I would like to talk a little about presence, which is something I have been preoccupied with for a while, perhaps I could say forever, since I was a child, always finding myself struggling when trying to cross the border between the safe haven of my “inner world” and that what pertains to “real life” of the interaction with others, in other words: a call for my presence.
And It’s interesting how most of the people I mentioned the subject of my presentation reacted like, duh, presence of course that’s something we are all struggling with, especially during a pandemic. So let’s try to elaborate a little bit…
There are many pertinent discussions on the idea of presence: social presence, cultural presence, political presence… all connected with hegemony, privilege & status. I will get to those issues. But I want to start speaking about a more ontological or primitive foundation for the idea of presence from which those issues emerge:
Namely, presence, described in the first place by its etymology as the: “space before or around someone or something”
That strikes me as something interesting, to consider presence as the space around someone or something instead of what we commonly understand as “having presence” which normally we attribute to an actual thing or being. However, presence here is described as the negative space of things or rather: the space which allows things to be. Something like an Atmosphere that allows things to be considered as separate, defined, real. Without space, perception would be cluttered, a pure block of information, a continuum that would be unperceivable. We need the space, we need gaps. Just like silence makes it possible for sounds to be heard, or void makes objects visible. This is how the invisible makes room for the visible. Probably not by accident, I titled a book I published: Buscando Invisibles, Looking for Invisibles.
But let me follow with a second etymological definition of presence: <<the state of being in a certain place and not some other>>
Being in a certain place and not some other. This raises the question of what I am doing here or better, how did I end up being here today. And also, Why are you here instead of somewhere else, doing something else? There’s certainly an extensive and invisible net of micro-events that conditioned our being here today sharing this common space. It sounds almost heretical, an absolute waste of time and opportunity, to regard it as something that can happen anytime we want, like a youtube video we can play over and over, as often as we wish. That is then the challenge, to treat this occasion (or, for that matter, any occasion) with the respect of an unrepeatable experience.
So let’s say that the respect for the present moment is possibly the or a beginning of understanding what presence really means.
Then again, all of us have a different reason for being here, which can be more or less accidental, let alone we all have a different regard for things, a slightly different perception of things and therefore a different and particular appreciation of what we have in front of us in this precise moment, – these appreciations can range from indifference, boredom, entertainment, and hopefully interest,…
However, each and every one of us is responsible for determining an idea of presence and although it is particular – personal – at the same time it is equivalent to others in the way that all our particular forms of presence emerge on a common area of collective perception, the surface known as REALITY.
REALITY – such a big word…
Reality is just a term referring to a collective consensus of consciousness, which is determined by what our culture defines as something that EXISTS and that all of us can basically experience. Something that Michel Foucault calls CONFORMITY.
Although we can objectively say that existence is truly a flexible thing that goes beyond our own perceptual limitations, the consensus of reality acts as a fence, a demarcation of territory (of what’s Considered as real) which is clear enough for the majority of subjects.
On a purely individual level, most of us are able to distinguish between the private realm of our own thoughts and perceptions and the public consensus of what the rest of the people supposedly perceive just like us. Red is not blue, big is not small, it’s all relative, it’s true, but we understand and have tools to understand the differences of perceptions and that although relative, we know how they work in specific contexts. We have logic, the laws of physics, and we have the language to communicate and exchange our differences and commonalities in this consensus known as reality.
We can distinguish between our imagination – the images that constitute our memories and our desires – and the images we can actually see, the sounds we hear… and that we know are real because we are convinced that everybody can experience them in a similar way. That’s what’s considered sane as opposed to “insane”, in other words: outside of the limits of consensus. – in the margins of society, like an outsider…
But it is also true that for some people with so-called “mental disorders” – a very arguable tag – the private and the public realms of their thoughts are diffused and everything appears to be happening in one same space where there’s not a clear distinction between what’s real and what’s imagined. Since there is no way for them to tell the difference between the private realm of their own thoughts and perceptions and the ones that are common with others and thus public, there’s no way for them to know if what they do will or won’t have real consequences. Without the guidelines of the consensus, they are adrift, utterly lost, suffering because of their inability to find a way to access a common ground.
They can’t find the fences that surround the common ground because for them there are no fences, they are invisible. Or perhaps ephemeral, like a LIGHTNING…
Art in all its forms is a truly powerful way to help us free ourselves from the constrictions and the limitations of the fences of the consensus but without the clinical effects of unadaptedness to what society defines as real. It is known that art is symbolic, it’s a metaphor, it’s not literal… We can play.
