Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

"Enabling Silences": Notes Towards Day 10 (Thurs, Oct. 1)

Anne Dalke's picture

I. Silence via Kieres;
Madison, Meera and Rhett are up for next Tuesday
(reminder to post: Madison, Joie...)


* materials for prison:
composition books for Farida, Tong;
copies of Antigone for Tong

* sign up to consult with Sheila during the day on Monday
[my groups--want to talk before then?]

* planning for her visit Nov. 2-6,
with a public talk
scheduled for Wed: preferences for 4:30 or 7 p.m.?

* passes to get into the city on Monday evening, for the Socrates Cafe:
catch the 6:23 train; get off @ Suburban Station;
walk to Barnes and Noble on Rittenhouse Square (1805 Walnut Street)
(do you need a reminder e-mail on Monday??)

* reading for next week is John Edgar Wideman's memoir,
Brothers and Keepers; as w/ Rigoberta's memoir,
it would be great if you could read the whole thing by Tuesday, because it's so hard to discuss 1/2-a-book;
so much of its meaning is brought home by the ending....

* for Thursday, read also
a New Yorker article by Wideman, addressed as a letter to his son

* I realize that Margaret Price and Doris Sommer have been particularly challenging, because each one was speaking w/in a particular discourse--one of rhetoricians, one of philosophers--that made some of us feel left out, and made all of us slow down to re-think what we thought we knew...

here's a little more about Sommer (Prof. of Romance Languages @ Harvard):

"My favorite pastime during a New York childhood that began after our small refugee family arrived from the displaced persons camp in Germany was to try out different languages and foreign accents in English, playing at "passing" for a range of Americans. The country that hailed me was a cluster of accents, not a single soundscape. In Brooklyn, where I grew up, only children spoke English with an American accent, so the occasional adult who spoke that way (say, a teacher) seemed to lack the historico-cultural density that made our Italian, Hispanic, Chinese, Jewish parents so admirably adult - and so embarrassingly out of place.

Mistakes and feeling misplaced are common among bilinguals. But those very difficulties can be advantages - cognitive, aesthetic, philosophical, and political. Now that mass migrations take home languages to host settings, the sound of alternative languages interrupts the single standard, even in countries where that existed. Today, the risk and thrill of speaking or writing anything can sting, every time language fails us. But knowing how language can fail makes communication a small miracle. Over the years, I've become a risk-taker and a believer in miracles."

I hope that this answers a question Rosa asked me after class on Tuesday:
what are the implications of acknowledging what Sommer asks us to acknowledge, "modestly"?
"So simple a lesson and so fundamental...that difference exists...
this defends us from harboring any illusions of complete or stable knowledge."
Rosa said that she thought it was a good thing, to learn about lives/people different from ourselves;
I don't think Sommer is discouraging us from this; instead, she's
just asking us to be humble, not to project our experiences onto those of others.

There's a text Jody often uses in her multicultural ed classes (Farida, Tong, Abby, Rosa would have read it last semester?):
Megan Boler's essay on  “The Risks of Empathy: Interrogating Multiculturalism’s Gaze.”
Feeling Power: Emotions and Education. Routledge, 1999,
which asks,
Who and what, I wonder, benefits from the production of empathy?...In what ways does empathy risk decontextualizing particular moral problems?...I am not convinced that empathy leads…to any shift in existing power relations…through modes of easy identification and flattened historical sensibility….”poetic justice” may simply translate to reading practices that do not radically challenge the readers’ world view….those “others” whose lives we imagine don’t want empathy; they want justice….encourage “testimonial reading”…an empathetic response that motivates action….in sympathy and empathy, the identification between self and other also contains an irreducible difference—a recognition that I am not you, and that empathy is possible only by virtue of this distinction….not a sufficient educational practice. At stake is …the ability…to recognize oneself as implicated in the social forces that create the climate of obstacles the other must confront….

The agent of empathy is fear for oneself. This signals the first risk…more a story and projection of myself than an understanding of you…to judge what “others need in order to flourish” is an exceptionally complicated proposition….Empathetic identification requires the other’s difference in order to consume it as sameness…social a binary power relationships of self/other that threatens to ….annihilate the very differences that permit empathy…

testimonial reading recognizes the…similarly exposed vulnerability. Rather than seeing reading as isolated acts of individual response to distant others, testimonial reading emphasizes a collective educational responsibility….what calls for recognition is not… the possibility of my misfortune, but a recognition of power relationships…The challenge to undertake “our own work” accepts a responsibility founded on the discrepancy of our experiences….active reading practice...involves challenging my assumptions and world views….[Felman ventures,] “if teaching does not…encounter either the vulnerability of the explosiveness of a …critical and unpredictable dimension, it has perhaps not truly taught”…I must learn to question the genealogy of any particular emotional response….As…alternatives to privatized and naturalized models of emotion, I offer two concepts of the analysis of emotion and power relations: “”economics of mind,” which refers to emotion and affect as models of currency in social relations; and as an alternative to theories of depth unconscious, I suggest we consider emotions as “inscribed habits of inattention.”

