"Natural" Silences

Margaret Daisley
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Lost in this feminist construction of silence-as-marginalization is Olsen's distinction between "unnatural" or man-made circumstances which deprive a writer of her voice, and the "natural" silences which all humans endure-- "that necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation" (6). These might be thought of as pregnant pauses, or liminal moments before another cycle of writing or discourse begins.

"Natural" silences, according to George Kalamaras (1994), referencing Olsen's work, are not the opposite of language but the "tacit dimension" of rhetoric which "acts in a reciprocal fashion in the construction of knowledge" (8). Kalamaras' argument is that post-structuralist and feminist studies, in particular, in their efforts to render the political dimensions of discourse obvious, have obscured the fact that silence or "non-verbal" discourse operates in a dialogic manner with verbal discourse. His use of the term "dialogue" references Bakhtin's social constructionism, and includes the idea of dialogue as self-referential ("inner speech") as well as speech directed towards actual Others.

In looking for categories for the rhetorics of "silence," Gregory Ulmer (1989) offers two: the riddle and the joke. What sets them apart, he says, is the "precise nature of the mood of silence," which is inevitably ambiguous. That is, silence becomes an "enunciation unmarked," a question that can only be answered through "the discourse of the Other" (51), meaning "Other" in both its social and psychological senses. It is our expectation about what is "appropriate" in discourse situations that marks what also seems to be inappropriate, according to sociolinguist Dell Hymes (1974). In encountering what seems to be "inappropriate" or "ambiguous" silence, we are forced to look to Others--including ourselves--for answers.

Extreme constructions of silence seem to me to represent a sort of aural horror vacui--a fear, repugnance, incomprehension, or assumed negative value of unfilled discourse space per se. In art criticism, "horror vacuii" has been used traditionally to describe the art or artifacts of non-Western traditions, aesthetic styles which have "similar tendencies to barbarian art." I am quoting here from a mid-Eighties art history textbook (de la Croix and Tansey, p.299) which uses the term horror vacuii to describe a style of Islamic art where decorative patterns in the foreground seem to blend into equal relationship with the background. Such "stylization" reflects an "impermanance," these critics claim. "Space" itself becomes an "arbitrary" notion, which threatens the dominance of the "design."

Keeping with aesthetic theory for the moment, this filled/empty space binary is more currently referred to as the figure/ground relationship. Cynthia Dantzic (1990) explains that traditionally the figure has been considered the "real" subject, and the ground "merely" the environment in which it is contained, a "negative" or "empty" space. In more recent artistic endeavors, however, as Dantzic points out, artists have made deliberate attempts to bring figure/ground into equal relationship, in some cases even "stressing the area around the object to the point of eliminating any treatment of the 'figure' itself" (35). It is not only a different approach to making art, but a different approach to interpreting art. Dantzic argues that "instead of thinking of such space planes as empty, try to consider them as unfilled planes," an "in-between dimension" which interacts "in an equal and opposite way" (82).

Linguistically speaking then, "unfilled planes" are represented by silences, and it is clear that "silence" cannot be interpreted through a simple binary distinction that it is "not-discourse" or "non-participation" or always the result of "marginalization" in CMC. Silence is not the binary that separates what is said and not said, according to Foucault (1978), but "the element that functions ... within overall stragegies." "There is not one but many silences," he says, "and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses" (27). A wide variety of these strategies have been identified by sociolinguists. Muriel Saville-Troike's The Ethnography of Communication (1993) offers, for instance: a silence which carries grammatical and lexical meaning--e.g. utterances completed by silences because the topic or word is taboo; or, using phrases such as "And your name is ---?" instead of the more direct question "What is your name?" (147). She offers, also, the idea of silence as "shunning"--"one of the strongest control forms in many societies" (39); the silence of prayer and other religious rituals; and, silence due to "loss of words"--a concept which is interpreted differently in some non-Western cultures. For instance, the Japanese word for this--haragei--carries with it their philosophy that naming a phenomena reduces its essence (147). Saville-Troike also cites an ethnographic study which identifies a wordless "emotional display" in a classroom identified as "stylized sulking" (148). Sociolinguist Dell Hymes (1974) also cites several ethnographic studies, in particular Gardner's study (1966) of a culture where members are "almost silent" by the age of forty.iv In that culture, "verbal, communicative persons are regarded as abnormal and often offensive" (32). In contrast, we might think of our own cultural adage which states that "children should be seen and not heard."

"Silence" as a rhetorical construction seems to offer a good foundation for beginning to understand the "shape" of a specific culture's discourse, according to Hymes, who writes that "the distribution of required and preferred silence perhaps most immediately reveals in outline form a community's structure of speaking" (32). Yet, as Saville-Troike and others have noted, "silence" as a rhetorical construction has traditionally been ignored, except for its negative value as the "absence of discourse" and as a "boundary-marking" function (145). Because silence has such a wide range of rhetorical functions, she says, "particular care is required in seeking their proper interpretation" (148).

In design theory, according to Dantzic, shape begins with the drawing of a line, or even the insertion of a dot upon a surface. As soon as the dot is large enough to become visible, we begin to see it in terms of two shapes, both the dot itself (the figure), and the enclosing area around it (the ground). And so it is that I am trying to envision the discourse space of CMC. As soon as the electronic space has been given a designated purpose, the first "dot" of discourse upon it implies a relationship with what is not-discourse, the silence or unfilled planes of that space. The "designated purpose" of the discourse community is, then, the first element that provides a shaping force for silence.


Perry Gilmore's "Silence and Sulking: Emotional Displays in the Classroom," in Deborah Tannen and Muriel Saville-Troike's Perspectives in Silence. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1985. (139-62), as cited in Saville-Troike's Ethnography of Communication. RETURN

P. Gardner (1966) "Symmetric respect and memorate knowledge: the structure and ecology of individualistic culture." Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 22:389-415, as cited in Hymes. RETURN

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