Irony is a hedge, an insurance policy against further affliction. It erects boundaries that we hope will protect us from the world by forbidding it access to us. Or, differently put, we double the world, creating a safe, fictional version atop the real one–whether in our heads or on the Internet. We believe that interacting with this fictional copy of the world will save us from both pain and boredom.
But instead, once the distinction between fiction and reality breaks down, as it always does, we end up rewrapping the proverbial sofa in a new layer of plastic. And on and on and on we go, wrapping and rewrapping our lives and everything within them in increasingly more futile layers of protective covering, all the while knowing that the last one failed to protect us even more than the one before. Irony is an asymptomatic death march into nihilism, one that legitimately claims it averts futility by never quite getting there.
- Ian Bogost, Play Anything
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Our ages have evolved. We have moved from the Holocene (the interglacial period that birthed us as a species and encompasses the whole of our history) to the Anthropocene where the impacts of that history, especially since the Industrial Revolution, are destroying our ability to sustain ourselves and myriad other life forms on the warming blue marble we call home. With this move from history to the effects of history we have also moved from paranoia to irony as the singular means of confronting reality. Paranoia is the watchword of politics, of nation building, of enemies of the state, enemies of the church. Paranoia exerts itself in the tribalism of opposite pairs: us/them, black/white, capitalist/socialist, Irish Catholics/Irish Protestants, Republicans/Democrats, north/south, ad nauseum. It is the product of believing in acquisition, conquest, control, as if a final good could be reached once and for all to enshrine the winning team's history (to be subsequently erased by the next set of winners). But even the most full-throated endorsers of the way it's been know the chain has slipped. We swim in new, warmer waters: the bill due on hundreds of years of extraction and conquest.
Irony is the arm's length, the refusal to be sincere, the smug appraisal and the snark driven commentary. Irony withholds itself, holds itself above the fray, outside the toil and moil of securing a livelihood, a shelter, a way to try and stem the tide of rising tides. Irony doesn't lift a finger; it is clever, self-satisfied, the smartest guy in the room able to riff on all that is wrong or unworthy, but incapable of anything more. To do more, to do something would be to betray the distance created by irony, that carefully curated distance broadcast on every social media platform that both begs for attention and dismisses said attention as folly. Irony numbs us to reality. It takes the actual and places it on a shelf, behind glass, where it can do us no harm. Except the seas still rise and they care nothing about shelves or glass or how many followers you have on Instagram or how clever you are or how sad you are that you were born too late to enjoy the days when no one cared about who or what has been lost or the simpering namaste whispered to one's self as a panacea for sins. Irony is always self-centered, narcissistic and cruel. It is the nadir of the chant to "mindfulness."
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Bogost quotes Oliver Burkeman, who works from a quote from Alan Watts:
"When we feel insecurity, we are really feeling the wish for our own permanence. "We do not actually understand that there is no security," writes Watts, "until we realize that this 'I' does not exist."
And as Burkeman also divines, mistaking the world for our world is another name for irony. Thinking of ourselves as centered bodies drawing meaning and contentment towards ourselves like gravity to planetary bodies, bodies that deserve something from everything. But our refusal to relinquish faith in the "I" that does not exist, says Burkeman,
...explains in the most complete sense why our efforts to find happiness are so frequently sabotaged by 'ironic' effects, delivering the exact opposite of what we set out to gain. All positive thinking, all goal writing and visualizing and looking on the bright side, all trying to make things go our way, as opposed to some other way, is rooted in an assumption about the separateness of "us" and those "things." But on closer inspection this assumption collapses.
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Which is to say that the central construct of human life as played out over millennia, namely that we human beings are of a higher order, closer to God, chosen by God for dominion over the things of the planet, that we are central, Ptolemaic, the heavens spinning around us, serving us as we serve as overseers is the defining assumption of history: conquest has its rationale. And now, with no more territory to claim, no more gold to mine, no more room to move (save for the last strips of rain forest), the effort to control the terms of our willingness to meet the world has moved inward. The self-help section is larger than the history section at Barnes and Noble. It is all about you, baby. You got this. You can do this. You can find love, lose fifty pounds, work 2 days a week, start a revolution, raise charming children, improve your SEO, and find your inner goddess by throwing runes.
We have subverted the idea of mindfulness and turned it into a competition, a spiritual one-upmanship that only leads back to the self, the impermanent self, the self that craves permanence. It cannot be done, so we hold all things at arm's length and criticize the thing we'd like to be able to love: life itself. We deem life an unfaithful lover: why bring me here, why show me this beauty, this horror and leave me so helpless in front of it, so transitory?
But that is what fucks us, love.
We are of life, not separate or above it. We are one of many, of millions, of billions. We are owed nothing: not happiness, not fulfillment, not meaning, not purpose. Nothing.
We are, however, free to see what there is to see. But the price is to stop placing yourself in the center. The center is everywhere at the same time. Our innate ego, the thing that convinced us that we were essential, is stubborn. It wants the stage for itself. How different would your life be if you could share that stage, let go of the need to be right, to win, to control? This isn't to say what makes you unique and singular is to be discarded. Not at all. This isn't binary. You are one. You are one of many. You are whole. You are part. We destroy our lives and the lives of others we share this planet with by insisting on an imagined primacy. It simply doesn't exist.
Yes, be mindful if that helps you. But try being worldful as well. Meet the world as it is, not as you would have it be for yourself. Meet it in its desolation and dream. Meet it and love what you love without reservation or distancing. Meet it in its transience. Love what passes away. Love what comes next. Our ego, our "I", wants permanence, but all is transformation. Paranoia and irony both refuse this.
You are here, so you might as well play. Your life is not for you alone. It belongs to those closest to you, to the ones who knew you when, to the ones that will follow. Your life belongs to the stories you tell and the stories told about you. Your life is larger than your solitary self, it reaches further than your ego. To unfuck what's gotten fucked in your life you have to be able to see yourself as something other than your personal desires and tragedies. You are in context, here, now, at this moment and not any other. Happiness cannot be pursued. It can only ensue when you give yourself to a cause other than yourself. And through that door no irony can pass.
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I wish you well.