The chapter maps out and examines online debates about trigger and content warnings in the late 2010s, asking how they negotiate vulnerability. Whose vulnerability comes to matter most in these debates, how, and for what aims? The chapter proposes that the figure of the trigger warning currently circulates most intensely in three contexts: first, in feminist discussion forums where the use of warnings is a desired, required and normalised practice; second, in the feminist, queer and anti-racist academic opposition to trigger warnings which emphasises the pedagogical value of discomfort; and third, in the circulation of trigger warnings in anti-feminist online spaces. Each of these contexts understands vulnerability in somewhat different but overlapping ways: as a standpoint that both prohibits and enables; as a necessity to life that must be embraced; and a paradoxical position where claims to power are made through claims of disempowerment. The chapter does not argue against or for trigger warnings but invites readers to re-evaluate their own stances and understand what is at stake in the opposing as well as defending arguments, depending on context.
The power of vulnerability interrogates the new language of vulnerability that has emerged in feminist, queer and anti-racist debates about the production, use and meanings of media. The book investigates the historical legacies and contemporary forms and effects of this language. In today’s media culture, traumatic first-person or group narratives have popular currency, mobilising affect from compassion to rage to gain cultural visibility and political advantage. In this context, vulnerability becomes a kind of capital, a resource or an asset that can and has been appropriated for various groups and purposes in public discourses, activism as well as cultural institutions. Thus, politics of representation translates into politics of affect, and the question about whose vulnerability counts as socially and culturally legible and acknowledged. The contributors of the book examine how vulnerability has become a battleground; how affect and vulnerability have turned into a politicised language for not only addressing but also obscuring asymmetries of power; and how media activism and state policies address so-called vulnerable groups. While the contributors investigate the political potential as well as the constraints of vulnerability for feminist, queer and antiracist criticism, they also focus on the forms of agency and participation vulnerability can offer.
This chapter introduces the main questions addressed in the book and thoroughly accounts for the concept of vulnerability, its various theoretical legacies and uses in feminist, anti-racist, and queer scholarship, and key role in present-day discussions about power, agency, and the media. Vulnerability is addressed both as a concept and as a political language. The authors highlight four aspects of how this language operates: as a human rights discourse, as a language easily appropriated by dominant groups, as a contested language invoking long-running debates in queer, feminist, and anti-racist media cultures, and as a language translated into cultural policymaking. The #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter campaigns exemplify how the public articulation of experiences of injury, trauma, and hurt can turn into powerful movements. However, in neo-liberal media culture, vulnerability operates as a political language not only for disadvantaged, but also for privileged groups. Claims of vulnerability can translate to claims to agency and voice, but these claims can have completely oppositional political consequences, depending on who is making them. Drawing from Lauren Berlant and Judith Butler, the chapter sheds light on this and other paradoxes that the concept of vulnerability evokes, and asks: what does the language of vulnerability do?