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.
Unsurprisingly, if the diver is the person who reads Proust, Baricco writes, the surfer is the person browsing the internet.
More importantly, by introducing the figure of the surfer, Baricco develops Jameson’s notion of depthlessness from an experiential register to a modality of engagement. In order to stay above water, after all, the surfer needs to develop the skills that keep him on his board. One of these skills, one similar to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome, is to perceive the ocean as a “trajectory” rather than either a territory (implying a mapping) or a telos(suggesting direction). (Indeed, Deleuze himself introduces the figure of the surfer in his “Postscript on the Societies of Control.”) Here the surfer stays on his board by choosing one wave after the other, regardless of the corals he scratches with the tip of his board or the direction the waves take him in. He literally lets the waves carry him—he “lives in the moment.” The second skill is the ability to constantly keep moving. If the surfer slows down or is momentarily stopped “by the temptation to analyze,” as Baricco puts it, he sinks.
He must progress, advance, experiencing each wave not on its own terms but as the medium, the catalyst for the next encounter, which is to say that each experience is experienced not in and of itself but in anticipation of the next experience, the next wave. What Baricco suggests, thus, is that the experiential registers of depth and depthlessness prescribe different modes of engagement: in the former you focus on one point in particular whilst in the latter you let your eyes scan over the surface; in the first you look for the special, in the second for the spectacular: the next wave, the next thrill. Though Baricco’s metaphor of the surfer is both limiting and reductive and certainly does not define all art from the eighties and nineties, it manages to put into words a sentiment often shared between certain artistic traditions and their audiences: the act of looking for a hint, not of what lies beneath, but rather of what lies ahead of us—the spectacle, the thrill, the controversy, the next wave we can ride and then the next, and the next.
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.
To return to Jameson’s case studies, Van Gogh’s A Pair of Boots implies another mode of engagement than Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes: in the former we are invited to look for traces of an experience; in the latter what we are left to see are points for discussion.
Vincent van Gogh’s A Pair of Boots (1887), Jameson wrote, expressed both, through its “hallucinatory” use of color, the artist’s “realm of the senses” and, through its use of “raw materials,” a world “of agricultural misery, of stark rural poverty, … backbreaking peasant toil, a world reduced to its most brutal and menaced, primitive marginalized state.”5 The painting, in other words,conveyed individual ideas, sensibilities, and social realities which continued beyond its borders. In contrast, Andy Warhol’sDiamond Dust Shoes (1980) communicated neither an authorial voice, nor a personal attitude or affect, nor a sense of the world it supposedly represented. The black-and-white photograph, with its shiny, isolated aesthetic, Jameson suggested, could allude to glamour magazines just as well as to a memory of the artist’s mother, to shoes left over from Auschwitz or the remains of a dance hall fire. If Van Gogh’s painting of peasant shoes pulled the viewer into another world of poverty and misery, Warhol’s photo of pumps pushed the spectator out back into his own.6 As Warhol himself is alleged to have said: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”
Extract from: The New “Depthiness” - Timotheus Vermeulen