CfP: Conspicuous by Absence: Exploring silence and absence in discourse

Contributions are invited for an edited collection dedicated to absence and silence in discourse. Although it is acknowledged that absences contribute to the meaning of what is present, discourse analysis has frequently focussed on what is said and, to date, the systematic analysis of what is unsaid and silenced, rare or absent in linguistic data, has received relatively little attention. In part, this is due to the methodological challenges of identifying, accessing and investigating absences. More conceptualisation is also required on how we can interpret absences in discourse as meaningful. These are the issues that we intend to tackle in this innovative volume. The aim is to bring together researchers who have been investigating absence and silence and to present a range of proposals as to how we can identify and analyse what is absent (and yet structuring of the discourse). In so doing, the volume aims to promote the empirical study of absence and silence in discourse and to give them a more central position in discourse analysis.

We invite contributions from a range of perspectives, which discuss and demonstrate ways of analysing silence and absence empirically. We particularly welcome proposals which go beyond the identification of an absence to include reflection of how to systematically identify that kind of absence/silence, and how absence can actually be analysed as part of the interpretation of a discourse.

Topics might include, but are not limited to:

  • absence/silence as the result of suppression to support a dominant discourse, as a result of hegemony and the absence of alternatives
  • absence/silence as the result of the development of discourses; what becomes absent in a process of development from a more heterogeneous discourse into hegemonic narratives or what gets left out of successive drafts/different versions of texts and/or as the result of addressee orientation
  • absence/silence regarding participants in events; voices that are heard or absent, make themselves heard or are silenced, participants that strategically claim they have been silenced
  • absence/silence as the result of (the process of) translation; which texts get selected for translation, which aspects of discourse determined, culture specific or time bound meaning get ‘lost in translation’
  • absence/silence in metaphors; how does metaphorical conceptualisation contribute to the foregrounding and backgrounding of aspects of the phenomenon in question
  • absence/silence in multimodal texts; what is reinforced or silenced in the interplay between different modes of communication
  • metadiscourse about absence/silence; how are silences identified and evaluated by discourse participants, what is it that makes silence meaningful to them.

We invite abstract proposals of up to 300 words (excluding references) to be submitted to the editors Melani Schröter ( and Charlotte Taylor ( by 30 April 2016. If accepted, we will ask for first drafts of chapters (up to 9000 words) to be submitted by 1st October 2016 with view to publication with an international publisher (expressions of interest already in place) in 2017.

Absence of naming choices?

In this blog post, I wanted to address the issue of absence of naming choices, and in many ways this post is a both a follow up and a precursor for the recent piece I wrote for the Conversation on the naming choices which are available for describing people who move (or are moved) from one place to another. As a linguist, something which I find interesting is the way that people explain why they use certain choices. In some cases, they are overt about choosing names which reflect a particular evaluation, as is the case in the recent al Jazeera decision not to use migrant when refugee is appropriate. And, as is equally the case in the offensive and hate-filled alternatives to migrant which were offered below the line on that article.

In other cases, people claim neutrality for the word that they use, as happens in the ‘but it’s the dictionary meaning’ explanations, which fail to take into account how dictionaries change as usage and evaluative meanings change.

And in other cases, people explain the choice of term as simply being the common sense one, using the ‘we call them x because they are x’ explanation. For instance, in an article responding to the debate raised by the al Jazeera decision, a Guardian article ran with the headline We deride them as ‘migrants’. Why not call them people? and, as might be expected, it received below-the-line responses along the lines of ‘They get called ‘migrants’ because they are migrants’.

So, if this logic holds, we should expect similar patterns of naming across similar events, after all, the argument goes, it’s not a value judgement. To investigate this quite quickly, I downloaded all the articles which referred to ship, ships, boat, boats from all the UK national newspapers published over two date ranges:

1) April 19-20 2015, the period in which a ship capsized in the Mediterranean killing over 700 people (c.50 articles relating to this disaster after duplicates were removed)

2) January 14-15 2012, the period in which a ship capsized in the Mediterranean killing over30 people (c.80 articles relating to this disaster after duplicates were removed)

Where these two incidents differ is in the purpose and nationality of the people on board: in the 2015 event, many of those on board were reportedly escaping from Syria or African countries. In the 2012 event, those on board the Costa Concordia cruise ship were tourists, mostly from (western) Europe.

