Mastery, Sampling and the Self

Yet another think piece was added to the pile of literature considering trigger warnings on Salon a couple days ago. This piece begat yet another think piece in the form of this thing you’re reading. Trigger warning: this is a broad meta-commentary.

The piece, “My Trigger Warning Disaster”, details the attempts by a professor, Rani Neutill, to teach a class on the history of sexuality in the cinema only to be constantly interrupted by offended students and boxed into trigger-warning all of her lesson plans and generally just having an awful time teaching the course. She doesn’t mention what college this was at though the bit at the end saying she lives in Cambridge, Mass gives some idea of possible institutions. The essay also gives a helpful informal bibliography of work on the culture of trigger warnings.

The phenomena of trigger warnings seems intimately intertwined with the entrance into college of the first generations to have grown up with the contemporary internet as a social given. That trigger warnings would be the manifestation of this is somewhat surprising given that the internet’s existence in its current form gave rise to a generation of people who saw the most heinous types of pornography and possibly even snuff films by the time they were 18. I dunno. Maybe I was just around weirdos and perverts. For a good couple years though it seemed like the fuel the internet ran on was videos or photos of people eating feces or injuring themselves. After all that, trigger warnings would seem to have become totally redundant.

I brought this up to Stan. Stan was in his 30s when all this was going on and actually worked for a website trying to monetize shock content. He made a good point. “I think most people are desensitized but I think that comes with its mirror image, hypersensitivity. Being desensitized takes any sense of what’s right and wrong away. So you start rebuilding it in the most ham-handed way.”

So this is blow back. We had our decade and a half of simulacural hedonism and indulgence of the id, now we enter the phase of push back. Now that the problem of providing plenty has been decisively conquered on the media front the privilege to be fought over now becomes the ability to control the overwhelming influx. The period in which the internet was the wild west has decisively ended and the major companies of the present are no longer the ones offering infinite options but the ones that can intelligently curate.

Early conversational scares about the potentials of the internet would frequently revolve around the similarities between the TV that watches you in Orwell’s 1984 and the then still novel notion that a website or your e-mail could tailor advertisements to you. These scares never gained much traction because this mechanism is probably what was desired. One of the deliverances most promised in advertising narratives is the deliverance from having to choose; the US population’s desire to be seduced into consumer monogamy has been explored surprisingly little in film and literature. I would often hear complaints from people not especially versed in political or media theory “Why isn’t there a single objective source where I can just get THE news??” These would oddly enough be the sort of people who would say how proud they were that the US is more free than China.

I’ve been collecting books speculatively looking forward at what the internet might turn out to be or become from before 1995 for a larger project. In the opening essay of 1994’s Hyper/Text/Theory (Johns Hopkins, ed. Landow), a collection of essays examining hypertext as a set of literary theory problems, the issue of the “readerless text” comes up. The readerless text is, put simply, a text so vast that no one person could conceivably have read the entirety of it and “mastered” it in the traditional sense. From pg. 34:

“Critics can never read all the text and then represent themselves as masters of the text as do critics in print text. True, one can never fully exhaust or master a particular printed text, to be sure, but one can accurately claim to have read all through it or even to have read it so many times as to claim credibly to know it well. Large hypertexts and cybertexts simply offer too many lexias for critics ever to read. Quantity removes mastery and authority, for one can only sample, not master, a text.”

The language employed here is interesting for more reasons than writer George Landow could’ve foreseen consciously in 1994, though that is why I collect books like this. Insofar as the quantity of data, information and experiences available through the internet are for practical intents and purposes unlimited, the conscious creation of the self reverses its’ trajectory; earlier man actively created himself through active engagement and exploration of the world of objects; things were hard to find and worldliness was a commodity in short supply; a person, and such a person who resided near my apartment recently died and remarks were made to this effect, could become a regional legend in their own time simply for having accumulated records or books in a certain quantity. To an extent, Henry Thoreau followed this model.

This now seems ridiculous. For the cost of a generic smartphone and proximity to some form of wi-fi I can access much of what remains of the past couple thousand years of human culture at no cost if I’m willing to be only slightly clever and motivated and loose in my conception of what’s legal. Within the US, while the degree of access is highly variable and the digital divide is real, the access is there and the accumulation of objects is at this point a ghost dance for the aesthetic joys of conspicuous consumption past. The well-defined self is now defined not by the breadth of its activity but by its aggression in going on the defensive. While the posture of sophistication has always to some degree been defined by negative consumption (“I’d never watch a thing like that!”), the definition of self in the face of media plenty is the inverse of Thorstein Veblen’s famous “conspicuous consumption” of the leisure class-conspicuous negative-consumption.

