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Spectacular Silence: Reflections on Nihilism, Violence, and Awakening


Spectacular Silence: Reflections on Nihilism, Violence, and Awakening


Brian Schroeder

How does silence relate to philosophy, nihilism, technology and oppression? Philosopher Brian Schroeder offers a series of reflections on silence distinguishing between the spectacular passivity in the face of the death of God and the openness that allows other voices to emerge.

Concerning that about which one cannot speak, isn’t it best to remain silent? I let you answer this question. It is always entrusted to the other.
— Jacques Derrida

Silence is often construed as absence, as the nonspatial place where speech or sound in general does not occur. Silence resounds, however, with its own presence, adding meaning in ways that language alone can never accomplish. “Authentic silence,” observes Martin Heidegger, “is possible only in genuine discourse.”[1] Western metaphysics has often identified archē with logos, origin with language. But just as darkness was coeval with if not prior to light, in the Genesis narrative, so too is the silence of God in relation to the word. The clinamen, the inclination or turn, toward the presencing of what was primordially nonpresent sets in motion the differential aspect of existence that is necessary for all development and understanding, that irreversibly breaks the hegemony of the same and reveals the alterity of other being.

Conventional thinking holds the breaking of silence as the imposition of language and the imposition of silence as the breaking of language. On the surface level that is true, but the deeper actuality is that the breaking of silence is also the breaking of language, and the imposition of silence the imposition of language. Here the paradoxical dimension of silence comes to the fore. Silence both preserves and destroys; it is the locus of freedom and also the means for repressing it. The contemporary technologized world, in which the flows of nearly instantaneous lines of communication and information shape our very perceptual and conceptual processes at an unprecedented level, seemingly pushes silence out of the way only to impose a different type of silence, one that promotes a passive quietude and lack of meaningful human interaction that is not mediated through digitalized technology. The active space of silence that cultivates reflection and understanding, though, is limited by the element of speed, thereby transforming in potentially both creative and destructive ways the cosmological space-time in which the earth and all its inhabitants dwell. Rapid global environmental degradation and the mechanized obliteration of countless species of life, including human beings, ushers in an age where consummate nihilism now looms no longer as an abstract possibility but rather as a frightening actuality. And much of the world is witness to this in mute amazement and fear, paralyzed in will to respond by the spectacular silence that is the mark of the industrialized, technological social-political-economic machine.

By way of a preamble, the following words, grounded in a meditation on silence, offer neither an argument nor a thesis on silence, or on some particular aspect of it. Rather, what is presented here is a series of reflections that address different dimensions and perspectives on silence and the role it plays (or not) in past and present events that significantly affect the contemporary world and our relation to it. If there is, however, an argument to be made here, it is that the recovery and cultivation of silence in the daily life is necessary to avoid the errors of the past and the looming crises of the future.


In silence philosophy stands exposed, absolutely without identity; it endures the without-name, without finding in this its own name. Silence is not its secret word—but rather, philosophy’s word perfectly leaves unsaid its own silence.
— Giorgio Agamben

We live today in an increasingly dark world, a world that is suffocating ever more voices of freedom, compassion, love, and justice. We live in a time when the earth seems to matter less and less and the technological onslaught of unbridled capitalist politics threatens at an accelerating rate the very survival of the planet as we currently know it. We live in an era when fear dominates and undermines rational thought and discourse, bringing not only our politics but also our very interconnected biological life to the edge of consummate nihilism, as we face the terrifying prospect of yet more war, more suffering, more destruction, more death.

Yet, one finds in silence lies the possibility for an openness to the world beyond the technological spectacle of late capitalist society. In silence lies the possibility for a radical interior transformation of consciousness, for the development of the soul. It is only from the standpoint of a certain particular silence that other voices can be heard, voices that draw one out of the complacency and nihilism of the anonymous “they.”

By its very nature philosophy is opposed to silence and is therefore an absolute breaking of silence. Maurice Blanchot notes that “meaning is limited silence,” which is to say, meaning resides not only in language but also in the interstices between silence and speech, silence and community, silence and awakening.

