The Illusion of Depth

Have you ever noticed that media with strange and outlandish imagery is often celebrated as being deep and thought provoking regardless of whether or not that imagery actually adds up to anything. In fact, these works are frequently more celebrated than truly complex works that are more straightforward in their presentation. Why do people find this illusory depth so compelling? My theory is that there are five primary factors behind it.

The first factor is simply that it’s human nature to look for meaning. We like things to happen for a reason. When we see strange images we want them to have meaning behind them. Even if there isn’t any intended meaning we’ll construct one because it’s difficult for us, as human beings, to accept that some things are meaningless and that that’s okay. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with constructing meaning where there is none. I would just encourage awareness when that’s what you’re doing.

This brings me to the second factor, which is tangentially related to the first. People don’t like to feel stupid. When someone sees something with really odd imagery they assume it’s gotta add up to something and they don’t want to admit that they don’t see what that might be because doing so makes them feel like they’ve failed in some way. This is particularly true in situations where you see other people raving about how deep something is. Therefore, they hoist a meaning onto it or they look at what others have come up with and select the interpretation that they like best. By doing so they can say that they get it and feel intelligent.

This brings me to the third factor. It’s really easy, and simultaneously psychologically satisfying, to construct a deep meaning for something.You could take something as basic and action-oriented as Dragonball Z and give it a deep meaning about the psychological breakdown of a neglectful husband/father (Goku) who retreats from reality and imagines himself as a great hero to excuse the fact that he was never there for his wife or son and pictures his son’s new father as a green alien who happens to be a mentor figure for his son and who happens to be part of an asexual species so he’s not a threat in that way. The reason there’s a time-skip with Goku being dead is because he loses his visitation rights and can’t imagine what his son looked like during the time he didn’t see him. You can literally do that with any series and come up with something. That’s also why you get so many fan theories floating around online. It’s satisfying because it makes you feel intelligent for having “cracked the secret.”

This brings me to the fourth point. There’s an attachment to constructed meanings. Once you’ve assigned a meaning to a work you tend to be proud of that meaning. Especially when the creator of that work hasn’t come forward with what it actually means or even when they say it means nothing. It’s something you came up with that gave you satisfaction and made you feel smart. It’s not really surprising that there would be investment in it.

I have to stress once again that there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s an entire critical philosophy that’s dedicated to constructed meanings. However, that brings me to the final point and the negative side of constructed meanings. A lot of people become really rabid about them. Which is strange in the sense that the whole constructed meaning (viewer/reader response) line of criticism is based on the idea that there are no wrong answers. Someone can believe that the meaning is X, Y, Z or nothing and they’re all equally valid. But a lot of the people who use this school of critical thought will get deeply offended by answers that are the opposite of theirs or by the idea that there’s no meaning. For a lot of people it’s easier to pick a meaning for works like this, even if they think it’s actually total bollocks, than it is to face the wrath of the rabid portion of its fan-base.

So, that’s why the illusion of depth can be so much more alluring for some people than actual depth. Because we want meaning, finding it makes us feel smart, it’s easy to come up with something if you want to, it gives you an attachment to the interpretation and there are always the people who will feign a constructed meaning just to avoid making people mad.

That being said, I would encourage actual critical examinations of works like these. Go into them without any expectation for meaning and see if the idea of meaning actually holds up. If it’s something without any proper meaning and it does require constructed meaning, go ahead and construct one if you like. Just be aware of that and treat people who came up with different answers, or with no answer, with respect.

That’s what I think on that topic. Feel free to leave a comment on what you think of illusory depth or if you think there’s a factor to it that I missed or if you’ve got a constructed meaning to share or a story about dealing with someone who took that far too seriously. Next Saturday I’m planning another manga review so we’ll see how that works out.


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