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Jenny Odell's Anti-Capitalist Argument for Doing Nothing

Jenny Odell's new book "How to Do Nothing" is an anti-capitalist manifesto for collectively shifting our attention to create a better world.

by Marie Solis
Apr 8 2019, 11:00am

Gabriel Bucataru/Stocksy

If you’re reading this sentence, I’ve got your attention. You could be doing all sorts of other things. The time you spend reading this is time you could, instead, spend talking to a friend, calling your mother, or going outside. If you’re already outside, you could be admiring a tree, petting a dog, or making eye contact with a stranger.

Modern life has brought with it worries about spending our time meaningfully, and various, perhaps questionably effective, tactics for doing so. Maybe you’re reading this on your phone, but you’re someone who is trying to spend less time on their phone, or at least trying not to check it so compulsively. Maybe you’ve been trying—but clearly, struggling—to sit with your own thoughts. Maybe you’re trying to wean yourself off the fear that if you stop checking Twitter for five minutes you’ll miss something; you’ll miss everything.

If Jenny Odell, the author of How to Do Nothing, forthcoming from Melville House on April 9, were a different writer and a different thinker, she’d take the route many others have and tell you the solution to these anxieties is to unplug. But while there are plenty of people who continue to extol the virtues of an extended hiatus from social media, many find that, at the end of it, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are still there—if no longer on their iPhone’s home screen then elsewhere, in virtual space: constant, gleaming, and seductive.

Odell won't tell you to unplug. Instead, she proposes a collective shifting of attention that results in a more considered awareness of how we relate to the physical world, to others, and to ourselves. The way to achieve this, she says, is to grow comfortable doing nothing.

“Nothing” isn’t truly nothing—it includes any activity whose value doesn’t depend on its ability to generate capital. For Odell, “nothing” largely consists of observing birds from her apartment window and sitting in the Morcom Amphitheatre of Roses in Oakland, California. She acknowledges that it can be difficult to do these things, and not just because browsing Instagram may seem to some like more fun than passing time on a bench in a rose garden, or because our brains are “broken,” as we like to say on Twitter. Rather, it’s hard because we are ruled by the attention economy, the capitalist apparatus that competes for, buys, and sells our attention—usually in quite literal ways, such as when apps are designed to keep users on them for as long as possible to attract advertisers. Meanwhile, capitalism demands that we constantly produce, a mandate that forces each of us, to varying extents, to budget our time and limits what we can spend it on.

Under these conditions, deleting Facebook seems like a laughably small gesture; luckily, Odell knows it’s both tired and banal to devote a book to urging readers to do so. Doing nothing, as she defines it, demands much more of us, and promises a much larger pay-off. She writes: “I am less interested in a mass exodus from Facebook and Twitter than I am in a mass movement of attention: what happens when people regain control over their attention and begin to redirect it again, together.”

In How to Do Nothing, Odell takes several approaches to her argument for such a mass movement, threading ruminations on urban theory, technodeterminism, personal experience, and Marxist thought throughout. Amid the book’s roughly 200 pages, many will be pleased to find, she devotes hardly any space to familiar refrains about the relentless news cycle in the Trump era or “the Trump era” itself, which makes the book feel like its own refreshing escape from the demands on our attention. By resisting the popular impulse to use Trump as the nucleus of any theorizing about our present moment, Odell is able to outline a much bolder proposition for political resistance.

At the basis of this proposition is an argument for the value of time. Early labor movements focused on reclaiming workers’ time from their employers and fighting for clear demarcations between work and life. The birth of the 9-to-5 workday was the result of socialist organizing founded on the idea that everyone is entitled to time that is their own—or, as a slogan at the time put it: “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!” Reflecting on the struggle of West Coast dock workers in 1930s, Odell argues that unionizing altered their essential “experience of time,” which had before been “beholden to the ups and downs of capital.”

When applied to the abstract principle of time, Odell’s anti-capitalist thinking makes clear how little of it belongs to us and, more devastatingly, how the time that’s taken from us forms the texture of our lives. Without time to do “what we will,” Odell says we’re left with 24 “potentially monetizable hours,” the space of which allows for leisure only insofar as we’re willing—and financially able—to sacrifice monetary gain for it. “In a situation where every waking moment has become the time in which we make our living … time becomes an economic resource that we can no longer justify spending on ‘nothing,’” she writes. Activities that might be considered “nothing” in the capitalist framework, like “solitude, observation, and simple conviviality,” are to Odell inalienable rights “belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive.”

