Teaching Our Incapacity To Unexperience

By Dr. Leigh M. Johnson

The following was originally published in Dr. Johnson's blog ReadMoreWriteMoreThinkMoreBeMore

They say you can't "unring a bell." It's an analogy that is often used to illustrate our incapacity to un-experience things, to erase lived-experiences from our bodies and minds. What I discovered recently is how particularly true that is in the classroom.

A few weeks ago in my Philosophy and Filmcourse, we screened Werner Hertzog's film Grizzly Man for our "documentary" week. Grizzly Man tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, who spent thirteen summers in the Alaskan wilderness living with grizzly bears-- all the while filming his trans-species communion-- before being tragically attacked and killed by a bear in 2003. Treadwell was filming on the day that he died, though he did not have time to remove the lens caps from his camera before being attacked, so there remains only an audio recording of his (and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard's) gruesome death. Hertzog does not include that audio in his documentary.  In fact, there is a scene in the film where we see Hertzog listening to the recording for the first time and then, afterwards, remarking to Treadwell's friend: "You must never listen to this." 

What is more, in a gesture practically verboten for documentary filmmakers, Hertzog instructs Treadwell's friend to destroy the tape. Here is that moment in the film:

You can literally hear the regret in Hertzog's voice, his longing to unring the bell, as he instructs Treadwell's friend to destroy the recording.  For cinephiles like myself, this is an especially powerful injunction, coming as it does from Hertzog, a man who was once shot during an interview and responded only with the calmly stoic remark: "it was not a significant bullet."

Perhaps I should have anticipated that, before I brought the lights back up at the conclusion of our in-class screening of Grizzly Man, one of my students would have already searched the Internet to see if the recording had been leaked.  Of course, it has been and is available on YouTube,  (I haven't heard it myself, and I won't link to it here.)  That evening, after the film, I opened the floor to begin our discussion, the first hand shot up and a student, who had already found the YouTube link, asked: "Can we listen to the recording?"

I should mention a couple of things for the sake of context.  First, one of the readings that students were required to complete in advance of that evening's seminar was David T. Johnson's excellent essay "'You Must Never Listen to This': Lessons on Sound, Cinema, and Mortality from Werner Hertzog's Grizzly Man", so it would be unfair to my student to suggest that s/he was only interested in satisfying some morbid curiosity by asking to hear the recording.  The matter of the recording, and Hertzog's decision not to include it in his film, was one of the central issues we were to discuss that evening.  Second, although I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that the recording was leaked, I had never heard it myself and had more or less forgotten that it was "out there" and available.  In the several times I taught this course and this film before, the question of actually listening to the recording of Treadwell's death had never come up.

The truth is that I had not yet decided for myself whether I wanted to, or needed to, hear it. Or to not hear it. So, when the question was raised in class, I felt a bit like a deer in the headlights.  All I could think was: you can't unring a bell.

What I ended up saying to the class was: "If everyone in here unanimously agrees that they want to hear the recording, I will let you play it.  The decision must be unanimous.  If the class decides to play the recording, I will step out of the room while you listen, because I have not decided whether I want to hear it or not.  For my part, I'll just say that I'm convinced by Hertzog's reaction in the film that there is reason enough to be worried that one cannot "unhear" it, and I think that's something you should all take into consideration as you decide."

*For the record, roughly 30% of the students objected to playing the tape.  So, no one heard it.  Or at least no one heard it that night in my classroom.

Trigger Warnings, Revisited

I'm still unsure if we should have listened to the recording in class or not.  If we had--which, again, we did not--this would have constituted (for me, anyway) an unequivocal case for a trigger warning. That this is an "unequivocal" case is important, as I've found myself increasingly ambivalent about the merits and demerits of trigger warnings over the last year or so.  

My concern is not that they amount to "coddling" or necessarily threaten the integrity of courses with difficult content (though, of course, some iterations of TWs do), but neither am I persuaded that TWs are a panacea, capable of correcting for all of the individual and structural trauma students might experience outside of the classroom (as I think advocates sometimes naively argue).  My primary worry is that we have not thought through the actual practice of TWs carefully or completely enough, a worry that I've articulated before and in particular with regard to courses like Philosophy and Film.

This recent Grizzly Man experience with my Philosophy and Film class has impressed upon me not only the importance, but also the immense value, of having "you can't unring a bell" conversations with students.  Not lectures to students about our incapacity to unexperience things, the unpredictability of our psychic vulnerabilities or the harm done when those vulnerabilities are exploited, but conversations with students about those matters, 

When I employ tried-and-true (and, consequently, passe) moral dilemmas like the Trolley Problem or thePrisoner's Dilemma in my ethics courses, I tell students: "Yes, I know that it is highly unlikely that you will ever find yourself in this situation ... BUT, be aware that the absolute worst time to start thinking about how you reason through moral dilemmas is when you find yourself in a situation like this, which you most certainly will find yourself in at some point in your life."  What I'm now calling "The Grizzly Death Question" in my classroom a couple of weeks ago was a rare instance of my experiencing precisely what I warn my students to be cautious of, i.e., finding oneself in a moment when a decision must be made, without having sufficiently thought through in advance the criteria one ought use to make that decision. 

