“Never a neutral emptiness” : theory, history, and philosophy of silence in the sound film

Raeymaekers, Sven (2019) “Never a neutral emptiness” : theory, history, and philosophy of silence in the sound film. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


The advent of the sound film created unprecedented possibilities for creative use of the soundtrack. Much like its sonorous counterparts speech, sound, or music, the use of silence in film is a deliberate choice by filmmakers and requires the same in-depth analysis to be fully understood. The aim of this thesis is to provide a history of how silence is used in film and a theoretical framework to analyse this use. Silence in the sound film has hardly been addressed systematically. A general overview of the different uses of silence is lacking in sound and film studies. The few current theoretical discussions of silence focus only on silence in a single scene or film. These analyses rarely go further than stating that silence represents death or the oppression of a character. This thesis remedies this gap by asking what silence is, how is it used in film, and how can the experience of silence be analysed. First, it plots how silence is used in cinema from the early days of sound to the present. This history builds on the empirical analysis of over thirty films of the past ninety years. It shows how the use of silence varies in type, genre and time. The use of silence in different film eras is often influenced most by the emergence of new sound technologies. Second, this thesis seeks to provide a theoretical framework to analyse how spectators can experience meaning and affect through silence. This framework builds in part on semiotic theories of Peirce and the affective philosophy of Deleuze. Bergson’s concept of durée ultimately helps to discuss how meaning and affect work together in the temporal experience of film. A film and a spectator create their own temporal realities wherein they engage both rationally and emotionally. This thesis does not only add a completely overlooked aspect of soundtrack history to cinema scholarship, it also establishes a framework that makes it possible to analyse both meaning and affect, rational analysis and the emotional experience, in a single unified experience.

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