The Good (Enough) Life: On Empire and The Black Queer Son

21 Jan

By Tav Nyong’o

In Adorno’s notorious critique of jazz, he consigned the efforts of black musicians to a quixotic struggle against racial capitalism. “With jazz,” he wrote in 1936, “a disenfranchised subjectivity plunges from the commodity world into the commodity world; the system does not allow for a way out.” This double-bind of the commercial black artist remained on full display during the pilot episode of Empire, black gay director Lee Daniel’s new foray into episodic network television.

empire-tv-series-cast-wallpaperA primetime melodrama about making it in today’s music business, Empire is also a test of the ongoing viability of a mainstream show about black people. As an entertainment about the entertainment business, Empire is more interested in finding a way into the system than imagining a way out. So why was I gripped to my seat for every soapy, cliché-riddled plot twist?

An opening scene from Empire demonstrates that, wrong as Adorno was on the aesthetic merits of black music, he remains disturbingly prescient about the structures of racism and exploitation within which it continues to get made. In the studio, Lucious listens dissatisfied to a singer deliver a ballad. He demands take after take before finally telling her to sing as if she were singing to her brother who has been shot and killed. When that trauma finally triggers the soulful vocal he was listening for, Lucious grins at the sound of a hit. Black suffering and death, yet again, is spun into commercial gold.

The premise of Empire revolves around Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard, in his usual mode of unintentional Brechtian acting), rapper turned music label head, who has just been given a fatal medical diagnosis, and deliberately sets into motion a war of succession among his three sons. His plans are upended by the unexpected release from prison of his ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson in a scenery-chewing, scene-stealing role), who took the fall for the drug deal that gave Lucious his original start-up capital, and has come back for her dues. This is the kind of over-the-top material is catnip for a director like Daniels. If it therefore invites filing under “guilty pleasure” for the rest of us, the inclusion of a gay character among the principle cast remains a novel enough premise to keep queer viewers skeptically engaged.

Lucious’ gay son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is what the mainstream press would like to call “non-stereotypical,” and what a more critical queer studies vocabulary would term “homonormative.” Neither an effeminate nor a homo thug living “on the down low,” Jamal would hardly be out of place among the cast of HBO’s Looking. That he is a talented musician (portrayed by an actual singer Smollett) lends his character a timely pathos. On the one hand, his father’s homophobia keeps him out of the spotlight that would otherwise seem to be his birthright. On the other, being out of spotlight spares him the fate of black masculine hypervisibility that his straight brother Hakeem seems consigned to. Homophobia forces him to the margins, but that is where the music is.

Black suffering is also at the center of a later dramatic scene, this one from Jamal’s childhood when the family still lived in the ghetto. In flashback, we see a thuggish Lucious dump Jamal in a trash can for daring to dress up his mother’s pumps and headscarf. Based on an experience from Daniels’ own childhood, this trauma is replayed over a scene of the now-adult Jamal performing “Good Enough,” a plaintive ballad addressed to his punishing superego, the father figure who will never be proud of him no matter how hard he tries. As his mother Cookie watches in the wings, Jamal stages the drama of “the best little boy in the world,” the angst of the black queer son whose overachievement serves as compensation for the paternal love he will never receive.

Can upwardly-mobile black queer sons and daughters like Jamal escape this “good enough” life? That is the unasked question behind this scene of black homonormative striving. The Lyons are, after all, remarkably functional as a kinship unit, despite all the melodramatic stigma of prison, crime, violence, and addiction that surround them. The incongruity of soapy drama like this lies in the fantasy we cling to as an audience that even people as rich, talented, and attractive as Jamal and his family nevertheless face the same demons as we do. The good life is really just the never good enough life.

Wouldn’t Jamal be happier without his father’s approval, without celebrity, without a corporation to run? What if the one thing he can’t have, full social acceptance, is the last thing he actually needs?

Works mentioned

Theodor Adorno, “On Jazz” in Essays on Music Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2002.

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

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


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.


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.


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.

501B2753.CR2 Ultimately

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


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


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

Avgi Saketopoulou

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.

