The Value of Silence

In the initial aftermath of the tragedies of September 11,
New York City was utterly silent. Immediately following the
collapse of the World Trade Center Towers there appeared
on the streets, in parks, in subway and train stations, on makeshift
bulletin boards all over the city and its outlying suburbs
hundreds, then thousands, of home-made posters for “missing
persons.” I am struck not just by the inescapable silence of
these posters—the smiling and soundless faces of the over five
thousand “disappeared.” I am also amazed by the complete
silence engendered in the crowds who gather, and continue to
gather, around these now public shrines to absorb their mute
While initially emblems of hope, these silent posters are
now for those who survive tokens of mourning, transitional
objects, to use Winnicott’s term, as hope evaporates into
dread, and dread turns into grief. In this mute space, the shock
of trauma slowly transforms into the reality of loss, and in this
regard, silence might be considered that moment before—or
even that liminal space from which—loss is expropriated into
its symbolic meaning. Silence, then, is not the opposite of
speech but, indeed, its very condition of possibility, the
precondition of knowing and of meaning. But what, we must
ask, will happen to this silence—to the silence of countless,
inexpressible, and singular private tragedies—as it encounters a
state language of mourning and is reduced to a public speech
wholly inadequate to the inconsolable contours of its grief?
Mourning, unlike melancholia, as Freud writes in his
famous 1917 essay, is a psychic process in which the loss of an
object or ideal occasions the withdrawal of libido from that
object or ideal. This withdrawal cannot be enacted at once;
instead, it is a gradual letting go. In Freud’s initial definition of
the concept, melancholia is pathological precisely because it is
a mourning without end.
Indeed, Freud tells us, when faced with the burden of
unresolved grief, the melancholic preserves the lost object by
incorporating it into the ego and establishing an ambivalent
identification with it; this marks a turning away from the
external world of the social to the internal world of the psyche,
and from the collective to the individual. This turning from
outside to inside threatens to erase the political bases of loss.
Indeed, the politics of mourning might be said to circumscribe
the individual’s ability to negotiate the symbolic dimensions of
loss in the face of collective group imperatives and sanctioned
public histories.
In rethinking the politics of mourning, then, we must
consider melancholia not only as a depathologized structure of
feeling but also as a psychic condition through which
individual as well as group tragedies return from the silent past
for a reckoning with the future. Considering this return, we
might ask what are the larger social histories and sanctioned
politics that make certain individual or group losses
Here, we might invoke queer studies and the AIDS
pandemic of the 1980s for a useful lesson. Both Douglas
Crimp and Judith Butler isolate the call of the melancholic in
the age of AIDS as one in which the loss—indeed, the refusal—
of a public language to mourn a seemingly endless series of
excoriated, dead young men triggers the absolute need to
imagine a discourse of melancholic identification that could
mean anything other than silence, self-abasement, and death.
It might seem, at first, somewhat counter-intuitive to
compare the lack of a public language for mourning during
the AIDS pandemic with the current situation in which there
seems to be nothing but massive, elaborate, and abundant
occasions of and for public speech. Yet, in all this noise, the
language of mourning is no less impoverished for it has
become the language of an unyielding nationalism, one that
brooks no internal dissent (dissent, of course, being one of
democracy’s most cherished ideals).
The inconsolable and singular personal losses suffered
at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, and in the fields of
Pennsylvania assume their symbolic significance in the public
language of unity and protection from militant Islamic assault
on US ideals of freedom and democracy. In this time of global
crisis, opportunities for alternate forms of public speech
contract such that cries of grief can only mean cries for war.
Moreover, in this politics of mourning, certain de-privileged
losses are summarily erased as narratives of community and
belonging, too, are diminished. The public language of
nationalism finds its “private” corollary in traditional structures
of family and kinship. The loss of “fathers and mother,” “sons
and daughters,” and “brothers and sisters” attempts to trace a
smooth alignment between the nation-state and the nuclear
family. The narrative of white heteronormativity leaves no
public space, no public speech, for those liminal groups—gays
and lesbians and undocumented migrant workers, for
instance—who perished in the tragedies but whose degraded
social status, hard to affirm in life, become impossible to
acknowledge in death.
The national plaint of threatened but cherished ideals
under terrorist attack ultimately illustrates that the nation-state
itself can assume a melancholic form. Let us remember here
Freud’s observation that the “most remarkable characteristic of
melancholia, and the one in most need of explanation, is its
tendency to change round into mania—a state which is the
opposite of it in its symptoms.” In this externalized mania of
nationalism, the value of silence goes unheard, for silence
exists in that moment before loss gains its symbolic meaning
and tragedy is exploited for a politics of mourning. In the
current language of nationalism as mourning, the
inconsolable, singular personal losses of September 11 are
redoubled in their public display. The past—victimized,
buried, and dead again—is silenced once more.
David L. Eng is Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers

This is an excerpt from a longer essay Eng delivered at CLAGS’s “Freudian Slips” panel in September.
A fuller version will be published in Theatre Journal next year.