The terms absence and presence describe fundamental states of being. For this reason, they are difficult to define without referencing the terms themselves. The Oxford English Dictionary definitions of both terms are self-referential: “the fact or condition of being present” and “the state of being absent or away.” The difficulty of these terms stems from the fact that they are dependent upon the notion of being. The OED cites the primary definition of being as “to have or occupy a place … somewhere … Expressing the most general relation of a thing to its place.” According to this definition, then, being is not inexplicable or transcendent, but exists within a framework or state. Therefore the definitions of presence and absence explicitly rely upon the states within which they are found. Some examples of these states could be the world, images, and representations. Throughout history, scholars have debated the relative absence and presence within such states. At the heart of this issue is the question of whether truth and presence are absolutely linked. For instance, in Phaedrus, Plato argues for unmediated truth of speech over the mediation of writing. The unmediated truth of speech comes from the presence of the speaker, while the writing mediates this presence. Therefore, representations in the form of images or writing present presence through mediation. According to Derrida, however, these mediated forms are the only available forms of presence because meaning cannot appear outside of a medium.
Discourse centered on the terms absence and presence engage the valuation of images and presentations. Beginning with ancient philosophy, Plato and Aristotle raise questions about the valuation of the proximate imitation or mimesis of representations. Plato takes up this question in his text “Allegory of the Cave,” where he points out the false quality of appearances. For Plato, the illusion of appearances draws the mind from the “contemplation of true being,” where “true being” is the ultimate form of presence (Plato 524). Implicit within his discussion of mimesis or representation is a belief in a “true being” or unmediated, present state of being of representations. Aristotle, on the other hand, engages this world of illusions by denouncing pure being. He sets forth the belief that there can be no unmediated forms, but rather being cannot be extracted from representations. Therefore, Aristotle affirms representation.
Until Martin Heidegger’s revision of metaphysics, the term presence seemed to be crystallized in its privileged position next to reality and truth. According to Heidegger, philosophers conventionally attributed presence to being without questioning what gives being over to presence. Therefore, he questions the proliferation of this metaphysics of presence in modern life. He claims that while disciplines like science and technology do not explicitly affirm their quest for first principles, they attempt to answer some form of a transcendent question of being. In response to this problem related to being, Heidegger questions the conditions of being that implicate its presence. In his unfinished work, Being and Time, he develops three ontological categories of being that attempt to recognize the conditions of being: falling, thrownness, and findingness. Findingness (Befindlichkeit) describes the state of being as always already in some current situation. Thrownness acknowledged the linearity of time, where being can only go forward. Falling explains being’s understanding of itself. These three different categories explain the conditions through which being maintains and makes possible its presence.
Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, relies heavily on Heidegger’s revaluation of the metaphysics of presence. Essentially, in De la Grammatologie (Of Grammatology translated into English in 1976), Derrida attacks the notions of an origin, or center of knowledge that is conventionally allied with presence. He launches his attack on logocentrism through the privileged position speech assumes next to truth, where writing is the “translator of a full speech which was fully present (present to itself, to its signified, to the other, the very condition of the theme of presence in general), technics in service of language, spokesman, interpreter of an originary speech itself shielded from interpretation (Derrida 8).” In the above quote, Derrida derisively describes the position of the “fully present” speech in relationship to its “interpreter” writing. Throughout his theorization of the deconstruction of logocentrism, he focuses on this transcendent characteristic associated with the “fully present” speech to reveal that speech is mediated by language just as is writing.
Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence introduces a play of absence and presence. He states that “there is nothing outside the text” [there is no outside-text; il n'y a pas de hors-texte] (158). In this way, his argument is similar to that of Aristotle who recognizes the inescapability of representation. Without an outside of language, meaning can never be completely present. Rather we are separated from signification by the necessitated absence of linguistic forms. Through the examples of speech and writing, Derrida demonstrates that it is impossible for signification to be absolutely present. In doing so, he proves that only through mediated forms like language can one access signification. Importantly, for media theory, representational absence becomes a form of presence.