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

“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.”

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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?

Civility Disobedience

18 Aug

By Tav Nyong’o

Has incivility become the new obscenity?

Everywhere one turns these days, it seems, ‘civility’ is being held up as a norm to which we all agreed to be held accountable. When was this consensus to be civil arrived at? Nobody can quite say. It must have been when we weren’t looking. But it’s suddenly everywhere: in open letters and videotaped homilies by university presidents, in the conference themes of progressive scholarly organizations, even in the campaign ads of Midwestern sheriffs (HT Ali Abunimah). Liberal icons John Stewart and Stephen Colbert even convened a national rally in 2010 “To Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” a sardonic retort to what those who attended perceived to be the raucous incivility of Tea Parties (HT Lisa Duggan). And indeed, civility sounds like a value all but a lunatic fringe should consent to. But it’s effects on our freedoms can be surprisingly negative. The exercise of what we could be forgiven for assuming were our “civil liberties” — freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, common use of public space — increasingly hit tripwire detectors for incivility, often with arbitrarily punitive consequences.


At the moment, the charge of incivility is most frequently being wielded against those whose political speech touches a third rail in American politics: the near-universal support our political class and academic leadership gives to the State of Israel. Steven Salaita, a scholar of indigenous resistance in Palestine and North America, lost a job at the University of Illinois when his righteous indignation, as expressed on social media, over the Israeli bombardment of Gaza this past summer offended some of the university’s donors and trustees. Civility here must be read as a barely veiled code for ‘civilized’; and this recourse to ‘civil’ as a standard to which all must adhere calls to mind Malcolm X’s famous critique of ‘civil rights’ as a limiting framework for the black freedom struggle. Malcolm implored black people to internationalize our struggle by refusing the US and state-centric model of “civil rights” under law and instead appealing to global solidarity with the oppressed through the rubric of “human rights.” It is precisely this global appeal to a planetary, anti-racist standard of human rights that led to Salaita being indicted for his “incivility,” transgressing the political quietism of the imperial university was enough to get him booted off campus without the pretense of due process.



Scathing, funny, and impassioned political speech did not originate on Twitter; our right to it is in fact the reason we have a First Amendment. But in the “incredibly shrinking public sphere,” as Lisa Duggan has termed it, declamatory speech of the kind that would not be out of place as at a campus rally is now occasion for professional reprisals, with even liberals handwringing over how to ‘tolerate’ the ‘intolerable.’

Ostensibly, the new civility codes have little to do directly with sex. But the neoliberal rhetoric of the campus as a space under threat is deeply intertwined with in the continued infantilization of the democratic sphere, and is thus deeply connected to moral and sex panics. Jennifer Doyle demonstrates this point in a powerful recent pamphlet, Campus Security. Doyle recounts how one police justification for the notorious pepper spray incident at the University of California was the need to protect students, gendered as feminized victims, from the masculinized and racialized threat of occupiers who weren’t currently enrolled students. The justification of the use of real force against students in order to protect them from hypothetical aggressions is the kind of security state doublespeak we routinely confront these days. At the University of Illinois, for example, it apparently fell to administrators, trustees and donors to protect students from the political viewpoints of prospective professors, when and where those views could be adjudged (unilaterally, without any grievance process) to create even a potential situation of harm, discomfort, or threat.

The imposition of civility comes at a curious juncture when privacy is also everywhere under assault. The appeal of civility for those who stand to be regulated by it is that it will provide shelter from the radical loss of privacy that new technologies are unleashing. As Mark Zuckerberg once retorted when challenged regarding insufficient privacy controls on Facebook: what’s the problem if you have nothing to hide? Similarly, those who defend civility as a standard assume that only the truly aberrant would have anything to say that couldn’t be expressed civilly anyway. And why would we want to extend them the protections enjoyed by others?

