This is the editorial note to The New Inquiry Magazine, Vol. 26: Consent. View the full table of contents here.
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In relationships unbalanced, which is to say all relationships between person and capital or person and the state, and most relationships between person and person, the duty to prevent an abuse of power falls to s/he who has less of it. The woman in bed, the voter in a booth, the end user of an access-happy app is given two choices—yes or no, red or blue, accept or decline. But two options are not a free field. All we can give in return is our consent.
“Consent is superseded by death,” writes Jenna Brager in “Selfie Control,” a long look at what happens when the witness is also the disappeared. If a woman’s dead and the nearest man says it was an accident? We’ll call it murder, just to be safe. In “Tracing Ana,” Haley Mlotek communes with the spirit of the dead artist Ana Mendieta through living artist Elise Rasmussen, who recently functioned as a sort of medium, or host of Unsolved Mysteries, re-enacting Ana’s fall or “fall” to death in 1985. She’d “somehow gone out of the window,” her husband, Carl Andre, told police.
If it seems like the writings in this issue are less about consent than about agency, they are also then about agents as Hamlets or Icaruses. In “Of Being Numerous,” named for a George Oppen line, Natasha Lennard tells us: “This epoch of surveillance is a formal tragedy, in which those who came of age in the tech boom star as a hydra-headed tragic hero. True to form, the tragic hero was brought down by hubris—our blind embrace of technology, too impressed with our own savvy to see the social control.” Lennard shares her Deleuzian tendencies with Robert W. Gehl and Casey Boyle, whose essay on the impossibility of a Do Not Track list, “Cookies and Contracts,” declares: “The assumptions built into signing a contract—a stable individual behind a consistent signature—are becoming more untenable. A contract relies on two coherent signatories, but when the consenting ‘parties’ are understood as shifting constellations, in psychological, economical, or technological flux, then what good are contracts? How does this instability affect consent?” Remember Haraway, who wrote of “the eye [that] fucks the world to make techno-monsters,” and consider now the “I” that gets fucked by the world.
Consent, like sin, is the question of the freedom to choose, though it reframes choice as secular citizenship. The dismal theology of consent presumes a subject who always make decisions in her own interest. This person, like the subject of bourgeois economics, is rational, saying yes or no, but never maybe, possibly, or perhaps. S/he is consistent over time: Her yes remains yes and her no remains no. S/he understands that choosing sin means you accept the punishment (after all, it’s in the terms and conditions). But we would like not only to be able to say either yes or no without terrible consequences, but also the right to say neither yes nor no and still survive.
What we need, perhaps, are more and better verbs. A recent event for Rhizome at the New Museum was part orchestrated by performance artist Ed Fornieles, who instructed both the stereotypified performers and the attendees to “lose themselves in the glamorous world of a New York charity gala” (which, conveniently, is exactly what it was). As Ana Cecilia Alvarez points out in “Hungry for Love,” that was a slippery word, ensuring that no matter how the invited performers and the performing guests fared in their mutual destruction, which mostly took the form of a faux or “faux” orgy, they could wake up the next morning and say it wasn’t me. And yet, shouldn’t art ask the question, What if this is you? What if the verb weren’t lose, but find, as in “find out yourself?”
In the final sequences of Metal Gear Solid 3, explains Leigh Alexander, “the main character stands in a field of flowers, aiming a gun to [her beloved mentor’s] head. Watching this, you wonder if maybe the character can’t see it through. And then after a pause, you realize you, the player, have to finish the job. To do the verb to kill. Technically it’s the only time the game leaves you no recourse but to do it, but the act of pressing that button feels like a powerful moment.” In other words, one action (verb) feels like more of a choice than choosing “yes” or “no.” Alexander also talks to indie game-maker Merritt Kopas, whose Consensual Torture Simulator makes you the erotic disciplinarian, or top, in a two-player game of love. The verbs you press, like hit or punch, are alternated with rest and stroke. As for the other, s/he doesn’t actually play. Or speak. Never says stop, or continue. And weirdly this game teaches you how to listen, how to take back care, and how to be trusted, which is the opposite of requiring consent. (To get legalish for a second, it’s no surprise that “antitrust lawsuits” are often settled by a “consent decree.”)
A long time ago the word consent meant this: “feeling together.” Now it’s all like “give, allow, submit to, go along with,” and it’s hard not to think that the linguistic slip—from parity to a few impaired decisions—has us all in some inhuman bondage. When Stoya suggests you “sext like the NSA is watching and you want to put on a fantastic show,” you laugh, but the NSA is watching, and a double bind is made of just enough rope.