Troubling Consent

In October 2018, I read a widely-shared article on Dance Magazine titled “We Need to Talk About Non-Consensual Audience Participation.” The author Lauren Wingenroth criticized Boris Charmatz’s choreography 10000 Gestures, especially the section where the sweaty and half-naked performers got off the proscenium stage and climbed all over the audience members at the NYU Skirball Theater. From my memory of attending the same performance, this part appeared as a cute and awkward breaking-the-fourth-wall moment, not more and not less. For Wingenroth, these 15 minutes produced a fundamentally violating experience:

To say nothing of how crawling on top of unexpecting audience members might be violating, it was inarguably dangerous. One dancer, trying to climb from the orchestra seats up to the balcony, shattered a light with her foot and sent shards of glass flying into the audience. The performers, slippery with sweat, haphazardly used audience members as weight-bearing surfaces. One dancer screamed at me to give her my hand to bear down on, as if I owed it to her. Across the orchestra, I saw an audience member being lifted above the heads of several performers. I’m guessing she wasn’t asked if that was something she’d be interested in doing.

Photo Credit: Ursula Kaufmann
ID: At the center of the image is a person in a white underwear, visually marked as white and male, jumping high with a serious look on his face. Around him populated multiple minimally-dressed performers doing abstract gestures in emotionally intense states.

I am not invalidating the author’s experience; quite the contrary, I firmly believe she felt the way she described–––violated and endangered. It is certainly scary to go to the theater, a white and colonial institution where the bourgeoisie is expected to just sit in the dark and spectate from a literal and conceptual distance, only to have barely-clothed dancing bodies climbing over your seats. What bothers Wingenroth the most, though, is not exactly the encroachment of the performers into the audience itself, but the fact that she was not given a choice whether or not to participate in this relationship. For her, passive viewership is the norm; consent needs to be explicitly solicited for anything else that deviates from this white bourgeois mode of spectatorship.

The problem at hand is not to advocate for non-consensual social experiences, be it inside or outside of the theater. Rather, we need to trouble this framing of consent around individual subjects who are supposedly capable of making rational choices, who can consolidate the complexities of social negotiation into the linguistic binary Yes/No. “Yes, I, Anh Vo, am transparently aware of my own boundaries at all times; yes, I know what each and every event will demand of me in advance of or during its happening; hence, yes, I choose to consent to any social situations that lie neatly within my own predetermined boundaries.”

It is unrealistic, if not arrogant, to imagine that we are capable of knowing our boundaries. It doesn’t take psychoanalysis and its mining of the unconscious to tell us that the subject is never transparent to themselves. In fact, we dancers should, more than anyone, be attentive to the unknowability of our bodies despite the various choreographic technologies that come in trying to capture and discipline bodily movements. If the body and its limits are never quite known to ourselves, then how are we supposed to give linguistic consent on behalf of our bodies?

Certainly, this model of affirmative consent and its medical counterpart of informed consent have been historically and juridically useful in accounting for the exploitation and abuse of those who are systematically disempowered. In these contexts, affirmative consent demands information transparency and communication clarity, so that ideally, the subject fully knows what is expected of them in a social, sexual, or medical situation; in turn, they have a choice whether to engage in it or not. If this choice is either not respected or explicitly solicited, then the interaction is deemed non-consensual and the violator(s) needs to be held responsible.

This logic of affirmative consent is readily picked up on a larger public scale, perhaps because of its deceptive clarity in simplifying and quantifying social relations. The complex negotiation around interpersonal boundaries, which are most often unspoken and unconscious to the subjects involved, becomes specified by and reduced to the linguistic utterance of yes/no, which is supposed to signal a conscious willingness or unwillingness from each individual to participate in a social activity. Thanks to this quantifiability, affirmative consent understandably becomes a convenient tool for minoritarian subjects, particularly for women in the #MeToo movement, to make visible the violence they face and, in turn, seek accountability.

