In seeking to better understand the concept, I found a broad definition of consent from Merriam-Webster dictionary that reads, “compliance in or approval of what is done or proposed by another.” This means that there are at least two parties, a seeker and a provider of consent. The SUNY policy handout from class offers additional details to inform our understanding, including the statement that consent “is clear.” It further explains, “Affirmative consent is a clear, unambiguous, knowing, informed, and voluntary agreement…” If we are considering consent in non-sexual contexts, then the logistics of clear, affirmative consent can be complicated. Should you ask permission every time you want to rant to a friend about your day? Are you responsible for seeking permission to use a project group chat on the weekends? To seek permission for these things would certainly limit the risk of doing harm to others, but it would be impossible to anticipate and prepare for all ways that such harm could occur. Because of this, I can see the “gray area” that Jessica refers to in her most recent blog post.
And I certainly can see how Butler’s “Bloodchild” causes a gaping gray area for the reader. In addition to appearing in the plot, consent is at play in our interpretation of Butler’s work. In Jessica’s post, she writes, “Butler obviously wanted her readers to see the story as a love story, which leaves us to interpret…” The last four words suggest that we as readers are bound to interpret Butler’s work as she intended. The very presence of an afterword is Butler’s clear consent for readers to interpret the text one way and not another. According to Butler it is not a story of slavery, but, “On one level, it’s a love story between two very different beings. On another, it’s a coming-of-age story…” Does that mean readers may not challenge Butler’s claim that this is a love story? Does that mean that we as readers may not consider which aspects of the story relate to slavery? When Beth recounted Butler’s sharp response to the man who tried to tell her what her own work was about, I felt some satisfaction at him being put in his place, suggesting that I unconsciously buy into the notion that an author has the right to consent to interpretations of their work.
However, I found myself less willing to accept how the author wanted their work to be interpreted while reading Harriet A. Jacobs’ preface to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. She starts by writing, “Reader, be assured this narrative is no fiction. I am aware that some of my adventures may seem incredible; but they are, nevertheless, strictly true.” Jacobs is giving the reader consent to interpret the text as the whole truth and nothing but the truth. She is not giving consent for readers to interpret her work skeptically, despite its existence within the literary tradition of the slave narrative, which is written with specific audiences in mind. We know that she uses a name other than her own for the main character, and yet Jacobs expects us to suspend disbelief. In this scenario, I think a reader is well within their rights to contradict Jacobs’ consent for how her text is to be read. And so, where does that leave Jacobs’ rights?
When authors give paratextual consent to interpret their work in one way, I think it presents the reader with a dilemma. The reader must choose whether or not to honor this consent, a decision that goes back to our conversation on which situations warrant its use.