Silent Survival: American Nationalism among Family, War, and Sport – by Bryan C. Clift

Sound is saturated with worlding capacity. Yet, Western knowledges, noted for ocular-centrism, often reject, marginalize, or overlook critical and theoretical inquiries of the auditory. For example, through music Paul Gilroy, in The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, illustrated how cultural nationalism both constructs immutable and absolute ethnic differences among “black” and “white” people while also providing the courage to survive. As perceived minimal or lack of sound silence is worthy of investigation too. In the middle of a quieter event less prominently recognized sounds come into the fore; amid silence you may find yourself alone with your thoughts; and most importantly, meanings form and are formed through sound and silence. Probing silence as a modality of meaning and meaning making contributes toward contextual and critical understanding.

Experiencing silenceSitting in the Baltimore terminal the gate-agent announced my flight was boarding. Like most other passengers I scrambled myself together and proceeded to clog the walkway while waiting for the broadcast of my boarding zone, zone six. One group of people, though, did not resemble the rest of the passengers; it was a family of four. One woman and man and I presumed their two daughters huddled close together just to the side and rear of the line of overhasty passengers. The mother and wife cried. The two daughters were sad and excited; they looked as though they had done this before. The husband carried a look of concern, preparation, and determinateness. As the Man walked away and inserted himself into the boarding column of people, a seemingly vapid line to me, I realized this was for him both a trial and node of transformation. The near silence of the moment overran all else.

The woman never lost eyesight of her husband in line, she watched him after their last embrace to the moment he moved behind the bland taupe wall that obscured his body from her view. The father looked back only once. Almost synchronic but for the brief flash of his eyes taking in his family, his head went down and his eyes locked onto the footsteps in front of him yet to come. No smile, no tears, no frown, two kisses, and three or four fingers flicked left and right a few times in the stacatto moment. The man dressed in Camo walking toward a plane in a lonely tunnel filled with people, the small silent gesture as a prelude to war spoke deafeningly. The woman stood for a moment, her head dropped into her hands for instant before she embraced her two daughters and they walked back down the terminal together.

Two silences of family. Witnessing the family described above alerted me to sound. While observing them I realized that I perceived relative silence regardless of the likely sound abound. I became curious as to the sounds the family members might have heard, if silence was involved in their perceptions, and how their auditory perceptions contributed toward the meanings constructed therein. For the family, specifically the woman and man, perhaps this sound was a protective and coping mechanism. The woman remaining with her two daughters likely carried familial responsibility, a job, and a generally patterned life to sustain. The silence was a tonal shift for her; her life moved from one wherein her husband is physically present to one without. The man who took up his military assignment the silence constituted a shift from his family to a life of rank, file, and order. The silence brought him into a world where loss and pain deter militaristic goals; to survive necessarily locked away these human characteristics. How sad for war to bring about self-suppression and oppression. The silence catalyzed the division of their lives and separated, to whatever degree they assigned, one way of life from another. In both instances, silence facilitated survival by separation.

Surely a personal experience for the family whose familial and individual meanings I can only speculate, I attune my interest toward a broader cultural meaning. My perception of silence called to attention the man’s family and uniform. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) no longer allows non-passengers from entering airport terminals; families are not allowed, save those military families. On American soil the servicing person is different, highlighted by that difference, and re-colonized to further instill American nationalism. The silent moment encourages recognition of the soldier off to war and together with a family his sacrifice is supported by public patriotic sentiment: What if this were your family? Once on board numerous passengers offered applause at a flight attendant’s announcement that American military personnel were onboard and requested thanks and honor for their service. The silence in the terminal reverberated via passengers’ applause. Lightly and subtly this logic sings, “be grateful.” Articulated by and through applause preceded by silence American ideals survive.

Two silences of warfare. One of the most recognizable features of warfare is the astonishingly explosive sounds war machines produce. Important in the production and reception of sound is human interpretation, or lived sound. Typically, the loudest sounds occur concomitantly with explosions, gunfire, or bombings. Though no war ground currently occupies American territories, America too lives the sounds of war. Americans live war’s silence. The distance at which American wars occur shields the American populace from the sounds of warfare. Television and media coverage carry clips of sound but always with the option of muting violent sound. Even weaponized sound— Steve Goodman has begun to map acoustic warfare with the collective, Audio Intelligence (AUDiNT) by tracing sonic weaponry in forms of tactic and torture from the American Ghost Army in World War II through today —also positions producers and receivers in respective and relative silence and sound. The silence within spatial and temporal distance functions as a distancing mechanism and conceals American complicity, comfort, and survival simultaneously. Entrenched in warfare, however, quite a different silence takes shape.

