Disruptive Silence/Inhabiting Near-Inaudibility

Angelica Stathopoulos, Jayne Desmond

Disruptive Silence/Inhabiting Near-Inaudibility is the first part of a dialogue between Angelica Stathopoulos and Jayne Desmond which aims to rethink ways of being in / with / alongside silence. Drawing on lived experience and a range of theoretical and literary texts including works by Jacqueline Rose, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Hélène Cixous, Virginia Woolf, Luce Irigaray, Judith Jack Halberstam, Chris Kraus, Lynne Huffer, Kate Zambreno, Dodie Belamy, Violette Leduc, Eugenie Brinkema, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Maurice Blanchot, Clarice Lispector, Stanley Cavell, J.L Austin, Gwen Stefani and Anais Nin, we explore an alternative conceptual framework for silence, distinct from its relegation to minor pause between more meaningful units of speech and its association with oppression and privilege. The essay serves as an introduction to an ongoing exploration of the radical potential of silence between two. Through combining our philosophical and creative perspectives, focusing on silence as mode of being, literary process and communicative tool, we hope to contribute to the reconfiguration of silence as both subversive strategy and ethical position. The ongoing project is experiential, we share and explore our subject in text and silently.


Silence; Écriture Féminine; Queer Theory; Literature; Philosophy; Creativity

Full text

Currently all is about speech. Since my love(r) is not here, our only means of communication is words. Spoken words, written words. A communication that heavily contradicts that which I consider to be my personality. To comfort myself, I seek other communications within the communities that surround me. But making friends in this country, perhaps in any country, appears impossible without speech. No one seems to be interested in my silence. Ironically, it is what interests me most in others. I am so sick of speech; of receiving it, of practicing it. I dream of convents, forests, earplugs. I wonder when anyone is going to be interested in measuring silence.

If I am quiet can I share your dream of convents, forests and earplugs? I’m interested in your silence. I want to measure it against mine. If we whisper together of this shared desire, our guilty pleasure, perhaps we’ll become even quieter.

It’s inescapable sometimes, the imperative to speak. In Women in Dark Times, Jacqueline Rose writes: “raising a voice in the world would of course be one definition of feminism – speaking out, protesting, clamouring loudly for equality, making oneself heard…” (2014, 5). We should listen to Audre Lorde, there are occasions when “your silence will not protect you” (1984, 41) and sometimes it will only do others harm. As bell hooks warns, silences can become “acts of complicity” (1995), the moral failures Lynne Huffer sees in the “inability to speak when speech is called for” (2013, 143).

So perhaps like me, and every woman for Hélène Cixous, you have “known the torture of beginning to speak aloud, heart beating as if to break, occasionally falling into loss of language, ground and language slipping out from under [you]” (1996, 92) and still you have pierced the silence imposed from above.

I’ve repeatedly overcome my reticence. I’ve done it for my own sanity and for the sanity of others. Occasionally I’ve been successful, small achievements dwarfed by the size of the challenge; often I’ve been punished for my efforts and still, I cast silence aside when the stakes are high but I now choose these moments carefully. There is no end point to be reached once we have spoken, no idyll of post-fear freedom, no seismic shift, only the need for an instant repeat.

For Rose, fear becomes “an intimate, a companion” for some women, “part of their world or psychic repertoire, and a type of knowledge, something they are able to tolerate” (10). It is not fear that keeps me quiet. The unrelenting necessity to speak is draining. My voice is hoarse from repetition. It’s not my duty to educate. I take instruction from Woolf: “Do not dream of influencing other people” (1928, 109). The world has enough speakers and I have earned my right to lapse into silence.

I sympathize with Jean-Pierre in Nathalie Sarraute’s Le Silence, whose silence manages to completely disrupt the conversation between the six other people in the play. Since he doesn’t speak, they speak not only about him, but for him. Is he a snob? A condescending intellectual? Is he stupid? Is he shy? Is he crazy? Or does he simply have nothing to say? They urge him to speak, and mock him for keeping silent. They compare him to George Sand, because the only thing that left her mouth was cigars. But Sand, unlike Jean-Pierre, had an entire oeuvre to speak for her (silence): “Ça meublait le silence” (1967, 50).

