“Areas of human consent” is a phrase used by Patti Smith in regard to Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of naked and intimate bodies during an interview with Charlie Rose. It is an apt phrase for the boundary between the culture and the individual in a context of identity and morality, particularly incursions that involve the possibility of harm, whether psychological or physical.
At present North American culture is in a strange mode where sexual matters, though the very crux of the physical and psychological, are highly ritualized and commodified, with a strong underculture pushback from atypical minorities at two extremes: one experimental and edgy, and the other the community that still relates to the 19th century, considers it a commanded given. Matters of sexuality (whether gender identity or relationship) which depart from formerly consensus-based “morality” (monogamy, faithfulness, freedom from disease or drugs) will instantly disqualify public figures from any level of respect or leadership. But leaders can take us into mutilating war and humiliating economic collapse without any punishment. Only a little regret. We consider this religious.
What should be the boundaries permitted between people, either by their own consent or by cultural agreement and how can they be marked and enforced? One of the most obvious is boundaries between a child and an adult, particularly when the adult is a parent. Consider the extremes. Today the newspaper described a case in which a mother super-glued her toddler’s hands to a wall and then kicked and beat her nearly to death. This is about a physical boundary broken, but also a psychological wall that blocked humanness. A different kind of boundary violation is the smothering, controlling parent who will allow no psychological boundary to form, also preventing humanness. The public response to the first act (aside from punishment) will probably be something tangential, like banning superglue. The response to the second act is likely to be approval. Like God, we try to redeem ourselves through our children, even if it means their crucifixion.
Mapplethorpe is a good case-study for conflicting ideas about what justifies changing conventional boundaries. Does beauty justify nudity? Does racial inclusion? What if it’s exploration? Ordeal? Salvation? Permission from the model?
A cultural paradigm shifts in our understandings of the world. A hundred years ago Mapplethorpe’s work would have been deeply ghettoized if not criminal. Twenty years after the attacks on his work, it is almost mainstream. In a world where airline security can take anyone into a back room for a cavity search, a bullwhip handle up the butt is hardly shocking. Enlightenment and Post-colonial changes in social thought have come about because of increased information -- we see the planet from outer space and our understanding of life is changed. We realize what the genome means and our understanding of identity is changed. Television has shown us enough on the news to make us completely rethink what humans can and should be. There are no norms except greed.
Boundaries of some kinds are enforced by suffering. This is where the boundaries of the individual, like torture [water-boarding] or religious ordeal [suicide bombers] or SM practices or cancer chemotherapy become a sharp edge indeed. Many of the Mapplethorpe bodies were achieved only with many long hours of possibly painful disciplined training, possibly with the ingestion of eventually destructive molecules (steroids).
Less benignly, masses (what were once nations) suffer the ordeal of starvation or war pursued by undisciplined soldiers enhanced by chemical weapons -- methamphetamine in one hand and viagra in the other. Or maybe the people suffer biological warfare “by omission”, not by infecting the enemy but by withholding the available medicines as political coercion. Then the boundaries of human compassion and morality are challenged in a way that may (should) provoke social movements of protest.
Gradual erasure of moral boundaries also happens through the opposite technique: soft comfort, enwrapping convenience, gradual accustoming to privilege, or numbness before the cacophany of messages. Most of all by closing down the aperture of awareness to a small circle that excludes troubling information. “We didn’t know.” “That wasn’t my responsibility.” “I was not in the loop.” “It’s too ugly.” When the black swans arrive in a great flying V of destruction, like WWII bombers, it’s a terrible shock. Consent by omission. A hallmark of our times.
Maybe it was a 19th century Euro development that gave “professionals” social permission to ignore the physical boundaries of people. Doctors are allowed to cut us open and meddle in our entrails. Shrinks do the same on a psychic level, wearing the white coat of the doc. Somehow they have managed to delegate this right not only to their students or their nurses, but also to financial gatekeepers. Now it is the insurance company that says whether your boundaries may be violated, even to save you, and then, if you feel differently about it, you’ll need a lawyer because lawyers are the ultimate permission getters. There used to be something about priests and pastors in there, but that’s been omitted now. So messy. Impractical. Where’s the money? Don’t even mention the invasions of journalists or hackers.
So who can stand with you on the moral boundary of your soul? We’re back to magic, looking for a shaman, each of us pole-dancing with the universe as best we can. The axis mundi doesn’t really turn any faster, only our human whirligig. The swarms of dystopias and eutopias come a little faster all the time, mostly sowing confusion.
The United Nations has patiently worked out consensus statements about human rights. They are worth reading slowly, repeatedly. Once in the context of maybe Minneapolis; once with Somalia in mind; a third time as what might have been achievable on an historical frontier when Euro culture was expanding out over the planet and not very worried about the indigenous people. Kids go to sci-fi and fantasy. If you don’t have the basics: air, water, food, shelter, sanitation, you won’t need to worry about the rest because you’ll be dead soon. So many are.
Where is the next line? Intimate human relationships? Love and sex? Obviously, enough animal-level parenting for babies to survive, but what are the minimums after that? Education? Everything other people around you have? Then look around you: not just the big gleaming dreams people go into debt for but also the people the do-gooders fuss about: isolated, in pain, futureless, terrified, unable to learn or change. Did they consent to this? Does anyone ask to be born?
What is informed consent? Who can own your body and mind -- your ass -- as the street person would say. What’s the entitlement? What’s the compensation? Who’s the enforcer? What use are you making of what you have? What others are you helping to enforce their chosen or necessary boundaries? In England old people have been getting a tattoos over their hearts that say, "Do not resuscitate." The lawyers say no one will pay attention to that anyway. It's not legal.
Why are we so belligerent about sex, nakedness, skin color, gender, and relationships while we ignore death and corruption? Isn’t it the same old magician’s trick? Confronted with the small body of a dead child, the authority figures say, “Oh, look over there! Someone’s fucking!”
When I was a college undergrad and mulling all this stuff (you know how sophomores are), we referred to the struggle between individual and society as “fighting the good fight.” I still think of it that way: the necessity and morality of defending one’s identity, the right to be oneself. One’s naked self. It can’t be taken for granted. The funny irony is that on the surface I’m actually almost too conventional. When people get close they find out differently, and it enrages them. Or sometimes not. If that happens, where should I direct my gratitude?