Our next post in The Voices of the People symposium (full programme here) is by William Pooley, currently a Past and Present Fellow at the IHR and soon to take up a Lectureship at the University of Bristol. In another example of the kind of thoughtful reflection on the practice of writing ‘history from below’ that Tim Hitchcock called for in our opening post, Will asks whether ‘silences’ might have as much to tell as us ‘voices’, and addresses some of the methodological issues involved in pursuing and interpreting them.
Are voices really what we should be looking for?
There is a cultural critique to be made here. In her post, Julia Laite warned against the danger of ‘rescuing’ historical voices who might not want to have been rescued. Many of the participants in this symposium will discuss humble individuals compelled to speak by external authorities. These people did not want ‘voices’, they wanted bread, security, or just to be left alone.
My post adds a more theoretical critique to this cultural one.
‘Voice’, after all, is a slippery concept, run through by an inescapable tension between tangibility and evanescence. It is somehow real, physical, and bodily, yet also unseizable and temporary. No historian working on the period before sound recordings can do anything other than read the writing of the people, or the writing about them. We study the pictures of the people, their material culture, perhaps their remains, or their genetics. And even when recordings or living people are available as sources, there is no way to fix their orality in satisfying and absolute permanence.
Might it be fairer to say that many historians of popular culture (or whatever we would like to call what we do) study the silences of the people more often than their voices?
Perhaps this is not as damning as it sounds.
Many anthropologists and folklorists have shown that silences in everyday life are far from devoid of meaning, and such silences were central to my project on the everyday cultures of southwestern France in the nineteenth century. The voices I was interested in were those of the men and women who told stories and sang songs for the folklorist Félix Arnaudin (1844-1921) between around 1870 and 1914.
In the book I’m writing about these agricultural labourers, shepherds, farm-wives, and artisans, I am particularly interested in four types of silence that I would call phenomenological, cultural, coded, and indifferent. These types are not entirely distinct, but interfere with one another. Neither are they a complete list of possible silences, being simply the ones I found most compelling in my project.
In a book exploring what it feels like to have a body (or to be one), the philosopher Drew Leder has pointed out that our own body could most helpfully be called an ‘absent presence’. For most people, most of the time, the body is absent from our conscious attention, even though it is always present. We notice our bodies when we are hungry, or in pain, or when we feel pleasure, shame, or embarrassment. This phenomenological ‘silence’ of the body was important to how I understood the lives of the men and women that interested me, as it reminded me that many of their most basic yet most important everyday experiences go unmentioned in their songs and stories.
Yet this phenomenological silence is also historical. The categories of things that rural people in southwestern France at the time considered unremarkable and the things they considered discussible are not the same categories that operate in everyday life in the world I live in. There were surprisingly few mentions of the cosmetic aspects of the body that are so important to my communities – hairstyles and bodily upkeep – nor of injuries, of which there must have been plenty in working life. Absent, too, much reflection on faces and heads. On the other hand, the digestive system seems – to me – more present in everyday speech, especially in terms of its entrance and exit, gleefully mentioned in contexts that might seem wholly inappropriate for us. People talked more readily of buttocks, legs, the strength of the lower body.
Cultural silences are of more obvious significance to historians. Some cultures have simply been sparer with their words, such as the Quakers. In fact, this is a judgment several historians have passed on rural France, including David Hopkin.
But it can be hard to say where such ‘cultural’ silences begin and end. I have already explored the point where silences we might think of as phenomenological can be historically specific. On the other hand, men such as Félix believed the culture of silence of ordinary labourers was somehow related to the silence of the empty landscape of the moorlands of the southwest. A local novelist called Edmond About wrote in similar terms of a ‘harmony’ between the quiet demeanour of the rural population, their simple clothes, and the deserted heaths.
I think these ‘cultural’ silences are most meaningful at the points where they are specific: for example, the absence of explicit discussion of certain bodily experiences that I have mentioned, or the absences of emotional expression that Julie-Marie Strange has explored.
Perhaps they even deserve another category when they become historical, when the sayability of ideas, feelings, and experiences changes in different contexts.
Here, these cultural silences necessarily touch on questions of power and domination, which I have found it useful to think of in terms of coding.
When subordinated populations have not been able to verbally express their grievances, because their protests were unsayable, or because they had no language to express what was wrong with the status quo, historians have decoded the rituals and bodily performances that allowed humble people to protest in more ways than words alone.
I suggest going further.
Not only have subordinate populations often found indirect ways of expressing their grievances, but silence itself could be a threat. I have written elsewhere about a storyteller from another part of France who was willing to tell a folklorist what he knew about a legendary curse, but proved less willing to share the secret of how to lift it. Ignorance it could be, but I argued it was defiance.
I think it important to notice that in this situation, where a middle-class ethnographer tries to compel a working-class informant to speak about their culture, the easy association we sometimes draw between voice and agency is turned on its head.
My project has also been interested in how silence expresses indifference.
One example concerns the dramatic environmental changes that took place in the region, as the open moorlands were replaced with a huge industrial pine forest. Social elites at the time tended to assume that the local population was strongly opposed to the forestation of the moorlands, yet Félix found little trace of anger in the stories he recorded.
I am also very interested in the silences of one woman, a seamstress named Catherine Gentes. While many of Félix’s singers sang bawdy, sexual, and romantic songs, Catherine systematically played down the importance of love and sexuality in her songs. I argued this was because Catherine embodied a heightened sexual role in her community because of the cultural associations with seamstresses and women with disabilities at the time. By passing over sex in silence, I argue that Catherine sent a strong message about her indifference.
