Jenny Odell: Doing nothing to find a more meaningful something

Artist and writer Jenny Odell‘s 2019 best-seller How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy is part self-help guide, part radical anti-attention economy manifesto, and part poetic reflections (including bird observations). For me, it reminded me of the tensions between work, play, and meaning.

Jenny Odell, via her website

Though I’d hate to simplify Odell’s book, a general thesis would be something like this. Our current attention economy, especially ramped up by social media, is destroying us as individuals and society at large, preventing us from getting in touch with surroundings and people, including our self. To combat this destruction, we should drop back or “drop out” and “do nothing,” dwelling in the time and place where we are at, paying attention to who we are with. This gets spelled out more in the quote I wanted to reflect on today:

The first half of “doing nothing” is about disengaging from the attention economy; the other half is about reengaging with something else. That “something else” is nothing less than time and space, a possibility only once we meet each other there on the level of attention. Ultimately, against the placelessness of an optimized life spent online, I want to argue for a new “placefulness” that yields sensitivity and responsibility to the historical (what happened here) and the ecological (who and what lives, or lived, here).

This dual movement of detaching and reengaging with something else is central to the book. Odell focuses on a specific type of re-engagement, more steeped in place and presence, as she points to here. This specific re-engagement reflects her broader values on art and ecology, but regardless of the specifics, disengaging to reengage feels like an essential skill that is often quite deliberately absent from current media trends and technology.

Tristan Harris, former Google ethicist, for example, has written and spoken extensively on the specific “dark patterns” and tactics tech uses to keep us glued to devices and apps, VR pioneer and tech activist Jaron Lanier has pointed out the dehumanizing aspects of these interfaces, and academic Shoshona Zuboff has analyzed and theorized the “surveillance capitalism” facilitated by tech and the tech economy.

Even the other side has been candid at times. As the CEO of Netflix Reed Hasting said, the company’s primary competitor isn’t other streaming services; it’s sleep.

Tristan Harris on the TED stage, via NPR

Later on in the book, Odell reflects on this disengage-to-reengage theme in a passage drawing from Thomas Merton that I find especially insightful in these current times:

In one of those books, Contemplation in a World of Action, Merton reflects on the relationship between contemplation of the spiritual and participation in the worldly, two things the Church had long articulated as opposites. He found that they were far from mutually exclusive. Removal and contemplation were necessary to be able to see what was happening, but that same contemplation would always bring one back around to their responsibility to and in the world. For Merton, there was no question of whether or not to participate, only how:

She then quotes Merton:

If I had no choice about the age in which I was to live, I nevertheless have a choice about the attitude I take and about the way and the extent of my participation in its living ongoing events. To choose the world is…an acceptance of a task and a vocation in the world, in history and in time. In my time, which is the present.

This passage, including the Merton quote, presents an important addition to the idea of disengaging: That it often leads to a further sense of connection and responsibility, a deeper engagement. Furthermore, it helps ground and strengthen us, letting us engage more effectively and sustainably.

In other words, disengaging is not about full-on retreat or renunciation, though it may start as that. It is about giving yourself the time and space to ween off false connections and noise in order to figure out how to best spend your time and energy.

Thomas Merton and colleagues outside Devereux Hall at St. Bonaventure University, via SBU

I was especially moved by Merton’s statement that “If I had no choice about the age in which I was to live, I nevertheless have a choice about the attitude I take and about the way and the extent of my participation in its living ongoing events.” Lately, and I know I am not alone, I have felt a bit bedraggled and depressed from the world today, both from more distant stresses like climate change and national politics and more personally, with my anxiety as I look toward the job market. But, at least at some base level, I have a choice on how to face these challenges, though that choice–or strength–may be hidden or drowned out by the attention economy.

So, for a span today, I am going to do nothing. In a sense, writing this has been in line with that–along with the music gently thrumming through my speakers.

P.S. I first discovered Odell with her interview on The Ezra Klein Show, which I fully recommend, as well as the followup about burnout and coping with COVID-19.

