Should We Be Triggered? NeuroGovernance in the Future/(Tense)

In 2009, a team of psychotherapists sent by a humanitarian aid organization rushed to Honduras to treat survivors traumatized by the geopolitical crisis of a military coup and the resulting violence (Jarero, et al 2010). The targets of their war on trauma were in the brain — the neural networks which had been altered by this “mass critical incident.” In the confines of a crowded, hot basement, the survivors escaped the violence around them, where the therapeutic team administered EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), a new psychotherapy now being used globally in disaster relief efforts. EMDR consists of bilateral stimulation (tactile or visual stimulation administered on opposing sides of the body in a back and forth rhythm) combined with reliving the traumatic experience through imagery, and has been shown to often result in a shockingly intense release of traumatic affect (Schubert & Lee, 2009). Traumatic memories are theorized to be locked in the brain in a fragmented “unprocessed” state in the image-processing left brain, unable to enter into contact with the processing of linear time in the left brain.  Based on the conception of trauma first postulated by Bessel van der Kolk (1994) and the adaptive information processing model of the brain (Shapiro, 2001) advocates theorize that bilateral stimulation integrates the sides of the brain to increase its efficiency in processing memories “adaptively.” The argument is that the lack of integration between the memory of the trauma is what keeps it repeatedly intruding into consciousness in the form of flashbacks, brought about by triggering objects and producing symptoms associated with PTSD.


Surprisingly, the therapeutic team found that the treated survivors of the crisis appeared to be inoculated to re-experiencing the trigger — even as the “geopolitical crisis continued to unfold around them” and they continued to witness horrific events, PTSD symptoms did not develop. The researchers theorized that EMDR had changed their potential for being traumatized in the future, through the increased neural integration of the sides of the brain and a change in how the brain processes trauma, consistent with the adaptive information processing theory. (Jarero et al 2010, Zaghrout-Hodali et al., 2008).

Now administered widely in such large scale emergencies, therapeutic practices such as EMDR have become attached to a vision of “clearing” the neural trauma from the population in order to prevent its transmission to future generations, “clear” trauma transmitted from past generations, and thus promote the economic and political optimization of the population after the emergency (Pupavac 2004) as a pre-emptive measure. The promise of the modification of neuro-mnemonic practices on a population scale, a global neurogovernance, becomes imaginable on the population level as world actors, increasingly fearing “traumatized societies” and the intergenerational transmission of trauma, push toward pre-emptive measures. In this form of governance, the experience of the trigger becomes a threat which must be pre-emptively eradicated. Temporally, it is positioned as a fragmented repetition that keeps societies in the past. Happiness is moving forward; traumatized societies are thus “backwards” (Ahmed, 2010). In following the pre-emptive logic of inoculating the population against future trauma, now imaginable as brains’ neural networks become understood as interconnected in a kind of vast, global web, the trigger, a painful experience that is fragmented, becomes positioned as a block slowing down time and threatening the future life of the population. This new paradigm, now spreading to non-Western countries like an export, serves to re-interpret the trigger as a true break with the continuity of time.

This new pre-emptive weight placed on the trigger makes it especially easy to quickly wish for its demise without much reflection. To challenge this easy positioning, in what follows, I enact a disruption in the distinction between the trigger and its nature and EMDR and its nature. EMDR advocates argue that it allows the brain to make new neural connections to other memories in order to move beyond the repetition of the fragmented “trigger.” While the seriousness of trauma as a social plague cannot be denied, I wonder if this logic of pre-emption leaves unchallenged the positioning of the experience of being triggered as an ontological break with time, an uncreative experience. In a somewhat polemical fashion I would like to problematize this easy distinction by positioning the trigger as ontologically connective despite its felt quality of fragmentation.  Below I argue that difference and repetition are inherent in matter itself, not merely that EMDR offers difference, and the trigger repetition. Among its unexpected gifts, the trigger offers an affective, embodied critique of the normative uses of objects, and a critique of Euclidean notions of space and time as chronological. The trigger’s connective ontology also makes it a creative force for critiquing the social.

The temporality and spatiality of the experience of being triggered are connective, forming an assemblage (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987). Indeed, the experience of the triggered body, in fact, is not one of discrete space and linear time, and thus disrupts the sense of a stable and definite self in the present (Caruth, 1996). The trigger includes the triggering stimulus which can be “any place, person, or thing or situation that resembles the original trauma” that brings forth the emotional, affective, and sometimes physiological responses associated with the original traumatic scene (Foa, et al. 2009). A table knife, for example, can trigger the anxiety of a knife from combat, or even something far less obviously related — the sight of a color that was present at the scene of the event, the sensation of a particular touch that seems to jab the way the original knife jabbed.  Or it could be the painted fingernails on the one who abused you, causing you to flinch at the sight of painted nails in the future.


But even resemblance to the original event is not the best predicator of the triggering object, nor is it always traceable to the original event in direct or obvious ways. The trigger is not an object with definite boundaries; it is not a cause. Instead, it is a particular arrangement of objects connected by flows and responses. Which object, sensation, impression, or thought will act as a trigger is somewhat unpredictable, for the resemblances may be abstract and sensory rather than conceptual. Thus, the triggered body is the ultimate example of what Deleuze and Guattari (1987) call the rhizome, which they oppose to the idea of a definite object or structure. The trigger is characterized by what these authors call “lines of flight” because there are “no points or positions, only lines.” Indeed, the triggering object is not the cause of the trigger as a bodily response. It is only a node in a network of relations. The trigger is not the cause or origin of the experience of being triggered, nor the nerves stimulated by it, not the memory or its re-enactment or its physiological responses. Thus the assemblage extends from the narrative or imagined traumatic past in the present, to the stories told about it, to the nerves, to the affective state of the body, through the medical discourses that produce the experience of the trigger, and to the object that triggers. No, the trigger is simply the assemblage, the connective tissue between all of these. The trigger follows the model of a nerve, but one which extends beyond the body’s bounds. To be triggered, for the subject, is to be a connective partial subject within these unpredictable extensions, with indefinite borders. The trigger’s unpredictable firing and the diversity of objects and attractors of it illustrate that it is productive of new flows. With each repetition it connects the semiotic and the material, following what Deleuze and Guarttari call “principles of heterogeneity and connection.” Proust writes, for example, in the introductory section to The Swann’s Way:


