On Silence(?)

“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.”

― L.W.

By Tiago Dannenbaum

Before starting (and thereby starting? (and this just (not) initiated text might be, in another light, understood as a flirtatious, retreating discussion of beginning and its dizzying roundabouts)), I feel the urge to leave a disclaimer: all of the ideas touched upon here I stole, and almost none of the victims I acknowledge. Despite its possible uniqueness, my composition is nothing but mere iteration. Shame on me!

That being said, let us start (again).

What is Silence?

And what does it have to do with “Cosmos”?

By delimiting its outermost contours, we have already failed in our prime intention of getting nearer—if one allows me the always-already failed metaphor—to what we are today going to fail to try to conceive of. Not only due to my conviction that in writing about Silence, or in writing about anything, whatever we set at a beginning, as an origin, or as an end, will in this now unclear sense unavoidably, again, fail to be such a thing, fail in not leaving a backdoor open from which an-other might always-already have gotten in. Like telling someone to guess a real number, and that to make it easier they may know it lies between one and two. With every step forward, our goal would seem to retreat; for everything we might say, there unavoidably remains a something that could have been added.

Not only, I reiterate, because one cannot write outside of language. It is also the fact that, in writing, we will naturally fail to grasp the ungraspable, or at least thereby render it graspable (again, failed).Whatever might find itself outside of the realm of the analyzable, whatever might be senseless, nonsensical or rabadaba, depending on the flavor, if it is to be fairly (and unsuccessfully?) “understood” then by not understanding. Thought of without thinking. Be spoken of in Silence.  In writing, we are speaking, and thus unsilenced. I recognize this a priori impossibility, this failure of my inquiry.

This double failure, together with all the failures we will create along the way, scars the present enterprise throughout: here, the failure to speak of Silence insofar as we can and evidently are speaking about it; there, the failure to speak of Silence after rejecting, in a not quite advaitic [1] move, even this possibility. We will spend (most of) our time here and no(t/ne) there. Here, we will dance and explore, playing Nagarjuna’s game of negation, until, still and always here, we hopefully start distancing ourselves from this warm familiarity, approaching an invisible limit we can sit on, and from which we will even try to kill Nagarjuna in a failed attempt at going, wrongly said, beyond. Always-already failing.

If we have always-already failed, then we have nothing to lose. Right?

So, what is Silence?

Or, more precisely, what am I calling Silence? I am not going to lie; despite stating the question like that, asking for some kind of absolute determination of what Silence might be, “what is Silence”, as if I was about to deduce a theorem, and despite being aware of failure, I am trying to get at something. Which, as I said, is in some way or another outside of language, thus constituting the second failure. This urge to talk took hold of me after a very peculiar experience I had, after many hours of just sitting. But the urge was misplaced: it was not an experience; it was not anything. Meanwhile, to speak in a horribly wrong way, there was no understanding, no noise, no difference, no one, no many, no anything. Only afterwards, in what I like to call the forgottenness, there was an I that was excited, convinced of having found something in an uncommon variation of its Jemeinigkeit, something very special and valuable and (all this, of course, here) even maybe beautiful, a something that was not a something and that this I, in its elatedness, suddenly wanted, no, needed to share with the world.

But, clearly, things were not as easy as I initially thought. For, after finding someone willing to hear, as it joyfully opened its mouth to start recounting, it suddenly froze in that position, starting to look puzzled. It tried to speak, but nothing came out. “It was… Silence” it finally said, “but not quiet”. Having forgotten, somehow, now here, it became clear that speaking, naming it, just did not do the job. In that sense, everything I have just written in the last couple of paragraphs was complete bullshit. [2]

So, we are left with this unfulfilling designation, Silence, and a vague sense that, insofar as we are calling Silence an absence of meaning that might be more appropriately called an Ultimate Silence or even Silence, we cannot speak about it. That is, however, misleading: we are obviously speaking about it. I was able to say a considerable amount about this Silence, using language, establishing an opposition between an “inside” and an “outside” of language, and making the latter somewhat accessible from within language. And I am not mistaking usage and mention, nor confusing sign for reference or anything of the sort, as one might argue at this point. It is that we are being guided, within the very limited scope of my justified and unavoidable ignorance, by an understanding of language—and one could merely say an understanding—for which meaning is constituted through iteration of a signifying form, i.e., the repetition that is simultaneously a new instantiation. This discourse of différance, having inherited its premises from the tradition and taken them to their logical conclusions, urges us to give up the notion of communication as a vehiculation of an enclosed signified that is self-present and exhaustible. One of the consequences of this approach should be a skepsis towards oppositions and the privileging of one of its poles, for instance, in the way in which an outside of language is set against an inside, regarding it as unmediated and purer, despite its essential dependence on the disregarded inside through which it solely becomes accessible, understandable,in the first place. But we would be missing the joke if we were only inverting the opposition instead of showing it for what it is. Unfortunately, elaborating on this form of deconstruction is well beyond the scope of the present composition.