These protections ostensibly extended by the new civility, of course, fall unevenly on actual students and other young people. Civility failed to protect Michael Brown, due to begin classes at Vatterott College this fall, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri while walking in his neighborhood. Immediately after his murder, he was retrospectively vilified as a dangerous hoodlum, not a recent high school graduate with no prior criminal record, much as Trayvon Martin and so many black women and men before and after him have had their histories, rather than those of their assailants, placed on public trial. When Brown’s community rose up in righteous indignation against police occupation, the black exercise of civil liberties was met with tear-gas, rubber bullets, agents provocateurs, tanks, snipers and police screaming “animals!” at the citizens they were sworn to protect and serve.


In the wake of Ferguson, many more Americans learned that “civility” is experienced by black Americans primarily as compulsory and non-reciprocal compliance to arbitrary state violence. There were many messages of solidarity, and practical exchanges of resistance tactics, between Gaza and Ferguson. But, despite these rhizomatic uprisings against antiblack racism, imperialism, and war — all of which challenge us to be radically critical of the promise of freedom, democracy and civil society dangled before us by our rulers — the answer in some quarters remains, stubbornly, more of the same. More civility, rather than a radical questioning of its terms.

In the wake of such brutal and total abrogation of basic constitutional protections, international human rights, and the rule of law in the summer of 2014, one must ask: what is the point of being civil? If civility means the censorship of intellectuals, deference to racist cops, complicity in our state’s funding and support of aerial bombardment of civilians, and acquiescence to a decayed and corrupt system of democracy-turned-plutocracy, of what value is civility, exactly? What alternative to it might there be?

For queer politics, Gayle Rubin’s foundational essay, “Thinking Sex,” holds enduring relevance on this score. Her ostensible topic in that essay is sex and pleasure, not suffering and violence. But everything that is at stake in the essay has to do with the ability of the state and media — and ourselves — to magically convert the former into the latter, and to cultivate moral panics around harms where there are none. Rubin argued that our inability to recognize and value the range and diversity of means through which we seek and obtain pleasure, our reluctance to take sex seriously, is intertwined with a more general logic of repression, exclusion and violence.


In order to challenge the logic of repressive tolerance that divides us into good, civil subjects and bad, disorderly ones, we cannot seek to rescue the most eligible of the socially stigmatized: those clearest to the center of what Rubin calls “the charmed circle.” We must directly confront the apparatuses that divide the acceptable from the unacceptable.

Rubin’s charmed circle resonates with an image Kimberlé Crenshaw turns to in her famous law review article that disseminated the concept of intersectionality. Here she compared antidiscrimination law reform to the effort to lift a group of individuals from a subterranean basement, and the temptation to start with those nearest to the top, those whose difference seems the easiest to rehabilitate. Intersectional analysis, in Crenshaw’s view, was the refusal to take this easy out, and to instead labor on working on injustice from the bottom up.

Whether from the outside in, or the bottom up, both Rubin and Crenshaw urged feminist, anti-racist, and queer organizing not to pick and choose those campaigns deemed most winnable, those victims deemed most telegenic, those tactics deemed most acceptable, or that language deemed most civil. I have to admit that this is a difficult standard to live up to. Particularly as the political center of the nation has drifted ever-rightward, as the scale of endemic crisis grows ever more planetary, one can plausibly wonder if principled radicalism grows self-canceling past a certain point. But there seems to be no way to ask this question without reinstating the hierarchies that Rubin, Crenshaw, and a host of other intellectuals and activists have urged us to dismantle. And so it seems we still desperately need more politically vital questions to ask and answer than the tired old saw of “where do you draw the line?”

The very drawing of the line, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten show in their powerful recent essay, The Undercommons, is a strategy of white settler colonial rule. “The settler,” they write, “having settled for politics, arms himself in the name of civilisation while critique initiates the self-defense of those who see hostility in the civil union on settlement and enclosure.” Politics casts itself as surrounded by the pre-political, the anti-political, the para- and the infra-human. Their radical critique of politics as we know it, in favor of social life as we feel, sense, think, study and celebrate it, points us beyond the stale coordinates offered up by yet another civics lesson delivered by our betters. We don’t need to learn to be better citizens; as the ongoing mobilization around the Salaita case, around Ferguson, and a series of other insurgent movements shows. We need learn how better to refuse the terms upon which citizenship and the good star of “civility” is offered, always provisionally, to the charmed few.

