I take most of the book recommendations from Cristian Lupșa (the editor-in-chief of Decat o revistă). He is also the one from whom I first heard of Jonathan Franzen, who immediately became my favourite author. Since Cristian posted about How to do nothing, by Jenny Odell, I ordered it instantly with no hesitations. The title can mislead you, especially because we live in 2020, a year dominated by nothingness. Before reading Cristian’s short review on his Instagram account, I supposed the book talked about the art of giving up on social media, technology and all kind of devices that alter our real-life experiences. However, as Cristian and Jenny Odell herself pointed out, How to do nothing is not about digital detoxification, but about how the social media mania, the continuous despair of getting likes, followers, engagement, dopamine have converted us into monetizable and evaluable processes. Think about it: do you ever do anything without waiting for a reward, without planning a career evolution, without equating our life with money or results?
The closer we get to digital and this new way of living, the farther we move away from nature, our self, silence, and boredom:
What does it mean to construct digital worlds while the actual world is crumbling before our eyes?
Society has evolved so much, yet there are still many lessons to be learned. And maybe one of the most important ones is to learn the value of being alone with your thoughts which is exactly the main teaching of the attention economy. In a society where the main concerns are productivity, evolution, numbers, objectives, Jenny Odell is trying to guide us to get in touch with our own humanity. The American artist, writer and professor is looking for different strategies for resisting this profit-driven society we live in. Redirecting our attention to natural behaviours can be a solution for living a meaningful life and this is the credo that stands out in the six chapters of her book. The book can be read as a wide-ranging political manifesto.
Step by step, Jenny discovers different tools to highlight her philosophy. She is looking for antidotes to the rhetoric of growth, and one of these methods is refusal. First practiced by the Greek philosopher Diogenes, whose life’s work was to point out the absurdity of conformity, the art of refusal was continued by Melville Bartleby with his statement phrase: “I would prefer not to”. Jenny Odell totally agrees and understands that her philosophy can’t be put into practice by everyone, but at the same time, doing nothing is not even an existent option for the masses. She is quite convincing when suggesting that meaningful political change would follow if the strategies she suggested were adopted by populations.
Her belief is that some hybrid reaction is needed. Not everyone affords to do nothing, but we need to be able to do both: to contemplate and participate. Jenny practises birdwatching. She notices trees, bugs, animal communities, plant communities, animal-plant communities, mountain ranges, fault lines, watersheds. She improves her attention economy. Why? In a nutshell, because: “In a time that demands action, distraction appears to be a life-and-death matter.”
This is not a motivational or persuasion material, as you might think. It is just another perspective, trying to make us understand how much we evolve, yet how little we enjoy ourselves. I loved this book for its lack of extremes, for bringing references such as Diogenes and his Cynicism, Tehching Hsieh (a performance artist) and for this simple idea of fighting against the rush, refusing productivity and stopping to listen and living the reality as it is:
This is real. The living, breathing bodies in this room are real. I am not an avatar, a set of preferences, or some smooth cognitive force. I’m lumpy, I’m an animal, I hurt sometimes, and I’m different one day to the next. I hear, I see, and I smell things that hear, see, and smell me. And it can take a break to remember that, a break to do nothing, to listen, to remember what we are and where we are.
Other quotes I loved:
♦ THE FACT THAT the “nothing” that I propose is only nothing from the point of view of capitalist productivity explains the irony that a book called How to Do Nothing is in some ways also a plan of action. I want to trace a series of movements: 1) a dropping out, not dissimilar from the “dropping out” of the 1960s; 2) a lateral movement outward to things and people that are around us; and 3) a movement downward into place. Unless we are vigilant, the current design of much of our technology will block us every step of the way, deliberately creating false targets for self-reflection, curiosity, and a desire to belong to a community. When people long for some kind of escape, it’s worth asking: What would “back to the land” mean if we understood the land to be where we are right now? Could “augmented reality” simply mean putting your phone down? And what (or who) is that sitting in front of you when you finally do?
♦ But beyond self-care and the ability to (really) listen, the practice of doing nothing has something broader to offer us: an antidote to the rhetoric of growth. In the context of health and ecology, things that grow unchecked are often considered parasitic or cancerous. Yet we inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and the regenerative. Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and are as productive in the same way.
♦ I want to be clear that I’m not actually encouraging anyone to stop doing things completely. In fact, I think that “doing nothing”—in the sense of refusing productivity and stopping to listen—entails an active process of listening that seeks out the effects of racial, environmental, and economic injustice and brings about real change. I consider “doing nothing” both as a kind of deprogramming device and as sustenance for those feeling too disassembled to act meaningfully. On this level, the practice of doing nothing has several tools to offer us when it comes to resisting the attention economy.
♦ The first tool has to do with repair. In such times as these, having recourse to periods of and spaces for “doing nothing” is of utmost importance, because without them we have no way to think, reflect, heal, and sustain ourselves—individually or collectively. There is a kind of nothing that’s necessary for, at the end of the day, doing something.