Life on the Surface
What is the best way to assemble meaning out of the mass of information available today? How can data be converted reliably into something like truth, when simply identifying misinformation can seem a Herculean task? Truth has come to mean different things according to different beliefs and agendas—for some, truth is what is most readily available on the surface, while for others, truth lies deep beneath all the numbers and opinions and must be laboriously unearthed. In this essay, Faisal Devji calls this condition “the simultaneous desire for and disenchantment with a life on the surface.” Devji argues that if the surface could be converted from the supposed site of visibility into “an arena for play and illusion,” new and more powerful kinds of meaning might be produced. Esotericism and skepticism, he says, could reinstate mystery in meaning, rather than the fetishization of either visibility or revelation.
Data and information of the kind unceasingly and instantaneously made available on new media have begun to threaten the very structure of meaning. Traditionally understood as the uncovering of hidden truth from unreliable perception or superficial opinion, meaning as a product of discovery seems to have been buried by an avalanche of information. The sheer volume of digital data available to most is also destroying claims to authoritative knowledge, as is evident both in the proliferation of “fake news” and the distrust of “mainstream media.”
Rather than being a simple consequence of technological developments, this phenomenon emerges from a long history of democratic thought and practice. The ideal of democracy accounts for the liberation from authority implied in the ability to freely manufacture and transmit images and narratives online. Of course, the lack of accountability of anonymous online transmission defies any democratic ideal of mutual responsibility, though its anonymity and even indifference to truth fits rather well with the idea of the secret ballot and the expectation that citizens vote for their private interests.
Data dumps like those produced by Wikileaks do not give us the kind of truth promised by old-fashioned meaning, but as is especially clear in releases like the Panama Papers, only reveal the kind of predictable information whose primary use is as legal evidence. This is why there is such a rapid loss of public interest in seemingly banal revelations, which are then supplemented by more traditional “back stories” that allow meaning to operate again by focusing interest on what remains hidden, ambiguous, and undecidable. Of these, the long-running drama about Julian Assange’s alleged sexual misdemeanors provides the best example.
The way in which excessive and easily available information has transformed the structure of meaning is also evident in the popularity of conspiracy theories. No longer tied to ignorance or the absence of information, such theories now depend upon information’s very plenitude to function. This situation reveals the decline of authoritative knowledge amid the “democratic” plenitude of information, as much as it does the anxiety that drives attempts to retrieve meaning by plumbing the depths of data. This is an impossible quest for truth, whereby each bit of information is trumped by another that is seen to possess more truth value.
However dense it may seem, information can possess only a surface existence as long as it ignores the importance of the invisible and unknown in the making of truth. Information itself has come to represent the democratic virtue of transparency, understood as a form of universal availability, as opposed to the specialized or concealed knowledge of elites. The idea of equality was once circumscribed by the liberal freedom of private life, which in turn served as the haunt of meaning insofar as it concealed unequal interests or passions behind the egalitarianism of public acts and arguments.
Always potentially conspiratorial if not illicit, private life today is not only threatened by surveillance, as in totalitarian states, but by the desire for self-exhibition promoted by both old and new media such as reality TV, webcams, and social networks. Surveillance post-9/11 can even be said to reinstate a form of privacy at the state level, by withdrawing and secretly archiving the personal details of citizens away from the evanescence of public circulation. Precisely because it is understood in liberal terms as a product of private life, the meaning uncovered by surveillance operates in the same way as that revealed on social media. In both cases, some truth is brought to the surface and the intent behind its disclosure made transparent, whether by the confession of criminal intent or exhibitionism. We might even say that such revelations of meaning require the constant reinvention of a private life that must just as repeatedly be destroyed in order to secure and enjoy a life on the surface.
But everything we know about the new generation of Al-Qaeda or ISIS terrorists, as well as the social media stars who they imitate in the endless quest for global visibility, tells us that there may be no secret or private world that exists prior to the militancy from which their acts emerge. Radicalization and exhibitionism occur on the surface, in the ebb and flow of publicly available data, images, and narratives. One reason radicalization can be so rapid is because it no longer requires indoctrination in secluded places, as cults and ideologies once did, but derives its energy and also brittleness from the surface, from memes and ready-made arguments. It is defined not by the spatial logic of private and public but by a temporal logic of action and inaction.
There is a certain pleasure in the game of concealment and discovery that governments, the press, and ordinary people play when dealing with terrorism, social media, and other forms of publicity. In these forms, a private truth, whether personal or religious, is retroactively posited in order to save the structure of meaning premised upon its unveiling. This also seems to be the case with conspiracy theories like climate change denial or the birtherism that suggested that former president Barack Obama was born outside the US and thus ineligible to hold office. These conspiracies have been repeatedly broadcast by Obama’s successor, whose persona is defined by an absence of all depth.
Yet President Trump’s claim to live on the surface of things is not simply demonstrated by the deliberate superficiality or easy familiarity of his stereotypical and media-saturated views. The conspiracies he sells can only attain the status of truth by revealing themselves over and over again in ever more extreme ways. Trump proves his sincerity by voicing his increasingly shocking opinions, affirming his lack of hypocrisy by, for instance, his refusal to divulge his tax returns and thus his indirect acknowledgement of what all taxpayers desire—cheating the taxman.
