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Review of  Discourse and Silencing

Reviewer: Giampaolo Poletto
Book Title: Discourse and Silencing
Book Author: Lynn Thiesmeyer
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 15.37

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Thiesmeyer, Lynn, ed. (2003) Discourse and Silencing: Representation
and the Language of Displacement. John Benjamins Publishing Company,
Discourse Approaches to Politics, Society and Culture.

Announced at

Giampaolo Poletto, University of Pécs (HU), 3rd year Applied
Linguistics PhD student.


Silencing is a goal-oriented act and process which takes place where
there is discourse. Silencing operates within the structures of social
norms and negotiations. In this volume, it is examined in the
perspective of discourse analysis, with reference to specific language
structures and usages on the one side, to a conceptual evaluation of
the relations among language, social norms, political situations and
ideologies on the other side.

This volume concentrates on: Gender and the discourse of privacy; Law
and institutional discourses; National politics and the discourses of
exclusion; Coda: Performance discourse and meta-commentaries on

Chapters are intertwined with the said four sections; each reports an
essay of a different author, with bibliographical notes at the end.

Lynn Thiesmeyer sets the general framework of the content and purpose
of the volume (Chapter 1: 1-33), and briefly introduces each section
(37-42; 113-118; 173-177; 275-278). So doing, she pinpoints how and
where the issues examined in the essays are significantly

Notes on contributors, a name index and a subject index conclude the
book, which is part of a series, Discourse Approaches to Politics,
Society and Culture, whose aim is to issue monographs and edited
volumes, where language-based approaches combine with disciplines in
the field of human interaction.

The content of the essays draws the attention on specific social and
political situations and displays an analysis of the discourses which
are used and not used within them. The aim of the volume is to put
forward a multidisciplinary approach towards a theory of silencing in
language. Studies, theories and examples in the essays serve this
purpose. They portray silencing as a way to use language
intentionally. The goal is to limit, remove or undermine the
legitimacy of another use of language.


The two essays on gender discourse in the first section belong to the
studies on gender roles and expectations in society, which have
recently increased. They examine a range of social expectations within
'inside' and 'outside', civil and political, private and public,

Towns, Adams and Gavey (Chapter 2, Silencing talk of men's violence
towards women, 43-77) use anonymous interviews with male perpetrators
of domestic violence towards female partners. Silencing is located
along an axis of acceptance and denial. Both tacitly support the
continuation of the violence. There is a 'non-secret secret' knowledge
of the violence, in the social environment surrounding actors and
victims, and a lacking knowledge about it, at a higher institutional
level. They are directly connected. First, public discourse about a
particular person, or group, or event is avoided. Then, the knowledge
of episodes of violence is erased, so that proper authorities cannot

Yohena (Chapter 3, Conversational styles and ellipsis in Japanese
couples' conversations, 79-110) demonstrates how ellipsis in
conversation is a type of silence and of silencing. The focus of her
analysis of taped home everyday conversations of young married couple
who live and study in a foreign environment, in the United States, is
on their misinterpretations of each other's ellipses, despite
intimacy. The opposite explanations which the male and female
protagonists have provided evidence that certain gender and regional
normative expectations operate. They are consistent with the hearer's
perception of their own roles and entitlements within the conversation
and the relationship. On the one side, there is the speaker's wish
that the partner fills in an unspoken segment. On the other side,
there is the understanding of the intended meaning of the unspoken
segment by the hearer. Silencing consists in distorting or ignoring
the partner's intended meaning.

The two essays in the second section deal with the spheres of the
courtroom and the prison, where the discourses of the law and the
implementation of the law coincide. They use examples from the legal
and penal system in the United States, and point out the difference
between freedom of speech and the guarantee that one's speech is heard
or legitimized (see Chambers, 1996).

In a discursive and pragmatic analysis of a trial on allegations of
male rape, Fridland (Chapter 4, Quiet in the court: Attorneys'
silencing strategies during courtroom, 119-138) emphasizes how the
courtroom setting enables the prosecution and the defense to
manipulate, ie. to silence, the testimony of the witnesses, by a
specialised use of the cross-examination. By its authority structure
and linguistic evidence-based decisions, the courtroom encourages the
discursive frameworks of the attorney, who takes advantage of that to
'displace' those of the alleged victim, which appear to be discouraged
and far less credible, instead. The examples are the attorney's
questioning strategies, which offer control over the reply and see him
as an 'elicitor and censor of information', as the 'primary narrator'.
In this context, discourse and silencing co-occur.