Because the text cannot be mastered and considered in the positive it must be rejected piecemeal; it refuses to surrender to our speculations, mine obviously included, and as such we go on the attack with such frequency that for those who get their news on the internet, it defines the news cycle. We’re flooded with a volume of content on a single usually not very interesting subject (see: Kenneth Goldsmith poetry conference controversy) that most complaints by those not writing op-eds, those without a vested interest in the “controversy” seeming legitimate, amount to “why does everyone give a shit about this and why do they keep giving a shit about it all over my Facebook feed?”

The nostalgia in the trigger warning, the element by which it transcends its well intentioned origins and grows into its own beast, comes from its context within the assaultive media environment of the present. The screen is an invading race and we are negotiating our peaceful coexistence with it as it encroaches on our territory whether we want it to or not. The nostalgia that popular projections onto the trigger warning almost deterministically pushed it into embodying were the space of plausible deniability in ones’ ignorance, the space that was once called innocence.

A turf war is being fought with the screen, but the screen can’t feel or bleed; we shoot rounds off into the darkness and settle for collateral damage.



  1. Jonah moberg · · Reply

    this is one of your best yet. i remember when trigger warnings were useful; they were confined to psychiatric centers full of people with acute personal trauma.

  2. as I am not a native English speaker, I looked up trigger warning. After working through your text, I think, the explanation found on the Urban Dictionary fits best : ” A phrase posted at the beginning of various posts, articles, or blogs. Its purpose is to warn weak minded people who are easily offended that they might find what is being posted offensive in some way due to its content, causing them to overreact or otherwise start acting like a dipshit. Popular on reddit SRS or other places that social justice warriors like to hang out.

    Trigger warnings are unnecessary 100% of the time due to the fact that people who are easily offended have no business randomly browsing the internet anyways. As a result of the phrases irrelevance, most opinions that start out with this phrase tend to be simplistic and dull since they were made by people ridiculous enough to think that the internet is supposed to cater to people who can’t take a joke.
    Trigger warning: If you think this phrase needs to be posted before politically incorrect opinions, you don’t belong on the internets. “

  3. When people say that “a college shouldn’t be a sheltered environment” they don’t seem to understand that a college is by its very nature a sheltered environment.

    In reality, the whole purpose of a university is to be a “safe space” where you can study the most “triggering” content.

    Let’s take the Holocaust. It’s the worst event in history. I think almost everybody at Rutgers in the 1980s had to read Elie Wiesel’s “Night” in their freshman year. But nobody was traumatized by it. Why? Because a suburban, college campus is about as remote from a concentration camp as you can imagine. What’s more, the fact that you assimilate knowledge of the traumatic event via the written word distances you even further from its reality.

    In other words, the people who want “trigger warnings” on content get it backwards. The safer the space, the more “triggering” the content you can teach.

    On the other hand, if you are in a horrible reality, you want content that’s just the opposite. From what I’ve read, Bach become very popular in the days immediately after the Second World War. It was ordered, placid, “civilized.”

    That was Orwell’s point in the essay “Inside the Whale.” Soldiers in the middle of the trenches in World War I often wanted to read Shakespeare’s comedies. A Midsummer Night’s Dream would help you forget how you could quite possibly die the next day. People read The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock because the idea that some fop in his late 20s was worried about losing his hair pointed back to the “normal” world before the war.

    The truth is that in 1917 there was nothing that a thinking and a sensitive person could do, except to remain human, if possible. And a gesture of helplessness, even of frivolity, might be the best way of doing that. If I had been a soldier fighting in the Great War, I would sooner have got hold of Prufrock than The First Hundred Thousand or Horatio Bottomley’s Letters to the Boys in the Trenches. I should have felt, like Mr Forster, that by simply standing aloof and keeping touch with pre-war emotions, Eliot was carrying on the human heritage. What a relief it would have been at such a time, to read about the hesitations of a middle-aged highbrow with a bald spot! So different from bayonet-drill! After the bombs and the food-queues and the recruiting-posters, a human voice! What a relief!

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