Friday, 29 September 2017

Present-Absence

One writes in order to communicate something to those who are absent. The absence of the sender, the addressor, from the marks that he abandons, which are cut off from him and continue to produce effects beyond his presence and beyond the present actuality of his meaning, that is, beyond his life itself…. —Jacques Derrida1
“One writes in order to communicate something to those who are absent.” It seems so obvious once it is stated. One typically doesn’t write to those who are present; a conversation is not diligently typed out and scripts distributed amongst friends at a bar. (This is not to say it couldn’t be, but what might ensue would be a representation of a conversation rather than the original or “real” thing.) One writes for someone who isn’t there. An e-mail is composed strictly for someone who is not in the presence of the writer, even if they happen to be only a room away. A text message is written, theoretically, for someone far away; yet, people have been known to text each other across a house, across a room. The idea of what “presence” is comes under scrutiny. “Are you present?” doesn’t just ask if you exist in this particular space at this moment; it wonders whether your mind is actively engaged in that space at that time. “Being present” has been used synonymously with “being in the moment” or “being here now”. There is something to be said for the lack of presence we give one another while we engage with our smartphones—our present-absence.

What does one do in order to communicate to those who are present? Is that, in a nutshell, what performance is?

“The absence of the sender, the addressor, from the marks that he abandons, which are cut off from him and continue to produce effects beyond his presence and beyond the present actuality of his meaning, that is, beyond his life itself….” In a way, it would seem, our written words can perform for us, even after we’ve ceased living. Dead playwrights are often given this prestige, often by practitioners of what Peter Brook calls the “deadly theatre”. (Speaking of the living theatre, Brook says, “theatre is always a self-destructive art, and it is always written on the wind.”1) Our words, put to good use, can make concurrent ripples in the collective stream of life well beyond our having dropped a pebble into it. Those words may be used further down the line to propagate some change in the world. If we, receiving older words, can turn those words to good use, can make a (sticking with Brook) living or holy theatre from them, then we have aided and abetted in the performance which was meant to be, which needed to be, which could do nothing else but exist in a certain time, space, and context. We become the presenters: the ones who are present (for the words we receive, no longer absent) as well as the ones who present. The words have a life of their own and become a part of the larger living theatre, a performance which presents and represents throughout time.

1 Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U. of Chicago, 1982, p. 313.
2 Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. 1968. New York: Touchstone, 1996, p. 15.