Here are a few thoughts about silence. Silence has been on my mind for some time now; both through a personal interest and by means of an interest enforced on me through a stroke of good fortune. With respect to my own personal stake in the concept, I am interested (somewhat fatalistically) in the silence of the work of art, the interminable muteness which in my view somehow attributes that thing as art. I would see this unspeakability as one reflected in typical human relations, and perhaps how we term something as art is conditioned on it existing as a salve to the traumatic nature which prefigures such relations. That is, the silence, the unspeakability of an other. This interests me as a concept of an elemental function pertaining to art. When we talk of good and bad art, is this criteria centered around how silent they remain in the face of hermeneutics? This is not an elitist position, as I believe some of the most decipherable works can also remain the most unintelligible on a primal level.
Though we try all the time to fill in this silence, to find other uses for art which may render it vocal. Why is this so? And why do we treat silence as something which could be filled in? Can it? Afterall, legibility (noise/music) only exists as something emerging out of silence- it is thus silence which gives birth to the legibility, the meaning or value, of that thing which we attribute as art. When Cage suggests that there is no such thing as silence I would suggest that he means there is no such thing as the social construct which we name silence. There is something anarchic in a true definition of silence, as it cannot be verbalised or even imagined. It is that Thing which remains undefinable and unattainable in spite of our most well-meaning efforts.
To be silent is to be undefinable and excluded from consciousness. It is here that a theory of silence takes on a decidedly political dimension. Can someone exist as silent though they speak? Here I am reminded of Mark Fisher’s concept of Capitalist Realism; that is, the inaptitude to verbalise, or even to imagine a world void of capitalism. It is a kind of self-enforced, hereditary self-silencing. And yet silence here can also be conceived as a positive approach; a kind of withdrawal or active disavowal of pervasive capitalist conditions of the ‘I’d prefer not to’ variety.
When Agamben talks about the State of Exception too, the concept of silence becomes inherently political. That is, the kind of times we now growingly exist in, where ‘desperate times call for desperate measure’, albeit of a worryingly unconstitutional kind. Within a state of exception, he claims, political strategies supersede legal requirements, resulting in the government of a state existing paradoxically as the initiator of laws whilst simultaneously breaking them. When he talks about bare life, that which is often the focus of such states of exception, for example the detainees of Guantanamo, these are people existing in a locus of silence; they are held there illegally by law, and can hence have no rights or recourse to these rights. They are simply being detained. For this reason silence can be understood as political; whereby a state of exception enacts in the populous a kind of enforced silence through the introduction of illegal means to justify supposedly just ends.
How can we be heard through art? Can art have an impact on global affairs when I would suggest that one of the key traits of art is to remain at the core silent? This paradox, I believe, could be the ideal counter-argument for paradoxes inherent to contemporary life. The paradox has always been at the heart of art; at once created to represent life and equally to be elevated from it.
It seems to me that never before has silence had such a bad reputation. It was only yesterday I was on a train home, in the newly found quiet carriage, and witnessed the outrage which people feel when forced to give up their mobile phones or talk at a reasonable volume. It seems to me that we are now, more than ever, distrustful or fearful of a state of silence. Why is this? Perhaps it is that we are reluctant to contemplate or appreciate our surroundings; we always want to be distracted through ipods or phones; we never want to truly be there. We want to be transported through distraction somewhere else, anywhere in fact. And yet when I am on a train I want to be just there, I don’t particularly like trains but I do like them when they are quiet- when I can indeed contemplate. The rest, as they say, is just noise.
So to summarise: silence can be understood, in my opinion, as the central and fundamental trait of a work of art. The ‘origin’ which Blanchot terms the point which simultaneously enables and dooms the work. The point which eludes both the creator and us, but yet the only point worth striving towards. It is this non-verbal unimaginable silence which separates both us from the work, and the work from its creator. It is a violent, all pervasive action of silencing. This is a distance which reminds us very much of the kind of interactions which we partake in on a daily basis within mundane human relations. That void, that silence which separates you and I, and which can never be appeased. This silence furthermore can be perceived as political; acts of silencing are universally accepted through states of exception or we become silent intellectually, stunted on a global scale. But furthermore this silence can be re-appropriated to counter current inabilities; only silence can give birth to noise. Perhaps it is only through a paradoxical re-appropriation and redefinition of silence can we enact noise once again; can we positively profane in order to reclaim that which has been subsumed from the common people as sacred. I would hope that art has some role to play in this re-appropriation of silence, perhaps through the creation of an art which exists as a ‘total object, complete with missing parts, instead of a partial object’ (Beckett).