The comparison of how the people on board the two ships were named allows us to test whether there are any alternative naming choices. Or, whether the ‘we call them migrants because they are migrants’ explanation holds up logically, thus meaning that those on board the 2012 ship were also labelled with reference to their purpose as holidaymakers and tourists.

I started by just focussing on the headlines, which are particularly important because they provide a frame for reading and interpreting news articles, and the figure below summarises what I found.


As the figure shows, people on the 2012 vessel were mainly described in terms of their role on board (passengers, crew), while those in 2015 were described in terms of their reason for the journey (migrants). Conversely, those on the 2012 ship were rarely described as tourists and those on the 2015 ship were rarely referred to as passengers. Those on the 2012 boat were more likely to be referred to as people, and less likely to be referred to by numbers (e.g. more than 900 feared dead).

In terms of identifying possible absences from the 2015 reporting, we can see that there were terms other than migrants available in this context: people and passengers. And this is where the ‘we call them x because they are x’ argument falls down. Because obviously people belong to many potential classifications at the same time. Both groups on both ships were simultaneously passengers and people and potentially survivors and victims, and both could be counted and named as just numbers.

Choosing to privilege one classification over another is part of the speaker’s evaluation and point of the story. By talking about migrants, the story that is told is one of migrants, people who are unlike ‘us’. And by talking about people, the story that is told is one of people, people just like ‘us’.

Glaring omissions and a bit of vagueness

I have looked a bit into the reporting about the Labour and Conservative party conferences which took place some weeks ago in Autumn. I was interested to see whether there were any references to absences and silences in the speeches that were held. I looked at the Guardian’s online reporting only at this stage, since articles about the party conferences were grouped together on the Guardian’s websites, so articles reporting about both conferences could be easily retrieved (unlike with the order in which they appear on The Times website).
It was interesting, first of all, to observe the level of meta-ness of the reporting if that makes sense: In the case of the Labour conference, 16 out of 79 articles’ headlines on the conference addressed the style and effectiveness of the speeches held, including ‘panel verdicts’ by Guardian authors, first time voter ratings of the speeches and analyses of tweets reacting to the speeches – and 12 out of 87 regarding the Conservative conference. Headlines include: “David Cameron’s speech pulled rabbits out of hats early – because it had to” (1/10/2014), “Best man Boris makes an effortless performance” (30/09/2014), “Labour party conference: barely an open eye in the house” (24/09/2014), “Ed Miliband’s NHS care pledge a crowd-pleaser, but a much needed one” (23/09/2014), “Ed Balls’ speech: light on jokes and lighter on spending pledges” (22/09/2014) – and even double-meta: “The Guardian’s view on how Labour responds to Cameron’s speech” (1/10/2014). These headlines suggest that the speeches are not only received in terms of content, but also understood as staged performances which are carefully and strategically planned, crafted and orchestrated; that they aim at triggering media attention, reassuring party members and at attracting certain segments of the voting population. Their effectiveness is discussed in these terms. This is a given – the articles presume rather than explain that party conferences are ‘show time’.
Some headlines suggest more narrowly a concern with what was not said: “Labour party conference: the code of silence sounds all wrong” (21/09/2014), “Ed Miliband admits he forgot key section of Labour conference speech – Opposition leader fails to deliver passages on deficit and immigration but insists he talked clearly about Labour’s plans” (24/09/2014), “Ed Miliband under fire from his own side for forgetting to mention deficit” (24/09/2014), “David Cameron’s speech was great oratory, but it didn’t answer the trust question” (1/10/2014), “What the Tories don’t say about the deficit” (29/09/2014).
One issue with the Labour conference was that apparently Ed Miliband had presented his speech from memory without prompters and thereby ‘forgot’ to deliver passages addressing the deficit and immigration. With regard to what was not said, the focus on this “glaring omission” (24/09/2014) dominates the reporting about Ed Miliband’s speech. However, a lot of the articles claim that he was quite clear and specific on the issues that were covered in the speech; only one article noted a further absence, relating to the discussion about constitutional reform in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, which one commentator missed in Miliband’s speech (21/09/2014).
One comment, with reference to Cameron’s speech, suggests that leaving “much more unsaid than said” is more forgivable when it is a result of oversight as in the case of Ed Miliband than if done by design, which was seen to be the case in Cameron’s speech. (1/10/2014). According to this article, where the Conservatives addressed the deficit, cuts remained unspecified and silence loomed over broken promises (ibid.); “they fail to mention what is happening to the deficit on their watch” (29/09/2014).
One recurring theme regarding the Conservatives was as mismatch between questions and answers, or between acknowledging problems and providing solutions: “Cameron’s speech implicitly understood a lot of the questions that needed asking. But it supplied all too few of the answers.” (1/10/2014). Cameron’s speech was reproached for leaving cuts unspecified and also about how much longer fixing the deficit would take. “Thereafter the priority will be tax cuts. The precise value of those remains unclear since Cameron’s speech did not set out a timetable by which they will be achieved.” (1/10/2014).
Noting vagueness, i.e. a lack of specific information occurred more in the reporting about the Conservative speeches (Cameron and Osborne) whereas the coverage of Miliband’s speech was dominated by the obvious mishap of leaving out sections that apparently were prepared for the speech, rather than criticising the depth of information on the topics he did deal with.
It was interesting for me to see that even within this very limited range of material on only two party conferences, there are repeated references to things about which speakers were expected to say something. When, for some reason or other, they fail to meet these expectations, these absences get noted and are considered noteworthy enough to include mentioning these perceived shortcomings in the coverage of these events. What motivates these expectations? In this small case, it is mostly the omnipresence of the issue in the public realm that makes its absence in the speeches noteworthy (the deficit, immigration, constitutional reform) – so apparently, there are things that you cannot not talk about in certain situations. Further, the coverage suggests that party leaders can be expected not only to lay out their political priorities for the period ahead and rally supporters, but also to provide details on costing and timing of such measures. These absences get earmarked in the coverage as something that belongs in the package of the topic – they leave a blank spot to be filled with more detail, at least at some point further down the line.