Camus: Ignorance and clear-sightedness

Along with others, I have been revisiting Albert Camus’ novel The Plague (like Vox’s Sean Illing speaking to historian and Camus biography Robert Zaretsky or Book Riot’s Christine Ro contrasting two different versions of the novel). As Ro puts it, “If Contagion is The Movie of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Plague is The Novel.”

Trying to get back into quotes, I was drawn to the one below about ignorance and what is often translated as clear-sightedness or lucidity:

The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as good, if they lack understanding. On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. There can be no true goodness, nor true love, without the utmost clear-sightedness.

Though the novel is directly about the Algerian town of Oran under quarantine for Bubonic plague and the main characters finding various ways of coping and addressing the isolation and rising body count, it also explores deeper themes of humanity in the face of overwhelming challenge. The plague itself is partly a symbol for Nazism and other fascist regimes, nihilism, and the specter of the absurd.

This leads to the above quote. Camus’ post-war morality, which developed firmly in his Letters to a German Friend during the war, focuses on these two sides: ignorance and lucidity. Elsewhere in The Plague the two main characters have a conversation:

“What on earth prompted you to take a hand in this?”
“I don’t know. My… my code of morals, perhaps.”
“Your code of morals. What code, if I may ask?”
“Comprehension.”

Throughout much of his writing, including his early work like The Wrong Side and the Right Side, Camus argues that clarity is at the core of morality. One cannot do the right thing clouded with ignorance, and vise versa: having a clear sense of the situation makes it harder for tyrants to perpetuate atrocities. For example, as he writes on capital punishment:

When the imagination sleeps, words are emptied of their meaning: a deaf population absent-mindedly registers the condemnation of a man. … There is no other solution but to speak out and show the obscenity hidden under the verbal cloak.

Part of this belief seems to step from Camus’ faith in the underlying goodness of most people, a resilient theme in his work. As he says, “men are more good than bad.” This faith girdled his humanism and informed his break from other French intellectuals, like Sartre, who took a more Marxist view of history, less focused on individual morality and more focused on grand causes and social movements.

But as Camus says, most people are inherently ignorant, causing suffering through their uninformed actions or letting leaders abuse them and stir them to abuse. And if clear-sightedness is the core of morality than the opposite is the worst: “an ignorance which fancies it knows everything.” Over the years, I have often come back to this form of ignorance, which I often term “impassioned ignorance,” where individuals, for whatever reason, refuse to change their views in the face of information.

While not new and not inherently destructive (Will Sorr’s The Unpersuadables takes a more positive view, for instance), this impassioned ignorance seems especially destructive today, whether in the rhetoric of anti-vaxxers, science-deniers, those vilifying other races and ethnic groups, and those peddling conspiracy theories like QAnon. Amid fake news and post-truth rhetoric, impassioned ignorance is flourishing.

And I think Camus’ warning is as important as ever, though like the plague itself, addressing ignorance presents an seemingly impossible challenge.

Five books that made me

As the American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote (or so the various quote websites have us believe),“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” So it is with me. books picture

A confirmed bibliophile, I may not be a surprising case, but I’ll never forget one of my co-workers at Lowes. An older man with rough hands, worn blue jeans, and work boots, he rasped contracting stories in a cigaret-stained voice about “idiots who didn’t know shit about construction.” 

But one day, during his break, when I was reading Don Quixote over a turkey sandwich, he sat down and started talking about books. Books he read in school, like Hemingway, Austen, Faulkner, and Dickens. Books his wife read, like Jody Piccoult and John Grisham. Books his father gave him, worn how-to manuals and beat-up hardcovers gathered from outdated encyclopedia sets.

“I miss reading,” he said, leaning back in his metal fold-out chair. “I miss the stories.”

Soon, I went back to the registers, thinking about it. Probably nothing would happen. But a few weeks later, he came in and pulled out a worn copy of the The Old Man and the Sea.

“My favorite,” he said. “I’ve never forgotten this book.”

Since then, I haven’t either.

Continue reading “Five books that made me”