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  • A Genealogy of SilenceChōra and the Placelessness of Greek Women
  • Adam Knowles

Isn’t excess that which the philosopher . . . must bring back, within measure?

—Luce Irigaray, The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger

And if I must make some mention of the virtue of those wives who will now be in widowhood, I will indicate all with a brief word of advice. To be no worse than your proper nature [phuseōs], is a great honor for you; and great honor is hers, whose reputation among males is least, whether for praise or for blame.



Philosophy in the twentieth century is mapped upon a terrain of silence. At the turn of the century Sigmund Freud sought to translate the silent language of the unconscious, as Friedrich Nietzsche heralded an untimely voice that could not yet be heard.1 Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, foundational thinkers in analytic and continental philosophy respectively, each placed silence at the core of his most influential works.2 In the phenomenological tradition, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas prominently thematized silence,3 while the subsequent generation of poststructuralist, [End Page 1] deconstructionist, and feminist thinkers such as Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, and Luce Irigaray all grappled with silence in various forms.4 Among these works, Lyotard’s theory of the differend, a term that describes an ontological gap of incommunicability, is now a standard term for addressing questions of silence, silencing, the ethics of sayability and trauma.5 Later, in queer theory, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s closet became a complex synonym for many forms of silence and silencing.6

Beyond this philosophical concern for silence and silencing, a number of similar themes emerged in the art and literature of the twentieth century, demonstrating both the creative and destructive force of silence.7 In literature, dramatists such as Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter brought silence to the stage, while poets and novelists like Adrienne Rich and Virginia Woolf traced the presence of silence in language, each thematizing the power of silencing in unique ways.8 In music, John Cage famously utilized silence as an element of his compositions and filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergmann and Chantal Akerman likewise crafted silence to structure the cinematic spaces of their works.9 Silence became one of the most persistent themes of philosophy in the twentieth century, both implicitly and explicitly. Could one even go so far as to say that a certain silence haunted philosophy in the twentieth century?

Amid this abundance of artistic and philosophical work on silence, “breaking the silence” became the watchword for emancipatory projects pursued by groups such as first-wave feminists, postcolonial scholars, race theorists, and campaigns for social justice.10 These emancipatory projects sought to disrupt processes of silencing by locating, recovering, and translating marginalized voices from the silencing of oppression and disenfranchisement. Though essential political interventions at the historical moment when they emerged, these projects of recovery soon met with the critique of the politics of representation best exemplified by thinkers such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Toril Moi.11 Spivak and Moi effectively argued that recovering and speaking for silenced and marginalized voices entails a further form of silencing. These critiques showed that projects of recovering silence from the archives, history, literature, art, culture, and everyday practices of living were constrained by the very concept of silence they employed. As a result, any naive politics of granting a voice and breaking silence became impossible after the 1980s. From this point onward the deconstructive critique of representation folded silence back into itself, destroying any simple binary of empowered speech and disempowered silence. Even despite this powerful deconstruction of the speech/silence binary, philosophy, to the extent that it still operates within representational schemes and a speech/silence binary, still remains haunted by the specter of silence—a silence that carries with it a deeply gendered heritage. Pursuing rigorous analyses of the manifold structures of silence and silencing remains an urgent ethical and political task for feminist philosophy. [End Page 2]

This essay seeks to contribute to that task by arguing that, in order to critically engage with the many...