In Praise of Silence
If we were to deliberately assume a naive position, we might say that silence is not merely the absence of meaning but the absence even of the possibility of meaning. Silence is in fact quite rare in our day to day speech: we do not pause at length between words. It is not the gap but our own linguistic knowledge that allows us to recognize that there are multiple signs in play in a single string, and that the white space used to separate words in text often serves more of an aesthetic purpose than one of comprehensibility. That the white space does not truly signify silence should be obvious, otherwise we would not have invented the ellipse. Despite all of this, there is something powerful about silence—why else should it hold such portentous power for us? Why should it be considered a worthy subject for art and poetry? It is real, as darkness is real, as cold is real; we feel these things truly as positive sensations, and not merely negations of something else. Silence is truly present, and not merely as absence.
Silence is not merely the absence of speech, nor the canvas for speech, nor the negative space defined by speech. It occupies a space of its own within the semiotic universe. What that space is, and how it relates to other semiotic functions, has not yet been thoroughly explained: when great thinkers have discussed silence, they still speak about it in negative terms, as analogous to absence.* This is mistaken. In this regard, the arts have shown themselves more prescient than linguistic and aesthetic theories. The twentieth century produced numerous works of art which used silence as its prevailing motif, from John Cage’s 4’33’’ to Derek Jarman’s Blue. From an artistic standpoint, silence has finally been recognized and accorded the respect it is due. Performing a similar operation in philosophy is the task of our present inquiry. We ask, simply, what silence does to us: how it affects us emotionally and shapes our aesthetic experiences.
The first step in this inquiry is to recognize the manifold functions of silence. One can use silence to signify either assent or dissent, though this depends on a number of other cues which can be semiotic in nature (and which mostly rely on the speech of other parties involved). In this case, silence is unidirectional, operating solely to communicate one party’s response to another. But one can also use silence in a more baroque manner, to take the place of speech in such cases as when a dialogue sheds its pretension of being a dynamic invention of its participants—in which one person says something, then the other replies, without a necessary relation between the first statement and the second except insofar as the speaker chooses to address what his interlocutor has said. Then it is revealed to be a formally inevitable progression spiralling around a single idea, yet on the surface remaining clandestine and silent. Once this is understood, words are unnecessary: silence responds to silence.
Every one of us has, in our own lives, experienced this kind of preverbal communication. Those with whom we share a particular bond may make themselves known to us better by silence than by speech, and we can trust that the relationship holds in both directions. One might respond, however, that this is less due to the power of silence itself than it is to the strength of a particular human bond. The silence does not say anything; rather, it allows the internal recapitulation of what has already been said, contributing nothing new, and if one wishes to alter this meaning one must rely on another sign system—gestures, facial expressions, and the like (as said above). It is an adulterated silence, one which occurs only in a linguistic context.
But words are themselves an abstraction. They obfuscate the meanings which we hold and comprehend before we try to articulate them. How many times have you attempted to say “what’s on your mind,” only to find that you can’t summon up the right words? And in attempting to translate, how often have you garbled what you “meant” to say? It is as if, meaning being constantly deferred, the words we choose are often only second cousins of the ones which we ought to have chosen. When we remain silent, we are able to hold our sentiments in purity, and by means of our intimacy with and the tenderness we feel towards our friends and companions, express them without recourse to words.
Even in the world of the image, silence has the power to enshroud and define the reading of a work, particularly when images are arranged in a sequence. Consider, for example, a common film scenario: a man steps into a room, oblivious to the gunman lurking in the shadows. The assassin raises his weapon—and we cut away, unresolved. And yet, we know what must have happened, and we do not need to be shown. It is not an absence but a silence, an understanding, between the audience and the director. This principle is at work in almost all media whose purpose is to convey a narrative, in one form or another. Indeed, it is the principle of all montage in cinema, the linking of disparate images with the faith that the viewer will accept the disjunction, as described by Eisenstein and the other early Soviet theorists. Sequential art theorist Scott McCloud refers to this principle as “closure” — the way the reader will mentally “fill the gaps” between panels of a comic, allowing the reader to see the connection between separate instants, actions, subjects, and scenes.
In long-form works there is a related principle, elaborated upon by Umberto Eco in the essay “Small Worlds” from The Limits of Understanding. The work allows us to assume that there is a constancy in the world of the text with the world of our lived experience. One might say that all works which do not explicitly state otherwise can be assumed to take place in “our world,” at one or another point, its past or present. If nothing is said outright to contradict a certain aspect of the nature of the world as we know it, we may assume that in that aspect the world of the novel remains the same as ours. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, the name “Napoleon” does not appear once, yet we may still assume that the Napoleonic Wars exist within the world of Pride and Prejudice as much as they exist within the world of War and Peace.