Wikileaks: Is ‘the public’ always in favour of transparency?

I collected a number of articles from different German daily broadsheets of the first few days of reporting about the content of the US diplomatic cables made accessible via Wikileaks in November 2010. One of the ‘media partners’ that was granted access to this material was the German weekly news magazine “Der Spiegel”.

Normally, what goes on in the arcane spheres of international diplomacy is rather hidden from public scrutiny, so I expected to find delight about the exposure in the media reporting. To some degree, this was the case. One lead article in the left-liberal Frankfurter Rundschau (29.11.2010) suggests not only that the occasional intrusion into arcane political spheres can have a sanitizing function for democracies, but also that it might help identifying weak spots in keeping secrecy and helping governments to make amendments for better protection (Frankfurter Rundschau, 29.11.2010). The partly flippant characterisations of political leaders around the world – including German political figures – by US diplomats were quoted again and again, based on quotations from the cables published by the Spiegel magazine – so certainly this glimpse onto normally confidential or secret information was attractive to the news media.

However, some articles emphasised that this was neither scandalous nor surprising, only a bit embarrassing for both sides, implying that there was not a great use of such publication for ‘the public interest’; the leaking of the documents resulted in gossip and did not constitute a great favour for democratic transparency. But, as tageszeitung stated: “The public is interested in virulent revelations as much as in embarrassing gossip” (01.12.2010) (all translations by me, MS).
I was slightly surprised that there was a lot of scepticism about the Wikileaks approach to make this material accessible and/or to encourage publications on the basis this material. A lot of the articles suppose that even when, as in the German-US relations, no real damage was done, for a period of time people would be more careful in their dealings with US diplomats. This would make political assessments for the US more difficult as a result of Wikileaks’ tampering with protected spheres of communication. Here we encounter the notion of confidentiality or secrecy as protection.
When we agree with other parties that we won’t say anything about what we say after we’ve said it, this secrecy enables communication that would otherwise not have been likely or possible. This, the notion of silence as a trigger and facilitator of communication, is something that I did not consider much before looking into the Wikileaks articles. A number of articles point out the damage done by stolen data in destroying “the tissue that constitutes the usual kind of communication between states: confidentiality. Without confidentiality no information, no giving or taking, no access. Without information also no knowledge, no judgment, no right decisions.” (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 30.11.2010)
There is another notion of secrecy as protection in that “the publication of the confidential and partly secret documents endanger regime critics around the world and opposition leaders who were in contact with US diplomats” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 30.11.2010). A similar concern surrounded Arab state leaders quoted in the diplomats’ reports on the necessity for the US to intervene in the Iranian nuclear programme, the spread of which through Wikileaks was regarded to pose a threat of more tension in regions and on matters marked by conflict; “the world will not be a safer place when everyone knows everything about everyone”. (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 30.11.2010). This notion is taken further in a very critical article in a left liberal paper (Frankfurter Rundschau, 29.11.2010) which suggests Wikileaks need to be understood as a phenomenon of the age of Big Brother – that its mission is not to inform the public about crucial and formerly hidden political issues, but to expose for exposure’s sake.
I expected that the newspapers would more or less celebrate Wikileaks for shedding light on rather concealed and not very accessible policy areas, framing this as a genuine chance to give to the public what the media posit they are entrusted to provide the public with: crucial information about issues of public interest. Certainly, the interest in the story was considerable and triggered continuous reporting for a while.