It is surely ironic that in the hyper-accelerated mediatized world of “developed” society, which bombards the population with a continual and ever-changing flux of images and sounds, substituting this input for critical and reflective thought and judgment, silence is simultaneously both induced and nullified in the same instant. Perhaps nothing is so foreign and distant as silence from what Herbert Marcuse terms “one-dimensional man.” Even if it appears that people are becoming increasingly silent as they plug into the devices of the digitalized world, what actually occurs is a flood of voices dictating desires and producing false needs, all within a context of satisfying those desires and needs. This is a quietude that often results in passive nihilism, to use Friedrich Nietzsche’s typology, a symptom of an exhausted will to power, and by extension a loss of ability to effectively oppose and resist domination and control, whether imposed by the forces of production or by the political state. Yet paradoxically one can locate in this very scenario the means for a radical reversal and overcoming. Silence can also foment an active nihilism, but only if a shift is effected in the psyche so that silence transforms itself into action through an act of the will.

Active nihilism is for Nietzsche a double-edged sword: On the one hand, it is the inversion of older, worn out values in favor of new valuations; but on the other hand, it is also the impulse that drives the metaphysics of positing values in a purely transcendent source, thereby actively seeking the destruction of the immanent plane of existence in favor of a “higher” beyond. And because this “beyond” is outside human comprehension it gives itself over as mystery, which is interpreted and promulgated by those who claim to be “in the know” and who bolster a one-sided esotericism with religious and political institutional structures. This is a perverted abstract gnosticism that ultimately seeks to dominate by controlling not only the cognitive but also the emotive and sensible domains of life, resulting in a silence that is concealed by its very nonsilence. Yet an active nihilism is on the verge of overcoming itself, but only because nihilism is now recognized as integral to any positive social development. The exteriorly induced silence by the relentless flux of images and soundbites manipulated by the forces of production and corresponding political and religious machines nullifies the deeper meditative and contemplative dimension of silence on which all thinking is predicated. Thus is silence both reduced and produced by nonsilence, and distinguished in its passive and active nihilist expressions.

In the mediatized contemporary society the well-known image of the Platonic cave dwellers assumes but a new guise, one that leaves us even more susceptible to biopolitical manipulation, a trajectory that reached a critical mass in the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth-century and continues today in many parts of the world, as witness the growing preponderance of racism, sexism, classism, and xenophobia in the policies of anti-immigration, anti-Semitism, LGBTQ prejudice, Islamophobia, the sex trade industry, cultural and religious oppression of women, police and legal brutality against people of color, etc. These are of course not new phenomena; they are but recent expressions of a reactive, totalizing, sovereign will that historically has always been present, grounded in certain dominating logics and institutions, and justified since time immemorial by the collusion of metaphysics, religion, politics, and economics.


In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni.
— Anonymous [2]

It is uncanny and unsettling to think of hell as crowned by the canopy of a brilliant blue firmament, radiant and warm beneath the seemingly quiet, beneficent gaze of a great solar eye.


In visiting this particular inferno (there are many hells) in the hot midsummer months, perhaps the most striking feature is the vast void of its domain, exacerbated by the stark emptiness of the shining sky, and particularly by the absence of animals, birds, and even insects. Hanging like a heavy drape, the stifling summer air envelops all with a dark, almost abyssal silence permeating even the sporadic whispers of the others who may be present. In the distance, heat rises from the ground in quivering waves, reminiscent of the old Sergio Leone films from which the Stranger emerges like a phantom from the desert to exact his just vengeance. The ground of this hell seems practically endless, but this is no longer a modern Mordor patrolled by black uniformed thugs devoid of human sentiment amid the agonizing cries of despair and pain piercing the nocturnal silence given indeterminate visible form by the reeking stench of fumes escaping from gas chambers and charred bodies. Instead, one can almost conjure noiseless images of a ghastly ethereal Elysian Fields as one surveys green grasslands peppered with occasional spots of wildflowers. The brightness of the sky almost, only almost, seems to dissipate the shades of those who suffered here unimaginable horrors. If not for the remnants of some crumbled stone and steel, rusted barbed wire, a few weather beaten wood edifices, and sentinel-like posts mottled with ceramic warts, one might only sense that this is a place forsaken for some forgotten reason where no living creature would ever make its home. It is easy to imagine revenants, temporarily hidden by the luminous sky, returning in force at twilight, their cacophonous moans blending with the whoosh of nocturnal winds, only to vanish in the silence of memory and the jarring return to present consciousness.  

