Silence is Silver

The new temptation is no longer a stray drink or takeaway but new forms of social networking.

Texture Silver Feedback
Texture Silver Feedback, Eyzwideshut, via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I cannot understand why people record all the dull ephemera of their daily lives. Unlike LiveJournal or alternative blogging services, Facebook and Twitter are less profound and more trigger-happy.

Winding back a few centuries, I think of the seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell and how his rare public poems express the same dilemmas about public ephemera.

He criticizes the press and writers, anxious of the new forms of public that have emerged through print in the revolutionary decades. A 1649 poem to Richard Lovelace self-consciously acknowledges its contribution towards a saturated print culture that it strongly criticizes.

It’s interesting to consider the overlap between social networks and what J.L. Austen terms public ‘speech-acts’, especially when studying the relationship between authorship with privacy. A ‘speech-act’ requires a speech-act audience. Hence, those who broadcast their daily lives in such a fashion must presume that their audience is interested.

This mode of dissemination is meant to stoke the politics of envy – to gain the same popularity for oneself. I might envy the day when anyone gives the slightest care about my daily activity. Perhaps it is right to feel proud about our every act, or perhaps people do have enough friends willing to engage in text-pamphleteering.

But those who participate less do not deserve to feel punished for it. Silence can be troublesome, dangerous, or even fatal. But it’s more the reaction to silence than the state or choice itself.

Take Shakespeare’s Lear, whose daughter Cordelia’s observation to “Love, and be silent” is reduced by her father’s disapproval: “Nothing will come of nothing”. Her refusal to follow the public sycophancy displayed by sisters Goneril and Regan is first shown to be cold and naive, but her silence eventually proves to be the faithful response in the face of her sisters’ empty words.

We are within closer reach to the public than ever before. But with that comes an easy complacency. Do we care about those who are not bombarding us on social networks? Do we allow ourselves, in a world dominated by public spheres, to remember those dwelling outside those spheres?

It is the kind of connection that requires commitment. As shown in those revolutionary decades of the 1640s and 50s, when the agents of the public undertook major changes and individual voices ran riot, commitment can become a fickle thing.

Silence must be heard.

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