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  • Cited by 134
  • Print publication year: 2002
  • Online publication date: September 2009

14 - The challenge of absent presence


“Let your home know where your heart is.”

(Billboard advertisement for cellular phone)

The setting is a retirement home for the elderly. Wilfred enters the veranda in search of two close friends. He is in luck, they are both present. But alas, one is lost to her Walkman and the other is engrossed in his book. Neither notices Wilfred's presence. Frustrated, Wilfred is left to stare silently into space. Such is the beginning of Ronald Harwood's London play, Quartet. Young or old, we instantly identify with the scene. How often do we enter a room to find family, friends or colleagues absorbed by their computer screen, television, CDs, telephone, newspaper, or even a book? Perhaps they welcome us without hesitation; but sometimes there is a pause, accompanied even by a look of slight irritation. And at times our presence may go completely unacknowledged. We are present but simultaneously rendered absent; we have been erased by an absent presence.

It is the twentieth-century expansion of absent presence that I wish to explore in what follows. My concern is with the growing domain of diverted or divided consciousness invited by communication technology, and most particularly the mobile telephone. One is physically present but is absorbed by a technologically mediated world of elsewhere. Typically it is a world of relationships, both active and vicarious, within which domains of meaning are being created or sustained.

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