Aesthetics of Silence

by Φ

Aesthetics of Silence
Susan Sontag
1967

I

Every era has to reinvent the project of “spirituality” for itself.
In the modern era, one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual project is “art.”
Of course, the site needs continual refurbishing. Whatever goal is set for art eventually proves restrictive, matched against the widest goals of consciousness. Art, itself a more of mystification, endures a succession of crises of demystification; older artistic goals are assailed & replaced; outworn maps of consciousness are redrawn.
At the moment when “art” comes into being [as an idea], the modern period of art began. From then on, any of the activities therein become a profoundly problematic activity, all of whose procedures, & ultimately, whose very right to exist can be called into question.

With the promotion of the arts into “art” comes the leading myth about art, that of the absoluteness of the artist’s activity. In its first, more unreflective version, the myth treated art as an expression of human consciousness, consciousness seeking to know itself. (The evaluative standards generated by this version of the myth were fairly easily arrived at: some expressions were more complete, more ennobling, more informative, richer than others.)
The later version of the myth posits a more complex, tragic relation of art to consciousness:
Denying that art is mere expression, the later myth relates art to the mind’s need & capacity for self-estrangement. Art is no longer understood as consciousness expressing & therefor affirming itself. Art is not consciousness per se, but rather its antidote, evolved from within consciousness itself. (The evaluative standards generated by this version of the myth proved much harder to get at.)

The “spirit” seeking embodiment in art clashes with the “material” character of art itself. Art is unmasked as gratuitous, and the very concreteness of the artist’s tools (& particularly in the case of language, its historicity) appears a trap. Practiced in a world furnished with secondhand perceptions, and specifically confounded by the treachery of words, the artist’s activity is cursed with mediacy. Art becomes the enemy of the artist, for it denies him the realization—the transcendence—s/he desires.
Therefor, art comes to be considered something to be overthrown. A new element enters the individual artwork & becomes constitutive of it: the appeal (tacit or overt) for its own abolition, & ultimately, for the abolition of art itself.

II

The scene changes to an empty room.
Rimbaud has gone to Abyssinia to make his fortune in the slave trade. Wittgenstein, after a period as a village schoolteacher, has chosen menial work as a hospital orderly. Duchamp has turned to chess. Accompanying these exemplary renunciations of a vocation, each man has declared that he regards his previous achievements in poetry, philosophy, or art as trifling, of no importance.
But the choice of permanent silence doesn’t negate their work. On the contrary, it imparts retroactively an added power & authority to what was broken off—disavowal of the work becoming a new source of its validity, a certificate of unchallengeable seriousness.

Though no longer a confession, art is more than ever a deliverance, an exercise in asceticism. Through it, the artist becomes purified—of himself & eventually of his art. The artists (if not the art itself) is still engaged in a progress toward “the good.”
[Instead of] the artist’s good as the fulfillment in & mastery of his art, now the highest good for the artist is to reach the point where those goals of excellence become insignificant, emotionally & ethically, & s/he is more satisfied by being silent than by finding a voice in art. Silence in this sense, as termination, proposes a mood of ultimacy antithetical to artist’s traditional serious use of silence: as a zone of mediation, preparation for spiritual ripening, an ordeal that ends in gaining the right to speak.

So far as he is serious, the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialog he has with an audience. Silence is the furthest extension of that reluctance to communicate, that ambivalence about making contact with the audience which is a leading motif of modern art, with its tireless commitment to the “new” &/or the “esoteric.” Silence is the artist’s ultimate otherwordly gesture: by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, consumer, antagonist, arbiter, & distorter of his work.
The cues for the artists eventual liberation from the need to practice his vocation come from observing his fellow artists & measuring himself against them. For, to be the victim of the craving for silence is to be, in still a further sense, superior to everyone else. It suggests that the artist has had the wit to ask more questions than other people, & that he possesses stronger nerves & higher standards of excellence.

“No bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions.”

