“McLuhan heralds the end of print; the Gutenberg galaxy burns itself out. Electric technology can dispense with words, and language can be shunted on the way to universal consciousness… At a certain limit of contemporary vision, language moves towards silence. Criticism must learn this to acknowledge this metaphor.”
-Ihab Hassan, Metaphors of Silence [1]

And what is this metaphor we call silence? Typically, silence is used to convey an abstinence or forbearance from speech/utterance. In other words, silence is the intentional or imposed state of muteness. Silence denotes an inaudible condition or moment of complete stillness. Silence is a threshold, the limit to language, the very realm Hamlet witnesses as he remarks in his parting words, “the rest is silence.” Silence, as a verb, inscribes itself in its very act: to silence is to silence an argument. To be silent is to neglect or fail to communicate. In a monastic context, silence functions as a vow, a deference to a spiritual force or sublime awareness. Silence can also be a physical/spiritual state, an aesthetic, and a cultural device. Silence, in its paradoxical materiality, carries a broad massing of weights (heaviness, weightlessness, plenitude, and emptiness). Consider the rhetorical gesture of the “pregnant pause,” a moment of silence that is both emptied out and pregnant with its own (ponder)ous implications. For a spiritual writer like Keroauc, locating silence is like locating Nirvana, [2] an “extinction or disappearance of the individual within the universal harmony of the soul.” The “site” or “state” of silence can then be seen as a simultaneous weightlessness (a dissolution of corporeal limits) and kinetic plenitude.

In many cases, silence functions as a sign, one that reaches across Peirce’s semiotic trichotomy of Icon, Index, and Symbol. [3] An empty space between words is “iconic” for silence, in that it both resembles and functions as an absence. As an index, silence both maintains a presence and refers to the physicality of absence, exemplified in the function of ellipses. Within the syntax of language, ellipses serve as a both indices for meaning and loss, in that they can signify an absence functioning as a metaphor or commentary on relationships of empowerment and voice. This is played out in the gestural space of contemporary performance poets such as Caroline Bergvall, [4] who use moments of silence as a method (dis)figuration, (de)narrativization, and (dis)articulation. Similar to a symbol, silence functions as a law (language) and association of ideas (rhetoric). This is true in so far as silence can be seen as a body of rules organized under a common authority (similar to language), such as the legally structured and structuring “moment of silence.” The “moment of silence” denotes a prescribed system of behaviors and regulations, a Symbolic ground for the gestural space of law, as can be seen in many public/private places of study (classroom), veneration (church), and due process (courtroom). In terms of rhetoric, silence (as a Symbol) can be articulated through a series associations, such as a constellation of ellipses/absences in a given text or speech. As this article will show, there are many instances of what silence may be seen to denote, despite the fact that the “existence” of silence may be only within the “imaginary universe to which the Symbol (of silence) refers.” [5]

One of the most ancient icons of silence, Harpocrates, the Egyptian’s child Horus, stands crowned with moon-horns and holding a finger lightly over his lips.

In their co-option and refiguring of this form as the god of “silence and secrecy,” the Greco-Romans created what would become one of the enduring gestures of silence, the human body forbearing its own ability to speak. In fact, this could be one of the earliest instance of the platitude, “children should be seen and not heard.” In the Judeo-Christian creation narrative, the world began with the utterance of the “word,” and so the primitive and incipient state that predated God’s utterance was silence itself. Max Picard, in his World of Silence, posits silence as this very pre-historical state of plenitude. As he says, “Silence contains everything in itself. It is not waiting for anything, it is always wholly present in itself and it completely fills out the space in which it appears.” [6] As man clamors in the realm of knowledge, the angelic order communicates without words, without verbal discourse, and the gods remain silent in their transcendence of speech. [cf Milton] In the example of the Parsees, the tower of silence is that place upon which we place our dead.

