Mr Thompson tweets, or Silence part 2

One of the little ironies about writing a blog that not many people in the world will actually read is the possibility of silence (continuing from my last post) is seemingly easily achievable by no longer writing it. This had occurred to me. And it’s a possibility.

But as Derrida points out in his essay ‘How to Avoid Speaking’, the very act of thinking ‘how to avoid speaking’ is itself ‘speaking’, part of language; and ‘how to not speak’ shifts into ‘how not to speak’, that is to say, ‘how to speak’ (properly). In that same essay, in which Derrida writes about negative theology (a field of thought of much concern to my friend and colleague Arthur Bradley, who has explained it to me goodness knows how many times, but is essentially about coming to a conception of the divine by way of what He is not – for instance, God is not ‘good’, for this limits the conception of the divine to reductive human categories), Derrida ascribes the desire for silence to metaphysics, to an unknowable and unsayable beyond language, which is God.

Science fiction often uses this silent register to represent an unknowable otherness, when it doesn’t employ direct iconography to point towards the transcendent. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the beginning of consciousness is conveyed through sound, in the choral music that accompanies the monolith, or in the use of Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ when Moonwatcher picks up the animal and uses it as a weapon. In space, HAL’s murderously conflicted subjectivity finds expression in silence: Poole’s death at the (literal) hands of the pod is signified by the end of his breathing, and his body spins fatally in space, in silence. This silence is the silence of death, the infinite; but also the silence of HAL’s madness, his radical alterity, incommensurate with the human crew.

In Derrida's famous reading of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, ‘Cogito and the History of Madness’, silence is not a metaphysical condition associated with the transcendent (other): in relation to madness, silence is a silencing, ‘because the silence whose archaeology is to be undertaken is not an original muteness or nondiscourse, but a subsequent silence, a discourse arrested by command’. This in itself suggests an ideological reading of silence. The post-structuralist Marxist critic Pierre Macherey argues in A Theory of Literary Production that ‘the speech of the book comes from a certain silence', and that ‘Silence reveals speech – unless it is speech that reveals the silence’. The work of the critic is to ‘make this silence speak’.

In a sense, Macherey’s approach is to acknowledge the limitations on what can be said about what is said: rather, the critical act should attempt to reveal what is not said by focusing on the formal gaps and absences in the text itself. As Macherey states most explicitly: ‘What is most important in the work is what it does not say’. 

This means that the text is always incomplete: ‘the work has its margins, an area of incompleteness from which we can observe its birth and its production’, but it is not the work of the critic to complete the text (in a sense, to become its author, to restore the ‘plenitude’ or fullness of language, to make everything ‘speak’ the truth of the text). What the critic must do is to ‘investigate the conditions of possibility of the work’, that dialectical tension between what is said/ spoken and the ground against which this speaking takes place: silence.

Making the silence speak: can one do so? This is what I tell students they should do when I lecture on their Theory and Criticism course. That this is my method, one I would like to share. Speaking, writing. Exposing the silences, the gaps, of ideology, of discourse, of representation, as a critic. This is what I do

Should I?

Should I be silent instead? Can I be silent instead?

The answer might be ‘no’. In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks describes a man, Mr Thompson, who has suffered irretrievable memory loss. In a kind of compensatory strategy, Mr Thompson proliferates narratives in an endlessly extemporised performance, at times farcical or comic. But Sacks diagnoses a terrible loss beneath this performativity, beneath the flow of speech: ‘for here is a man who, in some sense, is desperate, in a frenzy. The world keeps disappearing, losing meaning, vanishing – and he must seek meaning, make meaning, continually inventing, throwing bridges of meaning over abysses of meaninglessness, the chaos that yearns continually beneath him.’ 

The nurses, when asked by Sacks, feel that there is an absence in Mr Thompson, and absence of ‘feeling’ or emotional effect which is only lacquered over by the performance: ‘if only he could be quiet, one feels, for an instant; if only he could stop the ceaseless chatter and jabber; if only her could relinquish the deceiving surface of illusions – then ... reality might seep in; something genuine, something deep, something felt, could enter’.

Mr Thompson, I feel, is an emblematic figure for today; for me. His endless linguistic performance, the narrative bridge-building over the abyss, is the contemporary subject produced by social media. Mr Thompson tweets, he posts on facebook, he writes a blog (called SF365) because he cannot allow himself to confront the abyss. I am myself on Twitter but have tweeted less than 500 times because I find that I have little to say on it. As I have nothing to say, I don’t tweet. (As I have nothing to say, I blog.)

I do realise, of course, that this isn’t the point of Twitter, and most who tweet have little or nothing of substance to say: they are trying to entertain, themselves and others, by doing so. Entertainment as distraction: the feelies, soma holidays. Twitter isn’t a ‘conversation’, it’s a multi-user performance, the crowd-sourced entertaining of the crowd. Building bridges over the void.

Twitter enables, just as facebook does, just as blogs do, just as self-publishing does; and I am positively inclined to each of them. But the noise. The noise. Because everyone in the crowd speaks at the same time, they can all be ignored. 

Just as much as I have pretty much give up television, and live in a small village on a North Wales hillside, I am increasingly attracted to RS Thomas’s journey ever further and further west in Wales until he ended up at Sarn on the Lleyn peninsula, in a freezing cottage bulked out of the rock itself, walking the hills and writing.

Thomas sometimes writes in a cosmological register in his later poetry, a cosmonaut on the way out of the Solar system, the human system. Into deep space, into the infinite, unto death, into silence. 

Silence, death, God.  

Not surprisingly, perhaps, I’ve recently turned to Beckett. The nothingness of being, the void, is always with the Beckettian subject. But they all speak, and even in the later, minimal texts, they are often articulated just through the voice. In a sense, the voice, speech, is the remains, the (im)material fact of human life that persists in the face of the void. Famously, Beckett ends his trilogy ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’: speech, writing, life itself, goes on. 


  1. Thanks for these interesting points on writing. Obviously a major reason I gave up on trying to forge an academic career for myself was because I felt I couldn't find a way of making my own voice heard amidst the inane cacophony of contemporary academic writing/self-promotion. It seems to me deeply - and tragically - ironic that today everybody seems to feel enabled (eg by social media technologies) to endlessly promote themselves, in order to develop careers; but if you actually feel a need to express yourself, then that need is viewed as some sort of symptom of an outdated/elitist Romantic cult of genius, or of some sort of transcendental condition of 'occult possession'. Maybe the technicians who rule us are just jealous of people with something to say, and so try to enforce an authoritarian twitter-speak just so it looks like no-one has anything to say anymore and there is no room for potential for resistance.

  2. Thank you, Robert. I've only just seen your comment but my next post steps onto the territory you mark out at the end - how to resist. (Not sure I can.) As you've probably worked out already, I'm deeply ambivalent about new technologies (and ever more so about the academic 'game'), and like you, suspect there's something deeply disciplinary at work. I follow your blog with great interest, by the way.

  3. Thanks for the reply, Brian. It's really encouraging. I try to keep up with your posts a lot of the time: do not be disheartened by a lack of comments!


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