Monday, August 11, 2014

on queer space and metatriggers, by Elizabeth Hassler




[Image description: Sign in front of a barbed wire fence, in the daytime with a blue sky and cumulus clouds. Big red letters: UNSAFE AREA/DO NOT ENTER.]

Semi-ironic trigger warning for … stuff? Unpopular Opinions, inevitable-type emotional abuse, ableist language, queer suicide. I've spent weeks writing this; I thought really hard, y'all. Apologies in advance to people who don't like the poem-format

This piece is a sometimes-direct response to Jack Halberstam's recent essay “'You Are Triggering Me!' The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma.” All the other links/intertexts are extra credit. And, hey, there were a lot more disclaimers on previous drafts. If you want them, just imagine they are there.]


I know that I am not really
broken, or anyway
that Hemingway did not
speak in terms of (post?)modernity and
our PTSD.

The world breaks everyone, not
only those of us who were
intently broken. Nor only
those of us for whom brokenness
went viral.
Here is the story I am afraid to tell
in honest prose:

there was a boy and there was queer negativity
and I thought it was the revolution because I could
be femme
like a sponge is femme. I was trained enough
to do that. One way to become

a Cautionary Tale
without a
scratch: (1) Be a congenital burden.
(2) Grow up thinking you don't understand other
people or your own limits or
regular emotions. (3) Work very hard to compensate,
because some days

in your house
failure to negotiate the emotions around you
feels like failure
to breathe. (4) Find your fellow
crazy people, and build

up a tolerance for suffering
because it speaks your language.
(5) Find an internet feminism
that treats every word
like shrapnel. (6) Find an
academic feminism that valorizes feelings
(bell hooks, mostly. And see?
For some of us
in the room this

is not just
theory). (7) Meet a boy
who says those classes
made me feel again, and doesn't

hate the things you want, is not
deterred by your body, tells decent jokes.
(8) Say all the right things, because you know
how; have that be so good
and so enough
until it isn't. (9) When that isn't
enough to keep anyone alive, push back
and start to catch hell (perhaps
not in that order). For example, (10)

when you are starting to become disillusioned,
that says caring for oneself is an act
of political warfare (one you
don't know how to commit,
obviously). Because your needs are not separate
from your boyfriend's needs, obviously,

you cannot have been meaning to like
the quote on your own behalf. As consequence:
my body, my choice rhetoric,

as if you've done something  antifeminist and wrong.
(11) Extricate yourself, because
you still can and because
loving the boy to the specifications put forth
is exhausting and more impossible than flight. More poetically:
shit's ridiculous. (12) Become the bad guy,
even though you were so good.

Of course
there are twelve steps, because I am an idiot** with
an eye for narrative structures.
**Dear reader, that word is an ableist slur
you should avoid trying at home. I know.
Ordinarily I would not say or type it, even.
But this is an essay in which I am trying
to live with/in
my unreliable narratorships and linguistic imperfections,

so I will tell you honestly
how I think about myself. Vintage example:
I thought we had equivalent needs,
the boy and I. Note to Halberstam and newly-minted self:
facilitating someone's access to a space is different

than letting their traumas run roughshod over your body
and their emotions seep into your
skin. The requests come from different

planets

(see also:
multiple chemical sensitivities are not
a figment of the neoliberal imaginary).

But I thought we were the same,
and in the end we were. If
acquiring the shadows of someone's trauma
makes the two of you the same.

Dear reader, let me be clear: I don't blame
the boy on whose behalf I broke
for most of the breakage. I mean, I was cracked already.
I thought deeply disingenuous dynamics were
the way to go. It was unfair,

really, to expect
functional anything
from someone actively disintegrating.
I'm grateful, in the aggregate: I
think I needed to be hurt
to learn what I really needed and
that I could be a grown-up and take
care of myself.

I'll always be a crippled girl,
but now
self-care
is not constantly
illegible.


Still, swearing me to secrecy was anything but kind.
Here is a secret

about “courageous” social circles
at small rural schools: they're fucking small.
So I was just supposed to inhale
all that second-hand misery alone?
And cease and desist with the poetry.

