The possibilities of radical consent

This is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave last summer at Progress Bar in Amsterdam.

It’s Saturday night, it’s warm (very warm actually) and we are probably acutely aware of the physicality of our bodies. For some, this will be intensely pleasurable while for others (like me), this heat is almost unbearable. What I am trying to say is that pleasure, perhaps the most subjective of experiences, is not universal. There isn’t, there simply cannot be a unifying theory of pleasure. There are just moments of pleasure and sometimes, by some perfect alignment of circumstances, we might even share those moments with someone but ultimately, we only experience pleasure by ourselves. We have but one body, after all.

And because it is Saturday night, perhaps the moment of the week most associated with seeking pleasure or with having opportunities to experience pleasure, at least in this city, it is that today I would like to talk about a different site of approximation in regards to pleasure. Namely, I would like to touch upon the possibilities of radical pleasure.

Pleasure, the experience of pleasure as such requires consent, a sort of surrendering to the moment. We give ourselves in to the enjoyment, the delight. We give ourselves permission to experience this moment of joy.

However, pleasure is constantly commoditized. It can be marketed, packaged and sold; perhaps, the most appealing of mass products to profit from (because yes, pleasure CAN be a product in and by itself: think of sex toys, “pampering experiences”, aspirational food, etc). In times of capitalist hyper consumption, pleasure is a money making scheme.

This constant mediation of pleasure by capitalism, has a counterpart: the opposite of pleasure is also mediated by the same market forces.

But what happens with this consent that I just mentioned which is a sine qua non requirement to experience pleasure in a system that constantly exerts demands of non consensual acceptance? What are the possibilities of pleasurable surrender when our experiences are mediated by constant State interventions that do not require consent? In times of austerity and repression, budget cuts that directly obliterate the possibilities of pleasure and the access to pleasure itself (think of how many times we hear how the poor should not have access to nice things if they cannot afford them as an excuse to equate poverty with immorality and, in turn, immorality as undeserving of pleasure?). In such a context, how can we give enthusiastic consent?

And here, I have to go back for a moment to the notion of consent within European democratic capitalism. In this system, every four or five years, we vote for representatives to whom we outsource our consent. We place agency in the hands of whoever we believe best represents our interests. Through this outsourcing of consent, we basically agree beforehand to have our decisions as citizens (as subjects with rights) made for us. Now, imagine this outsourcing of consent applied to any other areas of our lives. How would it look like if, every few years, we picked from a list of people (mostly white cisgender men) that we have never met and then transferred all our food choices to them? What about all our recreational decisions? or our leisure activities? How about we outsource sexual consent? See where I am going? the mere thought is horrifying. The idea of transferring our agency to a third party, with no possibility of retracting or withdrawing this redirection makes us recoil in horror. And rightfully so because it would be the equivalent of surrendering our individuality and the basic functions of our lives. Yet, this is exactly what we do when we vote for politicians that “negotiate” on our behalf each of the administrative decisions that could end up mediating the difference between life and death.

This structure of outsourced consent is, of course, a structure of hegemonic power (Gramsci dixit) which is then deployed in different ways and through different technologies to maintain the capitalist order.

In this system there is a constant tension in the relationship between consent and coercion — between freedom and force. Think of how on the one hand, militarization increases as a result of police interventions to protect property and assets (to give one example) while we are constantly reminded of the value of “free speech” and “the freedom to be ourselves” etc. Think of how repressive measures against undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are promoted and enacted against a backdrop of travel industry and tourism promotion, inviting us to travel the world or “experience the world like a local”. Which local? the displaced subject that has been ejected to a stateless limbo and is now homeless or living in asylum seeker centers? the well off middle class suburban professional? Locality as yet another label to erase the tensions that exist within exclusionary environments. And in this tension, both coercion and freedom give the appearance of being diametrically opposed and separate, but in fact, they are dialectically intertwined — in a constant tension between force and willing agreement or compliance and socio structural pressure (such as for instance, within the structural pressure to comply with heteronormativity or white supremacy) versus reluctant docility.

