Nightly vertigo

By Timotheus Vermeulen

I don’t like driving, or even biking, at night. The thing is that when it’s dark, I have difficulties perceiving depth. I have a tough time distinguishing between what is far and what is close, to the extent that I might assume, driving a car, that a car ahead of me is far further away than it actually is – an obviously perilous situation.

My nightly vertigo, if that’s the word, is not a unique condition. Many people seem to be inconvenienced by it. In fact, I would argue that in some sense, the difficulty to ascertain distance is a nuisance we all suffer in contemporary culture. From those much cited “hyperobjects” of global warming, animal extinction and the Internet (phenomena whose planetary scale make them hard for humans to comprehend) to the “choice paralysis” troubled millennials, from fake news to selfie narcissism (instawhatschatting your experience anywhere from the local coffee shop to a disaster site), the neoliberal politics of shame (it’s the person, not the discourse or indeed the system) and the anti-vaccination movement, flat-earthers and deep state conspiracy theorists: it appears we are all driving in the dark, unable to make heads or tail of parameters of the far and the near, of the there and the here, the not-yet and the always-already. We at once perceive depth everywhere and nowhere, seeing before our own eyes realities emerge and disappear that may have never existed but who’s to tell until it’s daytime – for now, they lie behind us, no less indistinguishable.

In all honesty, I couldn’t tell you whether we were ever able to see distance clearly. But for a while, at least, it seems people thought or pretended they could. The influential cultural theorist Fredric Jameson distinguishes between two such more recent modalities of vision: what he calls the “depth-model” and the “new depthlessness”. The first sees each phenomenon as a manifestation of a something else, something, you guessed it, behind it – an ideal essence, a will, a psychological state, a feeling. The latter assumes that surfaces manifest nothing but themselves: what you see is what you get.

If we are to believe Jameson, the depth-model is the dominant register of modernity. He discerns it in anything from political utopianism to the paintings of Munch to the philosophy of Descartes to the psychoanalytic method of Freud but we could, of course, think of the modernist design experiments with architecture, furniture or font types as well. Each of these presumes that surfaces secrete depths behind them which can, with the appropriate method or discipline, be revealed. That’s why they call Munch’s painting expressionism or why Freud talks of symptoms: surfaces express or symptomise, that is, signify, something else.

The new depthlessness, theorised by Jameson as the wholesale repudiation of these depth-models, is the register associated with what is often called postmodernism: the end of the meta-narrative, the simulacra of shopping malls, eclectic interior design, the glossy pictures of Andy Warhol, poststructuralism, Foucault’s discourse theory. Here, surface is all there is, there is nothing behind it, no elsewhere to be found. The only experiences of depth that remain in the late twentieth century are those of the horror genre: the demonic body of The Exorcist, the ghost inhabiting the TV in Poltergeist – insides, behinds of which you’d have hoped never showed up.

It has always struck me as interesting that Jameson discusses our experience of space in terms of our experience of time. The dominance of the depth-model runs parallel to the modern belief in the future as justification for our behaviour in the present – ideology as secular religion: the French and the promise of the enlightenment, the communists and equal distribution, the Nazis and the third reich, the futurists and techtopia, etc. Similarly, the new depthlessness is the register accompanying what Jameson refers to as the “senses of an end”, the implosion of the future (and its regulative function) into an euphoria of the here and now: Fukuyama’s End of History and Thatcher’s TINA, Punk’s No Future and the hedonism of Koons, the despair of Grunge and the nihilism of Easton Ellis.

The commentator John Arquilla has described our current moment as a “bend of history”: out of historical necessity (the range of ecological, geopolitical and financial crises disturbing the west’s wet dream of the End of History) as much as a generational desire (you know, the new sincerity of turn of the century lit, the New Romanticism of the noughties, quirky few years back) the possibility of the future has returned but it is around the bend, as it were, just across the corner. Some of us approach it cautiously, others run towards it, but whatever even the fastest may suggest, none of us has even the faintest idea of what it may be that awaits us. Paradoxically, in a time where every possible route from here to there is scenario planned, it’s the future itself that is the least circumscribed. GPS doesn’t help much to battle nightly vertigo.

Whether it is parafiction in art, treating the most outrageous nonsense as reality, or autofictional literature, making fiction from heartfelt reality, or indeed the true crime fad on television and the web, using narrative devices to reterritorialize our experience of the real, inventing what literary scholars call “spots of indeterminacy” – a sort of Bermuda triangle, stuff that is unknowable or at least unverifiable – here and imagining expansions of what is possible there: culture responds to the bend spatially. It once again reconsiders surfaces in terms of depth but this time a depth that is itself beyond grasp, beyond revelation (or at least one whose truth is, as the debates around Serial, Making a Murderer and more recently the Michael Jackson documentary demonstrate, beyond question). This is what my nightly vertigo and contemporary culture share: a simultaneous hermeneutic overdetermination and underdetermination: there are signs and symptoms everywhere, but to elsewheres that are forever undecided, clues all around but no one is certain to which crime (and if it has or ever will be committed) – until the car hits a wall, or drives off a cliff, and it’s too late. The label I have elsewhere attached to this phenomenon, with a wink to Stephen Colbert’s gimmick about truthiness, is depthiness: We sense the possibility of depth, but cannot see it, perform it but cannot epistemologically ascertain it.

In an abstract sense, our struggle to see the world anew is not unlike that of a thirteenth century painter in Italy: we are feeling out, as if by hand, the rules of the perspectives we are inventing, here sensing a line of sight, there imagining a foreshortened distribution of planes and so on. We haven’t figured out the logic yet, the overall system of representation – indeed, if anything, this is what the current political discussion seems to be about – but we’re intimating its contours. Paradoxically, this is the very reason why thinking about depth, depthlessness and depthiness today is far from an exclusively aesthetic preoccupation: it speaks to our capacities for driving through and beyond our dark present and our chances for arriving at the destination, safely.

Timotheus Vermeulen is a scholar and critic. He is associate professor in Media, Culture and Society at the University of Oslo, Norway and Director of the PhD Programme in Media Studies.

By Timotheus Vermeulen