In Montignac, France, can be found the Lascaux Cave which dates back to the beginning part of the Upper Palaeolithic Age, a ‘time when modern mankind first emerged’ (Bataille, G., 1995, p.11) and ‘the human voice first began to make itself heard’ (Bataille, G., 1995, p.49). Lascaux Cave ‘illumines the morning of our immediate species’ (Bataille, G., 1995, p.11). Working with stone, human beings made a breakthrough that was the beginning of their separation from the animal condition. Inside the cave, Lascaux Man engraved and painted naturalistic depictions of animals. These engravings and paintings offer a beginning language that firmly anchors prehistoric art ‘in the stream of time’ (Bataille, G., 1995, p.28). Bestial mankind was at the beginning of a long road which led to the dawning of the mystical homo maximus, and, in turn, began to develop a concept concerning the ‘division between art and nature’ (Abraham, L., 1998, p.11). According to Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist Manifesto (1916) ‘the savage’s primitive depiction gave birth to collective art […] art of repetition’ (Danchev, A., 2011, p.107). The savage being the first ‘to establish the principle of naturalism […] drawing a dot and five little sticks, he attempted to transmit his own image’ (Danchev, A., 2011, p.107).

Near the end of the nineteenth century in the United States, ‘hearing educators and reformers waged a campaign to eradicate’ (Baynton, D, C., 1996, p.1) sign language ‘by forbidding its use in schools for the deaf’ (Baynton, D, C., 1996, p.1). The basis of their argument involved ‘fundamental issues as what distinguished Americans from non-Americans, civilized people from ‘savages’, humans from animals’ (Baynton, D, C., 1996, p.1). The reformers wanted to eliminate ‘the use of sign language in the classroom – and to replace it with the exclusive use of lip- reading and speech’ (Baynton, D, C., 1996, p.4). The opponents of sign language believed the deaf ‘could learn to function like hearing people’ (Baynton, D, C., 1996, p.6). There was the idea that Deaf people inhabited a barren land of darkness.

Facts concerning Deaf people:

1. Few deaf people hear nothing
2. Hearing loss is not uniform across the entire range of pitch – while some people will hear high sounds better than low sounds, other people will hear low ones better than high ones.
3. Sounds may be distorted but heard nevertheless.

The idea that Deaf people live in silence is a tag given by the logo-centric, and as a description of their experience is meaningless. One can also note that ‘western culture equates speech with civilization itself, gendering speaking as masculine and silence as feminine’ (Glen, C., 2002, p.261)

John Dee (1527 – 1609) was an alchemist, natural-philosopher, astronomer and mathematician. He ‘believed that the universe was written in the language of mathematics’ (Lloyd, J., Mitchinson, J., 2009, p.329) and that physical matter and spirit were interconnected. Alchemy was generally considered to be an art. It was the science of the day. The word science did not exist in its modern meaning until 1725.

The list of his achievements include:

1. The first English translation of Euclid’s Elements.
2. The first person to apply geometry to navigation.
3. Coining the phrase ‘British Empire’.

The Roman Emperor Caligula, whose speech was at times ‘incomprehensible’ (Winterling, A., 2011, p.5) and whose perception of reality was ‘disturbed’ (Winterling, A., 2011, p.5) made the insulting act of dressing as Venus and ‘making a horse a member of the Roman Senate’ (Kuspit, D., 1988, p.173). By doing so he destroyed the institution by making its audience doubt the Senate’s authority, raising doubts not only of the ruling class but also himself. His actions however, ‘no matter how noxious to others’ (Harrow, K., 1973, p.39) they were, only ever led him ‘over and over again, back to himself’ (Harrow, K., 1973, p.39). The reason why no one intervened in stopping Caligula’s murderous and suicidal action was because any accusation that would of arrived from his action, ‘would not have had to be leveled’ (Winterling, A., 2011, p.5) towards Caligula the Emperor, rather towards ‘the society that surrounded him’ (Winterling, A., 2011, p.5). To the senators and patricians, he remained ‘nothing more than a danger’ (Harrow, K., 1973, p.40).