Amid violent engagement silence functions as a protective and survival mechanism in which brain responses exclude and select specific information. In order to better respond to life-threatening environments the brain processes only information most important for an organism’s survival. Kathryn Bigelow—the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director—captures silence and war beautifully/horrifically as Jeremy Renner’s character neutralizes a bomb in The Hurt Locker ( Dependent upon the brain’s ability to induce silence the body becomes positioned as one node in a nation’s survival and as a note separating one ideal from another. Survival of the body, brain, nation, and national ideal are scored into silence.

Two silences of sport. The brief moment of silence before sporting events is a regular, ordinary moment in contemporary American culture. While the sport-war nexus is widely discussed as an ideological mechanism servicing American nationalism the silence of this moment itself, the auditory mode of silence, is rarely noted. Today a tradition, the momentous pause at sporting spectacles hails back to its own spatial and temporal presence warped and wrapped in the veneer of silence. Effectively conjoing nationalism, sport, and war, this silence often passes unnoticed. Later at events, the now commonplace “Support our troops” and “God Bless America” rituals throughout games in addition to The National Anthem recapitulate sporting nationalisms via cheers, claps, and chants. Intended as a moment of recognition of Americanism and American support for troops engaged in global warfare, the silent moment seals nationalist functionalisms by simultaneously making itself present and forgotten. Its absence secures its presence.

Analogous to the soldier in battle, another sporting silence occurs during an athlete’s performance. Much like the soldier’s brain minimizing surrounding information effectively focusing on life-sustainment the athlete’s brain focuses on information important for performance. I’m partial to Kevin Costner’s portrayal of this by uttering, “clear the mechanism,” in For Love of the Game: The line between survival and performance is not so clear. Performing for a specific purpose the soldier’s brain maximizes her or his performance for survival while the athlete maximizes his or her performance for a game, which rests on the notion of competition and contextual nationalism; thus, performance metonymically personifies a soldier’s survival. This silence, in the context of popular sporting culture national sentiments, too evolves into a moment of nationalist survival and proliferation facilitated by separation; elite performance upholds two of the most quintessential American ideals, hard work and victory. The soldier and the athlete have far more in common than we would like to believe.

Silent survivalSounds of silence compose similarities among family, warfare, and sport enlisting and enlisted by American survivalism. Human beings form family, in its multifarious definitions, invitingly and lovingly; in contrast, encountering warfare is not likely welcomed; and sporting practices tend to rest unproblematized and trivialized in American consciousness. Yet, orchestrated by notions of Americanism all share moments of silence binding one another in the separation of one way of life over another. The meanings of these silences share commonalities, which successfully recreate the momentum of past transgressions and intertwine social survivorship and national citizenship. You fight, weep, cringe, fold, and carry on. Which uniform is a matter of position, one into which none of us had a choice to be born. Nearly all are implicated. Can you hear your heart beat? The mechanics of silence blare survival.

I saw the American dream today in the Baltimore airport. Everyone was silent…


One thought on “Silent Survival: American Nationalism among Family, War, and Sport – by Bryan C. Clift

  1. Bryan

    A very thoughtful and engaging discussion of auditory space so rarely entered, that of cultural analysis beyond or outside the occident. Not only does this discussion look to help understand connections once analyzed but in a new way but it also highlights the ‘silence’ we are forced into in our academic work. Not only is this work essential but is often discouraged and mocked by the academy, especially outside our own and similar critical projects. Therefore this piece speaks both in its content and its action. To use a term I have found increasingly inspiring used by John Law and Mara Miele (2010) in their contribution “Animal Practices,” in Human and Other Animals: Critical Perspectives by Nickie Charles and Bob Carter, this discussion highlights the need for, asks us all to partake in and indeed is its self “situated and respectful interference”.

    Thanks B


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