On Intervening

In March 2013, a few months after we conclude the first version of this course, three students and I are offered the opportunity to take what we’ve learned farther afield. We’re accepted to present at a conference, “Silence…Silenzio,” which is sponsored by the French Italian Graduate Society at the University of Pennsylvania. The conference call for papers describes silence as

an act and experience that contributes to the way we perceive and live in the world. Silence can be deliberately adopted or forcefully imposed, political and/or aesthetic. It pervades society and cultural productions not only through its mute presence but also through its telling absence….silence renders apparent that which at first seems unutterable or ineffable. Silence can therefore say a great deal.1

The conference that ensues, however, does not focus either on the “unutterable or ineffable,” or on what silence “can say”; it is centered, rather, around multiple critiques of enforced silences embedded in literary texts. My students and I spend a springtime Saturday listening to analyses of silences created by interpersonal relations and cultural trauma2 These presentations are linked together by several presumptions running counter to those which have emerged during our fall semester of shared study: that silence means only the absence of words (other forms of communication—touch, eye contact, laughter—are scarcely attended to); that speaking is always preferable to being silent; that “authentic dialogue” is both possible and capable of facilitating political action. The more philosophic papers argue that we actually “cannot stop talking,” whether guided by an understanding of the “inaudible whisper” of Heidigger, or the “open set” that is language in Lacan.3

Of the more than twenty papers read that day, only one gestures toward the possibility that language can be incomplete as a medium of communication, might inhibit awareness of something unspoken or unspeakable. A look at The Last Day of a Condemned Man suggests that withholding narrative might both powerfully evoke the emptiness of the speaker’s psychological state, and offer an intentional space for others to see beyond the moment of judgment, what is typically unseen.4 Elsewhere, however–most forcefully during the keynote address with which the day concludes–we are urged to “resist silence,” in literature as in politics. Christy Walpole ends the conference by encouraging all of us to speak in and against the “imposed silences” of political incarceration, of historical deletion, and—most particularly and climactically—those of the market logic driving university life. Walpole acknowledges the need for silence as a temporary strategy, a means of creating space for academic labor, of preparing for public speaking and writing, for filling in “empty blanks.”5 She does not invite us, however, to leave these blanks unfilled, nor does she explore the possibility that such emptiness might itself fill a need.

And yet all the sessions at the conference are filled with silences: the silence of those of us who aren’t listening to what is being said; who don’t understand French or Italian well enough to follow the talks presented in those languages; who disagree with the speakers, but don’t speak up; the silence of those of us distracted by the cacophony going on inside our heads–or by the silence there.all the sessions at the conference are filled with silences: the silence of those of us who aren’t listening to what is being said; who don’t understand French or Italian well enough to follow the talks presented in those languages; who disagree with the speakers, but don’t speak up; the silence of those of us distracted by the cacophony going on inside our heads–or by the silence there.

At midday, my students and I offer a lunchtime intervention into this dynamic: a roundtable on the “pedagogy of silence” in which we explicitly engage in silent practices and explore their use-value, not as spaces of exclusion, but of abundance and possibility.6

Our experiment garners a mixed response.

Our own course on “The Rhetorics of Silence” has unsettled the norm of speaking in class, based on the linked assumptions that what is said is more important than what is left unspoken, that those who are speaking are guiding the class forward, while those who are silent are not contributing. My students and I open our conference session not by telling attenders these things, but by inviting them to taste that experience, to feel their way into some possible positive uses of silence. Beginning our roundtable in silence has a particular value, we say, in the context of this academic conference, where speaking is so valued, and in the context of this particular conference, which purports to explore various dimensions of silence–-where, ironically, we have been talking for hours about silence, and anticipate many more hours of the same.

We also try to suggest the value of silence in broader strokes, to offer the practice of stillness as a mode of “living differently.”

Some in the room squirm, unsure what to do when the usual quick exchange that dominates in conference settings is set aside. Many of the participants find the experience destabilizing (although, not incidentally, the two exhausted conference organizers, who find it a welcome relief!).

The discomfort continues throughout our session, as my students describe various ways in which attending to silence in our course has opened a range of possibilities for them. Drawing on her long-time experience as a “divergent thinker,” who often finds herself distracted in classroom settings, Sara Gladwin asks for space in the curriculum “that allows what is traditionally silenced to enter the classroom.” Sophia Abbot offers a pointed description of herself as a “typical outspoken student,” who has learned to silence herself, and invites others to do the same, in the classroom. Esteniolla Maitre invites participants to experiment in a discussion conducted in absolute silence.

Investment in this exercise varies. Participants report feeling stripped of academic privilege, robbed of an opportunity to speak. Some experiment with gestures, or sign language; other simply give up trying to participate in the conversation. Many feel misunderstood, and all feel frustrated at not understanding what others were trying to “say.”

Why, we ask, don’t we attend to such silences? Why do we ignore them—or recognize them only by hurrying to end them, to obscure them with a quick and ready question? At what cost, to our own learning, do we fill up such spaces? And how might we intervene in such a process, open it up to alternative dimensions?

Trying to “give silence more space” seems to us a significant interruption of the range of vocal performances that constitute the genre of the academic conference, a way of bringing some of what we’ve learned about both the uses and limitations of silence, in an undergraduate course, into a primary site of graduate education.

It also feels appropriate to conclude our exploration in silence, so we end our session without trying to “sum up” what has happened.

Words. Few. Very few. Inch worms across vast silences. After all that had happened

Miguel Angel Asturias. The Mirror of Lida Sal 

There was a strange stillness….It was a spring without voices….On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus…there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh….The roadsides…too, were silent, deserted by all living things….What has…silenced the voices of spring in countless towns in America? This book is an attempt to explain

–Rachel Carson, “A Fable for Tomorrow,” Silent Spring 

  1. Lisa Bromberg and Andrew Korn, Call for Papers, Silence…Silenzio: Annual Conference of the French Italian Graduate Society, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, November, 2012.
  2. Natalie Berkman, “The Silence of the Interlocutor in Camus’ The Fall”; Chris Bonner, “Staging a Dictatorship: Silence, Surveillance, and Theatricality in Marie Chauvet’s Colere”; Carla Cornette, “Silence as Remedy: The Psychological Defense Mechanism of Silence in Mio Marito by Natalia Ginzburg”; Jill González, “Silence and Memory in Guadalupe Santa Cruz’s Cita capital”; Jenny Kosniowski, “Textual Silences and the Amnesty for Torture Committed during the Algerian War: Maïssa Bey’s Entendez-vous dans les montagnes…”; George MacLeod, “The Victim of His Victims”: Silencing Survivors of the Genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda in Immaculée Ilibagiza’s Left to Tell” (all papers presented at the annual conference of the French Italian Graduate Society, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, March 16, 2013).
  3. Sarah Myer, “Into Great Silence? A Lacanian Reading of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable”; Fredrik Rönnbäck, “The Sacred Word of Blanchot and Leiris” (both papers presented at the annual conference of the French Italian Graduate Society, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, March 16, 2013).
  4. Melissa Verhey, “Noisy Silence: Wordlesssly Reclaiming Voice in Victor Hugo’s The Last Day of a Condemned Man” (paper presented at the annual conference of the French Italian Graduate Society, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, March 16, 2013).
  5. Christy Wampole, “Quiet Impositions: On Involuntary Silence,” keynote address presented at the annual conference of the French Italian Graduate Society, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, March 16, 2013.
  6. Anne Dalke, Sophia Abbot, Sara Gladwin and Esteniolla Maitre, “The Pedagogy of Silence” (roundtable presented at the annual conference of the French Italian Graduate Society, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, March 16, 2013).