Teaching Irresponsibly and Uncomfortably: The Role of Theory in the Neoliberal University


Over the last year, many online (and offline) spaces have taken up the question of trigger warnings – statements that prevent students who might have a particularly strong emotional response to certain topics from encountering that material unwittingly – in the university classroom. These debates allow for necessary dialogues to occur surrounding the analysis of trauma and the role of cultural studies and the humanities in an economy that increasingly uses different metrics to assess educational value. The question of trigger warnings confront directly how a teacher is to relate to her or his students, an ontological inquiry into the very nature of our craft in a world punctuated by profound economic, technological, and cultural change, but they also question the ability for theory to speak to lived experience: how to give space and voice to resistant feelings while encouraging students to think critically about their discomfort? Put simply, what is the role of feeling in critique, and vice versa?

These questions are necessary for those of us within media studies who work in and teach critical theory. On the one hand, across the humanities scholars now turn with increased attention to media texts in order to articulate the political and cultural contours of neoliberalism (as in Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Zizek’s interest in The Wire). On the other hand, however, theory is frequently branded as impenetrably narrow and without economic utility, especially for undergraduates who desire careers in media production. While this epistemological and pedagogical impasse may, in fact, be indicative of what Lauren Berlant calls the “new crisis ordinary,” I wish to locate in theory here an affective resistance to neoliberal governing rationalities, especially those within what we call the neoliberal university. Rather than being smacked with warnings that are themselves inadequate tools for structuring the semiprivate spaces of teaching, difficult content, including the capacity of critical theory itself to provoke affective discomfort in the classroom, should be a method embraced by teachers. Embracing discomfort as a pedagogical praxis is also to adopt, albeit cautiously, neoliberalism’s language of risk; such appropriations, however, may be necessary to divest from the ethics of professionalization and responsibility inscribed within neoliberal governmentality.

These discussions invoke the values central to higher education under neoliberal culture, in which the student is figured as a consumer who is entitled to certain protections, including the expectations of security and comfort. We see this in the quantitative rankings of colleges and universities by for-profit college preparation companies, but also in the increased funding for student services that work to reduce sexual assaults on residential campuses; it is present through the proliferation of online education such as MOOCs as well as in the call to interdisciplinary thinking across disciplines, which emphasize a necessary flexibility in order to be viable in the service and digital economies. This extends to critique itself: as Wendy Brown helpfully avers, “knowledge is not sought for purposes apart from capital enhancement, whether that capital is human, corporate, or financial” (Brown 177; see also Lye, Newfield, and Vernon). The discourse surrounding trigger warnings contribute to and mirror the language reflected in this shift. Jack Halberstam controversially dismissed such warnings by rejecting the claim that “emotional pain is somehow similar to a pulled muscle – as something that hurts whenever it is deployed, and as an injury that requires protection.” Less provocatively, Valéria Souza called trigger warnings “the helicopter parents of language” while also insightfully noting how they may represent “an expression of our students’ desire to try and mitigate collective cultural trauma.”

As these observations demonstrate, neoliberalism likes to have it both ways: the debate over trigger warnings simultaneously exposes the discourse of affective management present within university education while also inviting the language of individual resilience in the face of often-structural adversity. Yet even in Halberstam’s calls for “accountability and specificity” for how we perform pain, grief, and outrage, or in the usefully systematic takedown of trigger warnings offered by a cohort of humanities professors that also offers alternative prescriptive measures, security and comfort are assumed as normative aspirational affects within the new crisis ordinary. Trigger warnings capture the empowerment of the neoliberal student-consumer as well as the mechanisms of control of an expanded university bureaucracy; in the words of Meredith Raimondo, an associate dean at Oberlin College, they represent a “responsible pedagogical practice,” even if they ultimately operate imperfectly.

But does critique ever act responsibly? Foucault instructs us that critique “exists only in relation to something other than itself: it is an instrument, a means for a future or a truth that it will not know nor happen to be, it oversees a domain it would want to police and is unable to regulate” (42). If critique is an instrument, it is necessarily a mode of governance, but this mode is neither predictably neat nor verifiably successful. Critique moves and circulates between bodies and texts. It gestures towards resistance even as it establishes and supports disciplinary structures. It, Foucault asserts, is “the art of not being governed quite so much” (45). Following this definition, critique might be at odds with the mission of the neoliberal university itself, always obsessed with its own governance and its investment in structured experimentation.

