“I wish that we could talk about it…
…but there, that’s the problem.” ~James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem
Communication is everywhere. We’re not away from it much, if ever. It’s what makes us human. But for as ubiquitous and pervasive communication is, the absence of communication is actually a quite interesting place to look for clues about what is going on when people are communicating.
Thinking about the absence of a thing can make you realize how special something actually is.
We can think about “the absence of communication” in two ways. First, a total absence, as in a sterile vacuum of non-interaction — if such a thing could exist. This is perhaps slightly difficult to imagine as it’s fairly impractical. Imagine two people on opposite sides of the planet or even in the same neighborhood who have never interacted, never spoken, and are impossibly indifferent to the existence of the other. This is communication’s absence. You can call it “disconnection” if you like, but it is in essence a theoretical linkage where communication could exist but does not. There is no relationship there. Very abstract, but exists.
A second idea of communication’s absence is when you have connected with someone in the past — that is, you’ve communicated previously — and then, in a given moment, you are not communicating with them. Maybe you wish you were, maybe not, but the relationship exists however the interaction isn’t there. This is also a form of absence.
Another odd-to-swallow fact is that despite how much time in a relationship we spend communicating, we can’t — and don’t — spend all of it communicating. So a big chunk of our relationships — any relationship — is being apart. It’s separation. Absence, in a way. This remains true despite the fact we are more connected then ever.
We all sit in dense networks of connections and relationships. Despite this, we actually spend more time *not* communicating with the people with whom we have relationships with than we spend communicating with them. At any given time we are likely to be only communicating with one or a few people. There are always many more people we are not communicating with despite having a perfectly fine relationship with them.
The Value of Absence
Communication’s absence isn’t much of question of good or bad because it can be either. We tend to think about absence of communication as bad, but it isn’t, inherently. There are myriad reasons why we might stop communicating with other people and create an absence: there are only so many hours in the day, plenty of people aren’t that nice or fun or interesting, the workday ends and we retreat from those parts of our lives into others.
This whole question of “the absence of communication” is kind of a weird one, you may be thinking to yourself. But keep in mind as you read that absences can be good, it’s a non-obvious idea to get your head around.
To explore absence a little more deeply, let’s talk about few extreme examples of “not communication.”
To The Extreme
So absence is this extreme vacuum but it’s also the creation of a gap where one does not always exist. Sometimes these gaps are normal and others are more extreme, final, or severe.
Death, for example, is a pretty extreme form of communication’s absence. One moment you’re able to have a conversation with someone and make a little meaning and the next moment, you can’t.
There are also a few historical instances worthy of examining to think more about communication voids, absences, and vacuums and the consequences of not communicating.
About 900 years ago, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II’s — an accomplished guy if ruling over swaths of Europe is your thing — conceived a pretty twisted language deprivation experiment. In this experiment, Emperor Fred ordered an assembly of young infants taken from their families and raised without human interaction. The purpose of the “study” was to determine the original human language. The expected outcome was that by depriving babies of any speaking or “prattling” would result in the discovery of the original language of Adam and Eve. A bit kooky.
We know about all this because of a friar named Salimbeme — who reported on the experiment.
The experiment resulted in all the babies dying.
So much for not communicating.
Another historical, slightly less grim example, is that of Victor of Aveyron, a feral boy discovered in France when he was 12 years old around 1800. Victor — so the story goes — was rejected by alcoholic parents when he was very young and he fended for himself in the wild. He became famous as “the wild boy of Aveyron” where he emerged from the woods on his own January 8, 1800 at the age of 12. He could only grunt, knew no language, and ate only raw vegetables. He later learned how to cook. Victor bounced from orphanage to homes to hospitals and was considered mentally ill and an “idiot” — an accepted psychiatric medical term at the time. He eventually ended up at the French National Institute of the Deaf, despite the fact that he could hear, and was studied, poked, and prodded by many of the interested French doctors of the time.
The scientists thought — through studying and educating Victor — they could better understand a host of matters including how humans adopt and learn language. He, in essence, became an n=1 case study.
It’s not everyday a human walks in off the street with next to no language skills. Victor went on to live for a few more decades until he died. Normal enough for so abnormal, I suppose.
These sorts of cases of absence, while intriguing, are little more than stories at this point. There is, however, one other example of the absence of communication that I would like to talk about and it’s very much real.