In Camus edition of Caligula (Le Malentendu Suivi de Caligula, 1944), ‘Caligula speaks in the tones’ (Harrow, K., 1973, p.38) of a dying swan. When addressing Caesonia, he says that he knows that man feels anguish, though has no understanding of the word. Continuing with how he ‘fancied it was a sickness of the mind’ (Harrow, K., 1973, p.33). Caligula’s whole body is in pain and he feels like vomiting. He can taste a mixture of death, blood and fever in his mouth. Realizing how ‘hard, how cruel it is’ (Harrow, K., 1973, p.34) the ‘process of becoming’ (Harrow, K., 1973, p.34) a man. He had thought himself free, though realizes ‘his is the wrong freedom’ (Harrow, K., 1973, p.31) for it has been ‘at the expense of others’ (Harrow, K., 1973, p.31). He ‘weeps for the world and all its unnamable, disfigured failings’ while at the same time ‘he weeps in despair and in pain for himself’ (Harrow, K., 1973, p.33). With his sister’s death he can no-longer recognize himself.

The singer Diamanda Galas describes her singing technique as: ‘different processes of severe concentration, ‘mental’ or ‘sentient’ states’ (Middleton, R., 2006, p.134). She continues by saying ‘as an artist I have to create what I see and what I hear – what’s grounded in reality’ (Middleton, R., 2006, p.134). Galas’ art is steeped in her Greekness and shadowed by lamentation of that exact same heritage. That heritage cries a society where women ‘occupy a contradictory position’ (Middleton, R., 2006, p.134) within it.

A woman’s figure is central to the living family and to the ‘rituals of mourning the dead’ (Middleton, R., 2006, p.134). ‘During the mourning process’ (Middleton, R., 2006, p.134) women’s lives are restricted because of the ‘Greek notion of death’ (Middleton, R., 2006, p.134). In Greek culture the belief is held that there are three phases of death: separation, transition and incorporation. In all three phases ‘women sing laments and tend the grave’ (Middleton, R., 2006, p.135). According to Holst- Warhaft: ‘there is a gender-specific tension between a woman’s lamenting voice and the institutions of the modern state.

In Galas’s songs, the listener can hear ‘this ancient antagonism that pits the voice of women against the law of the state’ (Middleton, R., 2006, p.136). The sharp cries, sobs, intakes-of-breath are very much part of the lament and Galas transposes these elements into her art. To quote Holst-Warhaft: ‘Words are repeated, or nearly repeated, like incantations […] the muttered spells of witches’ (Middleton, R., 2006, p.137).

Charles Segal draws attention to the fact that many Greek tragedies ‘end with scenes of lamentation’ (Griffin, J., 1998, p.193), which release a torrent of emotion, that provides the audience ‘a satisfying […] resolution for a ‘tragic’ work’ (Griffin, J., 1998, p.193).

In 1982 in Jiangyong, Hunan Province, China, the Chinese scholar Gong Zhe Bing discovered Nushu. According to legend Nushu had been started by a young female named Ci Zhu, who had ‘been denied access to education in which she could learn official Chinese han zi characters. Another legend tells that a concubine named Hu Yu Xiu (1086 – 1100) was sent for by the Emperor for her literary skills. An example ‘allegedly written by Hu’ (Fei-Wen, L., 2004, p.425):

I have lived in the Palace for seven years.
Only seven years.
Only three nights have I accompanied my majesty.
Otherwise, I do nothing…
When will such a life be ended, and
When will I die from distress ?
My dear family, please keep this in mind:
If you have any daughter as beautiful as a flower,
You should never send her to the Palace.
How bitter and miserable it is,
I would rather be thrown into the Yangzi River.

(Fei-Wen, L., 2004, p.425)

The Emperor’s concubines were not allowed to send messages out of the palace. Hu invented a script which would get past the guards. The script needed to be chanted in Jiangyong dialect in order to make sense.

Nushu was both a visible and audible language used by females in rural Jiangyong who sort to articulate their lives through the use of singing, chanting, lamenting and writing. Nushu was able to bring womens experiences together by ‘appealing to a sense that misery was a collective female destiny’ (Fei-Wen, L., 2004, p.432). Men could neither read or write nushu. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) ‘nushu was condemned as ‘witches writing” (Fei-Wen, L., 2004, p.424) the Red Guards destroyed any nushu writings they found. Chinese male historians and literati dismissed nushu literature on the grounds of it being female-specific. In effect silencing the women of the past.

It is often thought that human language fails ‘in its capacity to represent transcendent reality’ (Ho, C, H., 2012, p.1). Chien-hsing Ho suggests this is a result of there being ‘aneed to distinguish between what we can clearly say and what we must eventually pass over in silence’ (Ho, C, H., 2012, p.1). Any supreme truth or reality is believed, in Mahayana Buddhism, ‘to be beyond the reach of words’ (Ho, C, H., 2012, p.1). Supreme truth, in this sense, ‘corresponds to […] what can be said using language and what cannot’ (Ho, C, H., 2012, p.5). The supreme truth can be seen as suchness which can be found in Buddhist philosophies. Suchness is inconceivable, the true nature of things that flows into the universe.