If silence is an absence, then it must also demand its presence. Just as Buster Keaton gesticulated in a “silent” image, so too did his gestures demand the balance of language, a marriage of the silent act with linguistic meaning. As McLuhan says of our relationship to silent films: we “automatically provide sound for ourselves by way of ‘closure’ or completion.” [7] In no way were silent films a representation of a “failure to communicate,” rather they represented a moment when actors used silence to push against the very medium in which they were contained, much like a mime runs his hands over an imaginary wall. Context is also essential for the silent film (or any notion of silence), for Keaton’s gestural space/image remained silent only as long as the world spoke around him.

Silent films were only “silent” in so far as they possessed no diagetic sound. In fact, they were often joined by live instrumental accompaniment as well as parallel textual insertions or illustrations of plot/dialogue demonstrate. In effect, silence and speech exist in a symbiotic relationship.

In terms of narrative/poetic space, silence is a chronology, a beginning collapsed into the end. Consider Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon in the play, Waiting for Godot, who are seemingly waiting for the return of a defining force in a land characterized more by silence/absence than anything else. In much of Beckett’s work, he takes up silence is both everything and nothing, total loss, and in the sense of existential potential, total gain. Silence indicates both the absence of language and the presence of a total, obliterating language. [8] In Lacan’s psychoanalytic sense that we are all “over-determined” by the phallic signifier, we exist in a mute relationship to that which determines our ideas and conceptions of self (language). [9] We are literally silenced by the phallic signifier. Similarly, silence occurs at extreme moments of trauma. For example, individuals who suffer from aphasia remain unable to connect the word with the image and are thus lost in this silent schism. In her account of contemporary art shifting away from charged, tired language and towards the “aesthetic of silence,” Susan Sontag posits silence as a metaphor for a “cleansed, non-interfering vision, in which one might envisage the making of art-works that are unresponsive before being seen, inviolable in their essential integrity by human scrutiny.” [10] In fact, Sontag believes that language “points to its own transcendence in silence,” [11] the dream of a perceptual] and cultural clean slate.

In Language and Silence, George Steiner addresses and breaks down this ancient dialectic or struggle between the word and silence by positing the primacy of speech. Steiner argues that the “word” broke man free from the great silence of matter, and, like Ibsen’s hammer, forced the insensate ore into a song. [12] Similar to the Judeo-Christian creation narrative, Steiner sees silence an embodiment of the insensate and inhuman world. He reinforces this environmental conception of silence when he describes it as that which “surrounds the nakedness of discourse.” [13] Then there is Picard who would respond by saying silence is not simply “what happens when we stop talking. It is more than the mere negative renunciation of language; it is more than simply a condition that we can produce at will.” [14] In this figuration of silence, Picard stands close to Heidegger and other phenomonologists who relate silence to a “genuine discourse.” For Bernard Dauenhauer, silence functions as a state-of-being, in that it is both the initiative and responsiveness required to manifest the significance of being. [15] Silence serves as a mode of knowledge. The educational philosopher, George Kalamaras resonates with these phenomenological and dialectical claims when he says, “silence is not opposed to language, which I define as the capacity for vocal and written utterance. Rather, silence and language act in a reciprocal fashion in the construction of knowledge.” [16] Heidegger goes so far to claim silence as endemic to authenticity, and that it is silence from which we fall, thrown into the incessant chattering of “idle talk.” [17] Similarly, in his essay concerning poetic revelation, Octavio Paz describes silence as a phenomenal terrain upon which the artist reveals the hidden being of language. The poet confronts silence in coming up against “the brink of language. And that brink is silence, the blank page. A silence that is a lake, a smooth and compact surface. Down below it, submerged, the words are waiting.” [18]

