How frequently do you update your time capsule?

Time heals all wounds, so people say. But if values and the perceptions of events shift over the course of time, time can even do the opposite: it can open up wounds. So do you have to keep opening your personal time capsule to update it? If so, what does that do to the contents, which ultimately no longer preserve the time elapsed but are made subservient to the here and now?

One example of a time capsule is Volker Schlöndorf’s film ‘The Tin Drum’ from 1979. When I showed this film to my American students in my film course, a nineteen year-old female student suddenly ran from the screening room, loudly accusing me as she fled that I had not given any trigger warning and had therefore exposed her unprepared to a film which, aside from much too much sex and violence against women, also contained child pornography! With tears streaming down her face, she told me I should have warned her to enable her at least to take a Xanax in order to cope with the film and the sexual violence portrayed in it. We’re talking about the scene when Oskar is on the beach with Maria and he licks sherbet powder from her cupped hands and her belly button. The student continued to rage at me, telling me she would now have to take a double dose of Xanax, which meant she wouldn’t be able to attend classes for at least two days. She wouldn’t do any work on the film or even give it any further thought, she shouted. She also informed the Dean’s office of all this in writing as it was imperative that her course marks were not affected by the violence inflicted on her. She had not come to Berlin, she wrote, to be forced to view child pornography in a course. Shortly thereafter, further students left the screening and they, too, complained to the Dean’s office about the risqué sexual content of the film and the effrontery of being exposed to it unprepared. The upshot of these events is that I am no longer allowed to show The Tin Drum in my next film courses.

Assisted living
In their complaint, the students demanded that all films in the course be given trigger warnings to enable them to decide: to view or not to view. This practice has been standard procedure at American universities for around twenty years for the protection of their students. Lectures must be assigned trigger warnings in order to avoid potential trauma, particularly when touching on violence, skin colour, gender or sexuality. That’s the reason why my students demanded the censorship of a time capsule, i.e. a 43 year-old film. The anglicist Ingo Berensmeyer wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that academia did not need ‘assisted reading’, meaning that trigger warnings should be avoided for the academic study of literary texts. Because academic studies mustn’t degenerate into a stay on the pony farm, the celebration of an ideal world.

Panic disorders and depression
Just as a footnote: Xanax is a drug from the group of benzodiazepines used to treat anxiety, panic disorders and depression. It has become extremely popular among US students as it works very quickly and is appreciated for intensifying the effect of alcohol. Side effects of Xanax include altered consciousness and impaired judgement. Today, doctors frequently describe the use of Xanax at American universities as an epidemic.

A world in cotton wool
Trigger warnings try to wrap the world in cotton wool or to put it in a more modern way, in bubble wrap and to prepare consumers, readers, viewers, museum visitors, smokers, etc. for anything they might not like to see, that might irritate or depress them, induce panic in them and subjectively damage them. They want to decide what to do and what not to do on the basis of trigger warnings without having seen, read or felt what they were deciding about. But how can that work? Regardless of such decisions, however, art cannot be wrapped in cotton wool or bubble wrap unless for transportation, as this flies in the face of its most intrinsic meaning. Art, e.g. films, literature, sculptures, paintings, pieces of music, performances, is actually meant to shock, astonish, shake people up, delight them or honour our Lord (mainly in earlier times) who died on the cross to enable us to get into heaven. The fact that in doing so it portrays a bloodthirsty scene of torture barely touches anyone, and pictures of Jesus with a crown of thorns or loincloth on the cross don’t cause anyone to shout for trigger warnings or suffer a crying fit.

The dog in the microwave
In the US, people are used to such things as all items of daily life are labelled, often with an absurdly ingenious love of detail, with what we can and can’t do with them – trigger warnings, in fact: Rub hair tonic only into your scalp, don’t drink it; only pull the trigger of a gun if it is not pointing at yourself or someone else (unless it’s an enemy); don’t jump into a pool without any water; don’t take your hairdryer into the bathtub; don’t dry your dog in the microwave after washing it, etc. With such assessments of people as complete idiots, the authorities are in fact using warnings of this nature to avoid any liability in the face of possible claims. In fact, as always, it’s all about the money, not your well-being. That’s why bananas, for example, carry a warning not to eat the peel. And to make absolutely certain, bananas costing $ 2.99 a kilo state that they’re free of gluten and cholesterol while those for $ 1.09 carry no such information.

Life without stress
So, prepared and armed for anything and everything with trigger warnings, life can seemingly run smoothly even if all the time capsules would ultimately prove to be empty: not seeing what might harm us, not hearing or feeling what doesn’t fit with our world view. Feelings are homogenized in a standardized world where everything is the same and life is spent in cotton wool to protect us from any kind of harm: Life – without the stress of living –, as the slogan goes in Adam McKay’s film ‘Don’t Look Up’ with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence.

Herbert Genzmer is an author, translator and lecturer. He spends his time between Berlin and Tarragona.