Ursula Franklin on silence

Excerpts from “Silence and the Notion of the Commons”

You can find a copy of Ursula Franklin’s 1993 talk, “Silence and the Notion of the Commons”, at page 14 in issue number 2 of Soundscape, available as a PDF the “full Soundscape archive” at the bottom of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology website. (Yes, that’s delightfully niche, I know.) It’s also in the Ursula Franklin Reader, at page 157. (The texts differ slightly—I’ve used both in the quotes below.)

Framing a talk for amicable democratic discourse:

this has something to do with the last point: “What Now?” If in fact I am able to convince you that there is an issue, what might we do? I don’t ask you to agree, though I ask you to follow me for that hour, to accept my definitions and assumptions. I am happy if you question them, but just for that hour we will take them in and see what evolves from them. Let me begin to talk about sound and the technological system.

Types of silence:

In a way, the modern soundscape, along with the modern understanding of silence, divides itself into two domains. There is, of course, the silence imposed by fear or apprehension, its domain ranging from the “shut-up-or-else” to the polite preference not to speak out. However, my preoccupations is with the other domain, with silence as the enabling condition in which unprogrammed and unprogrammable events can take place. That is the silence of contemplation; it is the silence in which people get in touch with themselves; it is the silence of meditation and worship. What makes this domain distinct is that silence is an enabling condition that opens up the possibility of unprogrammed, unplanned, and unprogrammable happenings. … There is the silence that enables a programmed, a planned, event to take place. There is the silence in which you courteously engage so that I might be heard, in order for one to be heard all the others have to be silent. And in many cases the silence is not taken on voluntarily. This is the false silence that I am afraid of. It is not only the silence of the padded cell, the silence of the solitary confinement, but it is also the silencing that comes when there is the megaphone, the boom box, the PA system, and any variation in which other sounds and voices are silenced so that a planned event can take place.

Defining of silence:

Then, absence of sound is a necessary but it is not a sufficient condition to define what we mean by silence. The second attribute, the second parameter, from my point of view, comes out of the question: why is it that we worry about silence? Because silence is an enabling environment. When one thinks about the concept of silence, one notices the fact that there has to be somebody who lis- tens before one can say there is silence. Silence or the absence of sound is defined by a listener, by hearing.

Acting on a right to silence:

Just as we feel we have the right to walk down the street without being physically assaulted by people, preferably without being visually assaulted by ugly outdoor advertising, we also have the right not to be assaulted by sound, and in particular, not to be assaulted by sound that is there solely for the purpose of profit. Now is the time for civic rage, as well as civic education, but also the time for some action. Think of the amount of care that goes into the regulation of parking, so that our good, precious, and necessary cars have a place to be well and safe. That’s very important to society.

Making silence “visible”:

Further, I would highly recommend to start the inevitable committee meetings with just two minutes of silence, and to end them with a few minutes of silence, too. I sit on committees that have this practice; it not only can expedite the business before the committee, but it also contributes to a certain amount of peacefulness, and sanity. One can start a lecture with a few minutes of silence, and can close a lecture in silence. There can be a few minutes of silence before a shared meal. Such things help, even if they help only in a small way. I do think even small initiatives make silence “visible” as an ever-present part of life.