The teaching of the Dharma by Buddha, tells of two truths: ‘supreme truth (paramarthasatya) and conventional truth (samvrtisatya, vyavaharasatya). This can be further explained in terms of ‘conventional truth is truth in conformity with language’ (Ho, C, H., 2012, p.4) whereas ‘supreme truth […] does not fall into the confines of the signifier and the signified’ (Ho, C, H., 2012, p.4).

There is also a clear-cut distinction between what is thought to be conventional speech and sacred quiescence. Silence is used to convey what ‘is beyond thought and language’ (Ho, C, H., 2012, p.3) and is a ‘manifestation of wisdom rather than a result of ignorance’ (Ho, C, H., 2012, p.3). Silence is
‘dependent upon and correlated with speech and must not be given an overly privileged status’ (Ho, C, H., 2012, p.3).

Ekphrastic poems often start ‘from what is in the painting and as trying to transpose its visual forms to their own verbal medium’ (Sandbank, S., 1994, p.226). The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in his Notebooks ‘O Christ, it maddens me that I am not a painter or that painters are not I’ (Sandbank, S., 1994, p.228). Coleridge was writing in a period which was supposedly more free from pictoralism, though words often failed him when trying to ‘define […] parallels […] between the ‘sister arts’ of poetry and painting’ (Sandbank, S., 1994, p.226).

The visual and immediate impact of painting, along with the signified silence ‘aroused the envy of the poets’ (Sandbank, S., 1994, p.228). To quote Charles Tomlinson: ‘When words seem to abstract, then I find myself painting the sea with the very thing it is composed of – water’ (Sandbank, S., 1994, p.229). The philosopher Theodor Adorno commented after, and in connection with the Nazi Holocaust, that attempts to write poetry were ‘barbaric’ (Mirzoeff, N., 1994, p.21). Many survivors thought ‘that in the face of such enormity, only silence was appropriate’ (Mirzoeff, N., 1994, p.21).

A fragment of that enormity can be seen in the film documentary Night and Fog (Dir: Resnais, A., 1955) which uses original footage shot both before and during WWII by the Nazis, who used the camera as a weapon to further dehumanize the silenced souls of men and women caught in somebody elses war.

In 1914 the scholar Michael Sadler noted about WWI to a friend: ‘There is no parallel to the horror of it in history. I daresay you don’t believe in the Devil as devoutly as I do – but in substance you’ll agree that this is a sudden outbreak of the powers of evil…’ (Higginson, J, H., 1958, p.126). Another of his notes, this time written in 1940, concerning WW2: ‘Two things strike me deeply in these days – the Reality of Good and the Reality of Evil’ (Higginson, J, H., 1958, p.126). Sadler believed that both were ‘devine in intemsity and in category’ (Higginson, J, H., 1958, p.126).

Daniel Libeskind’s design of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany was inspired by Walter Benjamin’s essay One-way Street which was written between the years 1923 – 26. Benjamin commited suicide in Portbou, Spain, fearing the Spanish authorities would turn him over to the Nazis. The essay ‘mapped out a whole new field of exploration outside the narrow confines of academic disciplines’ (Prouty, R., 2006). The outside of the museum’s walls have slashes which give the building an appearance of having silent wounds. The slashes allow daylight into the interior, where one also encounters voids and where one hears echoes of the past resonating inside the self.

As the poet walks through a museum, according to Howard Nemerov, he sees and hears ‘two things: silence and light’ (Sandbank, S., 1994, p.229). The poet sees in his own work his impatience and opinion. In silence there is spirit, whereas in the language of poetry ‘superiority to art in expressing the non-visible is reversed into an inferiority’ (Sandbank, S., 1994, p.235).

Our civilization, in the words of Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, has been turned ‘away from a focus on ‘greatness’ and toward an appreciation of the ‘common’ human being’ (Tymieniecka, A, T., 1993, p.xi) who is part of the mass, part of the revolt which is ‘against political and social tyranny’ (Tymieniecka, A, T., 1993, p.xi).

Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893 – committed his last revolutionary act – suicide in 1930). He had been a poet connected with Russian Futurism and called to destroy ‘the old language, powerless to keep up with life’s leaps and bounds’ (Danchev, A., 2011, p.103). In his ‘speech to be delivered at the first convenient occassion’ (Danchev, A., 2011, p.102). He wrote that the year had been ‘a year of deaths: almost every day the newspapers sob loudly in grief about somebody who has passed away before his time’ (Danchev, A., 2011, p.102).