As commentators have noted, civility sounds like a venerable democratic principle, but is actually antithetical to the direct and participatory democracy many want to build. Democratic society — and in particular the social movements that push against the constraints of populist conformism — in principle relishes vibrant and vituperative antagonism. And yet one routinely encounters attempts (such as the recent NY Times opinion parsing an invidious distinction between ‘impoliteness,’ which may be acceptable, and ‘incivility,’ which is corrosive. The distinction, it turns out, is unworkable, begging the question: then why draw it?

Perhaps a more useful question than where to draw the line would be to ask: Why are we, who are cast outside the circle of privileges that accrue to the civilized, still drawn to and invested in the lure of civility? Is it precisely because we sense that it is a tape against which we are measured and forever falling short?


Portrait of the Writer as a Young Private Secretary

I learned this lesson early in life watching A Passage to India, a film that had an indelible impact on my postcolonial childhood in Kenya. Indeed, the film instilled in me the anticolonial Kenyan ideology that Dinesh D’Souza hilariously attributes to our current president (if only!). In the film, Dr. Aziz, an educated Indian doctor during the period of British colonial rule, struggles to balance his genial and tolerant nature with the constant racism and snobbery of his English “betters.” In one unforgettable scene, Aziz pretends to have a spare collar stud (whatever that is) to lend to the Englishman who is brashly getting dressed right in front of him, which Aziz has to discretely remove the stud from his own impeccable suit. Later on, another Englishman, the local magistrate, mocks Aziz for appearing in public “in his Sunday best” but forgetting his collar stud (whatever that is). He casts racist aspersions on the doctor for being a foolish colonial mimic: trying to approximate British civil standards only underscores how innately different he is.

Dr. Aziz with the thingamajig.

Dr. Aziz with the all-important thingamajig.

The moral of the story for ten year old me was clear: a) these British colonialists are crazy and b) don’t ever assume that your efforts to live up to Euro-American arbitrary standards of civilized dress, deportment, or language will ever be enough to reverse the power imbalance.

I was too young on first watching A Passage to India, however, to truly grapple with the second half of the film, which turns darker when Ms. Quested, a visiting Englishwoman Dr. Aziz thought was a friend, accuses him of rape, prompting a dramatic trial which ends up putting the unjust colonial system of law in the docket, and sends Aziz bitterly fleeing from “civilized” English India. His personal effects are exhibited in court, he is accused of planning a trip to a brothel, and otherwise depicted as a sex-crazed savage, rather than a genteel, English speaking physician. At a climactic moment Ms. Quested withdraws her accusation (making this a tricky film to revisit in the current climate of victim-bashing, I well recognize), but the stakes in interpreting this outcome are not nearly so simple as racism versus sexism. The total abandonment of Ms. Quested by her white colonial society, once they cannot use her victimization as a legal cudgel against insurgent Indians, tells the viewer all she or he needs to know. The colonial state is both racist and sexist, even (or especially) when it is defending values such as civility, feminine virtue, rule of law and white supremacy.

In an earlier blog on this site, Jack Halberstam explored “how a neoliberal rhetoric of individual pain obscures the violent sources of social inequity” and argued that “neoliberalism precisely goes to work by psychologizing political difference, individualizing structural exclusions and mystifying political change.” Watching A Passage to India again today reminds me of the long colonial prehistory to contemporary neoliberalism. As many scholars in critical race studies have noted, colonized and racialized people were the first “flexible” and “precarious” subjects: that flexibility often demanded through the dynamics of what Homi Bhabha calls “sly civility.” Dr. Aziz, until his powerful rejection of the British at film’s end, embodies this sly civility: only when he grasps his fate is a collective one can he discard the exceptional status bequeathed him as one of the educated “good ones.”

