The android’s empty gesture: OOO, irony and the drug dealer’s watch

IMG_1323

“Irony is like a wink from an android. You think you know what it means, until you realise the signal you took for meaning emanates from a source for which meaning is meaningless.”

Ian Bogost (2016) Play Anything. Basic Books: New York.

We’ve met at conferences a few times. He’s always distinctively dressed. He appears to pay considerable attention to how he presents himself to the world. Like a roadie for Hot Chip, he favours a gauche retro ’80s stylee. He comes up to me and poses the question.

“So, what’s with the drug dealer’s watch then?”

I look down at my wrist, and he does too. We both stare at my Casio F-91W. He assumes that I mean something ironic by choosing to wear it. I find myself unable to account for my sartorial choice. Not because I can’t find a reason, but because I can think of half a dozen rationalisations, but I can’t remember whether any of them were ever the real reason why I started wearing this retro-watch:

  • I’m anti-flashy in intention, I’d never wear a watch that declares ostentation. So maybe I chose the cheapest watch I could find for that reason.
  • My last watch broke. And I couldn’t decide what watch to replace it with (I’d been wearing that one for 15 years). So, I decided to wear a neutral, statement-less watch in the meantime.
  • My first watch was a Casio F-91W. It was an object of delight and wonder when I got it as a teenager in the early ’80s. It’s hard to summon a sense of that wonder now – but digital watches were the smart phones of their day. Look at all of the functions. And the buttons. And its so multi-functional that it needs instructions etched onto its face. Maybe I’d hoped that wearing it again (and marvelling that it’s still being made) would connect me to that childhood wonder. Maybe it did in abstract – but I only use it to tell the time. It’s other functions are ignored. I’m served for those needs by even more complex 21st century consumer prostheses.

I mumble an explanation (I forget which one I selected) and offer a knowing laugh. It does the trick and the conversation ends. In my mind the knowing laugh is an acknowledgement of the irony that opting for the most lo-tech option nowadays can single you out as having illicit intent. As I laugh I recall the image of a colleague stopped at airport customs because he had two mobile phones, and one of them was of the near-disposable, plain-vanilla variety. An unsmart phone. He was released after explaining that the suspiciously nondescript bland-phone was a University pool-mobile, issued for use during his field trip. It was not a phone for receiving drug orders.

These intertwined stories – of consumer devices and the intentionality assumed for them – came to mind as I read Ian Bogost’s Play Anything. Bogost’s is an odd book. I’d loved his Alien Phenomenology, or what it’s like to be a thing (2012, University of Minnesota Press) and I was hoping for more of the same. What I got instead was a strange book that seems to be trying to be two books at once. At one level it’s a continuation of his mapping out of his own take on Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), through a focus on the pleasures realisable through an active exploration of the possibilities of objects. But this line of argument seems overlaid by the book’s attempt to appeal to a wider, more general readership via its appearance as a (sort of) ‘self-help’ manual – an appeal to engaged worldliness as more outward looking alternative to (or augmentation of) mindfulness. The book’s rather longwinded subtitle, shows this direction of travel: “The pleasures of limits, the uses of boredom, and the secrets of games“. In pursuit of this Bogost ruminates on the positivity of ‘play’ and ‘fun’. He productively argues that play is not (necessarily) an opposite to work, but rather is a state of interaction with objects that seeks to explore their full qualities, rather than just a “things-for-us” instrumentality. But where it then gets a bit messy is in trying to then destabilise traditional understandings of “fun”.

But, hats’ off to Bogost for getting an OOO book positioned and presented as a mainstream paperback offering. And beneath some of the chatty, discursive filler (that the genre requires) there are a number of interesting, and provocative ideas playing out.

Most importantly, for the purposes of making sense of my ‘drug dealers’ watch’ moment, Bogost offers up a very interesting cultural diagnosis: something that he calls ‘ironia’. He argues that contemporary culture embodies a retreat from commitment to ideas, social positions and material things. Ironia causes us to cloak what we mean, align to or physically do by spraying out a trail of counter-statement and counter-actions. In ironia, our aim is to confound, to slip out of certainty, to defer finality or decision. In my case, to wear an anti-watch permanently because I can’t bear the weight of choice that the multitude of possible watches (and social-symbolic messaging) poses.

