Monday, October 17, 2011


As readers of this blog know (when it was active as many as a five of you), I frequently bemoan the ubiquitous use of the depth/surface distinction (and its kin: real/fake, natural/artificial) in public life. This goes back, as much does, to Plato's Socrates's distinction, for instance in the Gorgias, between true arts such as medicine and false arts such as cosmetics. In contemporary life, we have superficial changes and superficial policies and superficial responses. They don't really do anything; they just appear to.

I get it. I am often with those that make such criticisms. There is obviously a difference between adding a sign to a store's front door and changing the store policy inside. If the door says "No Shirt. No Shoes. No Service" and yet I am never removed from the store when I am barefoot and bare-chested, then it makes sense to remark that something is off here--that no real change has taken place.

However, I'd like to imagine other ways of addressing this kind of disconnect without relying on the surface/depth superficial/real distinctions. My "for instance" here would be the notion of intensity. Rather than working from the binary of the "superficial" and the "real" (in part because even a "superficial" change is a "real" change), we can describe changes, policies, responses, etc. as more or less intense. Changing the sign on the door but not the treatment of the shirtless customer inside would no longer simply by superficial but only less intense. I think intensity nicely calls attention to the qualitative rather than quantitative differences in enactment and effect. Telling some to stop, yelling at someone to stopping, and physically intercepting someone are not in different categories (superficial and real) but rather register different levels of intensity, and, depending on the context, effectiveness.

It's something I have been thinking about lately, and hope to think more about soon.


  1. Have you read Latour's compositionist manifesto? That is something I have been writing on recently, and I think his reasons for choosing the term composition (over construction) resonate with your choice of intensity here. For Latour, the former term involves more of an aesthetic determination, rather than a pure ontological one--it is not a matter of whether something is constructed, but, rather, how well actants determine it to be composed.

  2. Thanks for the heads-up. Also, remember my offer to read your stuff. I am still interested in how Latour shows-up for you.