584: Weekly Position Paper #8: The Relationships between Rhetorics of Silence and Visual Rhetorics

Drawing on “the widely held assumption that a person cannot not communicate” (15, emphasis in original), Cheryl Glenn makes a strong case for understanding silence as rhetoric in Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence. Noting that silence is “undervalued and under-understood” (2, emphasis original), Glenn explores the various uses of rhetorical silence, drawing from a variety of cases: silence by academics, in the testimony of Anita Hill, in the Clinton sex scandals, and by Indians. People often view silence as the opposite of speech, but Glenn is careful early in the book to be clear that “speech and silence are not mutually exclusive” (7) and that speech always involves the choice to be silent about something else (13).

Unspoken opens up opportunities for us to think productively about other rhetorics that are often given less value than speech. Much like silence, visual rhetoric and bodies are often ignored and speech is privileged above all. Although it is outside the scope of Unspoken to relate visual rhetoric and the rhetoric of silence at much length, the book is not silent about the visual or bodies. Glenn discusses stylized silence, which involves “bodily signals, facial expressions, and nonverbal postures” in order to distance oneself from someone who shames (39). Bodies are ever-present in the book, even if not explicitly discussed: they are in the Clinton sex scandal, in the gendered and raced rhetors Glenn discusses.

The book’s focus on and problematization of the speech/silence dichotomy leaves open for exploration the relationships between silence and bodies or visuals. We might ask such questions as: How do body language and silence interact and work with or against each other? Or, how does silence evoke or make invisible the presence of bodies? Or, how does the delivery of silence help to constitute or change the bodies of rhetors or audiences? When I am silent, it is often in part a bodily reaction: I might feel physically unsafe; I might be so overcome with anger my body is shaking and I do not know how to react with speech in a civil manner; I might have laryngitis that makes talking difficult (though this last example is perhaps less rhetorical—it depends on the situation). An example of the interaction of visual or bodily rhetoric and silence that comes to mind is the silent protests against violence by women at Oregon State; a group of women stand in the Memorial Union, silently, once a week, as a statement against violence. Their act involves not only their rhetorical use of silence, but also their bodies and visual presence.

How does silence, as a rhetorical act, works in coordination with other non-verbal rhetoric(s)?

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