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e-flux conversations

The Virtues of Quiet Withdrawal


At the Baffler website, Maddie Crum examines two recent books that explore the virtues of silence and invisibility in an era of nonstop chatter and compulsive visibility: How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency by Akiko Busch, and Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives by Jane Brox. As Crum notes, these books suggest that quiet withdrawal can be not only personally restorative, but politically powerful. Here’s an excerpt:

Invisibility, Busch argues, has too long been conflated with furtive behavior; a cloak of invisibility, for example, is rarely used to perform good deeds. But in the face of an onslaught on privacy, might it be time to rethink our tendency to conflate periods of social withdrawal with self-soothing, “self care,” or straight-up selfishness? Might stretches of time spent alone—and offline—lead to pro-social behavior in the long run?

In Silence, Brox emphasizes that the potential of silence as an act of protest comes from the fact that it can’t be commodified. “Today, the small, cut-up things of time have become inextricably mixed with our idea of participation in society,” she writes. That is, regular, incremental forms of self-expression are more valued than occasional, considered ones. Silence, on the other hand, “doesn’t keep pace with the world. It has nothing to add to material gain, nor to the clamor of daily life.” But protest is not the only lens through which these writers approach their subjects. What both Brox and Busch are ultimately interested in is the suppression of ego. It’s easier to listen when you aren’t speaking, and it’s easier to envision your place within a broader landscape when you look outside of yourself.

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