Nonetheless, it remains necessary to get our hands at least a little dirty. We saw how this “outside” is only accessible from “within” language. This is also valid for what we may call “private experiences”. In talking of Silence as an experience of Jemeinigkeit, in speaking of it, here, we launch ourselves into the public forum “language”, which is always-already there and has its own workings independent of whatever our intention might be in using it. Every signifying form or mark is, depending on the context in which we find it, its own move in some language game. Meaning is not about what one means, but, going a step further beyond an analysis of ordinary language, about the way the mark inserts itself in diverse contexts before we get, iterating, to use it ourselves. I am writing, supposedly, about Silence, trying to impregnate this mark with my own vouloir-dire. But, as we have also seen, this usage is an iteration of the mark “Silence”; we are repeating a word that has had its own usages before and thus, independent of my intention, always-already carries with it a historicity, a trace that unavoidably contaminates every further usage.

This becomes clearer when we take into consideration the necessary structural possibility of quoting and parodying the mark, of taking it out of its particular instantiation and it nevertheless always remaining understandable. I have written above some bullshit that sketches some vague, quasi-religious notion of Silence. But if you were to walk down the street and hear someone say “Silence”, without seeing them, without hearing the conversation in which the utterance was inserted, without quite making out the tone in and the gestures with which it was spoken, the mark, in its deferred unity, in its identity constituted through iteration, would still remain understandable. As some dead philosopher writes elsewhere, “This does not imply that the mark is valid outside of a context, but on the contrary that there are only contexts without any center or absolute anchoring [ancrage]”. This results in a polysemy that should not be understood as the mark meaning A and B, nor that it might mean anything, but as a dissemination of meaning.

I cannot but admit the obscurity and obliqueness of such explanations, only partly conditioned by the brevity necessitated here. If we are to keep something, then: to speak is to inherit a trace and unavoidably carry this burden around. Uttering the n-word, for instance, even with the best of intentions, remains painful.

In light of this, it might have been irresponsible on my part to name whatever I am failing to try to conceive of “Silence”. But I will try to excuse this (second?) sin of mine by reminding us of my ignorance. I unfortunately neither have the means nor the intellect to produce a fair genealogy that simultaneously is a critique of the notion of origin and to trace the way in which our present notion is contaminated. Here, then, I find myself constrained to some bypassing remarks from serendipitous readings.

Such a scheme of Silence as the one in my bullshit paragraph is implicitly trying to exclude from itself all the others, that is, all the ways in which silence can not only be a form of communication, but an act of violence. Evident enough is the role that it plays in our everydayness as a way of making oneself understood, as asking for more information, as a very much positive refusal of action, etc. In the language of speech-act theory, silence has an illocutionary force, that is, originally, the way in which in saying something, we are doing something; here, in remaining silent, doing something.

Working from that idea and taking up a discussion on hate speech by Butler, the particularly brilliant undergraduate Beißner in her unpublished paper “Silence as Violence” points out how, since we are linguistic beings that come to social existence through naming, the refusal to name as the refusal to accredit within the social realm can be violence.

Just to name another way in which we are failing to exclude some other(s/ accounts) from Silence that is closer to home, there is a way in which it plays an important role in the rather recent history of Latin American dictatorships: Silence of the imposed curfews, on human rights violations, murder and torture, Silence from the perpetrators’ refusal to confess; the unfillable Silence of all the disappeared and, in that line, Silence as social and historical trauma.

All this and more, our scheme of Silence fails in trying to exclude from itself, thus failing to exclude itself from itself, to repress (not unterdrücken, but verdrängen) by calling itself [S]ilence or Silence. This failure of the first type, the impossibility of stabilizing the concept to mean this and not that, is but the consequence of having to write in language.

