Consent in Context

This short essay is meant as a contribution to ongoing discussions in the Consent in Contact in Context study group. Specifically it’s meant to contribute to clarifying some links between the “micro-politics” of consent culture in contact improvisation on the one hand, and “big structures” like class, “race” and gender, on the other hand.

To this end, I start with a (ridiculously abbreviated, obviously inadequate and highly subjective) history of the term and then move on to a discussion of what politics might be said to be embedded in different understandings of “consent”.

Here goes.

As a political term, “consent” first appears in the English language in the 17th century writings of Hobbes and Locke. For Locke, one of the founding fathers of modern liberalism, governments are legitimate if people consent to being governed. But tacit consent is sufficient: as long as people are “not unwilling”, government is legitimate.

The term was also central in 19th century legal debates on how to distinguish slavery from freedom. These debates took place in the context of the British Empire’s transition away from slave labour and the establishment of a new regime of indentured or “coolie” labour.

The point, of course, was to define this new regime of oppression and exploitation as a system of “free labour”. With a thumbprint on a piece of paper, the “coolie” was understood to have consented to signing away years of his or her life, to being transported far away, to doing years of backbreaking labour under the dictatorship of overseers, with no way of leaving before the terms of the indenture were fulfilled.

Later, more progressive, understandings insisted that political consent must be deliberate and voluntary to be “true consent”.

It was only in the 20th century that the term was problematised in specifically feminist ways by political theorists such as Carole Pateman, and it has only become a central term in feminist sexual politics in the last few decades.

Today, social conservatives and the extreme right in parliamentary democracies would like to get rid of it and associated ideas altogether. In authoritarian states (think Saudi Arabia, or the PRC) the idea has only very limited purchase anyway. Liberals prefer a limited and individualised version of the concept.

One interpretation of “consent” is that it is basically about liberty, equality and collectivity. These might sound like liberal values (at least the liberty and equality part), but, as many radicals have argued, really such ideals are unrealisable in the patriarchal racist class societies we live in. They can be understood as radical values that point to a completely different form of human society than the one we inhabit today.

According to this (more “radical”) interpretation, consent basically means: don’t make people do things they don’t want to do; don’t do things to people they don’t want done to them. In other words, everyone should have the same degree of autonomy, or self-determination.

Other versions of the concept are, in my opinion, limited by not fully taking into account the larger social context of the situations people make their choices in. A person with limited options will obviously consent to things that a person with more resources, knowledge, power and freedom will not consent to.

There is obviously no such thing as an absolutely free choice. Everything always depends on what our options are, how much information we have, and how we feel about ourselves.

On the other hand, people, including people living under very constrained circumstances, have a right to be taken seriously. It is often hard to know “from the outside” when a person in a difficult situation is making the best choice possible under the circumstances, when they are making a bad mistake, or when it’s something in between.

How to deal with this issue is another whole debate I won’t get into here.

What I referred to above as limited, individual understandings of consent are, I feel, bound up with the great (liberal) lie that we are all autonomous subjects who freely enter into contractual relations with one another.

The lie, in other words, and to take the example of labour again, that the choice a person without money or power makes between accepting hard work for low pay, on the one hand, homelessness and starvation on the other, is somehow this person’s free choice.

The feminist additions of “informed”, “enthusiastic”, “specific, continuous and ongoing”, and so on, to “consent” are definitely steps forward, but are they really sufficient? My sense is that some improved, more progressive versions of consent still remain limited by their de facto focus on individuals and small groups, and a lack of a wider social and historical perspective.

However that may be, a more radical version of consent definitely has to include an appreciation of collectivity. This is a standard element of feminist thinking about consent, I am not saying anything new here. In this interpretation, consent culture means accepting that humans are always dependent on and connected with other living beings and the inanimate world, and positing that we are all part of one collectivity of humans, who are all of equal value, and who all have vital responsibilities towards all other humans, in equal measure.

The relative neglect of collectivity in some versions of consent may be related to what some call the problem of the “grammar of consent”. Some (or much?) thinking about consent still hinges on an ideal-typical scenario where a subject requests consent to some action from the object of that action. The only choices the object then has are to deny or grant the subject’s request, to resist or to accede.

Really going beyond this grammar of consent would involve questioning pretty deep-rooted ideas about what it means to be human, about gender and about freedom. Realizing radical ideas about consent would mean going beyond a way of being in the world that ties certain kinds of people to the position of a “subject”, while others get associated with the idea of an “object”. Again, this is not exactly a new idea.

In the view of some practitioners at least, studying contact improvisation involves learning how to be both an active “subject” and a receptive “object”, a proposer and a receiver of proposals, in equal measure, or even simultaneously. We could choose to see contact improvisation as prefigurative of a life beyond subjects and objects.

True consent in human interactions can only exist in a very different kind of society than the one we live in today. This is not to argue against working for incremental change, or to suggest there is no point in striving towards a culture of consent in the here and now. On the contrary.

But we should have no illusions regarding the limits larger social structures impose, and will continue to impose, on what kind of cultures we can build, what kind of lives we can lead and how much we can change as long as we live in patriarchal racist class societies. In my view this should not discourage us but motivate us to work towards fundamental social change.

Daniel Mang 2021-11-30