The Genre of Silence

by Bret Schneider


For some, reality deserves nothing but the silent treatment.

When he ceased literary production in response to the authoritarian demand for art to impart direct social meaning, Russian author Isaac Babel sardonically remarked that he was the first writer in the 'genre of silence.' Within a social situation that demands socialization as a means for domination, it’s better not to speak than to add to the political propaganda that society makes of culture. Babel's position in the '30s—political as well as aesthetic— was a protest against social decrees that art should have explicit social content. This demand came not merely from an authority on high demanding socialist ealism, but from a public that failed to treat aesthetic experience as aesthetic experience, subordinating it to political ideology. For Trotsky, Babel's most significant socialist advocate, the notion that art could be anything but social was certain proof of theoretical regression in both art and politics. Trotsky, Babel, and the various artists that have joined the genre of silence, understand (consciously or not) that society is a concept that includes radical forms of asociability, and that a society of ceaseless networking is not society at all. By giving reality the silent treatment, they preserve the hope of society to be more than barbaric networking and ladder-climbing.

Babel's art went 'underground,' and ever since, many artists have chosen to follow suit, finding little alternative. Decades later, Susan Buck-Morss remarked that self-critical artists may "opt to go underground," since it appears as though a noisy vanity fair culture can hardly perceive, but only distort the dimly perceived possibilities of life ingrained in art. Instead, 'critical art' as we know it today seems to add to the dimming of life by acting as a form of social correction. One must experience art the way we're taught by the authorities—authorities who the silent artists suspect to be mere pedants. In the vanity fair, silence as an aesthetic choice becomes a protest against reality—artists try to exercise their right to not participate in a relentless barrage of cultural pseudo-activity that fakes reflection. Silence must then be considered not a transhistorical aesthetic (as in, e.g., John Cage, Agnes Martin, etc.), but a primary ideological position from which aesthetics are condemned to proceed from. If there is a hypothetical end to the means of silence, the past half-century has missed the meaning by valuing silence as a transhistorical value in its own right. Silence has been metaphysicalized in contemporary art and music, and so a necessity has been made a virtue; a critical opportunity has been neutralized. 

'Going underground' is not to be understood as mere 'resistance,' but something like a form of 'strike' by cultural producers who inevitably exist within the culture industry. The position is meant to draw attention to the neglected situation that what little remains of avant-garde art is still necessarily the inspiration for the means of cultural production. If avant-gardism ceases, mass culture and propaganda have no culture to follow. Whether the 'avant-garde' today is ready to take up those stakes is unknown—the avant-garde, in the way it regards itself, is content to be the self-loathing manager operating at the switch-board of the culture industry. Every so often they're given a vacation, but cavorting with the village locals is not the same as living in nature. However, art in the genre of silence implies that the aesthetic content is potential discontent. But where it does occur through the genre of silence, any artistic 'strike' is not directly political; artworks express their protest mutely, and they express protest or strike in a specific, formalized way. Most artworks today do not consciously 'strike,' but art remains important the extent to which a strike mentality is expressed in rather peculiar ways. In other words any art that attempts to lead mass culture—i.e. the avant-garde—reveals a process of public withholding. It is not mere withdrawal or pacification, but the formalized and public withdrawal society really needs in order to truly be society. It is the image of the possibility of true withdrawal, contrasted against a society in which no one is permitted to withdraw, and in which exile is taboo. Every artwork today withholds rather than speaks, or speaks of withholding, in the expectation that mass consciousness will follow. This isn’t the self-repression of the avant-garde, or as contemporary art ideology supposes a primal and authentic phenomena, but rather an appeal to mass culture. It has grown so mute that it appears not to be present at all.

The genre of silence nevertheless recreates the cultural value that it is allergic to by rarifying it. If what we cannot talk about must be passed over in silence, then what cannot be said or admitted is at least constantly referred to in a culture industry that tends towards transparency. And even the right to silence is lawfully demanded to be represented and made visible to the same society that won't tolerate not merely silence, but silent types. Our noisy vanity fair has made this underground experience both formalized and impossible; one is revolted into creating a silence that hardly exists, imagining the silence of a distant Dionysian experience: the collective, contemplative, and mournful silence that Nietzsche imagined to appear immediately after Dionysus' clamorous arrival in villages. And in turn the very notion that one does not seek merry complicity with the sartorialism of culture causes outcries: anxious proof of the tangible, sensible threat that a genre of silence poses. One of the more outrageous moments in contemporary art history was when Anne Truitt first showed her Arundel paintings in 1974—the public was scandalized by canvases that seemed more to formalize withholding or withdrawal rather than the rote expressivity that was expected of art. In Truitt's own writings she constantly alludes to both the type of noisy middlebrow culture taking over in the '60s and the gallery-hopping that serves the same purpose as finding a good deal on a parka at a department store. She was dismayed by the opportunism and careerism of young artists who began to engulf culture but lacked real sensitivity and didn't care to cultivate it. This led her into more acute forms of perceptual work. Such perceptive works were an effect of the vanity fair, and are an indication of how the genre of silence comes into being.

