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Listening and Silence

Dan's picture

   Sharaai's image of the library raised some questions for me about silence and my experience of it. A library is  a space full of texts: novels, books of theory, biographies, anthologies, etc. -- archived and organized so that people can access information. The room itself can be silent -- it can exist in audible silence (when it’s empty), but can the space ever actually be silent because it houses so much information? (this sort of resembles the “if a tree falls in the woods” question). Text itself is that way. It is flat, recorded. The images and words are symbols and therefore exist in silence (or possibly without meaning) unless they are seen and understood/considered -- or unless we project meaning onto them or try to comprehend their intended meaning. They make no noise on their own. If they are archived, they are completely unobtrusive (unlike posters and ads, which we sometimes cannot avoid). They will not speak unless you invest your time in what they have to say.

          This sets up an interesting relationship between silence and listening. When we are not actively seeking out the voices of these texts, or when we are not actively seeking out the voices of those who are not at the forefront of political or social discourse, are we silencing them?

        This might be a radical notion of silencing, but I have certainly experienced it and it felt as if I was being silenced -- like I was a shelved book, obviously full of personal insights, suggestions, questions, and comments, but not opened or investigated. This feels especially obvious within relationship dynamics of power -- student/teacher relationships, in conversations with my older relatives, or in institutional hierarchical settings. Within those relationships, due to the dynamic, it feels as if the teacher, boss, elder has the right to voice -- their voice is the one which is meant to be listened to. As the student, child, employee, elements of fear come into play. We are not sure where to insert our voices, or how much voice is the right amount of voice -- but to succeed we have to appease our superior. We do not exactly know the consequences of sharing our thoughts or offering suggestions. Many of my teachers spent significant amounts of time silencing us actively, talking at us, and trying to fill us with knowledge without creating space for feedback or encouraging us to speak freely. Even if they create spaces for us to speak, they were often very chiseled spaces, within limited parameters, created for one or a handful of answers.

           This summer, I worked to develope arts programming for teens on an urban farm West Philadelphia, and I was so excited by the task. Being a teenager, for me, felt like a time when I felt so much, but had no way of expressing it, both because I was not sure how and because the spaces to express myself were often unavailable, and that can make adolescence painful and stifling. For this reason, I spent the majority of my time this summer trying to establish the space for them to share themselves. I invited them to suggest projects, asked for their feedback o activities, and debriefed multiple times throughout the day. I really wanted them to share their voices, and so I tried all the avenues I could think of: visual arts, film, poetry, physical activity, discussions, etc.

         More often than we realize we are silencing young people. Their experiences trying to understand and articulate their own needs are not as developed or well honed and therefore, require incredibly active listening. Those of us who have the privilege to teach and facilitate, who are in the positions traditionally considered “more powerful” in these relationships of power, must negotiate and explore different ways of listening in order to come close to hearing at all. Being silent is not enough, although we often consider that listening because we are making room for the voices of others -- but that operates on the assumption that everyone feels confident enough to speak or can effectively articulate themselves -- but some voices need coaxing, positive affirmation, prompting, or alternative outlets of expression and reflection. Some voices need to know that their voices matter in order to speak at all.

        In my personal relationships, one necessary condition I have -- in order to want to pursue someone as a close friend, is that they are aware of how the spaces necessary  for articulation are created. In order to feel comfortable expressing myself, they have to creatively engage -- express curiosity about my subjective experience of the world, my memories, my thoughts, as well as be aware of how much they are speaking, their tone of voice, the words they are using (and of course, I will do the same). Listening is an extremely conscious and subtle activity. In intimate settings, I have to know that those around me are truly interested and are aware and conscientous about the exchange. Otherwise. It’s an intentional process. Thus, I hope that people reconsider this widely accepted idea that talking/sharing is active and listening is passive. Listening is incredibly active and intentional -- and I’d go so far to say that engaging should be a method through which we listen. If we are not thinking critically about how we listen, it is very probable that we are silencing more than we realize.



Anne Dalke's picture

"A shelved book..not opened...."

what a treat to have your essay put here to music by Owl! And (while we're making connections) I hope you've also seen that she picked up your original image of nature as silence and used it as a starting point for her reflections on Conflicts Within: The Cement for Silence.

In describing your initial image, you pointed out the limits of our "human-centric, speech-centric view of the audible world," and described your own enjoyment of human quietness as "a natural soundscape." Here, though, you actually focus in on the very human-centric interaction of actively, intentionally listening, in order to be heard.

The deep question your essay raises straight off is whether a space, like a library, "can ever actually be silent because it houses so much information?" That query puts me in mind of much information theory, which both opposes "information" to "noise" (we can make sense and meaning of the first, nothing of the second), and sees the two as interactive--each houses the possibility of "becoming" the other, depending on the facility of the de-coder (us, those should-be careful listeners!). If you want to learn more about this sort of orientation to your questions, you might start w/ a talk by Katherine Rowe, What is Information? and another by Paul Grobstein on Information, Meaning and Noise.

You have some lovely images in this essay; I'm especially fond of your comparing yourself to "a shelved book, full of personal insights, suggestions, questions, and comments, but not opened or investigated" and of your (awful!) description of your professors creating creating "spaces for you to speak" that "were often very chiseled," "within limited parameters, created for one or a handful of answers."  I appreciate, too, your insights that "being silent is not enough," that "some voices need coaxing," that without "thinking critically about how we listen, it is very probable that we are silencing more than we realize."

Finally (well, not finally, but pausing for now!) sdane also used the image of the library to begin her explorations; don't miss those, either...

Owl's picture

Una Palabra (One Word)

After the first week of talking about silence and voice in relationship to opression, power, and privilege, I was reminded of this song I heard a couple years back called Una Palabra. I never really understood why the song stuck with me after so many years, but listening to it now with the lense we have started to create in our 360 classes I see the significance much clearer now. I've come to see theses lyrics as capturing the very essence of your paper. What are our words without those that give it meaning? Who do we turn to when deciding what meaning is of more importance? Who negotiates the meaning we as a society actively listen to, and who do we hide in the process?

I have attached the lyrics here in English. The song is in Spanish but I think you would appreciate it either way. 

A word does not say anything 
And at the same time it hides everything 
Just as the wind that hides the water 
Like the flowers that hide the mud.

A glance does not say anything
And at the same time it says everything 
Like rain on your face 
Or an old treasure map

A truth does not say anything 
And at the same time it hides everything 
Like a bonfire that does not go out 
Like a stone that is born dust.

If one day you need me, I will be nothing 
And at the same time I will be everything 
Because in your eyes are my wings 
And the shore where I drown, 
Because in your eyes are my wings 
And the shore where I drown