In other words, rather than representing the concealment of private life, Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns only renders suspect the ostentatious display of personal records by both his predecessor and electoral rival. A life on the surface is achieved by deploying this repetitive and retroactive demonstration of sincerity through implying the hypocrisy of one’s enemies. Sincerity is here proven not by claiming innocence but by proudly confessing to the guilt of financial, sexual, or racial impropriety.
What we see in all this is the simultaneous desire for and disenchantment with a life on the surface, one that doesn’t live up to its promise of freedom and is haunted by nostalgia for depth and meaning. Such a life inevitably turns its subjects into holograms. This is because surface and depth continue to be linked by the fact that truth has shifted from the private to the public domain, in another version of the old democratic impetus to privilege transparency over the special interests of experts and elites.
While the surface can never be the site of truth, it is not dedicated to falsehood either. It can also serve as an arena for play and illusion, in which there are instructions and clues to the real. Jean Baudrillard’s book Seduction, for example, shows how the seducer’s erotic, aesthetic, and intellectual allure was defined by a fascination with surfaces and signs rather than untruth.1 Among these was the practice of perspective in Baroque painting, understood at the time as artificial rather than naturalized, and characterized by the pleasing illusion of trompe l’oeil.
The compulsion to see truth manifested on the surface as a kind of transparency does away with the pleasure of artifice, along with the skepticism and esotericism that have always accompanied it. Skepticism was historically defined by the suspicion that nothing immediately visible is true, and esotericism by the assertion that the truth is always hidden and thus protected from popular view as much as from authoritative dogma. When the surface is turned into a field of either truth or falsehood, it is divested of its ability to inspire skepticism as well as pleasure.
It was democracy that turned esotericism into expert and elite knowledge and so made it unacceptable. Yet in the past esotericism was not defined by specialized knowledge, but rather had to be secretive precisely because it questioned both popular opinion and established authority, the two often supporting each other. It tended to function as an open secret rather than a conspiracy, as both its democratic and authoritarian enemies asserted, and there are many examples of people from all manner of backgrounds operating esoterically and deploying a shared vocabulary to do so.
Leo Strauss was the first modern philosopher to bring esotericism back to life in political thought in the first half of the twentieth century, seeing in it much more than legal ruses or evasions. However “elitist” the nature of his enterprise, as manifest in the politics of his neoconservative followers, esotericism possesses a long intellectual history in the study and practice of mysticism. Mysticism is a structure of meaning set against all forms of established orthodoxy but without any intention of replacing and so inevitably reproducing them in some revolutionary way. Whether in the work of scholars of Judaism like Gershom Scholem, or of Islam like Henry Corbin, mystical narratives of withdrawal and hidden subversion did not pit esotericism against totalitarianism or even authority as Strauss did. Instead, these scholars were suspicious of visibility as such.
In this age of media saturation, the visible world or indeed any surface of experience, whether visual, tactile, or aural, is the site of violence and hegemony in a structural sense. This means that domination no longer requires subjugation of a specific subject like a state, class, or ethnicity as its singular or even primary focus. The world of the visible no longer belongs to the traditional division of public and private, which has been fragmented if not rendered impossible by media.
The spatial distinction of the public and private characteristics of liberalism has always been porous, with the modular, middle-class individual’s ownership of privacy premised upon that of property. But the immateriality of digital and electronic forms of property, as well as of the kind held in shares and futures, has joined new media in making this spatial distinction inoperative. Unlike either the nostalgic turn to the security of private life or the freedom of public politics, which each serve to manifest truths held constantly in tension, esotericism is not concerned with such a dualism.
Esoteric meaning is not a form of property, and is therefore neither private nor authentic. The surface it treats with such skepticism and takes pleasure in is the site not of any particular truth or falsehood but of seduction, virtuosity, and experiment, allowing thought to conceal itself from the dangers of a transparency that was once seen as unproblematic in its democratic credentials. Contemporary debates about sincerity and hypocrisy, whether on the left or the right, indicate, as I have suggested, a desperate effort to work within the liberal distinction of public and private that is today increasingly blurred and irrelevant. In this context, esotericism represents a tactic very old and startlingly new, a life on the surface from which truth and falsehood have been withdrawn, and meaning, as much as opinion, is made invisible to the eye of authority. The way recent elections and referenda like those in the US and UK have confounded opinion polls suggests one way esotericism works in politics by withdrawing meaning from the surface.
The liberal order was long defined by a spatial distinction between public and private, while terrorism and social media in our own time are structured by a temporal distinction between action and inaction. Working among the ruins of one and the volatility of the other, esotericism distrusts the surface it inhabits without finding refuge in some secluded lair. It operates on this surface, understood as a lure and game, to deny meaning either psychic interiority or democratic transparency. Rather than bringing meaning to the surface, esotericism withholds truth from visibility, with visibility understood as the foremost site of violence.
This essay was written for the transmediale journal – face value edition. You can buy a print copy of the journal here.
- 1. Jean Baudrillard, Seduction (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1990).