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On Gendered Silence

han yu's picture

On Gendered Silence

       “Be careful of some books. They can sting readers who feel entitled to know everything […] The slap of refused intimacy from uncooperative books can slow readers down” (Sommer, ix). Gendered silence is inalienable to the unequal power dynamics. The sources of the oppressions in the power dynamics are not only limited to dominant males, but also exist in women who refuse to be open and honest to their comrades as Rich analyzed women’s lying to each other which may impede collective liberation, or generally people who refuse to respect disadvantaged people’s agency in their own experiences and knowledge. In this opening quote from Sommer, the readers who are stinged by “uncooperative books” are those who want to manipulate others’ stories, for their personal interests, or voyeurism, or maintaining their positions of power.

       By making analogies between John in Brothers & Keepers and the ethnographers (interviewers), Grandjeat critiques that, for the interviewers, “[…]the bits and pieces of material gathered are indeed made to fit into a coherent narrative guided by a totalizing—‘completing the performance’—intention coupled with decisive authorial choices that are testimony to ‘logical and esthetic considerations’” (p.689). How I interpret Grandjeat’s words is that the interviewers, narrators, or authors, who are in the position of power, and whose patrons/audiences are people in power, are always trying to plot others’ stories, especially traumatic experiences of people not in power, into elaborate performances which make sense to the audiences, by using their own privileged logic and language system. Once the stories become performances, whether they are authentic is not important anymore, as long as they are coherent and esthetic. People’s authentic feelings do not always follow a common logic. However, if the stories do not make sense as elaborate performances, they are not entertaining enough for the voyeurisms. Two feminists “caution that ‘survivor speech’ has become ‘a media commodity’ that has a use value based on its sensationalism and drama”, and “the ‘cult of victimization’ reifies women as victims and has led to a ‘mass infantilization of women’” (Sweeney, p.84). “As Eva tells her tale, she conveys a profound sense of being imprisoned in others’ misreadings and misprisions, their refusals to hear and concomitant demands that she speak” (Sweeney, p.463). Motivated by curiosity or condescension, people in power often want to peep at those victims’ lives. How they really feel is not given any priority. What matters is that “the victims” give resources for those people to fantasize, to satisfy their curiosity, or sense of being in power. “Renee Heberle argues that public testimony about women’s sexual victimization confers a monolithic reality onto ‘an otherwise phantasmatic, illegitimate, and therefore fragile edifice of masculinist dominance’” (p.463). Eva, however, refused to give this kind of resources.

       After reading Sommer’s analysis of particularism and universalism in writing, I want to further critique that universalism will inevitably sacrifice uniqueness. Especially for people underprivileged, their personal uniqueness and the contexts of their stories are easily ignored, and they are constantly being defined solely by their “common” adversities. Universalism also destroys communications. Real communications, which should be based on a democratic style, will lead to true knowledge, and it is the teller who always has the agency and ownership of that knowledge. The imperialistic hearing with assumptions, trying to claim, exploit and distort others’ stories, is not real communication, and will eventually push the teller into silence. “[…]something different from knowledge. Philosophers have called it acknowledgement. Others call it respect” (Sommer, xi). “Secrecy is a safeguard to freedom, […] it is the inviolable core of human subjectivity that makes interaction a matter of choice rather than rational necessity” (p.119). Neither acknowledgement nor “respect” (which is not real respect but rather condescension) is needed for tellers. They need their freedom as the agency and ownership of knowledge of their stories, which may be protected by secrecy. And they long for the right to choose whether to start an interaction or not, depending on their discretion on the nature of this interaction, since they don’t want to be sacrificed for an unreal communication based on false assumptions. “In Two Cities, the narrator’s inability and unwillingness to name the Other is then a welcome guarantee of the latter’s inalienable freedom” (Grandjeat, p.687). When such narrators cannot be met, silence and secrecy become the final result.

