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Magazine

12 August 2019
Entry #2: “Background Silence” by Anna Dot (Sept 2017)

Peter Freund

Anna Dot’s short essay “Background Silence” articulates a politics of noise. Dot is listening for the noise that emerges in the censored expression, the interrupted passage, and the corrected error. For an exemplary practitioner, Dot’s essay points to Chicana poet Gloria Anzaldúa whose “Borderlands/La Frontera” (1989) foregrounds and explores from within the normalization of a standardized English the “noise” of the Chicana accent.[1] Noise presents the concrete specificity of silence – of the silenced – capable of its own speech.

Dot draws her central metaphor from Cage’s 4’33” and from cybernetics insofar as the two sources apparently challenge the possibility of pure silence. Full of acoustic nuances that accompany every expression, the communicational channel defies silence. That said, however, Dot appears from the beginning to be a little bored with the Cagean cliché: “We swallowed the idea that silence doesn’t exist thanks to the story he told us.” In fact, Cage’s 4’33” suggests a much more problematic picture than its conventional interpretation. The composition, which is championed as a liberatory embrace of noise as signal, makes no sense without the staging gesture of repression. That is to say, 4’33” is not the same as leaving open the living room window or handing the listener a stethoscope. The piece must be staged as the negation of anticipated sound. By analogy, in engineering, the very condition of possibility of communication is the simultaneous deployment and repression of noise, that is, the carrier wave.

If read precisely, Dot’s is not a simple ethics or politics of liberatory difference. It is one that confronts the paradoxical and structural role of negation. Her essay closes: “To remain silent is a right. Personally, day by day I am less able to fill the silences of others with words of my own because I am deafened by the noises they contain.” Silence exists as the force of the negative within noise. In a time when border walls are being planned to support transnational capital, the question to ask is not if there is noise in the clamoring silence at the border. Surely there is. The question is rather: Whose noise is it really? (That is, for whom is it “noise”?) Clearly it is not the noise of the so-called noisy. In the end, the question is not simply a matter of liberating noise from silence but rather of liberating, at least conceptually, the silence from the noise. For we cannot hear noise without its determinative silence.

 

Notes

[1] Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera (San Francisco : Aunt Lute Books, 2012).

Peter Freund is usually working on something else. He writes to avoid making art and makes art to avoid writing. He is a sometimes curator to avoid his own work, but usually that inspires him to write or make art. Peter is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area (USA) and is on an extended leave of absence from his post as Professor of Art at Saint Mary’s College of California.

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