Sarraute allows us to experience silence as a disruptive force. And even though the dimensions are different, I recognize the anxiety that Jean-Pierre’s surroundings suffer, I experience it when I search people’s faces for recognition, when I try to speak to them without words.

We are reading How to Do Things with Words (Austin 1962), I keep wondering how to not do anything at all, with words. Worrying about the 30% of my grade fulfilled through participating in the seminar, that is—speaking in the seminar, while trying to listen to those who do speak, and not escape to convents, forests. Thinking bitterly that speech can take any form and yet always remain welcome, wanted, relevant.

My silence is respectful not hostile but it’s hard to read, difficult to interpret. I know others judge me for it. They assume I am incapable of speech because like you and Jean-Pierre, I offer no verbal antics to prove myself worthy of my seat at their table. We grapple with the same material but I do different things with it. Like Chris Kraus I keep my thoughts to myself:

Because she does not express herself in theoretical language, no one expects too much from her and she is used to tripping out on layers of complexity in total silence (2006, 21).

The more knowledge I acquire, the more silent I become.

My feminist professor looks at me willingly. I belong to the category girl which means that I should want to speak now that a forum is finally offered to me. An entire childhood, an entire adolescence, of not having your speech being listened to, of having been silenced, wouldn’t anyone jump at the chance to finally express themselves?

We were silenced once and now we are required to speak, to show that we prosper in this freedom. Our perspective is expected as proof it is welcome but we must express it in ways easily understood by the mechanisms that once silenced us. Silence was all we were allowed before and the fact that we actively adopt it now, choose it as a way of being even though we’ve been released from it irritates some people. It was imposed as a punishment yet we embrace it like a prize.

As of yet, I have not found enough friends to fill all the seats around my table, but I have a couple who’s silence I’m allowed to share, who’s silence I can cherish. And I never spoke in the seminar, but I continued reading How to Do Things With Words and I figured out how to not do things with words. Stanley Cavell criticises J. L. Austin for having promoted illocutionary acts over perlocutionary speech (2005). While assessing the role of silence within ordinary language philosophy, perlocutionary utterances prove to offer a better climate then illocutionary acts. Within passionate-perlocutionary speech-acts, silence produces as important effects as does speech. Cavell cites Jane Austen:

“Charming Miss Woodhouse! [it is Mr. Elton, continuing to speak, having found himself alone with this lady in a moving carriage]. Allow me to interpret this interesting silence. It confesses that you have long understood me.” “No, sir,” cried Emma, “it confesses no such thing. So far from having long understood you, I have been in a most complete error with respect to your views, till this moment. . . . Am I to believe that you have never sought to recommend yourself particularly to Miss Smith?—that you have never thought seriously of her?”

“Never madam,” cried he, affronted in his turn: . . . [M]y visits to Hartfield have been for yourself only; and the encouragement I received”−−−

“Encouragement!−−I give you encouragement!−−sir, you have been entirely mistaken in supposing it…” (2005, 197-198)

This exchange begins with Emma’s silence and ends with Mr. Elton’s silence. Both of which produce powerful perlocutionary effects. Thus, unlike what many philosophers have argued, silence is not located at the obverse side of meaning, it rather creates, as does speech, meaning. Silence is full of meaning, meaning-full.

Cixous writes of the “gap between what we perceive in moments of enlightenment, and what we’re able to get down on paper” or convey in spoken words (2008, 6). Silence seems a better medium than language for conveying the boundless and swift movement of mental processes but you have to be so careful. I’ve known a few Mr Eltons. Silence risks misinterpretation, though you might say speech does too. Most prefer to ignore what their surfaces reveal and they demand those around them do the same. Living predominantly in the perlocutionary realm, voicing the unspoken, makes you unpopular and reading too much of significance into another’s silence takes you close to psychosis. It’s such a delicate balance, tapping into communicative silence that’s actually meaning-full and not solipsistic. Everything is badly translated if you don’t move beyond the self and to do that you have to move inward, silently.