III

 The modern artist’s choice of silence is rarely carried to the point where he becomes literally silent. He continues speaking, but in a manner that his audience can’t hear. Most valuable art in our time has been experienced as a move into silence (or unintelligibility or invisibility or inaudibility); dismantling the artists competence, his responsible sense of vocation—& therefor as an aggression against the audience themselves.
Modern art’s chronic habit of displeasing, provoking, or frustrating its audience can be regarded as a limited, vicarious participation in the ideal of silence which was been elevated as a major standard of “seriousness” in contemporary aesthetics.
But it is also a contradictory from of participation in the ideal of silence. It is contradictory not only because the artist continues making works of art but also because the isolation of the work from its audience never lasts. With the passage of time & the intervention of newer, more difficult works, the artist’s transgression becomes ingratiating, eventually legitimate. The history of art is a sequence of successful transgressions. A good deal of contemporary art seems moved by the desire to eliminate the audience from art, an enterprise that often presents itself as an attempt to eliminate “art” altogether. (In favor of “life”?)
If the power of art is located in its power to negate, the ultimate weapon in the artists inconsistent war with their audience is to verge closer & closer to silence.

IV

How literally does silence figure into art?
Silence exists as decision—in the exemplary suicide of the artist (Kafka, Lautréamont, Wittgenstein) who thereby testifies that he has gone “too far.”
Silence also exists as a punishment—self-punishment, in the exemplary madness of the artists (Hölderlin, Artaud, Nietzsche) who demonstrate that sanity itself may be the price of trespassing the accepted frontiers of consciousness; the penalty (ranging from censorship & physical destruction of artworks to fines, exile, prison) meted out by “society” for artist’s spiritual nonconformity or subversion of the group sensibility.

[…] There remains an inescapable truth about perception: the positivity of all experience at every moment of it. As Cage has insisted, “There is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound.” (Cage has described how, even in a soundless chamber, he still heard two things: his heartbeat & the coursing of the blood in his head.) Similarly, there is no such thing as empty space. As long as a human eye is looking, there is always something to see. To look at something which is “empty” is still to be looking, still to be seeing something—if only the ghosts of ones own expectations.
(In Through the Looking Glass, Alice comes upon a shop “that seemed to be full of all manner of curious things—but the oddest part of it all was that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty, though the others round it were crowded full as they could hold.”)
Not only does silence exist in a world full of speech & other sounds, but any given silence has its identity as a stretch of time being perforated by sound. (Thus, much of the beauty of Harpo Marx’s muteness derives from his being surrounded by manic talkers.)

VI

The art of our time is noisy with appeals for silence.
A coquettish, even cheerful nihilism. One recognizes the imperative of silence, but goes on speaking anyway. Discovering that one has nothing to say, one seeks a way to say that.  An art consisting of “the expression that there is nothing to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” [Beckett] From where does this obligation derive?

VII

In one of its aspects, art is a technique for focusing attention, for teaching skills of attention. The history of the arts is tantamount to the discovery & formulation of a repertory of objects on which to lavish attention. (Oscar Wilde pointed out that people didn’t see fogs before certain nineteenth-century poets & painters taught them how to; & surely, no one saw as much of the variety & subtlety of the human face before the era of the movies.)
Perhaps the quality of the attention one brings to bear on something will be better (less contaminated, less distracted), the less one is offered. Furnished with impoverished art, purged by silence, one might then be able to begin to transcend the frustrating selectivity of attention, with it inevitable distortions of experience. Ideally, one should be able to pay attention to everything.

VIII

Language seems a privileged metaphor for expressing the mediated character of artmaking. On one hand, speech is both an immaterial medium & a human activity with an apparently essential stake in the project of transcendence, of moving beyond the singular & contingent (all words being abstractions, only roughly based on or making reference to concrete particulars). On the other hand, language is the most impure, the most contaminated, the most exhausted of all the materials out of which art is made.
This dual character of language—its abstractness, & its “fallenness” in history—serves as a microcosm of the unhappy character of the arts today. Art is so far along the labyrinthine pathways of the project of transcendence that one can hardly conceive of it turning back, sort of the most drastic & punitive “cultural revolution.” In little more than two centuries, the consciousness of history has transformed itself from a liberation, an opening of doors, blessed enlightenment, into an almost insupportable burden of self-consciousness. It’s scarcely possible for the artist to write a word (or render an image or make a gesture) that doesn’t remind him of something already achieved.
As Nietzsche says: “Our preeminence: we live in the age of comparison, we can verify as has never been verified before.” Therefor, we enjoy differently, we suffer differently: our instinctive activity is to compare an unheard number of things.”
Language is experienced not merely as something shared but as something corrupted, weighed down by historical accumulation. Thus, for each conscious artist, the creation of a work means dealing with two potentially antagonistic domains of meaning & their relationships. One is his own meaning (or lack of it); the other is the set of second-order meanings that both extends his own language & encumber, compromise, & adulterate it. Modern art thus transmits in full the alienation produced by historical consciousness. Whatever the artist does is in alignment with something else already done, producing comulsion to be continually checking his situation, his own stance against those of his predecessors & contemporaries.  To compensate for this ignominious enslavement of history, the artist exalts himself with the dream of a wholly ahistorical, & therefor unalienated, art.

