First Monday

Silence, delirium, lies? by Caroline Bassett

One way to undermine social media monopolies is to refuse to contribute to the communicational economy they are based upon: don’t generate exploitable signals, stay quiet — and ask how this might be developed as a common response. Given the naturalized assumption that ‘more communication’ will automatically produce ‘more freedom’, suggestions, like this one, that are based on doing less of it might provoke hostility. However, in the case of the social media industries, communication is cultivated not in the interests of freedom, but in the interests of growth; social media wants to capture more of you through your transactions. Moreover, through this process communications are not made ‘more free’ but tend rather to become less open — certainly in the sense that they are commoditized. With this in mind, this paper asks if a media politics might be generated based on the potentials of silence, on speaking in tongues — and on relying on the resources of metaphorical language rather than on learning to speak or write in ways more amenable to code.


A walk in Embasssytown ...
... And a return to social media today
The various contents of silence
The silent commons
Conviviality as a relation?
Glossolalia as delinquent sound
Conclusions: Language, code, politics




‘We tell the truth best by becoming lies.’ [1]

One way to respond to the monopoly of commercial social media is to stop communicating. Find a way to resist terminal integration into expanding communicative circuits reaching far beyond the screen. There are various options: switch off, turn away, misspeak, refuse to play — or become silent. Don’t make the social noise that generates the exploitable signals.

Such forms of communicational dissidence are rather rare. Few people actively decide to disconnect — although many drift away from social media sites. Even quitting Facebook — often framed as an ultimate disengagement from ‘me media’ — is relatively uncommon; perhaps because those who consider doing it are well aware of those left chattering about their departure in now inaccessible places. Calls for a shared switch off, which might have potential as a collective response to various forms of communication monopolies, also tend to have little resonance. The question might be where such an action would resonate. We are in the grip of media — centricity — the perspective that says life finds significance through ‘the media’ — and we reify communication.

In fact, there is often more than indifference here; to suggest that a critical response to social media’s voracious demands for more material might be to produce less of it doesn’t appear to be acceptable at all. Moreover, this is the case not only amongst those who endorse social media and the environments it co–produces, but also amongst many people wary of the commoditized modes of communication social media enables. To become silent, to fail to contribute, to frustrate communication, to refuse to network, to un–compute; these are all activities which provoke widespread suspicion and unease.

Maybe this response is not so surprising. Silence is traditionally a weapon of the powerful — it is the weak who are silenced and the strong whose voices are heard and this makes it an unlikely element of any plan to free up communication. Moreover there is the widespread sense (in the West but also elsewhere) that a certain kind of communicational plenitude has only just been won. The specter of a ‘before’ characterized by information and communication deficit haunts the present — and updates itself automatically. Consider, for instance, the mass media forms defined by immense asynchronism (e.g., broadcasting’s lack of a back–channel) that framed the Web in the 1990s, or that same 1990s Web, now framed as the hopelessly lacking ‘before’ that is contrasted with the ‘properly social’ qualities of the (post) Web 2.0 world ‘now’. It is easy to create mythical accounts of the very recent past in which communicational technologies appear baroque in their peculiar inadequacies — silver halides, party lines, phones, degrading reproduction cycles, two or three television channels, phones stuck to walls, nothing personal, let alone personalized.

Combine these factors — and the result is a lock–in (keep communicating at all costs). And, moves from restriction to ubiquity in communications media are related not only to media systems themselves, but are also taken to describe more general developments. Thus social media is mapped onto consumer power (personalization) and old media linked to lack of choice (Fordism), and the rise of ‘free’ social media is associated with the rise of political freedom, while its other, old/passive media, always stands for the obverse of that. Such multiple associations, becoming naturalized, make it easy to miss the obvious discrepancies that arise when real formations are explored. Consider, for instance, the assertion that the rise of a commercial social media platform offering more for ‘free’ (more ‘free’ space for content, more ‘choice’ about ways to connect and organize it), automatically advances other forms of freedom — advancing, for instance, values fundamental to social justice or democracy. The distinction between ‘freedom and free beer’ is real — and yet it is all too often elided. To assert that we ‘now’ have communicational plenty and that this brings with it other ‘plenty’ (plenty of freedom, plenty of justice) has ideological effects; notably it contributes to a wariness about any strategy or tactic or argument in favor of any form of media politics that looks like it may result in (a return to) restriction, channel narrowing, message frustration — or media silence.

