According to a certain way of looking at the world that is surprisingly prevalent in Europe and elsewhere, there would seem to be a relation of inverse proportion between power and depth, or between powerlessness and superficiality. The more powerful a group is, the more superficial it must be; the more helpless, the deeper.
Deeper as in more rooted in history — or perhaps more rooted in suffering.(But does history equal suffering? Now there’s a question!) Deeper as in more authentic and therefore invested with more moral legitimacy, prima facie. To put it in the kind of comic book terms we are getting used to these days: on one side, the United States would stand for might without depth — a place with no culture, no history, only greed and frivolity and the armies needed to defend those shallow vices; on the other, Osama bin Laden, or some other surrogate claiming to represent the dispossessed of the world, claiming to tap into some ancient telluric force, and charged with exacting revenge for ancestral wrongdoings. The gloss of the screens of the Pentagon briefing room on one side; the depths of Afghanistan’s caves, on the other.
How did this bizarre system of depth perception evolve? The cultural critic in me tells me that we can trace the emergence of this peculiar suspicion of surfaces and fascination with depth to a single mutation that took place around 1800 in an important segment of the population of the West; a mutation that gave rise to three remarkably sturdy traits known as romanticism, nationalism, exoticism.
It was Romanticism, after all, that taught us that true culture had to be expressive of the caverns of collective authenticity, or at least of the grottoes of personal identity. For the priests of Romanticism, classical culture had at best been a frivolous and superficial and inauthentic manipulation of forms, at worst a kind of imperialism disguised as cosmopolitanism and good taste.
Romanticism’s twin brother was nationalism; it taught us that the nation was the sole legitimate collective subject, and that a nation’s success is to be judged not on the basis of such trivia as the rights and privileges and comforts it provides to the citizens living within its borders, but rather on the basis of its fidelity to its own essence. We shouldn’t forget that that essence, was defined, more often than not in the case of Europe, in opposition to the superficial and invasiveenlightened values heralded by Napoleon’s troops.
And exoticism too was part of the same pandora package delivered to Europe around 1800. Exoticism is above all an intense love/hate relationship with difference, with the Other; an Other invested with magical powers of representativity; an Other incapable, even, of the Superficial, because her every gesture issues from the profundity of the centuries and of the masses and of the earth.
A certain kind of tourism, a certain brand of scholarship, even a certain type of political engagement, characteristic of the XIXth- and XXth-centuries, might be the clearest expressions of the love side of the love/hate complex called exoticism; we take flight from the patina of the Same in search of the marrow of the Other. The hate side of the love/hate phenomenon of exoticism is perhaps best represented by the very notion of a clash of civilizations: we imagine that the representative of the earth, the masses and the centuries no longer seductively beckons; now, instead, he menacingly threatens.
Can we wake up from this 200-year-long wet-dream/nightmare?
There is no depth deeper than the horror of being buried alive beneath rubble –in Manhattan or Kandahar. The other depths are lethal optical illusions, deadly trompes-l’oeil.
See “On the Perception of Depth” in its original format.