Other theorists have attempted to think through the emphasis placed upon absence through mediation. In “Plato and the Simulacrum,” Gilles Deleuze recognizes the desire “to distinguish essence from appearance, intelligible from the sensible, Idea from image, original from copy, and model from simulacrum” (256). In each of these binaries the first term refers to some form of presence or truth, while the second recognizes their embodiment as removed from that presence. Deleuze attempts to reconcile this separation through a focus on absence in a similar manner as Derrida. Like Derrida, he finds no solution for the play between absence and presence that might suggest some access to unmediated truth. Rather than understand meaning and forms of representation through a play of absence and presence, Deleuze’s vocabulary centers on the concepts of resemblance, copy, and simulacrum: “the copy is an image endowed with resemblance, the simulacrum is an image without resemblance” (Deleuze 257). While he does not use the terms absence and presence, his use of the term resemblance is allied to the notion of presence. Resemblance refers to an image’s ability to embody or look like an absolute truth. Therefore when using the terms copy and simulacrum, Deleuze questions their connection to presence and absence. He demonstrates that the simulacrum, because of its absence of resemblance, becomes an entity possessing a different kind of presence. The simulacrum, then, is an absent presence, which circles around an image’s surface.
Through the revaluations of philosophers like Deleuze and Derrida, the terms absence and presence have lost their binaried distinction. Instead, absence can be thought of as a kind of presence and presence as a kind of absence. For instance, the medium of photography is typically thought of as having a direct connection to some form of reality, presence and/or truth. In Roland Barthes’ book, Camera Lucida he is struck by the connection between absented forms of photographic representation and the presence of truth: “what the photograph produces to infinity has occurred only once; the photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially … it is the absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency” (4). According to Barthes, the represented forms refer to someone or something “real,” but that event no longer exists, except in the photograph. Therefore, the photograph is a kind of absented presence, which, for Barthes, still holds subjective significance, but not absolute truth. Therefore, Barthes’ assessment agrees with the typical association between photography and truth, but in a way that thinks past the extreme binaries of presence = truth and absence = falsity.
Cindy Sherman in her Untitled Film Stills series illustrates a different way of approaching this problem of presence and absence. In these photographs, Sherman dresses up in different costumes and captures herself in different poses that suggest action. Whether waiting by the phone, or dressing up in front of a mirror, Sherman’s photographs suggest that an element of narrative is connected to the images. Thinking in terms of Derrida’s deconstruction of speech and writing, these narratives are allied to the concept of presence that the metaphysics of presence allied to speech. If there was one, the narrative would confirm the authority typically given to the speaker. Like Derrida, Sherman deconstructs this authority. The photographs were staged by Sherman. In these photographs, she creates presence out of absence, demonstrating the mediated (coded) experience of representational forms.
In today’s technological world, scholars, filmmakers and artists have begun to consider the absolute loss of presence. For instance, in David Cronenberg’s film eXistenZ (1999), the film centers around the premise that the characters cannot determine whether they are playing a game or are “real.” On a more practical level, mediation infiltrates every level of our existence, whether through email, language or codified gestures. Recent scholars have begun to think beyond the binaried distinction of presence and absence to more technologically informed valuations of being. The cyborg describes the integration of man and machine, where technological forms conventionally associated with absence become integrated into being or presence. Often figured in science fiction, the cyborg represents a new way of thinking about representations and being and their relative absence and presence. Katherine Hayles describes this new integration in her book How We Became Post-Human, where there is no difference between computer simulations and corporeal existence.
Through the work of theorists like Jacques Derrida, it is possible to think beyond the static binary distinction that once connected presence to an absolute truth or origin and absence to imitation or copy. This model of signification displaces absolutes from its center and replaces it with forms of mediation like language, representations and images. The ability to study these forms of mediation does not do away with the concept of an absolute or Platonic truth. Rather, it points our attention to those transparent mediums that mediate our everyday lives.
Aristotle. “Poetics.” Introduction to Aristotle. Trans. Ingram Bywater. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
Deleuze, Gilles. “Plato and the Simulacrum.” The Logic of Sense. Trans. Mark Lester. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Spivak. Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Hayles, Katherine N. How We Became Post-Human: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
Plato. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1908.