Discourse and silencing

Discourse and silencing. Ed. by Lynn Thiesmeyer. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2003. Pp. x, 316. ISBN 9781588113856. $173 (Hb).

Reviewed by Laura Felton Rosulek, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Discourse and silencing is one of the very few collections of studies in the field of discourse analysis to use ‘silencing’, defined as ‘a way of using language to limit, remove or undermine the legitimacy of another use of language’ (2), as a theoretical term. The book is organized into three major themes: ‘Gender and the discourses of privacy’, ‘Law and institutional discourses’, and ‘National politics and the discourses of exclusion’. Thiesmeyer’s stated objective for the book is not only to discuss the theoretical notions and real-world examples of silencing, but also to demonstrate the commonalities within discourse-analysis studies on silencing despite the interdisciplinary nature of the field.

In Part 1 on gender has two chapters. Alison Towns, Peter Adams, and Nicola Gavey, in ‘Silencing talk of men’s violence towards women’, examine interviews of men who have abused their partners to see how they self-silence the discussion of their own violence and convince others to remain silent about it as well. In ‘Conversational styles and ellipsis in Japanese couples’ conversations’, Shoko Okazaki Yohena analyzes ellipses in the talk of Japanese couples for variations in use and interpretation. She finds that they can be used as a tool for remaining silent about a topic, and that filling in a partner’s ellipses with an unintended meaning can silence the speaker’s message.

Part 2 begins with Valérie Fridland’s ‘Quiet in the court: Attorneys’ silencing strategies during courtroom cross-examination’. She shows that during the cross-examination of an alleged sexual assault victim, the defense lawyer uses linguistic strategies to silence the witness’s own narration of the events. Patricia E. O’Connor, in ‘Telling bits: Silencing and the narratives behind prison walls’, discusses how the discourses of and about people in prison are silenced in our society, and how prisoners often self-silence their own experiences of violence within prisons. She then shows that by encouraging autobiographical discourse from inmates, one can break this silence in a potentially therapeutic way.

In Part 3, ‘National politics and the discourses of exclusion’, Ruth Wodak (‘Discourse of silence: Anti-Semitic discourse in post-war Austria’) shows that while the existence of antisemitism in Austria is denied or ignored, antisemitism does exist in the public discourse, though often in more covert linguistic forms. ‘Silencing by law: The 1981 Polish “Performances and Publications Control Act”’, by Dariusz Galasiński, discusses how a law in Poland legalized the silencing of topics in public discourse that were contrary to those in power and how the text of the law itself remained silent about its taking away the people’s freedom of speech. Finally, Sandra Lambertus, in ‘News discourse of Aboriginal resistance in Canada’, finds that, when comparing two newspaper articles on the same event, one silenced the discourse of a dominated group in favor of the discourse of a group in power, but the other included both.

The concluding article by Adam Jaworski, ‘Political silencing: A view from Laurie Anderson’s performance art’, shows how a performance artist mentions in her work some of the themes about silence that the previous authors discussed.

This book examines silencing in a wide range of contexts and from many different perspectives. It is an important resource for scholars interested in how social actors are kept from participating in discourses and how certain topics are kept hidden from public discourses. This book should serve well the field of sociolinguistics, and is a particularly important addition to theoretical studies in discourse analysis.