Silence is a historical phenomenon. Those who do not post opinions publicly, or have not in the past done so, become historical accidents of speech - presumed inarticulate and unrecorded.
However, there is another more incipient silence that mars us. This is the silence that sits predominantly in most academic classes, across ages, batches and years of teaching. This silence is a disconcerting silence. The professor is left discombobulated, unaware of the thoughts and feelings of those who sit in front of him or her. The students are uncomfortable speaking. After class, they burst into disjointed conversations.
It is this silence that seeps into our notebooks, either untouched, or cluttered with names and dates and titles. The notebook is also a record of silence. Even as you messily scribble notes and opinions and dates of publication, you are acutely aware of how incomplete it is. You reluctantly ascribe opinions to names. You masquerade, hide behind published critiques, quietly chiding yourself for the inadequacy of your personal store of knowledge, this too a body of knowledge populated by people who have already thought and written before you.
In this transience, you are a passive curator, a receptacle for others' intellectual accomplishments. You are their reader. They are footnotes to your notes.
As a student of Literature, I feel aligned with those others who study what are broadly called the Social Sciences. Our methodologies differ, but our ways and means share a remarkable affinity. Our forms of learning, our lectures are transactions in public discourse, repetitions of ideas that have already been thought and passed down the ages. It is impossible, indeed undesirable, to escape the cyclical gyre. It is in the nature of formalized information – opinions and matters of disputation largely – to be passed down the ages. This is our canon, our indomitable canon writ large over aeons of syllabus-making soirees. It is this canon that rules the lines of our textbooks, rendering all that is beyond its inestimable good judgment mute and inconsequential.
The silence in class, I have come to believe, is not a silence that betrays a lack of understanding. In fact, it is quite the opposite. All that is transacted in class is understood not only sufficiently, but understood well. We amass our armoury of critics and critical statements, puncturing a deep hole in the abyss of incomprehension we otherwise believe we are surrounded by. In fact, our methods are so well programmed, one would be hard-pressed to not have any such critical clusters in their essays and examination answers. If you asked me, I could promptly rattle off a liturgy of names allocated for each text, systematized into a neat array of famous critics and their even-more-famous opinions: for Woolf, I have Gilbert & Gubar, Jeremy Tambling; for Conrad, I have Edward Said, Raymond Williams and Chinua Achebe; for Beckett, I have Vivian Mercier, Eva Metman, Martin Eslin et al. For every text, for every question that shoots like an arrow into my fortress of critical material, I apparently have names and shields so daunting that the arrows must bend and succumb to mass repetition.
The silence that is generated by this armoury is an overwhelmed silence. It is silence that says, ‘Too much,’ a silence of resignation. It is not a silence of indifference, which it is so often misinterpreted as. Professors unfamiliar with your class return to the staff room with bitter recriminations about the dull-ness of her previous class. The silence is stifling. But she doesn’t know that it is a silence of overfed children, who are always at the ready to regurgitate everything so far swotted, always tired and despondent in between periods of mass repetition.
The silence is one of self-inflicted damage, in which every student and academic in the world is complicit. It is the silence that you surrender to in order to be acknowledged, to be heard later on. When you scream incoherently your own notions, you antagonize everyone in class. But when you repeat the programmed armoury of critics and reading-lists stuck in your throat, you are heard without reservation. You are finally accepted into the echelons of intellectual goings-on. You are finally one of us, a sentinel to our vanguard of canonical writers.
It is in the nature of our lives and forms of knowledge to study others’ thoughts. It cannot change. When we study what we study, it is necessarily with our considered and consented subservience.
We are servants to our textbooks, servants to our reams of knowledge, servants to our syllabi. We are all servants of history - the history of everything that has already been said.
We walk in the corridors of academia, brimming with texts and more texts, carrying them around on our backs like heavy loads. And yet, there are no other means of academic interaction, or at least none that are credible.