Comps. Question 4 for History of Rhetoric II (Brunk-Chavez)

Is silence rhetorical?  How does religion produce a rhetoric of silence?  How does historiography produce a rhetoric of silence?

[this was a working draft for my exam]

Studies in Rhetoric have focused on the critical and metacritical use of language for thousands of years, from Plato to Gloria Anzaldua.  Rhetorical manuals have discussed issues of audience and style, contemporary theory has discussed terministic screens, and pedagogy has focused on delivery and memory to the politicized nature of literacy and discourse.  Missing from this discussion has been “silence.”  The question of whether or not silence is rhetorical was so unnatural that throughout Rhetoric’s history, this question was at best ignored, at worst not even thought of.  As contemporary scholars in the field, though, we must understand the rhetorical nature of silence.

On a basic level, silence can be understood as an important part of natural speech patterns.  We know that moments of silence are necessarily dispersed between the words we speak (and write), what Thomas J. Bruneau calls the “sociocultural” analysis of silence (Glenn 18).  This approach to silence is important but limited.  At this level silence is less rhetorical and more linguistic, but moving beyond the psycholinguistic view we can see that silence is thick with meaning.

As illustrated by Cheryl Glenn in Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence, silence is complicated, intricate, and rhetorical.  The absence of sound, or more critically, speech, does not merely constitute a break in discourse but can point to complex realities in any given situation—parochial or historical.  At times the power of silence becomes obvious: at funerals, at the library, during the playing of a national anthem, or even when we ask someone a question they don’t want to answer.  We seem to understand/learn that the space between moments of speech, or a lack of speech, can be very meaningful.  This is Glenn’s overriding message and will provide the central framework to this essay, in which I look at how religion has been used as a tool of silencing and de-silencing, and how rhetorical historiography has silenced numerous voices.

To stress the rhetorical nature of silence I can point to Richard L. Johannesen’s list of “potential meanings” for silence as presented by Glenn.  Some of them include:

–          The person is avoiding discussion of a controversial or sensitive issue out of fear.

–          The person’s silence is a means of punishing others, of annihilating others symbolically by excluding them from verbal communication.

–          The person feels inarticulate despite a desire to communicate; perhaps the topic lends itself more to intuitive sensing than to verbal discussion.

–          The person’s silence reflects concern for not saying anything to hurt another person.  (16)

While the list provided in Glenn is far from exhaustive, and even less so here, we can see that silence goes far beyond psycholinguistic issues.  As Glenn puts it, “silence resonates loudly along the corridors of purposeful language use.  Whether choice or im/position, silence can reveal positive or negative abilities, fulfilling or withholding traits, harmony or disharmony, success or failure.”  And as we will see later in this essay, “silence can deploy power; it can defer to power.  It all depends” (18).

My discussion aims to illustrate the power and complexity of silence and its potentiality to manifest itself as a sign of subordination and as a tool of the powerful in religious circles and in rhetorical historiography.  Let me start with a short example of how silence can be analyzed in a complex and rhetorical manner.

Anita Hill

My example, from Glenn’s Unspoken, is that of Anita Hill, lawyer and later University of Oklahoma Law School professor, who was a victim of “systematic…sexualized conversation by her superior [at the time], Clarence Thomas” (53); the same Clarence Thomas who would eventually be confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Hill was reluctantly thrust into the spotlight in 1991 when Thomas was nominated for the Court.  She was subpoenaed and asked to testify about her sexual harassment allegations against Thomas, which took place in the early 1980s.  The entire episode is ripe with examples of silence as a strong rhetorical reality.

First, Hill’s initial silence about the sexual harassment was a complicated silence because (1) she may have feared retribution by her then-boss Thomas, or anyone closely associated with him, (2) she may have feared the public backlash against her claims and the attack her ethos may have undertook, and (3) she may have cared about Mr. Thomas and, in some ways, not wanted to see him punished for his actions.  While we can only speculate about what her exact/mixed feelings were at the time, we can see that Hill’s silence was situated in a complicated rhetorical moment.

Secondly, after Hill was forced out of her public silence (privately, she had spoken to close friends about Thomas), she was victimized once again.  As Glenn states about the hearings where Hill testified under subpoena, “A black woman can speak—to be sure.  But Hill’s public speaking demonstrated that no one in power will actually listen to her.  And she will be punished, however obliquely” (57).  The fact that Hill spoke out was criticized and the fact she had remained publicly silent for so many years was criticized as well.  It seemed that the victim, Hill, was in a lose-lose situation.  If she had spoken out directly after the sexual harassment took place, her career would have suffered.  Speak out years later, when Thomas is up for confirmation, and she looks like a vindictive fame-seeker.