       “Menchu’s audible silences and her wordy refusals to talk are calculated, not to cut short our curiosity, but to incite it, so that we feel distanced” (Sommer, p.119). The audible silences of Menchu also reminds me of Eva, and Grandjeat’s argument of artists’ “let go”. “On the part of the artist, this translates into a need to let go of a will to use representation to appropriate the world by copying it, framing it, freezing it into any given image. Letting go of the controlling urge thus involves discarding any naturalistic or realistic intention” (p.692). Refusing (or did not intend) to frame her experience by giving any names or meanings to it and make it become any given image, Eva expressed her “let go”, although from some readers’ perspective it is “indifference”, in a fluid, natural flow of consciousness. It seems that she did not even try to control her thoughts, but rather tell the story it is as it is. People in power have accustomed to see everything from their own fixed lens. This can be a kind of controlling urge. They frame their thoughts and interpretations and do not see the problems of it since they already have owned so much without being needed to compromise anything. They are not threatened of losing something. They may even force those not in power into their own frameworks. What’s more, privilege is insidiously invisible. People take their freedom of framing everything they see as granted, without seeing others’ struggles in being exploited. Only those who experienced the life of being underprivileged, used to be accustomed to being forced to accept the harsh realities without any choices, those who have seen the truth of this world it is as it is, could know how it feels, and could understand how this world is being shaped. Maybe this is the reason of Eva’s silent seeing and feeling. Since she knew how it felt to be misinterpreted, she, covertly deep in her heart, still hoped to open some opportunity for people to stop shaping, but start seeing, as what Menchu’s audible silences similarly intended. And Eva herself gave us an example of doing this in her encounter with Davis’ wife. It is easily seen that Eva was curious about her thoughts, but Eva just stopped there. “[…]this encounter highlights a method of reading that privileges silence as an act of attentive listening, […]draws attention to instances when existing explanations fail. Although Eva wonders […], she refuses to honor assumptions based on immediate appearances; respecting the integrity of the feminine object […]” (Sweeney, p.458).

       As Eva and Menchu probably hoped, “silence deployed from below rather than enforced from above can function as a mode of resistance to domination”. Eva said nothing. “[T]hey would merely fit her story into reductive, ready-made interpretive frameworks that cannot account for the complexity of her experiences” (Sweeney, p.90). I have analyzed their possible reasons and hopes in remaining silence, but is their silence really a choice? How can they be sure that the silence is “deployed from below” rather than “enforced from above”? When the result of being misinterpreted and being forced into others’ framework will eventually happen, is silence still a choice? Does their choice make any difference? If no one cares about their resistance, is it still resistance? Everything goes back to the issue of power.

       In The Woman Warrior, the girl kept silence for a long while with her rage toward her mom growing inside her. “Maybe Because I was the one with the tongue cut loose, I had grown inside me a list of over two hundred things that I had to tell my mother so that she would know the true things about me and to stop the pain in my throat” (Kingston, p.229). And once Eva was eating with Davis, he said something bothered Eva. “I could feel my muscles tighten, my skin withdraw, but he didn’t act like he could feel it. I held my own belch in, till it made me feel sick. All that gas inside. I said nothing” (Jones, p.126). When they remained in silence, they were actually accumulating some “power”. This pseudo-power is a kind of negative energy that is gnawing and fermenting in their stomachs. People have limits and they will eventually erupt. Unfortunately, when they were still in the underprivileged position, their pseudo-power backfired much more painfully on themselves: the girl scolded by her mom, and Eva caught up in the criminal justice system. People not in power have no choice. If they remain silence, they are tormenting themselves. If they choose to speak up, they will not be taken seriously, or will be misinterpreted. If they choose to break the silence in violent or aggressive ways, more severe punishments than anticipated achievements will be poured on them. Before they can even realize and respond to what happened, they have been already marginalized another step further in this world.

Gendered silence, is disempowered silence. Disempowered silence is unbreakable unless people themselves become powerful enough. 


Anne Dalke's picture

I appreciate the parallel you develop here (one that WhoAmI also explored) between Sweeney’s reading of Eva’s Man and Sommer’s reading of Rigoberta Menchu: both claim that “secrecy is a safeguard to freedom,” that “silence can function as a mode of resistance to domination.”

I’d asked you to ground your claims in a text, and you really did that here by then challenging both Sweeney and Sommer’s position with two very visceral, textual examples: the pain in the throat of Kingston’s character, and the pain in Eva’s gut. Using these bodily experiences, you rename the “power” that Sweeney and Sommer celebrate “pseudo-power,” and end with the claim that “People not in power have no choice.” Without power, you are saying, there is no choice.

Where does this leave us then? It seems very hopeless …. Are you saying that discussions of silence and voice all come back to questions of power, and that, without the power to choose, are really meaningless/beside the point?