For about five years, I worked full-time as an internet writer at a high-traffic news site. It was a job I felt lucky to have, and one I had eagerly applied for. None of my editors mandated that I write in a chirpy voice; the editorial process was one that prioritized incisiveness and clarity. The company went through several shifts and regime changes during my time there—some of which involved unmanageable quotas—but my worth was never solely determined by the number of clicks I generated, even if metrics like these were discussed fervently.
Still, I began to feel that the pieces I published—which included book reviews, roundups, and pop culture “takes”—were tonally bright and therefore false, or at the very least, toothless. No one was asking me to write in this way, but I still felt an ambient pressure. This probably had to do with the speed at which we were expected to produce; it is simpler to write energetically than it is to slow down, rethink, and rearrange.
When I left that job to go to grad school, I felt that a dictum of constant speech had been lifted. Suddenly, there was time to read and observe, to put aside my own opinions while I steeped myself in the opinions of others. This was, of course, liberating. But I often find that I’m nostalgic for a time when I was more online. There are selfish reasons for this—FOMO and the dutiful maintenance of a professional “brand.” There are also altruistic reasons—or at least seemingly altruistic reasons. The internet has created new pressures to perform the role of political watchdog; all you need is a Twitter account to hassle the president, after all, or anyone else who is seen to have made an egregious misstep. And while this role feels at times like a self-serving posture—the language we use to call out those in power is seldom inventive, is in fact often recycled to the point of losing its potency, so that it’s the speaker and not always the cause that advances—it does make dissent visible.
It is simpler to write energetically than it is to slow down, rethink, and rearrange.
I thought about all this—the sordid boon of social media—while reading two new books about withdrawal from the public sphere. In How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency, Akiko Busch considers how going unseen relates to the internet, a place where our private lives have become valuable commodities. Jane Brox, the author of Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives, is less interested in the specifics of social media but nevertheless considers how quietude can be a virtue, and even a progressive tool, amid clamor.
Both Busch and Brox recognize that their subjects—invisibility and silence—are more obviously linked with oppression than liberation. To be invisible can mean to have your rights, and even your existence, go unrecognized; to be silenced, having your opinions quelled or your lived experience denied. Brox devotes a section of her book to the violent historical silencing of enslaved people and of women, graphically describing the iron bridle affixed to the head of town scolds and gossips—anyone considered disobedient for speaking subversively, for speaking loudly, or for speaking in public at all. The bridle “made it hard for her to swallow her saliva, and some bits were long enough to make a woman gag,” she writes. Brox also visits Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary, where solitary confinement was first instated. Originally, the prison was drawn up as a humane alternative to carceral institutions like London’s notorious Newgate prison, which Captain Alexander Smith once called a “bottomless pit of violence, a Tower of Babel where all are speakers and no hearers.” (A hyperbolic Twitter user might say this is an apt metaphor for the platform.) But enforced silence, it turned out, was torturous in its own right. Brox describes the practices begun at Eastern State as “the kind of silence that is inextricable from obedience.”
Busch demonstrates that unchosen and therefore painful versions of social withdrawal aren’t always as obvious as a bridle or a jail cell. The first essay in How to Disappear begins with an analysis of children’s games, which are, for many of us, our first experience of going unseen. On hide-and-seek, she quotes D.W. Winnicott, who wrote in a Freudian study of childhood development that “it is a joy to be hidden but disaster to not be found.” Busch echoes this paradox, but inverts it. “We all wish to be seen,” she writes, “but it is perilous.”
Today, the perils of being seen are obvious. To be seen and heard online is to brace yourself for reactions, which are immediate and public. It’s become difficult to decouple expression from how it’ll likely be received, to share without an awareness of how it’ll play out. Will my opinions be misunderstood, and if so, what will the consequences be? Or, will my opinions be championed, showered in the likes I’ve been incentivized to crave? Fear of rebuke may prevent a writer from expressing negative or controversial thoughts; likewise, the hope of reward can lead to a glossier, catchier, and therefore more banal tone. “The impulse to escape notice is not about complacent isolation or senseless conformity,” then, as Busch writes, “but about maintaining identity, propriety, autonomy and voice.”