How, then, do we create a spaces of learning that paradoxically must be safe (so that students can express their opinions, experiences, and feelings freely) while running the risk of never being fully safe? Teaching through not governing “quite so much” is to invite a certain amount of disorientation into lesson planning, though such perceived irresponsibility often comes with the changing nature of academic labor and the accretion of adjunct instruction. But it is also to embrace the irresponsibility of critique; asking students to unpack theoretical texts can agitate, not just because of theory’s density or its capacity to frustrate, but because it often invites skepticism and vulnerability within one’s individual thought.

In 2012, while I was a graduate student at Brown University, I taught an undergraduate seminar called “Uncomfortable Media.” Our charge was to examine fully the attraction of perverse subject matter in American popular culture of the past two decades and to trace the bodily and psychic mechanisms at work when one is assaulted by such visceral texts. Covering explorations into sexual and racial violence, addiction, disease, taboo desire, and disaster, the class was in itself a trigger warning. While my syllabus contained a special section on the nature of the course’s material, it also asked students to “embrace your discomfort as a way to think critically about how media texts provoke and disturb the public.” Primary theoretical texts on disgust and perversity were paired with a range of media texts; one particularly difficult week involved excerpts from Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle and the “New Queer Cinema” film The Living End (dir. Gregg Araki, 1992).



Araki’s film portrays two HIV-positive men who kill a homophobic police officer and then go on the lam. The film complicates the assimilationist representation of queer people typically presented in the media forms familiar to my students, the majority of which were, at the time, born in the years immediately following the film’s release. It depicts a queer love premised on violence: the violence of HIV and AIDS, the violence of queer resistance, and the violence of queer love, present in the film’s final scene, in which one character rapes the other.

Class discussion that day started on the level of representation: what was uncomfortable for many students was the film’s flirting with Very Bad stereotypes. In Araki’s film, the Person With AIDS is not interpellated into the comforting neoliberal citizen who manages his disease with psychopharmaceutical capitalism, but instead assumes an abject presence: a cop-killer and carrier of disease. Comparisons to Freud’s death drive were obvious, but the difficulty of the text left many students searching for its utility; as one of Freud’s most notoriously speculative texts, it confounded students searching for an easy connection between psychoanalysis and social critique. We tackled these feelings of discomfort head on, and as the discussion moved students pointed out the contradictions inherent in Freud’s text: in how his descriptions of sadism and masochism end up fulfilling the pleasure principle, for example, despite the pleasure principle’s intent to restore an earlier state of things.

I realize such jumps between registers of discomfort – triggered by the perceived impenetrability of theory and by the explicit content of Araki’s film – are shaky, risky, and not entirely airtight. LivingEnd-front-coverBut this is precisely Araki’s point (and perhaps Freud’s as well): the tagline to The Living End proclaims it to be “an irresponsible movie,” and theorizing an ethics of irresponsibility – on the part of the queer PWA, the film director, and the student of psychoanalysis – became the route we collectively took throughout discussion.The awkward pauses invited by Freud’s text became moments for students to vent their frustration about queer responsibility: one student noted that she and her generation have never not known HIV to be a First World crisis, and that this historical difference was perhaps linked to her discomfort at the film’s politics of representation. Another student disclosed that to him the violence in the film felt gratuitous, which spurred a discussion about genre and identity. At the end of the class, one student articulated a certain discomfort about our own discussions, saying that she wasn’t quite offended by the film nor by the comments of her peers, but that she did not feel secure somehow, either; in her words, “something didn’t sit quite right” with her. This last comment triggered me, and as I left campus that night I replayed the discussions in my head in order to assess my own competence as an instructor. Although I encouraged students to take advantage of office hours in order to process further thoughts or concerns (and some elected to do so, though not the student who had voiced a final discomfort), had I dug a hole too deep, assigned too much or too difficult reading – had I, in short, taught irresponsibly?

