Thursday, July 24, 2008


I'm still more vaguely annoyed than analytically critical of the fact that Dauenhauer comprehends silence sub specie human signification and expression. I have to keep in mind that my annoyance has to do with the overly-rationalistic and cognitivist slant I infer or impute to this approach. First of all, I could be wrong. Secondly, it may not matter that much. Third, I may have to admit that the phenomenon he's describing and naming as silence simply isn't what I have in mind.

One sense of silence I find myself desperately resisting is the notion of silence as either refraining from entering discourse, or of being prohibited from entering discourse - where discourse is mainly political. For instance, in Art & Fear his bizarre screed on 20th and 21st century art, Paul Virilio tells us that:

Nowadays, everything that remains silent is deemed to consent, to accept without a word of protest the background noise of audio-visual immoderation -- that is, of the 'optically correct'. But what happens as a result to the SILENCE OF THE VISIBLE under the reign of the AUDIO-VISIBLE epitomized by television, wildly overrated as television is? How can we apply the terms of Paul Valéry's aphorism in considering the question, not of the silence of art so dear to André Malraux, but of the DEAFNESS of the contemporary arts in the era of multimedia? (p. 71)

Assuming for the moment that this isn't insane raving*, Virilio's point seems to me to be that silence has been stripped of its signification and power, stripped down to meek acquiescence. This seems to have happened as a result of the cultural, aesthetic, and perceptual domination of audio-visual media. In order to be heard, it seems, one must also be seen, and vice-versa. To appear to exist in the era of multimedia, one (something, someone) must be in multimedia.

Now, this last bit doesn't seem all that outrageous. Baudrillard says much the same thing (and while we're at it, cf. the character "Mike Teavee" in various incarnations of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). So the first question is how this has had the alleged effect on silence Virilio claims. And the second question is, what kind of a phenomenon is silence, such that this could happen to it?

That's where he loses me. At the level of mass media, I guess I can admit that silence has lost authority, power, cultural meaning, the capacity to mean. If you like.

I spend a lot of time with people, or more specifically, person: my loveliest Lauren. A lot of that time is silent, in more of the sense Dauenhauer gives it. Does that silence have only the character described by Virilio? I suppose that's for us to determine, isn't it? (Not that I think we individually command our own expressions' meanings, but simply that, in this case, we can express silence toward one another or with one another more meaningfully than Virilio's analysis of mass media and art seems to offer.)

So, if I don't want silence to be reduced to the realm of human expression, and if I don't think silence can be overdetermined by media culture, and if silence manifestly isn't the absence of sound (something that not even the most profoundly deaf experiences, since sound is also vibration), then what the heck is it?

There's a grossly semantic level to this. I can stipulate what I want to name silence and go about my business. But phenomenologically, if I aim to say what the phenomenon of experiencing silence means or is, I can't rely on stipulation. I have to evoke that experience as such - but as such a what?

*Virilio's text is written like that. I think it was the text of a couple lectures, so I can't be sure he wasn't actually yelling at the audience. In any case, that's how it felt to read it. I kept asking myself why he was yelling at me. Meanwhile: SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!