Roy Lichtenstein, Moonscape

Silence: Art, Literature, and Philosophy

Instructor: Samantha Hill
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

Silence, wrote Adrienne Rich, “is a presence / it has a history a form / Do not confuse it / with any kind of absence.” Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous admonition that “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” suggests, similarly, that silence is replete—not with states of affairs, but with matters of value, judgment, and human ethics. From John Cage’s 4’33” to Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Painting” series, musicians and artists have leveraged silence (or blankness) to activate the social spaces in which aesthetic experiences are embedded and to call attention to the formal conventions that structure these same experiences. And yet, of late, silence has become increasingly commodified, with millions spent each year on “silent retreats” as competing actors in the so-called “attention economy” vie to capture the allegedly limited cognitive resources of consumers. What are, and have been, the various qualities and perceived possibilities—for poetry, philosophy, music, and art—of silence? And to whom, in what contexts, is the experience of silence on offer—given that, in the domain of politics, the injunction is to speak out, and, in the social world, silencing has long functioned as a means of blocking agency and self-determination? How can an exploration of the aesthetic, political, and conceptual engagements with silence by writers, artists, and activists across time provide us a view onto what it means to be human in the 20th century and today?

In this course, we will explore the various meanings, understandings, and uses of silence from a transdisciplinary perspective. Possible readings include, from the literary world, Rich’s discussion of silence as a form of presence, Enrique Vila-Matas’s exploration of refusal—choosing not to write or speak, the function of silence as empty space in the poetry of Sappho, and the poetic ruminations on silence in the works of travel writers Pico Iyer and Erling Kagge; from the philosophical world, Wittgenstein’s argument that silence is the transcendence of speech, Jacques Derrida’s meditations on the ethics of going or remaining silent; from the aesthetic sphere, Cage’s play with silence in the performance of music; and, in the realm of politics, the Silence=Death project’s response to the AIDS crisis.

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
November 14 — December 12, 2023
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet Tuesday, November 21st.


Registration Closed

Please email us to be placed on the waiting list.

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