This essay should not read necessarily as a call to irresponsible pedagogy carte blanche, but rather to assert that if the role of the teacher in the neoliberal university is to manage the feelings of his or her students and to funnel those feelings into the development of critical thought, perhaps we need to build in irresponsibility into our lesson plans, teaching texts that provoke and uproot calcified stereotypes and letting discomfort guide a lecture or discussion. This entails listening as well as speaking, allowing students who need to disengage from discussions periodically (and checking in with them afterwards in office hours), and indulging in awkward silences. Critique operates by asking more questions than answered, by making key terms and concepts more strange and less secure.

Such techniques carry obvious risk for both teacher and student. (And, it should be noted, the incorporation of risk into everyday life is one of late capitalism’s key techniques.) But our students risk much by entering our classrooms: as spaces designed to cultivate self-exploration but also the adherence to disciplinary canons, our campuses naturally demand a respect for difference. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney masterfully assert, “the undercommons is therefore always an unsafe neighborhood,” with the undercommons serving as the manifestation of critique known especially to minoritarian subject positions, including that of student and teacher (who is always already a student) and especially that of women, students of color, queers, and first-generation and undocumented students that make up an increased percentage of enrollments (28). To embrace discomfort as pedagogical praxis is to seek out answers in fugitivity and to challenge the boundaries of public and private that govern both the university and everyday life.

Ellen Rooney has written that the seminar room is inherently semiprivate, and thus “figures neither an inside, nor an outside, but the conscious practice of drawing boundaries in a field neither the private nor the public can anticipate or guarantee” (128). As those who have chosen to make the semiprivate room our second home, we must as teachers seek to make this lack of a guarantee legible to students of different cultural backgrounds who may have legitimate reservations about letting themselves fully submit to its unfamiliarity and its unpredictability. Jacques Derrida once called the “unconditional university” one anchored around “the prinicipal right to say everything, whether it be under the heading of fiction and the experimentation of knowledge, and the right to say it publicly, to publish it” (26). Resisting the neoliberal university entails teaching unconditionally – that is to say, to teach what may be perceived as irresponsible or uncomfortable –appropriating the discourses of risk, management, and individual potential in order to create semiprivate spaces in which both teacher and student learn collaboratively.


Works Cited

Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2007).

Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015).

Jacques Derrida, “The Future of the Profession or the University Without Condition (Thanks to the ‘Humanities,’ What Could Take Place Tomorrow),” in Jacques Derrida and the Humanities: a Critical Reader, ed. Tom Cohen (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002): 24-57.

Jack Halberstam, “You Are Triggering Me!: The Neo-liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger, and Trauma,” Bully Bloggers, 5 July 2014; available online at https://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/you-are-triggering-me-the-neo-liberal-rhetoric-of-harm-danger-and-trauma/ (accessed 15 May 2015).

Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Autonomedia, 2013).

Michel Foucault, “What is Critique?” in The Politics of Truth, ed. Sylvère Lotringer (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 1997).

Fredric Jameson, “Realism and Utopia in The Wire,Criticism 52.3-4 (2010): 359-372.

Colleen Lye, Christopher Newfield and James Vernon, “Humanists and the Public University,” Representations 116.1 (2011): 1-18.

Jennifer Medina, “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm,” The New York Times, 17 May 2014.

Ellen Rooney, “A Semiprivate Room,” differences 13.1 (2002): 128-156.

Valería Souza, “Triggernometry,” 21 May 2014; available online at: https://valeriamsouza.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/triggernometry/ (accessed 15 May 2015).

Slavoj Žižek, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (New York: Verso, 2012).


Hunter Hargraves is Assistant Professor in the Department of Radio-TV-Film at California State University, Fullerton. He is currently completing a book on neoliberalism and spectatorial discomfort in millennial American television. He has published in the journal Camera Obscura and in the Blackwell anthology A Companion to Reality Television (2014).

This entry was posted in Media and Identity, Media Examples for the Classroom, Media Studies, General, Readings for Undergraduates, Teaching Dossiers and Collections and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply