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The License to Silence
The artist precedes the activist. On August 29, 1952, at the Maverick Concert Hall south of Woodstock, New York, “pianist David Tudor sat down at the piano on the small raised wooden stage, closed the keyboard lid, and looked at a stopwatch. Twice in the next four minutes he raised the lid up and lowered it again, careful to make no audible sound [ . . . ] After four minutes and thirty-three seconds had passed, Tudor rose to receive applause.” This was the premiere of John Cage’s infamous “musical” composition 4’ 33”. [1] On March 24, 2018, sixteen year-old Emma González performed a similar act of silence in Washington, D.C., during the anti-gun violence rally “March For Our Lives.” Her “speech” lasted six minutes and twenty-seconds, the duration of a gunman’s rampage with an AR-15 assault rifle through her Parkland Florida high school on Valentine’s Day the month before. González disrupted her comments by abruptly falling silent for approximately four-and-half-minutes. When her cellphone alarm sounded, she explained the logic behind her time at the podium, and left the stage to applause.

González’s silence followed her reading of the names of the seventeen people killed. With the first few names, she recited a daily occurrence they would no longer perform, e.g., “Gina Montalto would never wave to her friend Liam at lunch. Joaquin Oliver would never play basketball with Sam or Dylan.” She read the remaining names appended solely with the nomination “would never. . . ,” e.g., “Alaina Petty would never. Cara Loughren would never. Chris Hixon would never. Luke Hoyer would never.” Her sudden and prolonged silence was not the circumscribed hush of the Senate floor, hollow memorial services or scripted spectacles of sympathy. The crowd, met with a “senseless” silence, subsequently began to cheer, then to applaud, but with no reaction from González, they went silent. When chants of “Never again!” went “unheard”, the audience fell quiet again. They remained speechless until the cellphone alarm answered from the stage and the hole that the young woman’s mute body created was covered. The common protest rallying call, “Never again!” resonated here not with life, but with González’s “would never. . .” nomination for the dead. This inversion discloses something of the political unconscious of the 21st Century.

Cage’s mid-century silent provocation ciphered the disturbance in the real wrought by capitalism’s techno-sciences and the consequent disappearance of nature. For his chance, four minute and thirty three-seconds of silence was perforated with sound: the wind outside in the trees; the fall of raindrops on the roof; bodies murmuring, shifting, coughing or exiting. With the amplified breathing of the sixteen year-old, one all alone on a stage, as the only response to their call for an S2, the audience was addressed to the real of the speaking body and the voice object, that which precisely cannot be said. As a political act, not an expressly artistic one, González’s silence resounds in two ways: to shroud the real of the 6’ 20” of mayhem and to beckon it. The license to kill, to silence lives in a blaze of gunfire––massacres facilitated by the National Rifle Association (NRA)––is answered with a maneuver that “weaponizes” silence as a political strategy. “Silence” was a signifier that triggered an awakening. [2]

For generation Z, ones all alone, in our “everyone is mad, that is delusional” era, [3] it is a response to the repetition of school shootings––not a return of the repressed but of returns in the real. During their lifetime, legal and governmental semblants decomposed. As González caustically puts it in her final remark, “Fight for your lives, before it’s someone else’s job.” In her intervention, which explicitly grapples with a hole in knowledge, she signals three “times,” the shooting, the intervening month, and the consequent rally. Following Lacan’s elucidation of logical time, the sequence may be calibrated as follows: instance of the glance, gunned down bodies; time for comprehending, speech acts produced by a political body; moment of concluding, lie-ins of student bodies in the streets and the founding of a political movement.

Death equals silence, but life too, with the deafening cacophony of the drives and jouissance, increasingly amplified by the rise and variety of arbitrary acts of American carnage [4], each one adding to the numbers game of “the deadliest mass-shooting.” In our age of anguish and the inexistent Other, in which the algorithm occupies the place of the Name-of-the-Father, the license to silence––in both its homicidal and political expressions––is a savoir faire to manage “the forced-entry that jouissance constitutes in the homeostasis of the body, as the basis for the repetition of the One.” [5]

1. Kyle Gann, No Such Thing As Silence, Yale University Press, 2010, pp. 2-3
2. Eric Laurent, “Disruption of Jouissance in the Madnesses Under Transference”, unpublished.
3. Jacques Lacan, “There Are Four Discourses,” Culture/Clinic 1, Jacques-Alain Miller and Maire Jaanus, ed., University of Minnesota Press, 2013
4. “The crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential, this American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” Donald Trump in his inaugural address, January 20, 2017.
5. Laurent, unpublished.

Robert Buck © 2018

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