In a contemporary context, Joseph Massad has recently written powerfully about how civility is used to police the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable Arab- and Muslim-Americans, and how we ourselves can get caught up in those police actions. “The war to control the university rages on” he notes, “but the forces of repression, which hide behind white Protestant normative civility that they deploy to advance neoliberal control, are sharpening their knives and learning from their past mistakes.” Behind every document of civility, he might as well have continued, is a document of barbarism. Creative disobedience to compulsory civility isn’t any kind of guarantee. But without its wild resources we would be greatly impoverished to wage the kind of struggles we are in the midst of now.

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

You Are Triggering me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma

5 Jul your_trigger_warnings_are_triggering_me_by_meiharu-d5j2mey

by Jack Halberstam

I was watching Monty Python’s The Life of Brian from 1979 recently, a hilarious rewriting of the life and death of Christ, and I realized how outrageous most of the jokes from the film would seem today. In fact, the film, with its religious satire and scenes of Christ and the thieves singing on the cross, would never make it into cinemas now. The Life of Brian was certainly received as controversial in its own day but when censors tried to repress the film in several different countries, The Monty Python crew used their florid sense of humor to their advantage. So, when the film was banned in a few places, they gave it a tagline of: “So funny it was banned in Norway!”



Humor, in fact, in general, depends upon the unexpected (“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”); repetition to the point of hilarity “you can have eggs, bacon and spam; spam, eggs, spam and sausage; or spam, spam, spam and spam!”); silliness, non-sequitors, caricature and an anarchic blend of the serious and the satirical. And, humor is something that feminists in particular, but radical politics in general, are accused of lacking. Recent controversies within queer communities around language, slang, satirical or ironic representation and perceptions of harm or offensive have created much controversy with very little humor recently, leading to demands for bans, censorship and name changes.

feminist_humor_fbDebates among people who share utopian goals, in fact, are nothing new. I remember coming out in the 1970s and 1980s into a world of cultural feminism and lesbian separatism. Hardly an event would go by back then without someone feeling violated, hurt, traumatized by someone’s poorly phrased question, another person’s bad word choice or even just the hint of perfume in the room. People with various kinds of fatigue, easily activated allergies, poorly managed trauma were constantly holding up proceedings to shout in loud voices about how bad they felt because someone had said, smoked, or sprayed something near them that had fouled up their breathing room. Others made adjustments, curbed their use of deodorant, tried to avoid patriarchal language, thought before they spoke, held each other, cried, moped, and ultimately disintegrated into a messy, unappealing morass of weepy, hypo-allergic, psychosomatic, anti-sex, anti-fun, anti-porn, pro-drama, pro-processing post-political subjects.

Political times change and as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, as weepy white lady feminism gave way to reveal a multi-racial, poststructuralist, intersectional feminism of much longer provenance, people began to laugh, loosened up, people got over themselves and began to talk and recognize that the enemy was not among us but embedded within new, rapacious economic systems. Needless to say, for women of color feminisms, the stakes have always been higher and identity politics always have played out differently. But, in the 1990s, books on neoliberalism, postmodernism, gender performativity and racial capital turned the focus away from the wounded self and we found our enemies and, as we spoke out and observed that neoliberal forms of capitalism were covering over economic exploitation with language of freedom and liberation, it seemed as if we had given up wounded selves for new formulations of multitudes, collectivities, collaborations, and projects less centered upon individuals and their woes. Of course, I am flattening out all kinds of historical and cultural variations within multiple histories of feminism, queerness and social movements. But I am willing to do so in order to make a point here about the re-emergence of a rhetoric of harm and trauma that casts all social difference in terms of hurt feelings and that divides up politically allied subjects into hierarchies of woundedness.



At this point, we should recall the “four Yorkshire men” skit from Monty Python where the four old friends reminisce about their deprived childhoods – one says “we used to live in a tiny old tumbledown house…” the next counters with “house!? You were lucky to live in a house. We used to live in a room…” And the third jumps in with: “room? You were lucky to have a room, we used to have to live in a corridor.” The fourth now completes the cycle: “A corridor! We dreamed of living in a corridor!” These hardship competitions, but without the humor, are set pieces among the triggered generation and indeed, I rarely go to a conference, festival or gathering anymore without a protest erupting about a mode of representation that triggered someone somewhere. And as people “call each other out” to a chorus of finger snapping, we seem to be rapidly losing all sense of perspective and instead of building alliances, we are dismantling hard fought for coalitions.



