The Eerie After Derrida (Part 2): Metaphysics of Absence

← Part 1

As a quick recap, the first half of Fisher’s book is concerned with the weird: a mode of perception through which we sense that there is something where there should be nothing. The second half of the book concerns the eerie. Here is the key passage from his introduction to the book’s second half, in which Mark fully conceptualises the eerie, in full:

The feeling of the eerie is very different from that of the weird. The simplest way to get to this difference is by thinking about the (highly metaphysically freighted) opposition — perhaps it is the most fundamental opposition of all — between presence and absence. As we have seen, the weird is constituted by a presence — the presence of that which does not belong. In some cases of the weird (those with which Lovecraft was obsessed) the weird is marked by an exorbitant presence, a teeming which exceeds our capacity to represent it. The eerie, by contrast, is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. The sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or is there is nothing present when there should be something.

In trying to figure this out with Robin in recent weeks, I’m left feeling like “presence” might not have been the best word for Mark to use in articulating himself here — but then, what else could you say? “Presence” certainly seems pertinent to how the weird and the eerie function as “modes of perception”, inferring a semiotics of the outside via what Bonnet calls the “infra-sensible“, but in talking about presence and absence Mark seems to inadvertently bury that force that has forever been at the heart of his writings since his Ccru days. (This is partly why I’ve come to feel like Bonnet’s book is a necessarily companion piece to The Weird and the Eerie — it does a much better job of defining the eerie in its own terms and, therefore, does not allow it to sink under decades of Derrida Studies.)

We might note the fact that Mark insists that the opposition between presence and absence as he is considering it is “highly metaphysically freighted”. Derrida, of course, likewise writes of a metaphysics of presence, via Heidegger, to note the privilege afforded to that which is, that which appears, and to suggest that we should instead consider that which is absent.

To avoid diving deep too into Derrida and Heidegger to excavate this at source — I really don’t have a lot of time for spurious tangential research projects at the moment — I’m going to draw on this excellent post from The Chicago School of Media Theory (CSMT), which begins:

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.”

This is likewise how Heidegger defines ‘Dasein’ in Being & Time — Dasein meaning “being-there”, the situated process of a being’s Being. He writes that “entities are grasped in their Being as ‘presence’; this means that they are understood with regard to a definite mode of time — the ‘Present‘.”

This was a necessary re-orientation for Heidegger who criticised the blinkered interiority of the ontological tradition that had persevered from the Greeks to Descartes, perhaps most famously encapsulated by Descartes’ phenomenological truism “I think therefore I am”.

In saying this, Descartes is considering the question of being from within presence whilst failing to take account of presence in itself, because he is oriented towards his own interiority. I think therefore I am is a concise way of saying “I sense my own presence therefore I am present” whilst ejecting the exteriority of the presentness of a subject — and so, in response, Heidegger draws a schema of being-in-the-world: the inside as a folding of the outside.

The CSMT article continues:

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.

However, the same issues of Cartesianism arise here again, as if somehow reformed.

The interiority of the mind, of the body, is extended out to frameworks and states. Such is, perhaps, the issue of Derrida’s metaphysics for Fisher — this is not to say that such states or frameworks do not exist or are unhelpful but it is to say that the methodological tendency to simply move the goalposts of interiority does not really solve any of the issues of being. There is still a noumena; an Outside, left unaccounted for. (This is likewise the question at the heart of my recent “Patchwork is Not a Model” posts, for me, and they are likewise largely grounded in the same materials — Bonnet’s The Order of Sounds and The Infra-World contend with these issues of how we “administrate the sensible” explicitly.)

Can we not accept the necessity of states and frameworks for thought whilst acknowledging that the states that we have are inherently incapable of covering all the bases?

There are, of course, schema that do attempt to do this: Freud’s conception of the mind is perhaps the most useful for us when considering Fisher’s weird and eerie — the conscious and unconscious functioning as a presence and absence which affect each other in much the same way as presence and absence do in Fisher’s conceptualisation of the eerie, describing an interiority whilst accounting for that which is nonetheless imperceptible “within” it.

So the weird and the eerie, then, are likewise rooted in these same metaphysical problems. As Mark writes, the weird is an “exorbitant presence” — which is to say, a presence that overflows a given “framework” of consciousness, of world. The eerie, by contrast, is an imperceptibility, like a deficiency of presence that slips the framework which cannot account for it.

This is not a concept alien to Derrida — whose notion of spectrality attempts to describe how “the living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it claims to be; that we would do well not to count on its density and solidity, which might under exceptional circumstances betray us” — and this is no doubt where we find Derrida’s usefulness, as accounted for by many of those who would nonetheless critique his own inherent presentness in the academy. The CSMT article too does not deny his influence:

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.

But it seems that the foul taste left in the mouth of those who have been through the Derridean wringer is that this is now, for so many, where the discussion ends. As the CSMT article concludes, “presence” is perhaps less of an issue for us today and it describes how with the most appropriately Fisherian of references:

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.

What is this if not the question that haunted Fisher’s PhD thesis: his Gothic Materialism, as an eeriness of a modern materialism exacerbated by the instability of Being we see approaching us in the Promethean promises of our technological futures. The article continues:

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.

But, as Fisher, Bonnet and others make clear, there is much more at work here which remains under-discussed…

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