Silence as "Marginalization"

Margaret Daisley
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst

The construction of silence-as-marginalization can be traced to traditions in feminist criticism inspired by Tillie Olsen's ground-breaking 1978 book, Silences. The book had the effect of opening up brand new territory in literary criticism, as Olsen offered a persuasive argument for why there weren't--but should be--more women in the literary canon. As Hedges and Fishkin (1994) explain, Olsen drew attention to a wide range of constructions for women's silences: "silences because women are not speaking, silences because women are not heard, silences because their voices are not understood, and silences because their voices are not preserved" (13). By the mid-Eighties, feminist theoretical constructions of "silence" began to go beyond the social impediments to women's voices, the editors note, to the construction of silences within texts--an "intrinsic" rather than "external" silence (5). In the poetic and aesthetic sense, intrinsic silences might be rather literal-- as the use of white space on a page. In a more metaphorical and rhetoric sense, instrinsic silences are as much the product of a critic's reading as they are the writer's response to social forces. For instance, King-Kok Cheung (1993) reads "articulate silences" in the works of three Asian American wrters and interprets them as rhetorical acts which subvert dominant narratives by using "coded" or ambiguous language to "deliver covert messages," and as exploitations of gaps between two different cultural traditions (15).

Women's Ways of Knowing (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, Tarule, 1986) built on the tradition founded by Olsen, with a study that framed a female epistemology in terms of "voice" and "silence." The researchers' primary discovery was that the women in their study, with notable consistency, described their "models for truth" not in visual metaphors, the traditionally favored analogy in science and philosophy, but in terms of voice--speaking and listening. However, "silence," the researchers explain, was chosen "because the absence of voice ... is an important anchoring point ... representing an extreme in denial of self and in dependence on external authority" (24). Similarly, Paulo Freire (1993) anchors his theories of a "critical" or "radical" pedagogy in his work with people who live in a "culture of silence"--Brazilian peasants denied personal agency in an authoritarian culture.

These are the extremes. Silence, in these situations is a form of "hopelessness," and education a form of "dehumanization," to use Freire's terms. Unfortunately, when linked so frequently and fluidly with the term marginalization, these extreme forms of "silence" seem to become watered-down metaphors. This is a point noted also by Susan Romano (1993), who writes that "we deceive ourselves by imagining empowerment within the terms marginalization and egalitarian, which call to mind standard categories--race/class/gender--that may well be refused by the students themselves" (9). We place students in a "straitjacket," as Deborah Cameron (1992) puts it, when we label them marginalized. More radical branches of feminism, Cameron argues, are "pervaded by a rhetoric which employs terms such as 'silencing,' 'alienation,' 'appropriation'" (129), implying a sense of linguistic determinism. In this view, women and other language users are automatically placed outside a system they can never enter, which is "demoralizing" (130). Randall Freisinger (1994), also, argues for rejecting the "spatial metaphor" of marginalization, saying that "the disempowered are not somewhere 'out there,' at the edge, far removed. They are, rather, at the center of power's corrosive processes" (202). The problem with the metaphor, Freisinger says, is that it denies individuals a sense of human agency, a voice.

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