In the late 1970s New York hip-hop scene the tag SAMO (Same Old Shit) attracted attention. The tag belonged to Jean Michel Basquiat (1960 – 1988). Basquiat was a nineteenth-century flanuer with a spray-can in hand. Graffiti artists would bomb trains and tag public buildings, creating a visible space for their voice. By the mid-eighties Basquiat was working on collaborations with Warhol and had taken his work from the streets to elite New York galleries. During this time New York’s Mayor Koch was spending 6.5 million dollars on ‘removing graffiti, while the subway police devoted enormous time and effort preventing its occurrence on trains’ (Mirzoeff, N., 2005, p.163). Graffiti was a challenge to public order and also a
challenge to the values of the white-owned art world. The tags and messages spoke to a disinherited youth as opposed to the ‘world of outsiders who could not’ (Mirzoeff, N., 2005, p.165). Basquiat died from a drug overdose in 1988. His work had crossed over from the people who understood to the racism and hypocrisy of the left- wing art world who seen graffiti as ‘undermining the modernist ideal of the long- contemplated masterpiece’ (Mirzoeff, N., 2005, p.164). The writer Paul Theroux wrote that graffiti was ‘crazy, semi-literate messages, monkey scratches on the wall’ (Mirzoeff, N., 2005, p.163).

A musical composition written in 1952, titled 4:33 by John Cage ‘in which the performer makes no audible sounds’ (Kauffman, D., 2011, p.1) was not according to Cage ‘a mindless stunt designed to bring attention to a composer while undermining the Western music tradition’ (Kauffman, D., 2011, p.1). The idea of the piece, performed in three movements, was to bring the audience’s attention to the sounds around them – that sounds of silence would be heard as music, ‘including the sound of the growing agitation of certain audience members’ (Kahn, D., 1997, p.556). Cage’s compositions were influenced by art, Buddhism and architecture. In Mark Slouka’s essay: Listening for Silence, he writes that Cage’s composition 4:33 ‘attempts to say […] to communicate – what ultimately cannot be communicated’ (Slouka, M., 2008, p.44). According to Kahn ‘instances of silencing create conditions for asking questions, which in turn lead to large transformations in consciousness’ (Kahn, D., 1997, p.570).

Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895 – 1983) once said that faith ‘is much better than belief’ (Lloyd, J., Mitchinson, J., 2009, p.398). This is because when one believes – it is in what someone else thinks. He enrolled at Harvard, though was thrown out, once for withdrawing his entire ‘allowance from the bank to romance a girl’ (Lloyd, J., Mitchinson, J., 2009, p.399) and second time for sheer lack of interest. He later wrote: ‘What usually happens in the educational process is that the faculties are dulled, overloaded, stuffed and paralyzed’ ( Lloyd, J., Mitchinson, J., 2009). In 1927 Fuller contemplated suicide. What stopped him was a voice he heard: ‘You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe. You and all men are here for the sake of other men’ ( Lloyd, J., Mitchinson, J., 2009, p.401). The voice that Fuller heard changed him and he went on to create important architectural works and with a team of scientists discovered ‘a new class of carbon molecule’ (Lloyd, J., Mitchinson, J., 2009, p.405) which earned him 47 honorary doctorates.

The German philosopher Hegel believed that the human body stands ‘at a higher stage’ (Knox, T, M., 1998, p.146) it is ‘everywhere and always represented’ (Knox, T., M., 1998, p.146). The ensouled man is a feeling unit with a pulse. The human tint and colour of flesh and veins become ‘the artist’s cross’ (Knox, T, M., 1998, p.146).

The Russian artist Anna Neizvestnova makes paper sculptures of bodies and body parts. The sculptures ‘attempt to analyse the development of symbolic language’ (Neizvestnova, A., 2008) within art. The area of her interest is the
‘explosion of cultural semantics […] gradually becoming a convenient environment for secondary art’ (Nievestnova, A., 2008). Anna’s sculptures are made from text that is connected with the place she is exhibiting. The photo below was taken in Borsec Town Hall, Romania. The sculptures were made from the poems of a local poet, though their silence finally is the enemy of the poet. Though the sculptures are full of movement the words seem dead. What is left are half-words and half-sentences, murmurs crumpled up – the poet’s voice is lost. The sculptures bring to mind Gerald Manley Hopkins sonnet on the Archaic Torso of Apollo. The sonnet focuses on absence. Neivestnova’s sculptures here point to an invisible body, where the lack of torso, genitals and legs point to the mysterious.

