Articulating the unspeakable


I liked this introduction to a 2003 University of Wisconsin-Madison dissertation, author: Nancy J. Gates Madsen:

She writes:

“What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Much of the artistic expression that emerges from the recent dictatorships in the Southern Cone appears to respond to Wittgenstein‘s assertion, incorporating silence and silencing not only as a central theme but also as a mode of expression. In a context where official discourse has attempted to dictate meaning and where fear has informed literary production as well as daily life, many times silences, gaps, half-formed utterances or suppressed expressions of horror speak most authentically to the experience of state terrorism. Just as an abundance of words does not always lead to greater understanding, an absence of speech does not necessarily indicate an absence of meaning, and often what an author or character does not say carries more interpretative weight than what they do. Textual and societal silences resist any authoritarian impulse to fix meaning – they invite the critic to read between the lines and give voice to the silent underpinnings of literature and art produced during and in the wake of crisis. For this reason, any examination of the legacies of authoritarianism through artistic expression must consider not only what is articulated openly but also what is suggested through silence.
The politics of secrecy and silence employed by the military governments in Argentina (1976-1983), Chile (1973-1990) and Uruguay (1972-1985) affected not only society but also artistic expression. Silence therefore proves a critical component of the experience (and aftermath) of state terror, as well as the literary representations that address the period.” (p.1)

“[…] crucial questions […] arise during and in the wake of dictatorship: How does a rhetoric of silence operate as an expression of past horror? In a context of oppression, can silence be an effective tool of resistance? How can one narrate a disappearance? How does silence inform the essential issues of memory and forgetting in post-dictatorial societies? (in other words, is memory to speech as forgetting is to silence?) Finally, what role does silence play in commemorating past horror in monumental form?
The scope of these questions indicates that by its very nature, silence opens itself up to many interpretative possibilities. Any treatment of the subject must therefore consider what is encompassed by this broad and ambiguous term. Nevertheless, exact definitions can prove elusive, precisely because silence is both a theme and a mode of artistic expression. In literature, silence manifests itself at the basic level of language, seen in the spaces between words, or pauses marked by punctuation (dashes, parenthesis, and the suggestive use of ellipses, for example). Unclear, absurd or hermetic language also constitutes a type of silence by introducing obstacles to understanding. Silence can express itself in the form of mute characters, unfinished statements or thoughts, a beginning in media res or an open ending, the silencing of certain action (such as the crime in detective fiction), or the omission of information. Works of literature may also address silence as a theme – often censorship, disappearance, or inexpressibility figure prominently in a particular text. yet the deliberate silences written into the text by the author may point to unintentional silences outside the work, such as the avoidance of certain themes or the presentation of one interpretation at the expense of another.” (p.2)

“The idea that silence can actually be an effective form of expression has gained favor in the past half century. After all, more than thirty years ago, Susan Sontag proclaimed, “as the prestige of language falls, that of silence rises” (The Aesthetics of Silence” 195). Although not every artist or critic who has questioned the capacity of language to represent reality advocates a turn to silence, in recent years (especially since World Wars I and II) silence has attracted more critical attention. In the introduction to Semantics of Silences in Linguistics and Literature, Gudrun M. Grabher and Ulrike Jessner explain that in the Western tradition silence “conjures up a premonition of the ultimate silence, which is death” (xi); for this reason it has usually been [-p.8] perceived as complete nothingness or pure absence. In a similar fashion, the editors of the Revista Monografica’s issue dedicated to “Silence in Hispanic Literature” explain that: “[t]raditional associations connect silence with night, death, solitude, sorrow, and endings; it is also traditionally linked to tranquility, meditation, secrecy, reverence, grief and solitary landscapes, to mention only a few conventional examples. Because silence seems to be more often exploited in literature and the entertainment media by linkage with negative concepts (the Gothic tale, the mystery or thriller), unqualified silence more frequently suggests the menacing than the peaceful”.” (pp.7-8)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Nancy J. Gates Madsen. Articulating the unspeakable: expressions of silence in post-authoritarian literature and culture of the Southern Cone. A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Spanish) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2003.


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