Beyond the psychological effects of life online, there are questions of privacy, of who exactly benefits from all this sharing and speaking out. In Busch’s words, “the idyll of connectivity offered up by social media is a knife’s edge away from the surveillance state.” The truth is that the line has already been blurred: the tech companies that monitor our browsing habits function like Panopticons, surveying many solitary lives at once—and selling that extracted data to the highest bidder. The more we share of ourselves, the more our selves are laid out to be parceled as commodities. Invisibility, Busch argues, has too long been conflated with furtive behavior; a cloak of invisibility, for example, is rarely used to perform good deeds. But in the face of an onslaught on privacy, might it be time to rethink our tendency to conflate periods of social withdrawal with self-soothing, “self care,” or straight-up selfishness? Might stretches of time spent alone—and offline—lead to pro-social behavior in the long run?
In Silence, Brox emphasizes that the potential of silence as an act of protest comes from the fact that it can’t be commodified. “Today, the small, cut-up things of time have become inextricably mixed with our idea of participation in society,” she writes. That is, regular, incremental forms of self-expression are more valued than occasional, considered ones. Silence, on the other hand, “doesn’t keep pace with the world. It has nothing to add to material gain, nor to the clamor of daily life.” But protest is not the only lens through which these writers approach their subjects. What both Brox and Busch are ultimately interested in is the suppression of ego. It’s easier to listen when you aren’t speaking, and it’s easier to envision your place within a broader landscape when you look outside of yourself.
Each chapter of How to Disappear follows a new attempt made by Busch to quiet her sense of self. She scuba dives and learns to stay still enough that her presence is subsumed by her surroundings; fish whiz by and she passes unnoticed. Underwater, “we are unable to speak, and that stills us in some essential way,” Busch writes. “The human voice is absent, replaced by the sound of breathing, a gentle repetition that induces a further calm.” She also remarks on the humble utility of a rock plant and of stick-like bugs—species that blend in seamlessly with their environs. But Busch would do well to carry some of these metaphors from the natural world a step further; it is, after all, often prey, and not predators, for whom invisibility is an asset—a means of survival. She makes a stronger point when writing about awe, citing a study in which students were found to be “more generous” after staring up at the tops of trees, as opposed to the tops of skyscrapers. “The feelings of self-diminishment that came from being in a natural setting eliciting awe and wonder also resulted in . . . pro-social behavior,” she observes.
Might it be time to rethink our tendency to conflate periods of social withdrawal with self-soothing, “self care”?
Where Busch cites examples from nature, Brox turns to religion. She notes that early Quakers believed the rigor required of silence would allow them to focus less on transient things, among them their own thoughts and desires. Silence would aid, instead, in what nineteenth century theologian Caroline Stephen called “a resolute fixing of the heart upon that which is unchangeable and eternal.” But for a secular person—or any person who’s civically engaged—an exclusive focus on the unchangeable may seem too fatalistic, even irresponsible. This was the case for Thomas Merton, a writer and Trappist monk who published prolifically during the Cold War era. Many of Merton’s writings were centered on pacifism; disturbed by the atrocities of World War II, Merton went on to assert that peace was a viable alternative to war, and not only a childish dream. Implying that his commitment to contemplative solitude paved the way for this work, Brox holds Merton up as a kind of ideal for the social good that can come from silence. As Merton himself wrote, “the only justification for a life of deliberate solitude is the conviction that it will help you to love not only God but also other men.”
Of course, not everyone who chooses to be silent means well. There are passive, lazy silences. There are silences that are intended to injure. “Just as speech has its degrees of integrity, so does silence, which can become an unthinking exercise or an excuse for noninvolvement,” Brox writes. “And a silence practiced too simply, too much for its own end, is not silence so much as muteness.” These more injurious forms of silence raise questions that both Brox and Busch touch on but, disappointingly, fail to really wrestle with. Is speaking out something that we owe the voiceless—of today and of generations past—or is speaking on someone else’s behalf only another way of drowning them out? And, if we’re not to speak on behalf of others—if we’re instead to empower others to speak—where is the line between empowerment and expectation, even exploitation? Are some people more trapped than others in the so-called attention economy, compelled to sacrifice more of their privacy because it’s the best way for them to be recognized? Might it be fair for them to begrudge those whose worth is accepted as a matter of course for their comfortable silence?
Both Brox and Busch give us idealized examples of social withdrawal: jet-setting to Iceland, where the stark, dramatic landscape without calls for placidity within; sequestering oneself in a monastery for the sake of stillness. It’s unclear how someone with a greater number of social obligations—a family, a job—someone without the autonomy (or liquidity) that such solitude requires, might put these ideals into practice. Would it even be possible, in the midst of so much noise? These books are not how-to guides, but ultimately what both writers argue for is the right to discretion—to toggle at will between visibility and invisibility, to not have to earn your place by shouting out your worth. If only it were so simple.