I wanted to think about what exactly constitutes silence and how silence functions.
What does silence produce?
When is there silence?
When does silence function positively and when does silence become negative?
A starting point was a text intended to be read aloud by German poet and theorist Barbara Köhler in the collection of mixed media writings Wittgensteins Nichte (Wittgenstein’s niece). In this text Köhler sets out what makes relation possible between people.
Die Rede findet statt, findet eine Statt in Ihrem Schweigen: Ihr Schweigen ist ein Entgegenkommen, das einem Ich das Wort gibt, das es zu Wort kommen läßt, ihm Statt gibt, Raum gibt.
(RMJ trans) A speech takes place, and finds a place in your silence. Your silence is an accommodating gesture which gives the word to an ‘Ich’ in order that it can have its say, a place, giving it space.
This is a description of an ideal interaction in which silence is consensual and can be given from one subject to another as a gift. In fact later in the text Köhler describes silence as a ‘Gabe’, a gift.
Gift-giving has a politics.
To give a gift is an expression of power. When someone gives you a gift, you are indebted to them, beholden to them. Having received Silence, you must also grant them Silence. To grant someone your Silence is to give the space for them to position themselves as an ‘Ich’, to occupy the First-person pronoun and to speak and to construct themselves via language in space.
Silence is an abstract, shared space of relation and in which that relation takes place. Its existence in this form is dependent upon the mutual consent of both potential speakers. Speaking requires silence to take place therefore the speaking subject requires the silent subject for their existence. Each can grant the other the space in which to become the role of first-person speaking-subject temporarily and abstractly shaping this space with their words, which gesture to ideas and their material existence.
This form of being silent and of silence can therefore be positive. Silence is essential to considerate, ethical interaction that allows each subject to come into existence. The one nominates the other to become a speaking-subject by proffering their silence thereby creating a space of relation. They choose to be a silent subject, but they are also a speaking subject in-waiting. In a positive silence, the speaking subject is equally a silent subject in-waiting, ready to proffer their silence to allow the silent subject to become a speaking subject and make sound, their ideas, their existence.
What form of silence then, constitutes a negative silence? As discussed above, this must related to a negative form of speech and also a spatial relation between the subjects that is negative. The relationship between silence and speech is reproduced in spatial relationships: is each party granting the other the space/silence in which to speak/exist? Köhler articulates this in her text thus:
Anwesendes Schweigen schenkt dem Sprechen Gehör, gewährt die Freiheit der Rede, indem es ihr Grenzen setzt, spürbare Grenzen; ein Minimum an Erwartung vielleicht, ein Maximum an Geduld – Grenzen, die sich freilich überreden, übergehen lassen, jenseits derer aber das Gespräch verkäme (degenerate): zu Überredung eben, zu UnterHaltung, Monologik, Belehrung, Befehl, zur unfreien Rede, die dem Gegenüber die mündige Anwesenheit abspricht, wie ins Leere spricht, wie gegen die Wand; die für sich spricht, für sich selbst & nur für sich selbst, & den auch nichts anderes erwartet als Echo: Vergewisserung einer ihrer Eigenheit ungewissen Stimme durch
Zustimmung, angewiesen auf Abwesenheitsbekundungen von Beifall bis Gehorsam, statt aufgehoben zu sein im Gehör.
The spatial relationship changes when dialogue degenerates into an indoctrinating monologue that renders the other subject into a wall that should echo back to him/her what he/she has said. The speaking-subject in waiting is converted so that they function as a wall or a sound mirror. This is a sound reflection, like Narcisscus staring at his own reflection, they only desire and love the reflection of their own existence, and exclude the sound, and existence of others. This too demonstrates the productive function of being a silent subject that accommodates an other and different subject to one’s self.
In being within the shared, binding space of ethical interaction, one accommodates the other. which is a dynamic relation that produces change as each can respond to the difference introduced by the other voice. Speaking as if to a wall, to an empty space is also negative for the speaking subject that does so, as this produces a dead space of repetition where the possibility for change is shut down. The same ideas are echo-ed and reflected back again and again.
When the reciprocity of silence breaks down, the reciprocity of ideas and thus of power breaks down into an unethical silence of coercion that is reproduced in spatial relations that are coercive.