Rhetorical silence : an emerging genre

Jangbar, Sakina
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My dissertation asks if a genre of rhetorical silence is emerging in response to message saturation in contemporary societies. I define rhetorical silence as an intentional and strategic use of silence to influence. I analyze three instances of rhetorical silence. Ghazala Khan’s silence at the 2016 Democratic National Convention was an uncodeable and indigestible excess that stalled the production-consumption cycle and caused physiological discomfort in the audience. The discomfort led to a clamor for a spectacle that cured public indigestion but robbed Ghazala of her agency. The students participating in the Day of Silence bookend their silence with speech to contain the meaning of their silence. Since silence does not add to information chaos, it is gaining recognition as a new way to protest in digitalized societies. Meher Baba’s 44-year silence transformed him into a mythical figure. By relying on interpretation rather than documentation, Baba acquired a status outside of time and place. My study found that instances of rhetorical silence share six generic characteristics: (a) Rhetorical silence is employed to oppose norms such as stereotypes of oppressed and empowered women, gender binaries, heterosexuality, and the image of a talking God; (b) Although rhetorical silence challenges norms, it is not adversarial. Instead, it invites reflection; (c) Rhetorical silence subverts the production-consumption cycle by creating a human artifact that cannot be packaged and consumed digitally; (d) By engaging the body, rhetorical silence subverts the aesthetics of speed and efficiency on which the digital machine relies; (e) Although silence can be polysemic, the rhetor can contain the meaning by bookending silence with speech; and (f) The form can captivate audiences by evoking a desire to decode the mystery of the silence. My study concludes that a shift is occurring in the available means of persuasion because of the dominance of the digital machine. Rhetorical silence functions at the level of the body, which the machine cannot comprehend. People can be moved by rhetorical silence because it takes a human to listen to silence and because it appeals to the body rather than to its digital twin.