In response to this formation, indeed seeking to disrupt it, I begin not with slippery discourses of freedom (and democracy) but with growth — and with the neoliberal desire to ‘free–up’ growth. It is my contention that to call for less communication — at its most extreme a call for silence — is currently regarded as heretical in conditions of social media. But such a call should be made — because it can confront the fetishizing of the more associated with technological progress, when the latter is regarded as inseparable from progress in general — and when both are aligned with discourses that value growth as a social good.

Many who question growth agendas in other areas do not question technological progress, and where they see problems with technology, or with a particular implementation, seek a specifically technological fix. Technological good, communicational good, and social good; here is another set of alignments — and we can note that good is defined in terms of more. Consider that it is widely regarded as anti–social not to be in favor of building community through increasing the density of connections (getting more wired). Moreover, such a stance tends to be regarded not only as anti–social, but also — and it is clear how the two are integrally connected here — as anti–technological. So, a community that blooms and buzzes, and that is more (digitally) connected, is judged to be more ‘healthy’, more ‘open’, more ‘welcoming’ even more ‘alive’ or ‘human’. In these contexts, demands to reduce communicational traffic appear reactionary. In England at least, the old accusation of Luddism is dusted down and made ready for redeployment.

To fail to contribute to the volume [2] or density (and note that density becomes capacity alarmingly fast) of the social environment is to sin in a world in which growth is deified and in which technological growth is aligned with progress. This text, having no problems with such sinning, investigates ways in which silence and related forms of communicational revolt might constitute an appropriate response to social media monopoly. It is because this demand — at its most extreme a demand for silence, but not restricted to that — is so thoroughly unacceptable that it is also intriguing.

The work of the twentieth century activist and thinker Ivan Illich is key to the arguments developed here. Illich both analysed technologically based (social) monopolies (Illich, 1973) and in connected work explored silence as a response to earlier electronic media systems (Illich, 1983). As part of this he called for the establishment of the silent commons as a response to what he saw as the tyranny of the amplified voice and the evisceration of human relations within the electronically organized spaces such amplifications produced (Illich, 1973; 1983).

Illich was writing about television and associated media systems, but in this article I ask if a return to silence might enable new forms of common space to be created today — so that individual and collective voices might be heard again beyond the personalized enclosures of the commercial social media platforms. Something Illich’s thinking can open up is the sense that there are ways of thinking about language — perhaps in terms of volume, audibility/silence, voice, complexity, and polysemy — that provide the basis for a response to social media monopoly; for a communication politics that might, despite beginning in the symbolic, be able to spill over into something — some places — more material.

This is an approach that engages with the senses (listening, silence, audibility). It works with silence, and also with the potential found in the texture of language and speech when it is divorced from meaning and becomes a form of glossolalia. Finally I bind in a consideration of the revolutionary capacities that symbolic language holds within itself, its ability to signify two things at once, which means, as Walter Benjamin put it, that it can ‘communicate something (other than itself)’ (Benjamin, cited in Miéville, 2011) [3], and is always in this sense open. This opening (which is also a re–doubling) is found in its most concentrated in the figure of metaphor, constituted by forcing together a truth and a lie to make something new. It is also here perhaps that natural language is furthest from coded instruction.

The point to make here, at the start, is that silence, delirious language, and the lie, are all inimical to Facebook and its ilk, which is to say they are inimical to the kinds of communicational economy social media platforms operate and architect. And so, if the truth we want to tell is one that does not want to give itself away (for instance if we do not wish to be ‘used’ instrumentally even as we speak to excoriate such forms of ‘use’), then in today’s conditions, in times when our selves, amongst other things, are harvested through our communicational acts, we may be silent. Or, as one of the novelist China Miéville’s characters puts it in Embassytown, a recent science fiction work celebrating language for its ability to become revolutionary, we may ‘tell the truth best by becoming lies’.



