poetix (old content)

oh build your ship of death

Annotated Twitterings on Consent

Tweets from June 10th:

Thinking about consent as disposition vs consent as speech act. Compare “like” and “Facebook like”. I can FB like things that I do not actually like. I can give consent (speech act) without consenting (willing, being disposed towards).

Earlier on, I’d been talking about “being (an) intellectual” as being somewhat like “being (a) homosexual” - an analogy that has to break down somewhere, but which captures a particular tension that interests me: that between “extrinsically defined” and “intrinsically motivated” identification. The basic idea is that while both “intellectual” and “homosexual” are socially-created categories (hence “extrinsically defined”), you can’t account for the existence of either intellectuals or homosexuals purely in terms of the power of “society” to call them into being in order to fill out arbitrary categorical distinctions. If no-one had the particular “structure of feeling” that characterises the intrinsic motivation of the intellectual, there would be no intellectuals. Such structures of feeling are aetiologically obscure, and there is no obvious mapping from large-scale social distinctions (notably class) to whatever it is that differentiates intellectuals or homosexuals from others around them.

Now, pretty much the entire point of a concept like Foucault’s “subjectivation” is that “intrinsic motivation” is produced by an outside working its way in: it doesn’t gush spontaneously out of some hidden well-spring in the individual, but is produced under intense local pressure as a result of a kind of “fold” (as Deleuze’s reading of Foucault has it). Lacan’s observation that my desire is the desire “of the Other” has a similar bent: we aren’t dealing with some inalienable personal property here, but rather with something aggravatingly and irrevocably alien, something in me that does not altogether belong to me and can never be fully integrated into who and what I imagine myself to be.

It’s here that the analogy between sexuality and having an intellectual bent seems most suggestive: in both cases, we have to do with a kind of unscratchable itch, something that nags at you and drives you out of hiding, out of conformity, even while the “extrinsic definition” of that itch and the means for its satisfaction continues to invent new ways of giving in, new things to settle for.

The “intrinsic” here is primarily that which resists external normalising pressure, that insists on going against the flow. It’s about being “unbalanced”, in some particular sense. Or maladjusted, as they used to say.

Which, again, is not so far from Deleuze’s Foucault, notably Deleuze’s allegation that Foucault’s analysis of biopower culminates in a kind of “vitalism” in which “life” is that which “resists” the power of death carried by the outside in its pacifying, normalising aspect. But Foucault’s point would be that this “resistance” is produced by, and as a kind of eddy or cross-wind within, the very nexus of forces it resists, and is not really a resistance of the inside (my “true inner nature”) against the outside (what “society” wants me to be). It’s rather an extremely localised, and locally intensified, skirmish in a wider conflict that starts before I do, and continues beyond the point where I leave off.

In any case, something like the opposition “intrinsic” / “extrinsic” came into play a couple of days later when I started thinking about consent in terms of a distinction between speech acts, public signals of consent, and the kind of inward disposition we might know as willingness, voluntary agreement, consensuality and so on. A “disposition”, as Gilbert Ryle puts in, is a propensity to act in certain ways in certain situations, whether out of habit (being a smoker, for instance, or a worrier) or through acquired expertise (being very good at playing pool, or “instinctively” knowing when and how to comfort someone in emotional distress).

Ryle argues in The Concept of Mind that dispositions are not the shadowy contents of some internal mental theatre, but ascriptions we make to actors, including ourselves, whose actions are reliable or predictable in some respect. So consensuality as a disposition is less a distinct inward sentiment (“I feel really consenting tonight”) and more a tendency to go along with something, to promote it by one’s own efforts, to anticipate feeling satisfied by the outcome, and to experience satisfaction if the anticipated outcome is reached. There is obviously more to sexual desire than this, but one thing we would say about a truly consenting sexual partner is that they were not merely someone who had “given their consent” (i.e. signed the waiver), but whose behaviour towards us was a continuing donation of consent, consensual in its very drift or willed direction.

The merit of “no means no” as a sexual maxim is that it arms the speaker with an instant power of veto, an ability to jam on the brakes without having to engage in further (presumably unwanted) sexual negotiation. This is particularly important if there is an imbalance of power between the negotiating parties: “no means no” for men too, but they are perhaps more often in the position of being able to rebuff sexual advances without having to issue a flat and uncontestably final refusal of this kind (there is less hazard, for example, in pretending - for reasons of politeness or vanity - to entertain an offer one isn’t really taking seriously). If both parties are equipped with reasonable tact and good sexual manners, then one will generally be able to put the other off, or let them down, comparatively gently. It would be nice to be able to rely on such mutual delicacy all the time; but people have an alarming tendency to stop being delicate when they stop getting what they want.

In any case, I’m less sure of the usefulness of “yes means yes”, simply because it seems to conflate the speech-act notion of consent (clicking “like” on someone’s Facebook status) with the kind of willing consensuality that only really manifests itself in and as a pattern of behaviour over time (if I actually “like” someone, I’m disposed to seek out their company and to try to remain in their good graces). Why is this a problem? It becomes a problem for me when, for example, the English Collective of Prostitutes maintains simultaneously that prostitution is both consenting and driven by economic necessity. It’s possible for performative consent - saying “yes” or “that’ll be thirty quid, then” - to co-exist with being motivated by economic necessity; but I don’t see how the kind of willing consensuality that most non-rapists want from a sexual partner can do so.

What the person working as a prostitute wants is not to be poor: they have a (perfectly rational, and morally blameless) disposition to avoid poverty and seek ways to escape from it. I don’t think anybody bar a few deluded punters believes that the prostitute wants the “client”, or that their sexual minstrelsy (feigning desire, willingness, urgency and so on) is anything other than a sales pitch. This being so, there is a real sense in which the prostitute’s “yes” means “yes, but not really”: yes, but not in the sense that I want this, or anything about this besides the fact that I will be able to put money in the electricity meter when it’s over. How is it that anybody finds this tolerable? It seems to me that the ability of punters to tolerate it, to be satisfied with a “yes” that means so little, is as significant an attribute of “rape culture” as the ability of rapists to disregard the “no” that means so much.