The mime artist Marcel Marceau wanted to ‘introduce the magic of silence and imagination to a generation shaped by the noise and action of television’ (Riding, A., 1993, p.1). He refers to himself as ‘the Picasso of mime’ (Riding, A., 1993, p.1). To him, mime is not stronger than words it is merely a choice. Mime cannot easily be described with words it needs to be seen. He says that his ‘aim is simply to make his audience see, feel and hear the invisible’ (Riding, A., 1993, p.2) adding that when ‘mime is not perfect, you see nothing’ (Riding, A., 1993, p.2).

Suzanne Delehanty in her paper Soundings writes: ‘The absence of Sound is silence, the unknown; inaudible voices have always been metaphors for the visions of mystics […] revelations about an invisible world beyond our ken’ (Delehanty, S., 1981, p.)

The Korean contemporary dancer and choreographer Lee Ji Hee’s work embodies silence while her physical state searches for a truth that is linked to the social environment of her performance space. In her work her name is Ji-hee, Lee is stood on a log. Slowly her body negotiates the space, her body feels through an invisible space, that allows her own improvised movement to be freed from the restraints of her gender. The work could be seen as a silent lament, where Lee invites the audience to witness and feel her transformation, which in turn, can only provoke change within their own quiet hearts.

The character Verbal Klint (Usual Suspects, 1995) says ‘The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And like that, poof. He’s gone’ (Dir: Singer, B., Usual Suspects, 1995). Perhaps Lee’s greatest trick is how she masks her performance, convincing the audience that this writhing body is her, while the concealed her reaches for a personal relationship with the Supreme. Towards the end of Lee’s performance her dancing legs are reminiscent of Fenand Leger’s Ballet Mechanique (1927).


Bataille, Georges. 1955, Lascaux or the Birth of Art, (Skira Colour Studio) Baynton, D.C.

1996, Forbidden Signs, (The University of Chicago Press) Ed: Cox, Christopher & Warner, Daniel.

2008, Audio Culture, (The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc)

Delehanty, Suzanne. 1981, “Soundings,” available [Accessed: 18/03/2013]

Danchev, Alex. 2011, 100 Artists’ Manifestos, (Penguin Books)

Glenn, Cheryl. 2002, “Silence: A Rhetorical Art for Resisting Discipline(s),” JAC Vol. 22, No. 2, [Accessed: 18/03/2013]

Griffin, Jasper. 1998, “Tragedy I,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol:118, [Accessed: 08/04/2013]

Harrow, Kenneth. 1973, “Caligula, A Study in Aesthetic Despair,” Contemporary Literature, Vol. 14, No. 1,

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Ho, Chien-hsing. 2012, “The Nonduality of Speech and Silence,” [Accessed: 10/04/2013]

Kahn, Douglas. 1997, “John Cage: Silence and Silencing,” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 81, No. 4, [Accessed: 10/03/2013]

Knox, T.M. 1998, Hegel’s Aesthetics, Vol.1, (Clarendon Press)

Kuspit, Donald. 1988, The New Subjectivism (Da Capo Press, Inc)

Léger, Fernand & Murphy, Dudley. Ballet Mechanique (1927)

Liu, Fei-Wen. 2004, “Being to Becoming,” American Ethnologist, Vol. 31, No. 3, [Accessed: 21/04/2013]

Lloyd, John & Mitchinson, John. 2010, The Book of The Dead (Faber and Faber)

Middleton, Richard. 2006, Voicing the Popular, (Routledge)

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. 1995, Bodyscape: Art, Modernity, and the Ideal Figure, (Routledge)

Neizvestnova, Anna. noredirect=1#5703474408171862178 [Accessed: 01/05/2013]

Prouty, R. 2006, “Walter Benjamin,” [Accessed: 21/04/2013]

Resnais, Alain. 1955, Night and Fog, (Argos Films)

Riding, Alan. “Offstage with: Marceau, Marcel; Sounding a Legacy of Silence,” a-legacy-of-silence.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm [Accessed: 20/04/2013]

Sandbank, Shimon. 1994, “Poetic Speech and the Silence of Art,” [Accessed: 16/03/2013]

Singer, Bryan. 1995, The Usual Suspects, (MGM Studios)

Ed. Tymieniecka, Anna-Teresa. 1994, Allegory Revisited, (Kluwer Academic Publishers)

Winterling, Alloys. 2011, Caligula: A Biography, (University of California Press)

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Silence — Jaime Cleeland