In fact, what I opted to do in response to the The Grizzly Death Question ("can we listen to the recording of Treadwell's death?") is exactly what I would never allow my Intro Ethics students to do when presented with the Trolley Problem, namely, opt out. I effectively said something like: I'm going to remove myself as an agent in this decision because I cannot formulate a way to adjudicate between the good/harm for the many and the good/harm for the few in this instance.  So, you decide. I'll just leave the room if I need to.  

That's a teaching moment that will stick uncomfortably in my craw for a good long while, I suspect. It is moderately assuaged by the fact that we had a productive and considered conversation about our incapacity to unexperience things, but so far that remains a small consolation.

The Impossibility of Forbidden Knowledge

One last anecdote, and a lesson learned from it: I recently attended the annual Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) conference in Atlanta and had the very good fortune to spend time with my dear friend and colleague Raoni Padui,  who teaches at St. Johns University (Sante Fe). In conversation over drinks one evening, I was telling Padui about The Grizzly Death Question and he recounted to me what I thought was an eerily similar classroom experience of his own.  His class had been engaged in a Biology experiment that involved inseminating (chicken) eggs and observing them through several stages of development.  At one stage, they were able to open the egg and, although there was not yet the recognizable form of a "chick" inside, they were able to identify a functioning "heart," pumping blood through a nascent circulatory system.  Because the life-preserving shell had been opened in their experiment, they also witnessed the heart slow... and eventually stop. 

That alone seemed to me exemplary of the most profound kind of phenomenon that one cannot unexperience. But that wasn't even the whole story. 

Padui informed me that if you place a finger on the heart just after it stops, which he had done, the heat-transfer from one's finger to the recently-arrested heart causes it to begin, briefly, pumping again.  I could not, and still cannot, imagine experiencing such a thing.  What was that like? How did that feel?  What does it mean? Padui, in his characteristically calm and considered manner, said he didn't know what it "ultimately" meant... but the experience of it impressed upon him the sense that "life itself has a moral claim on us." And then he said, "if I had known in advance what that experience was going to be like, I'm not sure I would have chosen to do it."

You can't unring a bell.

Between my experiences of The Grizzly Death Question and The Raoni-God Moment, I spent quite a bit of time in the car while driving down to the SPEP conference discussing our "incapacity to unexperience" with my roadtrip-mate Chris Davidson (University of Arkansas, Little Rock).  Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of that conversation was Davidson's prediction, and my concession to as much, that I almost certainly will at some point listen to the recording of Treadwell's death.  I had been talking about it non-stopfor hours, Davidson remarked, trying to find a reason to listen or to not listen. There was obviously something that I wanted to know, and it was inevitable that I would find a way to know it, he suspected, even and despite my reservations about "experiencing" it.

Many years ago, I attended a lecture by my (at that time) dissertation advisor, John D. Caputo, where Caputo was asked the question: is there such a thing as "forbidden" knowledge? Jack answered "no"-- not because there aren't some questions that, if pursued to their philosophical ends, produce knowledge that has foreseeably pernicious consequences, but rather because the pursuit of knowledge per se can't be forbidden and, even if it could, it would be pointless to do so. If we can ask a question, Caputo speculated, we will pursue it to its end. In fact, as soon as we ask a question, we're already engaged in the pursuit of its end. (See the first sentence of Aristotle's Metaphysics.) I don't think Caputo's point was to say that "anything goes" in philosophical speculation-- a position he, and many other deconstructionists, are often wrongly credited with holding-- nor do I think that he would say that one is required to undergo what we might call the lived-experience of a truth (e.g., a trauma) in order to know it. Rather, Caputo's point was that if we can think "it" (even as a question, as a possibility), "it" already is within the realm of that for which we are and ought to be, to borrow Padui's phrase, "claimed," held, or obliged, You can't un-ask a question any more than you can unring a bell. "Forbidding" the pursuit of certain questions, or certain arguments, or certain conclusions, perhaps even certain experiences, only serves to resign those matters to the realm of the Secret, which poses a far more pernicious danger than ignorance, falsities, or even undesired truths do.

Here's my preliminary account of lessons-learned from these past few weeks of serendipitous continuity in my own vécues expériences: Padui is right, I think, that there are many experiences that, had we known the psychological or existential impact of them in advance, we might have chosen not to experience.  Trauma is the exemplary case here, of course, and it is trauma that trigger warnings rightly aim to avoid. But Davidson and Caputo are right, too: there are some experiences that, even despite our well-founded aversion to their impact in advance, we (especially "we" philosophers) will pursue anyway, because we cannot abide the concealment of that which could be known.

I don't have anything to offer in the way of navigating the choice between truth/knowledge, on the one hand, and painful lived-experience on the other, though I am convinced enough by clinical research to say that trauma does not educate, but incapacitates. With regard to how we navigate this treacherous territory in the classroom, however, I am now entirely convinced that the paternalistic/protectionist approach-- the most reductive of which can be found in the issuance of trigger warnings sans explicit, substantive engagement with why "triggers" trigger-- is not only ill-advised and ineffective, but also pedagogically unproductive.  Our efforts are far better spent learning how to facilitate difficult conversations about how each other's vulnerabilities, capacities, lives and experiences impose a moral claim on all of us.

Dr. Leigh M. Johnson is a Philosophy professor in and from Memphis, Tennessee. Her primary research/teaching focuses on moral and political philosophy, broadly speaking. She also writes about politics, philosophy, film, technology, music and pop culture at her blog ReadMoreWriteMoreThinkMoreBeMore

Posted by Josh Colfer at 2:51 PM

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