One’s stomach churns here at the pervasive sickening aura of death, carving out a pit of emptiness and despair, twisting intestines into a knot of constipated frustration and anguish at the futility of empathizing with even a modicum of the pain felt by those so many nameless and faceless others, those who were not allowed to die serenely, not permitted, in Nietzsche’s words, to die at the right time. In the midst, however, of this paralysis of body and will, one can feel awakened, jolted out of the complacency that more often than not describes and demarcates everyday existence. “The momentum of what has come to pass does not launch the force of awakening,” Alphonso Lingis teaches us; “awakening is a leap out of that momentum. The flow of nonapparition in the night—or the continuum of appearances in the day—are interrupted. A cut, a break is made, and across this gap the past passes out of reach. The force to make this cut is what Nietzsche spoke of as the power of active forgetting—the power to wipe away what we have just passed through. The awakening comes as though from nowhere. We shake our head and peer about to find where we are.”[3] Standing at the bitter end of and staring dumbly down the infamous tracks leading to the Birkenau crematoria, one is mute in the face of recognition and realization. Here one finds oneself at the center of the world, suspended between the possibilities of hell and heaven, of inaction and action, of nihilism and awakening.


A beautiful face is perhaps the only place where there is truly silence.... But the silence then is not simply a suspension of discourse, but silence of the word itself, the becoming visible of the word: the idea of language. This is why in the silence of the face [one] is truly at home.
— Giorgio Agamben

The faces on the walls of old Polish army barracks turned into the prison cells and torture chambers of the concentration camp, blown up photographs replete with short bios of those women, children, and men who first arrived there—some clearly terrified, others bravely defiant, or simply blank with disbelief or incomprehension, all methodically catalogued by the Nazis—haunt us, numbing both thought and voice, producing a silence that evokes revulsion and reverence, disbelief and determination that this should never again happen. The beauty of those faces remains, more poignant perhaps than ever, in the strangled dreams, hopes, and aspirations forever silenced in their own voiced expressions, but nevertheless becoming visible in the word taken up and shared by others in the promotion of a hopefully more peaceful world.

According to Jacques Derrida, peace is an “economy” as much as violence, occurring only within a “certain silence, which is determined and protected by the violence of speech.”[4] Community is founded not only on the peaceful exchange of articulated views, it is also predicated on silence, which is necessary for others to be heard in their difference. The dialectic of silence and language lies at the heart of communitas, which is constituted and expressed in part by a certain rhythmic ontology wherein the oscillation between speech and silence occurs, perpetually differentiating and mediating order and chaos, truth and error, good and evil, peace and war, law and crime, civilized and barbaric, sanity and madness.

Community implies relationships, and for a community to flourish it must be sensitive to the needs of the other. But too often those needs are silenced, by the violence of force, apathy, or simply ignorance. In assigning an ontological and metaphysical preeminence to vision and light rather than to voice and hearing, it is ironic how often has western culture lamentably tended to blind itself to the darkened faces of those on the periphery, to those on the margins or fringes of society, whose voices, if not completely reduced to silence, are frequently dismissed as the garbled utterances of the barbarian or savage! But the secondary, almost arbitrary status designated to speech and sound by the advance of (a particular) historical consciousness does not completely silence the voices, the cries, of the myriad silent ones. “Silence is perhaps a word, a paradoxical word, the silence of the word silence,” writes Blanchot, “yet surely we feel that it is linked to the cry, the voiceless cry, which breaks with all utterances, which is addressed to no one and which no one receives, that cry that lapses and decries.... the cry tends to exceed all language, even if it lends itself to recuperation as language effect.”[5] Silence does not only signal a lack of ability to communicate on the part of the oppressed; it denotes a refusal to listen to the silent voice of the other.[6]

