Samvada | The question of silence as collective destiny

Human communication is getting ready to go beyond verbal language that we have used over the last 70,000 years 

The question of silence, despite the obvious mutual negation of the two terms – ‘question’ requiring articulation, ‘silence’ negating it, – needs consideration now as never before. The question is no longer limited to any particular ethnic group, single nation, gender, language and culture, or a given faith, philosophy and ideology. It now starkly faces us all as our collective destiny on several fronts.

The most widely perceived element of silence is that which the dominated peoples, genders, tongues, cultures and nations have to live with. Post-colonial and post-industrial societies have had to internalise silence in innumerable ways in all aspects of life, including the forms of knowledge imposed on them, the architecture of habitats and urban designs brought to them, the truncated ecologies they are marooned in, the capital-lag and the energy deficits they live with, and finally the dipping of their self-esteem in their own eyes. The silence imposed by the dominant is a fallout of the many known, as well as, as-yet-unstated histories of domination. Within these germinate phantasies of subversion, desires of resistance, negation of selfhood and suppression of memory.

There is another substance of silence threatening us. That is built into the almost entirely ethereal social bondage within the ‘networked’ societies of today. As compared to the humans just over half a century ago, individual members of the species today are far more taciturn and incapable of relating with other members of the species. The urbanised and networked habitats created by the preceding generations are currently the sites of silence within which the ease of human-to-human communication is no longer possible without the mediation of a vast range of man-made memory and speech devices. It is as if we are getting enveloped on all sides by a sea of silence in which we cannot stay afloat despite having massive communication gadgetry. Alienation, which marked the initial phase of modernity, has attained a higher pitch and scale, escape from which requires repeated reminders of the self in the form of ‘selfies’. After spending nearly half a million years in forming human societies, we seem to have struck the mood of a ‘specific’ reversal brought about by an unprecedented isolation of members of the species. Probably, we have arrived at a juncture where being social is possible only in the no-dimensional cyberspace reality, within which signifiers seem to have come off their conventionally associated signification.

Then there is yet another more chilling and at the same time a yet more exciting experience of silence into which we are moving as rapidly as a water-walking strider – a water bug – caught in a giant waterfall. It appears that the human communication is getting ready to go beyond, or outside, the verbal language that we have used over the last seventy-thousand years. Natural languages based on verbal icons are dwindling in our time as if a mysterious epidemic has struck them at the root. Whether this is due to the neurological changes affecting the human brain, whether this is an expression of the evolutionary process guiding us through time or whether this is an inauguration of a new era of knowledge-gathering by the human consciousness, the experience of it all now, in our generation, is simply unsettling.

The three-faced silence, arising out of power dynamics, technology-driven social changes and neurological-evolutionary compulsions have brought back to us the responsibility of reflecting on the nature of silence, our collective negotiation with it, the consequences it entails for the human consciousness – both, what it knows and how it knows – and the very idea of being human. It is therefore that I thought of reflecting on the question of silence.

(GN Devy is a literary critic and cultural activist)

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