sufferers and jealous competitors.

In the case of trigger warnings, once they become the province of student senates, administrative bodies and university policies, they run the risk of marking and targeting the courses on gender and sexuality, critical race theory, colonial and postcolonial studies. These courses can be marked as the location of materials that endanger student welfare, and administrators may police their content in the name of “protecting” students. Rather than attend to the sources of inequality, conflict and trauma, some students may be motivated to look for triggers in books and films and ask for protection rather than resources and redress. This can apply to anti-gay Christian students who are “triggered” by queer material, as easily as to any others.

I think the strongest argument for trigger warnings comes from the disability justice movement. It does seem that a student with PTSD symptoms should have the same right to request accommodation as any other student with a disability. But this process of medicalization of trauma, in the service of institutional accommodation also has its dangers, as many disability studies scholars have pointed out. Does marking trauma as medicalized disability work like setting aside “disabled rooms” in hotels, allowing the hospitality industry to avoid instituting universal access design? Shouldn’t our classes approach collective trauma with an eye to exposing, critiquing and confronting systematic violence? Rather than singling out experiences in a decontextualizing and ultimately depoliticizing way, by marking representations of them with trigger warnings? Can’t we avoid turning politics into neoliberal policy yet again?

With trigger warnings as university or public policy, what could go wrong? Um, maybe this?

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Triggering Me, Triggering You: Making Up Is Hard To Do

15 Jul

by Jack Halberstam

30 Rock - Season 7

I was re-watching 30 Rock the other day (yeah, right after I finished my Monty Python marathon) and I came across the episode where Liz Lemon’s show, TGS, is accused of “hating women.” Liz Lemon is outraged, and reminds her crew that their last episode was all about women – cut to Jenna as Amelia Earhart crashing her plane because “oh no! my period.” And then cut to Jenna as Hilary Clinton messing up a press conference because “my period!” Liz Lemon explains: “that was an ironic appropriation of…oh, I don’t know anymore.” The skit continues with another humorous twist of the screw with which I won’t bore/amuse you but perhaps this is a good place to start: we often don’t know anymore, when something is an ironic appropriation of…and when it is just more of the same.

The responses to my recent Bully Bloggers piece “You’re Triggering Me: The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma” have pretty much polarized people (at least those who have responded publicly) into camps that break along that kind of division – people who hear humor and irony in the piece and are in favor of “ironic appropriations,” and people who think that the humor is just fancy dressing for odious and hurtful dismissals of real experiences of harm and pain. Obviously the wide range of responses to the post suggests the virality of the topic in the first place and perhaps justifies my attempts to make an intervention. And obviously I wrote a polemic so I cannot claim now to be surprised when the polemic polarizes!

But I was surprised by some mis-readings and dismayed by some of the more vicious responses, and I was very sorry, in particular, that some of my characterizations smacked of a dismissal of disability rights claims or discourse.

Some of the best responses to my piece include:

  • Andrea Smith’s wise “Beyond the Pros and Cons of Trigger Warnings: Collectivized Healing” (not a direct response to me at all) where she asks: “How do we create spaces to experiment with different strategies, as well as spaces to openly assess and change these strategies as they inevitably become co-opted? How do we create movements that make us collectively accountable for healing from individual and collective trauma?”
  •  Another excellent post that did directly respond to mine, and critiqued it, came from Natalia Cecire who offers that I am missing the way that neoliberalism also counsels us to “suck it up” in relation to harm and pain that we may feel. And she usefully points to the ways that the modes of expression that I critique are often associated with the feminine and therefore draw out a sexist response that she associated with my article. Finally, Cecire proposes that it is ridiculous to point to and intensify a generational split, one that older people have in many ways created and exploited and then blame it on a younger generation and all while accusing people of lacking a sense of humor. Fair enough.
  • Julia Serano, the author of the fabulous Whipping Girl, a book I regularly teach, calls my blog a “kitchen sink” piece and reminds us that activism can be messy and difficult but that the quarrels over language and feelings are ultimately worth the effort. She also memorializes her dead parrot while trigger warning the memorialization and joking about her own trigger warning. And she has funny inter titles, and is always worth a read, even if she is ripping you a new one!whipping_girl
  • Finally, Valéria Souza’s excellent blog on “Triggernometry” charts the history of some of these debates and she situates triggering as an almost necessary part of learning and something that we cannot shield ourselves from but that we should not ignore either.
  • You can also read other great posts by Brandy Daniels, and Matthew Nelson.

In response, and quickly because I know people are somewhat sick of this topic by now:

  • warning-humor
    1. I apologize to all those offended by my article. And to those who were not offended, it was not for lack of trying (joke).
    2. In trying to express frustration with some of the ways in which we engage each other in public around safe space, trigger warnings and appellations/pronouns, I realize that I made a straw person out of the environmentally sensitive people who object to perfume in public spaces. On this point, I have been re-reading Anna Mollow’s excellent article “No Safe Place” in Women Studies Quarterly (2011). My point was not to critique people who have environmental allergies  but to question how we make room for each other, or don’t, how we interact in public spaces and how important it is to find ways to communicate our needs without shouting each other down. This is something that I believe disability rights groups have done gracefully  and not simply by yelling at others in spaces fouled up by toxic odors. It may also be a good time to return to Todd Haynes brilliant film, Safe (1995), which managed to situate environmental illness not as a metaphor but as a part of an emergent landscape of differentiated vulnerability to all kinds of social and chemical toxicity. safe
    3. Generational conflict is an important topic. In my book, In a Queer Time and Place back in 2005, I actually wrote about the potential for emergent queer youth groups to pit old and young against each other in queer communities that were not actually organized along generational lines. This kind of conflict, I said then, is organized within Oedipal structures that make one generation see the other as their rivals/replacement. Consequently, these Oedipal structures substitute for other more queer, fluid and entwined relations between young and old, relations moreover that were often intimate and that, in the past, allowed for knowledge (prior to the internet) to be passed on from one generation to another. I still think that some of the impact of queer youth groups comes in the form of Oedipal conflict and I am committed to thinking with others about how to communicate, exchange and theorize beyond that Oedipal frame. I reproduced the framework in my essay for sure, but that is an inevitable consequence of struggling over a term like “tranny” that many people in their 40’s and 50’s use and other younger people often detest.Emperor-Penguins
    4. After reading through many responses to my original piece, I also agree that “censorship” might be too strong a word for the work that trigger warnings do, but censorship can mean not simply preventing someone from speaking but also insisting on what they say when they do speak. Trigger warnings originated in more local contexts and certainly warrant more conversation as and when they move from those contexts to public discourse. On this front, we might want to think about the provincial nature of these trigger warning/safe space debates and their specificity within North America – as several people pointed out in comments to my original blog, perhaps it is worth considering how American the demand for and expectation of safe space really is and whether we should dialogue about the centrality of injury to political claims made here in the US as opposed to elsewhere. But also we might consider how demands for safety in the US all too often come at the expense of others within a security regime.
    5. Julia Serano’s parrot is an important reminder of the stakes in these debates. Serano suggests that while she did lose her parrot in a way that was sad for her, she would not claim “that I was “traumatized” by her death. Nor am I “triggered” these days by watching Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch. But,” she continues, “do you know what would upset me? If somebody tried to dismiss my feelings about Coby and the grief that I felt after her passing.” I can very well understand that, no one wants their feelings dismissed but we should not confuse sad feelings with uncontrollable grief and so, I want to validate Julia’s feelings about her pet, Coby, and I want to propose that if I was at a play or performance where someone’s parrot became an ex-parrot and it was part of a humorous sketch about our attachment to animals, we should not have to have a town hall meeting about the performance later on account of the fact that it was disrespectful to those who have suffered the loss of said avian companions…if you catch my drift.monty_python_dead_parrot_sketch_by_seekerarmada-d5muzjm
    6. And if you don’t, no worries, to follow in Julia Serano’s footsteps, I will now be known as Whipping Boy or Jock Halberslam or, as my favorite tweet put it, “ the sports dad of queer theory.” Or we could all move on and work harder to understand each other, to trust each other and to believe that even if we cannot shield each other from harm, we can at least make the odd dead parrot joke in good humor and with impunity.67Z94Svt



For José

20 Dec

by Tavia Nyong’o

 

José, I’m calling up thunder.