Much of the recent discourse of offense and harm has focused on language, slang and naming. For example, controversies erupted in the last few months over the name of a longstanding nightclub in San Francisco: “Trannyshack,” and arguments ensued about whether the word “tranny” should ever be used. These debates led some people to distraction, and legendary queer performer, Justin Vivian Bond, posted an open letter on her Facebook page telling readers and fans in no uncertain terms that she is “angered by this trifling bullshit.” Bond reminded readers that many people are “delighted to be trannies” and not delighted to be shamed into silence by the “word police.” Bond and others have also referred to the queer custom of re-appropriating terms of abuse and turning them into affectionate terms of endearment. When we obliterate terms like “tranny” in the quest for respectability and assimilation, we actually feed back into the very ideologies that produce the homo and trans phobia in the first place! In The Life of Brian, Brian finally refuses to participate in the anti-Semitism that causes his mother to call him a “roman.” In a brave “coming out” speech, he says: “I’m not a roman mum, I’m a kike, a yid, a heebie, a hook-nose, I’m kosher mum, I’m a Red Sea pedestrian, and proud of it!

And now for something completely different…The controversy about the term “tranny” is not a singular occurrence; such tussles have become a rather predictable and regular part of all kinds of conferences and meetings. Indeed, it is becoming difficult to speak, to perform, to offer up work nowadays without someone, somewhere claiming to feel hurt, or re-traumatized by a cultural event, a painting, a play, a speech, a casual use of slang, a characterization, a caricature and so on whether or not the “damaging” speech/characterization occurs within a complex aesthetic work. At one conference, a play that foregrounded the mutilation of the female body in the 17th century was cast as trans-phobic and became the occasion for multiple public meetings to discuss the damage it wreaked upon trans people present at the performance. Another piece at this performance conference that featured a “fortune teller” character was accused of orientalist stereotyping. At another event I attended that focused on queer masculinities, the organizers were accused of marginalizing queer femininities. And a class I was teaching recently featured a young person who reported feeling worried about potentially “triggering” a transgender student by using incorrect pronouns in relation to a third student who did not seem bothered by it! Another student told me recently that she had been “triggered” in a class on colonialism by the showing of The Battle of Algiers. In many of these cases offended groups demand apologies, and promises are made that future enactments of this or that theater piece will cut out the offensive parts; or, as in the case of “Trannyshack,” the name of the club was changed.


As reductive as such responses to aesthetic and academic material have become, so have definitions of trauma been over-simplified within these contexts. There are complex discourses on trauma readily available as a consequence of decades of work on memory, political violence and abuse. This work has offered us multiple theories of the ways in which a charged memory of pain, abuse, torture or imprisonment can be reignited by situations or associations that cause long buried memories to flood back into the body with unpredictable results. But all of this work, by Shoshana Felman Macarena Gomez-Barris, Saidiya Hartman, Cathy Caruth, Ann Cvetkovich, Marianne Hirsch and others, has been pushed aside in the recent wave of the politics of the aggrieved.


Claims about being triggered work off literalist notions of emotional pain and cast traumatic events as barely buried hurt that can easily resurface in relation to any kind of representation or association that resembles or even merely represents the theme of the original painful experience. And so, while in the past, we turned to Freud’s mystic writing pad to think of memory as a palimpsest, burying material under layers of inscription, now we see a memory as a live wire sitting in the psyche waiting for a spark. Where once we saw traumatic recall as a set of enigmatic symptoms moving through the body, now people reduce the resurfacing of a painful memory to the catch all term of “trigger,” imagining that emotional pain is somehow similar to a pulled muscle –as something that hurts whenever it is deployed, and as an injury that requires protection.

k5715Fifteen to twenty years ago, books like Wendy Brown’s States of Injury (1995) and Anna Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief (2001) asked readers to think about how grievances become grief, how politics comes to demand injury and how a neoliberal rhetoric of individual pain obscures the violent sources of social inequity. But, newer generations of queers seem only to have heard part of this story and instead of recognizing that neoliberalism precisely goes to work by psychologizing political difference, individualizing structural exclusions and mystifying political change, some recent activists seem to have equated social activism with descriptive statements about individual harm and psychic pain. Let me be clear – saying that you feel harmed by another queer person’s use of a reclaimed word like tranny and organizing against the use of that word is NOT social activism. It is censorship.