Trying to get closer to the limit with there, having failed to exclude a historicity, but also to make explicit the contamination up to a satisfying level, we cannot but move on. Still here, failing, in our second sense,to get there, we must acknowledge in our bullshit the inheritance of oriental religious and psychedelic investigative discourse. There are undeniable similarities with concepts like satori, brahman, nirvana, oneness, illumination, mu, Dao, and sometimes even God. Others that Silence is not explicitly trying not to be, but nevertheless is not. This heritage, even more than our own bullshit, cannot but be metaphysical throughout in differentiating and claiming an original presence, opposed to the absence in signification, which it sets as Reality, even if that presence is conveniently understood as nothingness or emptiness. It is, in its metaphysicality, or at least in the discourses that resulted from other personal needs to communicate, and in a way our Silence also is but fails to try to distance itself from, the twofold  draft of a Cosmology: firstly, by bringing the realm of experience into, in accordance with the Greek etymology, an organized and hierarchical whole, an understanding of a Reality and everything in it as subordinated to a principle, which might be a beginning, an origin, a telos or a beyond, which in this plurality can be functionally condensed into the place of an unjustified organizer; secondly, following the Latin equivalent, Universum, derived from the composition of unus and versus, literally “turned into one”, “condensed into one”, and then “all things as a whole”, “all together”, by determining this principle as an originally experienced oneness, with all kinds of particular variations that still can be read as falling thereunder.

Here we can see our first failure in action, parallel to, in some cases, an acknowledgement of the second, such as the Buddhist’s finger to the moon, or in Advaita’s explicit formulation of nirguna Brahman, in that all of them, in naming the unnamable, cannot help but fall victim to language. [3]

 It is from this metaphysicality that we are failing to distance ourselves when we, in an iterated gesture, write Silence instead of Silence, being forced to give it a name and refusing to fully comply with the language that is, misleadingly put, ready-at-hand. The same gesture that should be our roundabout, though, makes us fail twice.

Could we not conceive of Silence through pure negativity, though? I do not think so. Negation as determination or as a means, for example in Nagarjuna’s middle way, to obliquely approach, continues to fail insofar it remains an act; to conceive of Silence properly—by not conceiving—we have to cease action in a way that ceases all cessation without thereby resuming action: by dying. Insofar as we are linguistic beings, the proper non-conception would entail a cessation of ourselves.

After having so miserably failed, both to acknowledge the possibility of stabilizing an understanding of silence and to escape language to conceive of Silence, the question arises: why would I bother to take the time to write a text on silence that talks about everything but silence, that presupposes an understanding of understanding that excludes the possibility of a stable conception as a misconception and claims to take as an object of inquiry that which is a priori not to be inquired into, a non-object that nonetheless remains eternally uncharacterized? And why call it Silence?

Because, paradoxically, we cannot but talk. And because I needed to talk. Knowing I was trying to get to a there that, in talking, never stopped being a here and thus neutralized any such distinction, knowing there was no choice but to fail twice, I chose to do so. I have to apologize for the annoying insistence, but if I were to speak properly, whatever that means, I would have to, lying to myself, tell you that any Silence is impossible, and that we should give it up if justice is of any worth to us. But I chose to call it that because, in a way, maybe a failed way, it can show us the way. There is a sense, and here I cannot but speak out of faith and not conviction, in which Silence has something to do with the cessation of iteration, not only an absence of speech but also of writing and even more of protowriting. With an undifferentiated outside, within which there is no such paradox. With an experience open to everyone. But an experience, or the forgotten remembrance of an experience, which ought not to be privileged, I here assert, not to be talked about, not thought of, and thereby finds itself always-already profaned and misconceived.

Philosophy has shown to have its limit in its limitlessness. I believe that there is a kind of discourse that lacks such a limit. It would be necessary to take this discussion up another time, but it seems to me that literature, and even more so poetry, as a kind of discourse that gives itself from itself, that just is there, that does not ask to be understood in this or that way, that is, wrongly speaking, pure openness, might have more to say about our failed silence.

Or maybe by allowing for a type of investigation that, without speaking, without understanding, and thereby not negating, may open itself into silence, we can finally arrive at the appropriate non-grasping. And that might just be meditation.

Again, pure bullshit.

The name should show us the way. In the fat-dripping cheesiness of my epigraph, which I here iterate and parody, we are told not to speak nonsense; with it I say, let us not speak.

And so, I find it appropriate to finish by adding two last elements, a kind of appendix: A. a poem, and B. one final, also failed, even if in a somewhat oblique way, account of Silence.

A: “They are not two”

“I will not say ‘they are one’”

is not saying “they are not one”;

Thus, I say

“I will not say ‘they are one’”:

I will not say “they are one”.

