Teaching Triggers with Megan Raschig

The August 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Triggering Change: Police Homicides, Community Healing, and the Emergent Eventfulness of the New Civil Rights,” by Megan Raschig, who is Postdoctoral Fellow in Medical Anthropology at the University of Virginia. In this article, Raschig draws on contemporary theories of the event to demonstrate the ways in which one’s positionality shapes the perception of realities such as police violence as spectacular or, alternately, as part of a much longer struggle woven into the everyday. For this Teaching Tools post, I invited Raschig to talk more about her work, theories of the event, the concept of a “trigger,” and her reflections on pedagogy and teaching in the United States today. Building on these thoughts, I also developed an in-class exercise with the goal of helping instructors to use Raschig’s article in teaching theories of the event to undergraduate students, while inspiring them to critically reflect on the ways in which an experience may get framed as an event or a trigger for one person, while going unnoticed by another.

Interview

Aidan Seale-Feldman (ASF): Can you say more about your use of the word “trigger” in this article?  

Megan Raschig (MR): As I develop and use the term in this article, a trigger is a way of framing an unfolding, emerging feeling that reminds someone, viscerally, of something similar and painful or disturbing that has happened before. Like a deja-vu of something that has happened in the past, which may not be identical to what is happening now, but nevertheless suddenly flares up and punctures you, disorients or overwhelms you. I argue the act of framing (or as phenomenologists would say, bracketing) such a sudden feeling as a triggering experience, especially as it relates to instances of violence inflicted along racial or ethnic lines (or any such intersections), can be an important and quite interesting political action to which we as anthropologists should pay attention.

This is because a trigger can illuminate the relationship between experiences of racial violence that are covert, subtle, or otherwise less obvious than the ones that fill our news feeds. These more covert, subtle, even quotidian occurrences might not be singled out as exceptional or dramatically traumatizing events, but they nevertheless have an effect on those to whom they happen, and they sediment to shape responses to other instances of violence. We sometimes call these more quotidian occurrences microaggressions, but this is a relatively new term and the extent to which it indexes actual or consequential occurrences isn’t always agreed upon. It’s this discrepancy in accepting the actuality or validity of such occurrences, and the way in which such occurrences are brought into relation as problems or grievances, that makes triggers so significant. Much of the time, triggers are seen as something to be avoided, but in the ethnographic context in which I work, triggers became a resource for understanding sudden, overwhelming experiences as they aligned with previous encounters with injustice, inequality, or violence, and as they led to reparative and resistant actions. 

ASF: Debates over trigger warnings and free speech at universities in the United States have recently been the object of media attention. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote in a piece for The Atlantic, which you cite in your article, “Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” They argue that universities should strongly discourage trigger warnings, which they equate to a fear of emotional discomfort. In response to this, you write: “The lived temporality of exhaustion in individuals and communities of color, considered as a focal grievance in the New Civil Rights era, casts mainstream controversy about trigger warnings into new relief.” Can you say more about the insights that your research in Salinas has given you regarding this debate? From a pedagogical perspective, how do you approach the issue of trigger warnings?  

MR: I have a few hopes for this article in terms of how it might shift this rather overblown conversation about trigger warnings on college campuses. One is to show that triggers have idiomatic salience beyond the hyperliberal speech politics of the American university, and to sensitize through ethnography those who have not had cause to be triggered to the fact that other people’s experiences can be jaggedly different and sometimes debilitating. To develop a vocabulary around this and to nuance public understanding about the validity and variability of what becomes a painful event to some but not others seems like an important step we all need to take as we see political divisions becoming widened and entrenched in many places around the world.

