Democracy and the Politics of Silence

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We often assume that speech is constitutive of democratic politics and the marker of democratic citizenship, and silence is the negation of both. Democracy and the Politics of Silence takes a critical look at this view. It questions the idea that democratic agency can only be realized in words and examines the affordances of silence as a distinctive mode of political action.

The book posits silence as a practice, or a modality of action and interaction. It argues that silence can be omissive or commissive, that is, agentic silences of doing/being a non-something and non-agentic silences of not doing/not being something respectively. Moving beyond the understanding of silence as simply a signal of absent speech that supports the practice of mutual understanding and claim-making, the book deploys an expanded notion of silence as gesture to account for the specificity of inter/action structured by silence and to collapse the binary opposition between mute body and speaking subject.

Constructing silence as a politically meaningful category, Democracy and the Politics of Silence challenges the status of silence within democratic theory and practice as a mere background to the “normal” (i.e., speech inter/action), where this “background” is taken to mean a purely negatively defined phenomenon: non-speech, non-presence, non-action, non-participation. Conversely, the book foregrounds silence as politically produced – stemming from, mobilized within, negotiated through, and positively productive of political relationships with others. It thus politicises silence and offers a view of silence as effectively omnipresent in democratic life and as holding a protean power for shaping it in democracy-enhancing and democracy-debilitating ways.

To assess the democratic potential of silence, the book focuses on a particular set of problems concerning the relationship between political silence and the triad of voice, agency and representation, all key components of our democracies. Each of the book’s chapters draws on a selection of case studies – taking in everything from the Silent Parade of African Americans in 1916 to contemporary debates about representing non-human beings, Marlon T. Rigg’s experimental examination of Black queer identity in Tongues Untied (1989) to the famous Miranda judgment on the right to silence,
to explore in greater detail the workings and doings of silence in different sites of democratic politics: personal identity, social silencing, silent protest, the legal right to silence, constitution-making, and representation. Together they offer an original, ambitious, and provocative comparative investigation of democratically undesirable silences as well as practices of silence that decisively affirm of democratic subjectivities, aims and norms: namely, empowerment, nondomination, inclusion, equality, reciprocity, and connection across difference. Foregrounding the ways in which silence can be politically enabling and practiced democratically, Democracy and the Politics of Silence interrogates the foundational equivalence of speech with thought, being, and action, showing how accounting for commissive silent inter/actions can help us re-imagine political agency, power and freedom in non-sovereign, world building ways. A powerful new account of silence as belonging in the repertoire of democratic citizenship, Democracy and the Politics of Silence invites its readers to consider what silence might teach them about democracy.

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Original languageEnglish
PublisherPennsylvania State University Press
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 11 Jan 2024

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