I’m finishing up Ian Bogost
’s Play Anything. It’s provocative, but it’s not right about the Big Points it’s trying to make.
The book gives a few examples of what he has termed “ironoia” — defensive application of irony, the opposite of play — which are actually playful as he defines it: Accepting what’s there and using those object’s properties in a novel way.
Those are a minor issue compared to the ones in his central idea, though. He plainly states the theme in the penultimate chapter.
That concept leads us back to 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.”19 It’s a decidedly Buddhist statement whose new age bell ringing might make your eyes roll, but Watts is really saying the same thing as Latour and Harman: ‘we humans are not separate from the world, but a part of it, just another thing among all the other things, from ketchups to ketch boats, RAV4s to ravines.
I agree with this. We are just things like anything else. However, some paragraphs later, he impels us to change our behavior as such:
Instead of seeking greater happiness within ourselves, we should pursue a greater respect for the things, people, and situations around us, learning to take them for what they are rather than for what they lack. The best way to combat the anxiety of a world whose contents might disappoint is to decenter ourselves from that world’s concern. And despite the inspiration we might ﬁnd in Buddhism and related Eastern practices, such ancient catalysts are not enough to help us reconcile letting go of ourselves With the enticements of the contemporary world. Ours is a world where BMWs and Bagel-fuls, FarmVille and Nyan Cat confuse the apparent simplicity of letting
go of attachment. The solution to our ongoing boredom, and ironoia cannot be found in us, through increasing investments in mindfulness, but anywhere and everywhere else.
I agree with much of this. Focusing on the world in front of you will make you less anxious.
However, why should you, just another thing, even want to feel less anxious? Maybe it is your role to be an anxious thing or an internally-focused thing? Why are the internal feelings of a thing so important? If the point of shifting a person’s thinking to honor external things is to make the person feel better, are they actually genuinely honoring the external things?
The other flaw in the point of view Bogost’s presses us to take is that it favors the immediate and obvious over the bigger picture, which is less obvious but just as real as objects in your line of sight.
There’s a part of the book where he goes to Walmart and in the style of KonMari (who also is discussed in the book) carefully considers several objects in it. He says that taken as they are, they’re amazing objects. And they are.
But he’s brought the objects into the foreground while putting the brutal labor systems that makes this possible into the background, possibly because that makes him less anxious. Those systems contain millions of people — and things that perhaps have as much right to not be anxious as he does. And those systems are as worthy of consideration as the blister packs of things that they produce.
Now, should you always be making yourself anxious because of unjust systems such that you drive yourself to suicide like David Foster Wallace (who Bogost mentions a lot)? No, but always prioritizing the immediate over the aggregate is another form of willful ignorance that I think will de-enrich your life. And again, if you are just another thing, why is your anxiety important? (Also, I have to say, physical objects are systems and processes involving physical are systems. They’re all worthy of consideration.)
Ultimately, as the blurb on the cover says, Bogost’s book is about a way to feel better. But the way it recommends you do this is recognize that you don’t matter, but never addresses why it matters that you, a person, feel better any more than it matters that a hammer feels better.
All that said, he’s right in saying that it’s worth carefully considering things that are not you, including objects, more often. And this book does make you think, whether you agree with it or not.