Another hope for this article is that attention to the prevalence, variability, and even productivity of triggers might move mainstream focus away from extreme and polarizing cases (e.g., the often-cited case of a student requesting that professors not use the word violate) to the more subtle and widespread triggering reactions that potentially can do real damage to a wounded person, or potentially can be mobilized as a resource for learning, healing, or personal growth or social change of some kind. This points to a responsibility, or responsivity, that instructors should realize they have (or should have) to the lives of students in their classes. In Salinas, too, there was always a concern about not willfully triggering people by presenting them with material or behavior that might do so. The key was to have a sense of one’s own and of others’ triggers, of how they could be managed or cared for or worked through, and then how to build that capacity. We might want to have a basic sense of this in our classrooms, as we foster an environment in which students are aware that we will talk about potentially painful topics, but that we will also develop and mobilize tools to connect the discomforting and painful with the analytical, and that there is (usually) support for them on campus that can help them develop other tools, for example through mentorship or mental health services. That is different than a trigger warning as the term has been set out, but it serves a similar purpose. From there, can we move on to the realization that it is not the triggered individual who is at fault for their vulnerability, but the conditions of the world that are so endlessly triggering and that need to be addressed?

ASF: In your article, you draw on the work of Alain Badiou, Elizabeth Povinelli, and Lauren Berlant to theorize the event. For students who might be unfamiliar with the work of these scholars, how would you break down some of their key insights on the event in simple terms?

MR: Here are some bite-sized breakdowns of these thinkers’ key insights on events, which might help student readers better understand my article.  

Alain Badiou (2013) is concerned with grand, capital-e Events, those massive world events that produce new, universal Truths and Subjects in their wake. They erupt into the world and radically change the world for all. Everyone can recognize and accept these events as existing and as changing their lives.  

Elizabeth Povinelli (2011) helps us think about quasi-events, those mostly minor occurrences that happen every day but are not quite bracketed, framed, acknowledged or accepted as actually happening, let alone happening as events in that bolder and more paradigm-shifting sense that Badiou has in mind. They might be little annoyances, things that don’t work, minor obstructions to getting things done. Much like microaggressions, these do not happen to everyone uniformly or with the same frequency. Quasi-events might not be acknowledged but they are hugely important, because they are often the little things that add up to scuttle peoples’ energies and efforts toward more meaningful projects. They can wear people down without anyone really noticing.  

Lauren Berlant (2011) quite usefully offers us an analytic for the range of ways that people notice and make sense of contemporary life as it is happening—as an event of some sort takes shape before our eyes and becomes known to us affectively. These are temporal genres and they include the situation, the episode, the eruption, the aside, the happening, and more. Berlant also gives us the terms slow death and ongoingness by way of drawing out the incremental, snail’s pace of structural violence that wears people down in a way that obscures the origins of their exhaustion.  

ASF: You recently joined the Department of Anthropology at the University of Virginia as a postdoctoral researcher. In August 2017, a torch-lit white nationalist rally on the UVA campus and a “Unite the Right” rally protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee sparked protests that ended in death and multiple injuries. Given your research and engagement with the politics of the New Civil Rights movement in the United States, can you share some of your reflections on what took place? 

MR: Yes, this has been a very interesting time to arrive in Charlottesville! The events on August 11 and 12 preceded the beginning of classes by about a week and a half, a period that much of the faculty spent discussing how best to address the events of that terrible weekend on the first day of class. For me, what seemed most important was to begin a discussion about the eventfulness of white supremacy, as a phenomenon that was not at all unique to or contained within that weekend, but is far more widespread, ongoing, and insidious. This was just a flare-up, in which those of us who are not usually targeted or victimized by white supremacy caught a glimpse of it. Over the course of the semester, I’ve found myself referring often to the triangle of white supremacy, a terrific little diagram that plots forms of overt white supremacy as the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, with the triangle’s wide base filled with more covert and socially acceptable forms of white supremacy that many Americans do not recognize as such. This diagram offers another way of visualizing and understanding the idea of quasi-events or microaggressions and putting them into relation with more exceptional violence. In my medical anthropology class, we think about the health effects of these various forms of violence and the toll that this kind of persistent stress can take on bodies.

