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  • Lex van der steen

Silence 'is'

In our last post, Max wrote about silence and our need for it, especially in relation to our contemporary condition of constant information and content input. Although I agree with the overall direction of his brief exposition, I will here spend some words reacting to his text and add what I believe to be important nuances.

The starting point of Max’ analysis, and perhaps my biggest concern about it, is the idea that “silence is ... a non-space. In itself, it is nothing but pure absence”. Max asks some great questions, like what silence can tell us about ourselves, or why we desire silence. And his intended goal is also fruitful, namely “to think the negative in positive terms”. Yet, I wonder whether starting from the idea that ‘silence is … nothing but pure absence’ will allow us to think ‘the negative in positive terms’. What exactly should we understand by ‘pure absence’? I am afraid that my friend starts off too enthusiastically, and conflates silence with some type of absolute absence, or, like he said, ‘pure absence’: something that does not exist in any way. By placing silence on the negative side of a radical dichotomy between the negative and the positive, or the absent and the present, a mistake is perhaps made. Because, is ‘negative’ not itself already a positive term? And does not every positive term have a negative element to it? Nothing new is thought by emphasizing the problematic character of such a stringent dichotomy, and that in contrast the two sides actually overlap.


Rather, I would briefly like to pay attention to how Heidegger understands absence as a mode of being, as a way in which existence can manifest itself, rather than as a pure non-existence. In fact, the positive, or that which is present, always manifests itself from and with absence. This absence refers to the implicit way in which we always already understand that which is present, and which lights up when the present being is no longer present. Heidegger often refers to this as ‘nothing’. In short, for Heidegger, we always understand ‘something’ from the ‘nothing’ that surrounds it, that is, the inevitably unexpressed way of implicitly interpreting and understanding that ‘something’. Nothing, for Heidegger, is exactly ‘no-thing’, but still is. Let’s say that I am sitting somewhere with a friend, for example in a nice little park. Suddenly, my friend asks me whether I hear that strange beeping sound. I try to listen more carefully, but I don’t hear a strange beeping sound. I hear nothing. But this does not mean that I do not hear things, I still hear the birds, the people that are sitting not too far from us, the car that drives by at the edge of the park, etcetera. To hear nothing, in this case, is the absence of something which I expected to hear, of which I already have a certain understanding of what it was supposed to be.


Silence should of course not be equated to that which Heidegger means with nothing. However, it should neither be understood as a ‘pure absence’ that does not exist at all. Silence is indeed the absence of something, but, like Heidegger’s nothing, it still is. For this reason, we can say that a moment, place, thing or individual is silent. Basically, what I want to underline in light of Max’ description of silence as a pure absence, is Husserl’s idea of intentionality, which also underpins Heidegger’s understanding of nothing. Intentionality entails the idea that consciousness is always consciousness of something. Like in the example I gave before, even when I hear nothing, the absence of that which I expected to hear, I still hear other things, like the singing birds. There are always things for us, silence cannot be a pure absence. Silence, rather, is the absence of certain things, and the appearance of others.

I would like to mention that I am in no way critiquing Max’ essay. I am simply mentioning those things which I believe might not have been mentioned, or those things which I believe to deserve more emphasis. And I might misinterpret his text at moments. I simply would write certain things in a different way, with a different approach, and I believe responding to each other, making our different approaches meet, is just a productive way for the both of us to stimulate thinking. When he gives the example of his roommate, I start to have serious doubts about his approach. I namely think that in this passage the conflation of silence with a pure absence determines his line of reasoning quite strongly. He writes the following:


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.