IX

Art that is “silent” constitutes one approach to this visionary, ahistorical condition.
Consider the difference between looking & staring. A look is voluntary; it is also mobile, rising & falling in intensity as its foci of interest are taken up & then exhausted. A stare has, essentially, the character of a compulsion; it is steady, unmodulated, “fixed.”
Traditional art invites a look. Art that is silent engenders a stare. Silent art allows—at least in principle—no release from attention, because there has never, in principle, been any soliciting of it. A stare is perhaps as far from history, as close to eternity, as contemporary art can get.

X

What Cage must mean when, after explaining that there is no such thing as silence because something is always happening that makes a sound, is, “No one can have an idea once he starts really listening.”
Plentitude—experiencing all the space as filled, so that ideas cannot enter—means impenetrability. A person who becomes silent becomes opaque for the other; somebody’s silence opens up an array of possibilities for interpreting that silence.
The way in which this opaqueness induces spiritual vertigo is the theme of Bergman’s Persona. The actress’s deliberate silence has two aspects: considered as a decision apparently relating to herself, the refusal to speak is apparently the form she has given to the wish for ethical purity; but it is also, as a behavior, a means of power, a species of sadism, a virtually inviolable position of strength from which she manipulates & confounds her nurse-companion, who is charge with the burden of talking.
But the opaqueness of silence can be conceived more positively, as free from anxiety. For Keats, the silence of the Grecian urn is a locus of spiritual nourishment: “unheard” melodies endure, whereas those that pipe to “the sensual ear” decay. Silence is equated with arresting time (“slow time”). One can stare endlessly at the Grecian urn. Eternity, in the argument of Keats’ poem, is the only interesting stimulus to thought & also the sole occasion for coming to the end of mental activity. […] As time, or history, is the medium of definite, determinate thought, the silence of eternity prepares for a thought beyond thought, which must appear from the perspective of traditional thinking & the familiar uses of the mind as no thought at all—though it may rather be the emblem of new, “difficult” thinking.

XI

Behind the appeals for silence lies the wish for a perpetual & cultural clean slate. What is envisaged is nothing less than the liberation of the artist from himself, of art from the particular artwork, of art from history, of spirit from matter, of the mind from its perceptual & intellectual limitations.
As some people know now, there are ways of thinking that we don’t yet know about. Nothing could be more important or precious than that knowledge, however unborn. The sense of urgency, the spiritual restlessness it engenders, cannot be appeased, & continues to fuel the radical art of this century. Through its advocacy of silence & reduction, art commits an act of violence upon itself, turning art into a species of automanipulation, of conjuring—trying to bring these new ways of thinking to birth.

Silence is a strategy for the transvaluation of art.
Silence is a prophecy, one which the artist’s actions can be understood as attempting both to fulfill & to reverse.
As language points to its own transcendence in silence, silence points to its own transcendence—to a speech beyond silence.

XII

“Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly.
Everything that can be said at all can be said clearly.
But not everything that can be thought can be said.”
~ Wittgenstein.

XIII

“He who has the final answers can no longer speak to the other,
breaking off genuine communication for the sake of what he believes in.”
~ Karl Jaspers.

In an overpopulated world being connected by global electronic communication & jet travel at a pace too rapid & violent for any organically sound person to assimilate without shock, people are also suffering from a revulsion at any further proliferation of speech & images. (I should argue, contrary to McLuhan, that a devaluation of the power & credibility of images has taken place no less profound than, & essentially similar to, that afflicting language.) And, as the prestige of language falls, that of silence rises. […] One must recognize the perennial discontent with language that has formed in each of the major civilizations, whenever thought reaches a certain high, excruciating order of complexity & spiritual seriousness.