I’m no expert on solitary confinement. I’ve never been in it nor do I hope to be. The little I do know about solitary confinement as a punishment form is from movies, both documentary (Last Days of Solitary) and fiction (Dead Man Walking, Green Mile, Shawshank) and reading books. Despite being completely unqualified and uncredentialed in any meaningful way on penal measures, I’m bringing it up because communication is at the essence of solitary confinement in that what is removed via the punishment is the possibility for human connection (e.g, communication).
In the hole is a communication hole, I imagine.
It is this removal of all possibility of human connection and conversation that makes it so philosophically and morally wrong, in my view.
It’s the hope of the spark of communication that delivers one of the best scenes of Shawshank Redemption. The guard approaches Andy’s cell. Andy, who has been in the hole for over a month at this point. The guard says simply, “The kid passed. C+ average. Thought you’d want to know.” Andy smiles in the corner.
There is robust scientific literature establishing the negative psychological effects of solitary confinement and a wide window to argue that solitary confinement is a particularly cruel form of punishment. Humans in solitary confinement are prone to developing mental illnesses ranging from anxiety to depression to self-mutilation to suicidal thoughts . This has resulted in many different organizations — professional correctional, mental health, legal, and human rights organizations — to support the drastic reduction of solitary confinement . United Nation experts amount solitary confinement to torture and the consensus expert opinion is that any isolation exceeding 15 days should be outright banned . In the United States, prisons will have Special Housing Units (SHUs) which is essentially solitary confinement at a larger scale. SHUs keep prisoners in solitary isolation including soundproofing and other tactics to limit communication between cells .
Solitary confinement presents a direct attack at the fundamental belief in communication.
A purposeful lack, or cutting off, of communication such as this detracts from the health and richness of the human condition — an involuntary severing of the humane connection between an individual and another. Solitary confinement is designed to instill feelings of futility and is purposed to terrorize, scare, and frighten. And at its core, solitary confinement damages and threatens the process of being human — communicating.
This is a problem. At least I think so.
The absence of communication — and the methods that get us there — leads us to quite some interesting questions and situations as well as moral dilemmas. These are some extreme cases. Not much of anything resembling what absence looks like within the context of most people’s relationships.
Absence Isn’t Bad, Except When It Is
Much of the above is just a thought exercise. The absence of communication within the context and confines of a relationship looks quite different than these examples I’ve presented. When it’s a result of a mad king, feral children, or part of a criminal punishment system, the absence of communication is one thing I suppose. Within the context of a relationship, absence’s features, qualities, and mechanisms look different.
For example, back to this idea that the absence of communication isn’t necessarily bad — except when it is. Absence can be long, troublesome, and anxiety-inducing and it can be short, normal, and agreed upon. Absence of communication can be quite ok and acceptable just as it can be a cause for grief and worry.
Sometimes — separation, absence — is exactly the tactic you should be engaging in. For example, if you’re angry with someone or having disagreement, a temporary break or separation may be exactly what the doctor ordered. Separation — not talking, not communicating, whatever you want to call it — can actually be good for a relationship. Ever taken an agreed upon, fully mutual break from another person — even for just a few hours or a weekend? The result can be healthy.
Humans move on from people frequently and these leavings are judged both good and bad. You can mostly no longer communicate with someone and still maintain a relationship — one that is marked by the absence of communication. For example, I have people who I would call friends and yet I rarely if ever communicate with them. Some relationships are mostly absence. You might only talk once or twice a year or at even wider intervals than that. Your relationship may very well be strong, when you communicate it might be great, and the relationship can be so very satisfying — yet it’s mostly absence. It appears that absence can be just fine and dandy. How strange.
We move on from people and sometimes we realize that not talking to them is better than doing so, and we find ourselves much happier in communication abstentia than we would be otherwise.
The fact is that in any relationship — even the good ones, the ones we maintain — we’re not always jabbering back and forth. Even in good relationships, there’s plenty of time spent not communicating.
The absence of communication is, in a sense, a requirement for a relationship. We can’t communicate with everyone all the time — that’s physically, mentally, emotionally impossible.
It’s mostly low-density space between us it seems. That’s along the lines of what the physicists seem to think about space too. It’s not empty, it’s certainly not always full, but it’s there and it’s doing something.
Artwork: Blue Spot © Bernard Cohen, Tate Gallery, London, UK.