Will Fysh

After the great "trigger warning" debate of spring 2014, this semester marks the first time many university instructors are deciding how to address the psychological welfare of their students. Championed at the University of Santa Barbara and Oberlin College, trigger warnings have emerged, for some, as a useful way of flagging sensitive subject matter for students in order to protect them from undue harm, promote kind-spirited discussion, and provide a barrier against traumatic repetition that impedes learning.

The sharp critiques of this approach have grown into broader discussions about the limits of pastoral responsibilities of instructors towards university students, the commercialization of university education, the privileging of distinctly North American concepts of "safe space," and the future of the solidarity of student activism. For instructors offering new courses—such as the introductory class I'm currently assisting called Histories of Violence—the decision about whether to offer a trigger warning is tied into other questions about how instructors promote their classes, and about how we develop our pedagogy on violence in particular.

Trigger warnings have to be given in advance. They usually form part of the syllabus, or perhaps part of the first class. As such, they risk conflation, or at least uneasy juxtaposition, with the advertising that attracts and retains students who are "shopping" for classes early in the semester. Trigger warnings effectively highlight the risks of glorification, exploitation, and voyeurism that accompany any effort to attract people towards the study of violence. Those who are engaged and motivated to teach violence with care are not unaware of such risks. Nonetheless, the issue of trigger warnings should refocus our attention on perhaps an even more pressing question. Is it possible to sell the study of violence to students without becoming the latest rag and bone men of the corporatized university, furiously scratching at our adjunctivitis and peddling the final scraps of affect from the waste bin of the liberal arts?

Part of the critique of trigger warnings has centered on their valorization of the student-customer model of corporatized higher education. For Tressie McMillan Cottom, this is the model that says "no one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger." However, the problem with this model is not only, as she says, that it "stifles any discourse about how power acts on people." It's true that avoiding or whitewashing uncomfortable material means we risk failing to ask the difficult questions that make university education worthwhile. The problem is also that students (in often wildly popular) classes on violence are paying to feel things like confusion and anger. As instructors, we are implicated in that transaction.

As as sales pitch, trigger warnings seem to suggest an answer to the perennial question: why do the humanities matter? They matter, trigger warnings seem to say, because they give you all "the feels." If defenses of the humanities regularly turns on a human valuation of education into emotions, trigger warnings make clear that affect matters. Not just in an abstract intellectual sense, which is where the humanities are losing in the neoliberal fight, but in a physical, medical sense too.

Teachers are not therapists. But we need to find ways of thinking about, and explaining to students, how the humanities can help make us make sense of traumatic events without boxing ourselves into a parascientific position on the margins of violence, as auxiliaries to the psychiatrists treating humanity's darkest thoughts and actions.

My course attempts to provide a historicized alternative to two major pedagogical currents. First, a sociological/criminological approach which emphasizes the normative analysis of violence, and second, a literary/cultural studies approach which often transcends the representation of physical harm to include metaphorical and structural violence. The historical study of violence doesn't always avoid normative analysis. Scholars and students often want to study historical violence in part because it might offer lessons on how to understand violence in the future. Similarly, although the focus in our class is on histories of physical harm, it can be difficult and occasionally undesirable to extricate physical violence from accompanying forms of structural violence, such as violations of identity, language, kinship structures, and so on.

There are clear problems with both of the aforementioned approaches. On the one hand, we need to make space for non-normative analyses of violence if we are to properly understand the historical contexts in which violence has taken place, and the wide and often deeply particular motivations with which historical actors addressed violence. We also need to balance a flexible and inclusive understanding of different forms of violence with a necessary analytical clarity. Is it genuinely useful to consider both war rape and the "theological mad dance of commodities"—what Žižek sees as the encapsulation of capitalist systemic abuse—violence? Perhaps, but the argument is hardly self-evident.

Violence offers rich terrain for asking transhistorical, transcultural, and transdisciplinary questions. We have the opportunity to use the study of violence as a critical site of struggle for the defense of the humanities. The question is, how do we teach the interconnectedness of violence without sacrificing the contingencies of time and space that make violence local, particular, plural, and therefore more interesting? To put it another way, how do we make the study of violence an energizing site of humanities scholarship without selling out to triggernomics?

Will Fysh is a PhD student and Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholar in the History department at the University of Toronto.  His research focuses on decolonization, international aid, and the ethics and politics of photographic witnessing during the long 1960s.

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