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Re-examining Political Silence: New Openings for Research and Practice

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Political silences are powerful. This much we learned from critical IR theorists, including Cynthia Enloe (2004) who articulated the silences of marginalised women in international relations, Steve Smith (1995) who argued that silences are disciplines’ most important voices, and Ken Booth (2007: 160) who posited that ‘all silences “are against some body and against some thing”’. These key works represent the first generation of inquiry into political silence, particularly as an object of study in International Relations. They established the intellectual foundation for raising questions about the ethics of research, and they disrupted overly descriptive and normative accounts of political silence. Alas, these works are ontologically limited to specific types and registers of political silence(s) themselves. Our concern with them is that they are (inadvertently) foreclosing critical (re)examination of precisely what is meant by ‘political silence’.

Even the most precursory appraisal of global news signals to us as analysts that political silence is far more ambiguous, variegated, and differentiated than IR scholarship implies. With an instant, we observe powerful politicians such as the President of the United States attempting to silence his critics and the proliferation of a myriad of silent protests across the globe. Political silence is not merely a manifestation of violence or domination. Beyond the compulsion to uniformly conceptualise silence-as-domination, there resides an opportunity to (re)conceptualise the concept altogether.

Our edited volume Political Silence: Meanings, functions and ambiguity endeavours to do that. The collection begins by delineating the conceptual narrowness of the first generation of political silence scholarship from the logocentric nature of Western political practice as evidenced in early Ancient Greece. We also trace this narrowness as bound to the conceptual premium placed upon the ‘voice’, due to its supposedly emancipatory nature (Dhawan 2007, pp. 228-31). To counteract established thinking of silence-as-domination, we cultivate an intellectual attitude that pluralizes the concept. As political silences that manifest uniquely from context to context, each contributor analyses identifies the concept as a productive expression of intentional (and even unintentional) agency. For example, silence as a status or space that renders meaning inaccessible, and thereby disrupts the intentions and actions of other actors. This approach does not preclude that silencing, defined as the practice of removing subjects’ voices, invariably takes place. Instead, our approach foregrounds power and agency in a way that resists the reification of silence in relation to violence, domination, and victimhood. Our approach also allows us to engage with political silences that are productive irrespective of intentionality (or lack thereof). This approach allows us to investigate the effects, functions and meanings of political silences – even when the actor does not ‘speak’ or perform in self-evident ways.

Our volume is not the first to reconsider political silence. The previous decade exhibits an ongoing renaissance in IR and political theory, which indeed examine silence as a concept (Freeden 2015; Dingli 2015; Ferguson 2003) and phenomenon (Malhotra and Rowe 2013; Parpart and Parashar 2018) in ways that also upset first generation accounts. In many ways, our volume sits alongside these efforts, but differs from them in being purposefully pluralistic and inclusive.

Our volume does not abide by the conventions of any particular theory or discipline. In order to push political silence out of its stabilized intellectual packaging, our project is intentionally interdisciplinary. A resounding issue with the study of political silence thus far is that its intellectual treatment has been largely inner-disciplinary. For example, the majority of the literature contributing to the study of political silence thus far, as we have noted above, resides within IR and political theory. With the exception of feminist studies, these fields rest upon conventional intellectual and normative treatments that are highly familiar to the fields – particularly when dealing with the notion of agency. The material, embodied, metaphysical, material, and ideological preconditions required in order to satisfy scholarly identification with agency in these fields are not equipped to take into account other preconditions celebrated in other fields. As another example, consider the metaphysical framework of Karl Petschke’s chapter. In order to articulate a field of potentiality for political agency amenable to the life of vegetation and plants, Petschke’s analysis requires a radically different ontology when identifying a political actor. The matter of how and whether a non-human, non-animal thing exists inherently requires not only a metaphysical and philosophical flexibility that is deliberately non-anthropocentric and postmodern. It also requires an intellectual attitude cultivated in a field unlike IR or political theory in order to proceed. Petschke’s work cannot be reduced to a specific field as he is an interdisciplinary scholar trained in a variety of traditions, including a variety from critical theory and the highly interdisciplinary fields of Communication Studies and Cultural Studies. Overall, our collection thus owes a large debt to numerous fields, such as Philosophy, Diplomacy Studies, Musicology, Science and Technology Studies, Communication Studies, Critical Data Studies, Acoustic Ecology, and many others that have been central to forwarding silence as a political phenomenon – particularly where International Relations failed to do so.


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