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The Rhetoric of Silence

Time was killing me softly as I read an entry at Dial M for Musicology in which Phil was talking about a book he had been assigned to read when he was a graduate student, and the angst he had felt at not being able to decipher what the author was talking about... an angst that I well recall feeling back in the day:

"This book was one of the main texts, and even looking at the cover at Amazon still gives me pain. My god, that was a rough introduction to academia. On any given page I was given to read, half the words were words I didn't know and the other half were familiar words being used to means things I could only guess at."

"This book" was a hyperlink to the Amazon page of said book. What struck me when I went to the page to have a look for myself was that not a single reader had deemed the book worthy of comment. But as of today there are 38 used copies available for as little as $3.73.

My thought was, "what's the rhetorical term for the silence, rooted in indifference, that a given utterance can generate?"

I haven't yet answered the question, but I have linked it to religion. For example, hard-core fundamentalist religion is answered by an atheism that is its equal in intensity. But wouldn't indifference to religion be a far more devastating response? Akin to kids who misbehave merely to get their parents' attention. Even if they're tanning your hide, it's better than them ignoring you.

This is akin to a common trope in letters: bad publicity is better than no publicity at all.

The idea of "becoming silent" led me to the term "aposiopesis." But what that term really refers to is the rhetorical practice of coming to a halt midway through a sentence, in order to give a hint of an idea that is too awesome to be put into words:

"Watch out, silly rabbit, or I'm going to ...."

(Could it be worse than "make mince meat out of you"?)

or maybe

"This book is so terrible that I'm tempted to...."

I found the term in my copy of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, which advises that aposiopesis should not be confused with paraleipsis, Greek for "passing over," or pretending to say nothing of an issue while in reality giving it full expression:

"I will not mention your drinking problem or your infidelity..."


"I won't discuss how this book's jargon drives me up the wall."

But I'm still at a loss for what to call this silence driven by indifference.

A Young Tom Waits


"Why, I Oughtta...!"

No Comment.


I never suspected (until now) that my students' silence might be rooted in indifference. I figured they were either flabbergasted by my eloquence or just simply didn't have a clue.


Dandy, No, you oughtn't... Well, maybe you oughtta.

Marie, It's not nice to flabbergast your students. But to know whether they're flabbergasted or indifferent, check for furtive glances at their cell phones, a sure sign of indifference.

furtive glances

My students seem to know better than to cast furtive glances at cell phones, since I will confiscate them if I happen to glance upon those little gadgets. Last year, when none of my stopwatches worked, I had to grant special permission for some groups to use the timers on their cell phones for an investigation. Technology...

Did I tell you I have a SmartBoard in my classroom? Fabulous tool...

January 2019



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