And again, as another aside, I have to interrogate the relationship between coercion and freedom, or force and consent, in these times of powerful groups who feel threatened by the expansion of possibilities for subaltern subjects and, as a response to these feelings of threat, deploy violence to exert compliance and docility, sometimes with deadly results.

So, on the one hand, we have these structures of forceful compliance exerted by the State and by its political instruments (such as politicians, media, etc) and, on the other hand, we have the structures of erotic consent which are deeply informed by desire, particularly by embodied desire. Lewis Call, who has written about the uses of kink in Octavia Butler’s speculative fiction, makes a strong case about the subversive nature of Butler’s sexual politics and how these negotiations of kink and within kink and erotic power exchanges are part of larger political frameworks. In “Structures of desire”, Call writes “This embodied desire is rarely, if ever, present within the structures of political consent which enable modern liberal states or with the forms of economic consent which underwrite modern capitalism. The consent of the liberal political subject or the capitalist economic subject can be grudging, indifferent or apathetic. Relations of erotic power, by the same token, require desire. Mutual desire guarantees the ethical content of erotic power exchange, for desire ensures that the needs and wishes of the ‘subordinate party’ will be taken fully into account”.

And here, I need to borrow this idea of mutual desire from Lewis Call and take it one step further: consent given through embodied desire does not need to be limited to the erotic, or to erotic power exchanges. All desires are ultimately desires for pleasure (and here it is important to distinguish desire from need). Through consensual negotiations and embodied desire, we radically alter the symbolic significance of our relationships. Negotiating on equal grounds, establishing boundaries, respecting boundaries, accepting the possibility of rejection or of withdrawal of consent. Consent, then, as a rethinking of the interpersonal through active negotiations of the pleasurable, a praxis of anti violence through mutual reciprocal agreement. Consent and negotiations of consent, as the very foundation of pleasurable connections.

Practicing consent then, as an important step in creating the kind of culture we want to live in. A culture in which people are respected and have autonomy, choice and agency to decide for themselves. Feminist discourses of the past 100+ years have made sexual consent central to the politics of feminist praxis but I believe this can and perhaps should be extended to the manner in which we think of all of our sociopolitical interactions. A praxis of radical pleasure based on respect, enthusiasm, emotions, responsibility for each other’s well being, and an active acknowledgment of the historical matrix of power that regulates and controls all the aspects of our lives.

To quote Darnell Moore, from an essay exploring the legacy of Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the erotic”, I also have to wonder “What would it mean to consider the radical potential of affect — of love, empathy, and pleasure — in a time when hostility, disconnection, and apathy are often employed? What are the uses of love, empathy, and pleasure in these times: temporal moments when intimate connection between friend and stranger is seemingly obstructed by a type of capitalist individualism that refuses community? What are the uses of love, empathy, and pleasure in the lives and work of those who seek to advance human rights and social justice in an age when even “rights” and “justice” are co-opted and commodified in the neoliberal enterprise of social justice and human rights organizing?

My tentative answer to this question is that one of the ways we can resist is through a constant mediation of consensual interpersonal relationships. No individual act will dismantle structures of power that span more than 500 years. However, it is in these small acts of resistance that we set the basis for “a way of being in resistance”. Against the commodification of pleasure and the profit making schemes that promote consumerism as a pleasurable goal, the politics of care and consensual love. Against the displeasure inflicted by the capital S State, a constant state of consensual care and affect. Against the non consensual impositions of austerity and policies of repression and violence, an active resistance of desire. Against the necropolitics of administration of life and death, a decolonization of the very idea of desire within this system that renders bodies as “marriageable”, “fuckable”, “worthy of living” or reduces them (us) to “mere tool of reproduction”. Against the white supremacist patriarchal order, the possibilities of radical pleasure.

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