Many of Odell’s arguments for possessing our own time are reflected in another new book, This Life, where author Martin Hägglund argues that we give our lives shape and purpose by deciding what we put our time toward. Because being human means living a finite life constituted by a finite amount of time, spending our time doing one thing rather than another is an implicit declaration of what we see as valuable. “The originary measure of value is therefore your finite lifetime,” Hägglund writes. “That you value your own finite time renders intelligible the possibility of valuing anything at all. You can compare the value of two different activities—discriminate between what is worth doing and not worth doing—only because it matters to you what you do with your finite time.”

Hägglund expands these meditations into a sprawling critique of religion and manifesto for secular faith; for Odell, they build up the foundation of her arguments for redirecting our attention and resisting the forces that seek to tear it away from the things that make our lives meaningful. The failure of unplugging culture, she says, is its insistence on “withdrawing attention”—closing the Instagram app—rather than suggesting something else to put it toward. “What is needed … is not a ‘once-and-for-all type of quitting, but ongoing training: the ability not just to withdraw attention, but to invest it somewhere else, to enlarge and proliferate it, to improve its acuity,” Odell writes.

Over time, Odell has trained her attention on nature. She’s an avid birdwatcher who’s become attuned in particular to the behaviors of the crows that gather outside her apartment. She can name birds as though they are people, she says, and no longer has to strain to identify their different calls, which now register to her ear “like speech.” Odell has heightened her attention to the point where she can notice the things surrounding her—plants, bugs, geography, wildlife—which had been invisible to her in “previous renderings” of her reality.

When applied to the abstract principle of time, Odell’s anti-capitalist thinking makes clear how little of it belongs to us and, more devastatingly, how the time that’s taken from us forms the texture of our lives.

And it's the individual capacity to construct new realities that allows us to lay the critical groundwork for collective action, according to Odell. If we find ourselves distracted and disengaged from our surroundings, it precludes any ability to act together, since doing so relies on a mutual agreement to “pay intense attention to the same things and to each other”: “A social body that can’t concentrate or communicate with itself is like a person who can’t think and act,” Odell says. She returns to dock workers’ union drive, the turning point of which was a general strike that lasted 83 days. During the months that the strike took place, employers made attempts to break the strike line, hired strikebreakers who offered incentives to workers to turn their backs on their comrades, and tried to sow division among the striking body. The reason none of it worked, Odell contends, is because of the dock workers’ sustained attention, which was oriented—on the individual and collective level—toward a shared goal.

This idea escalates the political stakes of Odell’s argument. Plenty of us desire a more socially just world, but it’s not until we expand the limited inventory of things we see as worthy of our attention that we can transcend ourselves and recognize the “absolute equality of the other,” Odell maintains. Deciding that there are things worth attending to that don’t merely reproduce capitalism means redefining whose lives we see as valuable—a vital prerequisite for any kind of social justice advocacy. “It is with acts of attention that we decide who to hear, who to see, and who in our world has agency,” Odell writes. “In this way, attention forms the ground not just for love, but for ethics."

For Odell, paying attention to the world around her seems to be a way of reassuring herself that she’s worthy of attention, too: that she won’t be disposed of if she can’t prove her worth within the narrow parameters of our economic relations.

"When I worry about the birds, I am also worrying about watching all my possible selves go extinct,” Odell says. “And when I worry that no one will see the value of these murky waters, it is also a worry that I will be stripped of my own unusably parts, my own mysteries, and my own depths.”

Reading How to Do Nothing, it occurred to me that within the familiar routines of my life—which at times seem both exhausting and exhausted—there are infinite opportunities to add richness. These opportunities aren’t just available in nature, but in art, human interaction, and the space of my own mind, which is much more vast than I might at times believe.

At one point in the book, Odell describes attending a performance of a piece by avant-garde composer John Cage, who uses everyday sounds to create a symphony. Walking out of the symphony hall, Odell says she could hear the ambient noise of San Francisco—cars, buses, footsteps, gusts of wind—with startling clarity. “Actually, it wasn’t so much that I heard these clearly as I heard them at all,” Odell recalls. “For months after this, I was a different person.” Looking up from the passage and around my apartment, I wondered, what are the things I can’t hear? What are the other realities I’m currently unable to enter?

Odell introduces the idea that within our world there are endless other worlds; many of the alternatives sound much better. We need only pay attention.