2011-12 Pembroke Seminar

"The Question of Consent"
Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg
Chesler-Mallow Senior Faculty Research Fellow, Pembroke Center

The idea of consent has always been fundamental to the notion of a just and democratic order. It is at the core of the social contract, indeed of any legal contract, thereby presupposing a free individual capable of engaging in contractual agreements. Consent is at the basis of liberalism and of a free economy. In this sense, consent is tightly linked to the idea of desires that can be met by way of claims made on the basis of natural, political, or ethical rights.

At the same time, it has been argued that consent historically carries with it another, darker sphere. How to understand the notion of freely given “consent” when it leads to the subject’s exclusion, exploitation, or injury of some sort? How to think about the conditions under which people participate in their own subjugation, whether in an economic-political context, or in private and sexual contexts? How to explore the question of repression, in both the political and psychoanalytic senses?

This seminar explored the complicated relations that the idea of consent evokes: is it the promise or fulfillment of a desire, or a submission to boundaries? Does it speak to contractual obligations and rights, or does it invoke the specter of ideology, of blindness, and therefore of an unfulfilled promise? Does consent speak to the fulfillment of desires and fantasies, or does it instead use those same fantasies and desires to harmful ends? Is consent founded in some residue of biological/neurological mechanisms that protect the human species; does it find an adequate place in a “survival of the fittest” paradigm, or does it belong, after all, in the enlightened realm of reason?

Finally, if the idea of consent has been fundamental to the notion of a free and democratic society, it has also functioned as an organizing principle of what we think of as knowledge: free enquiry, free speech, and the organization of many different knowledges into distinctive domains. Indeed, the very idea of free consent has been predicated on the possibility that multiple knowledges may in fact exist – and maybe should exist.