A case in point is that of Tyler Magill, the UVA librarian who intervened to protect student protesters on the night of August 11 and who, some days later, suffered a stroke from a blood clot produced by the blunt force of a tiki torch on his neck. (He is recovering well). Another is the footage of the City Council meeting with shaken, insomniac, and incredibly angry locals. But you can also hear it resonate in every conversation with neighbors, and especially those who may be the targets of white supremacist ideology and violence, for whom even venturing out of the house can involve concerns about spending time in public spaces that feel threateningly, violently, white. It’s not hard to find the casualties.

What I hope to see happening going forward is more sustained reflection on and reparation of the historical and sometimes foundational role of white supremacy in our universities. The UVA administration has been critiqued for its often tone-deaf response to the various protests and gatherings in response to white supremacy over the last few months, but to its credit it has also made flash funding available to support collaborative projects between researchers and the wider Charlottesville population. Facilitating and sustaining connections between faculty, students, and community members—people who share a city but who can inhabit totally different worlds—is one way of building understanding of, and addressing, disparate experiences of racialized terror. This shouldn’t be a rush to unity with its attendant erasures, but a call to be present and responsive to each other. Attention to the variable eventfulness of white supremacy or racial violence, and the reflexivity to consider one’s own position and relationships as they shape what is and is not experienced as a grievous event, are skills and sensibilities that anthropologists can and should teach their students these days. Add to that the call for reparative thinking that Deborah Thomas (2011) makes in her Exceptional Violence, and we might just be preparing students to do something about the racial strife in their midst.

In-Class Exercise

This exercise is designed for an upper-division undergraduate lecture or seminar.

Learning Objectives

  • Help students clarify their understanding of theories of the event and eventfulness.  
  • Help students gain a reflexive awareness of positionality and the ways in which it shapes the perception of an event as exceptional or not, and the political dimensions of this.  
  • Inspire students to critically reflect on the relationship between crisis and the everyday.

Suggested Readings

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. “Slow Death (Obesity, Sovereignty, Lateral Agency).” In Cruel Optimism, 95–120. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.  

Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2011. “Events of Abandonment.” In Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism, 131–62. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.  

Optional/To Be Summarized by the Instructor

Badiou, Alain. 2001. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. New York: Verso.  

Sewell, William. 2005. “A Theory of the Event.” In Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation, 197–224. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Part One  

  • Ask the students to form small groups of four or five people.
  • Give each group the task of defining an author’s key arguments on events. Ask the students to extract quotes from the readings, and to give examples. Depending on the class size, multiple groups may be assigned the same author.  
  • After 15–20 minutes, ask the groups to summarize and share their definitions with the class and take notes on the board. From these definitions, draw out key terms used by each author.

Part Two  

Once there is a list of key terms on the board such as spectacular event, quasi-event, and so on, ask students to come back to their small groups to brainstorm examples from everyday life and news media that could fall under each category.

Part Three  

While students are still in their groups, put up on the board or share photocopies of the poem “August 4, 2011 / In Memory of Mark Duggan,” by Claudia Rankine (2014).

Ask students to work together to answer the following questions:  

  1. How does Rankine present ordinary and spectacular violence in relation to the Rodney King beatings and the murder of Mark Duggan?  
  2. How does one’s positionality shape the perception of an event as exceptional, spectacular, or not?  
  3. Why does crisis and catastrophe inspire ethical reflection and civic engagement while everyday, chronic forms of suffering do not?

Ask students to share their answers with the class.

References  

Badiou, Alain. 2001. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. New York: Verso.

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2011. Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Rankine, Claudia. 2014. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis, Minn.: Graywolf Press.

Sewell, William. 2005. Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  

Smith, Christen A. 2016. “Facing the Dragon: Black Mothering, Sequelae, and Gendered Necropolitics in the Americas” Transforming Anthropology 24, no. 1: 31–48.

Thomas, Deborah A. 2011. Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.