The silent voice resounds with a rhythm of its own, vibrating and pulsating through the body, through the very earth itself. Michel de Certeau poignantly notes that Native Americans, for example, have retained in the silence of the “tortured body” and “altered earth” the memory of what European culture has largely “forgotten,” namely, the history of repression inscribed not so much in the written text but on the bodily flesh of memory. Here is a silent voice resounding in a spectacle that refuses the imagistic word and instead inverts destructive violence by recovering a sense of the common good and a new historical consciousness. But this is not a reactive forgetting wherein the voice of conscience is repressed precisely by keeping silent, by remaining consciously mute; rather, it is a forgetting in that active sense about which Nietzsche writes in On the Genealogy of Morals. In the words of a young Bolivian, “Today, at the hour of our own awakening, we must be our own historians.”[7]


Expressions such as the eye that listens to the resonance of silence are not monstrosities, for they speak of the way one approaches the temporality of the true, and in temporality being deploys its essence.
— Emmanuel Levinas

Two decades after the end of the Nazi regime (though not of its still lingering ideology), Guy Debord wrote The Society of the Spectacle. The “spectacle” refers to the inverted representation or “image” of society that substitutes actual social human relationships with the relation between humans and things or commodities. This results in a dehumanizing state of alienation, perpetuated principally by the fascinating, technologically produced images of everything from advertising to art, to music, to entertainment, to news, affecting nearly every aspect of our lives, from the most personal to the political. In the society of the spectacle desires are produced by external sources, information is carefully disseminated, actual experience is supplanted by virtuality, communication is mediated through electronic devices rather than in person, and most dangerously, people are divided from one another, breaking apart community in favor of an isolated, individualized notion of freedom. In defense of this largely consumeristic conception of freedom many atrocities have been committed.

Another two decades later, in his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle Debord advances his analysis by delineating the spectacle’s three major manifestations: the concentrated, the diffuse, and the integrated. The first of these forms, the concentrated spectacle, Debord associates with the totalitarian and fascist state and its bloated bureaucracy. The extreme expression of this is the concentration/death camp, which Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer characterizes as the part of the biopolitical paradigm of the modern era. Here one finds the complete inversion of what it is to be human: entire races of people condemned for being different, people treated as cattle, mass death. The specter of that nearly unimaginable horror haunts contemporary society, a jarring reminder of one of the great dangers facing us today. There are certainly other dangers facing us now also almost too terrible to imagine that are equally part of the spectacle, such as nuclear destruction and the rampant environmental abuse of the earth. The diffuse spectacle that is the state of contemporary capitalist society has succeeded in replacing consumer consumption of the whole with competing commodities vying for market dominance. This historical development of the spectacle leads to its current and most insidious form, namely the integrated spectacle, which combines the first two forms, using the police and military might of the concentrated spectacle to preserve and serve the interests of the diffuse spectacle. All this is done to concentrate power and capital in the hands of the few.

The society of the spectacle is reinforced and perpetuated via its relation to silence. Visually and audially stimulating, and at times overwhelming, the spectacle induces a form of passive silence that exposes not only the individual but the social whole to the most shocking and violent actions, even to the point of condoning at times those very actions. Moreover, it does so without either realizing the full extent of the injustice or, in the worst instances, believing it is for the common good having been influenced completely by the spectacularly produced images and language of truth and goodness. The silence in question here is squashed by the dizzying, dazzling display of the spectacle, which serves to screen and filter dissent and opposition by the sheer onslaught of continual propagandized messages packaged as entertainment and onto-theological-political truth. In other words, by reducing the voices of the many to silence by promoting the interests of the few, of a vague and anonymous they (one need only think of Donald Trump’s vacuous and repetitious appeal to an illusory authority, “All I’m saying is, many people are saying...”), the spectacle is able to spin the legitimate concerns of the authentic plurality, even majority, into irrelevance if they contest the produced messages of those who control the spectacle machinery.