What, then, are the benefits to be gained from paying attention to these different silences? Let me just suggest two:
- By paying attention to silences we evoke the experiences and attitudes of a wider range of historical actors. We interpret the opinions not just of those who spoke out, or who acted, but also those who didn’t, and we try to think about why they didn’t. We find clues about social categories and voicelessness.
- We also gain a more expansive sense of popular agency. Fundamentally, this is a history where ordinary people are doing more. People ‘do things’ with silence as much as with words. An important criticism of ‘history from below’, made by Jim Sharpe, for instance, was that it overplayed the importance of politics to the working population. But if politics is more than what people say, and political motivations can be read into silences, perhaps there is room to revise this criticism a little. As Tara Zahra has pointed out in a challenging article on ‘nationalism’, indifference itself needs to be historicised. Indifference is in some senses a choice, with political ramifications, as certain no-show voters brought rather forcefully in the UK’s recent general election.
It would be easy to call what I am doing perverse.
Even as historians are discovering that, in David Hopkin’s words, ‘the archives of the poor are not quite so empty as had once been assumed’, I am advocating attention to emptiness. But I think the key point here is how much my interest in silences depends on what people did say. The game is always to use absences to interrogate and corroborate the voices we can hear.
Other critics might point out that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
But I think there is also an answer to this well-known criticism. Most of the examples I have discussed are examples of silences that are explicitly framed by words. For instance, Félix was surprised to find so few stories embodying popular resistance to forestation. Both he, and other writers thought it worth noting how silent rural cultures were. I know which songs Catherine did not sing because Félix developed an interest in recording the absences in some of his singers’ repertoires. Even in the case of the bodily silences which I have called phenomenological, these absences are framed by a sea of words. The body parts or experiences that went unmentioned in the thousands of pages of everyday speech Félix scribbled down stand out against the backdrop of more commonly discussed organs and feelings.
Can silences mean anything and everything to different historians? Do we simply infer what we want from empty spaces?
I don’t think so. After all, we infer meanings from voices, too. Why not import critical methods about how we interpret intention, meaning, and emotion in words to how we do so with silence?
The question becomes: what types of silence do historians identify? Beyond the ones I have suggested, Jonathan Healey talked of ‘empirical’ silences and disclaiming knowledge as two possible categories during the workshop in May. What of censorship and self-censorship?
There are dangers here. Dangers of attributing voices to people who did not want ‘voice’, and dangers of inference and interpretation. But what greater danger can there be for historians than our own indifference to the ways people in the past made meaning not only with words, but without them?
 A point that folklorists and anthropologists were making before oral history’s dramatic rise. See for example: Dennis Tedlock, “On the Translation of Style in Oral Narrative,” The Journal of American Folklore 84, no. 331 (March 1971): 114–33.
 Keith H. Basso, “‘To Give up on Words’: Silence in Western Apache Culture,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 26, no. 3 (October 1, 1970): 213–30; Richard Bauman, Let Your Words Be Few: Symbolism of Speaking and Silence Among Seventeenth-Century Quakers (Wheatmark Inc, 2008); William Samarin, “Language of Silence,” Practical Anthropology 12 (1965): 115–19.
 Drew Leder, The Absent Body, 1st ed. (University Of Chicago Press, 1990).
 Or ‘cultural’: here (as at other points) the categories I am suggesting blur.
 There is, of course, more than a touch of Rabelais to this. Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World. (Cambridge, Mass., M. I. T. Press, 1968).
 Bauman, Let Your Words Be Few.
 See, for example: Alain Corbin, The Life of an Unknown: The Rediscovered World of a Clog Maker in Nineteenth-Century France, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 66; David M. Hopkin, Voices of the People in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 101, 132.
 Edmond About, Maître Pierre (BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2009 ), 40–1.
 Julie-Marie Strange, “‘She Cried a Very Little’: Death, Grief and Mourning in Working-Class Culture, C. 1880-1914,” Social History 27, no. 2 (May 1, 2002): 143–61.
 Of many examples, the ones that interest me have been: Alain Corbin, The Village of Cannibals : Rage and Murder in France, 1870, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1992); Natalie Zemon Davis, “The Sacred and the Body Social in Sixteenth-Century Lyon,” Past & Present, no. 90 (February 1981): 40–70; Peter Sahlins, Forest Rites: The War of the Demoiselles in Nineteenth-Century France (Harvard University Press, 1994).
 James C Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); James C Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990); Joan Newlon Radner, ed., Feminist Messages: Coding in Women’s Folk Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993).
 William G. Pooley, “Can The ‘Peasant’ Speak? Witchcraft and Silence in Guillaume Cazaux’s ‘The Mass of Saint Sécaire.’” Western Folklore 71, no. 2 (2012).
 It’s a point I find in: Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997).
 Jacques Sargos, Histoire de la forêt landaise: du désert à l’âge d’or (Bordeaux: l’Horizon chimérique, 1997).
 J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures Delivered in Harvard University in 1955, 2nd ed. (Oxford Paperbacks, 1976).
 Jim Sharpe, “History from Below,” in New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke, 2nd Edition (Polity Press, 2001), 28–9.
 Tara Zahra, “Imagined Noncommunities: National Indifference as a Category of Analysis,” Slavic Review 69, no. 1 (April 1, 2010): 93–119, doi:10.2307/25621730.
 David M. Hopkin, Voices of the People, 8.