- ISBN: 9780226693521
- Published By: University of Chicago Press
- Published: August 2020
As with many of Mark C. Taylor’s brilliant writings, Seeing Silence evades strict categorization. For example, Taylor begins and ends with personal meditations on home, family, and life’s many changes. In other chapters, Seeing Silence works simultaneously as cultural criticism, art criticism, ascetic spiritual manual, and a/theological speculation. Those who are new to Taylor’s work will find much to enjoy and consider, though readers familiar with his oeuvre will likely get the most out of this latest work.
Taylor’s style in Seeing Silence shies away from his more analytical prose that readers would recognize from After God, in which he attempts to provide a comprehensive re-definition of religion: “Religion is an emergent, complex, adaptive network of symbols, myths, and rituals that, on the one hand, figure schemata of feeling, thinking and acting in ways that lend life meaning and purpose and, on the other, disrupt, dislocate and disfigure every stabilizing structure” (Mark C. Taylor, After God, University of Chicago Press, 2007). Compare this to Taylor’s definition in Seeing Silence: “Religion is the apprehension of the Unspeakable, Unnamable, Unknowable, Unfigurable once named ‘God’ or ‘God beyond God’” (2). While this comparison may seem as if Taylor has moved away from an either/or, cataphatic, analytic style toward a more neither/nor, apophatic, Continental style in Seeing Silence, the truth in fact lies beyond the dialectic, in silence. Taylor creatively plays with elements in the text in order to structurally convey his reflections on silence’s power. For example, Taylor observes that “Communication is impossible apart from the silent pauses, lapses, and gaps in discourse” (90). With that in mind, he includes (non-)chapters (4, 8, and 12) which are only a single printed page with the chapter number and an ellipsis. This tactic of placing (non-)chapters between thematic chapters is effective at conveying the very “pauses, lapses, and gaps in discourse” to which Taylor refers.
Through philosophical rumination on artworks in various media, Taylor brings the reader into active reflection on silence. For example, Taylor considers composer John Cage’s controversial 4’33,” an orchestral piece in which musicians are directed not to play their instruments for the duration of the “performance.” In the ensuing chapter, Taylor evokes the silence of 4’33” to highlight the prevalence of modern noise as critiqued in works like Don Delillo’s White Noise, Filippo Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism, and Kierkegaard’s criticism of chatter in The Present Age. This chapter is one of the more theoretical and literary chapters in the entire work and it sets important thematic groundwork. Taylor also begins his practice of directing readers’ own reflections with perplexing questions: “If noise is white, what color is silence? If death is black, what color is life? If sound is death, might silence be life?” (44).
Taylor powerfully tells personal and meaningful anecdotes when reflecting on his own feelings of creative awe. The most engagingly innovative chapters include his experiential meditations on works of architectural or environmental art. Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, for example, provided the inspiration for Seeing Silence. Heizer’s masterpiece, which is located in the desert outside Las Vegas, is a piece of land art comprised of two trenches dug on either side of a canyon, drawing the viewer’s attention to the negative space between. Describing the experience of viewing Double Negative from above via helicopter, Taylor reflects in a journal entry: “The only response to this something, which is really nothing, is awe—awe that can only be called religious. To experience this awe, you must let silence enter you. […] What I could not have known then was that Seeing Silence began that night” (186).
While the volume contains interesting and helpful prints of Taylor’s personal photographs, whether from his family archive or of his personal landscape architecture, there are no depictions of the artistic works he describes. The decision not to include visual prints of discussed artworks is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the reader is dependent upon Taylor’s poetic and vivid written descriptions of artworks, a move which foregrounds the inadequacy of words and language to fully say what is happening in an artwork. This is certainly in keeping thematically with Taylor’s overall argument regarding expressing the inexpressible. Yet the decision not to include visual depictions of the various studio and architectural works that are mentioned throughout the book stands in contrast with Taylor’s own emphasis on readers taking time for constructive silence and aesthetic-spiritual appreciation. This reviewer thinks that an innovative way of paratextually including visual depictions of art in the text would enliven Seeing Silence as a whole.
Readers interested in philosophical aesthetics, life writing, Continental hermeneutics, and negative or apophatic theology will find much to enjoy and ponder in Seeing Silence. Simply put, Seeing Silence is an innovative, enlightening, personal work that rewards careful reading and deep appreciation.
David Greder is an assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Waldorf University.David GrederDate Of Review:August 8, 2022