Let me say that I emphathize with his overall point: that today we seem to have an increasingly hard time withdrawing from (digital) input, whether this is working on a certain task, like homework or a job, being with friends, in real life or through WhatsApp or Facebook, watching series or videos, listening to music, or simply browsing the web, and that this inability to withdraw is something we should be alarmed by. The word that describes Max’ point most concisely, I believe, but which he for some reason does not use, is distraction. He writes that ‘There cannot be a moment without stimulus or input. We need to perpetually plug our brain into the matrix, where stimulation breeds mental inactivity’. His main concern is, it seems to me, that today we constantly distract ourselves with all kinds of input in order to escape a confrontation with the basic topics of existential philosophy, like the fact that one is thrown in a world devoid of reason and meaning, and that this life is ours to live and shape, etcetera. Silence, then, is the absence of this distraction, and a confrontation with these existential questions.


Of course, I also believe that we should, now and then, ponder about these existential matters, and that one can distract oneself from doing so by escaping inside content and information. Yet, I don’t think that we can draw a clear-cut distinction between thinking and distraction, and equate this with another distinction with on the one hand silence and, on the other hand, entertainment, content, activities, and more. I think this would be wrong because I don’t think that silence is something objective. Rather, silence is something subjective, namely insofar it manifests itself differently, under different circumstances, for different people (or even for the same individual, but at different points of the day, or under the influence of different moods, for example). I remember it vividly when I first came to this conclusion. I was sitting with a friend and an art teacher of ours outside of his atelier. My friend told us that after she had lived in the city for a while, the absence of sound in the night when sleeping at her parents’ place, who live in the countryside, was too loud for her. The silence was too loud, or rather, it was too silent for her for there to be silence. This also makes me think of the fact that most people cannot stay very long in those rooms that are designed to be extremely silent, because it is too overwhelming. And, of course, that actual ‘pure silence’ cannot be reached, since people inside those rooms would still hear the sound of their blood rushing through their bodies. Silence is the absence of certain things and the appearance of other things, and what these exactly are, and when it occurs, is something subjective. In light of these things, I doubt Max’ formulation saying that ‘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’. Why would ‘mind-numbing entertainment’ simulate silence while the sounds of the wind and birds singing are silence? Where does one draw the line between the ‘things of silence’ and the ‘things of mind-numbing entertainment’, if neither of those is a ‘pure absence’ of things? I don’t think we can draw a clear line between silence and whatever we consider to be its opposite, nor do I think we can draw a clear line between thinking and not-thinking. To be honest, I believe most of my thoughts start, unconsciously, through consumption and input, exactly there where there is no silence. Yes, these thoughts can manifest more clearly at moments of silence, and even require silence to develop in a certain way. My point is simply to emphasize the fact that silence is not a radical absence, that defining silence cannot be a completely objective matter, and that silence and distraction can overlap.


There is a paragraph in Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood – the story of which takes place around 1969, way before the digital world of today and its overload of information were presentwhere this overlap between distraction and silence is very clear:


Thinking thoughts like this about Midori’s father put me into such a miserable mood that I had to bring the laundry down from the roof before it was really dry and set off for Shinjuku to kill time walking the streets. The Sunday crowds gave me some relief. The Kinokuniya bookshop was as jampacked as a rush-hour train. I bought a copy of Faulkner’s Light in August and went to the noisiest jazz café I could think of, reading my new book while listening to Ornette Coleman and Bud Powell and drinking hot, thick, foul-tasting coffee. At 5.30 I closed my book, went outside and ate a light supper. How many Sundays – how many hundreds of Sundays like this – lay ahead of me? “Quiet, peaceful, and lonely,” I said aloud to myself. On Sundays, I didn’t wind my spring.


