One of the most difficult tasks when in the midst of research can be to bind expansive ideas together into articulated forms that we can share with others. Yet to enter discourse – and find ways to breach its constraints – gives us the possibility that through dialogue, our propositions might be affected and returned to us renewed, reframed, refreshed. The topic of ‘Breaching Discourse’ is the subject of the forthcoming postgraduate research event, Without End Symposium and Book, to be held at The University of Northampton on Friday 26 April 2019. Ahead of the event, Francis Blore and Meghann Hillier-Broadley reflect on the potential of silence as discourse that demands one brings all of oneself to an experience.

If you are interested in submitting an abstract for the symposium ahead of the deadline on 25 January 2019, further information can be found below this post here. This essay is part of an LSE RB series examining the material cultures of academic research, reading and writing. If you would like to contribute, please contact the Managing Editor of LSE Review of Books, Dr Rosemary Deller, at lsereviewofbooks@lse.ac.uk. 

The Willingness to Listen to Silence

Image Credit: (pxhere CC BY 2.0)

I’ll never know, in silence you don’t know, you must go on, I’ll go on. (Samuel Beckett)

Recently, my thoughts have been roaming over the potentialities of discourse. There have been questions of what discourse is, what it means to be in discourse and what discourse may be. Out of all the potentials that have come and gone, one has remained and taken a contemplative residence.

What I have been considering is ‘silence as discourse’. As an idea it is irresolute, slippery. Each term is both simple and multiplicitous, yet each appears to be explicitly the others’ antonym: the communique and the hush, the revelation and the reserve. To this degree, there is uncertainty as whether this interest comes from trying to resolve a conflict or peer into a furtive relationship (maybe both; I lean towards the latter). However, it is an interest that believes there is at least some meaningful thread somewhere between the two.

(Silence Endures)

When first thinking about ‘silence as discourse’, it was intuitively approached through the idea of perceiving silence spatially. For unspecified reasons, possibly hope, I had always perceived silence this way – as a means for clearing life’s persistent quotidian rumbling, as a way of creating a room of one’s own in which thinking is not pressed, but rather is given leeway to slip flirtatiously between attendant thoughts.

It was a sense of silence that found reasoning and metaphor in John Cage’s seminal moment of silence – his 1952 composition 4’33. The work is a piece of music, comprised of three movements, which has a score which simply reads ‘tacet’, a direction towards silence, no instruments to be voiced or heard. Rather than notes, what was composed by Cage was the occasion for chance to operate as a means to complete the horror vacui. In doing so, the capacity for room to become present is created; in its obstinance to the tacet directive, it is only heard through the refuted anticipation of hearing. In this mode of attentive listening, one moves around the room sonically, finding oneself in the locale of the resident hubbub. The result is always different, but on this latest occasion I drift between the waiting static of cheap speakers, the thin drone of an electrical lamp, the thermostatic click of the heating and the thudding of cumbersome people. I respectively move right, left, forward and below the now-expanded room, exploring and progressing between the emergences.

Yet in returning to this informative moment to explore the current idea, what was to become salient was something else. In looking to tie Cage’s silence to the silence of others, the points of continuity seemed to be held within the title, 4’33 (4 minutes, 33 seconds) and the condition of ‘movements’. For what I came to realise is that silence is not predominately about space, but rather about time, or more specifically, duration.

Herein may be the very reason as to why the possibility of silent discourse seems challenging, or in need of resolution: maybe because duration is to be endured. It is an effect which can be noted in The BBC Symphony Orchestra performance of 4’33 at the Barbican. It can be read in the gazes that appear to recede internally to avoid becoming conspicuous, the seeming labour of the conductors breathing as though trying to avoid auditory presence or the scenes which cut to the clock to emphasise a measurement of minutes and seconds, rather than beats or bars. Most poignantly however, the weight of quiet and the imposing duty of stillness exist in the clatter between the phrases as though a sense of relief courses through the silence’s responsible attendants. It is an interesting counter-point which seems to suggest that our own frenetics abhor a vacuum.

(Silence Informs)

1000 Hours of Staring (1992-97) is a piece of work by the artist Tom Friedman which directly confronts the abhorred. Produced over a period of five years, Friedman created the work by spending time in his studio and dedicated himself to a single sheet of blank paper. It is an act of simple yet rare commitment from which many of us would defer.

