The Taste for Silence

by Caitlin


“Silence has a weight which we do not find in any word. It is heavy with everything we have lived, are living now and everything we shall experience.”

 (Fiumara, 1996, p. 105)

Silence is a space that summons different feelings for different people. For some it is the space of regeneration, rest, and restoration. For others it is fraught with anxiety, distraction and loathing. Irrespective of emotional summoning, silence is often an intimate place. In recent years, there has been an increase in shared silence, and silent encounters. For example, in the Guardian article Shhhh! How the Cult of Quiet can Change your Life (Guardian, 2016) the author outlines the increasing popularity of silent dining, silent retreats, silent reading and silent encounters at large.

Meanwhile, Matthew Adams, lecturer in psychology at the University of Brighton, has a long-term interest in the social, cultural and psychological significance of silence, and particularly in shared silence and electing to share silence. “Collective silence is about connecting with others in a way that gets underneath social conventions. It confronts us with what it feels like to be in the physical presence of other human beings without any games, strategies, reading or misreading of intentions. It is a temporary suspension of our reliance on talk” (Guardian, 2016).

Psychologist and philosopher Gemma Corradi Fiumara, who I frequently visit through the printed word, suggests that silence is the true act of listening. Silence is the relational spaces between theory and object (Fiumara, 1996, p 107), between the power of knowledge and the strength of understanding. Silence is the space that is active in the pursuit of understanding. Challenging the privilege given to articulation and argumentative rhetoric, listening is the act that breaks the storm of “discourse that saturates our culture” (Fiumara, 1996, p.172). If silence is the space where understanding can be expanded and the historical power given to reason and reduction, it is also the space where meaningful human exchange occurs. Swiss Artist Salome Voegelin, identifies silence as an exchange that allows radical hearing to occur. She describes silence, not as the absence of sound, but as the beginning of listening (Guardian, 2016). Fiumara also suggests that it is more culturally reassuring to gravitate towards speaking than listening. Her hypotheses is that talking provokes “cognitive security with far fewer demands” (Fiumara, 1996, p. 95). If this is the case, why is a culture governed by consumerism and immediate gratification so spooked yet simultaneously enamoured with space for silence.

Silence is the space where pre verbal connection happens. It allows people to bond, to connect deeply. As a space for radical engagement with the other. As Sciacca elaborates in Fiumara’s book

“With silence we express the most varied and conflicting states, sentiments, thoughts and desires. Silence is meaningful. There is the silence of fear and terror, of wonder and stupor, of pain and joy…silence is anything but absence. In our philosophical life it is the opposite of absence: it is the fullness of the present instant.”

(Fiumara, 1996, p 101)

Silence is often interpreted as a means of exchange oppositional to discourse, conversation and articulation. It is however, the first point of discourse, with silence often relating to the metaphor of the midwife. Silence helps to deliver the fullness of an idea, the comprehension of two or more people involved in collaborative thinking, and the process of delivering an idea into comprehensive linguistic expressions; be that visual, sonic, verbal, gestural or otherwise. As Fiumara posits “In my opinion, the creation of an empty space, or distance within dialogic relation might be the only way of letting the deeper meanings and implications of that relationship emerge” (Fiumara, 1996, p.102). What is interesting here is that the notion of silence is translated to the spatial equivalent of empty. Emptiness like silence is contextual, always in relation to something else, a state springing from chatter, from abundance, diversity, content; and for moments we take time to stare at the openness of the sky, the stretching horizon of the sea. We take time to experience silence, to listen into the fertile bed of our pre thoughts. A discourse without silences is simply incomprehensible babble.

In Western culture we are fixated with words. We overflow with words, in writing, in thinking, in imagining, in speaking. Internally, externally, in the silence of our mind or the sound waves that fall from our mouths. To be silent is to honour the space before the word, but also to consider life without word. In a world without words what do we use? Sounds, the qualities of sounds, images, touch. We have so many other means of communicating before we start employing words. Fiumara asserts that silence is seen as oppositional to speech, and therefore it is often considered a defensive or offensive expression. She encourages readers to embrace silence, and see it as a chance to embrace separation from a cultural dependency on language, and indeed, chatter. Specifically she argues that engaging in shared silences encourage a “mature capacity for recognising and tolerating the gap or hiatus between self and others, between language and reality” (Fiumara, 1996, p103). Additionally she argues that a widespread cultural benumbment has occurred due to careless use of excess words. Interestingly she suggests that over talking with little content is a means of relinquishing plausibility and responsibility. “When we agree to go along with the discourse of an interlocutor who implicitly admits that he is obliged to say just about anything, we give up the right to consider the other responsible for what he is saying” (Fiumara, 1996, p. 105). If ever there was a rousing call to incorporate active silence into conversational territory, it could be to foster the space to acknowledge the other, and instil trust and to encourage collaborators in conversation to feel mutual respect for one another.

Silence can be thought of and employed, as an act of radical resistance. When listening is not employed, a usurping of the other occurs (Fiumara, 1996, p 112 ). Without listening, the gift of attention of the other is annulled. To listen is to show respect and foster deep, critical thought between others. It is also the ground upon which to foster genuine human connections, as Sciacca articulates “to communicate is to enter the other” (Fiumara, 1996, p 112 ). Current cultural norms, dominated by overt acts of cultural and material consumerism, which express themselves as behaviours of restlessness, talking, shouting, showing what is possessed, consumed, and owned can be seen as expressions of noisiness, haste and disconnection. Fiumara equates such a noisiness with an expression of halved rationality, a rationality capable of speech but not of listening, an language that is “eloquent but deaf” (Fiumara, 1996, p. 60). If we are to embrace listening, and a range of listening modes (Chion, 2012) then arguably we further empathy, embracing the other, an acceptance of separation from others and indeed reality, a maturation of authenticity and honesty, and a challenging of dominant notions of logic.

In conclusion, to listen is a return to the body. To the non-verbal, non-conceptual senses, and embodied means of perception. In a world filled with Instagram feeds, Facebook declarations, and the silent words of email, to listen is to foster immediacy, the present moment of human connection. Taking a longer view, and looking back through a history of western logic, listening was not one of the key tenets of the idea. However, it can be argued that without listening understanding is not based on critically responding to the other, but instead on overwhelming with a force of rhetoric more akin to an imposition of power rather than strength. Listening does not preclude criticality; instead it lays a foundation of a more in depth understanding, where agreement or disagreement can be rooted in comprehension. It might be wise to look back to the teachings of Heraclitus and ponder how listening and speaking can be used in close union.

Chion, M. (2012) The Three Listening Modes. In The Sound Studies Reader, edited by Jonathan Sterne. London: Routledge.

Fiumara, C.G. (1990) The Other Side of Language; A Philosophy of Listening.London: Routledge.

The Guardian (2016) Shhhh! How the Cult of Quiet can Change your Life. Available at [Accessed 11th December 2016].