Silence as Affective Action: Cases from a Vietnamese Psychiatric Outpatient Clinic
(Freie Universität Berlin)
Paper short abstract:
This paper discusses silence as affective action among elderly Vietnamese refugees. Drawing from ethnographic research in and beyond a psychiatric outpatient clinic, I portray when and why actors feel dis- or empowered when silencing their experiences of displacement, loss, and vulnerability.
Paper long abstract:
Drawing on psychological anthropological research with elderly Vietnamese refugees in and beyond a psychiatric outpatient clinic in Berlin, I discuss a discursive gap that silences the experiences of displacement and that becomes jeopardized by embodied memories. According to Confucian values that my interlocutors adhere to, silence serves to satisfy social norms and to promote social harmony; it is thus conceptualized as action rather than inaction. Silence as collectively shared protective strategy refers back to habituated practices acquired to cope with loss and grief. Thus, it empowers actors as it enables them to regulate negative emotions and memories that are believed to be too harmful to be articulated. In the light of traumatic experiences of an unspeakable past, silencing conveys both an affective force and a potential danger for their well-being. This paper portrays the potentials as well as the limits of silencing for actors who, unintentionally and due to various reasons, drop out of the mode of silencing and increasingly experience feelings of disempowerment, insecurity, intensifying social isolation. I observed that the imposed silence becomes contested by seemingly minor sensual or non-/verbal aspects that dissociate actors to experience emotional crises as an entanglement of past and present influences. The affective presence of silence points to a tension between the desire to silence the unspoken and the affective presence this action provokes. Through psychotherapeutic intervention, different perspectives to deconstruct a hardened behavior pattern of silencing offer new ways of negotiating alternative forms of agency and seeking harmony.
Silences of/and mobility: towards an anthropology of the unspoken and unspeakable