Sumita Chakraborty is Visiting Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University, and is working on her first academic book project, The Poetics of Ethics in the Anthropocene. Also a poet, her first book of poems, Arrow, is forthcoming in September 2020 from Alice James Books in the United States and Carcanet Press in the United Kingdom.
I chose the keyword No because it has long been a cornerstone of discourse surrounding sexual consent, and because it both subtly and directly highlights the difficulty of reading “The Waste Land” at a moment when sexual consent is at the forefront of our minds. Well before the current iteration of the #MeToo movement, the phrase “No means no” has been wielded as a battle cry and passed along as an educational tool for persons of all genders, either to learn how to articulate their rights or to learn how to recognize the articulations of others. It has even been used as a rejoinder in casual conversation. Situated at the uneasy intersection of the sloganeering associated with late capitalistic commerce (merchandise with the phrase is ubiquitous) and the tireless efforts of feminist discourse to popularize the apparently elusive concept of mutually consensual sexual activity, the phrase’s simplicity is both ironclad and generative. No means no: the word’s repetition signals a firm equation grounded in literal, syntactical fact. At the same time, efforts have been made to define “no” in a range of ways that extend beyond the literal and sometimes even, properly, the syntactical, to gestures, silences, hesitations, impairments, and more. The goal of the phrase is—to a politically beneficial end—to establish both a singular meaning and an expansive plurality of significations: no always means no, and no can be implied by a battalion of forms of rhetoric at various intersections of the linguistic and the embodied