Through so many tears

Today, I’m knocking on your door.

Can you hear?

I’m listening for your laughter through the wall

That separates and connects your office and mine.

I’m eavesdropping for the murmur

of your quiet counsel.

Give me that counsel today.

 

Gimme, gimme the words,

help me name

what you were to us.

Because there are no words

without you here to help me find them.

 

José, I’m totally fucked up

In a way that especially you could see.

I’m calling up thunder

for you, for us

for the punk rock commons

whose unauthorized entry

into the Ivory Tower

tooks its stolen wealth

And sold it in the streets for love.

 

José, you know me:

Most days I go for something pretty

Something pretty and well-spoken

And tomorrow,

I’ll say something pretty

but today,

for you José

I’m calling up thunder

to say something true.

 

12.7.2013

 

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José Esteban Muñoz – 1967-2013

6 Dec

José Esteban Muñoz, 1966-2013

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This week, we lost a fierce friend, a comrade, a wry and trenchant critic, a brave and bold queer voice and a true utopian in a world of pessimists. As we try to reckon with his absence and learn to live with the loss of such a magnificent thinker, such an enormous spirit, we can find all kinds of solace in the work that José left behind. “Queerness is not yet here,” he cautioned us at the beginning of Cruising Utopia, and he continued: “The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.”

These words are strangely comforting now that José is truly no longer in the here and now but dwells instead in a then, a there, a new world that we cannot reach from here, this prison house of life, the body, the present. José’s work, his craft, his social worlds, his teaching all reached out for the “forward-dawning futurity” that, he felt, harbored other ways of being, other forms of life, other worlds. These other worlds, alternative forms of life, could be glimpsed only through the cultural landscapes that queer people create out of love, desperation, hilarity, performance, perversity, friendship, sex, feelings, failings, pain and communion. And so José made it his life’s work to live in and with and alongside the brilliant, talented, queer performers about whom he wrote and with whom he collaborated: Vaginal Davis, Carmelita Tropicana, Nao Bustamente are just a few of the gorgeous, glittering talents who built worlds with him and made crazy, hilarious, expansive performance spaces with him, spaces where he could find his “then and there” at least for an evening.

And let’s not tame José as he leaves us – he was brilliant, sweet, loving, for sure, but he was also bitchy, camp, and tough. He knew well how to tease and be teased, how to give as good as he got, how to pick a fight and how to step out of the way once the fight really got going. José, as so many people have said, was socially promiscuous – he was friends with everyone – people who did not speak to each other remained best friends with José, so much so that when he came to Los Angeles, he would have to negotiate his time between the “Lesbian Warlords” who all set up camps that could include him but not each other!

José would often quote Jack Smith’s barb about Maria Montez (or was it Allen Ginsburg?) that they were “walking careers”: this was a high ranking insult from José and it was reserved for people who could not remember why they were in academia – people who sought out the “stardom,” the attention and forgot the pleasure, the collaborative potential, the sheer joy of writing, thinking and being in proximity to performance – those people were ‘walking careers.’ As for José, rock star and legend as he was, he was not in it simply for the career, the profession, the attention – José really did believe in something bigger than personal acclaim and that was the queer utopia he continued to cruise until his death.

“We must vacate the here and now for a then and there…” he wrote at the conclusion to Cruising Utopia. “What we need to know is that queerness is not yet here but it approaches like a crashing wave of potentiality…Willingly we let ourselves feel queerness’s pull, knowing it as something else that we can feel, that we must feel. We must take ecstasy” (185). I am pretty sure that José knew plenty about taking ecstasy and about feeling something beyond the here and now. And, because he taught us all how to feel “queerness’s pull,” we are all here now, sitting on the shore, alone, bereft from his loss, squinting towards the horizon and hoping to see the shape of the queer world to come that he insistently pointed us towards. José we miss you, we love you, nothing will ever be the same without you.

Bully Bloggers

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