Sometimes I’m quiet because I’ve stopped listening. For Jean-Luc Nancy, listening is an active process, “inclined towards the opening of meaning” but sense opens up in silence so my mind drifts back to your forest, your convent and I reach for your earplugs (2007, 26-7). I want to turn the volume down on the constant chatter people use to delineate their own experience. They are perplexed I don’t reciprocate. There is enough speech without me adding to it unnecessarily. In silence, I can better feel the undulations of my own fluidity and then like Cixous: “I attempt to hear by the silences, the gazes, the manner by which bodies speak” (2008, 55). I see unspoken thoughts in the way each person performs, unacknowledged feelings in miniscule ticks. Everything is there on the surface to be read before anyone utters a word.

For Cixous, Marguerite Duras was the doyenne of silence:

She has made silence (elle a fait silence) and because she made silence she is someone who can listen to others. She has inside her the space, the openness that means that she can hear others either being silent or yelling… (2008, 164)

Irigaray also writes of the importance of this silence in relationships, of listening to the other without wanting to appropriate, silence not as a pause in negative speech but as a place of new unfolding (2002, 37).

There is a saying, at least in Sweden, that you shouldn’t let your emotions remain deep down, deep within, but that you should encourage that which you carry beneath the surface to surface. From below to above, from body to language—to speech? But beneath is always-already above—our bodies are already speaking, our language is always contaminated by our milk, blood, water. This surface, could we think of it as a space not still, but silent?

Now that my love is here, he tells me that I’m bad at communicating, and suggests that we should repeat what the other person says before answering, to make sure that we aren’t making up things in our heads about what the other person is saying.

There is nothing I would rather give him then what he wants. I taught him to be silent and he taught me how to speak. He taught me how to scream when he showed me another kind of silence, the one I perform for him when he asks it of me; a silence communicated through eyes, breath, hands. This silence is not quiet, it is deafening.

Speech seems deceitful to me: I don’t think of it as a clarificatory force that sheds light on the obscurity suggested by silence. It is silence that allows us to understand speech. Like Nancy writes: “Le sens s’ouvre dans le silence”  (2002, 50). Because what would speech be, without silence? Maybe I’m bad at communicating because in fact, I’m not fluent in any language, other than silence. Like Gwen Stefani sang: “I know what you’re saying/So please stop explaining/Don’t speak, don’t speak, don’t speak” (1995).

But if I would take his advice, I would tell you that I feel like we are talking about silence as an ethical category… but mostly I would tell you that you write so beautifully.

You do everything beautifully and your fluency in silence soothes me.

My lover is open to silence. I had grown used to vocal desire where silence is closed and just the prelude to or means of expressing opinion. I found my own desire, I carved out interludes between, but was often hampered by the urgency of the verbal expression of another. Desire is frustrating when you can’t let it take shape, it’s quicker to mould it around someone else’s. I found myself speaking a lot too, to counter the fear I was being silenced. Then my lover came. He does not drown me with speech. His words are presented sparingly like Anaϊs Nin’s thoughts and memories wrapped “in satin-lined cushioned boxes” (1961, 6). He makes spoken language meaningful again. He leaves room for my quiet so there is less need for speech and the only desire I fall back on is the bed of his silence where I lay myself open to hear his desire too.

The silence between lovers is like Nancy’s silence, “not a privation but an arrangement of resonance” (2007, 21) and like Barthes’ gaping garments, the most erotic part of conversation but I still check in vocally though, like your lover, because our silences are not the same (1975, 9). There are many differences between us so we need verbal and physical clues too. I agree speech can be deceitful but I also know the truth in Robert Louis Stevenson’s assertion: “the cruellest lies are often told in silence” (1881). Everything is potentially meaningful, cruel, kind or deceitful. Silence can be used well or wasted.

In Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe reads the silence of her host Mrs Ramsey:

Mrs Ramsey sat silent. She was glad, Lily thought, to rest in silence, uncommunicative; to rest in the extreme obscurity of human relationships… Aren’t things spoilt then, Mrs Ramsey may have asked (it seemed to have happened so often, this silence by her side) by saying them? Aren’t we more expressive thus? The moment at least seemed extraordinarily fertile (1927, 187).

Mrs Ramsey represents the Derridean perspective in the tension Eugenie Brinkema sees between Foucault and Derrida surrounding silence: remain silent, leave silence alone, let it be so it can take effect (Brinkema, 2011: 218-220). Lily Briscoe the artist is then Foucault, observing the archaeology of Mrs Ramsey’s silence, wondering if it isn’t best served by voicing the structure around it.

Mrs Ramsey, a loose portrait of Woolf’s mother, the ‘Angel in the House’ and silent muse, like the lighthouse seen from a distance, imaginative, creative and soft while her husband is factual, functional and hard like the lighthouse close up. Mrs Ramsey who loves Mr Ramsey but is discontented by aspects of their Victorian marriage. Mrs Ramsey caught between being silent and being silenced.

My silence grows from below but it’s still contaminated by the silence imposed from above. It’s so difficult to disentangle the layers of the psyche and as we have limited responsibility for our utterances and questionable control over our actions, can it really be autonomy I find in choosing not to speak? Maybe Woolf provides the answer and the tension between embodying and breaking my own silence is all I can hope to achieve. I am jaded, enmeshed in political ramifications.

Save me.

I want to speak to you in dreams. I want to meet you in a dialogue not yet controlled by the conscious consciousness of our official personalities. Instead of wakefulness, activity, and speech, I will meet you in oineric consciousness, next to sleep, passivity, and silence. It is in this space that Maurice Merleau-Ponty meets Maurice Blanchot; he listens to his unspeaking speech:

There is also chatter and what has been called interior monologue, which does not in the least, as we well know, reproduce what a man says to himself, and the deepest part of man is not silent but most often mute, reduced to a few scattered signs. Interior monologue is a coarse imitation, and one that imitates only the apparent traits of the uninterpreted and incessant flow of unspeaking speech. Let us recall that the strength of this speech is in its weakness; it is not heard, which is why we don’t stop hearing it; it is as close as possible to silence, which is why it destroys silence completely. Finally, interior monologue has a center, the “I” that brings everything back to itself, while that other speech has no center; it is essentially wandering and always outside (Merleau-Ponty 2010, 149).

The silence of this unspeaking, unspoken speech is now the only thing that we hear—silence is no longer silent. This silence destroys silence.

You cite Eugenie Brinkema, who writes that: “Too much is written of silence” (217). But what about silent writing? The writing we find in Hélène Cixous, in Maurice Blanchot, in Luce Irigaray:

I compose my books as if I were able to speak silently; that is, I always create a counterpoint between speech [la parole] and silence (Hirsh and Olson 1995, 101).

Writing that transcends the binaries of consciousness and dreams, wakefulness and sleep, activity and passivity, speech and silence. Writing that allows a true ternary dialectic to form, to speak with Merleau-Ponty. Too much has not been written silently.

In dreams we would talk about other ways of being and of being-in-relation. Clarice Lispector asks: “Ne pas utiliser des mots c’est perdre l’identité ? C’est se perdre dans les essentielles ténèbres pernicieuses?” (1980, 189). If it does mean losing ones identity, Merleau-Ponty would be content. For him, subjectivity is too embedded in prevailing ontology, rooted in activity, speech, wakefulness. No room for dreams, for les essentielles ténèbres pernicieuses. Merleau-Ponty dreams of an ontology where dreams are allowed to be consciousness, and where silence can be speech. Silence can be speech, but speech can never be silence.