As the first sentence of this paragraph makes clear, thinking thoughts is not always something good, productive, useful, pleasant, or, more importantly here, an existential confrontation with our inherently meaningless condition. Thoughts can also just suck. On top of that, I think anyone taking thinking seriously should at all times consider that perhaps thinking itself, not this or that thinking but thinking in general, is part of our problems. And, like I already mentioned, Murakami’s story takes place around 1969. To escape our thoughts by surrounding ourselves with stimuli is not something new, but rather something very acceptable for beings with a brain like ours. The character finds quietness, silence, inside noise, and I don’t really see the problem of it, because I don’t think this (distraction) excludes critical thinking. Rather, it shows that the thoughts that arise in silence are not always existentially or philosophically valuable, but can apparently also be incredibly irrational and bothersome. It's specifically satisfying how Murakami uses the term ‘noisiest’ and then later makes the character describe his Sunday as ‘quiet’. Noise and quietness, distraction and silence, thinking and non-thinking, can and do overlap.


The way in which things like silence, noise, input, output, critical thinking and distraction relate to one another cannot be expressed in a clearly defined and systematic way. Rather, I think that they relate to each other as if part of a certain kaleidoscopic machinery where all of them can touch and overlap, while they can also all be separated from one another. I am undoubtedly also worried about people having to watch Friends in order to experience silence, but this doesn’t mean that those people are not actually experiencing some type of silence. What it rather means, I think, is that there is something about our daily lives that is so loud, that the silence of nature and not watching something on a screen has become too loud as well. The problem, then, is not only an underappreciation of silence (although this is also definitely the case) and a constant desire for distraction, but also an average level of noisiness that is too high and overflows our daily lives. Somehow, in order for the silence of nature, no screens and activities to become bearable again, we need more silence in the first place. What I am trying to say is that, I don’t think we should only focus on ‘finding silence’, but also on being less loud. I am afraid that by being loud in one particular way too much, the kaleidoscopic machinery gets stuck in one specific position, a position where dichotomies like thinking and mind-numbness and silence and noise start to become inevitable. Finding silence in watching Friends or the Simpsons is not a problem. What is problematic is living in a world where it seems as if the only way to find silence is by watching Friends.


We should be skeptical of the picture in which it seems as if we are ‘stuck’ in a system of noise, where at some point ‘Capitalism’ will inevitably incorporate silence by commodifying it and where hence any attempt to escape the system is futile. I don’t think this is the case. Silence always remains. What matters is finding a way to appreciate it more, to give it more of a central place in our daily lives. I would like to end by drawing some attention to the Japanese concept of ‘Ma’. This term is one of the four terms by means of which the Japanese can refer to space. More specifically, Ma refers to negative space, a gap, a pause, which can be understood as either or both spatial and temporal. Kiyoshi Matsumoto writes that “The Japanese concept of Ma is something that relates to all aspects of life”. Ma is the interval that gives shape to the whole, the silence in between the notes that defines the overall music piece, the architectural empty spaces that characterize the building, or the moments in which the characters of a story can simply breathe. Matsumoto can describe it way better than I can, so I will quote him here at length:


Nowhere is Ma more apparent than in Japan, after all the Japanese saw fit to create a name for the concept. Aesthetic values are deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Decisions are carefully thought out, never rushed. Contemplative time and space is always considered. Intuition and feeling often determine the outcome of actions over pure logic and reasoning. An everyday example of Ma can be seen in the respectful Japanese bow. People make a deliberate pause at the end of a bow before they come back up — the reason being as to ensure there is enough ‘Ma’ to convey feeling and look respectful. Another example would be the silent pause in conversation. The Japanese way of communication is full of emptiness; subjects of sentences are often left unsaid. Clarity in words is not always necessary, reaching an intuitive understanding in a silent pause is considered highly intelligent and sophisticated. This opposes the more direct western standards of communication, especially in the US where nothing should be left for speculation, and conversations avoid the ‘awkwardness’ of silence.


There are already ways of dealing with silence, ways that are also already incredibly old, that are perhaps more preferable than the ways we are employing right now. I wonder whether it is a coincidence that Heidegger’s idea of nothing seems to show similarities with the concept of Ma (in fact, the similarities between Heidegger’s work and eastern thought, specifically Japanese, has already been emphasized and studied extensively, even by Heidegger himself). Anyway, let’s try to learn from these approaches.


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