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The radical materiality of silence

September 8, 2023

Alfonso Garcia

My older sister rarely speaks when unnecessary. Actually, Lucy rarely speaks. To be fair, she studied meditation in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Tokyo and has embarked on countless vows of silence at various points of her adolescence—one way to cope. Lucy lets me sit there, floundering in the after wash of some incoherent polemic, and says nothing. She offers no signal to indicate that I don’t sound like a raving fool, not even a grunt of recognition.

Here I will admit that, much like I fear the dark, I fear silence. I wish I didn’t. Too often I try to fill the void. Passing conversations with friends tend to leave me ruddy-faced and frazzled as I strain to fit in a final, sufficiently enthusiastic expression. I usually walk away feeling more than a little silly.

I fight this fear daily; it’s one of the many unwon battles that I’ve lodged against myself. It’s also a struggle I take comfort in knowing I’m not alone in fighting. People fear nothingness. This is an easy way of expressing the universal terror that befalls us at any reminder of the immutable trek towards death we’ve all unwittingly embarked upon. Death: literal encroaching silence. The fear really comes as no surprise. The end is nigh; in fact, the end is here, present in the tiny lapses of chatter that peak through an otherwise lacquered-over life. We are silent only when truly horrified, in great anticipation or under strict direction to be so. The potential for silence reminds us of the world beyond ourselves, the special comfort or terror that comes with acknowledging the self, wading amidst the vastness of the universe.

Here’s something that might offer a bit of comfort: the potential materiality of silence. In the public imagination, silence is the absence of noise, the nothingness—if we can even deign to gesture at “the nothingness” with any reasonable logical coherence (I actually don’t think we can). But, for the sake of this advice, silence is at least gesturally associated with a lack.

But, what if silence was an additive, that which is in possession of acoustic materiality?! The conception of silence as absence doesn’t logically follow when framed within our lived experience. I propose that even in languorous Maine, there is no instance of genuine silence (lack of any sonic expression) in our vast universe. Our world hums; that’s how we know it’s alive. If we conceive of the absence of anything as that which has the radical potential to be filled (read: changed) and desires to be so, then sound—any meaningless blabber, the quiet whir of a generator, a whistling bird—ought to be considered the stasis (point zero, or, if you will, the absence) which awaits change and has the potential to progress.

I experience a kind of glorious hopefulness in attempting to conceive of the far-off possibility of true silence. Through this reframing, silence can be positive; silence can foster what is novel and awaiting emergence. Let’s emancipate silence from its negativity—its lack of materiality—and usher in a rebirth of soundlessness as a kind of utopia.

In short, I think I may have misinterpreted the unknown of silence as the absence when, in fact, there is a life-affirming brilliance lying beneath every shut mouth and open ear. And so, I will continue on trying to be more like my older sister.

 Ava Liversidge is a member of the Class of 2026. 


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