“Irony is the escape from having to choose between earnestness and contempt”. Through irony you can appear to align to both, simultaneously. Bogost argues that retreat to irony feels clever, it seems to let us have our cake and eat it,  it leaves us thinking that we are able to live in a permanent deferral of choice and/or action. You can be all things to all people. But this oscillation and indeterminacy produces headaches, and Bogost goes on to show that the ironic stance ultimately produces nothing, except alienation.

Bogost points out that whilst paranoia tends to be a condition of scarcity – a manifestation of (real or mistaken) glimpses of power at work over appropriation of finite resources, ironia is a condition of overwhelming over-abundance – of choices, of matter and of awareness of the possibilities of things going wrong (i.e. risk). Ironia is a syndrome of those lucky enough to be weighed down by an over-abundance of material and symbolic choices, and of knowledge of “how things bite back” (to adopt Edward Tenner’s (1997) Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the revenge of unintended consequences. Vintage: London) and can hurt us or at least fail to satisfy our expectations of them.

Bogost also argues that our retreat into ironia flows fundamentally from a state of fear, in which (in terms of politics, culture, material-relations): “we’ve trained ourselves to see commitments as affectations, and only to pursue a commitment ironically so that we can cast it aside if fear overtakes us.”

In diagnosing ironia Bogost makes a interesting link to nostalgia – by arguing that a turn to embrace of a thing-in-the-past is a control strategy, for appropriating a former thing is helpfully selective and controlled. Thus my remembrance of my first watch is fond – but only based on a few of its qualities and my experiences with it. Nostalgia enables us to keep at bay the enormity of things (material objects, cultural formations, social relations) and their risks of disappointing us. Fundamentally it is a simplifying strategy, and achieves its effect through temporal distancing – just as a holiday to a far off place where things seem simpler is a function of (social and spatial) distance from the complexity of the present at hand. As he puts it pithily, in this pillaging-to-simplify-and-keep-at-bay we “are all grave robbers now, even while mistaking ourselves as preservationists”. And the rise of social media has accelerated the pillage, giving us all and excuse [and perhaps also a fundamental need] to “abscond with objects, people, and situations by arresting them into assets imprisoned between sincerity and contempt. Online, we become digital poachers, stealing things’ souls in order to elevate ourselves above them, until we destroy those very things via incorporation or disposal. [Today’s] Safari spoils are made of pixels rather than ivory.”

Bogost’s book (as characteristic of most OOO based argumentation) is full of delicious mobilisations of aberrant mundaenity (as provocative poetics and metaphor are OOO’s analytic method), with Bogost here meditating on the act of sofa-covering in order to make his point:

“Rather than accept either the protected or the exposed state of the plastic sofa cover, irony celebrates the buffer—the plastic—as an alternative. Where grandma deployed the plastic cover out of paranoia that some mishap might befall a piece of furniture meant to last a lifetime, irony deploys it for the sake of experiencing the cover as an alternative to the cheap, crappy sofa that doesn’t warrant protection in the first place. Irony sells plastic sofa covers from the back of a truck in the IKEA parking lot.”

Having persuasively diagnosed ironia and its problems, Bogost then attaches the argument that play (as a fulsome, exploratory and committed engagement) leads to a more fulfilling (and authentic) relation with both material objects and socio-cultural objects.

So, regarding my watch. Bogost summons me off the fence: for “irony keeps reality at a distance”. He exhorts me to “pay close, foolish, even absurd attention to things. Then allow their structure, form, and nature to set the limits for the experiences”. In other words I need to declare for my watch, to accept that it is my watch, and that I have already made my choice of it. I then need to fully get to know it – to explore its affordances (as they assist me), its resistances (as they oppose my desires for my watch-tool) and play with my watch in a way that also touches the other qualities that it has – the ones that are not revealed to me by use or purpose but rather which exist none-the-less. Examples here might include, feeling the warmth of its face after exposure to the sun, exploring its crevasses and their grime-ecologies, embracing its scratches, chips and weathering as they unfurl over time.

My watch travels with me through time and space. It goes most places with me and is usually to be found resting upon the surface of my skin. It is a quiet but helpful (and reliable) companion. There are things I’ll never know about my watch – how it works, where its components have come from, who made them, or what lies in store for my watch, and how it will disassemble someday. Even with playful effort my relationship with my watch will be shallow and largely instrumentalist. But armed with OOO I can be a little more attentive to it and committed to its proximity to both my body and my social presentation of self to the world. I’ll give it a try and try and pass our time together in a more satisfying, connected way.

 

 

 

Advertisements