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Frustration with the word....

Dan's picture

          In our class journey, we have recognized, outlined, and named several different types of silence. Our daily silent practices display this especially. We’ve been led through guided meditations, during which the conflicting dialogues in our minds cleared but the room was still full of Anne’s voice. We watched a silent pianist for 4 minutes, who aimed to prove that there is no silence, as the world consists of layers of sound, many of which we can only hear when we’re both quiet and listening. We had one class during which we were mindful, placing all of our attention in our feet, and we walked around without speaking or communicating in any form with others. Sarina led an exercise which was about communicating silently, with our bodies, in an action game. I led a blind contour drawing exercise. We’ve made collaboratively written short stories and engaged in soundless free-writes on our assumptions and what has been unspoken between us.

          Most of the exercise facilitators have taken the “silence” requirement to mean the absence of sound. This brings me back to the first question I wrote about in this class – which was inspired by the image of the empty library; I wondered if a library is silent, or a book. Although it has the capacity to be a noiseless space, it is full of symbols and dormant meaning -- meaning that must be read to be heard.

          Is silence the absence of noise? The absence of communication? The absence of meaning? The failure of the transmission of meaning?
          After watching and listening to Christine Kim’s work, I am beginning to realize how my ownership and participating in sound and hearing shapes my definition of silence in a way that perhaps marginalizes or delegitimizes other forms of meaning and communication. “The word ‘silence’ when associated with deaf people, is interpreted by many as a world absent of sound, a world of loneliness” (Deafness as Culture 224). Silence and sound are words that are so deeply intertwined with my ability to hear. Hearing people and those who, according to Kim, have ownership of sound, have established a linguistic order that is based on sound (although not entirely, because it exists on paper as well). Even so, meaning and sound have been married in my mind.

          But others construct meaning differently. Those who do not have “ownership of sound” or have established linguistic orders in space or through texture. In deaf culture, meaning exists physically, symbols are images made of movements – independent of noise. Thus, I’m starting to find silence is an annoying and confusing word. Communication and meaning exist without sound. But us hearing people, us born into the culture of hearing power, understand speech as verbal, understand sound with our ears, and consider own verbal communication legitimate.


          This is what the Oxford English Dictionary had to say about silence: The fact of abstaining or forbearing from speech or utterance; the state of condition resulting from this; muteness.

          But even this definition feels inadequate, because abstaining from speech, choosing silence, or even being silenced, can communicates so much. For instance, the photo Uninhibited posted for our first web event struck the entire class as profoundly meaningful and communicative.  

          Silence, like negative space, is a tool to make meaning. But, perhaps I’m thinking about silence in too extreme a way? Perhaps my definition, that silence is the void where meaning doesn’t exist, is the root of my own frustration. I keep going back over Mark Lord’s definition of silence -- which is when you’re longing for some inkling of meaning from the universe – you are asking for a response, but you just hear the great silence, nothingness.

          This example makes me think that perhaps I conceptualized silence as an absence, but there is no Ultimate Silence, because there are no absolute absences in the ontological world. To experience silence, you have to be thinking about a specific kind of silence. You have to be focusing on certain absences, whether it be noise, thought, meaning, etc. Coming to understand this conceptualization makes me understand a little better why I’ve been frustrated by our exercises and the use of the world silence in general – because we have not specified what we are supposed to be silencing – but rather we have just assumed the term “silence.” However, as I’ve discovered, Silence does not exist objectively to me, so perhaps I should ask for what the specific applications of silence are. 

(I plan to come back to this. It doesn't feel finished)

Also, I'm going to attach a painting I made over the weekend while contemplating these questions of silence.



Anne Dalke's picture

"an annoying and confusing word"

I agree; this isn't finished, and I'd be very happy to have you go on thinking through some of the conundra you've named so far…

What I'm hearing, to this point, is a movement from understanding silence as absence of sound (the definition that seems to have guided most of our structured silent exercises), to understanding silence as the failure to transmit meaning. The first definition is the description of a physical phenomena. The second one you call ontological, but I'd call epistemological--less about whether it is (since you've actually decided that it isn't!) than about how we know and experience it.

Mark Lord believes (that Beckett believes) that there is an ultimate silence--the refusal of the universe to answer our deepest questions. Based on what you've said here, I think you believe that no such silence exists, that there is always meaning being transferred, somewhere, somehow. So then the question of whether there is silence going on/whether we are experiencing silence, or being silenced, needs to be (as you say) a very pointed and particular one: is it the misuse of a word (a euphemism) which has silenced/elided your meaning? is it the absence of a shared language which prevents communication? is it violent action or psychological abuse which silences a retort?

I'd be curious to hear where you locate your own interest--where you feel the need to overcome silence (as importantly!--is there ever a time or place when you might feel the need to encourage it, to help it flourish?). Perhaps you'd like to try to draw or try somehow otherwise than in words to represent this sort of silence? Or its impossibility?

I also want to say that I'm seeing a trajectory in your work here, a move towards increased frustration. Your first webpaper was a fairly optimistic one, advocating the human-centric interaction of actively, intentionally listening.Your second one was more downhearted, about how oppressive and isolating words can be, and ended w/ a call for your own silence. This third one is the most downhearted yet….maybe take a look @ jhunter's send-up, for a little comic relief?