Patricia O'Connor's essay (Chapter 5, Telling bits: Silencing and the
narratives behind prison walls, 139-169) is concerned with the
discourse and silencings of incarceration (see also Foucault, 1980).
They occur after the verdict has disabled any exchanges of discourse
between the 'carceral' and the outside society. In the author's view,
this contributes to recidivism, when inmates are out of prison. They
are gradually and systematically isolated from the mainstream society.
Her source are taped life stories of inmates in a US maximum security
prison. By discourse and communication analyses, she shows that there
are two related types of silencing, intracarceral and intersocietal.
The latter is proved to reinforce the former, by providing inmates
with discursive means to silence active agency in their crimes, and
block their ability to reflect on past and future actions. In this
sense, in the context of a literacy programme, discursive practices
could be used as a means toward rehabilitative thinking.

The three essays of the third section focus on the discourses of
politics, of the nation and of ethnic identity. Again, as in other
essays in the volume, it is emphasized the concept of the boundaries,
which mark a sharp and absolute separation between inside and outside,
which prevents ''mixing and contaminating'' (Chilton, 1998:10).

Wodak (Chapter 6, Discourses of silence: Anti-Semitic discourse in
post-war Austria, 179-209) uses historical and critical discourse
analysis to show the historical evolution of discourses suppressing
other discourses. She observes that post-war anti-Nazi discourse in
Austria, which repudiated Nazism, has silenced its discourse, and with
it its atrocities, and, in a wider perspective, the incompatibility of
xenophobic and anti-Jewish remarks with a democracy. That has paved
the way toward revisionism and eventually public anti-Semitic
discourse, in the contemporary political scenery. There appear to be
coded terms, which function as discursive means. They silence publicly
unacceptable anti-Semitic statements but do not erase their
content. They also silence oppositive views, in that they do not
explicitly offer racialist terms to argue against. Furthermore, they
escape censorship and are politically uncompromising.

Galasin'ski (Chapter 7, Silencing by law: The 1981 Polish
'performances and publications control act', 211-232) uses pragmatics
and content analysis to examine the Polish censorship laws prior to
the democratisation of Poland. He shows the effectiveness of legal,
national or political silencing, in the name of national security,
public welfare or public morals, in support of dominant public
ideologies. By the enactement of the performative function of language
(see Austin, 1962; Maley, 1994), a law creates a new reality by
expressing it (see Bordieu, 1991). The new reality may imply the
removal of some texts from public circulation, consequently from
public awareness. The law openly states that it is not censoring
anything and does not specify the material to be
censored. Nevertheless, its textual discourse exerts a control of the
discursive actions outside of it, in that it is legally
encoded. Polish censorship does not delete, rather cleverly fills gaps
in the censored texts.

Lambertus's essay (Chapter 8, News discourse of Aboriginal resistance
in Canada, 233-272) analyses how legal authorities have attempted to
gain control of the representations of an event in the media by
denying access to, filtering and replacing information. Her study
focuses on how the media have handled of an Aboriginal - White land
use dispute in Canada. On the one side, there is discursive evidence
from the media coverage of the event. On the other side, there are her
ethnographic interviews with journalists, police and people involved
in it. Her conceptual framework includes both discourse theories from
social and behavioral science, and discourse theories about strategies
in intrapersonal and media communications. On the one side, there is
compliance with mainstream interpretations; on the other side, there
is resistance to them in media discourses. The focus in on the
characterizations and silencing of minorities in mainstream media,
which again occurs by using one discourse to silence another. At the
same time, the media have offered a setting which has encouraged the
silencing operations and strategies of the police, and have provided a
discursive context for shifts in mainstream discourse, 'as public
witnesses for the forces of domination and resistance in society'.

The essay in the fourth section concludes the volume, by commenting on
silencing as a phenomenon, not by analysing it as an effect of

By using the frame theory (see Bauman, 1977; Tannen, 1993), Jaworski
(Chapter 9, Political silencing: A view from Laurie Anderson's
performance art, 279-296) examines the mixed-media shows of the
American performance artist Laurie Anderson. She is interested in
silence and silencing in the American social and political landscape.
Her performance pieces can be viewed as composed of multiple frames:
discourses; their presentation; commentaries on them. In this
analytical framework, they are paralleled to non-performance text and
speech. They are available to any speech community and display a
particular communicative behavior, removing it from discursive
pressure. They present the artist's discourse and represent the
discourses of others, her silence and the silence of others, chosen or
communicative, imposed or misunderstood, the meaning of silence and an
invitation to replace what has been deleted.