The whole situation was complex and saw a number of Johannesen’s  “potential meanings for silence”  manifested,  whose meanings could be attached to either Hill or Thomas.  This example shows how silence is a powerful tool and presence and how it is certainly rhetorical in nature. Glenn’s whole book is a testament to this fact.  Let us now move on to a short discussion of how religion can produce both a silencing and a de-silencing

Religion, Silencing and De-Silencing

And where is the beloved female disciple of any denomination,

truly baptized of the Holy Ghost, but feels the Spirit’s urgings

to open her mouth for God? (1096)

-Phoebe Palmer-

For centuries, the Bible has been used as a tool for silencing, among others, women.  Religion, more generally, has done the same, using sacred texts to point to a perceived divine will of God to allow some to speak, and keep others in the shadows.  Though entire volumes could be (have been) written about the silencing of women through religious texts such as the Koran, Bhagavad Gita, and the Torah, my focus here will be on the Christian Bible and three figures, Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874), Frances Willard (1839-1898), and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695).

Let me begin with Palmer and Willard.  For both of these 19th Century United Statsian women, the Bible was a tool of oppression and a tool of liberation—a double-edged sword of sorts that could both pierce the body and help cut through the chains of oppression.  Both women were concerned with the use of the Bible as a means to disallow women from speaking publicly, especially as preachers, and were interested in using the Bible to show that women were not meant to be silent/silenced.

Palmer, in the twenty-one chapters of The Promise of the Father, provides a rather systematic response to the sexist and silencing uses of the Bible in Methodism and Christianity generally.  As stated in the introduction to Palmer’s excerpt by Bizzell and Hertzberg in The Rhetorical Tradition, for Palmer, “when women are silenced, the spiritual quality of the congregation always declines” (1093).  So Palmer’s attack on silence was always connected to the spiritual well-being of the community, and the divine rights of women to prophecy.  As with other women of the time, including Frances Willard, man’s (literally, males) interpretations of Scripture should not supersede the divine will of God.  If women had an “extraordinary call” (1092) to preach the Word of God, they should not be prevented to do so by society.

An interesting note is that Bizzell and Hertzberg point out that Palmer was sure to state that she didn’t “intend to overturn all nineteenth-century gender conventions” (1092).  Palmer was aware of her situatedness enough (and a product of her time) to understand that the most effective means of persuasion was to not push the envelope too far, and to connect women’s rights to divine authority.  Thus, we can see how historical silencing, religion, and Scripture were used against Palmer, and women in general, and how Scripture and calls to extraordinary and divine rights were also used to begin to pull women out of the well of silence.

Frances Willard lived under practically the same circumstances as Palmer and also used Scripture to help defend women’s right to speak and preach.  Most interesting for me was Willard’s direct presentation, in table format, of specific lines of Scripture which had/have been used to silence women, and her exegesis of these in excerpts from her Woman in the Pulpit, in The Rhetorical Tradition.  Willard questioned the male-centered and male-dominated exegesis of Scripture and, according to Hertzberg and Bizzell, Willard saw “traditional male biblical exegesis [as] contradictory in that, whereas it insists on reading some texts very literally, it interprets others quite loosely” (1121), especially when the interpretation is used to silence women.

The table that Willard provides in Woman in the Pulpit (1127ff) points to, and juxtaposes, lines from I Timothy, Judges, Galatians, I Corinthians, Acts, Joel, Philippians, Romans, Luke, John, and Colossians.  Each line or pericope is presented by Willard to show how Scripture can contradict itself and to establish her knowledge and ethos among learned and Biblically-versed men and women of her time.  One of Willard’s most interesting arguments, as stated above, was that many prescriptions in the Bible were not taken literally by many Biblical interpreters, while those pertaining to the silencing of women were strictly adhered to by men—who held the power in society.  One example of this, stated by Hertzberg and Bizzell, was that “literal exegesis ignore[d] the text indicating that unleavened bread was served at the Last Supper, while attending rigorously to the text indicating that wine was served” (1121).  As I learned in theology school, there are hundreds of major and minor commandments/prescriptions set forth, especially in the Old Testament, and most of these, as Willard alludes to, are not strictly kept.  Thus, the use of Scripture is politicized as we begin to see how certain verses were/are used to silence, among others, women.

As with Palmer, Willard not only wanted to break the silencing of women, but wanted to reverse it and justify women’s divine right to speak and preach.  What these two women did recalls the hermeneutic of my undergraduate religion professor Dr. Roy Melugin, who spoke of the need to not only demythologize the Bible but to remythologize it.  Though I don’t remember him speaking directly about the verses put forth by Willard, this notion of remythologizing seems to fit with what Palmer and Willard did.  They were re-imagining and re-presenting Scripture in a way that would help un-silence women.  They not only attacked verses that were used to silence women but pointed to Biblical verses and events which strengthened their case for the validity of the woman’s voice (such as Mary Magdalene’s telling of Jesus’ resurrection to the Apostles).  In the end, the same Bible that was used to oppress and silence was used to liberate, validate, and un-silence women’s voices.

