Analysis theory

The Trigger-Observer-Response Theory

As part of the upcoming conference, “Music and Censorship in the 20th and 21st Centuries. Historical, Political and Social Context” hosted by Centro Studi Opera Omnia Luigi Boccherini, I will be airing my ongoing research into Russian hip-hop censorship. As part of my research, I will present a theory (read: named concept) which I argue is more accurate in its reflection of how censorship is instigated and part of a larger network. The relationship between the Trigger and the Response is central to the study of censorship. One cannot come without the other, and yet there is no prediction that the size of the trigger will match the response nor vice versa. Therefore, diligence must be taken in rationally articulating why a response is the size it is and the reasons for the decision by those holding the power to censor. However, there is another element of the theory, that of those who are watching the process unfold and who (consciously or unconsciously) hold power to change the course of the actions.

The Observer may hold significant power in shaping the outcome that the trigger will normally engender. This is not a solitary position but rather a more flexible name for those human (and non-human tools).[1] A trigger and a reaction do not take place in isolation to their surroundings. Thus, those who are viewers of the trigger may instigate their own trigger and response which may or may not influence the first trigger’s response given the severity of the trigger. As the model above may not demonstrate, this change reaction of trigger/observer/response is not a finite one. Rather it cannot be predicted how many different types of observers there are to any given situation. Any number of people (or platforms, governments, researchers, laymen) may be observing, and all will have their own influence. For example, a song about female sexuality may instigate a conservative government to censor the song from airwaves. However, in between the trigger (sexual song) and the reaction (censorship from airwaves) lies the observer(s). Given our digital age, this may include antonymous online users of internet platforms of communication (i.e., the phenomena of “cancelling” is a good example of what could be called the Observer influence potential). If the OIP is high, then the reaction may change as a result. An example of this is the resulting benefit concert “I Will Sing My Song” following the rapper Husky’s arrest in the fall of 2018.[2] This is a classical example of how the Observer can hijack the reaction.

At the heart of this theory is a point I want to take the time to stress. The trigger/observer/response relationship is not finite nor a one-off occurrence but rather a looping system that has no rational end. Despite the model’s rudimentary nature, the point the arrows are making is that while the observer has power over the original loop, their influence begins another round of trigger/observer/response. Therefore, there is no one event that prompts a response nor one response to a trigger. Rather, there is a whole network going on simultaneously, both on their own timelines and in concert with the original timeline that they entered. Yet, more meta is the awareness that said timeline is a tangent to another timeline, and so the process keeps going. The ironic nature of musical censorship is that the censoring of music is but one element in a larger network of events. Therefore, to accurately understand why a piece of music is censored, one cannot simply look at the semiotics and individual components of the song (text, theme, aesthetics, narrative, etc.) but the contexts by which the song has come into being and the ecosystem in which the song inhabits. Further benefit is gained if one peers into an ecosystem’s history. Another example would be the mass censorship campaign against Russian hip-hop in the fall of 2018. In the months leading up, there were two domestic terror attacks by young citizens. This logically caused fear of modernity and the influence it has over the minds of young adults.[3] Here, censorship could be seen as a response to wholly non-musical circumstances. Yet, without putting the period into context, much is lost regarding why the period happened.

This study takes inspiration from Edward Thorndike‘s “stimulus-response theory.”[4] However, it digresses when dealing with the proportionality of the relationship, as censorship cannot be called proportionate in many cases.


  • The Trigger/Observer/Response Theory argues that there are three parties involved in dictating the nature of any case of censorship. However, when one T/O/R cycle is occurring, there are countless others also happening at the same time, both small and large in form. These interact and influence each other and all take place simultaneously.
  • The Observer is directly involved in coloring the outcome of the trigger, although by their involvement they instigate their own T/O/R cycle.
  • If the Observer Influence Potential [OIP], then the Response is likely to be effected as a result. If it is low, then the Response may not change. However, the sheer act of involvement in one cycle of T/O/R instigates the creation of a separate T/O/R cycle by default.

Notes and References

[1] I am referring to Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory and the relationship between human and non-human “actors.” Specifically, the ways in which they interact with each other and make complex webs of power relations which then interact with other, already formed networks.