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Notes Towards Day 17: On Choosing Silence

Anne Dalke's picture

I. 2:25-2:45--coursekeeping

* sign-in shee

* (if you haven't,) finish Gayl Jones' novel for Thursday

* This coming Saturday, Nov. 9, from 11AM to 4PM in Sharpless Auditorium. Haverford students have arranged a conference called "Exploring the Legality and Morality of Prostitution," intended to act as an introduction to the topic. Speakers include anthropologist Patty Kelly, psychotherapist Mary Anne Layden, lawyer Mary DeFusco, activist Emma Caterine, and filmmaker Vicky Funari.  Free and open to the public.

* send an e-mail by tomorrow to bburns if you want to have dinner with Heidi Hartmann on Tuesday, Nov. 12; news flash is that Hartmann will also be joining us for @ least part of our class on that day, before her lecture; I'm adding some material written by her and another feminist economist to our protected reading file, so we can prepare...

II. on silence--
two weeks ago, when we were talking about transmen @ women's colleges,
you will remember that we did two exercises:
the first--in which you could speak about nothing that mattered to you--
highlighted the ways in which public discourse can be
dramatically limited if we chose not to speak about what is important to us;
the second--in which you had to read what you had written--
foregrounded the privilege of being able to be silent while others spoke their truths.
We were exploring both the dangers of not speaking, and the danger of being forced to,
both the privilege of speaking, and the privilege of being silent.

One of the things that interests me most about Eva's Man
(the reason I taught it for the first time last year,
in a new course I was doing called The Rhetorics of Silence,
and the reason I thought it might be useful to us in this course),
is Eva's repeated choice to be silent--
both about what pleases her and about her crime.
She refuses to explain herself:

* "'Eva, why won't you talk about yourself?' I said nothing" (p. 67).
* "'When she was seventeen she stabbed a man. She wouldn't talk then either, wouldn't say anything to defend herself....She wouldn't even tell why she stabbed him" (p. 70).
* "'You want to talk, Eva?' I said nothing" (p. 70).
* "'I don't like to talk about myself.' 'Why not?' 'I just don't.' 'You make a man wonder what's there'" (p. 73).
* "'Why did you kill the man, Eva?' I didn't answer. 'Did Davis know why you killed him?' I still didn't answer" (p. 76).
* "'They told me you wouldn't talk. They said I wouldn't get one word out of you,' the psychiatrist said.....I don't want to tell my story" (p. 77).
* "Why won't she talk?" (p. 82).
* "'I didn't tell anybody,' I said. 'I just let the man tell his side'" (p. 98).
* "Nobody knew why I knifed him because I didn't say" (p. 99).
* "'You keep all yoru secrets, don't you?...Why won't you talk to me, Eva?' 'There's nothing to say'" (p. 101).
* "I didn't talk about my husband. He was the part of my life I didn't talk about" (p. 103).
* "'You still won't answer?' 'No'" (p. 116).
* "'Say something, Eva.' 'There's nothing'" (p. 121).
* "'What are you thinking? You're not talking.' 'Nothing.' 'Why aren't you speaking?' 'I don't have anything to say right now'" (p. 126).
* '''You ain't much of a talker, are you?' 'Naw'" (p. 150).
* "'She never said anything. She just took the sentence'" (p. 153).
* "I said nothing....I didn't answer...No answer" (pp. 155-156).
* "I wanted to tell him how I was feeling. But I never would tell him" (p. 158).
* "'Why?' I didn't answer" (p. 159).
* "I never told him what I liked" (p. 160).
* "I said nothing" (p. 163).
* "I wouldn't talk to him" (p. 168).
* "Don't explain me. Don't you explain me. Don't you explain me" (p. 173).
* "'I know what kind of woman you are.' 'Naw you don't'" (p. 175).

So clearly! silence is our keynote again today; I want us to think it and talk about it both in light of our earlier exploration of this topic, and in light of this new novel. Let's get ourselves in the mood w/ a silent exercise.

Stand and turn to face the person next to you. Tell her a story about a time when you chose to be silent.
Do so in silence. No words allowed (or aloud). Then trade: listen to her silent story. See if you can understand it.

This was (intended as) an exercise about what's lost when we are silent: what cannot be shared.
(Did anyone find it an exercise of remarkable/surprising communication?)

What I have written on the sheets around the room are statements by 3 feminist theorists about
both the danger--and the value--of silence. I have taken several excerpts each from
* Adrienne Rich's "Notes on Lying," which argues that we have a human obligation to speak with one another;
* Wendy Brown's "Freedom's Silences," which warns us against speaking--
because what we say can be used against us; and
* Megan Sweeney's Reading Is My Window, which argues for a more complex position, somewhere between he "silent pond," where Rich says "drowned things live," and the "incessant speech" that Brown thinks imprisons women in their pain.

I'd like you to walk around, read the statements, and respond to them,
in writing--and in silence--with reference to Eva's Man in particular;
you should write a response on @ least three of these sheets:

where/how does the novel illustrate each of these ideas?
Where/how does it push back against them?
What do you think is going on, and why?
What's are some feminist ways of understanding such silences?

In Reading is My Window, Megan Sweeney argues that
"Eva has a profound sense of imprisonment in others' misreadings":
"those who demand she speak could never really hear her,
would merely fit her story into reductive, ready-made interpretive frameworks."

