Salon 25 Why Words Matter

Curated by Paola Antonelli
May 16th, 2018


The Politics of Silencing

talk delivered by Lena Herzog at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY

Silence. What might it mean? Does it mean anything at all? Could it be a signal of death or of possibility, “a hand extended” (as John Berger said) or is it the silence of despair?

Maybe it means nothing at all.

In the Spanish culture of flamenco, silencio—silence—is usually the most dramatic moment, coming after a great buildup in tempo and revealing of the entire song or dance; it is then, in that silence, that your heart skips a beat. During silencio, the words and the gestures get imprinted on your mind and, more importantly, your heart.

When I began working on my recent project Last Whispers, which is dedicated to dying languages, I was stunned by the sheer scale of this phenomenon, by the sheer scale of this extinction. Every two weeks, the world loses a language. Out of approximately 7,000 languages spoken on earth today, at least half will have fallen silent by the end of this century. Some people predict a far more radical future—or, rather, lack thereof—for the world’s linguistic diversity. Many of these languages, having never been recorded, are vanishing without a trace. Humanity is losing the knowledge, the variety of worldviews, and the cosmologies that indigenous communities have for centuries encoded in these languages and cultures. Let there be no doubt: this is a mass extinction. By definition, it occurs in silence, since silence is the very form of this extinction.

I have just used an oblique form and passive voice to avoid naming the culprits, the agencies responsible for this extinction, for I am well trained in the thinking patterns that power structures have always dictated. This is key to understanding the politics of silencing—because we know it instinctively, we can all feel it, but we are too afraid to name it. So. Let’s call it. Let me repeat the question: What are the thinking patterns that power structures demand, that they mandate? —Never point at them unless you wish to be punished. 

Depending on the country and the century you’re living in, if you do that—if you name the power and those who own it for what they do—you’ll be disappeared, killed, or, more effectively, ridiculed, accused of having delusions or of being a conspiracy theorist; you’ll be shamed, you’ll be Twitter- and Facebook-stoned, or … you may experience all of the above, each of which has just one goal: to silence you.

It is key for power to disguise its agency and to spread the demagogic "we."

The way power arranges this is by engendering our thinking and feeling on its behalf and against our own interests. It is quite a number those in power do on us. We do their dirty work for them—against each other. Feudal times, with their witch burning and actual stoning, had nothing on our times, the effectiveness of the mass control of minds and emotions. Thus, the constant noise, drowning out any clear thought, the noise of our own voices, tugged here and nudged there, manipulated everywhere through highly researched tools for the simultaneously individualized and mass produced networks of linguistic references and psychological perceptions made by and for power and those who hold it. 

The sophistication in messaging in this country is unparalleled by anything any authoritarian or totalitarian state could have ever created (they never needed it: they have always had force). This history of mind manipulation begins with the very myths of the nation’s founding and is continued through the theory and instant application of the various technologies made to hollow out meaning from words and facts from information. Edward Bernays, Walter Lippmann, Frank Luntz, to name just a few, various think tanks, culture wars, and media wars, all bankrolled by the people who own the world’s wealth, have created a massive, highly controlled network of perceptions and trigger points in all of us individually and en masse—and for as long as power has existed. They did not do it through any carefully choreographed conspiracy of secret societies, but through a fairly open and crude conspiracy of greed, the overarching indifference to anything other than that which is to their own benefit—the oldest and the most effective conspiracy of them all.

These networks of messaging and perceptions can be deployed only in the dominant languages of the dominant powers. How would power, especially a globalized dominant power and its culture, handle these definitions, and punish those who dare transgress them in a language they do not understand? How would they dominate this language? The disempowered have always known that there is this linguistic limitation of power, and thus new languages are constantly being born and dying in prisons and ghettos. Twins around the world, especially identical twins, are known to frequently author their own languages. The individuals who create such new languages do so to evade the surveillance of those who have power over them and to claim their own freedom of thought. 

Power, on its side, has also always known that it would be difficult, if not nearly impossible, to control various minority populations and tribes because of the language and cultural barrier. Thus it has obliterated these other languages as much as it could, either by simple genocide or by squeezing other cultures out, absorbing them and vanishing them, sometimes intentionally, mostly, as a by-product of conquest, cultural absorption, or domination. The Roman Empire alone is responsible for the death of at least a thousand languages, which it achieved by simply killing the people who spoke them. Nowadays, this is done by a technological spread of communications in dominant languages and a near vacuum in the cultural and media production of minority languages. No room is left in societies for them. No room is left in the minds.

As the writer Arundhati Roy once said, "There’s really no such thing as ‘the voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard."

At this time of globalization, urbanization, and climate change, communities all over the world face deprivation and marginalization when their ways of life and the languages they speak become a barrier to access to knowledge, education, and resources. They give up on their own as the dominant cultures simply create economies and institutions that are indifferent to world diversity, not to mention the fact that these minority cultures are not susceptible to the modern means of political control. Because minority cultures fall outside both economic and political structures of the dominant power, they are either soft-armed into adopting those structures or else … they get profoundly marginalized and are allowed to disappear.

Few exceptions have bucked this tragic trend. The Gaelic language is one of them. For 800 years the British Empire forbade speaking, writing, educating, and communicating in Gaelic. After the bloody uprising euphemistically called “the Troubles,” the settlement provided for the revitalization of the Gaelic language by directing policy and resources toward that goal (the only way it works) . Gaelic instruction became mandatory in Irish schools, and radio and other cultural and media programming were created because of that. Now the generation of people in their 40s and younger can speak Gaelic to their grandparents but to very few of their parents. That middle generation can be shown as a cautionary tale of what could have happened to an entire Irish culture and language. These persisted not because of the “luck of the Irish” but because of a stubborn belief the young generation’s grandparents had in their origins. Yet they all speak English as well, having thus become a fully bilingual people who are culturally rooted and worldly at the same time. 

Not every culture could do that. Most did not.

Dominant powers and cultures became dominant because, among other things, they were ruthless and efficient, and because they could control all resources, in particular how we, those who live in their culture and language, think, what we know, what we feel. That’s why they are dominant.  The rest were vanished by us or, more precisely, by those who own the world’s economic and political order. Anything that stood or stands in their way is destroyed or is allowed to die. 

Janet Frame had a brilliant insight into the nature of silence as a black mirror, showing us not only those we’ve vanished but who is left—ourselves. In “Scented Gardens for the Blind” she had this revelation:

 People dread silence because it is transparent; like clear water, which reveals every obstacle—the used, the dead, the drowned, silence reveals the cast-off words and thoughts dropped in to obscure its clear stream. And when people stare too close to silence they sometimes face their own reflections, their magnified shadows in the depths, and that frightens them. I know; I know. 

Janet Frame “Scented Gardens for the Blind"


When a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? 

This old philosophical trope, the basic epistemological exercise seemed handy. What is our sense towards the un-observed un-heard worlds? I have come to think of this old exercise as an exercise in empathy: does it matter that trees and universes collapse all around us? Who is to blame? My answer is simple: it is us. And somewhere, between our obliviousness to others and our own inevitable oblivion, rest the scales of some brutal justice.

While working on Last Whispers, I listened to thousands of recordings of extinct and endangered languages without knowing what they were saying or singing about. I got addicted to them. They remind me that while we are drowning in the noise of our own voices, nudged here, tugged there, manipulated everywhere, we are floating on an ocean filled with a silence of others.