You have the right to remain silent

A teenager I knew hated to practice so much that she would skip the rests marked on the score to get it over with more quickly. And repeats? Fuggedaboutit!

Apparently, performer resistance to the constraints of musical notation is nothing new, though the motives may have been more aesthetic. The musicologist Emma Hornby tells us that measured rests, telling the performer how long to pause, started to be introduced in the 13th century in western music. Some performers, especially vocalists, took the rest signs more as reminders or suggestions than as directions by the composer on how the piece should move. Some still do.

What these instances tell us is that silence isn’t just about no sound. Even the acoustic silences I’ve been blogging about happen when someone is listening—expecting or searching to hear certain sounds, or just any sound. Let’s go back to the example that started me off on this inquiry into silence. Roll call in my high school Latin class. When the teacher called someone’s name, teacher and fellow students were waiting for an answer. When he (we were all boys) did not answer, the teacher would mark him as absent. I called this non-response “silence” and compared it to the number zero.  (Cage’s vain pursuit for zero silence later showed me that this was a weak comparison.)

One might argue that if no one is listening, silence does not happen. Usually, philosophers ponder the question of a tree falling when no one is around to hear or see. As Cage learned, something is always going on if you listen.  It may not be what you were listening for so you learn to just listen. But what is going on when no one is listening?*

Early on in this blog, when I was trying to understand the pain that Laura experienced, I had a hard time with Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, particularly the way she seemed to be blaming the victims of torture. She wanted to understand why torturers who were not sadists could continue to inflict horrible suffering on their victims. She seemed to argue that torturers could keep going because their victims could not find words to express their pain. I wonder now if her question might be better framed as to why weren’t they listening. It’s not that they weren’t listening for their victim to break down and answer their questions. They just weren’t listening to the pain in the victim’s screams, sobs, and pleas (which Scarry also dismisses as not directly communicating their pain).

It is interesting that David Cooper lists the torture victim’s refusal to provide the information sought as an example of what he calls “kept” silence, as in keeping silent. He contrasts this with “acoustic” silence. I wouldn’t call these two kinds of silence, but rather two sides of silence: performing and perceiving, or not doing one or the other or both, if you wish.

Cooper’s other examples of performing silences include: exercising Fifth Amendment rights; staying silent in church, at a funeral, or other public ceremony; politely refraining from criticism or gossip; and the silence of Trappist monks. I would add the “noble silence” during a Buddhist retreat. In my own experience as a public official, I often found that staying silent or at least not saying the words that a belligerent person was listening for could head off the interminable argument that they wanted to trap me into.

Previously I found that Emma Gonzalez’s silence was a powerful example of doing without doing.  She spoke without speaking to convey the horror of a mass shooting.  We can also protect ourselves or show respect, devotion, patriotism, thanks, or effectively stop an aggressor by not saying anything.


* [Wonky footnote]  We need to be careful here.  Brooks observes: “That we know only what we see, what we hear, does not imply that all is imagined.”  Brooks’ assertion about how we know ultimately is based on the Sabba Sutta.

And what is the all? It’s just the eye and sights, the ear and sounds, the nose and smells, the tongue and tastes, the body and touches, and the mind and thoughts. This is called the all.  SN 35.23

And his caution about not drawing the wrong inference from this epistemology appears in the next sentence of the Sutta:

Mendicants, suppose someone was to say: ‘I’ll reject this all and describe another all.’ They’d have no grounds for that, they’d be stumped by questions, and, in addition, they’d get frustrated. Why is that? Because they’re out of their element.

The assertion by many Mahayana Buddhists and Western idealists that we live in a world that we only imagine takes us out of our element. Imagining involves making an image through which we process some phenomenon in the outside world, as well as our own minds.  Just because imagining takes place in the process of knowing doesn’t mean that the outside world only exists in our imagination. As the Sutta says, that is not an inference that is in our sphere to make.   Despite what I just said about imagining in the process of knowing sounding very Aristotelian, I would argue that in the Pali canon, the process is similar.

Eye consciousness arises dependent on the eye and sights. The meeting of the three is contact
Ear consciousness arises dependent on the ear and sounds. The meeting of the three is contact.
Nose consciousness arises dependent on the nose and smells. The meeting of the three is contact.
Tongue consciousness arises dependent on the tongue and tastes. The meeting of the three is contact.
Body consciousness arises dependent on the body and touches. The meeting of the three is contact.
Mind consciousness arises dependent on the mind and thoughts. The meeting of the three is contact.  MN 148



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