Impossible Dissent /Thomas Prendergast

Impossible Dissent

Thomas Prendergast, Department of English, College of Wooster, Wooster, Ohio

In perhaps the earliest use of the English word “dissent” in a political context, Reginald Pecock, Bishop of Chichester, anti-lollard and eventual heretic, wrote that “wrong and unjustnes is never doon but whanne the suffrer dissentith to the doer; and whanne ever the suffrer consentith to the doers deed, the doer wrongith not the suffrer” (Pecock, 1924, 218). This contractual understanding of justice will be familiar to anyone who has even a nodding relationship with Thomas Hobbes or Jean Jacques Rousseau and is translated into the political principle best captured by John Locke that “no one can be . . . subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent” (Locke, 1980, § 95). But before medievalists go rushing off to claim that, as with so many things, the philosophical foundations of consent/dissent (and thus the legitimacy of the modern democratic state) lie in the Middle Ages, it’s worth noting the context of this quotation.

In this section Pecock is actually making the claim that there are certain instances in which dissent cannot exist. Specifically, he argues that dissent cannot exist within the self. As he puts it “but so it is that anentis a deede which a man dooth to him silf willyngli, he dissentith not a3ens him silf and a3ens the willyng of him silf, but he at ful consentith, for thanne thilk oon man were two men, of whiche two men the oon is contrary to the other of hem, which may not be” (Pecock, 1924, 218–19). In terms of moral philosophy, one can certainly see why such a principle would be necessary. To believe that a person could dissent from one’s self would make the concept of moral responsibility impossible. And if one cannot hold others to be responsible for their actions, then one cannot enter into a contract with another because there is no single other with whom one can contract.

Yet it would seem evident that there are times when we are in conflict with our selves. I’m not so much thinking about contradictory consciousness or what is called cynical reason (“they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it” [Zizek, 1989, 28]). In both of these cases individuals still make choices and act like unified subjects despite the fact that their actions seem to be in conflict with what they know. I’m thinking of those moments when individuals seem other than themselves. It is perfectly evident to me, for instance, that there are times when my sister, diagnosed with schizophrenia, is “not herself” and that this so-called other self often dissents from the self I know as my sister. My initial reaction to these moments was anger — something that, I was told, indicated an inability to admit that she was ill. This reading of my anger (dependent on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of reaction and adjustment) treated my sister’s illness as a kind of death of the self. My refusal to acknowledge the loss of the person I formerly knew as my sister was simply melancholic denial.

But I’d like to entertain another possibility. I wonder if my anger was instead a symptom of what happens when the unified subject encounters what Pecock characterizes as an impossibility — a subject in dissent with itself. In my world the idea of the single self is not only a given, but is the basis for acting justly. But this world of rational agency, deeply implicated in the idea of the sovereign individual, is not the world of my sister. At times she seems to have what is called “insight”: she acts as if she is aware of her condition and speaks in terms that suggest that she sees herself as plural — the person she is now and the other person who has no self awareness. In many ways, she acts at these moments as if she is a sovereign individual, but then . . . there’s that other troublesome sister, the one for whom she must continually apologize. The philosopher Christine Korsgaard argues that if we approach such disunified individuals as one person, we’ll be “making a big mistake” (Korsgaard, 2009, 188). But she also points out that the idea of the sovereign individual is the basis for the just state. It is the ability of the individual person to consent that enables the state to act legitimately as a “single collective agent” (Korsgaard, 2009, 142). So how do we deal with the person whose self dissent makes it impossible for her to consent? We could tell her that she can’t dissent from herself, but frankly that’s not very realistic. We could tell her that she’s not an individual person, but that doesn’t seem very just. We’re caught between an ideal of justice based on the possibility of dissent and an impossibility of dissent within that ideal. In my view we need one of two things — a new ideal or a new real.


Korsgaard, C. 2009. Self Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Locke, J. 1980. Second Treatise of Government, ed. C. B. Macpherson. Indianapolis, IN:

Pecock, R. 1924. The folewer to the Donet. London: Oxford University Press.

Zizek, S. 1989. The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso.