Last week, at the urging of a recently departed mentor, I took a swing at un-ironic communication (you can check it out here). I laid out my wobbly efforts to make sense of this Whole Shooting Match called modern life, and did my best to remove any ironic distance in speaking it truly. (and thanks for all the heartfelt replies––probably the most ever for one of these notes).
But later on, I began to think "you know, irony is actually amazing, essential in some cases––we'd be dead on arrival without it."
So before we all hang up our Alanis Morissette here's a thought experiment to walk us through a relevant situation where irony might be the only appropriate response.
Imagine you are either immortal or a time traveler. Doesn't really matter which (you could be a sexy vampire if you really wanted). All that does matter is that you can drink in the last five hundred years or so in one lifetime, and remember the whole ride.
🛖 1500 CE (~500 years ago)
You start out living as a simple peasant in the same European village with the festivals, customs and rhythms as everyone in your family had before you. You rose with the sun and slept in the dark. You followed the seasons and worshipped your gods.
Then...(skipping a whole bunch of kings, queens, wars, inventions and cataclysms)
Your world started changing. Villages became towns became cities. Trade routes blossomed, cottage industries sprang up, farms became factories and factories became sweatshops. It got harder and harder to remember the rhythms and rituals of your village living in a tenement slum, but you were just too tired and busy to notice.
The nation states and joint stock companies (and their armies and navies) that increasingly took command of your life also took charge of exploring the rest of the world.
You see, they were running out of their own stuff (like furs, timbers and fish), and wanted even more stuff (like gold, sugar and tobacco). So they went and "discovered" other peoples and took their stuff. They also took their customs, rhythms and gods, just like they'd taken yours.
📦 (1750-1850 and again in 1955-1975)
By now, you kinda knew something was wrong, even if you couldn't quite put your finger on it. You nursed a sneaking suspicion that all of this extra "stuff" and hecticness couldn't replace the old timey simple things that used to fill your days. But you were having a harder and harder time remembering what they all were.
So from time to time, in the lulls of an ever more frantic world, you looked back longingly on those folks you'd recently colonized––Noble Savages in far away lands who somehow still seemed happier than you'd ever been. From Rousseau to Ginsberg in a hop, skip and a Howl.
That moment passed, and instead of renouncing the cities, factories and stuff, and going back to the basics you pivoted...
You ramped up an ingenious circular economy to comfort yourself with even more, ever shinier...stuff (somewhere in here, the pronouns collapse and you get implicated too).
Sure, you'd still take all the Global South's raw stuff. But you wouldn't stop there. Anyone in your country who was still making finished stuff from all that raw stuff wasn't needed anymore. All the guilds, artisans and craftspeople got the boot (maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of their lives).
You'd get the Global Southerners to make shittier finished stuff out of all of their own raw stuff, and then you'd put your logos on it and sell it to the former craftspeople you'd fired back home!
And when those former craftspeople absolutely positively couldn't buy (let alone use) any more shitty cheap stuff, you’d started selling it back to the people who'd made it in the first place. You'd even convinced them those logos of yours actually meant something. Super genius!
Now this clearly wasn't working for everyone.
From time to time, people who were extra especially on the short end of this arrangement––women, slaves, indigenous peoples, environmentalists, and workers––rallied. They would protest, march in the street, and occasionally outright fight for their rights.
And in fits and starts, this kind of insistent change helped to reduce the gap between the world as it could be and what it actually was. It was proof positive you could demand a seat at the table.
This kind of civic action picked up steam with abolition, suffrage, temperance, unions, environmental and civil rights, and reached its peak in the summer of 1968. Revolution was in the air and a new world seemed like it was just about to hatch. Riots across Europe and American cities. Slogans, platforms, votes. Possibility.
But then...nothing changed.
Inspiring leaders got killed (JFK, MLK, RFK, Malcolm X, etc), protests got crushed, and the fires got quenched. The counter culture disappeared from the streets, went back to the land and up into their heads.
From now on, change would come from within.
Which was super convenient because the Powers That Were did not want the boat so boisterously rocked. When the change was without, after all, it had nearly swamped them.
A bit later on those Powers came up with a bookend deal to the whole "change comes from within" thing. All of the radical change-the-world folks who hadn't disappeared into self absorbed spirituality could get everything they ever wanted too! If only they promised to set aside their grievances and ideals and peacefully wait in line at the Magical Mystery Machine of NeoLiberalism.
You load into the Mystery Machine people, raw stuff, opaque financing and global supply chains and out pops...Prosperity, Literacy, Sustainability, Democracy and Peace!!!
It was all going to be so fucking amazing.
Make the world a better place!
(and give a TED talk before the wheels come off)
But then sometime between the Financial Collapse of 2008, the subsequent untethering of currencies and prosperity, the climate bill coming due for the carbon coke bender we've been on for the last century, plus inept Covid quarantines––well, we collectively started to get the picture.
We'd been sold a complete fucking bill of goods. None of it penciled out. Not even remotely. And the same generation who was in power that whole time, knew exactly what was at stake, and did nothing to guide us.
We were seduced into buying the deregulated NAFTA/IMF/WEF Mystery Machine of Neoliberalism and allowed ourselves to be soothed by pseudo Eastern mystical Power of Now philosophies. And what did we get?