A walk in Embasssytown ...

A brief foray into Miéville’s novelistic world may be a useful place to start. It is an exploration of how a monopoly over communication systems, and in particular a monopoly over translation — where a word must always face two ways at once (the question is always how) — may become an instrument for the maintenance of social power. However it also explores how those who wish to contest this monopoly may take up language as a tactical weapon. In this case the tactics include silence and muteness, and the exploitation of linguistic delirium (glossolalia). Above all however, in Embassytown Miéville is celebrating the resilience and force of metaphorical language itself, and its power to open new worlds and shake established hierarchies.

All of this, it is true, takes place far away (in a city ‘beyond the Immer’, in a fictional universe). Despite that, Embassytown, fictional and remote, is at the same time, all about here, now, today. Investigating contexts and ways in which language may face two ways at once, it operates as a contemporary commentary on linguistic conditions or relations at a time of dawning social media monopoly.



... And a return to social media today

This returns us to consider the operations of actually existing social media; specifically platforms and architectures where what takes place in natural language also always takes place as technology — another re–doubled articulation to consider.

That social media is Janus–faced is self–evident perhaps, but it is nonetheless something easy to overlook. In fact, a peculiarity of technologically mediated communications of many kinds is the way in which users are invited to ignore the specifically technical operations that are intrinsic to their functioning (consider that one of the attractions of social media platforms for many is that their affordances are easily experienced as ‘non–technological’). These platforms are designed to suggest that in speaking, writing, querying, in using language online, people are simply carrying on doing what they have ‘always done’. iPhone conversations or tweets, after all, take place, in English or French or Chinese, and spell checkers or word processors use familiar dictionaries. And though some have argued that language ‘itself’ degrades in conditions of its word processing, there is, to counter that, ample evidence of linguistic creation and innovation in response to a new medium; to (almost) paraphrase Volosinov language endures as it becomes [4]. Within the framing of the various social media platforms through which interaction increasingly is routed, speech retains the power, given by metaphorical language, to open new worlds or to innovate semantically; to say this and mean that at the same time. But something, nonetheless, is different. And the difference is that even as these interactions in language are represented on screen in ways that imply business as usual — only so much more of it — another business is being simultaneously transacted; another mouth is eating you up.

Our interactions are, as a condition of being embarked upon, captured in code, added to databases, and processed and annotated in various ways. What’s said and done in one language (natural language in all its complexity) is thus simultaneously rendered into non–equivocal digital code. In this second form it is quantifiable, marketable, and — paradoxically since it consists of material concerning social interaction — no longer accessible to you — the human — since you do not control its further circulation. And in that process, which produces a system of communication beyond speech and language, the metaphorical reference of words, their capacity to continue to refer beyond themselves, and thereby create, is discarded. Ambiguity and polysemy is not appreciated in such processing — and creativity is certainly not the organizing principle; rather the aim is disambiguation, and efficient chunking. It is true, is it not, that the last thing Facebook wants is data about you that lies?

By the way, you know all this already. There is no conspiracy implied here. This is a process to which you — the user — consent. The contract is very clear; social media demands personal data donation as the price for full engagement in those forms of communication that are becoming intrinsic to everyday life and that increasingly shape it. This exchange is the central component of what has emerged over at least a decade and a half as the standard model for the commoditized virtual community of all kinds (see for instance the early GeoCities’ contracts for a pre–millennium example) [5]. As noted, however, even if this exchange is formally speaking open to view, one side of the operations it authorizes is under–represented (actually un–represented) to users, and this produces a systematically distorted picture of who or what is being communicated to what or whom. It is partly because of our reliance on the ocular [6] — the degree to which our habitual focus on the visual may bind us to the screen and lead us to largely ignore what else is going on — that it makes sense to me to consider a response to social media monopoly that invokes auditory categories (e.g., noise and silence). This approach mistrusts — seeks to listen through, or still, the noise of the screen. A sonic perspective (even if a virtualized one) provides a fresh way to audit social media operations.