Addressing the phenomenon of the spectacle, which for Debord signifies the estranged modes of communication in industrialized societies, Agamben extends the meaning of spectacle to include not just images but also language. The attempt to reduce large swaths of humanity to the status of homines sacri, those who are accursed, to perfect the mechanization of mass death, is to impose an utter silence that not only negates language but also produces nonresistance. Agamben observes, “The extreme form of this expropriation of the Common [which was first mentioned by Heraclitus in relation to the logos] is the spectacle, that is, the politics we live in. But this also means that in the spectacle our own linguistic being comes back to us inverted. This is why (precisely because what is being expropriated is the very possibility of a common good) the violence of the spectacle is so destructive; but for the same reason retains something like a positive possibility that can be used against it.”[8] The violence of the spectacle reaches its consummate stage by inverting the form of the common good—that is, the logos of communal interchange—into the degenerate manifestation of nothingness: the repression of freedom and development, the silencing of dissent, and the enslavement of mind and body. The inverted being is the image and the word of the spectacle now experienced as the imposition of silence on the masses, resulting in the “figure of Bloom.”[9] Although Bloom is the name of nihilistic being, it is also the locus of transformative, revaluative overcoming, the possibility of conversion from either a passive or an active nihilism into a liberating ecstatic nihilism.

Modern cities have been appropriated by capitalism, writes Debord in The Society of the Spectacle, as a means of controlling not only the natural and human environment but also as a means by which class interests and power can be maintained precisely through atomizing and isolating workers from one another by massing them together. The technology of the present-day has only reinforced urbanism as essentially “individuals isolated together.” Today, the instantaneous result and gratification of computer technology and mass audio-video media is steadily replacing direct face-to-face interaction with the phenomenon of the spectacle. The “opposite of dialogue,” the spectacle is not just an amalgam of images but rather a ghostly mediation, “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”

Debord’s negative appraisal of the spectacular urbanized society reinforces the need to deconstruct the alienating power of the fascinating, technologically produced image. How society and the earth in general is viewed will be increasingly shaped and manipulated by those in control of the spectacle. Although of a different order and intensity, whether it is the flagrant violence of the fascist totalitarian spectacle, or contemporary capitalist society’s elevation of the spectacle to the level of the aesthetic, there is a parallel structure or logic at play, one that conceals in the spectacular silence of the image and the word the trampling of the ethical and political rights of countless people. As history has shown time and again, the defeat of an extreme, destructive violent politics does not preclude the possibility of similar violence from arising. The power of the spectacle lies in its transmuting fluidity and flux.

If all appears to be fine in the world then people will just assume that it is fine, and therefore will not be generally motivated to take up any sort of sociopolitical action to ensure that the real concrete needs of the world are being met. Real space will be replaced “in the everyday life of society as pseudo-cyclical time,” which is time transformed by industrialized society into a consumable product. Pseudo-cyclical time is the time of the spectacle, according to Debord, which is “in effect a false consciousness of time.” What does this mean with respect to silence? Silence and the word form a union, and the rhythmic relation between them determines meaning as much as does linguistic content. When in the spectacular society time becomes a source of alienation and a means of control, so also does silence become a power of estrangement. Not only one’s bodily existence but one’s own thinking confronts the self as alien, at odds with the produced for consumption of meaning through images and words. “And what has been passed off as authentic life turns out to be merely a life more authentically spectacular.”[10] This results in a “spatial alienation,” which is also to say a “social alienation” that severs any meaningful contact between the subject and the community, between the individual and the natural world. The sense of being at home, of feeling interconnected with others and with the earth itself that one experiences as an individual in the silent solitude of thought is threatened through the rupture of that silence by the external forces of produced desire and signification, resulting in a peculiar schizophrenia, as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari observe.