In a post-affirmative action society, where even recent histories of political violence like slavery and lynching are cast as a distant and irrelevant past, all claims to hardship have been cast as equal; and some students, accustomed to trotting out stories of painful events in their childhoods (dead pets/parrots, a bad injury in sports) in college applications and other such venues, have come to think of themselves as communities of naked, shivering, quaking little selves – too vulnerable to take a joke, too damaged to make one. In queer communities, some people are now committed to an “It Gets Better” version of consciousness-raising within which suicidal, depressed and bullied young gays and lesbians struggle like emperor penguins in a blighted arctic landscape to make it through the winter of childhood. With the help of friendly adults, therapy, queer youth groups and national campaigns, these same youth internalize narratives of damage that they themselves may or may not have actually experienced. Queer youth groups in particular install a narrative of trauma and encourage LGBT youth to see themselves as “endangered” and “precarious” whether or not they actually feel that way, whether or not coming out as LGB or T actually resulted in abuse! And then, once they “age out” of their youth groups, those same LGBT youth become hypersensitive to all signs and evidence of the abuse about which they have learned.



What does it mean when younger people who are benefitting from several generations now of queer social activism by people in their 40s and 50s (who in their childhoods had no recourse to anti-bullying campaigns or social services or multiple representations of other queer people building lives) feel abused, traumatized, abandoned, misrecognized, beaten, bashed and damaged? These younger folks, with their gay-straight alliances, their supportive parents and their new right to marry regularly issue calls for “safe space.” However, as Christina978-0-8223-5470-3_pr
Hanhardt’s Lambda Literary award winning book, Safe Space: Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence, shows, the safe space agenda has worked in tandem with urban initiatives to increase the policing of poor neighborhoods and the gentrification of others. Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence traces the development of LGBT politics in the US from 1965-2005 and explains how LGBT activism was transformed from a multi-racial coalitional grassroots movement with strong ties to anti-poverty groups and anti-racism organizations to a mainstream, anti-violence movement with aspirations for state recognition.

And, as LGBT communities make “safety” into a top priority (and that during an era of militaristic investment in security regimes) and ground their quest for safety in competitive narratives about trauma, the fight against aggressive new forms of exploitation, global capitalism and corrupt political systems falls by the way side.

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

I want to call for a time of accountability and specificity: not all LGBT youth are suicidal, not all LGBT people are subject to violence and bullying, and indeed class and race remain much more vital factors in accounting for vulnerability to violence, police brutality, social baiting and reduced access to education and career opportunities. Let’s call an end to the finger snapping moralism, let’s question contemporary desires for immediately consumable messages of progress, development and access; let’s all take a hard long look at the privileges that often prop up public performances of grief and outrage; let’s acknowledge that being queer no longer automatically means being brutalized and let’s argue for much more situated claims to marginalization, trauma and violence. Let’s not fiddle while Rome (or Paris) burns, trigger while the water rises, weep while trash piles up; let’s recognize these internal wars for the distraction they have become. Once upon a time, the appellation “queer” named an opposition to identity politics, a commitment to coalition, a vision of alternative worlds. Now it has become a weak umbrella term for a confederation of identitarian concerns. It is time to move on, to confuse the enemy, to become illegible, invisible, anonymous (see Preciado’s Bully Bloggers post on anonymity in relation to the Zapatistas). In the words of José Muñoz, “we have never been queer.” In the words of a great knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “we are now no longer the Knights who say Ni, we are now the Knights who say “Ekki-ekki-ekki-ekki-PTANG. Zoom-Boing, z’nourrwringmm.”