The various contents of silence

I noted earlier that silence — silencing — has often been a tactic of the powerful. But now I want to qualify that and note that silence has also been a tactic adopted by dominated groups, and has become the basis of freedom claims. Alongside calls for the right to speech, after all, come calls for the right to silence — and in a sense these are more fundamental. Moreover protests made in silence (perhaps made of silence) have been effective, not least in conditions of radical monopoly of media and communications, for instance when a communications monopoly is held by the state. It is useful to note that a series of social revolutions have begun, not with Twitter, but with and in silence [7]; in a public silence that, if it refuses to make a statement, nonetheless contains — and contains audibly — all kinds of intentions.

If we are going to re–think what silence can do, it makes sense to also re–think what it is. Silence has conventionally been defined as the absence of noise, and although noise itself is understood differently into various contexts, in many registers noise is unwanted sound. In information theory, for instance, the distinction between noise and signal is supposed to separate wanted information and unwanted distortion and so silence might be taken to indicate a lack of signal as well as lack of noise — an entire absence. In contrast, however, consider the explorations of John Cage, the twentieth century composer noted for 4’33”, the ’silent‘ work [8]. This led to different conclusions — and sparked new forms of thinking about silence. What is useful here is to note that for Cage silence is never absolute, nor absolutely empty (Cage, 1990). After experiencing an anechoic chamber where he heard two sounds of his own bodily systems (a double hum), his conclusion was that human life and silence are inimical. Humans, as embodied creatures, cannot experience absolute silence. 4’33”, often thought to produce empty space, is thus more properly understood as the space produced by a score that ensured the absence of deliberate or programmed sound.

In a more recent investigation of silence Sarah Maitland discovered the sonic qualities of silent landscapes (the desert versus the hill, the moorland, the sea). In doing so she also opened up ways to think about the various contents of silence (Maitland, 2008) and about the distinction between environmentally–given quiet (the still wind in the desert) and the absence of human interaction or human voice. Her escape, like many hermits before her, was not only from the clamor of the town or settlement, but from the conventions of constant connection involved in everyday life within a community. Moreover, if it was the latter she wished to escape from most urgently, it was the former — the landscapes of silence, which are the spaces that silence makes — that drew her in. Maitland never explores explicitly technologically produced spaces (virtual worlds for instance), but her account is relevant here because she is nonetheless responding to a general environment (everyday life) increasingly operating according to the generalized communicational logics of noise acceleration produced by radical monopoly. Looking at the increased noisiness of the world, she might be said to find, in silence, a way of answering it back.

Maitland recorded her progressive retreat from the world in print, so this is, despite its personal tone, in some way a public response to contemporary social conditions (as it might have been for some of the hermits whose history she traces out). However this remains largely a personal or private refusal or reorientation. Which provokes another question — what are the prospects for deploying or demanding this kind of content–filled silence in the specific contexts of information and communication and its noise, if this is done as a collective response?



The silent commons

This takes me back to Illich (1983) and his call for the defense of the silent commons. This call, essentially a manifesto, declared silence to be a shared condition placed under threat by new technologies and their amplificatory functions. It functions as a critique of mass media, regarded as a deeply non–convivial technology in which communication ‘machines’ provide prostheses and do so selectively, so that certain dominant groups (those who get the equipment) become louder hailers with the power to silence others. The hailer, whose own voice has become inhuman or artificial, is through this action denying others the right to become fully recognized as people, since, as Illich saw it, having voice (perhaps having the ability to speak out), is something ‘necessary for the emergence of persons’, something necessary to personhood perhaps.

