Notes on books – trigger warning warning

Maria-Sibylla Lotter doesn’t want Charles Dickens books to warn that one has to be careful because the book contains sexism, or that Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is about murder.

Problematic for art reception

The university lecturer at the Ruhr University Bochum says that the digital book catalogs from Great Britain with the trigger warnings mentioned should by no means serve as a model for Germany: “Then you no longer read the book unbiasedly, but have in mind from the start: So this is about violence, about abuse and the like.”

This is not good at all for the artistic experience. It is much better to be able to perceive content in connection with the form, says Maria-Sibylla Lotter: “Because art is about the form and not about satisfying a need for certain excitement. This is really problematic for art reception.”

In response to the objection that the aim of trigger warnings is not to take the tension off some people but to protect certain people, the professor says she thinks that’s unrealistic: “I think it’s a pseudo-problem,” she says.

The expansion of the concept of trauma

The problem arose from the expansion of concepts related to vulnerability, damage and human problems: “The concept of trauma is very typical: it has gradually been applied to weaker and weaker phenomena over the past 30 years. For example, when someone wakes you up with a phone call in the morning. Yes, but that traumatized me.”

The figurative use of the term trauma for anything that is somehow unpleasant has become more widespread. “But as soon as the term trauma refers to experiences of ‘uncomfortable’, the old meaning of a dangerous injury to the psyche, something that the individual cannot handle on his own, becomes something that would be really psychologically difficult , carried along – and that’s unrealistic when reading novels.”

On the contrary, Lotter believes, art also has therapeutic potential thanks to drastic content. “Aristotle already stated that a corpse that is painted or violence that occurs in a tragedy is experienced in a completely different way than violence that one experiences or observes oneself – there is no comparison at all.”

Therapeutic possibilities of art

In art, the form is in the foreground and that is why art in particular even has a therapeutic potential, says Lotter: Nietzsche and many others following him pointed this out in the 19th century.

“Nietzsche particularly admired the tragedies of the Greeks because they deal with terrible, catastrophic human developments and strokes of fate and, through their aesthetic form, make it possible to deal with them without being exposed to psychological suffering.”

“That’s exactly what art does,” says Lotter. “If you equate the occurrence of violence in art with an experience of violence, then you reduce what art can achieve to life. And then you no longer have to do with art.”

Instructions for children’s books

At one point, Maria-Sibylla Lotter finds warnings unproblematic: “If I now want to give parents information about certain books as to whether they are suitable for children.” But then the clues should be in a general form, like that this is about adult experiences.

If, on the other hand, you are dealing with college students, as in the example from England, you have to be clear about who you are warning: “Members of a generation that grew up with computer games and series like ‘Game of Thrones’ and so in one Level, as there has perhaps never been, properly trained with the fictional processing of violence, sex and everything.”

Lotter’s conclusion: “This group in particular certainly does not need trigger warnings with regard to books by Dickens in which poverty and interpersonal malice appear.”

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