In Reading is My Window, Megan Sweeney argues that
"there are possibilities for addressing pain which the novel doesn't offer":
"politicizing trauma is possible, through dialogue, developing solidarity."

In Reading is My Window, Megan Sweeney asks,
How much of Eva's choice is self-silencing, how much is cultural silencing?
(Another way to ask this: is her silence chosen or forced?)"

In Reading is My Window, Megan Sweeney observes that the
U.S. justice system leaves little room for complex, partial notions of agency, responsibility, guilt."

In "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying," Adrienne Rich says,
"Lying is done with words, and also with silence....
The liar lives in fear of losing control....
This is a danger run by all powerless people....
lying becomes a weapon we carry over
into relationships with people who do not have power over us."

In "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying," Adrienne Rich identifies
phrases which help us not to admit we are lying: "my privacy," "nobody's business but my own"...
lying (described as discretion) becomes an easy way to avoid conflict or complication.
The liar is afraid...lying is what cowards do.
I didn't want to cause pain. What she really did not want is to have to deal with the other's pain.

In "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying," Adrienne Rich says,
"An honorable human a process..of refining the truths they can tell each other.
The possibilities that exist between two people...are the most interesting thing in life.
The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities...
...we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.
The possibility of life between us."

In "Freedom's Silences," Wendy Brown argues that
"the capacity to be silent might be a measure of freedom."
"It is possible to make a fetish of breaking silence,"
but "this ostensible tool of emancipation carries techniques of subjugation."
"Silence has a political value, as a means of preserving existence
from the regulatory power of public exposure."

In "Freedom's Silences," Wendy Brown argues that
"speaking has the capacity to bind." The "privitization of public life,"
"the compulsive, compulsory cataloguing of details of marginalized lives,"
is "intended as a practice of freedom." But such "productions of truth may
chain us to injurious history and the stations of our small lives."

In "Freedom's Silences," Wendy Brown argues that "breaking silence
can metamorphose into new techniques of domination: confessions can become norms by which we are regulated."
"Confessing injury can attach us to it, paralyze us within it, prevent us from seeking status other than that of the injured. Confessional discourse can condemn us to permanent identification: living in a present dominated by the past."

In "Freedom's Silences," Wendy Brown denounces "compulsory discursivity":
the pre-Focauldian belief that "expression is setting us free,"
that speech is "expressive," that having "voice and visibility" is freedom,
that being recognized is "pleasurable, powerful and unproblematic."
She tells the anecdote about Foucault, growing up in a petit bourgeois, provincial mileau,
where there was an incessent obligation to speak--and so coming to appreciate silence.
"The obligation of always speaking made conversation very strange and boring.
Why do people have to speak?"

In "Freedom's Silences," Wendy Brown argues that silences are
the "scene of practices that escape regulation, a source of protection and power," that
choosing silence is "practicing freedom in the interstices of discourse and in resistance to it."
"To speak incessantly of suffering is to to silence the possibilities of overcoming it:
to speak repeatedly of trauma is to encode it as identity, fixed in stereotype rather than working through it.
Discourses of survivorship are stories in which one refuses to live in the present, preserving trauma,
sacrificing autonomy, imperiling creativity, privacy, and integrity."

III. go to the sheet/question/comment that
you'd like to discuss some more (and do so!)

IV. return to large group to learn about
Gayl Jones' biography: her fiction anticipating life?
NYTimes version of her story is filled w/ her silences:
b. 1949 in segregated Lexington, Ky;
one of few black students attending the white school:
"Painfully shy to the point of muteness, Gayl seemed almost invisible to other students,
although several teachers took note of her."
attended Connecticut College on a scholarship in the '60s,
"while other African-American students were demonstrating for more minority admissions
and an all-black dormitory, she remained on the periphery, quiet and withdrawn."
accepted in 1971 to Brown University's graduate writing program:
"While the faculty and students were in awe of her talent, many were struck by her silence."

signed a book contract w/ Toni Morrison, published her first novel, about a blues singer, @ 26;
Eva's Man was her second; she got a job, then tenure, @ UMichigan, where she met Bob Higgins,
an activist w/ a "volcanic temperament," who had had some police encounters and psychiatric treatment;
when he was arrested for assault, they fled to Paris for 5 years of exile;
when they returned to Lexington to care for her mother, the swat team arrived to arrest him,
and he killed himself; since then, Gayl Jones has lived alone in her mother's house, writing, publishing...

Jones herself said several things about her writing which you might find helpful:
* "One of the things I was consciously concerned with was the technique from the oral storytelling tradition that could be used in writing....The book has layers of storytelling. Perceptions of time are important in the oral storytelling tradition in the sense that you can make rapid transitions between one period and the next, sort of direct transitions."

* "I was and continue to be interested in contradictory emotions that coexist . . .
I think people can hold two different emotions simultaneously."

* June Jordan criticized that the novel for giving "sinister misinformation about ...young black girls forced to deal with the sexual, molesting violations of their minds and bodies by their fathers, their mothers' boyfriends, their cousins and uncles....perpetuate "crazy whore"/"castrating bitch" images that long have defamed black women in our literature."

* Jones responded, "I put those images in the story to show how myths or ways in which men perceive women actually define women's characters....Right now I'm not sure how to reconcile the things that interest me with 'positive race images'...For instance, how would one reconcile ... neurosis or insanity with positive race image?"

* I generally think of Eva's Man as a kind of dream or nightmare, something that comes to you, and you write it down."