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  • Max Schmermbeck

A Small Phenomenology of Silence

As many people today, I live a life filled by noises and movements. Disparate lines of information-input enter me, and loosely structured assemblages of information-output emanate from me. We call the difference between the two ‘productivity’, and the modern self arises as a result. This model of subjectivity fits beautifully within an economic system hellbent on transforming flows of energy into prosperity through restless acceleration. The self as pure, positive productivity: capitalist bliss disguised as self-improvement.

Lots can be said about this socio-economic predicament, but don’t worry: I’m not here to bore you with Marxist theory. At least, not today. My concerns lie elsewhere. What I want to investigate, not just in this small phenomenology but on the Thought Magicians platform more generally, are the relations between our current ways of living and the contemporary psyche. How is our being moulded by societal structures? What is the nature of thought and experience in the modern age? I think investigations into these matters can become interesting when they inquire into strange places that do not immediately provide bite-sized answers. Not the obvious topics of analysis, but the elusive spaces of non-being. Spaces that tarry with the negative. The spectres that haunt our society, disparate and fleeing, which structure our experiences without our knowledge. These are the spaces where thinking should focus on today.

For me, silence is such a non-space. In itself, it is nothing but pure absence. However, I think an analysis of silence in contemporary society can still provide some insight into ourselves and our relation to the world. Or better yet; it is precisely because silence is an absence that it might be worthwhile to explore it a little more.

However, we should be careful about what we are analysing, because emphasizing the absence of silence in contemporary life is not a very difficult endeavour. As many sociologists, psychologists and philosophers point out, finding silence is very difficult in a world usurped by entertainment, stimulus and white noise (Hartmut Rosa’s work on acceleration is a particularly poignant example to mention here. It’s great). From these analyses, it seems rather clear that we are suffering from an absence of silence. But what is not clear, is why we need silence; why do we, often unknowingly, desire it? What role does it play in our lives? What can silence tell us about ourselves? These questions are more interesting to me, because they are harder to answer. As such, they will be the starting points of this small phenomenological inquiry.

Pondering over silence and its absence in contemporary life, I immediately find myself puzzled by the seemingly bizarre nature of the question: how can you miss something that is itself absent? Even though silence is, strictly speaking, a form of non-existence, we still seem to lack it in some way. We deeply desire silence, but we cannot point at it. It is like trying to articulate a deeply meaningful insight during a hallucinogenic trip; the moment you speak of it, it disappears. Aside from this, it is difficult to characterize the absence of silence because one must imagine a different version of reality by adding a form of negativity to it. But this is precisely what I want to do in this analysis: to think the negative in positive terms.

This all sounds rather abstract, so let me begin with a seemingly trivial story that might offer some insight into what I am attempting to say. I have a roommate who is becoming a doctor. After a day of working in the hospital, she comes home and puts on terrible reality-tv. Upon me asking why she decides to watch such garbage, she responds that it helps her ‘not to think’. This response, I think, typifies our problematic relationship with silence. After a day of work, we cannot relax in silence. There cannot be a moment without stimulus or input. We need to perpetually plug our brain into the matrix, where stimulation breeds mental inactivity. This explains my roommate’s comment that watching television helps her not to think: part of the reason we keep coming back to mind-numbing entertainment is because it simulates the feeling of silence we deeply desire. It gives us the illusion of relaxation by saturating us with so much information that we cannot do anything but turn off our mind in order to cope with the overload. In our desire for the world to finally stop screaming, we conflate silence and quietude with the absence of thought that arises when we are so over-stimulated we simply cannot register any more input.

But if silence is what we deeply desire, why do we fear it so much? Just think about how rarely we eat in silence. How rarely we wait in silence. There is a sense of dread and anxiety that overwhelms us when we find ourselves in even a moment of silence. But why? Why do we fear it so much? I think the crux lies in the fact that we need stimulation to stop us from thinking, because we do not know how to think when we have none. We are so used to passively receiving information from the outside world, that we are at a loss when we have to resort to the world hidden deep within ourselves. This leads us to always remain ‘switched on’, because we fear what we might encounter when we ‘switch off’ for once (the language of switching on and off also reveals something about the extent to which we have come to equate ourselves with modern technological devices within a network, which are operative if they are ‘plugged in’, but useless when they are ‘plugged out’. But that is a point for a different essay).

