Sounds of Silence

St. John’s, Newfoundland. July 2015. 4:30am, my alarm jolts me out of slumber. Still in a half-dreaming state, I hit the snooze button, savouring every last minute of sleep I possibly can. My skin cringes at the cold air. The wind taps persistently at my window. I pull the comforter up to my chin, trying to preserve as much body heat as possible under my blanket. Eventually I emerge from my makeshift cocoon and get ready for work, shivering through the whole ordeal. Although it is technically summer, I throw on my down jacket, bracing myself for the thin layer of frost on my windshield. I blast the heat in the car, and begin my drive to work. My body is hunched over the wheel as it surrenders to the icy, damp, July air. It is most unseasonal, to say the least.

At work, a busy coffee shop, the wind cuts through the drive-thru window each time I hand coffee out to a car. I reluctantly turn the heater on for the first time since April (although there were many days this month where it would have been completely justifiable). On the heater is a switch for either ‘summer’ or ‘winter’ – I switch it to ‘winter’. The heat takes a while to combat the cold weather, but eventually my fingers come back to life. Small talk is easy on days like this – bodies have been shocked by the weather, and minds are confused by it. A few customers quip about it being like “winter in July.”

 Others say, “I guess this is climate change.”

 Is this change in climate a response to our collective history – of humans’ destructive dominance over nature? We respond to a winter in July, in turn, with annoyance. And perhaps fear. In a way, it is the future, it is the present, and we are haunted by the past, all at once.


“Any consideration of O must also consider the void and the circle.

‘How can nothing be something?’” (Tuck and Ree 657)

One of the things that struck me most in Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s “Animal: New Directions in the Theorization of Race and Posthumanism” (2013) was the idea of silence. Jackson introduces discusses silence through her analysis of Kalpana Rahita Seshadri’s HumAnimal: Race, Law, Language, which she says, “takes as its central task the disruption of the hierarchical binary that purports to distinguish speech from silence” (Jackson 674). According to Jackson, Seshadri argues, “the figuration of silence as privation has been central to the law’s biopolitical expression with respect to race and nonhuman animals” (Jackson 675). As the “capacity for speech” is typically “equated with being human,” we can see how such notions may contort silence – and thus, ‘silent beings’ – into something separate from humanity, barring them from the laws and rights of that privileged class of ‘human’ (Jackson 675).

However, Seshadri challenges this speech-based dichotomy between human and inhuman by pointing out that language, in fact, requires both speech and silence (Jackson 675).

Silence, according to Seshadri, is “not identical with not speaking;” rather, it is an “empty space” where the regulatory power of discourse is inoperable (Jackson 675).

Seshadri further argues that silence is a political realm, a site of contestation and possibility (Jackson 675).

This idea of silence as a political realm draws attention to its transformative power. If we begin to think of silence as not distinct, but actually inherent to language, perhaps we can begin to disrupt and dismantle the linguistic hierarchies that have traditionally existed between concepts of “the human” and “the animal” (Jackson 675).

 Silence is both an instrument and disruption of what Agamben has referred to as the “anthropological machine,” or the recursive attempt to adjudicate, dichotomize, hierarchize, and stage a conflict between “the human” and “the animal” based on the putative presence or absence of language (Jackson 675).

The association between silence and animality is particularly disturbing when we see how notions of race have been affected by concepts of the human-animal divide. Following Michael Lundblad, Jackson shows how “discourse of human animality bifurcated along racial lines,” such that blackness was perceived as “savage” and fueled by “animal instincts” and thus inferior to not only the category of “the human,” but also to “the animal” (Jackson 677-8).

With the explicit racism enabled by the human-animal divide, or the “anthropological machine,” we can see why theorists like Jackson are calling for a posthumanism that incorporates perspectives of race and colonialism. Theoretical silence, in a way, is something that must be contested, too.

The potential for language and silence to disrupt the “anthropological machine” is something that we also see in Marlene Nourbese Philip’s, “She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks” (1989). Here, Philip shows how slavery and oppression are rooted in language.

