What is Silence?

What is Silence?


Part 4 of The Genre of Silence, an essay.

It is understood that you are not to make noise in the library. The movies tell us to silence our cell phones and not to talk. Silence is not nothing; silence is the absence of communication. Silence is the number zero of genres.

To understand a bit more about what this means, consider nothing. Nothing is not silence. Nothing has no potential to make a sound. Nothing is less than a subtraction or an absence, nothing is not a negation. Nothing is a totality of not.

Null is not a value. It is a type. But null has no value. Null does not exist on the number line but rather exists in another domain. Zero, on the other hand, exists on the number line resting on the dial between -1 and 1.

For me, the easiest way to grasp this is to consider my daughter. I was thirty when she was born. For thirty years before her existence, it wasn’t just that she was yet to be born. There was no seeming potential for her existence. My apartment didn’t have space for her. I didn’t prepare food for her. I didn’t wonder where she was. She wasn’t. She didn’t exist, just as anyone yet to be born does not exist, just as ideas yet to have been conceived, do no not exist, buildings not yet drawn, books not yet written.

Now that she exists, reality cannot exclude her. Her absence did not preclude that she does exist.

There is a famous illustration of this paradox. “Don’t think of an elephant.” As soon as I have inserted an elephant into your head by saying “Don’t think of an elephant,” this elephant exists in the room and in your head.

If my daughter did not exist, I would not miss her. Her existence is as essential to my existence as my own, and yet there was a time when she did not exist and I did.

Silence is a genre as fundamental to expression as fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama. If my father’s photographs are silent, how do I make sense of them? Can you make sense of silence? What did he mean by such a prolonged act of silence, such a huge work of silence?

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Written by mattbriggs

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