Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What Can Classical Music Tell Us About Trigger Warnings?

By Drew Massey

Tony Matelli's Sleepwalker, discussed below.
Photo credit:
As part of my renewed effort to put more “now” into Musicology Now, last month I started writing a post about trigger warnings and their rapport with classical music. Then I stopped – mostly because some of my preliminary research indicated that the terms of the debate had mostly been established and there was little more to say. But the recent headlines over the Yale Halloween Memo made me think that the issue is anything but settled on American college campuses. [1] Furthermore, if Google Trends is to be believed, interest in trigger warnings is in fact intensifying, not dissipating (and, interestingly, is a specifically American preoccupation).

I expect that most readers of this blog will already have an opinion about trigger warnings; articles about the phenomenon have been dotting the journalistic landscape for about three years now. If you’d like to refresh your memory about the general contours of the debate, Kate Manne’s NYT op-ed and the AAUP’s position statement provide synopses both for and against, respectively. Given this continuous stream of writing, I am surprised that the musicological community has been relatively mum on the issue, at least in print. Paul Harper Scott gave a reasoned post last year about trigger warnings, unpacking some of the more well known facets of the debate; Jonathan Bellman suggested that we ought to bring in some professional ethicists to help us sort out the problem. A cursory search through my old email does not reveal any thread on the AMS listserv picking up the topic. The Journal of Music History Pedagogy has certainly considered issues of identity politics within its pages, but the term “trigger warning” (or for that matter “microaggressions,” “PTSD,” “Trauma,” or “disability”) returns no results in a search.

This relative silence seems like a missed opportunity to me, because I think that debates about music that are familiar to musicologists inform the present conversation on trigger warnings in interesting ways. Critics have certainly pointed to examples in opera of “triggers,” from rape to racism to necrophilia. At the same time, these instances are based on a given opera’s plot, so they don’t lead anywhere that trigger warning arguments about novels, films, etc. haven’t already visited. Yet if we look at how non-programmatic instrumental music has been understood, we might start to detect some fault lines in the trigger warning controversy that do not seem to have been otherwise addressed.

Susan McClary’s Feminine Endings is among the most relevant texts, even if the Beethoven ‘rape’ controversy has caused her arguments to have been sensationalized. She argues in quite broad terms for the existence of a sexual metaphor at the center of common practice tonality:
The principal innovation of seventeenth-century tonality is its ability to instill in the listener an intense longing for a given event: the cadence. It organizes time by creating an artificial need …. After that need is established (after the listener has been conditioned to experience the unbearable absence of some musical configuration), tonal procedures strive to postpone gratification of that need until finally delivering the payoff in what is technically called the “climax,” which is quite clearly to be experienced as metaphorical ejaculation.[2]
McClary goes farther than arguing for a merely sexual metaphor. She considers a few pages later how tonality enacts power dynamics (and therefore withheld or ambiguous consent, one of the very issues at the heart of the current trigger warning debate):
The omnipresence of this formal pattern [the cadence, which Robert Scholes (whom McClary quotes) memorably describes as “the fundamental orgastic rhythm of tumescence and detumescence”] in literature and music is part of a larger cultural tendency to organize sexuality in terms of the phallus, to devalue or even to deny other erotic sensibilities (especially that of the female), to impose and maintain a hierarchy of power based on gender.[3]
If we take McClary’s arguments seriously, instrumental music occupies a precarious position because it is precisely through learning more about it – learning how to read the tea leaves of tonality – that it becomes more triggering. And therefore it is not only the texts presented in class (say, Huck Finn) but also the process of learning about them that becomes trigger territory. Therefore, when instrumental music enters the fray, arguments for trigger warnings have the potential to go from being anti-misogynistic to anti-education. The dilemmas run still deeper. If, through education itself,  more and more "sensitive" phenomena are decoded to be "triggering," it means that the date for when a young adult might be expected to operate in a world unmediated by trigger warnings could be postponed indefinitely. In this scenario, trigger warnings have gone from a pedagogical tactic to an existential fact.

Given these issues, I’m not entirely surprised that McClary herself has little use for trigger warnings in her own teaching. Since it has been almost 25 years since Feminine Endings was published, I decided I ought to ask her directly what she thought of the trigger warning situation. After noting that she considers the trigger warning trend “deeply distressing,” she continued:
The history of music was not composed for 18-year-olds, and much of the music intended to disrupt the status quo and moral conventions. I believe it’s best to bring these issues up, explain the reasons for these transgressions, and invite discussion. But as Fredric Jameson once wrote, “History is what hurts.” You simply can’t present a sanitized version.
Instrumental music, of course, would seem to avoid all these issues, though it often does so at the expense of cultural meaning. I suppose one might say that meaning is what hurts. But then all the more reason for class discussion.[4]
Classical instrumental music should be alarming to individuals on both sides of the trigger warning debate. If you favor trigger warnings, Feminine Endings is a reminder that powerful cultural work is performed even in the absence of a readily graspable narrative. This is something that the Wellesley College art protesters seemed to realize when they demanded that a statue of a semi-naked man be removed from campus (pictured at the top of this post). 

If you oppose trigger warnings, McClary’s scholarship – when read in light of today’s debates – sounds an ominous knell because it seems to suggest that ever expanding circles of cultural experience may eventually become the target of suppression because they are – or, more precisely, students will have been taught to see them as being – “triggering.” I wouldn’t presume to know which way the wind is really blowing on this issue, except to note that there is more at stake here for the field of musicology that seems to have been acknowledged.

Drew Massey is an editor at Musicology Now.

[1] The issues raised at Yale were about university culture outside of the classroom, and hence somewhat different from many examples of triggering that have been written about, like Columbia's Ovid case from last spring.
[2] McClary, Feminine Endings, 125.
[3] McClary, Feminine Endings, 127.
[4] McClary, personal communication to the author, 26 October 2015.

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