Contemporary technology is increasingly bound to this manufactured and manipulated sense of time, which is inseparable from the phenomenon of speed, a topic on which Paul Virilio has offered much reflection, manifest in the fact that time is now counted as universal world time and that space and time are determined no longer locally but rather globally. As people and technology become ever more intertwined, there is a resulting loss of being in control of the pace, the rhythm, of one’s own existence. What remains as one of the final vestiges of human freedom—the silence of the mind—is transformed by the imposition of an accelerating demand to think, respond, produce, and consume. This pushing aside of a certain type of silence produces another variant of silence—the silence of inaction, which displaces or even nullifies creativity, reflection, resistance, dissent, spirituality, and even rest. In this way the herd, to use Nietzsche’s famous example, is kept under control. The technological alteration of space-time perception immobilizes subjectivity to a certain extent by keeping people bound silently, passively, inactively, to their telecommunication screens while temporally accelerating subjectivity, which is to say, keeping society so transfixed by and absorbed in the ever-moving play of the spectacle that many become oblivious to the fact that the meaning of their existence is being determined externally and not interiorly as everything is moving so fast that there is little or no time to slow down and take stock of what is actually occurring. Virilio shares Debord’s concern about the growing domination of the spectacular image, and repeatedly criticizes the technological alteration of space-time perception. This acceleration leads to a fundamental disconnect not only with others but more insidiously within the subjective self. This is the manifestation, the disclosure, of the unfolding ontology and logic of the society of the spectacle. What is needed to counteract this debilitating acceleration is the cultivation of what Emanuel Swedenborg, Nietzsche, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jean-François Lyotard term variously the “listening eye,”[11] a perspective that deconstructs the spectacular and calls forth a wholly different orientation to both the self and the other.


Oh the hypocrisy of this silent beauty!
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche characterizes the present age as one of nihilism, the unfolding of the internal logic of metaphysics. The “uncanniest of all guests,” nihilism slips through the door of society silently and generally unobserved, its presence shrouded by the din of the spectacle. The drag of its nothingness attracts image and speech around it, sucking them into a vortex of groundless meaning just as a black hole devours all celestial bodies around it through the sheer force of its gravitational pull. Nihilism goes generally undetected because it does not name and therefore disclose itself as such. Yet were it not for the silence of its negativity, there would be no positivity of linguistic meaning. Perhaps nothing defines the postmodern condition more than the need to fill the void that is absolute silence itself. Nietzsche named this void the death of God; but there are other ways to interpret this spectacular nothingness.

Agamben extends Debord’s analysis of the spectacle and connects it with the Kabbalist notion of the Shekinah (the manifestation of God, often identified as the feminine dimension), which is the last of the ten attributes (Sefirot) of divinity. As with the spectacle, Agamben extends the meaning of the Shekinah to include not only a sense of visible presence or imagery but also of word or language: “It is clear that the spectacle is language, the very communicativity or linguistic being of human.”[12] The reason Agamben references the Shekinah is because when it is considered alone and apart from the other aspects of divinity, the “word” becomes separated from the whole and assumes a counter “autonomous” status. In the same way, when in the spectacle our linguistic being comes back to us “inverted,” there is a separation between illusory spectacular being and actual human existence. This condition of isolation and separation produces the state of alienation described by Karl Marx in his 1844 Manuscripts—between God and humanity, nature and humanity, humans and the process and product of labor, between human beings themselves, and finally within the individual being. “In the society of the spectacle, in fact,” Agamben writes, “the isolation of the Shekinah reaches its final phase, where language is not only constituted in an anonymous sphere, but also no longer even reveals anything—or better, it reveals the nothingness of all things.... In this extreme nullifying unveiling, however, language (the linguistic nature of humans) remains once again hidden and separated, and thus, one last time, in its unspoken power, it dooms humans to a historical era and a State: the era of the spectacle, or of accomplished nihilism.”[13] This nihilism is nothing other than the silence of inaction.

Under the empty sky we are all interconnected; karmically, there is no action independent of other actions. Interdependency in Buddhism is inseparable in meaning from “emptiness” (Sanskrit: śūnyatā), which is distinguished from nothingness or nonbeing. The emptiness of all form and the formlessness of all emptiness is the heart of the Dharma, and this is realized not through word or thought but in the silence of listening and nonegoism. Agamben cites the great Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna to this effect: “Relative emptiness is no longer relative to an absolute. The empty image is no longer the image of nothing. The word draws its fullness from [its] very vacuity. This peace of representation is the awakening.”[14] Not only realizing but also actualizing this is inseparable from the process of awakening to one’s true self, which is no-Self or non-ego, that is, an impermanent subjective identity absorbed and manifest in the greater collective identity of Buddha Nature.