The cultural background of #MeToo is very present in Wingenroth’s writing, as she juxtaposes her experience in the theater with the concurrent confirmation hearings for the US Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. Strange men (and women) climbing over seats with their crotches on top of the audience evokes for her the reality of women having their choices disrespected and their bodies violated. In this juxtaposition between “non-consensual audience participation” and patriarchal sexual violence, several questions come up for me…

Can we account for systemic violence and brutality without taking for granted the fiction of individual autonomy—individuated subjects capable of making choices—that affirmative consent and, in this case, Wingenroth are so insistent upon? Do we have to regurgitate the patriarchal and colonial logic of the rational subject, first establishing ourselves as coherent and independent individuals, only then are we able to quantify acts of violence against these bounded selves? Can we not resort to mobilizing disability as a scapegoat for our own guarding of the individual selves (the way Wingenroth writes, disabled folks should not have to worry about being forced to do things they “aren’t able to do”), ignoring how it is the same logic of individualism that endlessly casts disabled folks as burdens to be diagnosed and problems to be solved?

How can we imagine different frameworks of consent that do not orient itself exclusively towards the “I,” towards the preservation of the wholeness of the “I,” to such an extent that when Wingenroth saw a performer broke a light climbing from the orchestra seats up to the balcony, her concern was the shards of glass flying into the audience (i.e., endangering the “I”), and not the wellbeing of the performer? How can consent be reconceptualized so that it does not simply serve the function of quantifying violence against the “I,” of even anticipating the violence against the “I,” since the rigid “I” is always unstable, destined to be encroached upon? Can consent be grounded, instead, in an existential sense of collective vulnerability affirming the impossibility of a coherent “I”?

If we abandon this goal of preserving the wholeness of the “I,” how can we care for one another differently, not by protecting the wholeness of our individual selves, but by listening and tending to our mutual vulnerability? I want to go even further and ask: how can care and consent co-facilitate an undoing of the selves, a loosening of individual boundaries that is not easy but ultimately more fulfilling and more ethical?

I began this essay with the issue of consensual audience participation in the theater, but it is clear from this set of questions that I am invested in the larger negotiation of social-sexual relations. At stake here is not the abandonment of affirmative consent altogether. In the end, we are living in a Western (post-)Enlightenment individualist society, which is somehow becoming even more individualized. Thus, affirmative consent can be useful in its illusory quantifiability, being mobilized as a strategic tool to demand cultural and juridical consequences from those abusing their power. However, affirmative consent should be just that—useful, convenient, and strategic. It should not be taken for granted as a universal framework to be narrowly applied to each and every social-sexual exchange, which, more often than not, exceeds the matter of individual choices.

Perhaps, consent needs to be built upon not the straightforward Yes/No that solidifies the omniscient “I,” but the more difficult “I don’t know”/”I don’t want to know” that is not only linguistic but also corporeal, emotional, and psychical. To say Yes/No is to contain our imagination within the fictional boundaries of the individuals, implicitly require each interpersonal encounter to fall within our sphere of familiarity. Whereas to claim the position of “I don’t know” and “I don’t want to know” is to open ourselves up to the unpredictability of social-sexual relations, to the potential unraveling and remaking of the selves that can be difficult yet rewarding.

Entering a social-sexual exchange with a mutual sense of uncertainty and unknowability around our own individual boundaries further carves out a space for us to listen closely to the unfolding of an encounter, stay in constant reciprocity, and take responsibility for one another’s vulnerability without solely relying on the false definitiveness of language. “We don’t know what we are getting into, we don’t know whether pushing ourselves over the edge ends up being a riveting or agonizing experience, but we will be here for one another, listen to one another, and care for one another as any unpleasant feelings emerge.” What so urgent about this version of consent is not the complete thwarting off of violent experiences, but the insistence on the vulnerability of the “I” even in the wake of violence. The unraveling of the self can go both ways—it can end up feeling like an actual violation of the self, but this violation should not foreclose the transformative possibility of surrendering the “I” to the force of sociality.

Anh Vo (they/he) is a Vietnamese choreographer, dancer, theorist, and activist. Their writings focus on experimental practices and socioeconomic relations in contemporary dance and pornography.

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