This emergence of a genre of silence is a new historical phenomenon. While artists take up different approaches towards society in different times (e.g. agitating society, boring society, etc.), silence as protest must be endemic to a specific historical form. This might be identified as the over-stimulating and aggressive culture of the masses expressing themselves through art. The drive towards silence is perhaps related to the new death-drive, or the attempt to reduce all stimuli and return to an "inorganic" state, in Freudian terms. The silent, 'inorganic' can only happen amidst over-stimulus. Silence cannot then be valued transhistorically, as a hypothetical society in which aggression is unnecessary has no need for silence. What was once a part of a natural order—the religious personal contemplation painstakingly developed over centuries by monks—is now transformed by industrial culture into something which must be socially fought for. There's nothing more vulgar than calling for a sacred silence amidst the frenzy of industrialism. And this changes it. Like the monks, ascetic artists and artworks are rarified and become hot commodities. But the possibility for this silence is significantly less possible in a world where one will starve if they can't network inessential trivialities, and in which the culture industry responds to self-critical silence by integrating and neutralizing it. Artists since the mid-century have struggled against the falseness of 'expression' in various ways, finding the history of asceticism suitable to the task only because there is little else as an option. Art that makes pretense to silence is always burdened by its necessity, and an anxiousness to change a reality that is the opposite of the silent reflection it argues for. So when a composer like Arvo Pärt makes claim to an aesthetic of silence, it ends up sounding tense and empty, as if it's a placeholder for experience. It argues for something that can hardly be achieved without being contaminated by the estrangement inherent in needing to make such claims to begin with. 

So, then, what exactly does the genre of silence react to? It seems in some instances to be a response to academicism, specialization, and careerism. More accurately: pedantry. For an artist in the genre of silence, the ugliest aesthetic phenomenon is pedantry. Culture is little more than glittering trash. Beckett, an exemplary genre of silence writer who was immersed in critical discourse, made the conscious decision to withdraw from a career of teaching. Nietzsche likewise—his aesthetic philosophy would have compelled him to give up academic forms of thought even if he weren't ill. This withdrawal wasn't reactionary or utopian, but expressed a deep disgust with what had become the canon of ideas. Today, an artist in the genre of silence includes in that canon the flashy new theory racket that adds up to nothing substantial and inevitably expresses a corrupt idea of society as one damn thing after another. It's just that one damn 'thing' is one damn 'theory.' Political theory that has contaminated contemporary art is thoroughly aestheticized and quickly becomes propaganda for it, though not necessarily self-consciously. Critical discourse to Beckett had become no less positivist and uncritical than the so-called hard sciences which have, in many ways, taken over philosophy. Trendy new theories are appealing because they are noisy distractions that offer little substance—cheap candy for thought. There is a reason why Beckett's and Kafka's works were founded on 'self-cancelation': it was an aesthetic measure taken to prevent their being included in the canon of common propagandic culture. While writers in the genre of silence cannot offer an alternative in their art, they do indicate the need for real reflection. Like Kafka's hunger artist, who did not eat simply because he never found anything he liked to eat or could stomach, there are social characters who cannot digest pedantic, propagandic culture. They literally don't have the stomach for it. This is not moral, but more subliminal: the disgust emerges directly out of neurosis. And the inability to digest it says more about the state of ideas than about the artist. In this respect the genre of silence is the a special product of propaganda culture.

In every genre of silence artist there is a progressive aversion to cultural opportunism. This is more true today than ever: the poverty of 'critical theory,' which has no practical politic, turns into the prattle of dinner conversation. The genre of silence writer who withdraws from the complacent dinner table of current theory does so because he literally cannot eat his food without it being spoilt by rotten theory jargon. The disgust with current politics that is latent in contemporary artists and writers has its heritage in Babel's disgust with authoritarian decrees. We're much closer to living in the style of Stalinist socialist realism than we realize. It's just that our realism feels much more open. But then, it would look this way to social characters who are content to merely operate culture. It feels more comfortable than critical. All those state-sponsored grants and awards that artists fight over are means towards the reproduction of our status quo social realism. One question is whether in such state-authored conditions an aesthetics of silence can be politicized, or if the ascetics are too silent to first of all be noticed, and secondly be critical instead of simply affirmative. A further question is who would recognize such an expression? Certainly not those who hope to exile the silent, and certainly not the silent themselves. It remains for there to be art critics and new artists who can give silence a palpability. But when the critics and artists share a seat at the table of pseudo-politics, the question constantly represses itself. Those who choose not to participate in the dinner table politics of the 21st century are exiled as irrelevant, and yet there is no other conversation to join. Exile can only mean silence. But capitalism does not permit idle unproductivity, and so the exiled make of silence a self-reflexive medium. Once removed, the aesthetic process tends in the direction of silence and proceeds by active techniques of decomposition and self-cancelation. This has been evident in music in particular with the constant reduction of expression into silence, for instance in the works of Asmus Tietchens over the past couple of decades. If there is no use for such an art, it proceeds nonetheless with fully-formed materials from which it subtracts. To such a sensibility, expression is the expression of propaganda culture, and silence is the natural tendency of this culture when brought into the activity of self-critical production. The problems of expression lead directly back into the archaic protests of quietism, preserving the idea of expression. The attempts to resolve the problems of expression with more expression only lead to decomposition. 

Life grown both hyper-productive and meaningless with the impossibility of doing real activity will continue to demand artists who protest such a situation. The decision to starve or to take a vow of silence would be unthinkable in a different society—asceticism is a modern phenomena. Silence is not a means in and of itself—it is a 'quiescent' state of silence, indicating a dormancy of experience. This means that we ought to begin listening to what isn’t being said.


Anne Truitt,  Arundel XIV  (1975)

Anne Truitt, Arundel XIV (1975)

Anne Truitt,  Arundel XXX  (1975)

Anne Truitt, Arundel XXX (1975)

Arvo Pärt

Arvo Pärt

I don’t know: perhaps it’s a dream, all a dream. (That would surprise me.) I’ll wake, in the silence, and never sleep again. (It will be I?) Or dream (dream again), dream of a silence, a dream silence
— Samuel Beckett
Asmus Tietchens

Asmus Tietchens