JANUARY 31, 2021
THE WORLD OF THE PRESENT is characterized not so much by the omnipresence of noise as by the impossibility of silence. It’s not that we can’t hear the signal, but that the multitude of signals leave us no time to take stock, to reflect, to experience. The news, for example, used to come daily to your door in a little bundle, or set out on a rack at the café, or in measured doses on TV at certain hours of the day. Now it is an incessant stream: noisy chatter — yes — but as heavy and concerning as the world itself, and which draws us in whenever we, inevitably, reach for our smartphones.
Mark C. Taylor’s Seeing Silence is, among many things, a response to this condition, which is connected with, though not the same as, the “postmodern condition.” The postmodern, Taylor suggests, is the “desert of the real,” borrowing the phrase from French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s writings on simulacra and simulations. And the noise of the present is what must happen when the real comes crashing back in through the facade. Baudrillard, Taylor explains, “knew this virtual reality could not last and tried to warn us about the looming disaster.” And so:
In an effort to recover the real, he drove into the desert — not the fake desert of the Strip with its “Sands,” “Dunes,” and “Luxor” hotels, which are nothing more than a “Mirage,” but the real desert with real sand, dunes, and rock art much older than the hieroglyphs etched on Egyptian pyramids. Here Baudrillard discovered an ecstasy that was no longer human, an ecstasy that carries you to the elsewhere that is always near.
This sentence reveals the artfulness of Seeing Silence; a sober writerly craftsmanship that, while a far cry from the sparkly Gallic virtuosity of Baudrillard’s America, is no less extraordinary. Baudrillard, the enfant terrible of postmodernism, is mentioned only a few times in the book, just as the concept of the postmodern itself appears only sporadically. And yet, answering to the “culture war” jeremiads that have become deafening in an age of YouTube philosophes, Taylor responds not with polemics but by pointing elsewhere: toward an ecstasy found in the silence of rocks. Against those who, judging philosophy from the outside, force it to choose again and again between various rocks and hard places — between Cartesian foundationalism and barren empiricism, science and poetry, idealism and realism, impartiality and direct political engagement — Taylor offers a different prospect: philosophy as a way of living, and above all a way of experiencing things that resist experience. Silent things, or, in a word, silence.
As hard to pigeonhole as Taylor’s prolific and wide-ranging career, Seeing Silence is not exactly philosophy, or spiritual autobiography, or art theory. It is a textual antechamber leading into — or perhaps a frame surrounding — the sculpture in which the life-work of the philosopher-turned-artist lies exposed. A demanding book, Seeing Silence asks of the reader not only patience and attentiveness, but a certain commitment. It is also surprisingly accessible, written in an elegant but plain English, free of technical jargon and of names and concepts dropped without introduction. This demanding accessibility is achieved above all by a strategy marked out in the title: the seeing before silence must be taken very seriously. As John Cage has shown us, silence cannot be heard, it may even be impossible, since the act of hearing entails the negation, even the betrayal, of silence. Listening to silence just by listening is a futile exercise. Capitalism is prodigious in its capacity to appropriate every form of resistance; a silence that can be “heard” is a silence that can be commodified. But silence can, somehow, be seen. It is as if the disjunction between sound and vision (each a different immediacy) makes possible an encounter between being and nothingness, the finite and the absolute, without forcing us down the path of the Hegelian dialectic — the path of mediation, reconciliation, and universality.
In a quest to see silence that is neither Odyssean nor Quixotic but the taciturn homecoming of the crusader in the Ingmar Bergman film The Seventh Seal, Taylor leads us on a pilgrimage of revelatory encounters with the works of more or less contemporary visual artists, from the cross Ad Reinhardt painted for Thomas Merton’s monk cell to Michael Heizer’s massive Double Negative etched into Mormon Mesa, from Rothko’s somber Houston chapel to Ellsworth Kelly’s white chapel to Tadao Ando’s Church of the Light and Church on the Water. He ends with his own sculpture garden in the Berkshires.
