In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt wrote, “What first undermines and then kills political communities is loss of power and final impotence.” She went on to add, “Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”
In our present media environment, the opposite of this formula may be closer to the truth, at least in certain situations. In these cases, the refusal to speak is action. Silence is power.
The particular situation I have in view is the hijacking of public discourse (and consequently the political order) by the endless proliferation of manufactured news and fabricated controversy.
These pseudo-events are hyperreal. They are media events that exist as such only in so far as they are spoken about. “To go viral” is just another way of describing the achievement of hyperreality . To be “spoken about” is to be addressed within our communication networks. In a networked society, we are the relays and hyperreality is an emergent property of our networked acts of communication.
Every interest that constitutes our media environment and media economy is invested in the perpetuation of hyperreality.
Daily, these pseudo-events consume our attention and our mental and emotional energy. They feed off of and inspire frustration, rage, despair, paranoia, revenge, and, ultimately, cynicism. It is a daily boom/bust cycle of the soul.
Because they are constituted by speech, the pseudo-events are immune to critical speech. Speaking of them, even to criticize them, strengthens them.
When speaking is the only perceived form of action–it is, after all, the only way of existing on our social media networks–then that which thrives by being spoken about will persist.
How does one protest when acts of protest are consistently swallowed up by that which is being protested? When the act of protest has the perverse effect of empowering that which is being protested?
Silence is the only effective form of boycott. Traditional boycotts, the refusal to purchase goods or patronize establishments, are ineffective against hyperreality. They are sucked up into the pseudo-events.
Finally, the practice of silence must be silent about itself.
Here the practice of subversive silence threatens to fray against the edge of our media environment. When the self is itself constituted by acts of speech within the same network, then refusal to speak feels like self-deprivation. And it is. Silence under these conditions is an ascetic practice, a denial of the self that requires considerable discipline.
But if we are relays in the network, then self-sabotage becomes a powerful act of protest.
Perhaps the practice of this kind of self-imposed, unacknowledged silence may be the power that helps resuscitate public discourse.