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The Aesthetics of Silence

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Monday, Dec 12, 2005

Dating is kind of hassle, what, with all that talking you have to do with the other person. And speed dating, yes, that keeps the chitchat to a minimum but there’s still a lot of meaningless blather. That’s why this is so brilliant. A speed-dating panel where you are forbidden to speak but instead stare into a strangers eyes for a few minutes. “Rather than condemn singles to yammering about tired topics like where they grew up and what they do for a living, Mr. Ellsberg created Eye Gazing Parties, events at which singles sit and stare at one another in silence for three minutes at a time.” One of the many upsides of this is that it allows you to think more intensely and speculatively about the other person without getting hung up on whether your speculations have any connection to reality: “As Ryan Parks, a 26-year-old hedge fund research analyst from Brooklyn Heights, summed it up: ‘Why are you sad? Why are you optimistic? You start asking yourself all these deep questions about the person you’re looking at, and they’re all so much better than the dumb questions of normal small talk.’ “


Susan Sontag, in Styles of Radical Will wrote a long meditative essay about art’s long trajectory toward saying nothing, from refusing to communicate at all as a way of purifying itself, of reflecting the decayed possibilities for communication in the modern world and the essential emptiness of all possible subject matter, a rejection of thought and consciousness altogether. Maybe in his small way, this hedge-fund manager is taking a radical leap toward obliterating his own consciousness. This whole stare-dating could be seen as an egalitarian way for the most business-minded of us to participate in the iconclasm and nihilism of the art world on a lark. ” ‘It’s not just a dating situation, it’s a social experiment,’ suggested Linda Minami, a financial consultant who lives on the Upper West Side.” (Why are only Wall Street types involved? Do they know of a cost/benefit analysis of speech that discourages it?) It’s strange that these people need to go to a bar for fits of concentrated staring. Don’t they ride the subway? I have ambiguous staring contests on the train every single day, and I too find myself wondering why the people I see are “sad” or “optimistic.” Silence is the preserve of strangers who want to stay that way; it opens up the imagination in a sense, but seals it off from the reality of these other people’s lives that you simply couldn’t possibly imagine.


This phenomenon seems a reaction and a rejection of what the Internet enables, endless discourse of ever-increasing intensity with no palpable sense of the other person. Staring gives you the palpable sense of the Other (cap O? Why not? A little something for the Lacanians), but nothing else.

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