Transfeminist Marcos By Beatriz Marcos Preciado

11 Jun

Marcos For Ever



On 25 May, Subcommander Marcos sent an open letter to the world from the “Zapatista reality” announcing the death of Marcos, who was constructed to act as a media representative and voice of the revolutionary project of Chiapas. “These will be my last word in public before ceasing to exist.” The same statement announced the birth of Subcommander Galeano, a name borrowed from José Luis Solis “Galeano” – a colleague murdered by paramilitaries on 2 May. “One of us has to die”, explained the Subcommander, “so that Galeano can live. And so that the impertinent death can be satisfied. In the place of Galeano we put another name so that he may live and death takes away not a life but just a name, a few letters emptied of all meaning, all history and all life.” We know, of course, that José Luis Solis Jose borrowed his own name from the writer of Open Veins of Latin America. The Subcommander, who has always been miles ahead of the egotistical elders of French poststructuralism, operates within the realm of the political production the death of the author that Barthes proposed in the realm of a text.


In the last few years, the Zapatistas have constructed the most creative option for confronting the (failed) necropolitical options of neoliberalism, as well as those proposed by communism. The Zapatistas, unlike any other movement, is inventing a political methodology for “organizing rage”. And reinventing life. In 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (ELNZ) – through the figure of subcommander Marcos – began to conceive of a new means of doing decolonial philosophy for the twenty first century that distanced itself from the treatise (inherited from the ecclesiastic and colonial culture of the book that began in the sixteenth century and declined towards the end of the last) in order to act from an oral-digital techno-indigenous culture that is whispered across the social networks as rituals, letters, messages, stories and parables. The Zapatistas are showing us one of the central techniques of production of political subjectivity: deprivatizing birth names with borrowed names and undoing the individualist fiction of the “real and natural” face.


Amos Mac

Amos Mac by Elisa Shea

Not so far from the subcommander, resides another political space where the stability of one’s given name is also challenged in the same theatrical and shamanic gesture – a space where the truth of the face as an ultimate reference of personal identity is disrupted: the transsexual, transgender, gender-queer, drag king and drag queen cultures. Every trans person has (or had) two (or more) names: the one they were assigned at birth by the dominant culture seeking to normalize them and the one that marks a process of dissident subjectivity. Trans names are not so much an affirmation about belonging to another sex, rather they are the detonators for a process of dis-identification. The subcommander Marcos, who learnt more from the pen of the queer Mexican writer Carlos Monsivais than the manly beard of Fidel, was a drag king personality: the intentional construction of a masculine fiction (the hero and the voice of the rebel) through technical performances. A revolutionary emblem without a face or ego: made from words and collective dreams, constructed with a balaclava and a pipe. The borrowed name and the facemask are methods of political parody that work to denounce the masks that cover the faces of the corrupt police and the hegemony: “Why is there so much scandal about the masks?” Said Marcos “Is Mexican Society really ready to take off its own mask?” Just like the balaclava undoes the individual “truth” of the face, the given name is unraveled and collectivized.


Photo by Del LaGrace Volcano

“Gender Optional: The Mutating Self Portrait,” Photo by Del LaGrace Volcano

For the Zapatistas, given names and balaclavas work in the same way that the wig, the second name, moustache and heels work in trans culture: as intentional and hyperbolic signs of a political-sexual transvestism as well as queer-indigenous weapons that allow us to confront neoliberal aesthetics. And this is not through a notion of true sex or an authentic name, rather through the construction of a living fiction that resists the norm.


The experiments of the Zapatistas, queer and trans cultures invite us to deprivatize the face and the name in order to transform the body of the multitude into a collective revolutionary agent. From this shared common body, I would like to respond to Subcommander Galeano with the proposition that from now on I will sign with my trans name – Beatriz Marcos Preciado – harnessing the performative force of the political fiction created by the Zapatistas and letting it live in the queer guerrilla of a decomposing Europe: so that the Zapatista reality is.


Beatriz Marcos Preciado.


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