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Chapter 24. Consent and hermeneutics

Consent derives “from the Latin consentire — literally, and almost perversely, ‘to feel together’”, as a New York Times article1 describes. During this summer semester the term “consent” came up in my Seminar “Schreibweisen der Liebe” and I asked my students if they can imagine to use the term consent as an analytic approach to literature? Are there scenes of consent out there? How would people of the 18th or the 19th century speak and write about consent – without reflecting on our “modern” understanding of what consent has to mean?

There is little consent in Werther kissing Charlotte after the thunderstorm and her whispering “Klopstock”. Of course, it is not a coincidence that I started with Goethe, hence he is the precursor of all old white men, just because he lived for so long and also shaped generations of authors – male or female – and also all those generations after him. Goethe seems to be – at least for German literature – the signifiant maître to quote another master of discourse, Jacques Lacan. 

But instead rushing into a more general critique towards writing literature’s history with big names and analyzing authors of different generations as depending on the father “Goethe”, I would turn to the NY Times translation: “to feel together”. From Schleiermacher to Dilthey and Gadamer (other big names) “to feel together” could be understood as credo of hermeneutics. “Fusion of horizons” seems to be the phrase which expresses the process of two thinkers understanding each other. And still consent transgresses Hermeneutics “fusion of horizons” because the term implements more:

Parul Sehgal who wrote the NY Times article historizes the term: 

“Consent has been a notoriously provisional notion. For generations, the right to consent (to sex, to medical treatment) was denied to Black people in America. Marital rape was legal in some states until 1993 — and loopholes still exist.“

Further questions arise while Sehgal looks at the popularity of the word in the present discourse and I find myself reminded of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge:

„How is this word being used, and by whom, and what does it conceal? Is there a better standard? What are the conditions that allow us to choose freely?“

As one might know Foucault tackles the repression hypothesis which states that sex was a tabu and was not spoken about: As Foucault reveals nothing more was of interest throughout the centuries than sex. He describes a dense network of discourses creating all sorts of questions and answers, regulating, controlling and disciplining all sorts of subjects. We talk about sex to know everything about ourselves, one can conclude. But we aren’t getting there: The knowledge does not lead to more freedom, but to more repression: we are caught in a continuous process of asking and answering questions about our sex.

I see a relation between hermeneutics, the practice of understanding (literature) and the apparatus Foucault described: the discourse evolving around consent is therefore a new level within the will to knowledge, but with chances generations before did not have.

Referring to Milena Popova study “Sexual Consent” Sehgal asks: “Where is our consent in the water we drink or the air we breathe?” And – because I am pedantic – let me add: Where is our consent to understand and interpret literature? 

I think the connection between the discourse about sex and the hermeneutical discourse about texts does not only find a similarity within the letter x, but also within the modes of asking and understanding. Asking about consent – especially regarding older literature and literature history – we might find new perspectives on constellations like in Werther:

On might call Charlotte a survivor – literally because she survives Werther, but not the patriarchal hermeneutics of her being a representation of the female other. Could we write a different history of literature while looking at consent and questioning the discourses of how we once wanted to understand texts? Indeed, once we wanted to understand Werther as the young and wild protagonist of a new generation rebelling against the old and encrusted ideology. And yes, it is still historically interesting to locate the text within those revolutionary discourses. 

Do I have permission to question the text and its tradition of interpretation? Or am I again destructive? And what about Derrida’s deconstruction? Does it go well with consent? For me it is a clear yes, even if I do not have detailed arguments, maybe just a feeling. For me deconstruction was always a little bit more gentle, softer and more tender towards understanding and interpretation, even I have to ask the consent-question regarding the deconstruction as well. 

Again, I think using the term of consent especially in the meaning of “feeling together” could provide a more complex view on the affective language of literature and its writings. And that perspective holds us accountable to stop and think before we speak and “understand” while looking different at literature. This has nothing to do with canceling Goethe, but more contributing towards a more attentive reading.  



Cite this blog post
Martin Bartelmus (2022, June 28). Chapter 24. Consent and hermeneutics. Dark Hermeneutics. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/ngxa

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/21/books/literature-about-consent.html) []

By Martin Bartelmus

Martin Bartelmus is a Postdoctoral Scholar of German Literary, Media, and Cultural Theory at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf. He studied German Literature, Philosophy, Political and Social Studies at Julius Maximilians University Würzburg and received his PhD in Media and Cultural Studies as part of the DFG graduate program “Materiality and Production” from Heinrich Heine University. His PhD-Thesis is entitled Cultural Born Killer: Poetics of Killing around 1900. Before joining the department of German Literature at Heinrich Heine University for his current postdoctoral position, he worked as a curator for the Museum of Natural History of the Benrath Palace and Park Foundation and as a freelancer for the Julia Stoschek Collection. He is interested in Animal and Plant Studies, killing in literature and film, French theory, Object-Oriented Ontology, and literature without humans.

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