Presence, or the sense of being-there and being-with in the new media society

Open access @First Monday.



This essay argues that the ways in which we come to feel connectivity and intimacy are often inconsistent with and irreducible to traditional markers like physical proximity, the human face or the synchronicity of message transmission. It identifies this non-objective and affective property as presence: conventionalised ways of intuiting sociability and publicness. The new media society is a specific situation where such habits of being affected are socially and historically parametrised. The essay provides two case studies. First: how do we derive a diffuse, indirect, intuitive sense of communicative participation – and yet also manage to convince ourselves of anonymity online? The second describes surveillance and data-mining as a kind of alienation: I am told my personal data is being exploited, but I do not quite ‘feel’ it. Surveillance practices increasingly withdraw from everyday experience, yet this withdrawal actually contributes to its strong presence.




Presence is the felt sense of being-with and being there. We typically identify such a thing through a number of objective, material conditions. Physical proximity; the human face and voice; the synchronicity of conversation. When the World Wide Web still possessed a sheen of novelty, it was often feared that it was stripping the humanity of authentic presence precisely through the decline of those material conditions. That narrative still lurks in the background, very much alive. Yet the Internet and ‘new’ media are maturing, and we are now learning that there’s a great variety of ways in which we can feel presence, anonymity, alienation. And these ways don’t map very consistently onto those traditional, objective ‘markers’. This essay is an effort to identify presence as a related but distinct thing from its material and semiotic markers, and to understand some of its common permutations in the new media society.

To separate presence from such markers does not mean retrieving any ‘pure’ essence of presence. Rather, the question is what kind of habits we develop in how we are affected by our media, and how those habits gradually concretise into intuitions, into common sense. More specifically: what kind of ways of feeling presence are socially and historically specific to the new media society? Today, we find lamentations of loneliness as often as we do utopian hopes of ultra-connectivity. Some say the Internet brings us the world; others say it turns us all away from each other. This shows that we are still figuring out what being-with and being-there is supposed to feel like and mean in this context. This places our present times in continuity with older ones. When the printing press inaugurated a writing and reading public (Eisenstein, 1980), we had to learn how to relate to this ‘us’ made up of an indefinite set of strangers (Hong, 2014; Warner, 2002). When radio came, the awed population responded by proliferating theories of ‘ghostly’ and ethereal communication (Marvin, 1988; Peters, 1999). Feeling connectivity, intimacy, belonging vis-à-vis media has long required us to naturalise what is initially ‘inauthentic’ or fanciful.

A number of traditions and concepts may be enlisted to further specify presence. Most importantly, presence operates pre-reflectively. It develops as what phenomenology has called ‘intuition’ or a ‘sense’ (extending Merleau-Ponty (2012)’s terminology of sense/sensing [sens / le sentir]), rather than a logic. The intuition of presence subtends cognitive reflection, at least initially. Presence may accompany nationalistic symbols, numerical figures of Twitter followers or discourse on the public sphere; but it is not reducible to the domain of reason or information. As recognised across phenomenology, affect theory, and even Gibsonian affordances (e.g. Caiani, 2013), this pre-reflective and affective dimension is experienced immediately and directly. We may thus classify presence, and its difference from objective markers, as a form of affect. Affect theory, or at least the humanities strand of it, emphasises that the subject is moved to a pre-cognitive sense of the world, a bodily process which then has the capacity to ‘evoke the thoughts’ (Brennan, 2004, p. 7). It is only retroactively that reflective cognition returns to try and discover what we have already become (e.g. Massumi, 2002, p. 15-18, 29-30). Presence must thus be understood as subtending and exceeding rational processes.

This line of thought often leads to an analysis of the embodied, ‘biological’ (see Papoulias and Callard, 2010) aspects in affect. Yet the subject of affect is also, echoing Simondon, social prior to individualisation (Clough, 2010, 209). Presence as affect is neither universally uniform nor given over to personal serendipity. Our sensibility to our shared environments develop through countless daily coordinations of each other’s habits, emotions, interpretations. This coordination is often is engineered outside our conscious or personal control (Hansen, 2012; Thrift, 2008). Some of this happens at the level of technological systems. This essay, cognisant of the particularly human orientation of presence, focuses on the social and phenomenological dimension of such engineering. Although affect hits us pre-reflectively, we develop conventional ways to make sense of those affects at a social level. Merleau-Ponty identifies this reflexivity when he asks: how do I recognise my own feelings as sometimes deceptive, half-hearted, or otherwise ‘false’ (2012, p. 399)? This difference reveals myself as not entirely trapped in my sensing, but always already wired into socialised modes of doubling back on that intuition.