A bunch of self-absorbed bougie narcissists and snake oil peddlers as our "spiritual" leaders, and the smoldering hulk of an over-extended planet.
So who's made out here? Not some badass conquerors of yore like Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, or Alexander the Great. No emperors or even pirates that would at least add some dignity to this defeat.
Steve fucking Mnuchin. (The US hedge fund manager on Trump’s cabinet)
Robbing us blind while he and his Goldman cronies cynically stoke the culture wars to keep us fighting over scraps.
And this is where we get close to the conclusion of this time bending thought experiment...
Because when you slow the tape, and scroll backwards to that blip of time between 1968 and 2008, you see how, right there on the frothy edge of real change, we blew it. We knew the stakes, we had all the facts (on tobacco, oil, Roundup, Oxycontin, social media etc), we were this close to a tipping point and then lost the plot.
Instead, we were offered two bones to chew on to keep us distracted:
Crawl up your own ass and call it spirituality (and don't bother your pretty little heads with social responsibility, your own inner work is the most important thing you could possibly do!).
Trust us as we stripmine, clearcut, privatize and offshore everything, it's for everyone's good and the only way real change can happen anymore.
So yeah, about that irony.
Right about now, you're coming to the massively hungover realization that some key parts of the last five hundred years have not matched the slick promises on the side of the bottle, nor the heady rush of the first few swigs.
And you realize that the world is now drowning in all the cheap shit we made, our cultures are bankrupt husks of impulsive consumerism, the oceans and forests are on fire, and the jackals of finance have slipped off with the collection plate.
This makes you anxious, and depressed, and sometimes angry, but those are hard emotions to know where to channel anywhere besides your phone these days. (and the Magical Mystery Machine has churned out plenty of apps for that––conveniently engineered to, you guessed it, sell us even. more. Stuff!!!)
You yearn to go back to living in the same village with the festivals, customs and rhythms as everyone in your family before you. Where you rose with the sun and slept in the dark. Where you followed the seasons and worshipped your gods.
But memories of your own are too far gone to recover, so you look to your noble and conveniently less savage neighbors, and you go and visit them. You take their customs, clothing, and rituals and try to make them your own. Airbnb their beaches, extract their imagery, greedily drink their sacraments. Trying, trying, desperately to remember.
Because you realize that in the end, they didn't need more stuff. And neither did you.
What you really needed were your customs, rituals, and gods. The sun and the seasons.
Only now, even if you wanted to go back to the way things had always been, you couldn't.
Too many people living on a massively degraded home planet.
We had everything we needed––clean air, clean water and clean soil. Connection. Community, Culture.
And it got pissed away by the adults who should've been in charge. Who told us to trust them. Who pretended to know what they were doing, and assured us that it was all gonna work out.
So the only sane response, the only appropriate response to this hog tied cluster fuck of a situation, where you simultaneously realize we've all been irrevocably duped with promises of the American Dreamᵀᴹ, and that the boats are burned behind us and there's no plausible way back to simpler living, and that the rats have left the ship and are offshoring their trillions, and we're left bailing with broken buckets economies and ecologies that are on life support...
If you're not going to collapse into grief, but you haven't yet wrapped your head around rage, let alone equanimity...
That's where Irony is just the ticket.
It gives us space to ask, in plausibly deniable earnestness,
are you fucking kidding me???
I mean seriously (not seriously)
You have got to be fucking kidding me.
There is no way, no way in hell that this can actually be happening the way it seems to be happening! In our own lifetimes?
So consider Irony to be the first sensation after the numbness of the last five hundred years wears off.
That puke-inducing combination of neoliberal prosperity gospel mixed with too sweet spiritual narcissism that let us all of the hook and kept us all expectantly waiting for our slice of the Never-Gonna-Run-Out Infinity Pie! (which is apparently unsustainably farmed in the Blue Oceans and White Spaces of FreeMarketLandia).
Now, you can't just hide out in irony forever. If you do, you end up with Oscar Wilde, knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing. As an ironist, it's too easy to forever point out the hypocrisy and contradictions but always pull up short of actually staking your claim and making a stand.
Great for sounding clever on podcasts.
Next to useless for actually forging our way ahead.
So consider irony a vital and necessary transitional emotion, that takes us from a blind and trusting childhood, to a wary and skeptical adolescence. A place from which we can ask are you fucking kidding me? And expect a credible answer.
If not from the Powers that Be, then at least from each other.
It's kinda like rain on your wedding day, but not quite.That's just shitty luck.
It's closer to that free ride that nobody's paid.
The bill is coming due. And we're 100% responsible, even if it really wasn't our fault.
And that is at least a little bit ironic, don't you think?
And this just dropped from Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Grant's Next Big Idea Book Club...Recapture the Rapture gets a shout out, as does Hidden Spring and The Power of Ritual (a couple of great reads we've been digging)––be sure to check out the free 15 min audio "Book Bites" excerpts for all of 'em.
"Science and spirituality are often presented as polar opposites: Is your sense of ultimate reality grounded in reason, or in faith? There seems to be little room for reconciliation.
But a handful of open-minded thinkers are challenging that narrative, making space for science and spirituality to coexist peacefully. So if you’d like to welcome this dual perspective into your own worldview, we recommend checking out the seven remarkable reads below."
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