Both the material substrate for signifying elements and a signifying element in its own right, silence functions like the white space between the marks of writing or drawing, a background that is also a foreground and a potential for meaningful difference that is always already actualized as such once recognized. In its paradoxical generativity, silence is what a deconstructive critic might term “arche-silence”: just as both “speech” and “writing” emerge from “arche-writing,” according to deconstructive philosopher Jacques Derrida, so sound and silence arise from a hypothetical muteness that is displaced and figured by “room tone” in realist cinema, the background noise of a diegetic space that does not even register as sound, which instead emerges from meaningful contrasts with it, even as it also admixes with it, so that the absence of room tone itself speaks volumes. Similarly, human speech arises out of, against, and perfused with what philosopher Jean Luc Nancy discusses as “borborygmos,” the bodily rumblings that form the “silent” background of and blend with any speech. “Arche-silence” thus functions like Plato’s chora, the non-place in which the difference between the intelligible and the sensible can be thought, or in linguist and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva’s appropriation of that Platonic concept, a virtual space out of which mother and child can emerge as separate individuals, in large part through the infant’s nonsense vocalizations, like laughter, crying, babble, and echolalias; the latter cut into and mark the limits of the background hum of a fusional, oceanic oneness and function as proto-signifiers, anticipations of the meaningful differences of language assumed with the sexed identity resolving what psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan terms Symbolic castration. Lacan suggests that silence can figure the voice or even the gaze as “objet (petit) a,” object (little) a, the cause of desire, since it seems to say a great deal without saying anything at all, thus invoking anxiety about what is behind it and the subject’s fantasmatic resolution of that enigma; for that reason, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud associates silence—like darkness and solitude—with the uncanny.
According to silent cinema theorists, a visual sign evokes sound better than an acoustic one; they lamented the loss to which the addition of sound subjected the film audience in the name of greater fidelity to reality, just as for Romantic poet John Keats, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter….” In a similar vein, Marxist theorist Theodor Adorno notes the way the noise of the recording medium that partially obstructs the voice of a singer actually makes it all the more powerful–the function of what Lacan terms the screen, which creates the illusion of something beyond it. Derrida identifies the silence of the authentic voice with the metaphysics of presence, as in phenomenological reasoning about the pure, silent speech of auto-affection, in which the alien materiality of acoustic or written signifiers and the violence of naming that brought the subject and objects into being in the first place are rendered mute and invisible in “self-presence.”