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Timotheus Vermeulen on "The New 'Depthiness'"


Can the snorkeler serve as a metaphor for a modality of new artistic imagination?

Curious to learn the difference between depth, depthlessness, and depthiness? Here’s Timotheus Vermeulen on “The New ‘Depthiness’”:

In his slim volume of essays The Barbarians, the Italian novelist Alessandro Baricco distinguishes between two experiential registers that in many senses mirror, and make manifest, Jameson’s discussion of depth and depthlessness: diving and surfing. The diver, Baricco suggests, looks for meaning in the depths of the ocean. He delves into the water, sinking deeper and deeper in search of a particular coral, fish, or sea monster. This is the person, writes Baricco, who reads, who perseveres reading Proust or Joyce—that is to say, modernists, to use the vocabulary of Jameson. The surfer, “the horizontal man,”9 on the contrary, looks for meaning on the surface, more precisely in the series of waves that form the surface—one after the other after the other, now left, now right, higher and lower. As Baricco puts it:

If you believe that meaning comes in sequences and takes the form of a trajectory through a number of different points, then what you really care about is movement: the real possibility to move from one point to another fast enough to prevent the overall shape from vanishing. Now what is the source of this movement, and what keeps it going? Your curiosity, of course, and your desire for experience. But these aren’t enough, believe me. This movement is also propelled by the points through which it passes … [The surfer] has a chance to build real sequences of experience only if at each stop along his journey he gets another push. Still, they’re not really stops, but systems of passage that generate acceleration.10

Unsurprisingly, if the diver is the person who reads Proust, Baricco writes, the surfer is the person browsing the internet.

The reason I introduce Baricco’s metaphors here, kitschy as they are, is twofold.11 The first is that these metaphors concretize Jameson’s abstract notions of depth, especially depthlessness, giving hands and feet to these amorphous bodies of thought. To say that something is depthless, after all, is not the same as suggesting that something is superficial. The first term acknowledges the possibility of depth whilst negating its actuality, whereas the second disavows it: though the make-up of the word “surface” suggests layers—the “sur-” and the “face”—it does not necessarily imply distance. By invoking the figure of the surfer, someone whose concern is not only to stand on the water but to avoid falling into it, going under, this duality is made manifest: to speak about depthlessness is to speak about the extinction of depth, not its nonexistence.

Read the full essay on e-flux journal here.