“I will not say ‘they are not one’”

is not saying “they are one”;

Thus, I say

“I will not say ‘they are not one’”:

I will not say “they are not one”.


[   , ]


[1] In the way of the Advaita Vedanta school of thought.

[2] In this essay, academic terminology opposed to “true” but not “false”: just bullshit.

[3] As a sidenote, this attack on classic oriental thinking so as to not be a strawman argument would require a deep understanding of the original texts and languages. I am here, with basic knowledge, somewhat permissibly assuming they can be read under this light.

Ein Kommentar zu „On Silence(?)

  1. The author is on the brink of recognizing two languages: inside language and outside language,
    and this could open the door for most significant philosophical progress.

    Indeed, there are two languages, and this cannot be emphasized enough:
    • Associative („outside“) language, consisting of freely composed sequences of words, that may cause, and can therefore be instrumental to cause, associations in the recipient.
    Common use of associative language: metaphors, poetry, parables.
    • Rational, concept-relational („inside“) language, governed by strict rules, consisting of predicates, that is, word structures that tell how the concepts, represented by the words, are related. Common use of predicates: inner-worldly facts, theories.

    The sentences of these two languages are built from the same repertoire of words and may easily be mistaken as all belonging to one and the same language, suggesting that there was only one language, and that one could not write outside it.

    As the author is struggling to grasp ultimate – absolute – silence, here are the two key rules for the language applicable to the Absolute:
    (1) In predicate logic, if something is a parameter of a predicate, then it is a word, or an expression, for an inner-worldly concept that is related to other inner-worldly concepts in the way the predicate is telling.
    (2) Hence, any sentence about the Absolute cannot be a predicate, because the Absolute is unrelated, by the very meaning of the original Latin word, and thus doesn’t belong to any external structure, does not have any internal structure, and there cannot be more than one absolute. The Absolute is not a concept, and is inconceivable. And the sentences of this paragraph (2) aren’t predicates.

    These fundamental logic rules have been notoriously disregarded over all times and all over the world, in two ways:
    (Error 1) by taking sentences about God / the Absolute as predicates and using them in logical derivations.
    (Error 2) by presenting predicates (for example, using the word „God“), as if they could pertain to the Absolute.
    These errors have not only blocked for 2½ millennia the understanding of (Abrahamitic) religion, but also the previously available knowledge of our Dasein (the fundamentals of our being).

    Here is just one paragraph to show, that, contrary to Wittgenstein’s claim, we need not be silent about the Absolute; and how very well non-predicate sentences about the Absolute can make sense. They are meant to be read as kind of approximately pointing. – Everybody can focus on her/his own Dasein and kind of „see“ that, fundamentally, it has some absolute traits, for example: our „Dasein film“ is ON; we perceive; what we perceive is not random noise, but systematic; we respond to this systematic by associating to it concepts and structures of concepts, which finally constitute (the understanding of) our individual world, etc. Isn’t it, as if I myself, my genuine (jemeiniges) Self were the perceiver? In another view: Our Dasein is analogous to playing in a virtual reality, where the player, the presenter and the creator are well outside the virtual world. For our real world, this analogy means that these instances are outside our real world, non-conceptual, absolute.

    What does this mean with regard to ultimate Silence? There are quite a number of ideas that offer something like „lines of sight“ to the Absolute, for example the perceiver, creator and presenter above, furthermore beauty, intelligence, love and others. Silence, by looking for the ultimate, may in the same way direct our associations to the Absolute. So, rather than failing absolute silence through imposing concepts and predicates, one had better look outside the world of concepts, and follow free associations that might approximate the target.

    For the rest, a few comments on selected topics:

    *Hint*: In his FUNZEL article of July 10, 2019: „Gegen den Realitätsbezug in der Metaphysik“ (Against Metaphysics Relating to Reality), the author Max Binkle, writes of Metaphysics as „in the worst case, a collection of incomprehensible bullshit“. And he states that „our language is not made for talking about metaphysics“.

    *Cosmos* is just a theoretical concept in the world of physics, and there is nothing absolute about it.

    *Bullshit*, in all the mentioned cases, results from (Error 1). Still, it may communicate if taken as associative language.

    „There was an I“ – „Jemeinigkeit“ – „very special and valuable, beautiful“ – „elatedness“ – „need to share with the world“. That doesn’t sound like silence but rather like an encounter with a sight of the Absolute. Congratulations.

    (Silence as an act is completely inner-worldly and fully graspable, and not within the scope of my comment.)

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