In the place of a common environment within which any voice can sound out, in conditions of amplification (or digital mediatization), an enclosed space is formed, in which voice becomes the prerogative of the one who holds the amplifier. The call for a shared right to silence is thus made because it is silence that is needed to enable human voices to be heard again. The call for a silent commons spatializes that and makes of it a demand for the restitution of public space (a public soundscape). For Illich, enabling that right would entail the removal of the ‘loud speakers’ enclosing what was previously an open space — essentially his call was for a form of de–privatization. It is evident that for Illich, suspicious of mass communication technologies in general, the ‘loud speakers’ include both those who speak loudly (the powerful) and the tools through which they assert their dominance (the amplification technologies themselves).

In the case of social media and its operational imperatives, it might be argued, extending Illich, that public space is not only increasingly enclosed but also radically attenuated. The result being that what was an engagement in public (speaking out in a place in which voice may be heard) becomes a placeless — because it is an entirely personalized — interaction [9]. The result of this might be that all voices may speak, but not into a common place where they are likely to be heard as one (common) voice. Widely discussed fears that today’s information networks produce endless communication loops that lead nowhere (see e.g., Jodi Dean’s work [2009]) resonate with Illich’s sense of enclosure foreclosing on listening. And the silent commons thesis is certainly distrustful of the efficacy of communication — against which it sets human voice, and particularly distrustful of volume. It attacks the ideology that defines freedom as giving ‘everybody’ a platform, so there are more platforms and each speaks more loudly from them than they did before, preferring instead silence as that which can enable conditions — in common — necessary to enable all or any voices to speak.

This might suggest the key task, in building a critical response to social media monopoly, is to defend and build a public commons, or a common space, out of purely digital materials. But the implications of acting against enclosure are not confined to (what used to be called) virtual spaces but entail making claims to rights in real space. That is they join up with what Harvey (2008) has termed the right to the city — not least because communications systems are part of the fabric of the lived, the at once material and immaterial environment, which we increasingly inhabit.



Conviviality as a relation?

For Illich, writing in the mid–to–late twentieth century, the way to restitute a commons was be to re–establish environments no longer enclosed by the ordering of amplification. In such places public discussion could take place again; what he terms conviviality might be re–established. This aim is strikingly at odds with social media’s promise to provide a common platform delivering amplification for all. Following Illich’s general logic (if not his precise allocations of convivial and non–convivial labels to specific media), social media’s kind of amplification/interaction, it could be argued, does not enable human interaction but, in instantiating the enclosing logics of the radical monopoly, tends to contain and commoditize it.

By–passing the determinism implicit in Illich’s account, but retaining his sense of the techno–social shaping of technological systems as they are instantiated within real political systems (e.g., which group gets to control the loud speakers), might demand relocating qualities of conviviality or non–conviviality. Instead of asking if one technology or another is fundamentally convivial or not, we could ask how, or where (in which communicational architectures), convivial relations become possible and can be sustained — and where they are made impossible? [10]

One example of this kind of engagement — and one that shows how silence may be suggestive and how it may operate to produce convivial relations — is to be found in the communicational tactics of some within the Occupy movement. In particular the gestural commentaries those listening provide to supplement — rather than interrupt — those speaking are of note here. These non–sounded, non–amplified, contributions respect silence as that out of which a voice comes. These groups take up space rather than seeking only to communicate in the public sphere, and in doing so they generate forms of (silent) talk that are far from the competitive ‘noise’ of Facebook [11] — generating activities and practices that have proved markedly difficult to handle or recuperate.

Assessing silence as a tactic, asking how efficacious it might be, deployed as a critical response to social media, thus demands asking how silence can be a common concern. And to stress, when I talk about demanding silence here, I am not talking of an injunction to silently and individually withdraw. Silence is being invoked positively, as a means to shape a different kind of un–privatized/de–enclosed communal space, as the necessary conditions for a new kind of communicational commons. This last term ‘the commons’ might — in itself — operate to question/expose the dynamics of mass personalization — a divide and rule — which invites the valorization of personal responses (and responsibilities) whilst operating on people as a mass [12].




