Silence and hegemony

When it comes to the notion of discursive hegemony, the first thing that springs to mind with regard to absence is the way that hegemonic discourse excludes certain groups, topics and possible statements and, reversely, how constellations of discursive hegemony determine which perspectives are preferred and whose voices are heard in discourse. It seems as though silencing, as characterised by Thiesmeyer (2003) will always be involved in the establishment of discourse hegemony: “A major function of silencing is to contain this potential for opposition by identifying categories of persons and ideas about which speech and texts will be unacceptable (…). This process is complemented by the circulation of acceptable speech and texts that express some things at the expense of others (…)” (9).

It is typical for societies to have discourses about minorities, about deprived, disabled and mentally ‘deranged’ and others at the flat ends of the Bell curve of normality in which these groups are never themselves heard. “Silence is thus an endpoint  in a lost battle for the right to speak, just as the full participation in dominant discourse is the result of a struggle for power and an enactment or a justification of the position of power.” (Herdina 1996, 30).

But then, silence can also be subversive in the form of deliberate (and, ideally notable) opting out of hegemonic discourse or refusal to perform certain speech acts when they are strongly expected. In an increasingly communicative culture in which, as Cameron (2000) pointed out, economic value is assigned to communication (skills), when people become wary of the constant flow of communication and advertising and in a political climate of resignation in the face of spin dominating over deliberation, the subversive potential of absence and silence might increase.

To make matters more complicated, I recently came to think more about how silence about its own premises, in form of ‘the absence of the need to mention it’ could also be seen as the pillars of discursive hegemony: We don’t need to specify if we happen to be heterosexual, we don’t need to make explicit that it is good to be rich and bad to be mad. We don’t need to explain to anyone that immigration is a problem or at least a challenge. We don’t need to elaborate on the expectation of couples to be in love with one another. So when it comes to absence as a result of hegemony, we face a potentially harmful silencing (of what is not in the realms of discursive hegemony, of what it ‘othered out’), the potential of silence to subvert hegemonic discourse and the silence of hegemonic discourse about its own premises, which protects its dominance and pervasiveness. Once you start spelling these out, they become negotiable and may even sound ridiculous or absurd.


About meeelani

I am a linguist and discourse analyst, specializing in political discourse, discourse key words and public discourse about language as well as silence. I have been intrigued by silence, by its communicative salience and by the question of how to get hold of it by way of linguistic analysis for some time. After having looked into silence, concealment and expectations of speech in political discourse over the last few years, I now become particularly interested in the way that the development of discourses generates absences (and in the methodological issue of how to capture these in the process!) and in silence’s peculiar relations to power and submission, hegemony and subversion. I lecture in German Studies at the University of Reading, but I use this blog in a personal capacity. View all posts by meeelani

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