The simulacra of co-presence

The simulacra of co-presence

We are accustomed to debates about ‘the end of the letter’, to the effect that letter-writing has been demolished by the almost instantaneous communications permitted by email, Skype/Zoom/Teams and social media of different kinds. Rather than the parameters set by paper and postal communications, now time and distance and being apart mean something different when the other person/s can be seen and heard almost as they actually are and in the moment that they are, not as in letter-writing times when communications could take months to arrive. This claim of radical difference between then and now rests on a chimera, however, for time and distance are still present and seeing/hearing someone via a highly mediated media is actually not the same as the face-to-face.

The present circumstances of many of us, living in a lockdown situation, have given a particular edge to these debates. On the one hand, there are many more ‘personal‘ communications being written or otherwise engaged in than in earlier years. Personal email, rather than the work variety, has experienced a renaissance; electronic aids to letter-writing and postcard-sending are being advertised on television screens; and huge numbers of people who never did so before are using electronic media in a regular and persistent way to keep in touch with others across that peculiar kind of distance being engendered by social distancing rules. But, not so much on the other hand as on the same hand, there is also a positive cacophony of laments that it is not the same, that touching and other material aspects of co-presence are absent and deeply missed. A simulacra of co-presence has been widely established, while at the same time there is equally wide recognition that co-presence has not actually been achieved; The simulacra remains a simulacra, and is known to be such. Co-presence is visceral, three-dimensional, rounded, smelly, feely, touchy, not hygienically flat-packed behind a small or large screen.

But this will do in the circumstance and the signs are that such things are likely to be maintained ‘after’ and will co-exist on a far wider scale than previously, ‘before‘ the pandemic, alongside the face-to-face. Precisely the ‘interrupted presence’ circumstance that the earlier form of ordinary letter-writing was a means of managing, as I have discussed in a number of articles about 18th and 19th century South African letters.

Last updated: 7 May 2020