All this talk of silence might seem to be very defensive. For instance it might seem to advance the idea that language (natural language) should be defended from code, that speaking out loud should be embarked upon with extreme caution, not so much through fear of betrayal — ‘be careful what you say’ — but through fear of contamination. Concern about the latter is well known — a famous example is found in the depredations of language explored by Orwell (1989) in the novel 1984 where words such as ‘good’, ‘plusgood’, ‘doubleplus good’ exemplified the project to build a language from which ambiguity/polysemy were to be progressively purged. The intended result of Newspeak was that what could not be entirely quantified could not be articulated at all — even in silence. What could be quantified meanwhile, would be reduced to the unambiguous basics: positive versus negative, good versus bad — and to pure hate (there is no opposite to this pair since love has been exorcised).

The line being taken here is different. The focus is on finding and enabling resources in language. The intention is to exploit the potential of silence to make a containing space for language to be heard, to consider the force of the voice which might act against the enclosures of meaning, and to draw on the ambiguity and redoubling of metaphorical language — and ask if they can be deployed as a response to developing social media monopoly. And we are now halfway there, since we have already established that things can be done with silence — which may be understood not as empty, but as containing and framing all kinds of other things.



Glossolalia as delinquent sound

‘[Q]uick–lying: the spitting out of a tumble of noises before the untruth of their totality stole a speaker’s ability to think them.’ [13]

It is through the notion of framing and enabling that silence might be related to glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. Glossolalia is a game with the fabric of voice, ‘a semblance of language’ that can be imitated when its ‘phonetic rules’ are known, as the cultural theorist de Certeau put it [14]. This form of speech at once offers meaning, and refuses it — as what seemed like language slides away and is revealed as a chimera. The glossolalic speaks ‘so as not to be tricked by words’ but also tricks the listener. Perhaps then, this kind of speech may also have potential to trick those contemporary mechanisms through which our words are captured.

It may be useful to point out a contrast here: Illich (1983) wanted to restitute to people their ‘proper and equal voice’ through the re–founding of genuinely common space for debate. Glossolalia takes a different route, exploiting the potentials found in voice’s improper qualities — it withholds language while promising to speak it, but by promising to speak it holds an offer of some form of connection or communion, one that is by definition outside of meaningful transactions. However, to re–instate the commons, to find grounds that are not entirely and immediately amenable to extraction, to break the hold of monopoly, ways may need to be found to draw on what is suggested by the fullness and thickness of voice.

Glossolalia is not an exceptional state; de Certeau notes that it ‘pushes up through the cracks of ordinary conversation: bodily noises, quotations of delinquent sounds, and fragments of others’ voices punctuate the order of sentences with breaks and surprises’ [15], although it may appear exotic in contrast to normal language. My sense is that symbolic language’s more obviously routine — but still marvelous — capacity to point beyond itself and therefore to innovate might in the end be more suggestive than glossolalia and the seductive promises found in the grain of nonsensical speech — the choice is innovation over delirium perhaps. I return to this below, but insist here that both language’s improper and its poetic aspects — the form found in glossolalia, the latter exemplified in the productivity of metaphor — can be brought into play. Both that is, might help constitute the unlikely fabric with which at least one form of a silent commons — where what is said is listened to but not captured — might be woven. And they are not unrelated; consider that in China Miéville’s Embassytown tricks in language’s texture — the spitting out of a tumble of noises — are used to find ways to break into metaphor with its capacity to make meanings out of impossible combinations.



Conclusions: Language, code, politics

It may be useful to be clear that the wager here is that, despite the accelerating tendencies towards radical forms of social media monopoly (Illich’s useful distinction between monopoly and radical monopoly is that the latter concerns not the Ford but the car), a response to social media is still possible. More specifically a media and communications politics is still possible. Some say it is not. Jodi Dean’s (2009) argument that communication can only communicate with itself, for instance, essentially means that any hope for the transformation of digital systems can come only from outside these loops (perhaps as an unexpected event that throws entire social orders into disarray). It is possible to sympathize with this position (and to appreciate the degree to which it de–centers media and communication systems and demands consideration of more material forms of engagement), whilst also wishing to consider the resources available for the development of a more proximate response, perhaps even a medium–centric response, to social media monopoly and digital transformation. After all being ‘in the media’ — as well as being elsewhere — is (also) where we find ourselves today.