In Ancient Greece, they spoke in three different voices, in the active, the passive, and the middle voice. Overlooking the thoroughly anachronistic attempt of speaking a language that we have never heard, what might the middle voice sound like? How can we speak it, hear it, understand it? But more importantly, what can it teach us?

Irigaray shows us the middle-passive or a forth mode of passivity while trying to rethink the possibilities of this anathemic concept—passivity. What about a fourth mode of silence? Neither wholly silence nor wholly speech, but something else.

What else?

Irigaray also writes of mimicry, how it can be used: “to convert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus to begin to thwart it… so as to make “visible”, by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible” (1977, 76). Tentatively, aware the choices I’m fortunate to have rely on the misfortune of others, I repeat and embody the shunned site of silence in an attempt to subvert it, to create a gap in the noise where an alternative may be heard.

Huffer highlights the challenge to see silence “not as absence, but as the restoration of a fissured ground whose promise is a different history” (2013, 141) and Halberstam calls for “a shadow archive of resistance, one that does not speak in the language of action and momentum” but contributes to a feminism that “fails to save others or to replicate itself… that finds purpose in its own failure” (2011, 128-9) and so for as long as futile speech predominates, while speechlessness remains linked to the absence of power, desire and pleasure, I will experiment with my lack of rebellion because I abstain. They cannot convict me on my silence alone and if they considered the evidence carefully, they’d see the strength of my desire is the reason I take refuge in silence.

“Silence… is the mark of hysteria” for Cixous – the hysteric is silenced so she speaks through her tortured body but still nobody listens. ”In the end, the woman pushed to hysteria is the woman who disturbs and is nothing but disturbance” so she is dismissed (1981, 49). Order must not be disrupted by the unorchestrated but I have known hysteria and in that silent zone, I found clarity.  Sometimes silence does protect you.

There are other ways to raise a voice in the world. If speaking out is one definition of feminism, another must be writing down. Cixous sees writing as a political gesture (2008, 84).

Everyone knows that a place exists which is not economically or politically indebted to all the vileness and compromise. That is not obliged to reproduce the system. That is writing… And that is where I go, I take books; I leave the real, colonial space: I go away (Cixous and Clément 1996, 72).

For Cixous: “There is silence around writing” (2008, xiv). Lorde equates speaking with the written form and Woolf believes: “So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters” (1925, 105). She also told me: “the outside of these magnificent buildings is often as beautiful as the inside” (10) so I took a risk. I walked away from the tirade of lectures and the din of seminars. I followed a solitary path laid by lighter voices.  Exactly like Kate Zambreno: “Minus a community, I invented one.” I gather my muses around me and these women “have been with me for as long as I have tried to write – like ghostly tutors” (2012, 13-14).

I sit like Dodie Belamy ”in the middle of my messy apartment and messy life reading these books, and theorists turn the chaos and suffering into abstraction, it’s so clean and peaceful, like the gleaming wooden floors of a Buddhist meditation center” (2006, 115). A silent process, heavily infected by my western sensibility but mindful.

I give way to this onanistic pleasure as fervently as Violette Leduc: ”long book-filled nights, my literary ecstasies” (1965, 43) because I too found freedom in re-writing and whether I’m chasing memories in the scratch of my pen or tapping out thought in irregular bursts, staring passively in between at the screen, it’s all done silently. For Barthes, this “[b]liss is unspeakable” (1975, 21).

I confess, I rarely actually write in silence though I do more now since you but most often I listen to music. Absolute silence as it’s commonly perceived is impossible apparently. John Cage went to great lengths to prove that even in an auditory vacuum, he could still hear the beat of his heart. That’s interesting in its own way I suppose but it’s not the silence that excites me. My quiet can’t be measured with instruments or manipulated into data, only approached and moved through like imagination and memory. Music takes me there, to the space you write about where everything is open, intangible and unreal.

