Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Communicator's Quandry: Silence is Golden....or Silence = Death

I've been making the acquaintance of silence lately.

This is not an unpleasant development, as Pico Iyer recently outlined. The growing array of electronic devices holding ever-louder levels of chatter can be an Issue. For example, I'm on the record as experiencing mixed feelings about my use of Facebook and other social media channels. As a Content Producer, also known as a Professional Communicator, I kind of dig the opportunity to spend hour after hour in complete silence.

Same time, I'm also a divorced Mom of two school-aged children. This means two things, where silence is concerned:

-- No matter what happens during my "normal" weekday, whether I operate by day in solitude or mingle in a bustling metropolis, I will indeed be required to talk by the time Lights Out arrives in my home. Electronic devices -- TV, iPods, or computers -- are likely to be deployed at some point during most evenings, though I do impose moratoriums now and again. Also, I am compelled to advocate for my children in settings and contexts, sometimes, that are not ideal or comfortable, even for a relative extrovert like me.

-- Secondly, work (which I must engage in) usually involves talking. As a Professional Communicator I have for many years earned income by, well... Communicating: ideas, messages, narratives expressed to various audiences, across a variety of delivery vehicles.

Thus the concept of hours' worth of consistent "silence" is new and intriguingly, now somewhat sexy to me. The prospect of utter Thoreau-level quietude is appealing to me...to a point. I can't say that I recall appreciating silence very much before in my adult life, not profoundly or meditatively. As Iyer recently observed in his essay in the Times, it has become an expensive luxury for people to be able to "afford" silence. Which is to say that if you have to get out in the world and work, you probably will suffer a range of distractions. Being able to "drop out," or more refreshingly, check in to an off the beaten path retreat takes money.

I came of age during the 1980s, when ACT-UP and swaths of other Americans regularly marched the streets chanting, "Silence equals Death!," an understandable response to the Government's inaction on the growing AIDS crisis. I come from a culture and time when Speaking Out was expected, encouraged, praised. The Personal is the Political, is how I was brought up. Obviously ideally, there is a separation between between one's personal life and one's work-life, particularly in the context of when and where it is appropriate to speak up or choose silence.

Increasingly, though, I'm questioning the pragmatism of the viability of being outspoken in any context. Speaking up these days may not be the best course, even in the face of crazy-bad domestic and international problems and with the advent of cheap and available "communications" devices. We are drowning in data and information yet far too short on goodwill, understanding and compassion. Folks are especially tetchy these days, no matter where you find them. Economic insecurity is not new for America but it does feel to me at this time as if our body politic is experiencing an epic level of paranoia and fearfulness. A collective kind of spiritual corrosion that is blurring the line -- in all kinds of spaces and contexts -- between integrity and unscrupulousness. We've been forced to get "lean and mean" in a growing number of places, not inherently a bad thing. Except that in too many instances, the emphasis is on the "mean" end of that equation.

There is precedent for such technology-driven cultural paradox, to be sure. As a student of American history, I take comfort (however cold) in understanding that such tension is not new. And while I do not live in the past, I am willing to consider all manner of historic scenarios, even in fiction form, to find tropes, metaphors, themes, that may help guide me.

During the recent holiday break, I brought my 12 year-old daughter to see The Artist at the American Film Institute Silver Theater and Cultural Center near where we live in suburban Washington, DC.

If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it, especially if you are interested in the enduring dilemma of old technologies replacing new, and the forced obsolescence of workers that can result. I won't review the film here but will say that it's protagonist, a silent movie actor name of "George Valentin" -- wonderfully portrayed by Jean Dujardin -- is an updated version of Gene Kelly's silent film heart-throb "Don Lockwood," from the 1952 Hollywood classic musical Singin' in the Rain.

Valentin, like Lockwood, is a big film star in the silent movie era....until he is thrown for a loop by the onset of "talkies," state-of-the-art films that required actors to not just look great and be hyper-physical but to actually master the refined art of speaking a part; to actually give voice to a character.

Unlike Lockwood, though, Valentin stubbornly resists the changing winds, and spirals to despair: He can't get work, he won't accept the help of an actress who sincerely wants to draw him safely into the new sphere, he becomes paralyzed and then despondent.
The Artist's director cleverly employs some of the most cliched conventions of silent films and parodies them all at once. Valentin's chosen solution to his misery will not surprise you but the plot's resolution is crisp, believable, and sweet.

We talked about how fun the movie was, my daughter and I, as we darted out of the Silver Theater on a chilly, gray post-Christmas day. She is a fan of American films from the '30s--'60s, and is developing a refined eye and ear for nuances. Storytelling, of course, is at the core of effective Communicating, so I lean toward indulging her in this burgeoning interest.

Yet what I didn't share with her as we huddled beneath an umbrella along Colesville Road following our viewing is this: I identified with "George Valentin" profoundly. His character, it turns out -- and yes, here is a "spoiler alert" -- experiences paralysis at the prospect of diving in to talking films because he is.......insecure. Acutely insecure. And it paralyzes him.

Despite his luminous physical talent and solid intellect, he freezes up at the thought of having to verbalize a character. The director of
The Artist, to his credit, gives viewers hints of Valentin's insecurity-cum-malady in a handful of subtle visual cues and with two astonishing sound-oriented pieces. I didn't quite connect the puzzle piece until the curtain had drawn at The Silver, which is in its restored Art Deco splendor, the perfect place to see such a movie.

But when I asked my daughter why she felt Valentin had so stubbornly held out from diving in to talkies, she said, "Oh, he had a THING about talking. He may have had a speech impediment, or some kind of similar issue. For whatever reason, he didn't think he could do it," she continued. "So at first he tried to be cavalier and pretend it didn't matter. But then he got stuck, and he couldn't move forward even when it was obvious that he had to."

And so,....well. There it was, from the mouths of not-quite babes.

sub rosa agenda in taking my daughter to see The Artist was --at least this is what I thought it was before the film got underway -- primal foremost and intellectual second. I had wanted to sit among a crowd of people and experience art in relative silence; I wanted to see a story about someone who was struggling with a new medium. I wanted an artistic take on the potential costs and benefits, in the political context, of keeping silent.

I received that and much more: A finely drawn story of a skilled practitioner who freezes up in the face of looming change. It isn't that George Valentin could not easily adapt it is that he could not easily compartmentalize. Like many 'creative types," he felt his emotions perhaps too strongly, failed at shutting down his receptors. Valentin was sentimental about his trade, and yes, there was a purity and integrity to silent films....but who was to say that talkies could not also achieve those virtues? Wasn't George Valentin such a sap and loser for failing to Get with It?

Faced with the prospect of having to stretch and grow beyond merely physically emoting, Valentin preferred silence in those crucial moments when external forces imposed a need for transition, for action. It was a fear-driven preference that nearly killed him.

Of course, any viewer who comes away from this film and blames Valentin for becoming "stuck," has got to be one fucked up cold hearted asshole indeed. And yet, in the space where artistic and historic metaphor meets contemporary realities? The cold-hearted, fucked-up assholes today have pretty much rigged things in such a way that it can be impossible to know. You can be stuck, or unstuck, sailing along with the new program, faking it, or stopping momentarily to smell the flowers and it won't matter: You quite easily could be steamrolled based on dumb luck or due to a fleeting unwillingness (not the same as being "stuck") to Give it Up quickly.

Well then. I am learning to accept silence, to seek it and embrace it. Hopefully I can continue Communicating in the pro context but also find the space to go Silent and to speak up when and where I need to -- on my own terms, and not to the detriment of my livelihood.