In his essay on "the White-Savior Industrial Complex," Teju Cole argues similarly,
and even more sharply, about what he calls "the banality of sentimentality," which, he says,
"is not about justice; it is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege."
He challenges the work of Nicholas Kristof, whose "good heart," he says,
"does not always allow him to think constellationally."
He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated "disasters"...
he sees no need to reason out the need for the need."
"help" begins with some humility...
respect for the agency of people in their own lives.
"If we are going to interfere in the lives of others,
a little due diligence is a minimum requirement."

III. Tuesday we did a carousel
Do we want to go on a bit with the danger of presuming
to know/thinking that we "deserve" to know...
set against the danger of not being empathetic,
of not trying to find common ground....?

Is this shifting your sense of what it means to read?

Other questionsm generated by reading Rigoberta Menchu's memoir,
before turning to the work of John Edgar Wideman?

IV. for today, I asked you to read a short piece by Wideman
"in praise of silence," and another one about the silences in his text

Get out a piece of paper (which you will pass, so tear it out).
Write out a single sentence, either from Wideman's text,
or from the literary analysis of his text-->
something you find provocative/key/challenging.
Silently pass this to your right.
Write a single sentence in response to (your neighbor's selection of) Wideman.
Silently pass this to your right.
Now: speak aloud what you might like to add to this "dialogue".....
Remember to pause betwixt speakings....

Reading Notes
Wideman, "In Praise of Silence": affirming vital presence...a dreaming space...a reservoir of hope...the sanctuary inside your skull...

when you utter the first word of a new tongue, are you also violating your identity and dignity? When you break your silence, are you surrendering, acknowledging the strangers' power to ...rule you?...silence in this context is a measure of resistance and tension. A drastic expression of difference....

That was yesterday. Yet much has not changed....Some of us choose to speak very, very little or not at all...Lots of us refuse to change speech habits....Plenty of us...always wear the mask...

Silence indicates who is accorded respect....a species of argument...emotionally persuading, heightening what's at stake...

the silence I an illusion. If we hear only means we aren't listening hard enough....The total absence of sound is never a possibility....So silence is a metaphor. A way of thinking....a way of imagining...a moment outside time, imagining the possibility of pausing...proof that the decision to listen or not is ours. Proof that we are called to pay attention.

Grandjeat, "These Strange Dizzy Pauses":
Wideman's fiction expands the meaning/value of silence, while praising the virtures of free speech
silent gaps in his texts question conventional readings of African-American literature,
which equate speech and freedom
fiction rooted in giving voice: blasting walls that confine his brother
(=slave narratives that leave things unsaid/horrendous events beyond words/shelter in not saying)
but in Wideman, silence marks both (unspeakable) barbarity and a creative space, beckoning the Infinite
silence is the "joint" that links One and the Other: a medium of change, sharing
freedom as much in silence as in speech: one mind can not grasp the mystery of another
unbridgeable gap an opening/gift: it ensures my inability to yoke the other to the will of my speech (p. 687)
OTOH, a trad'l duty to tell; OTOH, let other voices displace your own, let the switching operate
utmost importance: that the narrative be two-voiced, and that both voices have equal status/impact
Robby has significant portions of the narrative, & is given the last word...BUT!
the book is signed w/ one name (JEW) and the author's note claims "full responsibility for the final mix"-->
writer's limited ability to actually let go of the control of his text reproduces white abolitionists vis-a-vis slaves,
serves a power relationship, guided by quest for profit, a will to control, manipulate?
one brother colonized/annexed by the other? narrative must guard against forcing speech
John's method similar to ethnographer (cf. Burgos w/ Menchu): imperialist ploy of "pulling together loose ends"
how make the space truly polyphonic? restless shifting, splitting, weaving of voices-->
heteroglossia sign of authorial omnipotence/expansion of authority?
only one way to circumvent this obstacle: turn advent of the Other into author's dimmed vision, faltering voice
brother's presence a disruptive attack on author's command:
the "boundless, incarcerating black hole of another person,"
a negative, chaotic intrusion that breaks the self apart, rips the text into silence that lets the Other in
silent split: a common ground, where communication can be let loose
King-Kok Cheung: "language can liberate but it can also coerce, distort, and regulate...
there are enabling silences"

rb.richx: i began thinking about … a common transformative experience of women who attend women’s colleges….‘come to a women’s college to find your voice. a woman surrounded by women here will go though “an almost miraculous transformation from a girl who sucked her thumb to a young woman who… spoke her mind”.... performativity … changes us...who is a “real me”?

i’m also thinking of what our tour guide said when we visited eastern state penitentiary …that the original goal of the penitentiary was to rehabilitate, but …to what? there was little space for individuality in the rehabilitation process. how to consciously rehabilitate without suppressing or erasing a part of an identity?