Fatema: The Rhetoric of Silence: Understanding Absence as Presence (Part 2)

The author gives the example from J L Austin’s idea of performativity – How words perform actions to state that silence can perform an action of its own – she provides the example of Jewish weddings where the bride doesn’t say anything but only shows the ring offered by the groom as acceptance and consent for the wedding.

The author moves on to Butler’s analysis of Austin and states that Butler separates speech from the speaker allowing  silence to operate beyond the narrator, thus granting power to the powerless through a discourse of silence. Butler argues that if language creates subjects, silence allows speakers to create new realities.

Butler’s analysis of Austin’s theory further deepens when she uses Austin’s idea of Perlocution and how language has the power to inflict violence or injure (violent language about the body does injure the body in various discourses) and if that stands true then it gives silence, agency too to affect discourse. Butler, here gives the example of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the US military where the declaration of one’s homosexuality is considered as an act of homosexuality itself (thus erasing the gap between speech and act). In the same way, Butler states that staying silent in the military can be equally injurious to homosexuals, therefore giving silence a similar agency as speech.

“Silence and action are both discursive acts that function like speech acts. Because silence can only be seen as rhetorical within its context, we can interpret it in terms of preceding, correspondent, and ensuing action.” (Carroll 28)

The author stresses that silent action works symbolically. She states,
Some actions,then, function as symbols and are figured as speech; they become rhetorical and communicate one’s opinion to an audience.” (Carroll 29)

By “some actions” she refers to actions of protest like burning effigies or even the act of fasting unto death, actions that devoid of speech make a point symbolically.

Silence is also an effective mode of communication in places and situations where  moral, religious or cultural codes abstain marginalized people from voicing their thoughts. The author points out that culture, sometimes, also denies access to language for marginalized groups. Here too, silence plays a crucial role. Like in the case of women, who have been kept out of a patriarchal language structure and the African-Americans who because of the Jim Crow segregation couldn’t voice their disdain openly.

Therefore, the author concludes the chapter claiming that silence is used by the marginalized to undermine the power of social structures that oppress them, thus allowing silence an equally powerful position in rhetoric as speech.

Chapter 3: The Silent Rhetoric of Resistance

The author begins by stating the use of strategic silence in discourses of the marginalized, she states that silence is preferred  “because language is the discourse of the powerful and the language of the marginalized is perceived as insignificant and ineffective. (Carroll 81)

Taking her arguments and applying them to the American Civil Rights movement, the author states that the “communicative silences” (Carroll 88) used in the movement such as Boycotts, sit ins etc were most effective.

The author presents a case study of the laundry worker’s strike in 1965 and shows how silence as empower the marginalized by applying Burke’s idea of silence as symbolic and Barry Brummett’s idea of political strategic silence — a situation where those in power choose to remain silent in order to get attention or distract attention from certain issues. The laundry workers, who were essentially Black women and thus doubly marginalized led the strike which at first went unnoticed but later brought them TV coverage making it an act of civil disobedience. Thus silence can undermine hegemonic social structures, since it “disrupts the continuity of the oppression and oppressive language.” (Carroll 93)

The author further stresses that there are also those who use silence to oppose a corrupted language. These people, though not marginalized tend to speak on behalf of the oppressed. Thomas Merton argues that war and holocausts corrupt language. In this case, the author states, silence can be seen as collaborative and can be criticized as supporting the oppressor. (The author gives the examples of the silence of Germans during the holocaust.)

The author argues that not all silence can be seen as compliance, there is also silence that opposes the oppressor’s language. She refers to Simon Weil’s concept of individual and collective language. Collective language is social in nature and is thus corrupted easily. It “can put forth the empty and meaningless words” (Carroll 96) that is mainly propaganda. Weil states that these words in collective language that end with “ism(s)” don’t actually stand for anything but is the cause of violence and war. The only way to rectify this artificial nature of language is to give proper definitions to terms. Definition allows an establishment of context and therefore to a meaningful discourse. Weil rejects the arbitrariness of language to claim that, “Language and action together are reality” (Carroll 98).

Weil argues that speech enacts domination and thus silence is resistance since it doesn’t allow empty words to flow around in discourse. Thus, silence fills in the gaps where corrupted words need to be eliminated. But the author insists that “we cannot just wait in silence for meaning; silence must become meaning” (Carroll 100).

Silence is the only way to reach and acknowledge the reality that lies outside language and to end suffering,
“Since words, as we use them now, have failed to end the oppression and only contribute to the proliferation of more useless words, silence may be the only option for ending the suffering.” (Carroll 100)

Therefore, since words corrupt reality, silence can be a way to connect to reality again and thus is an appropriate response to propaganda.

Steiner adds to this idea by stating that war and oppression corrupts language to an extent where it no longer communicates and thus only silence can hold meaning. Steiner also emphasis that silence is not only the domain of the philosopher, but the poet who also understands the limits of language, chooses silence.

The author leaves behind a confusing conclusion to her chapter where she equates silent action to silent speech, stating both as forms of resistance. She leads the readers into her next chapter which deals with the silence of death with these lines:
” When resistors choose never to abandon their silence or when they take on imposed silence voluntarily, they risk martyrdom, another type of silent rhetorical action.” (Carroll 105)

P.S – The rest of the chapters of this thesis bear no significance to what I would like to study and thus I have simply skim read them and not annotated them as such.
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