In a government whose legitimacy depends upon the “consent of the governed,” civil disobedience can be understood as withholding one’s consent to be governed. Refusing to pay one’s taxes, for example, leaves the state with few options other than resorting to force, and exposes the ultimately coercive nature of a government that claims to be free and democratic. Successful acts of civil disobedience cast the protester as the object of the state’s aggressive demand for consent–a position that is, despite Henry David Thoreau’s insistence on the manliness of civil disobedience, oddly feminized. In addition to Thoreau’s essay, Professor Katherine Henry examines Melville’s fictional character Bartleby, reading him as a type of the paradoxically defensive, queer version of selfhood that consent theory constructs and the withholding of consent exposes.
Katherine Henry is a professor in the Department of English at Temple University.