In his landmark composition, 4’33”, Cage employs silence as a counterforce to the limits of individual subjectivity/agency. “The language of silence is one that knows how to listen when the other centers act, so that it can construct itself as a reaction to the others, and not only as the self-determined action of its own talking.” [19] For Cage, silence is a force that neutralizes the self as the body is made aware of the “noise” that fills our preconceptions and histories, our natural world. In fact, Cage goes so far as to claim that no such thing as silence exists at all. On a visit to a soundless vacuum chamber located at Harvard University, Cage claimed that even in this great absence he could still hear two faint tones: his heart pounding and his blood coursing through his head. For Cage, to embrace silence is to resist McLuhan’s notion of sensory closure and dissolve the internal/external model of self and world and “open the doors of music to the sounds that happen to be in the environment.” [20] Silence is not an absence of sound, but a chance operation that reconfigures listening as a discontinuous and non-linear act. As Gerald L. Burns rightly points out, Cage’s notion of silence “opening itself to the world in all of its randomness and contingency,” is far different thing from many other modern artistic notions of silence. [21] Burns gives the example of the French poet, Mallarmé, who felt silence was achieved by an exclusion of the materiality of language. One could also contrast that with Valéry who believed that poetry should express that which is ineffable, or essentially, that which was silent. In that way, the poetry of silence becomes an act of self-negation, for one can employ it to subvert the very technology that enables the (poetic) process itself.

As mentioned earlier, the contextualization of silence is essential to gain an understanding of its usage. In his “Lecture of Nothing,” John Cage uses empty spaces between texts to heighten the audiences awareness of silence as well as the accidental/indeterminate nature of the text. While silence is typically attributed as an aural quality, so too can silent be a visual attribute. Take for example one of Robert Raushenberg’s White Paintings, possessing a much different visual character than the “silent” image.

In this case, silence highlights its position as a ground for the pictorial figure. In Raushenberg’s rendering of these white canvases, he was demonstrating silence as a surface awaiting inscription by the world. [22] The absence of image allowed shadows and sirens pour in from the windows and become the composition, the play of the world. The silent visual plane both welcomes and resists embodiment. For Sontag, this would be an example of a silencing calling for and enacting the “elimination of the ‘subject’ (the ‘object,’ the ‘image’).” [23] Analogously, Steiner relates the poet’s willful retreat into silence as a reaction to an “injury to language.” On the other hand, William O. Beeman provides the example of silent prayer or ritual which raises silence to the level of the figure while the “normal activity of the gathering recedes to become the ground against which it is presented.” [24] In this example, silence also works against solitude with which it is traditionally associated and demonstrates itself as a collective, reverential act.

Often related to this public act of prayer, one of the most common and traditional modes of silence is the “moment of silence.” This is typically employed as a tool for commemoration, honor, or respect. As an elegiac pathos for the dead, the moment of silence is a gesture of sympathy/identification. This “moment” also transitions into larger public realms codified by silence, such as the court room, the hospital, or the library. It is also no coincidence that these “moments of silence,” have also become ideological battlegrounds along secular and religious horizons. As Foucault claims, “the silent treatment can be a technique of torture, producing a certain degree of pain, forming part of a ritual, creating a spectacle [link], seen by all almost as its triumph.” [25] In so far as silence is contextualized by speech and rhetoric, situated as the pregnant pause, it is also bound up with paradoxical figurations of empowerment and censorship. As Cheryl Glenn points out, the “rhetoric of silence” has always relied upon notions of power, authorship, and agency. [26] Both Glenn and Sontag speak of silence as potential resistance against misrepresentation and imposition. In this way, silence frees the artist from “servile bondage to the world.” [26] Silence, traditionally characterized as a form of “feminine grace,” [28] is reclaimed as a method of radical speech. In her article on uses of silence in contemporary Spanish literature, Janet Pérez claims that Spanish authors reacted to Franco’s fascist ideology by using “literary silence as a reaction to specific political circumstances.” Janet Pérez provides an interesting example of this method in Buero Vallejo’s dramatic portrait of Goya. Set during the painter’s incipient deafness, there is a sequence in which actors are merely to mouth the words…. so that the spectators – in silence – share the protagonist’s experience.”29

With that said, how can we use these “metaphors” of silence to test McLuhan’s prophesy for the electric age, one where silence becomes that prophetic “weightlessness” and speechless harmony that we enter once enthroned in the “cosmic consciousness.” As we have seen, verbal, visual, and oracular silences have a profound effect on structuring our social, political, and aesthetic practices as well as our relationships to media. In its paradoxical character, silence serves as a medium at the threshold of experiences and expressions. Silence is both the ground upon which speech occurs as well as the embodiment of a unique and transcendent discourse. Following the spirit of Cage’s indeterminate silence, I thought it would be productive to end with a few questions instead of rendering any closure to the term.