Along with Palmer and Willard, we have Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz, a 17th century intellectual from New Spain (Mexico) who was forced into becoming a nun, and in many ways silenced, because of her “precarious” position as an “illegitimate…unmarried women…without a dowry” (Bizzell and Hertzberg 780).  As a specific and historical example of the presence and disruption of religious silencing, we have a letter from The Answer/La Respeusta by Sor Juana.  In this letter, Sor Juana is responding to a public letter from the bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernandez de Santa Cruz (pseudonym: Sor Filotea), in which he admonishes much of Sor Juana’s ideals and views on public speaking.  In the following excerpts, Sor Juana writes about her contemplation of silence over the bishop’s letter and the fact that much of her silence was due to the bishop’s holy/public stature:

And therefore I had nearly resolved to leave the matter in silence; yet although silence explains much by the emphasis of leaving all unexplained, because it is a negative thing, one must name the silence, so that what it signifies be understood.

And I shall say, by way of brief label place on what I leave to silence, that only with the confidence of one so favored and with the advantages granted one so honored, do I dare speak to your magnificence (41-43).

Ultimately, as is obvious, Sor Juana chose not to remain silent and to name the silence that had preceded the writing of the letter.

But notably, because of numerous verbal attacks, Sor Juana eventually decided to retreat into silence and removed herself from public speaking, as pious women were expected to do.  So, in many ways, Sor Juana was silenced but “she would not do so before setting the record straight, by belittling antifemale rules and edicts [such as] those of the Council of Trent…” (33).

Rhetorical Historiography and Silencing

Not only are religion and Scripture culprits in the silencing of voices, so to is historiography.  Rhetorical historiography was guilty of silencing non-elite, non-White, non-Western, and non-male voices and experiences for hundreds, even thousands, of years.  It wasn’t until the last thirty years or so that the rhetorical tradition has begun to diversify, moving beyond the traditional tradition (i.e. Plato, Aristotle, Quintillian, Cicero, Blair, etc.).  Patricia Bizzell, a major figure of rhetorical historiography with her and Bruce Hertzberg’s anthology The Rhetorical Tradition, writes that, for hundreds of years, the choices of which rhetorical texts to “preserve, elevate, delete” were “dominated by the preferences of socially privileged men who saw Western culture as the best in the world, and that culture itself as springing primarily from Greek and Roman roots” (110).  It is in these choices that certain rhetorics are silenced.

Echoing Bizzell is James Berlin’s understanding that marginalized rhetorics have either been

destroyed or excluded from rhetorical historiography, and that “Our search for alterity, for rhetorics other than the familiar, can reveal to us alternative possibilities in conceiving discursive practices and their power formations” (118).  And it is because historiography focusing on historically dominant rhetorics has left little space for other/othered rhetorics that scholars such as Jacqueline Jones Royster have called for the “re-landscaping” of the rhetorical tradition.  She understands that “…the process of showcasing [rhetorics] is an interpretive one” (148), one that can be an instrument of silencing but also one that can highlight, showcase, discover, and de-silence historically marginalized voices and experiences.

Some major voices that have been “de-silenced” as rhetorical historiography diversifies include

the voices of women such as Enheduanna and Aspasia (in ancient rhetoric), Christine de Pizan, Madeleine de Scudéry (who wrote about the importance of silence in “salon” discourse), Mary Astell, Sarah Grimké, Héléne Cixous, Gloria Anzaldúa, and, as discussed earlier, Phoebe Palmer, Francis Willard, and Sor Juan Inez de la Cruz, just to name a handful.  Also “de-silenced” have been the voices of racial minorities such as Maria Stewart, Fredrick Douglas, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Gloria Anzaldúa, rhetors who have been included in the highly influential The Rhetorical Tradition.  Others outside the anthology, such as bell hooks, Keith Gilyard, and Victor Villanueva, are important “new” pieces to the rhetorical historiography as well.

Unfortunately, there are still rather recent historiographers who are interested in keeping a

muzzle on “new” traditions, wanting to emphasize the supremacy of traditional rhetors/rhetorics while silencing others.  As Berlin states in “Revisionary Histories of Rhetoric,” “for Kennedy, Corbett, and Vickers, the eternal rhetoric is located at the source of the dialogue, among the ancients who set the fundamental terms of the discussion in motion” (113).  For traditional scholars and historiographers of Rhetoric, “new rhetorics” (those of women, racial minorities, “non-theorists,” etc.) are always subordinate to the “true” classics of ancient Greece and Rome and those modern scholars who follow closely in their footsteps.  This is clearly a way in which historiography has produced a system of silence.

Ultimately, silence is a very integral part of Rhetoric and rhetorical studies.  It is rhetorical and it

can “deploy power [or] defer to power” (Glenn 18).  This can be seen in the case of Anita Hill, in the use of Scripture to silence and de-silence women, and in rhetorical historiography which is attempting to uncover and highlight voices and experiences that have historically been left out of the traditional landscape and under the rubble of history.

Historiography and Silence

Women (include that palmer, Willard,and sor juana themselves are recent additions)

Historiography can also de-silence (Berlin, Bizzell, Royster, etc.)

Works Cited





Bizzell? Berlin? Royster?