While his narrative seems at times to fall too easily into the conformable rhythms of travel narration, there is a precise strategy at work. Neither proclaiming the enigmatic “meaning” of the artwork, reducing it to concepts, nor retreating into the merely empirical, Taylor combines the conceptual, perceptual, and affective with the concretely historical and factual, while offering something more than, and irreducible to, these aspects: a sense for the work as a moment, in each case unique, of silence becoming visible, and visible growing silent. This is not a substitute for the actual experience of these sites, but rather the schema of an experience that may or may not ever take place.
An important guide in this is Heidegger, whose essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” uses the Greek temple to reveal the play of the alētheia, truth as the play between concealment and unconcealment. Taylor escapes the greatest flaw of Heidegger’s philosophy: the provinciality that rarely allows the German philosopher to see beyond the fantastical cultural dyad Greece-Germany. Heidegger’s reading of the Greek temple is based on abstractions and polarities, with no basis in the rich aesthetic experience of an artifice built into an actual site. By taking the reader to a range of real temples — high-art temples at the edge of the present rather than kitsch resurrections — Seeing Silence avoids this trap. Seeing silence means seeing the play of absence and presence, concealment and unconcealment. This play is never simply monochrome. Along the stations of a pilgrimage that begins black against white, with the crusader playing chess against death — against himself — something unexpected happens: color. In the polychromatic space of the lifelong atheist Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin Chapel, “a riot of light and color,” “the Via Dolorosa becomes the Via Jubilosa”: “Neither beyond nor within, neither above nor below, neither circumscribed nor limited to a place set apart, the sacred is all around us.”
Seeing Silence is divided into 15 chapters, including the introduction numbered zero. Three are almost blank: three dots, an ellipsis. The rest, save the first and the last, are titled, in order, “Without,” “Before,” “From,” “Beyond,” “Against,” “Within,” “Between,” “Toward,” “Around,” “With,” and “In.” The last chapter, titled “In,” consists only in the titles of all the chapters, and the ellipses, repeated once more though slightly rearranged. Just as the “real desert” is not a territory to be occupied and defended but a place into which one flees, existing only in this flight, seeing silence is prepositional, concrete, relative rather than propositional, abstract, absolute. It is not a question of stating “what” silence is, but of putting oneself in a certain gestural relation to it. Each titled chapter exemplifies one of these attitudes, each of which constitutes a mode of access to the inaccessible, exemplified through the lifework of a different artist. And the pauses ask us to take a breath in between.
Seeing Silence begins with the haunting discovery of a box of photographs, unlabeled and unnamed, as the author sorts through the attic of his old house after his father’s death. As the book arcs toward its end, one realizes that his meandering path through these new wonders of a new world — a path taking us from the modern, to the post-modern, to the post-post-modern — brings Taylor back to himself, to his sculpture garden: a symbol for his lifework. If, as a child, black-and-white photography had already taught him the most essential lesson of the philosophical tradition running from Kant to Heidegger’s clearing and Derrida’s khora, now, an old man already soberly aware of the flesh’s frailty, he is again learning something new — and immeasurably old: to build a stone wall dry with no mortar to fill the gaps.
The art of stonewalling, of splitting and joining and filling out an empty space, serves as a perfect image for the craft of his writing, which, free from posturing or polemics, achieves a kind of levity and joy from so many grave, serious fragments. But the work of life — in its very joy — is also the work of death. The bright-lit chamber of childhood becomes a silent stony crypt. The womb is a tomb, as Taylor reminds us. Not the abdication of the thinking life, this stonewalling is the moment when it fulfills and passes beyond itself. The child’s monochrome world of right and wrong, whose sadomasochistic play carried over into adulthood can only yield a thousand shades of gray, becomes the colors found in what is oldest and heaviest, like the Crowsfoot Schist, split mysteriously between the Berkshires and Venezuela, from which he will take his wall’s keystone:
The colors are from a palette than seems infinite — black, white, gray, blue, yellow, orange, burnt umber, and pink. As I placed the stone in the middle of the enclosure of the elliptical wall, I knew the work was done. Looking at the Crowsfoot Schist, there can be no doubt that the world is, indeed, a work of art.
Anthony Curtis Adler teaches literary theory and philosophy at Yonsei University’s Underwood International College in Seoul, South Korea. He is the author of Celebricities: Media Culture and the Phenomenology of Gadget Commodity Life (Fordham, 2016).