I tried (the breakup
was harder
than the love itself: I
measured every word, shook it

to get the feeling out, strung measuredness
into sentences---to be met with a variety
of low-level betrayals
and concentrated guilts). I hate

that I will hate myself if I don't apologize
for writing the Cautionary Tale
---here, in particular,
situations have been
made significantly opaque to protect

my introverted former lover and also
myself; from conditioned panic.

The panic will happen anyway,
since I have after all Caught(ionaried)
a spot of the Trauma: c'est la vie.

Writing this is fucking painful,
incidentally,
but that is no one's responsibility except
my own. Also: stories of my failures are Important,
for Community Learning &c. [A Community,
alas, wherein the ex in question and I share custody
of some three dozen Facebook friends. If you
find this: hi!] How am I supposed to

Caution y'all without the Tale? And I do
find the Tale-ing freeing
when there is less risk of being yelled at. Anyway.

Some “things I notice,”
in tutoring parlance: (a) the feminist spaces I am a part of
tend to celebrate heightened emotionality. (b) As a Highly Emotional
person, that shit seems like a good idea. (c)  It's usually not?
I mean, emotions are cool,
but fostering them is Chaos, all right. Also:
(d) prescriptivism (because, like,
if I respond to a stranger's individual emotions incorrectly I am
perpetuating individual
harm). Never my favorite.

By the way, everything I’ve written thus far
has very little to do with whether I
think trigger warnings are a good idea.
I think they are mostly an access issue
as opposed to a cultural one, and
unlike Halberstam I don't find the two

synonymous. Regardless, for the record,
I'm 90% in favor.
I use them (see above).
I find some of them important
for myself. I just wish adopting them didn't require a goddamn
Cultural Shift

into talking about our collective traumas, traumas, traumas
(because that hurts me; see above).
Trigger warnings are
one commodity in service of which trauma becomes performative,
one thing people have to act out being Traumatized
in order to get,
because neoliberalism is one way
vulnerable people are forced
to justify their needs. Meta-example

from earlier this week: “I need you
to be explicit with me and tell me if you are
triggered” (because “I'm not comfortable with that”
was not enough). Later retracted for reasons
involving being triggered: is this or is this not
an ever-widening circle?

#confessionalimperativesareyucky,
but one must, apparently. I don't

mean to attack anyone who tells their story.
Stories are important.
But some people don't want to tell
their stories, sometimes or ever,

and that shouldn't be
so pressurized (aren't there other
counternarratives
to silencing?). I don't want to, not really,
because I’d rather not walk around like a raw nerve
and technically I’m supposed to be silent and
the whole thing makes me feel dumb (because

sometimes I think of myself in ableist terms:
see above. Which, by the way,
is not the bad kid of failing. At least
this time it's a pun!).

This pseudoessay isn't really a martyr's errand,
though: I no longer Live
for the Cause. If
people could tell me their stories less
like they had something to prove,

I could leave martyrdom behind
more easily. This isn't an individual problem,
dear reader. Y'know, 'cause I learned
to soak up the emotions of others like a codependent sponge and
to make myself responsible

for the happinesses of people not-me.
[Great job, Elizabeth!] at the same time as other people learned
no one would listen to their emotional lives unless
they lived them really loud (me, my emotions were always
more than loud enough).Therefore: conflict!
So much conflict.
So much secondary pain

over which to fucking obsess.
Performative trauma hurts, dear reader.
We've established that it hurts me,
individually,
because I am a special kind of broken; doesn't it

also hurt the collective when our lives
are made nothing but blood?
The kind of blood neatly filed away
into individual compartments
for goddamn examination (See also: trigger warnings

by administrative mandate. I am sure there is a list
of acceptable notations somewhere).

The capital T in Trauma is for
the pressure to identify oneself as Traumatized
and to tell the story
of why.
Capital-C Codependent counts too. You know,

telling my story has made me
an easy mark. I've been
hurt with that. It lets people know
that my pieces are easy to manipulate.