If silence represents, as Sontag claims, “everything that could be said,” a state of plenitude and knowing, what does that mean in relationship to its seemingly paradoxical character of presence/absence? Similarly, what does it mean for the scholar of rhetoric, Robert L. Scott, when he claims that “in silence, we speak?” [30] In terms of the contemporary media-scape, how can silence function as a site or place of respite from a seemingly endless proliferation of images and consumptive power? If we believe Cage, that there is really is no such thing as silence, how can we employ silence as a medium to resist amputation from the world? Conversely, how can silence function as an extension of man, and would this extension look something like Vladimir and Estragon stumbling over themselves in a forgotten world?

Chris P. Miller
Winter 2007

1. Hassan, Ihab, “Metaphors of Silence,” Frontiers of Literary Criticism, ed. David H. Malone (Los Angeles: Hennesey and Ingalls, 1974), pp. 35-52

2. Keroauc, Jack, Dharma Bums, (New York: Penguin, 2000)

3. Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler, (New York: Dover, 1955), pg. 102

4. For an example of this use of silence, see the poem “About Face” in Bergvall’s most recent collection, Fig (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2005)

5. Peirce, pg. 103

6. Picard, Max, The World of Silence, (Washington, D.C.: Gateway, 1988), pg. 17

7. McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media, (McGraw Hill: New York and London, 1964), pg. 287

8. A Susan Sontag Reader, “Aesthetics of Silence,” (New York: Farrar, Straux, Giroux, pg. 1982), pp. 181-205

9. Lacan, Jacques, Ecrits: Signification of the Phallus, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), pg. 274

10. Sontag, pg. 191

11. Sontag, pg. 192

12. Steiner, George, Language and Silence, (New Haven: Yale UP, 1998), pg. 36

13. Picard, pg. 15

14. Picard, pg. 16

15. Dauenhauer, Bernard, Silence: The Phenomenon and Its Ontological Significance, (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1980), pg 107

16. Kalamaras, George, “Meditative Silence and Reciprocity,” Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning 2, (1996-1997), pg. 8

17. Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson, (London: EMC, 1962), pg. 208

18. Paz, Octavio, The Bow and the Lyre,(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973), pg. 13

19. John Cage: Composed in America, ed. Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman, (Chicago: U Chicago, 1994), pg. 184 (also, for further reading on John Cage and Silence, read his book, entitled Silence)

20. Ibid, pg. 214

21. John Cage Reader, ed. Peter Gena and Jonathan Brent, (New York: Peters, 1982), pp. 20-37

22. In his essay, Word and Image, Mitchell discusses the case of literary texts as the silent white page upon which the words are pressed and organized. – Mitchell, W. T. J., “Word and Image,” Critical Terms for Art History, Picture Theory, ed. Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff, (Chicago: University of Chicago), pg. 47

23. Sontag, pp. 186-188

24. Beeman, William O., “Silence in Music,” Silence: The Currency of Power, ed. Maria-Luisa Achino-Loeb, (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006), pg. 33

25. Foucault, Michelle, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Trans. Alan Sheridan, (New York: Vintage, 1995), pp. 33-34

26. Glenn, Cheryl, Rhetoric of Silence, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004)

27. Sontag, pg. 190

28. “Silence gives grace to woman – though that is not the case likewise with man.” -Aristotle, Politics 1.5.9

29. Pérez, Janet, “Functions of the Rhetoric of Silence in Contemporary Spanish Literature,” South Central Review, Vol. 1, No.1/2. (Spring – Summer, 1984), pg. 115

30. Scott, Robert L., “Dialectical Tensions of Speaking and Silence,” Quarterly Journal of Speec 79, (1993), pp. 1-18


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