Chief amongst these resources are language and code. And one way to distinguish how they have been used is — once again — to think about sensory bias: sound or vision?

Critical software studies theorists (and activists) working to develop a code politics have often, even whilst eschewing representation, been concerned with questions of visibility. Such approaches thus begin by prioritizing ‘making visible’ or foregrounding those un–represented code operations (for instance those discussed above) that users know about, but are enjoined to ignore. The argument may then move on to make the case that such processes need to be better understood (‘digital literacy’), or that we need to understand how to intervene in them (‘code literacy’), so that they may be exploited in new ways — or subverted or turned (re–coded). This last response is a hacker response essentially; it seeks to get close enough (to code or metal) or see what’s really going on.

To me, these kinds of approaches (code studies, software studies of various kinds) have most to say when they set out to explicitly consider not only code (and what should be done about code and its visibility), but also to explore those combinations of language/code with which this article has also been concerned. This leads to arguments for the necessity of cultivating new forms of re–doubled intelligence, or for learning to speak in two tongues at once [16]. Of course, being speakers of a language that has at its heart the ability to make meanings out of impossible assertions (‘the city is a heart’ says Miéville) and to point beyond itself (Benjamin again), humans can already speak in a re–doubled way. But the software studies arguments imply a different kind of re–doubling or double vision, of course. The call is to enable speaking in natural language and in machine code; to enable humans to look in and out of the machine — to face two ways at once.

One of the issues here is that a call for double intelligence may amount, in the end, to a call that focuses on learning to speak or write code better [17] — since we already speak natural language why work on it? Once again then, the focus might tend to return to code. I would also like to question the (naturalized sense of the) desirability of remaking code into something more capable of accommodating — handling — natural language. This may be useful, but it may also be understood to simply up the efficiency of the recuperation process (the capture process undertaken in commercial social media operations) described earlier on in this piece. The point is that a focus on code — as an abstraction — can obscure the issues arising around social media monopoly; which is to say the issues arising around software as it is instantiated in a real world techno–social system.

This might imply more hostility than I intend. I agree in many ways with critical software studies writers. To me it seems clear that responding to social media monopoly in the end requires both thinking about code work to be undertaken and the development of a politics engaging with language. However, from the general perspective of software studies such re–doubled approaches seem likely be based on what I would term a politics based on preference (for code approaches) and convergence. The latter implies the development of forms of language and forms of code that slide closer together — the production of unnatural code and code — like natural language perhaps. I would like to suggest that the perspectives on language and silence developed earlier in this text can be used to think about something very far from this. Re–connecting a revolt in language with a revolt in code, might demand, paradoxically, not natural language that is almost machine code (or vice versa), but rather different. It might for instance demand re–thinking translation itself — and also re–thinking its limits; not trying to face two ways, but rather re–considering the moment of, the language of, the texture of, the sound of, intersection itself?

The potential for thinking through new re–combinations, new ways to draw up code and language into a new media politics are suggestive. But I want finally to return to the question this article began with: more or less? This text has been framed by a belief that social media monopolies ought to be disrupted — and in the name of at least two of the things they are axiomatically understood to promote (social justice, solidarity as a form of community) and do not. It has been argued that this disruption might be attempted through a toolset — silence, disruption of language, and the exploitation of language’s capacity for polysemy (the metaphor and the lie) — that is not often considered as apt for such a task. My conclusion, and here I return to salute Ivan Illich, is that these tools can be deployed to produce other kinds of more convivial engagements — a better commons — than our apparently ‘social’ media enable. Above all, I have wished to take seriously the idea that communication density, and increasing communicational volume, does not — in and of itself — indicate more understanding, freedom, openness, or ‘good’. To make this case demands also taking seriously the idea of a media politics that begins with silence. End of article


