Saturday, March 26, 2011

what is consent?

we are having an interesting discussion in my global women's writing course about the nature of consent, specifically in relation to the now eradicated practice of Chinese footbinding. this has also made me think about consent in other contexts, however–how do we distinguish between what we do out of pure enjoyment versus out of obligation or coercion. what do you think consent is?

here's the blog post i wrote for class:
i like the distinction between the consent of daughters versus that of mothers. in light of Judith Butler's discussion of the agency of children, it has made me think more closely about the significance of China's move to end footbinding as a symbol of Chinese modernity. in a way, both the action of footbinding and the subsequent banning of footbinding are both movements that are made without consent, either way, from girls. part of me feels sure that the new photographic evidence of the bound foot and its medical dangers played a major part in changing public opinion, both in China and in the rest of the world, about the beauty and ethics of footbinding. and yet...was it primarily a humanitarian move of protection of children's rights–or primarily a political, nationalist power play to give China better PR with the western world?

it seems like Dorothy Ko (author of Cinderella's Sisters) is struggling to untangle these motivations as well, and perhaps it's impossible to separate them. in our own culture–in any culture, really–we can hardly ever claim that the thoughts, decisions and actions we make are ever discrete from the set of ideologies through which we tell the narrative of our lives. i once had a discussion with a friend about the nature of fate versus free will, and he recalled the metaphor of an eastern philosopher who said fate is like an apple rolling on a plate: you can move the apple in any direction, but never beyond the rim of the plate.

maybe consent is also like the apple on a plate. Chinese mothers and daughters are moving within the narrative of Chinese identity, feminine identity, homosocial relations, etc., but they can never make decisions outside of it, just as we can never, say, make decisions outside of a framework of capitalism, since it defines our lives in so many infinite ways. in this sense, consent is always constructed, yet always natural, in that it is the only natural movement we can ever make as human beings living within culture. we want desperately to find a concrete definition of consent that never changes, that fits a legal mold, and yet I suspect that search will always prove elusive. but just as Butler points out that human sexuality refuses to behave in the ways that we want it to, neither does the human mind itself consent to conform to a standard sense of reality, right and wrong. whatever those mean.

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