The avoidance of silence seems to be related to two different, but interconnected, fears. On the level of everyday experience, we avoid silence because we fear the boredom that awaits us when we stop force-feeding ourselves entertainment. We no longer know how to find meaning within things that are not funny, crazy, exciting, remarkable, loud, disgusting, sexy or strange (preferably all at once). We fear the feeling of exhaustion and melancholy that creeps in when we sever the connections of inputs and outputs that mediate our existence. That is why we keep on tormenting ourselves with more content despite feeling exhausted; to make sure the moment of boredom never comes.

This ties into the second reason we avoid silence; we fear the lingering abyss that awaits us when all is quiet. I think silence is, in this sense, revealing: it reveals to us the great nothingness of existence that we so feverishly repress in contemporary society. This is not incidental when the modern narrative of selfhood is that you are the absolute center of the world, a unique being on a personal journey of fulfilment and meaning in which you live life as authentically as possible. As a result, we frame life-questions solely in terms of things that have positive content: who are you? What do you do? Where do your passions lie? But human existence is also burdened with questions that do not have answers in the form of things to point to, concepts to discuss, or ideas to conjure up. Our loneliness. Our fears. Our boredom. Our pains and petty frustrations. Our search for meaning and yearning for an ending. I think this is the existential dimension of silence; our entry into the tragedy of human existence. By avoiding silence, we avoid asking questions about the tragic, painful, lonely, boring, tired and sad parts of ourselves. These are the important questions that we can only ask in silence, because silence is a form of access. It gives us access to a different kind of mental life, a different kind of question and a different kind of answer; the spaces of nothingness, of the abyss, of the great void that we will all inevitably enter some day. These aren’t the nice spaces of life, they aren’t joyful or fun or exciting or even interesting. But they are incredibly valuable nonetheless, because they deeply affect us. By allowing more silence into our lives, perhaps we can allow these tragic elements of life to reveal themselves to us a little more, which opens up new paths of living and thinking.

This ties into the final dimension of silence I briefly want to discuss; its important and often overlooked relation to creativity. Here, I want to quote film director David Lynch, who says:

“Ideas are so beautiful, and they’re so abstract and they do exist some place, I don’t know if there is a name for it. I think they exist like fish, and I believe that if you sit quietly like you are fishing, you will catch ideas. The real, beautiful big ones swim kind of deep down there so you have to be very quiet and wait for them to come along.”

This is a magnificent insight. The metaphor of fish is great, because it so strongly captures the relation between silence and creativity by showing that some ideas exist so deep inside of us that when we swim towards them with too much haste, we scare them away. We rather have to wait for them, very slowly, and respect how they move on their own. In a world filled with external stimulation, we have to re-learn how to find the depth of our inner selves, and to discover the magic that is hidden there. This requires us to slow down and be patient, in the hopes that some beautiful ideas might come to the surface. Approaching creativity in this way is refreshing in a world which constantly tells us that thinking and creating are forms of productive action; they only happen when we do things. In some cases, that is certainly true. But in other cases, we have to be a bit more patient, and a bit more quiet, and go along with whatever arises from the depths of silence.

It seems to me that this creative dimension of silence relates to the abyssal, existential part of our quiet life in some important way. I think part of what makes certain ideas swim to the surface in silence is that they are responses to questions that we will never get the answers to. Perhaps creativity is the name we give to the process of expressing the elements of negativity and loneliness that characterize us most: the problems of existence that we will never solve. Herein also lies the beauty of coming to terms with this tragic side of ourselves. The great nothingness, the void, the lack of answers; even though they are profoundly negative, they are also the forces that allow us to pursue meaning through all sorts of creative activities. Perhaps this is the greatest insight that silence can reveal to us; the intimate intertwinement of meaning and nothingness in human life.

Writing these kinds of texts, it is tempting to end with a final call to action, a plea for everybody to put away their phones, tablets and laptops and just sit on the porch for hours to pontificate the deeper meaning of existence. Surely, I would never advice against that, but I also do not want to tell anybody what to do. Rather, what I have tried to describe, is how the absence of silence in life might affect us, and to imagine what insights we might gain if we experience a bit more silence in our lives. When we think about silence, quietude and relaxation, it is important not to conflate the absence of thought with the absence of sound, for I think that the former breeds passivity and docility, whereas the latter might offer us some much-needed room for reflective thought. We might learn something about ourselves by allowing silence to reveal itself to us, to swallow us up and spit us out into the darkness of the night. And perhaps, if we remain quiet for long enough, we might also catch a fish some day.


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