Alongside Art, critical thinking helps us realize that often the consensus of the real is in fact connected first to a colonial and patriarchal idea of reason, and then, with the advent of capitalism, to productivity – for how well can a subject perform within a society, how can they be functional, and in that way how can they serve as unpaid agents to uphold the limits of the real.
Moreover, categories such as “madness” or “hysteria”, have been used as ways to demote, repress, and expel any criticism and potential risk to this convenient illusion. We have to keep in mind that until not too long ago, doctors had the power and were applauded for locking away in asylums any subjects that didn’t fit within the limits of a productive society. (And We can see echoes of this in the very recent case against Britney Spears where men still have the power to decide on women’s judgment and free will, not to mention the new Texas Anti Abortion Laws).
But, arguably, it is through those considered to be “outside” of those limits that we are able to question how solid are the limits of consensus, the limits of an alleged reality, and how being outside can enlighten what we think as fixed & permanent and allow us to start seeing the cracks.
Like a true explorer of consciousness and the limits of his own sanity, Antonin Artaud wrote:
<<I am the witness, I am the only witness of myself. This crust of words, these imperceptible whispered transformations of my thought, I am the only person who can measure its extent.>>
Artaud’s words suggest that our experience and our sense of the self lies within an interval, an open interval, ever-expanding and contracting, breathing in and out of the common realm,
like a valve.
Another explorer of the limits of the real, Aldous Huxley, precisely compared the brain to a “reducing valve” – a filter that makes the whole interval of reality somehow digestible, reduced to a fixed sense of self we consider as common.
But If the brain, as Huxley said, acts as a valve, the body, on the other hand, tends to open outwards. It’s holistic; bodily perception is designed to receive, and as much as we try to set limits to it, sometimes it’s practically impossible. Perhaps that’s why we try to numb our bodies with images, sounds, and substances. Our body is the reminder we are part of a whole, and that the limits are purely a kind of fiction, the fiction of the self. It is through our bodies, our “nerve meters”, in the words of Artaud, that we are guided towards an expanded notion of reality, measuring the relationship to what we think our bodies are and aren’t, of what we are and we are not, of what is real and what is not…
The truth is we often have trouble measuring this and feel awkwardly trying to focus, in a state of constant zooming in and out, desperately looking for something to get us out and away from the uncomfortable experience, the unbound character of reality. We are constantly looking for limits and the confirmation that we exist within those limits – that’s why it’s easier to embrace the realm of conformity and feels riskier to explore and look for the gaps.
This symptom is often expressed in our daily life by our endless scrolling through information, verifying that everything is still in place. We go over and over to see that everything has been checked, that there are no unread messages or unseen notifications, that all “breaking news” has been read and we are up-to-date.
When Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp went down for a few hours a couple of weeks ago I found myself checking every couple of minutes to see if the system was back online. On the one hand, I was experiencing anxiety related to this disruption of the continuum – of my ability to plug myself in the matrix – but on the other hand, there was something fresh in this disruption. A GAP. Some space which at least momentarily allowed things to be.
We can say that being present is often more common, and inevitable perhaps, in those gaps when, as they say, “the rug is pulled out from under you”. And I think we all have had this feeling during the pandemic in one way or another. What you thought was solid blows up in the air and our ideas of permanence, taking things for granted, and all the resources we employ to organize and control our lives, are revealed as unsuccessful techniques to prevent us from being present. So let’s admit it, presence, in the end, is not an option, it will find us sooner or later, it is our destiny, there’s no way out
But as I think we all can agree, this kind of sudden call for presence, which I think Burroughs described well as, “the frozen moment when you see what is on the end of every fork.” is often not a pleasant one. The confusion, frustration, anxiety, and all the feelings that come through in those moments tend to be difficult. We can experience fear, the feeling of being exposed without any veil to separate or protect ourselves from the rugged quality of events.
I believe that with patience and kindness to ourselves and others, we can be more present in tough moments, and understand that <<our feelings and the honest exploration of them>> in Audre Lorde’s words: <<become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas.>>
Let me conclude my presentation with a paragraph from the book Practicing Peace by Pema Chodron. It says:
<<We start with taking a close look at our predictable tendency to get hooked, to separate ourselves, to withdraw into ourselves, and put up walls. As we become intimate with these tendencies, they gradually become more transparent, and we see that there’s actually space, there is unlimited, accommodating space. This does not mean that then you live in lasting happiness and comfort. That spaciousness includes pain.
We may still get betrayed, may still be hated. We may still feel confused and sad. What we won’t do is bite the hook. Pleasant happens. Unpleasant happens. Neutral happens. What we gradually learn is to not move away from being fully present.>>