All these memories, superimposed upon one another, now formed a single mass, but had not so far coalesced that I could not discern between them…if not real fissures, real geological faults, at least that veining, that variation of coloring, which in certain rocks, in certain blocks of marble, points to differences of origin, age and formation.


Thus, the trigger can be understood as productive of new, unimagined relations between disparate objects and processes that produce a temporary loss of bounded, linear time-space and an inherent critique of the affective normalcy associated with a particular object. In contrast, to remove the trigger is to return the knife to being just a knife, to adjust the intensity of affective experience to what is normative. And it is also to restore the subject a sense of place and time as discrete and linear, chronological.

It should be noted that viewing the removal of the trigger uncritically with regard to space and time produces an interesting paradox within preemptive forms of governance. To inoculate against future trauma, however, subtly assumes the locality of the original event in space and timeIn contrast to the inherent spatial connectivity and temporal blurring of the trigger, EMDR psychotherapy involves returning the incident to the past through integration, in order to make a distinction in linear time between a discrete then, when danger was present, and an equally discrete now, when safety is present. EMDR begins with mentally finding a safe space, the positioning of the traumatic incident in a past space-time. But the contradictory logic between such a strategy and the pre-emptive, biopolitical logic of population inoculation is obvious. The therapeutic restoration of a discrete, linear flow of time (the subject’s affective experience of time) contrasts with the future perfect logic of preemption in a securitized, post-911 neoliberal strategy of pre-emptive neuro-governance in which pre-emption actually brings the feared future into the present (Adams, et al, 2009, Massumi, 2005). Thus, EMDR restores the sense of linear, chronological, and a present that is “safe” not as an empirical truth but rather as an affective fact, that which feels true via the logic of pre-emption, in order to inoculate a populace for future trauma in the here and now. Altogether, it enacts a spatio-temporal Euclideanism which produces the therapeutic simulation: “I am safe here now because THAT was then and this is now,” in conjunction with, “We must make you feel safe in the here and now because your future will be threatened otherwise.” Thus, a contradiction arises — if there is a goal of inoculating the population against future trauma (a pre-emptive strategy which positions the future as terrifying — unpredictable, repetitive, ever-present, and dangerous) it must be arrived at through its phenomenological opposite — a sense of the traumatic incident as discretely past in time and contained in some non-present space, and no longer a threat).

Finally, the trigger’s connectivity produces and has the power to bear witness to social sources of trauma that may still be ongoing. But the here and now of the trigger ignores the possibility that the triggering “stimulus” may have some unforeseen relation of repetition to the source or “cause” of the original stimulus. Thus, the trigger serves as an important reminder of what could happen. Is the kitchen knife unrelated to the knife in combat? No, but it may be related to domestic violence, and so the terror it raises is not merely a new affective relation to the object, however terrifying this relation may be, but also offers the ability to see, in its warning of the repetition of the original trauma, other relations that might be important as part of a social critique. Perhaps the trigger is not a random firing, a mere disruption or misplacement, a deviation from a normative and functional psyche in which narrative and linear time flow without disruption. The value of the trigger lies in its associative potency, its connective potential to actualize relations. In other words, the trigger bears witness to something. And the something it bears witness to may be a social relation that is still repeating, that teaches us about social repetitions we may not have imaged prior but may act as a social critique by troubling our normative associations with objects and their definitions.


Ironically, the recognition of the trigger’s ontological status as connective tissue can offer an important counter to its positioning as fragmentation. Bringing attention to the embodied and connective nature of the trigger itself is a kind of disruption of it. It contests the felt experience of the triggered subject away from a sense of being pulled out of the present and instead reorients one toward an understanding that connectivity exists even in the depths of the trigger itself. In short, the lack of connectivity inside the trigger can be contested by a larger, ontological master connectivity of matter itself. This suggestion does not erase the clinical account of trauma, nor is my suggestion meant as a substitute for EMDR, but instead, I have offered it as an intervention into moving beyond the temptation to reduce the ontological to clinical or neurological accounts.

Enjoy your symptoms, declared Slavoj Zizek (2007), and perhaps, should one add, enjoy your triggers? This counter-intuitive suggestion offers to reconceptualize the trigger as creative and renew curiosity in it as rhizomatic. This, in one move, works to rob it of its power to define temporality and thereby exceed the limited clinical definitions of its temporality in favor of a wider ontological view. Even within the trigger’s repetition there is a difference, a difference Deleuze and Guattari attribute to matter itself. This difference, more than any pre-emptive neuro-governance, can be a source of a radical hope for the unpredictable future.


Kim Cunningham, MPhil is an advanced doctoral candidate at City Unviersity of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center in the department of sociology and an Andrew W. Mellon fellow at the Center for the Humanities. Her dissertation research investigates the use EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) in large scale emergency settings as a site for rethinking the temporality of cultural memory in the era of pre-emption and biopolitics, for which she won the Koonja Mitchell Memorial Prize in 2010. Her areas of interest include sociology of the body, affect studies, trauma, cultural studies,  and sociological theory. She teaches sociology at Montclair State University and Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York (SUNY).


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