Tuesday, 20 November 2007

To be AND not to be

As words must be learned by listening and by painful attempts at imitation of a native speaker, so silences must be acquired through a delicate openness to them. Silence has its pauses and hesitations, its rhythms and expressions and inflections; its durations and pitches, and times to be and not to be.

The last phrase of that passage, from Illich's reflection on 'The Eloquence of Silence', makes me sit bolt upright whenever I reach it. Let me try to explain.

'To be, or not to be?' That is the question with which we are familiar. The figure of Hamlet, like that of his creator, stands at the back of what (in the long sense) is called modern English literature. 'Modernity' is a slippery concept, but there is a certain peculiar way of thinking about the world which became dominant among the powerful and 'forward-thinking' in western Europe from the 17th century onwards.

One of the peculiarities of this way of thinking is a tendency to insist on 'either/or' answers. (Anthony - who would probably steer me away from historical narrative here - talks about 'the elimination of uncertainty' as a key characteristic of the 'dynamics of enclosure' which he critiques.) This 'either/or' tendency is itself a characteristic of a desire for once-and-for-all solutions.

One of the things which is lost, as this way of thinking becomes dominant, is the sense of timeliness. The assumption that different, seemingly opposite, things may be right at different moments gives way, for example, to the attempt to identify timeless, universal Rights. (Paradoxically, the superiority of these tends to be bound up with the non-timeless assumption that the present is necessarily superior in wisdom to the past. This, however, is a very different kind of time to that experienced by those immersed in the sense of timeliness.)

Much of this is sensed in Shakespeare, anticipated and handled with careful ambiguity. (Hamlet himself observes that 'the times are out of joint'.) Harold Bloom made the bold claim that Shakespeare 'invented the human as we know it'. In a different key, it might be said that Hamlet seems the prototype of the modern individual, the subject who feels obliged to contain a universe within his self - to reach 'either/or' answers.

So, when Illich ends his list of the properties of silence with its 'times to be and not to be', I hear an echo arcing back over the centuries, or outwards from those centres of power where Hamlet-like leaders strut and fret, to the vernacular world in which Illich was at home. In Shakespeare's England, this world was still close enough at hand to feed in and out of his writing - soon afterwards, the gap between the vernacular understandings of reality and those common among the intellectual, political and literary elites would extend to a point where, finally, high culture could rediscover 'the folk' as (more often than not) an exotic object of fascination and condescension.

3 comments:

lucychili said...

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Dougald Hine said...

Thanks, Janet! There's a huge amount to think about in your comment and arti's post - as well as links which I must follow up.

For now, I'll offer you one link in return! You wrote:

"the aspects of our culture which are about local expression and participation are being defined as 'other' through changes in copyright and patent scope."

This made me think of the work my friend Anthony McCann did on the effects of copyright enforcement on Irish traditional music. There's a great deal which you might find interesting here:

http://www.beyondthecommons.com/

ailsa said...

This is a beautiful post. I have been looking at the effects of technology in a telephone counselling agency moving into txting and online mediums and this reflects the comments made by a counsellor i interviewed just yesterday.
The need to pause, and to breath is done when its verbal phone counselling and in f2f but its something she consciously reminds herself of in txting. breathing is not evident...,
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