 In man the tongue is

(a) the principle organ of taste.

(b) the principle organ of articulate speech.

(c) the principle organ of oppression and exploitation.

(d) all of the above.

(Philip 59).

Through her unique literary structure, Philip juxtaposes ideas of nature and nurture by exploring the social and biological ways in which humans use language, speech, and more specifically, tongues. In doing so, she actively challenges and blurs the dichotomy between nature and culture. Through her provocative and poetic language and narrative devices, she highlights the conflict between the biological, natural potential of speech and language, and the ways in which they have been abused and appropriated by colonial powers.

Every slave caught speaking his native language shall be severely punished. Where necessary, removal of the tongue is recommended. (Philip 58).

Silence, here, harkens back to the “racial and colonial practices of silencing non-Western epistemic systems and philosophies” that Jackson is conscious of (681). For Philip, breaking silence is about dismantling the colonial forces that have traditionally and systemically silenced racial and ethnic minorities.

This is not to dismiss the transformative powers of silence, as Jackson theoretically entertains. For Philip, silence still has potential.

Silence is evoked through the description of a mother with her newborn: “When it was born, the mother held her newborn child close: she began then to lick it all over. The child whimpered a little, but as the mother’s tongue moved faster and stronger over its body, it grew silent … ” (Philip 56). Silence here connotes comfort – a maternal calmness. But it is also a precursor to speech and language – thepotential of a “mother tongue (Philip 56).

It is 4:45 a.m. I awake in the foreign country of silence. (Brand 52).

Dione Brand also engages with ideas of silence in A Map to the Door of No Return (2001). For example, when describing a PBS documentary on African civilization, which shows several African-Americans visiting the Door of No Return in Ghana, Brand is drawn to the silences. When the visitors admit to not knowing that their ancestors were sold by Africans, Brand notices that this realization brings great sadness to them (33). She adds, “The scene is full of silences. Even a film editor cannot cut out or put in such silences” (33). Silences can affect us. They can haunt us. And in turn, we can transform through them.

To enter Coetzee’s earlier work was to enter that odd trope, the “universal,” the “human.” At least some of us could. Others of us who saw a less noble and more vulgar world may have been untouched … I for one always felt a slight discomfort in his texts even though I longed for inclusion in his “human.” (Brand 127).

In a way, I can see how silence may be interpreted as a kind of liminal space – a site of unease and possibility at the same time. There is potential in the pause. Language does not exist without both speech and silence. And while silencing has a long history of racial and colonial oppression, taking a closer look at silence in itself might help us dismantle those human-animal ideologies which actually enable racist and colonial processes.

Perhaps too, this can help us deconstruct and blur the boundaries between culture and nature further – between human and animal; human and landscape; human and weather; human and thing. If we rethink silence, how can it help us rethink weathering and climate change? And how does silence affect our discomfort of a ‘winter in July’? How can we respond to silence, in all of its incarnations?

“Snow is quiet. It is not like rain. It has the sound of nothing happening. It is like a deep breath held and held. I sit in the car and the cold of it begins to creep in. There is a way that land defeats you, just the sum of it. In a cold car at Pinery Road and Concession 11, you notice its width” (Brand 145).

Sources

Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001.

Jackson, Zakiyyah Iman. “Animal: New Directions in the Theorization of Race and Posthumanism.” Feminist Studies, vol. 39 no. 3, 2013, pp. 669-685.

Neimanis, Astrida and Rachel Loewen Walker. “Weathering: Climate Change and the ‘Thick Time’ of Transcorporeality.” Hypatia, vol. 29, no. 3, 2014, pp. 558-575.

Philip, Marlene NourbeSe. She Tries Her Tongue/Her Silence Softly Breaks. Charlottetown: Ragweed Press, 1989.

Tuck, Eve and C. Ree. “A Glossary of Haunting.” Handbook of Autoethnography, eds. Stacey Holman Jones, Tony E. Adams, and Carolyn Ellis. Walnut Grove: Left Coast Press, 2013, pp. 639-658.

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