Academic Writings

Where can meaning be found

Where Can Meaning Be Found?

The power of silence has been a common thread in my recent thinking. In The History of Sexuality, An Introduction, Volume I Michel Foucault states that “There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.” I find this to be an extremely interesting and complex concept that leads me to question where understanding and knowledge are found. If silence traps and language traps then meaning must be found somewhere in between.

Foucault sets up the hypothesis that instead of being mute about sex, modern societies have dedicated themselves “to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret.” To me, the kind of endless discourse that he describes equals silence. We are silenced by too much speaking, analyzing, confessing, recording, transcribing, discussing, dissecting, classifying, reasoning, inquiring, theorizing, etc., etc. After all, how can mere mortals question the overwhelming amount of information fed to them by “expert” after “expert” after “expert” in field after field after field. Many are paralyzed into silence or simply quit listening creating a self-imposed silence on the subject. This endless discourse creates barriers to any connection beyond the eye, ear, and mind. We see, we hear, we register, but we do not connect emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, or sexually. Sex, wars, relationships, behaviors become normalized. We no longer attempt to speak because we are confident that the “experts” have things well under control. And they do. They have us under their control.

Marlon Riggs explores the repercussions of losing your personal voice in Tongues untied. Salvation is found within himself, in his personal truth. “In search of self/I listened/to the beat of my heart,/to rhythms muffled/beneath layers/of delusion, pain,/alienation, silence.” He realizes that we live in a very complex world that has no single truth and he, therefore, can only choose his personal truth. Through this, he finds his voice and breaks the power that societal silence has over him. “Now I hear./I was mute,/tongue-tied,/burdened by shadows and silence./Now I speak/and my burden is lightened/lifted/free.”

Dorothy Allison investigates the deep pain of being silenced in Don’t Tell Me You Don’t Know. “I cried because of the things I hadn’t said, didn’t know how to say, cried most of all because behind everything else there was no justice for my aunts or my mama.” The fact of injustice isn’t the problem, the inability to talk about it is. Justice is never enough; strength is never enough because there is so much involved in the definition of strength and justice in our society. Again, society has layered our existence with so much discourse about how things are, should be, and will be that we feel comfortable that somehow everything will work out in the end. But it doesn’t. Instead, our unhealthy existences have been normalized, and we have sacrificed our ability to protest.

A Boy’s Life by JoAnn Wypijewski illustrates how masculinity operates in a small western town. Silence plays a major role in simultaneously condoning and regulating behavior. “Laramie…is not censorious about sex, homo or hetero – We’re just tight-lipped. We don’t go there.” Their social codes of conduct have been normalized and have created their sense of masculinity. Unhealthy behaviors -- such as abuse against women, violence, and taking drugs -- are silently tolerated. Wypijewski shows how easy it is for these men to get caught in cycles of negative masculinity.

These silences are different from each other, and yet all permeate the lives of the people involved. These silences speak loudly, cause harm, pain and suffering. But to try to break the powerful grip of the silences with words seems ludicrous. After all, if discourse is one of the forces that have created the social structure that has silenced people, can it be used to help them find their voices? Foucault says that “Silence itself…is less the absolute limit of discourse…than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies.” He urges us to “try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who cannot speak of them are distributed, which type of discourse is authorized, or which form of discretion is required in either case.”

So, meaning might be found somewhere in between the traps of silence and language; it might be found in a blend of silence and sound. However, as in the case of the many “experts” speaking endlessly about sex while exploiting it as the secret, it will be extremely difficult to fulfill Foucault’s wishes and discover the new ways of not speaking, distribute the speakers, determine the types of authorized discourse and discretion.

In this writing, I feel that I have come full circle, but while I have spiraled in an upward direction in understanding, I still feel that a vast void looms above me.
--October 24, 2002

© 2021 Carol Hummel