The decision not to say something in this case, far from being an omission, is a kind of statement of trust: the author need not repeat for us what we already know, or what we both assume to be true, or what is held to be inconsequential to the work at hand. This kind of silence is similar in nature to the simple rules of linguistic inference which govern our daily interaction. Silence on a certain subject matter carries information—perhaps not information about the subject, but information about our disposition towards the subject and our willingness to speak further on the subject. What underlies these disparate functions is the assumption of continuity, and, to a greater extent, of certainty in our standing conception of the world, that things will remain the same if not stated otherwise. In this regard silence is equated to stasis. Only speech provokes action and change; only speech is dynamic. This is the essence of what I might term a chauvinism of the positive, in that absence is always taken to mean a lack of substance. However, this is true only insofar as one values dynamism above stability. Even in this function silence plays as much of a role in language as does speech, for silence is what enables speech at all.
Still there is another function to silence. This is not silence unidirectionally, or silence as elided speech, but silence as itself. In this function silence does not function in symbiosis with speech, as representing one force over another, or as a substitute for speech. It functions without recourse to the idea of speech at all, and in fact predates speech. Silence in this aspect is a reference to the pre-Genesic moment, before there was “the Word” (John 1:1), before language had begun its work; in this way, it is somewhat related to the first function we described, but different in that rather than expressing a single unadulterated sentiment, silence here expresses the manifold of sentiments and notions that the world might contain. This should not be confused with the pre-Saussurean idea (found in the works of Rousseau and his contemporaries) of a natural, pre-linguistic state, although it draws upon that idea. We take this image of a time before language not in the historical sense as a conception of a factual period in human development, but as an image which exists and possesses potency in human consciousness, like the Garden of Eden or the Golden Age. Before words were necessary, there was understanding, harmony, and silence.
Silence exists within language as an appeal to this imagined past, one which we are capable of imagining within ourselves. It is, one might say, silence as infinite possibility, not as total negation but as total affirmation. Silence encapsulates all possibility, like the matter which gave rise to the Big Bang; it expresses a multitude, a manifold, open to infinite semiosis on both horizontal and vertical axes. To be silent is to express an infinite landscape for interpretation; anything might be meant. Therefore, silence possesses the capacity to be all things for all people. There are cultures and epochs that have embraced this function of silence. The earliest cultures did not attempt specificity in their paintings of living creatures on cave walls; however detailed and refined these representations might have been, much remained unsaid. It is as if their painters feared to reveal too much—as the Aborigines are said (apocryphally) to distrust photography, and as the Hebrew Bible forbids the creation of graven images.
This fear survived even into the dawn of civilization. In the stoic faces of ancient sculpture—those sculptures which predate Hellenistic realism, from Egypt to Crete to Babylon—one can read what one chooses: they are the immovable visages of imperishable gods, unperturbed by the centuries. Shelley saw a “sneer of cold command” in the visage of Ramses II; Vyacheslav Ivanov, describing the Bakst painting Terror Antiquus, sees in the kore’s archaic smile the cold stare of Ananke, goddess of inevitability. Some forms of art which make use of this same function have survived to the modern day. The masks of Japanese Noh theatre, while vivid and expressionistic, are designed such that, depending on lighting and position, they can seem to express anything from joy to rage to despair. They would not have this power if the mask by itself did not refrain from speaking of its own accord. These are considered as powerful and evocative as any other art; they are not any the lesser for their lack of specificity, for the point at which the artist chose to stop speaking.
With these brief remarks we have delineated only the smallest subset of the possible functions of silence. Fittingly it is perhaps not possible to describe them all. We cannot speak of the infinite except by analogy, and we cannot truly conceive of its negation either, so long as we are bound to speech. Our escape, our way out of this prison of our own making, must be silence. In silence one sees every meaning at once, the total plane of possible meaning. As we have stated, in a historical sense, there is no pre-linguistic state; there is no genuine silence. We are not calling for the destruction of language but rather for its reconstruction and revaluation. Silence is not an end in itself; it is not meant as a permanent state but as a stage on which language can arise again and reassert its power. Refusing to speak is recreating the origin of language itself, in a form which we may shape.
*I am referring particularly to Schopenhauer’s “On Noise,” where silence is reduced to the negation of noise