This is why ways of feeling-presence should be understood as socially and historically parametrised. A hypothetically ‘individual’ moment of being affected may subtend cognition or reason, but it is both prepared for and recursively interpreted. For all the accusations of a kind of essentialism, even Husserl’s phenomenology suggests “the relation between perceptual objects, subjects, worlds, and communities is oriented rather than absolute.” (Redfield, 2013: 10). The ways in which I tend to enter into a feeling of togetherness or loneliness runs along well-worn grooves. When I find myself affected here and there, I make some sense of it by appealing to familiar forms of interpretation (see Ahmed, 2014). This perspective takes up suggestions within affect theory that subjective patterns of responsivity are not only historically specific (e.g. Seyfert, 2012; Wetherell, 2014), but able to be ‘engineered’ (Thrift, 2008). The question is how we figure out how we are ‘supposed to feel’ in a given new media situation, and how we make sense of how we think we feel, regarding the question of presence.

The term ‘engineering’ brings out the experiential implications of new media technologies. What is notable about technology (broadly defined) is that they are ways of externalising our intentions, actions, senses, beyond the fleshly body (also see Scarry, 1985, Chapter 5). Hence, in a media technological environment, our own bodily experience is only fully realised through technical means, making us bodies-in-code (Hansen in Ayers, 2014, p. 219, 224). In a similar way, we ask how affect, technology and lived experience intertwine to produce a sense of being with others, being part of a public, being in a world. The argument is not that presence is social rather than technological – only that the relationship between affect/experience and technology is itself socially parametrised. This social dimension is today recognised even in areas like computer systems research. The notion of telepresence, which focuses on sensory input and spatial cues for use in robotics, virtual reality and human-computer interaction, has long been dominant (Steuer, 1992; Witmer and Singer, 1998). But social presence is now distinctly identified to emphasise the subjectively felt ‘sense of being with another’ (Biocca et al., 2002). Some of the latter research has also identified cases where feelings of presence actively contradict traditional expectations. ‘Inverse presence’, for example, is when ostensibly ‘unmediated’ experience is felt as mediated (Timmins and Lombard, 2005).

The remainder of this essay makes a preliminary diagnosis of some common permutations of presence in the new media society. They focus on concrete, socialised practices. The first involves patterns of communicative experience in Twitter. This is a prominent yet banal situation which emphasises human and public connectivity. How do we ‘feel’ the presence of physically absent others on social media platforms like Twitter? What makes us invest in communicative acts, often in the absence of any immediate experience of feedback? At the same time, what makes us presume a certain anonymity online? How do we engage a situation where activity is technically fully exposed to the public, but maintain a speculative belief that we can pass unnoticed? Again, these social parameters are comparable to other contexts of presence. We understand our own presence in a café to be rather different from that on a stage or a plaza, even though in all cases, we are technically fully exposed to the strangers’ gaze. Where the neophyte might be seized with anxiety about being too vulnerably visible (and/or anonymously irrelevant) on Twitter, the learned user learns how to dismiss some affects as negligible, and amplify others as ‘real enough’.

The second case is the changing relationship between ourselves and our data in the Snowden era of surveillance and data-mining. This context provides a rather different set of objects of presence. They include the objectification of my ‘self’ into data, as well as the impersonal technological world of surveillance itself. I argue that the intensification of data-mining practices are resulting in the proliferation of trace-bodies, composed of data and inhabiting corporate or government databases. Trace-bodies perform representational functions, but have no locus of affect themselves, being data. They stand in for us in judicial, commercial and other contexts, but are increasingly concealed and removed from our act-bodies – the body with which we act, perceive and feel. Surveillance as externalised presence, too, has a long history. Techniques include not only Foucaultian discipline (1995), but the role of clothing and skin marks in medieval Europe (Groebner, 2007; Hindle, 2006) and writing as a whole (Clanchy, 2013; Goody, 1977; Scribner and Cole, 1981). But even if trace-bodies are not exactly new, we experience them today as a change in the way of things. The withdrawal of the trace-body in new media surveillance entails a specific wiring of anxiety and its disavowal, producing a diffused, peripheral paranoia as a dominant affective frame for presence.

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