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April 10, 2011 2:22 PM   Subscribe

What is the name for the rhetorical tactic of communicating through the conspicuous absence of communication?

I've seen this before but am muddled in my attempt to describe it or track it down. The most obvious example that comes to mind is the infamous Library VS Patriot Act Sign:
The FBI has not been here
[watch very closely for the removal of this sign]

The idea here is that, though the text on the sign is relevant, the most important communication happens when the sign* disappears entirely. A magician onstage putting a rabbit into a hat is only suspenseful because the audience knows the rabbit will vanish. What is that (the word, not the rabbit) called?
posted by nicebookrack to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (*And once you put the sign up you can never take it down again for any reason without implying something sinister, which must also be a concept with a name, buuuuut it's not the question I'm asking. This time.)
posted by nicebookrack at 2:23 PM on April 10, 2011

Best answer: Sorry, no answer, but I'm reminded of Sherlock Holmes' famous reference to "the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime." But the dog didn't do anything! said Watson. "That," said Holmes, "was the curious incident."
posted by LonnieK at 2:35 PM on April 10, 2011

Best answer: Hmm. I don't think it's quite what you're looking for, but perhaps somewhat related is the rhetorical technique of "praeterition." That's when you say something like, "I won't even mention my opponent's abysmal voting record when it comes to human rights." You refer to something while professing that you'll do no such thing.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 2:36 PM on April 10, 2011

Best answer: another similar idea is "noisy withdrawal" when a lawyer is forced for ethical reasons to withdraw from a client's case, but for other ethical reasons can't say why. You make a big fuss about withdrawing while being quite firm that you of course cannot mention the reason why. sometimes you disavow prior statements made on behalf of the client. The big fuss tips off other people that there's shenanigans afoot.

(Now there's some specific steps attached to it if there's wrongdoing under SOX.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:41 PM on April 10, 2011

Response by poster: LonnieK, that is an excellent example!

Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell, praeterition/paralypsis are certainly in the same family tree as what I'm thinking of, but I don't think they quite fit.
posted by nicebookrack at 2:43 PM on April 10, 2011

Best answer: The concept of contact calls touches on this:

Contact calls are used to maintain audio contact with the members of the group. Some social animal species communicate the signal of potential danger by stopping contact calls, without the use of alarm calls.

Fun fact: that library warning sign system was created by our very own jessamyn
posted by Rhaomi at 2:46 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Conrad C o'D oD's idea of praeterition sounds like a pretty good answer, for some reasons perhaps solely related to how my brain works it reminds me of two semi-related concepts which may or may not be helpful:

In the field of cryptography, Steganography is the idea of hiding secret content in plain site, although of course some sort of key or inside knowledge would be needed to understand. For example, putting an ad in a classified or "agony column" which has a plain text meaning, but which has a secret intent. Some of this kind of stuff was so subtly done in WWII that I confess I was completely sucked in by some of the early scenes of Russell Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind," because they seemed plausible to me, at least as plausible as some real-life examples.

In the field of logic, the concept is often referred to as accent (see #31) - conveying a false impression by telling the truth. The classic example is the first mate who put "The Captain is sober today" in his log - every week or two.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:49 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Shannon's Information Theorem. More common messages should be shorter, that's why, for example 'e' is a single dot in morse code. If I already know something you don't have to tell me, or 'tell me something I don't know'.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 2:53 PM on April 10, 2011

although in this case it's not conveying a FALSE impression, except that when it doesn't convey any impression, that is, ah, skipit.

You realize this is going to bother me now, right?
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:54 PM on April 10, 2011

Best answer: Well, you're looking for examples of this kind of thing. Here's another:

During the Cold War, there were a number of continuously-broadcasting short wave signals which simply broadcast the same morse code letter over and over and over. I think a few of them were triangulated and located in Cuba, but with the kinds of frequencies being used it wasn't all that easy to tell where most of them were.

No one has ever 'fessed up, but the general presumption is that they belonged to the Soviets, and were intended to control sleeper cells in the West, who were preplaced and waiting to perform attacks of some kinds if the broadcast ever cut off.

