Friday, September 11, 2009

Being There, Presence

Gertrude Stein famously said "there is no there there" of Oakland, California. I think she meant it as something of a put-down; after all, a place with no "there" is not much of a place. To be present is to be there, of course. When the teacher took attendance at school, she'd read our names off the class list and we'd say "Present!" or just "Here!". Presence is the state of "being there". In fact, Heidegger's Dasein can be translated literally as "being-there" and, arguably, as "presence" (prae + esse, "being before" us.)

It is not rare to read a text, especially an academic text, and think "there is no there here". In an important sense, the author has not shown up. If you called out her name, you'd get no answer (and you could put a little "x" beside her name on the list, meaning "absent"). Reading such papers is a bit like hearing someone at a conference read their paper out loud without enthusiasm. It is possible to "perform" a reading, which is precisely the act of giving it presence, but when people do not do this, they are just pouring words into the air. The words fail to occupy the space. They just sort of sit there.

The same is true of a written text with no presence. The words are on the page but the page is not a "there", so the words can't be said to be anywhere. They're just sitting there next to each other. How, then, do we give our words presence?

One important rule is to make to sure that each paragraph is trying to establish a single proposition. You express this proposition in a key sentence and orient the rest of paragraph around it (the key sentence is essentially your "there"). In oral presentations, in interviews (like those at Videojug), in conversations with colleagues and students, the trick is always knowing what single sentence you are trying to convince your audience is true. You lose the "there" if something someone says reminds you of a funny story and you then just tell them the story. You preserve the there, maintain your presence, by being always mindful of why you are telling the story. Why are you telling the story at this time and in this place? Why should your reader/listener care?

The story may be true or funny or both. But neither is a reason, in and of itself, to tell it. Once you know why you are telling a story, you are in a good position (the right place) to deliver it effectively, to give it presence. The same goes for factual details and narrative accounts in your writing. Don't fill up the page with true, or even interesting, facts and events. Always be aware of why you are telling the reader something.

Also, presence is established as a sense of "having been there". The reader, as he reads along, must increasingly feel like he's "getting into" your argument. That he is occupying a place (a "there") inside your subject matter. Needless to say, this means that he will think you have already been there and that you've been there for a long time. You should seem at home there. (Travel stories rarely have presence. People come back from vacation and tell stories, but they are rarely compelling. Good travel writers are valued precisely because they are able to give those foreign places presence.) Keep Tarantino's "amusing anecdote about a drug deal" in mind. Write for an imagined audience that might have been there too. If anyone who is familiar with your subject would know you are faking your knowledge of it, then you are unlikely to be writing with presence.

Stein's little jab at Oakland would not still be quoted if readers were likely to say, "Hey! I've been to Oakland, and I can assure you it's all there." The general consensus, I'm told, is that she knows what she's talking about here.

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