I want to call this dynamic
of co-constitutive performance and absorption,
the ways that people telling and people
being told demand each other,
“trauma culture” (which is also the title of a book
I ought to read).

Trauma culture
is Halberstam's target, no? Trauma culture is
me giving myself a panic attack trying
to help someone in emotional distress.
Trauma culture is the expectation of trauma.
Trauma culture is fucking dangerous (if

you want to talk
about danger),
because it feeds the environment of danger
and it doesn't grant me access

to much of anything.
Does it save you?

Interdependence does not mean
taking responsibility for the feelings of others,
which took me forever
to learn. So why do we

frame access that way? Accountability
is not the same thing as
guilt, is it.

Halberstam says
this thing I am calling trauma culture
is the purview of “wimpy white feminism,”

as opposed to “a multicultural,
poststructuralist, intersectional” feminism for which
“people got over themselves”---
now, admittedly the I'm a white grrrrrl and the intersectional
feminisms I'm a part of are sometimes more Tumblr
-liberal than Crenshaw, but
I can assure you we did not.

And that's not what I’m asking for;
where is over, anyway? (Not
in the community
rainbows with which I'm familiar, that's where.)
It'd be pretty ridiculous
to say the only cool kids watch Monty Python

and reclaim other people's slurs. So:
maybe my critique borrows less from Halberstam and
but they both show us

the fallacies that embody safe space.  One:
queer and disabled and otherwise Other
bodies are unsafe, and something society protects against
using institutions of various colors
and shapes. Two: the thing we call queer safe space
encourages queer brokenness,
because queer scars are so romantic. Three:

where Halberstam sees sterile whiteness
I see bleeding hearts bleeding
every everywhere. Safe space

is so much carnage. Four: the revolution
requires so much
more than anti-oppressive language
and nonviolent
communication.

Five: no utopia is pure.
Six: remember, dear reader,

trying to be someone's safe space
broke me into pointed shards. Describing the difficulties
in writing this piece, I said: It's a lot of “don't
be stupid like I was stupid!” so, you know.

And you do know, don't you? Why the
story went the way it did. Even though I wouldn't
describe another person in those terms.
My story is familiar, and queer.

There's a certain kind of urgency
in queer stories I find terrifying. Because queerness
is about urges, we make it
also about suicide (hold, please,
while I give myself a panic attack).
Of course, this is a glass house

in which I should not throw Lamictal prescriptions,
but I'm terrified of
suicidal expectation and the ways I've been complicit
in that kind of fear. Godsake,
past-Elizabeth, Dead people can't orgasm!

is not a clever way of saving anybody.
And---deep breath---you are not obligated to
crisis-counsel anybody just because they kiss you
or you love them
or they're not dead yet or
whatever. Your self-worth is not determined
by your capacity to deescalate (no, not

even re: yourself). No one should
leverage their health and safety or lack thereof
to manipulate you into being their doll---dear
reader, this is not tangential.

The suicidal queers I've known
have mostly been adults; evidently we did not
Get Better. Personally,
the urge and I are not
strangers and so when it visits it feels right at home,
usually settling in

with a dull ache instead of sharp points
and hot dramatics.
For all their intensity, my moods have rarely been
flashy. But then, I love my life.
And even so the urge is exhausting.

Thus, I'm ambivalent about moralizing here.
Your body, your choice, indeed.  But
fuck that, on the other hand.
Too often, we pretend
suicide is an inevitable

and neutral act (at least,
I did). Universalizing the
extremes of fragile livelihood
to all
people with queer bodies
does not help The Cause.

Loving neuroqueer, hoping neuroqueer
is my opposite of abandoning
specificity. I'm not saying

all queers are crazy or
all crazies, Autistics, neurodivergents
are queer. I'm pretty sure
if I tried,
we'd need a universal safe space
full of people's triggers.

In that sense, Halberstam's essay is intense
relief: “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.” Queer

and queered bodies
and bodies
of work

are more than houses for trauma,
even mine. 

                                                   ~Elizabeth Hassler 

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