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What social psychologists call "the principle of superficiality versus depth" has pervaded Western culture since at least the time of Plato.

Socrates sought to convince his debaters to turn from the superficiality of a worldview based on the acceptance of convention to the examined life of philosophy, founded (as Plato at least considered) upon the underlying Ideas. For more than two millennia, there was in the Platonic wake a general valorisation of critical thought over the superficial subjectivity that refused deep analysis. The salon style of the Précieuses might for a time affect superficiality, and play with the possibility of treating serious topics in a light-hearted fashion; but the prevailing western consensus firmly rejected elements such as everyday chatter or the changing vagaries of fashion as superficial distractions from a deeper reality.

By contrast, Nietzsche opened the modernist era with a self-conscious praise of superficiality: "What is required is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance! Those Greeks were superficial – out of profundity!".

His (still) preference for superficiality was however over-shadowed for most of the 20th century by modernism's full subscription to the depth/surface model, and to the privileging of the former over the latter. Frederic Jameson has highlighted four main modernist versions of the belief in a deeper reality - Marxist, psychoanalytic, existential, and semiotic - in each of which reality is understood to be concealed behind an inauthentic surface or façade. Jameson contrast these models sharply with the lack of depth, the ahistoricity, the surface-focus and flatness of the postmodern consciousness, with its new cult of the image and the simulacrum.

In the last third of the 20th century, Lyotard began challenging the Platonic view of a true meaning hidden behind surface as a theatrical world-view, insisting instead that sense manifestations had their own reality which necessarily impacted upon the purely verbal order of intelligibility. Similarly, deconstruction has increasingly sought to undo the depth/surface hierarchy, proposing in ironic style that superficiality is as deep as depth. The result has been the call to abandon the idea that behind appearances there is any ultimate truth to be found; and in consequence the growing postmodern replacement of depth by surface, or by multiple surfaces.

  • Entertainer Bill Hicks often criticized consumerism, superficiality, mediocrity, and banality within the media and popular culture, describing them as oppressive tools of the ruling class, meant to "keep people stupid and apathetic."
  • Web 2.0 in particular is often seen as specifically fostering superficiality, replacing deep, measured analysis by noisy but unfiltered observation.
  • Aldous Huxley's novel After Many a Summer is his examination of American culture, particularly what he saw as its narcissism, superficiality, and obsession with youth. Freud had similarly explored what was at the start of the 20th century a conventional contrast between the (historical) depth of Europe and the superficiality of America; but towards the century's close, another European, Baudrillard, would return to the image of America as a shallow, cultureless desert, only to praise it in postmodern terms "because you are delivered from all depths there – a brilliant, mobile, superficial neutrality".
  • Pride and Prejudice has been analysed in terms of the movement from the superficiality of Elizabeth Bennet's initially favourable appraisal of Whickham – her first impressions – to her deeper realisation of the value of Mr Darcy.
  • Anthony Elliott, Subject to Ourselves (1996)
  • William Hazlitt, "On Depth and Superficiality" in Selected Essays of William Hazlitt (2004)
  • Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (1964)
  • Remington Norman, Sense & Semblance: An Anatomy of Superficiality in Modern Society (2007). Founthill.
  • Sir Richard Winn Livingstone, Superficiality in education (1957)


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