“Tragedy of the Age of Surfaces” in The Hankyoreh


“Tragedy of the Age of Surfaces”

Emanuel Pastreich


The Hankyoreh Newspaper

January 3, 2013 

We live in an age of surfaces;  a tragic age of surfaces. What exactly does that mean? It means that computers have become so sophisticated that the videos, the photographic images and the logos for products they produce are perfect, as are the PC monitors, mobile phones, headsets and just about every other item in the house. In such a world as this, the world we live in, if you were to make something with your hands it would seem innately out of place when seen next to the perfectly shaped objects that you can obtain at a convenience store. That is to say you could labor for days and never draw as perfect a line as you see on the wrapper of a ramen package that you throw away.

As a result, we have become accustomed to perfect surfaces, perfect designs, and flawless, if boring, layout in all the products that surround us. I would certainly not say that having products around one that are perfectly designed, from the bowl you use for your cereal to the gossip magazine you read in the evening, is bad in itself, but over time such a “perfect world” is a terrible burden, especially for young people. Young people are encouraged to be creative in school, to be innovative, but in fact nothing that you can make with your own hands measures up to the perfection found in the design of everyday things.

As a result, our ability to be creative, to create new things, becomes extremely limited after the second grade of primary school. We cannot compete in our own actions with what we are exposed to, and even those who go on to be artists find themselves, knowingly or unknowingly, copying perfect examples of art that they see in photographs.

But the tragedy is deeper than that. More often than not surface is mistaken for depth and young people become obsessed with looking good, with conforming to certain established appearances that they see around them. Of course the “creative bohemian” may be one of those looks, but ultimately the issue becomes one of how one appears, not what one actually does or thinks. You can dress up like an artist, but you cannot create anything. The pressure to look perfect has become enormous, to look like avatars in games or idols in posters.

And as a result of such pressures, we see a tremendous increase in plastic surgery among young people. That practice takes its hidden and muffled toll on the soul. Young women and men feel compelled to spend money to force their bodies conform to the ideal human bodies that they see in movies and comic books. The fact that those human bodies they observe are not natural to start with is a secondary issue. That unnatural beauty has become the natural look in an age of hyper mechanical reproduction.

The tragedy of embracing surfaces and leaving behind the depth of experience has a terrible price, no matter how great the initial thrill may be. A person caught up in the world of surfaces finds no way to express himself or herself directly, lest he or she create an rip, a tear, in the perfect surface of being. They are, after all, competing directly in the search for perfection with the perfectly rendered unreal world. Not much of a chance of finding happiness in that existence. Ultimately, one will feel ashamed of being oneself, of being human.

All throughout Seoul we find young men and women laughing together in seemingly intimate groups, dressed up to be glamorous; striving to be perfect. They act as if all they care about is talking to their close friends, but all they actually think about it how they appear to the strangers they pass by.

But when I look at their eyes, I can see that they are not laughing at all. That laughter they produce through years of practice is a ritual of surfaces; their eyes are mostly sad. Trapped inside the surface of things, such young people cannot even allow themselves to feel sad, to express their own inner worries. And so the tragedy of surfaces is complete.

The oppressive world of trying to seem like someone else creating stresses that cannot be escaped. The first step towards a solution is recognizing the terrible tragedy of surfaces that haunts our youth and allowing them to look sad even when walking in a crowd.


original text

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