Silencing material interacts with silenced material, a silencer with a
silenced. Few of the discursive means through which silencing can be
enacted are demonstrated to be coercive. In point of fact, the
effectiveness of silencing is better achieved when this process is
disguised. It is, when the silenced material is displaced by means of
another discourse. It is, when the unacceptable material is either
concealed or filtered by means of a more acceptable discourse. This is
consistent with the hypotheses of Luhmann (1982); Jaworski (1993);
Diamond (1996); Blommaert and Verschueren (1998); Chouliaraki and
Fairclough (1999).

Silencing is embedded in a framework which includes: naturalized
ideals, social norms, material relationships between users of
discourse; definitions and critiques of the notions of power in
discourse; social control through a free press or a democratic legal
system. It is enacted through: the education to the acceptance of
stereotypes, to political apathy; the isolation of inmates; coded
reference to ethnic prejudice in political speech; the historical
perpetuation of silencing; the use of one kind of language to distort
or assimilate another.

There are areas where silencing is to be investigated, with reference
to those who cannot speak and to the way to hear them. Three are
mentioned: a theory of silencing for literal, physical, biological
silencing, due to injury, illness, physical causes; the silencing of
multimedia and information technology, where silencing occurs with
respect to information and knowledge from less technologically
advanced regions; the enlightened silencing of globalisation, where
nations with discursive and material authority design and define the
discourses of 'less' developed nations.


Silencing is a discursive act and process, which, explicitly coercive
or disguised, violent or enlightened, intended or unintended, obtains
one's imposed, or self-imposed, inability to speak or to freely speak.
Its relevance and pervasiveness have been clearly demonstrated.
Silencing necessarily confronts with 'speaking', which guarantees that
one is heard and promotes one's awareness, ability of reflection,
sense of individual responsibility, capacity of resistance. The essays
somehow contrastively show examples of both. The framework of a theory
of silencing in language seems thus to embed a thorough and
multidisciplinary discourse analysis of silencing, whose aim is to
support and foster 'speaking'.


Austin, John (1962) How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Clarendon

Bauman, Richard (1977) The nature of performance. In R. Bauman (ed.),
Verbal Art as Performance (pp. 3-58). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Blommaert, Jan & Verschueren, Jef (1998). Debating Diversity:
Analysing the Discourse of Tolerance. London: Routledge.

Bordieu, Pierre (1982, transl. 1991) Language and Symbolic Power. John
B. Thompson (ed.), Gino Raymond & Matthew Adamson (Transl.),
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Chambers, Simone (1996) Reasonable Democracy: Jürgen Habermas and the
Politics of Discourse. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Chilton, Paul (1998) The role of language in human conflict:
Prolegomena to the investigation of language as a factor in conflict
causation and resolution. In Sue Wright (ed.), Language and Conflict:
A Neglected Relationship (pp. 2-17). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Chouliaraki, Lilie & and Fairclough, Norman (1999) Discourse in Late
Modernity: Rethinking Critical Discourse Analysis. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press.

Diamond, Julie (1996) Status and Power in Verbal Interaction: A Study
of Discourse in a Close-knit Social Network. Amsterdam: John

Foucault, Michel (1980) Prison Talk. In Colin Gordon (ed.),
Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977,
Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, & Kate Soper (Transl.),
(pp. 37-54). New York: Pantheon.

Jaworski, Adam (1993) The Power of Silence: Social and Pragmatic
Perspectives. London: Sage.

Luhmann, Niklas (1982) The Differentiation of Society. Stephen Holmes
& Charles Larmore (transl.). New York: Columbia University Press.

Maley, Yon (1994) The language of the law. In John Gibbons (ed.),
Language and the Law (pp. 11-50). London: Longman.

Tannen, Deborah ed. (1993) Framing in Discourse. New York: Oxford
University Press.

Giampaolo Poletto is third year Applied Linguistics PhD student at the
University of Pécs, in Hungary; his fields of interest are discourse
analysis, pragmatics, language acquisition.