However, there was a great deal of scepticism suggesting that the leak was neither useful nor helpful, that it was not due to honourable motives (e.g. genuine whistleblowing); that it penetrated necessary protection of diplomatic exchanges with negative consequences for trust and collaboration; and that it could even have dangerous consequences for the political stability in some regions and for the lives of individuals.
Some of the most sceptical articles that I looked at were printed in the left liberal broadsheets. On the matter of Wikileaks it did not seme to me that there was a dividing line between conservative (in favour of secrecy at the expense of transparency) and left-liberal (in favour of transparency at the expense of secrecy) as suggested by Black (1988).

A long and meaningless silence

Well, this was a long silence, and it was not meaningful (see link below…). I guess this blog was snowed under our academic workloads. What better time to resume it than the start of Autumn term…! To begin with, I would like to hijack a little piece that I contributed to our departmental blog, but I also have a more genuine contribution to follow immediately about Wikileaks. I realised with horror that it was nearly four years ago that I collected a number of articles capturing newspaper reactions to the publication of (parts of) US diplomatic cables enabled by Wikileaks. I had intended to do a bit of work on this, which got delayed by finishing the monograph on silence and then all other things that happened in the meantime…Ever since the blog came into being, I wanted to make a contribution out of this and now I finally managed to put together a little blog post which will follow instantly.

First of all, here is the link to the Modern Languages @ Reading University blog post in which I explain what it is in my view that makes silence meaningful:

Bogus silences in public discourse

Historically, as we are informed e.g. by proverbs, silence was regarded more positively as it has been in recent decades. Information was more like a valuable property that needed to be watched over and given away with great care and control. Over time, the view has gained ground that sharing and circulating information might be more beneficial to individuals (and to collectives in some respects, too) than retaining it – communication can help us to overcome divisions and trauma.

Black (1988) associates the preference for retention of information with conservatism/the political right and the preference for sharing and circulating information with left-liberal political views. Looking back at the generational revolt and leftist political movement of 1968 (e.g. in Germany), it seems as though it was a high point in preference of discussion (Verheyen 2010) and it also seems as though it enabled more, more open, and more public discussion around formerly tabooed aspects of e.g. sexuality, power, and the Holocaust. ‘Breaking taboos’ in this climate could become a heroic venture, something to be applauded for.

This must have been to the dislike of the political right, but since the early nineties this very development has been turned against the political left in what we know as the debate surrounding political correctness. This move, claiming that voicing opinions in public and free democratic deliberation has become impossible because the political left (formerly seen to break taboos and free up topics for public debate) set up taboos and policed language, has been very successful. It has been so successful that it has become difficult to appreciate political correctness for its initial aims to avoid sexist and racist discourse (and in Germany, add revisionist discourse about the Nazi past).

I did a bit of teaching on the pc discourse, and year on year, students agree with the aims of pc and with the premise that we should avoid offense of minorities or of people in difficulties in referring to them or talking about them. Everyone agrees that offense should be avoided and goes so far as to concede that when you try to avoid offense, you automatically become a bit more watchful regarding the language that you use. However, at the same time everyone agrees that pc is ridiculous, pointless and exaggerated.

