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On Silence and the Constitution of the Political Community
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On Silence and the Constitution of the Political Community

Speech . . . serves to indicate what is useful and what is harmful, and so also what is just and what is unjust . . . The real difference between man and other animals is that humans alone have perception of good and evil, just and unjust, etc. It is the sharing of a common view in these matters that makes . . . a state.

Aristotle, The Politics, 1253a7


What place in philosophy for silence, for the absence of words? This is a question of no small importance since philosophical argument has long been constructed as a public dialogue aiming to summon into existence the most equitable political community. If this means that the task of such argument is to identify what form of internal relations will lead to the most agreeable distribution of rights and responsibilities among the components parts of the political community, it also means that the justice of the public sphere is predicated on the principle of mathesis, on the calculability of relations between the component parts. A further, related consequence is that language, insofar as it alone would seem to enable such calculation, founds the political community. Conversely, silence must be that which arrests all that might flow from philosophical argument, including the justice of the public sphere. This said, recent work on the development of biomedicine and its distinctive configuration of the bio-political subject would seem to call for a more constructive engagement with silence, for an engagement with silence as something more than a wholly negative disposition toward life with others.

In a recent, provocative essay, Michel Callon and Vololona Rabeharishoa (2004) ask what is to be done about Gino, who meets their invitations to contribute his personal experience of muscular dystrophy to their ethnographic study of genetic medicine with nothing but silence. They argue that this silent figure must be understood as the site of confrontation between two sets of demands. One the one hand, there are the demands of the public sphere, for the visibility, articulation and argument over Gino’s reasons for refusing any engagement with the world of modern biomedicine. On the other hand, there is the private sphere, with its own distinctive demands for invisibility, non-articulation and silence. Callon and Rabeharisoa suggest that the latter set of demands is the effect of Gino’s work, of his work to make himself opaque to others. Gino’s silence, they then conclude, must be understood as an alternative form of political engagement with the world of modern biomedicine, outside language. They also acknowledge, however, that Gino’s silence is, at least partly, an effect of their own presence and interpellation, and that, by making Gino’s work of making himself opaque to others both visible and transparent, they paradoxically work against the very non-accountability that Gino would appear to desire most. Thus confronted with the limits of the human sciences, Callon and Rabeharisoa then call for a critical revision of our understanding of the political community.1

In this essay, we respond to Callon and Rabeharisoa’s call, but argue that instead of seeking after some alternative mathesis, thanks to which those who will not or cannot speak might none the less have a voice in the construction of a more inclusive political community (see Callon, Lascoumes & Barthe, 2001), it might be more fruitful to consider the role of the incalculability of parts in the constitution of the political community. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this argument will draw on Jacques Ranciere’s thesis that calculative rationality is the very negation of political engagement because it will always fail to take into account that most important part of the community, namely the demos as unity of the one and the many (Ranciere, 1999, 2001). We will also maintain, however, that Ranciere’s thesis is not free of problems, chiefly by virtue of tacitly assuming that democratic revindications are self-evident and transparent. We will therefore revisit the thesis in the light of Michel Serres’ writings on the dynamics of exchange, especially with respect to Serres’ claims about the fundamental and irreducible interdependence of clarity and obscurity, the clarity of dialogue...