We have come to expect the constant presence of the people we love. We don’t leave our friends after the party: Events are trailed by a comet tail of pictures and videos keeping us present to our recent past. We don’t leave our lovers: Broken relationships continue to sing siren songs from our pockets. Even death promises a residue of interaction: Corpses leave their Facebook pages open for our messages, and developers assure us that, through effective AI, our dead will one day message back.
“Being present” has become a moral “ought.” “Connectivity” is a holy word. Mark Zuckerberg, in his push to give every human being a smartphone and a Facebook page, has based his philanthropy around a dogma of presence: “The more we connect, the better it gets.” But it’s not clear that “it” is any “better.” The age of presence is an age of loneliness. The number of Americans with “no close friends” has tripled since 1985. Our social media use is positively associated with depression. A report from the Mental Health Foundation found that young Brits are more likely to “feel lonely often” than the elderly. Given the failure of constant presence to make us happy, we ought to give equal sufferance to its dark side and dare to ask: “Are we absent enough?”
Jean-Paul Sartre describes absence in his work Being and Nothingness. He remembers going to a café, expecting to meet his friend Pierre — but Pierre is absent. Our age has answers: Call him, text him, use the “find my friends” app. Sartre’s conclusion surprised me: “It is precisely this space that does not ‘contain’ Pierre, the space that is empty of Pierre, that confirms Pierre’s existence to me more vividly than his local dimensional presence.”
Presence and absence both disclose our friends to us, and absence can disclose their existence “more vividly” than bodily presence. The widow can attest: A room without her husband can disclose his existence more vividly than the room where he sits.
I studied in an old Carthusian monastery in Gaming, Austria, during a semester abroad. Every night, in an updated imitation of the vespers of long-dead monks, students would line the halls in range of the Wi-Fi routers, Skyping home. I shied from the ritual and expressed my aversion in basic self-help lingo: “How can you be present to the place you’re in if you’re constantly present to the place you’ve left?” Looking back, I wish I had read Sartre. His philosophy gave me the language to make a better argument: Reveal the existence of your loved ones by keeping them absent for a while. Let the empty chapels echo with their missing voices.
The contemporary Greek philosopher Christos Yannaras clarified Sartre in his book Person and Eros. He argues that absence is experienced as a “felt nearness” of the absent person only if we presuppose a personal relationship between the one who misses and the one who is missed. When we remove a person’s physical intersection with our timeline — that is, remove their presence — we are not left with nothing. We are left with relation — our relatedness to them, their relatedness to us. Absence reveals relation, and, as Yannaras argues, this “existential reality of personal relation does not acknowledge any restrictions of place.”
Skype, FaceTime, and our myriad means of virtually living out the face-to-face encounter keep us from reckoning with the actual substance of our relations. Constantly simulating bodily presence keeps absence at bay, but, as Yannaras puts it, dealing with our friends as “objects of immediate topical nearness…can be experienced as a substitute for relation.” We mistake seeing people with loving them and daily updates with a relationship that mutually informs us. We mistake presence for relation.
When we communicate through Skype, Snapchat, or any other technology that simply “shows us” to the other, we do not have to work. Little creative energy is required to reach out to the other — we sit down, turn on the camera, and, voilà, we’re present. Why, then, when presence is so easy, does our generation describe itself as lonelier than previous generations? Why are most video calls dissatisfying, anxiety-ridden chats in which our own audiovisual appearance gets as much attention as the contents of the conversation?
If audiovisual presence were the thing we missed, our tech could help us heal the ache of absent loved ones — but it isn’t. Two people can live in the same house, see each other every day — and remain lonely and disconnected. To have the other’s sound, shape, and color is a joy and a solace only if, through this audiovisual presence, one reaches the unique person, the unrepeatable you — and this requires work.
A photograph of Vincent Van Gogh is, from a technical standpoint, an accurate manifestation of his bodily presence. A video would give us even more. But it is the work of Van Gogh that gives us insight into his unique, unrepeatable person. Yannaras argues that this “personal creative energy preserves the non-dimensional immediacy of personal uniqueness” — that is, creative work manifests a person in a way that transcends the limits of space and time. I can know and relate to Van Gogh, even though he is dead, through the creative work he left behind.
The problem with Skype is that it allows us to believe that the manifestation of our person is the work of our technology, rather than our own work. The illusion increases as technology improves. We get better and better at simulating bodily presence and more and more frustrated that bodily presence is an insufficient bearer of the personal relation we long for. The tycoons of Silicon Valley will undoubtedly market virtual reality communication as a last great stride against absence, but if it is creative work that manifests the person in all their uniqueness, a “lifelike” simulated presence that kills the need for this work looks more like a final nail in the coffin of communication.
The value of “slow communication” is not nostalgic. It is practical. Letter writing, rather than simulating presence, demands that we work to manifest ourselves to the other. We muster our creative energies and apply them to pen and paper. This work is apparent to the recipient in our handwriting, our wit, and our choice of words. We are not simulating presence; we our manifesting ourselves as absent through a creative work that communicates our unique person in a way that breaks the limitations of space and time.
Absence is not a hole to be filled; it’s an opportunity to experience the worth of our relationships, an opportunity to give ourselves, not as local presences, but as persons. Absence allows us to be intentional in our self-manifestation, not merely appearing or showing up, but actively crafting an expression of our interior lives in the letter or the gift. Distance allows us to reinsert work into our communication, and our works reveal us with greater clarity than the clearest of webcams could. Despite the ease of constant presence, Sartre and Yannaras allow us to imagine radically different tactics in the fight against a lonely age: letters, sketches, songs, and poems; the embrace of absence; the art of being alone.