I would even maintain that the claim of being silenced by a leftist rule over opinions by means of policing public discourse has become the main rhetorical tool of a conservative backlash. I call the silences – which the political right claim have been introduced by leftist discourse hegemony – bogus silences because sexist and racist premises still underpin a good proportion of public discourse. It is difficult to appreciate why anyone feels silenced who thinks that women have already achieved everything they could ask for and more; disadvantaging men in turn. It is also difficult to appreciate why anyone feels politically marginalised who thinks that the native population has to have privileged access to ‘their’ society’s resources and who fear that immigrants will loot ‘their’ health and social security system.

It also to me is rather apparent where the real discourse hegemony lies when people shun pc even though they actually agree with its premises and when young women shun feminism even though they may at the same time be quite aware of continuing inequalities and sexual harassment. Speaking out, open discussion, democratic deliberation, confession and breaking taboos has attained such a currency in public discourse that accusing people of silence, closing down topics for debate and setting up taboos has become an effective rhetorical weapon. Ironically, it is used most fiercely against those who can be associated with a preference for sharing information and for communicating in order to solve problems and to overcome trauma.

Absence in the news: African feminism

As well as theorising absence/silence and looking at different approaches, one thing that we want to do in this blog is look at how absence and silence become topics in themselves. Following on from The Apparent King and Queen of Silence in Politics, in this post I wanted to return to an article that caught my eye in September:

African feminists

In the article, Salami asks

So why does the western feminist movement hardly look at African feminism for clues? Why does it only pay such little attention to the realisation of a once utopian fantasy of female majority leadership in Rwanda – where, since 2008, women have held over half the parliamentary seats? Feminists everywhere have spent decades campaigning for equality in political leadership, yet its achievement in Rwanda has been met with a loud silence.

There was plenty of discussion about why this might be the case in the comments below the line and it is an important question that has been posed elsewhere, but what also interested me was whether there was any way we could measure this kind of absence. That is not to devalue the salience of the perceived absence, but it constitutes an opportunity to think about methodological exploration.

Two absences are identified in the article: first, that the achievements of feminism in Rwanda have not been recognised and discussed; second that the role of African feminists in creating a more equal society have been ignored in western accounts. Any attempt to investigate these issues in a blog post is bound to be limited in scope but can perhaps indicate directions for a more thoughtful analysis and so I will look at the first absence.

One approach was to start with an open question and look at what regions or nationalities were mentioned with reference to feminism. As the article had  appeared in the Guardian, I started there. The 20 geographical identities that occurred most frequently in articles which contained mentions of feminist/feminism from the last 12 months were: England, French, India, African, Western, France, Russian, European, Italy, Africa, Afghanistan, Irish, Britain’s, Egypt, States, German, Russia, Wales, Germany, Ireland. The prominent position of African and Africa challenges the assumption of silence, but of course at this stage we are missing information about how Africa is being discussed in relation to feminism: are the most frequent countries sources for inspiration or concern? To answer this we would need to go into the collocates and concordances.

Another approach that I considered was to take the two other countries that were mentioned in the article, Iceland and Australia, and as a quick test of visibility, to compare the frequency of mentions on feminist websites. The results were quite mixed, Australia tended to get more mentions that the others but the ranking of Rwanda and Iceland varied widely according to the website. With more data we would be able to get a firmer picture but the tool is still too blunt and, as above, cannot account for how the status of women is being discussed.

So then I looked at the first 20 mentions for each country within two of the websites and identified whether they were talking about women as victims or poor role models (classified as negative below), or if they were talking about positive role models and changes that could benefit women. This is what I found:

feminist chart

The situation for women in Iceland was consistently discussed in positive terms, where there was an evaluation, while positive descriptions relating to Rwanda were less frequent. The positive mentions for Rwanda related to representation in parliament; the negative mentions referred mainly to women as victims of rape, in particular during the conflict, and female genital mutilation. In the Australia data, which contained a mixture of evaluations too, the positive and negative evaluations related to similar issues: in particular advances in availability of birth control medication and legislation limiting access to abortion. This level of detail could allow for a quantitative analysis that would be a more productive avenue and also lead towards understanding western feminist attitudes to Rwanda.

Subsequent explorations which get into the discourse analysis could look more specifically at how female leaders from these three countries are represented, and in addressing the second absence identified in the original article it would be revealing to explore who is credited with female leadership success in each context.

Those interested in representations of feminism in the media might be interested in ‘On the f-word: A corpus-based analysis of the media representation of feminism in British and German press discourse, 1990–2009’