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The New “Depthiness”

Just because it’s fake doesn’t mean I don’t feel it.

—Girls, Season 3, Episode 3

Fredric Jameson once noted that superficiality was the “supreme formal feature” of late twentieth century culture. Whether it was in the philosophy of Foucault or historicist architecture, in the photography of Warhol or the nostalgia film, he suggested, an “exhilaration of … surfaces” had cut short the “hermeneutic gesture,” the reading of a physical or dramatic expression as a “clue or a symptom for … reality,” or as the “outward manifestation of an inward feeling.” Indeed, at the time, Jameson’s suspicions of this “new depthlessness,” as he called the development, were confirmed everywhere: Derrida discussed the withdrawal of the referent, Baudrillard lamented the waning of the real, while Deleuze celebrated the simulacrum. In art, too, superficiality and evidence of the “new depthlessness” abounded. Indeed, art critic Beral Madra even called this depthless abundance an “obsession”: the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix and Weir’s The Truman Show plotted simulations, the photos of Thomas Demand and Jeff Wall portrayed hyperreal scenarios where representation and reality were indistinguishable (that is to say, where they took place on the same ontological plane), while novelists Brett Easton Ellis and Michel Houellebecq described the shallowness of the human subject. Like the Histories of ideology and the social before it, the History of depth, of the behind or beyond, too, it seemed, had come to an end—or at least was cut short.

Writing a decade into the twenty-first century, this History appears to have returned. In philosophy and art alike, notions of the behind and the beyond, the beneath and the inside, have reemerged. The speculative realists, for instance, think beyond the surface of the epistemological, while artists like Mark Leckey, Ed Atkins, and Ian Cheng make discoveries within the simulacral, uncovering unintended glitches or unexpected traces of other (hyper)realities: hereditary deficiencies in digital DNA, intertextual features that come to light through another focus, immaterial realities as blueprints for material possibilities. Others, such as the artists-cum-activists Hans Kalliwoda and Jonas Staal, or novelists Adam Thirlwell and Miranda July, study the simulation not as a model of/for reality but as a diagram of possibilities, creating self-enclosed scenarios informed by reality but enacted in isolation from it, whose conclusions offer radical alternatives. Importantly, these philosophers, artists, and writers, each in their own distinct way, do not resuscitate depth as much as they resurrect its spirit. They understand that the depth Jameson referred to—dialectics, psychoanalysis, existentialism—has been flattened, or hollowed out. What they create instead are personal, alternative visions of depth, visions they invite us to share. Just as the Renaissance painters developed depth-models that differed from those structuring twelfth-century painting, replacing the metaphorical beyond with the perspectival behind, many artists today conceive of depth in another sense than their twentieth century predecessors. Many contemporary thinkers and artists leave the dead corpus of depth untouched, whilst trying to reanimate its ghost.

Over the years, Fredric Jameson’s notion of the new depthlessness has occasionally been understood to refer to a focus on, or proliferation of, surfaces. As far as I can tell, however, Jameson’s depthlessness denoted less a quantitative development than a qualitative one. His point was not necessarily that there was more interest in surfaces in the 1980s—than in, say, the 1920s, or the mid-eighteenth century, or the Renaissance period, though there may well have been. Jameson’s contribution to the history of surface attention was rather that by 1991, for instance, the interest was in the surface itself rather than the substance behind or below it—fascination and practice hyperfocused on the glass more than the display, the giftwrapping more than the present. Indeed, what Jameson observed, and what disturbed him, was that the very idea that there was a behind, a present, had seemingly been abandoned.

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