Art itself becomes a kind of counterviolence, seeking to loosen the grip upon consciousness of the habits of lifeless, static verbalization, presenting models of “sensual speech.” […] Art expresses a double discontent. We lack words, & we have too many of them. It raises two complaints about language: words are too crude & words are too busy—inviting a hyperactivity of consciousness that is not only dysfunctional, in terms of human capacities of feeling & acting, but actively deadens the mind & blunts the senses. […] Art must mount a full-scale attack on language itself, by means of language & its surrogates, on behalf of the standard of silence.

XIV

In the end, the radical critique of consciousness (first delineated by the mystical tradition, now administered by unorthodox psychotherapy & ‘high’ art) always lays the blame on language. Consciousness, experienced as a burden, is conceived of as the memory of all words that have ever been said.
Krishnamurti claims that we must give up psychological, as distinct from factual, memory. Otherwise, we keep filling up the new with the old, closing off experience by hooking each experience onto the last.
We must destroy continuity (which is insured by psychological memory), by going to the end of each emotion or thought.
And after the end, what supervenes (for a while) is silence.

XVII

Sometimes the accusation against language is not directed against all of language but only against the written word. Thus, Tristan Tzara urged the burning of all books & libraries to bring about a new era of oral legends. And McLuhan makes the sharpest distinction between written language (which exists in “visual space”) & oral speech (which exists in “auditory space”), praising the psychic & cultural advantages of the latter as the basis for sensibility. […] But to what extent oral speech is the privileged model for the speech of literature as an art is still an open question.

XVIII

We are lead to abandon meaning (in the sense of references to entities outside the artwork) as the criterion for the language of art in favor of “use.” (Wittgenstein’s famous thesis, “the meaning is the use,” can & should be rigorously applied to art.)
“Meaning” partially or totally converted to “use” is the secret behind the widespread strategy of literalness, a major development of the aesthetics of silence. A variant on this: hidden literality, exemplified by such different writers as Kafka & Beckett. The narratives of Kafka & Beckett seem puzzling because they appear to invite the reader to ascribe high-powered symbolic & allegorical meanings to them &, at the same time, repel such ascriptions. Yet, when the narrative is examined, it discloses no more than what it literally means. The power of their language derives precisely from the fact that the meaning is so bare.

XX

Silence is only “reticence” stepped up to the nth degree.

It is the nature of all spiritual projects to tend to consume themselves—exhausting their own sense, the very meaning of the terms in which they are couched. (This is why “spirituality” must be continually reinvented.) all genuinely ultimate projects of consciousness eventually become projects for the unraveling of thought itself.
Art conceived as a spiritual project is no exception. Irony is the only feasible counterweight to this grave use of art as the arena for the ordeal of consciousness. The present prospect is that artists will go on abolishing art, only to resurrect a more retracted version. As long as art bears up under the pressure of chronic interrogation, it would seem desirable that some of the questions have a certain playful quality.
But this prospect depends, perhaps, on the viability of irony itself.
From Socrates on, there are countless witnesses to the value of irony for the private individual: as a complex, serious method of seeking & holding one’s truth, & as a means of saving one’s sanity. But as irony becomes the good taste of what is, after all, an essentially collective activity—the making of art—it may prove less serviceable.
One need not judge as categorically as Nietzsche, who thought the spread of irony throughout a culture signified the flood tide of decadence & the approaching end of that culture’s vitality & powers. In the post-political, electronically connected cosmopolis in which all serious modern artists have taken out premature citizenship, certain organic connections between culture & “thinking” (& art is certainly now, mainly, a form of thinking) appear to have been broken, so that Nietzsche’s diagnosis may need to be modified. But if irony has more positive resources than Nietzsche acknowledged, there still remains a question as to how far the resources of irony can be stretched. It seems unlikely that possibilities of continually undermining one’s assumptions can go on unfolding indefinitely into the future, without being eventually checked by despair or by a laugh that leaves on without any breath at all.