Overcoming the abyssal hold of nihilism means transfiguring the reactive into the active, the no-saying into the great Yes of self-overcoming, the numb silence of inaction into ecstasy of action—this is the task and goal of future affirmative willing, adjures Nietzsche. The secret though is the conviction that this is possible, a radical faith in the idea of awakening. “Yes, awakening can stop and silence us,” writes Lingis, “freezing the continuity and momentum of movements.... Awakening can also give rise to action.... Our action breaks with the past. With the morose succession of mortifications, subjugations, enslavements, those of childhood and those of colonialism and capitalist exploitation, from which we rise up to stand as a man or as a woman. Our action breaks with the present and its future.... My action arises when I wake up to what I have to do. In the action the I awakens.”[15] In doing so, the I gives birth to a new silence, which makes possible a new listening, a new speech, a new I, a new sense of community.

Converting the silence of inaction into awakened action is possible only by recovering the active dimension of silence. It involves reversing the inverted silence of the spectacle that hides surreptitiously behind the spectacular image and word. Such a reversal mirrors Nietzsche’s “inverted Platonism,” which is nothing less than the overcoming of nihilistic metaphysics that plays itself out in the society of the spectacle. Only by proclaiming the death of a silent, impotent god can the silence that is called forth in the space wherein the plural voice of existence dwells be heard. The listening eye that pierces the veil of the spectacle, revealing its nothingness, is the active silence that we all carry within, even if it is generally unrecognized. This active silence is the space-time that makes all discourse possible, linking strata and aeon in the karmic melding of past, present, and future. When cultivated through reflection and meditation, this decidedly unspectacular silence brings us back to ourselves and only then back to the world and others—and, for those who have the eyes to hear, beyond.


[1] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh and revised with foreword by Dennis J. Schmidt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), 159.
[2] Probably of medieval origin, though attributed by some to Virgil, this palindrome translates as “We enter the circle at night and are consumed by fire.” It has found expression in numerous works but most notably here as the title of Guy Debord’s autobiographical sixth and final film (1978), and in Érik Bordeleau, Comment sauver le commun du communisme? (Montréal: Le Quartanier Editeur, 2014). The palindrome has also appeared in literary works such as Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich, 1983) and Daniel Alarcón, At Night We Walk in Circles (New York: Riverhead Books, 2013).
[3] Alphonso Lingis, Dangerous Emotions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 105.
[4] Jacques Derrida, “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 148.
[5] Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995, 51.
[6] This paragraph is reprinted from my essay “The Taciturn Tongue: On Silence,” in Etiquette: Reflections on Contemporary Comportment, eds. Ron Scapp and Brian Seitz (Albany: SUNY Press, 2006), 109-10.
[7] Address by twenty-one year old Justino Quispe Balboa before the first Indian Congress of South America on October 13, 1974; cited in Michel de Certeau, “The Politics of Silence: The Long March of the Indians,” in Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 227.
[8] Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 79.
[9] See my companion article to the present essay—“The Play of Blooming Nihilism,” four by three magazine 5 (2016)—in which I discuss the figure of Bloom, who stands for the present condition of ordinary humanity and is the name of resistance to the growing hegemonic sway of the spectacle.
[10] On the concept of pseudo-cyclical time, see Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 110-14.
[11] See my “The Listening Eye: Nietzsche and Levinas,” Research in Phenomenology 31 (2001): 188-202.
[12] Agamben, The Coming Community, 79.
[13] Ibid., 81.
[14] Giorgio Agamben, Idea of Prose, trans. Michael Sullivan and Sam Whitsitt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 133.
[15] Lingis, 107-08.


Brian Schroeder is Professor of Philosophy and Director of Religious Studies at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).  He is the Executive Co-Director of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP). His research focuses on Post-Kantian European Philosophy, East Asian Philosophy, and the Philosophy of Religion. He is also an ordained priest in the Sōtō lineage of Yashiki Chijō, abbot of Yōkōji Zen temple in Japan.