The problem of presence

It would seem that a work or ‘the works’ of a particular philosopher cannot be complete without addressing the question of presence.  Do we have access to some-thing?  This was first impressed on me when I was introduced to philosophical hermeneutics and the question of meaning.  This question seemed stretched to its logical conclusion in the work of Derrida who denied our ability to capture or lay hold of meaning explaining that the nature of language is to remain in motion always being deferred in relation.  Kierkegaard picks up this question in Practice in Christianity when raising the question of ‘reflection’.  He criticizes the pastoral movement in his time that encourages ‘reflection’.  I think this marks a shift in this thinking away from earlier formations of developing ‘inwardness’ as the arena of faith.  Or at least he is developing a corrective or preemptive claim.

To reflect means, in one sense of the word, to come quite close to something which one would look at, whereas in another sense it implies an attitude of remoteness, of infinite remoteness so far as the personality is concerned.  When a painting is pointed out to one and he is asked to regard it, or when in a shop one looks at a piece of cloth, for example, he steps up quite close to the object, in the latter instance he even takes it in his hands and feels it, in short, he gets as close to the object as possible.  But in another sense, by this very movement he goes quite out of himself, gets away from himself, forgets himself, and there is nothing to remind him that it is he that is looking at the picture or the cloth, and not the picture of the cloth that is looking at him.  That is to say, by reflection I enter into the object (I become objective), but I go out of or away from myself (I cease to be subjective).  . . .

For Christian truth, if I may say so, has itself eyes to see with, indeed, is all eye; but it would be very disquieting, rather quite impossible, to look at a painting or a piece of cloth, if when I was about to look I discovered that the painting or the cloth was looking at me – and precisely such is the case with Christian truth.

Kierkegaard is interested in contemporaneousness with Christ.  And it took me a little while to realize is how dramatically this must be distinguished from historical knowledge of Christ, that is reflection on Christ.  There are of course many questions to be asked about this distinction but it always pushes for, better or worse, is a subjective engagement.

As I was writing out this quote I was reminded of a recent art installation I happened across as my wife and I were walking in our neighbourhood.  The installation was inside the new Plug In Institute for Contemporary Art.  It was created by Lani Maestro and entitled ‘her rain’.  The installation was sparse and what I would call ‘conceptual’.  Below is a picture of one of the works that made up the four room installation.

This neon light filled a room accompanied by second mirrored piece which ran ‘NO BODY LIKE THIS PAIN’.  The works throughout the installation are ‘unframed’.  They are meant to immerse the space they inhabit which include the subjects and subjectivities that move past them.  What I appreciate about this installation is that it makes it difficult to both take it seriously and remain objective about the pieces.  One has the option of dismiss the installation as being ‘artsy-fartsy’ rubbish but one can hardly ‘admire’ it or ‘reflect’ on it in the Kierkegaardian sense above.  One moves through it and must make a subjective decision about it.  It is bodily but not framed and so it opens itself to touch other bodies.  It is subjective.  This word has been so maligned that I think it is time again to slowly build up its intended place, which is not only a place, but also and primarily its impact.


One comment on “The problem of presence

  1. Josh W says:

    That seems weird, why would focusing on something else mean a loss of subjectivity? And wouldn’t that same kind of logic lead to a distrust of becoming involved with anything?

    It seems to only leave a default kind of narcissistic preoccupation with yourself; by default never letting go of considering yourself and what it means about yourself. That seems a stance – keeping one hand always on your self-image, on your position – only possible for people who are not forced by love or occupation to submerge themselves in other people’s business.

    But I’m probably missing something here.

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