MAY, 2016—A small village in the Mâconnais region. A festival is being held beneath a capital, with debates, lectures, and conferences in alternation. Big names have made the trip, drawn by the prospect of a full four days’ literary coterie, where yesterday’s interrupted discussion can always take up on the morrow. Today one distinguished guest has decided to voice his doubts regarding the Nuit debout movement, which, for more than a month, has been trying to add Paris’s Place de la République to that constellation of city squares—Wall Street, Tahrir, Taksim, Syntagma, Maidan, Puerta del Sol—whose enumeration calls forth the contemporary horizon. Our historian sympathizes, but worries. He distrusts the romanticism in that litany, doubts that the rhetoric of resistance and miniscule insurrections can put a lasting bite on the political and economic order. The discussion is long and lively. Facing off with him, Nuit debout militants and sympathizers bitterly dispute the accuracy of his diagnosis, but they take the necessary pains to lodge their disagreement without resorting to anathema, to contest without excommunicating. The debate, now over, prompts the following observation: if we have been able to speak this way it is only because in this little vineyard-nestled village there is no access to the internet. Without a signal no one has been able to tweet, livestream, or otherwise periscope the exchange—that is to say, lay it bare to the criticism of readers who are as vindictive and quick to envenom a debate as they are free, at their remove, from any responsibility for preserving the forum for civil exchange. We have been able to state our disagreements but have also agreed to permit their statement, because, for a few hours, the smartphones fell silent.
If this slim anecdote intrigues me, it is not simply as an edifying fable about the virtues of direct communication. The fact is that, like the Nuit debout and Occupy Wall Street, the occupation movements typical of democratic protest these past few years have striven to stage a presence. To counter abstract financial procedures that cause them injury, they conjure up opaque bodies. To contest often individualized, and thus invisible, phenomena of exclusion or discrimination, they have gatherings. They assert that for political renewal to take place citizens must make themselves present for one another, speak with one another, come into contact in an immanence such that democratic forms become indistinguishable from the people who embody them. This is why the moderation of the debates occasioned a specific body language: a gesture is precisely the point of convergence where, at one swoop, body becomes sign and sign becomes body.
Presence, then. But let us make no mistake: this sort of political epiphany is, simultaneously and paradoxically, a stage. Its broadcast and repetition entail and depend entirely on technologies of distance, which circulate the watchwords and best practices, the exhortations, the reactions, the instructions, the filmed debates, the models and testimony. And here the fable complexifies. On the one hand, we have Place de la République and the Nuit debout movement’s intense use of social media. On the other, we have the townships of the Mâconnais and the relief of a moment’s Twitter-free debate. But this is not a matter of pitting city noise against the ancient agora, for everything suggests that the dichotomy is false. It is a matter, in fact, of how a politics of presence has today been made both necessary and dubious, both possible and impossible, by the forms of ubiquity that our symbolic, intellectual, social, and other activities have taken.
It is a matter that concerns philosophy. The past few decades have seen an inversion. Thirty years ago one current of human thought made a point of calling into question “the presence of the present” (Jacques Derrida) and the access to things in themselves promised by phenomenology. It described a game in which the self-identity of men and things seemed a provisional concretion, and hypertextual cross-references hollowed out any form of immediacy, ascribing to it an intractable measure of exteriority. However, even as this program found a way to take shape in the real world—under the generic name internet—philosophy, for its part, aimed to change the tune, to have done with deconstruction and genealogy, to take up once more (under the name speculative realism) with a pure presence of thought to Being. For me, though, the problem before us today is rather to determine how to produce, against a background of digital ubiquity, forms of presence, to the world and to other people, that are neither nostalgic nor merely theatrical; how to produce modes of irruption, manifestation, and confrontation whose conditions, effects, and, indeed, capacity to stagger remain to be described.
JULY, 2016—A big city in the southern United States. A woman films the death throes of her companion, shot by the police. The video, spread over the internet, has effects that as of this writing remain incalculable. In it I seem to recognize a certain link between direct testimony and the ubiquity, the incarnation, of a life that was counted for nothing (Black Lives Matter) and the circulation of signs. Here again, presence: a man is gone, absent.