Monday 3 January 2011

Lacunae: Unmentionables 1 of 2

As readers of OnFiction by now likely realize, I am fascinated by the narration of things that are difficult to discuss. Having been trained in the communicative tradition of planning theory, in which hopes for democratic governance are connected to efforts to build more transparent, accessible, and equitable communicative processes, I am inclined toward the belief that considerable effort is usually warranted to make things more rather than less able to be discussed.

This tradition is reflected amply in the (usually one-way) mirrored halls of psychology, where communicative traditions evoke exploration, revelation, and catharsis -- and I often encounter echoes of these traditions in popularized form, especially around universities, encouraging free exchange of ideas in classically liberal form. In situations where communication is being encouraged, I have often noticed pronounced difficulty engaging with the realm of legitimate obstacles to communication.

Prosaic examples illustrate the familiarity of such obstacles: some people speak more loudly than others; some are never in the conversation to start with; some topics are difficult to raise, or fall out of conversation quickly. Such examples may be encountered much more explicitly in fiction than they are noticed in everyday life, especially if we are ourselves invested, however unconsciously, in keeping something relatively unmentioned. In fiction (and here I keep thinking of Virginia Woolf's masterful play with what is spoken and what is not in To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway), we can witness the discomfort that ripples out from rifts in the smoothed fabric of unmentionableness, while in our own conversations, we are often too much of the cultures of discourse, axiomatic beliefs, and de facto assumptions to attend to the parameters of what cannot be said that hedge our choices of explicit verbal exploration.

We are comfortable enough with the elephant in the room, that which will remain unsaid, or is better left unsaid, or a decision to let us never speak of this again that it becomes an interesting challenge to mention the unmentionable. Next week, I will report further on explorations of what it might take to build comfort with breaching the silences that support what IS said.

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