A different theory was that they were staking out the frequencies (which were unusable by anyone else) and that in the event of war they'd begin carrying real messages, likewise to various agents.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:03 PM on April 10, 2011

Best answer: This also I think fundamentally gets to what in law is know as the "act/omission distinction" - and the classic case you cite of the "FBI sign" is a great demonstration of how this "distinction" is fundamentally incoherent (and, I had understood, discredited, until somehow it got revived in the recent healthcare reform litigation).
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 3:07 PM on April 10, 2011

Best answer: Dead Man's Switch is what I've heard used to refer to things like Jessamyn's sign, or Julian Assange's failsafe file set to be released should he not check in every day or whatever the criteria was.
posted by cmoj at 3:11 PM on April 10, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Just for the record, that Sherlock Holmes quote is from the story "Silver Blaze".
Inspector Gregory: "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
Inspector Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."
Holmes: "That was the curious incident."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:25 PM on April 10, 2011

Best answer: And speaking of things that seem aligned to the question in my mind (at least):

- there is the artistic concept of Negative Space
- and there is the information communicated by sudden quiet when traversing a dangerous urban or combat area

I realize neither of these points answer the OP's question, sorry.
posted by forthright at 5:18 PM on April 10, 2011

Response by poster: cmoj: "Dead man's switch" feels very close, though it's also clearly a term bootstrapped for lack of an existing one.

I'm also unsure whether there should be a distinction between the communication of a dead man's switch, which requires ongoing activity to keep it dormant and is set off by a lack of action, and Jessamyn's sign, which sits passively on the wall until someone actively removes it. The "contact calls" re: Rhaomi above fall into a dead man's switch, I think.
posted by nicebookrack at 5:19 PM on April 10, 2011

Response by poster: BTW, while I'm still interested in knowing the actual technical/rhetorical terms(s), I find the musing RE: related concepts in art, cryptography, etc., very interesting. No need to refrain on my account.
posted by nicebookrack at 5:22 PM on April 10, 2011

Best answer: Homer Simpson's 'Everything's OK' alarm alerts one to be wary if it falls silent.

Would Joo Janta 200 Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses count? While preventing you from seeing anything perilous is supposed to induce a more relaxed approach to danger, a non-frood might panic.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:29 PM on April 10, 2011

Oh, I just remembered from decades ago when I tried to learn to play bridge...if I played out the last card in a suit and had two of the same color suits adjacent, I was told it was cheating to rearrange my hand, since that would signal my partner I had a void in some suit. That is not a dead man, but rather a totally silent communication.

I imagine card games are rife with this kind of thing, not to even mention sports. (Get it, I did *not* mention sports).
posted by forthright at 7:07 PM on April 10, 2011

Best answer: It's sometimes called a "negative pregnant"--a negative statement pregnant with positive meaning.
posted by Corvid at 7:59 PM on April 10, 2011

Best answer: I call indicators like the sign in question canaries, after the coal mine application, with a nod to Vonnegut. I've seen others use it this way, but I've no idea how widespread that is.

More generally, I'd call the style communication tacit communication if pressed.
posted by rokusan at 3:53 AM on April 11, 2011

Getting even further afield, a pilot friend of mine likes to offer these nighttime landing instructions:

- As you settle in on final approach and line up on the landing strip, turn on your landing lights.

- If you don't like what you see, turn off the landing lights.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:03 AM on April 11, 2011

Best answer: As rokusan mentions, it can be called a Warrant Canary.
posted by knapah at 6:30 AM on April 11, 2011

I think Rokusan and knapah get the cigar...
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:05 AM on April 11, 2011

The silent treatment.
posted by vecchio at 9:25 AM on April 11, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, y'all! This was very interesting.
posted by nicebookrack at 9:54 AM on April 12, 2011

Best answer: It occurred to me that there is a phrase in common use to describe this kind of thing: "conspicuous by its absence".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:52 PM on April 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

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