All that remains, all that is given as evidence of Friedman’s endurance, is the same blank sheet of paper pinned to the gallery wall. The work is untouched, yet not unaffected. To spend time with the work is to be given access to the repository of rapt attention left by Friedman and a means with which to reclaim some of those silent moments, to endure some of that time spent. Left with nothing but the object and a commitment, the paper asserts itself. As the rise and fall of the edges are traversed, the limits of its certitude are met; as the surface is scanned, the texture of its body is felt; as light and shadow is transgressed, its contingent position in the now presses forward. Through our own quiet (even albeit in briefer periods), there is given opportunity for our own undermining as commodity become separated, distinct. What Friedman’s commitment leads us to is not an occasion to come to terms with paper, but rather, to come to terms with this paper, at this time.

Here, silence is employed as a means to reclaim the object of our attention from what we know, a way in which to bring discontinuity to the continuity of presumption. The importance of silence in this process is made present through Friedman’s willingness to restrain from mark, imposition or intervention. Their absence describes a looking at rather than through, a willingness not to wonder: to sit, watch and wait without the distraction of either anticipation, speculation or need to respond. It is persistent (durational) attentiveness. It is silence which will ‘bring all of who you are to the experience’.

(Silence Speaks)

The condition of ‘bringing all of who you are’ to silence matters. It is this that makes silence most difficult, its participants most vulnerable. However, it is also this that seems to bring silence to discourse as it is where silence is not mute.

In 2010, the artist Marina Abramović undertook a performance piece called The Artist is Present. For nearly three months, for eight hours a day the artist waited, seated at a table, for others to sit opposite her and meet her gaze in silence. With silence being the decree, the impetus was fostered from the belief that duration has the means to ‘alter[s] our perception of time and foster a deeper engagement in the experience’.

Even to simply watch these meetings occur the experience is profound. As an observed silence, the deeper engagement that was provoked was one of consequence. The act of being seen, of being recognised, without opportunity for deferral, seems to return people resolutely to their bodies, to the present with an unanticipated clarity. It is a moment of connection, of tethering to another, beyond both explanation and words. It is also a moment of transformation: it is visible to see people’s constitution’s shift, physical and emotional as some are brought to tears. Should the operations of discourse include sharing understanding, establishing new insight, usurping habitual thinking, working together, adding to knowledge, then surely Abramović’s simple and silent act is profound instance.

(Silence Matters)

It is somewhere here that I believe the thread of discourse as silence exists. What Cage’s illumination of the hidden, Friedman’s will to be quiet and Abramović’s utterless conversation point to is the significance of the experience. That discourse is not simply a theoretical matter; it has the means to make use of the body as a material of research. It understands that knowledge and its evolution run through the nervous system. Silence matters, because silence requires one to bring one’s all to the experience; all of one is affected.

Through silence something is always shared that words could never account for.


‘Breaching Discourse’ is the subject of the forthcoming Without End Symposium & Book, to be held at The University of Northampton on Friday 26 April 2019.  With discourse being dialogue, the ways in which it may be breached is open to interpretation. We therefore invite papers which consider formal or informal modes of dialogue: a lecture attended that remains with you and your research, an impromptu conversation or different dialogues perhaps created through the object, artwork, event or experience.  The intent of the symposium is to reflect on the myriad of possible ways that discourse can be breached within research.  Without End seeks to be an interdisciplinary, academic, supportive environment for postgraduate students and early career researchers to present their research.  If you would like to submit an abstract, please see the call for papers at withoutendsymposium.com – the closing date is 25 January 2019.

Francis Blore is a practice led PhD student at The University of Northampton researching the expanded field in drawing.  Francis leads a Life Drawing class at the university and has presented his research at several conferences and is co-organiser of the Without End Symposium and Book.

Meghann Hillier-Broadley is a PhD student at The University of Northampton researching the Anthropocene in Children’s Fantasy Literature.  Meghann is an Associate Lecturer in the English department and has presented her research at several conferences and is co-organiser of the Without End Symposium and Book. Read more by Francis Blore and Meghann Hillier-Broadley.

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