I’m not sure my preoccupation is ethical. I map my need onto theory to establish a rationale but the impetus is predominantly aesthetic. I look at the world quietly so I can soak it up and spew it out in a different form. It is text that intoxicates me, silence was just the receptacle but you swapped my cheap wine glass for a crystal goblet and the words taste even better than before.

So I cannot shed the inheritance of silent white woman but like you and Lily Briscoe I can experiment with abstraction and inhabit the space between categorisations of oppression and privilege where silence is neither seized nor imposed but just breathed. Brinkema posits “near-inaudibility” as a means of reconfiguring our relationship to the concept (213). You write of an equally liberating membrane, just out of reach, impossible to verbalise. You are one of my muses now and I remember the route so I could meet you in those dreams when our shared written silence is over.

Unlike you, I fear that I have romanticized silence, like I always do when I like something. Always too much, never nuanced enough. Sitting down to edit this piece for publication, I am already sick of the subject. Perhaps it was therapy that ruined it for me; silence in that couch can truly feel like death.

But I still wonder what the opposite of express is, cause that is what I’m interested in…


Austin, John Langshaw. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. United States: Harvard University Press.

Barthes, Roland. 1975. The Pleasure of the Text. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc.

Belamy, Dodie. 2006. Academonia. San Francisco: Krupskaya.

bell hooks. 1995. Kicking Rage: Militant Resistance. Viewed on 20 January 2015,

Brinkema, Eugenie. 2011. ‘Critique of Silence.’ Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 22: 211-234.

Cavell, Stanley. 2005. Contending with Stanley Cavell, ed. Russell B. Goodman, United Kingdom, Oxford University Press.

Cixous, Hélène. 1981. “Castration or Decapitation?” Signs 7.1: 41-55.

Cixous, Hélène and Clément, Catherine. 1996. The Newly Born Woman. London:  I. B. Tauris.

Cixous, Hélène. 2008. White Ink: Interviews on Sex, Text and Politics. Stocksfield: Acumen.

Clarice, Lispector. Agua viva. Paris: Éditions des femmes: 1980

Dalsimer, Katherine. 2004. ‘Virginia Woolf: Thinking Back Through Our Mothers’. Psychoanalytic Inquiry 24.5: 713-730.

Halberstam, Judith. 2011. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hirsh, Elizabeth and Olson, Gary A. 1995. “’Je–Luce Irigaray’: A Meeting with Luce Irigaray”, Hypatia. 10: 101.

Huffer, Lynne. 2013. Are the Lips a Grave? A Queer Feminist on the Ethics of Sex. New York: Columbia University Press.

Irigaray, Luce. 2002. The Way of Love. London: Continuum.

Irigaray, Luce. 1977. This Sex Which Is Not One. New York: Cornell University Press.

Kraus, Chris. 2006. I Love Dick. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e) Native Agents Series.

Leduc, Violette. 1965. La Bâtarde. New York: Riverhead Books.

Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2010. Institution and Passivity: Course Notes from the Collège de France (1954-1955).Evanston, Northwestern University Press.

Nin, Anaϊs. 1961. Seduction of the Minotaur. London: Penguin Books.

No Doubt. Released 1995. Don’t Speak, from Tragic Kingdom. Interscope.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. 2002. À l’écoute. Paris: Éditions Galilée.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. 2007. Listening. USA: Fordham Uni Press.

Rose, Jacqueline. 2014. Women in Dark Times. London: Bloomsbury.

Sarraute, Nathalie. 1967. Le Silence. Paris: Gallimard.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. 1881. Virginibus Puerisque. Accessed on 28 January 2015:

Woolf, Virginia. 1928. A Room of Ones Own. London: Penguin Books.

Woolf, Virginia .1927. To the Lighthouse. London: Penguin Books.

Zambreno, Kate. 2012. Heroines. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e) Active Agents Series.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License.

ISSN: 2202-2546

© Copyright 2015 La Trobe University. All rights reserved.

CRICOS Provider Code: VIC 00115MNSW 02218K