About the author

Dr. Caroline Bassett is Reader in Digital Media and runs the Centre for Material Digital Culture, University of Sussex. She researches digital transformation and cultural form, critical theories of new media, and has published widely on new media and narrative, the social imaginary, explored issues of gender and technology, and the digital humanities. She is completing a book on anti–computing (Manchester University Press, 2013).
E–mail: c [dot] bassett [at] sussex [dot] ac [dot] uk



1. Miéville, 2011, p. 296.

2. Today noise levels are said to be increasing in most societies, an increase widely accepted as an inevitable (side) effect of progress (anti–noise campaigns not withstanding). This has produced a market for forms of commoditized noise control and acoustic anti–pollution movements. For a consideration of rising noise see Sandra Braham’s ‘When nightingales break the law: Silence and the construction of reality’ (Braham, 2007, pp. 281–295).

3. Benjamin’s quote is used as an epigram in Embassytown.

4. See Volosinov’s (1973) Marxism and the philosophy of language.

5. For an account of this see Bassett (2007).

6. See for example Frances Dyson’s (2009) considerations of ocular prioritization. However, I am not arguing that digital media ‘is an aural media’. It seems to me that retaining an ocular–centric point of view is often useful in relation to exploring social media networks precisely because it underscores how the degree to which interactions remain/retain centered around forms of screen–based interaction — if emphatically not on life — on screens.

7. Consider, for instance, the missing applause that signaled the beginning of the end of the Stalinist regime in Romania.

8. John Cage’s musical score 4’33” was first performed in Woodstock, N.Y., in 1952.

9. For more on the reduction of place see Eli Pariser (2011) on social media as database in The filter bubble and Bassett (2007) on GeoCities and its takeover, in The arc and the machine.

10. Paul Gilroy (2004) has elaborated conviviality as a desirable form of contact in his discussion of race in After empire, and in other work I have explored its relationship to demands that might be raised around a politics of inter–sectionality.

11. Although they do echo the latter’s affirmative conventions — perhaps this is a genuine re–appropriation.

12. For evidence of this standard see social media contracts. These have long made users responsible for their own data whilst also claiming rights of ownership over it. This is an extension of enclosure rights — not only activities but also individuals own data trails, their digital selves, becoming, as a condition of using such enclosed ground, property rights.

13. Miéville, 2011, p. 128.

14. de Certeau, 1996, p. 29.

15. Ibid.

16. See for example, Mathew Fuller’s (2008) discussion of software studies.

17. See for example, Michael Mateas, ‘Weird languages’ (Fuller, 2008). It is not only in Miéville’s weird SF literature that consciously and wonderfully strange languages are to be found.



Caroline Bassett, 2007. The arc and the machine: Narrative and the new media. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Jodi Dean, 2009. Democracy and other neoliberal fantasies: Communicative capitalism and left politics. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Frances Dyson, 2009. Sounding new media: Immersion and embodiment in the arts and culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Matthew Fuller (editor), 2008. Software studies: A lexicon. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Paul Gilroy, 2004. After empire: Melancholia or convivial culture? London: Routledge.

David Harvey, 2008. “The right to the city,” New Left Review, number 53: pp. 23–40, and at

Ivan Illich, 1983. “Silence is a commons,” CoEvolution Quarterly (Winter), at, accessed January 2013.

Ivan Illich, 1973. “Tools for conviviality,” at, accessed January 2013.

Sarah Maitland, 2008. A book of silence. London: Granta.

Michael Mateas, 2008. “Weird languages,” In: Matthew Fuller (editor). Software studies: A lexicon. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pp. 267–276.

China Miéville, 2011. Embassytown. London: Macmillan.

George Orwell, 1989. 1984. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Eli Pariser, 2011. The filter bubble: What the Internet is hiding from you. London: Viking.

Valentin N. Volosinov, 1973. Marxism and the philosophy of language. Translated by Ladislav Matejka and I.R. Titunik. New York: Seminar Press.


Editorial history

Received 20 February 2013; accepted 20 February 2013.

Copyright © 2013, First Monday.
Copyright © 2013, Caroline Bassett.

Silence, delirium, lies?
by Caroline Bassett
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 3 - 4 March 2013