At a recent talk at Lincoln Center, entitled "A Shallow Nation?", faculty from across disciplines presented research framed by the question of whether or not our national culture might be characterized as "shallow" or "deep."
To summarize, the faculty research investigated topics that ranged from voting motivation and incentive, teenage "digitalk" and texting as communication, the state and status of investigative reporting in journalism today, and shallowness or laziness in the production of academic scholarship. Not all of the researchers concluded that our nation is trending towards the completely shallow; yet it seems as if shallowness in both civil duties and academia was suggested by the findings. See the full story about the event here.
What does it mean, really, to be a "deep" person? How would you define "depth" as related to a person's character?
In the dictionary, "deep" is defined as: "extending far from some surface or area." This definition seems pretty straight-forward, lacking any positive or negative connotations. But this definition is also probably not the one you'd immediately apply to a person's character traits. It is also defined as "difficult to penetrate or comprehend," with the nuances of "mysterious," "obscure," "grave," "of penetrating intellect," "intensely engrossed or immersed," and "characterized by profundity of feeling or quality." To me, these definitions are not unambiguously positive characteristics. In fact, would one necessarily want to be described as "difficult to penetrate or comprehend," or "obscure," or "grave"? "Intensely engrossed or immersed" -- this could be a good quality, or, in extreme situations, it could be very bad -- (like, for example, when you are intensely engrossed in your game of Angry Birds and you miss your stop on the D train.) Perhaps "characterized by profundity of feeling or quality" has positive connotations, but being profound isn't necessarily or inherently a positive thing. Something may be, for example, profoundly boring or profoundly complex, making it undesirable or inaccessible.
There are also some other connotations of "deep" that may not conjure unambiguous positive feelings: "into the deep" could refer to outer space, or deep in the abysses of the sea, both conjuring unexplored and hard to reach places that may excite the human mind but also incite terror and fear of the unknown; when you are "in too deep," you are usually in a sticky situation that is difficult to get out of -- hitting the bottom, as in the Pearl Jam song "Deep." (<--showing my age right now). Hmm.
And, for that matter, what defines "shallowness"? Of course, our problem becomes circular because the first definition of "shallow" is "having little depth." So, would that mean "having little difficulty penetrating or comprehending"? That actually sounds good to me! "Not obscure" -- also good. Not mysterious, grave -- good, good.
The third definition of "shallow" in Merriam Webster puts it in its own terms: "penetrating only the easily or quickly perceived." The word "only" may suggest a limitedness, but the words "easily" and "quickly"connote a more positive image than "obscure" or "difficult."
What if we looked to pop-culture references to help define shallow and deep as character traits? To take my reference from above, Angela Chase, the pensive teenaged protagonist from the cult classic TV show My So-Called-Life, inspired a generation of "deep" girls, but, looking back, Angela was pretty miserable! The show really explored both the pain and the rewards of laying one's emotions bare to the world -- of revealing one's emotional depths.
One of my personal favorites would have to be Shallow Hal, a movie about a man who can't see past someone's outer-appearance until he is hypnotized. Hal only finds happiness in love and fulfillment in life when he can shake his shallow behavior, which is largely depicted by his unwillingness to see or understand what we might call "inner beauty." It's one of my favorite movies, because it makes us imagine an alternative kind of world in which everyone had an inner "truth," and that truth might be easily seen and decoded by others if we could de-program ourselves from cultural ideals and norms of beauty. If only!
So it seems the pop-cultural representations of "shallow" and "deep" tend to reinforce the positive connotations of "deep" and negative senses of "shallow." What do you think? How can we trace the origins of these connotations?
I'll leave you with this: To end this (somewhat) superficial (aka shallow?) exploration of shallow vs deep, let's take a cursory glance at Jackson Pollack's 1953 painting, "The Deep," which is considered by some to be one his most puzzling and important later works. Does it suggest something internally human to you, or something completely extra-terrestrial, or a bit of both?
Until next time!! -- Liza