Derrida writes presence with a capital P.
He traces the use of this word from the Middle-Ages concept of the Presence of God, a central theme for a world where the Catholic institution was the main keeper of intellectuality and thinking. But far from being just dogma, this idea was a hairy problem, because the world was effectively made by God, and thus every single thing should be embedded in this Presence, but still, some experiences were felt as fuller of God than others. And even if there were some hermit mystics said to experience God in solitude, the archetypal experience of God was the Mass, a ritual the priests must have been painfully aware could be conducted with pure routine. It is a technique, but how could a technique lift someone from the banality of the world into the presence of God?
How can you reach for what is unreachable in essence?
Finding the Presence of God was certainly a futile search, an enterprise doomed to fail. At the same time, it was the central point of the whole lives of these people. And this paradox is just a rephrasing of the tenet of primitive Christianity that God should be found everywhere — “Split a piece of wood, there will God be, raise a stone, there will God be”.
Presence in art, on the other hand, should be a simpler issue. It’s about focusing on the performance, on the action of the stage. It should be a matter of attention and awareness. It should be a technique. Nevertheless, there’s nothing simple about this technique, even now talking about tends to lapse into unclear subjective terms, and reproducing it is sometimes impossible. The idea of presence in art seems to share many of the dynamics involved in the Medieval search for the Presence of God.
Hugo Leonardo’s workshop at Festival de Contato-Improvisação São Paulo shed an interesting light on the trade-offs involved. The idea was the feeling of falling, how to conjure it and use it. The power of such feeling lies in the state of emergency attained, whereby the whole of the person is engaged in finding a place in space. This is a state of heightened attention. It’s also a state of undivisiveness of the being.
So Hugo comes up with a series of exercises that allows one to achieve, get used to, and use this sensation of falling. But the sensation is a kind of radical not-being-used-to, so getting used to this sensation is actually counter-productive. Weirdly, the better you get at the sensation of falling (in Hugo’s sense), the worse you get.
Of course, even if in a sense the exercise of falling is impossible, that is not to say that practising it is useless. Just the contrary. Achieving 97% awareness just a few times creates the understanding of just how far away this is from the 15% awareness of banal day-to-day life, and thus helps keeping a working average closer to 50% than to 20%. (And to be clear i got these numbers out of my %%%). And in that chase for awareness-attention-emergence i wonder what lessons could be learned from the searching for God’s Presence.
Faced with an impossible challenge, which is better to solve badly than leave unacknowledged, Derrida goes through a painstaking, overzealous, meticulous — but very very deep — analysis of the technique itself. He trades semantics for grammar. Because, of course, without the technique we are unable to even reach these limits to presence, but the limits are an intrinsic part of the technique. Thus Derrida tries to do an analysis of the analysis itself, a sort of grammar of the possibility of grammar.
The very weird thing is that this is never a process of approaching presence, of getting closer and closer to it, of finding the truth, but instead it is always an enhancement of technique. Thus, instead of building, unbuilding. Unlearning: Giving up certainties. When the technique turns over itself we reach a state of meta-ness (so to say) where meaning is impossible but where we can see this impossibility.
Because at first the technique (and maybe it deserves a capital T too, since it embraces ideas like calculation, forecasting, control, imperative, cunning, structure) feels more real than reality, the first experience of the technique feels like presence, exactly because the technique erases its own artificiality, it tends to hide its discretionary essence and thus feel natural, intrinsic, original, and thus godly. Trying to trace these roots of technique, to unveil its erasure, is of course the very search for presence/Presence, and is thus a kind of theology.
The effort is itself like foreseeing something beyond the limits of presence. In this, it is the embrace of risk and the forsaking of expectation.
Feelings of freedom are the limits of my body, the will of going, the will for beyond, for truly being here, being, for having every breath matter.
Feelings of the blood pumping in my veins extend the pumping of the streets, the flux of blood in the banks, of knowledge in schools, of money in the slums, the flux of fear in the stock markets.
The flux of symbols in reality.
Flux is the core of the body, it’s transition, the might to still be here when all is no more, the capacity of being one’s own meaning, the want of having, exploring, going, destroying, of pulsing, of seeing, being
OK, so: The meta-ness comes before the straightforward. The creative breaking of the rules of language is born before the rules of language themselves. And thus it is this creative breaking that creates language. But of course this means language is always imperfect both in essence and consequence. It is thoroughly and completely and desperately not communication, not language, not true.
That is to say: There never was a presence. Or a Presence, for that matter.
That is also to say: There never will be — and the search for it will never end — both. Language itself is this impossible transition, it is frontier itself and not bridge over frontier.
Further: Originality and authenticity are words that don’t even have a content, and since we are not trying for originality, for authenticity, we can’t get rid of the technique (of the multitudes of techniques) we used in the past. We hate Descartes, but he’s part of us. We hate Laplace, but he’s part of us. And so is Lyotard. Every single mistake we made is still together with us in our actions (and the bad jokes keep even the good clown company).
The liberation process is to explain (fold and refold) this whole intricate structure. Presence can never become simpler or cleaner. We can never throw away whatever there is that is not presence. We can never get rid of the noise, of the mistakes, of the biases.
Attaining presence is always maturation, and never conquest of lost innocence. But attaining presence also feels like de-intermediation. It feels like being in the moment. As opposed to in the moment together with a bunch of other stuff. It feels like the bridge it must not be. It is enhancement of directness, but we must understand it as a travel away from ourselves, not as a path towards something. So there is no baseline directness, a perfect presence, that we come closer to achieving. Instead, there is the baseline not-presence, the total inauthenticity, the perfect egocentrism (in Piaget’s sense). In a way, presence is learning to lie more and more sincerely.
Thus, the technique. Thus, grammar. Thus, a short-cut to a short-cut.
That is why discipline can be constraining of self to liberate self. A walking paradox.
That is the fundamental difference between authentic silence (something beyond prayer) and inauthentic silence (something before babbling) — in Flusser’s terms. And so there’s a huge risk in taking presence as more than language, as more than technique, because prayer degenerates in babbling easier than it retreats into poetry.
Derrida’s archetipal grammar element is le risque, the trace, the proverbial line in the sand, but that in the original also carries the meaning of risk. An action that does not mean anything but that could. An act of will that is wilfully open-ended (and thus way closer to Eco’s open work than he’d like to acknowledge). And it is of course a lie, in the sense that we can’t (and wouldn’t if we could) find a cavemen at any given point in pre-history doing the deed, it is a myth that never actually happen, but that is part of the past of every action (the eternal has-been). It is an extremely responsible giving up of certainties.
Just like CI. For example.
CI also works, in a powerful way. It touches deeply in us. It almost feels like cheating yourself: The feeling i have when dancing with someone is very close to being falling for someone, a feeling i’d normally constrain and control.
One thing important about CI is how it threads the line between being totally brainy, an activity that is damn boring without knowing a little bit of why it is the way it is, but also being very visceral, very impacting. In this way CI (and Hugo’s falling, and Nita’s principle-directed dancing) never sheds luggage, never strain for an impossible purity, but work with our impurities.
It is just being here, in a way that we were never before able to just be.