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.

Old journal entries and the paradox of maturing writing

Recently, I was talking with a friend and thought of an old LiveJournal entry I had made my junior year of college. LiveJournal, which still is a thing, though deeply changed, is a blogging platform founded in ’99 that was popular for groups of friends journaling, blogging, and sharing fanfiction. My LiveJournal page operated as a journal and blog, often mingling the (deeply) personal and philosophical.

This particular entry was about the struggle of getting up some days, opening your eyes and solving the “why get up” question. I think a lot of us have been feeling this lately, whether from the quotidian, home-bound nature of working situations or the genuine horrors and hardships of the moment, from job losses, to dead family, to months of uncertainty.

As I reflected then:

I ask myself why I fight. Why I continue to live out days steeped in the same despair and angst. I never find an answer. Instead, I lose myself in the pattern of my life, a pattern arrayed to defend me from such dangerous questions. I have to limit my scope to be happy. Looking beyond the bounds of the “norm,” daring to desire something beyond the regular patterns framed by society, only leads to nausea, a sickness derived from life’s sheer futility

Unfortunately, I don’t find much comfort in the entry, basically advocating getting lost in one’s daily patterns–a pattern that is likely skewed or broken for many right now, leading to this questioning.

Nevertheless, I don’t want to dwell on that today. It is an important topic, but revisiting this old entry, I found myself sucked into a document of other entries, where two things really struck me.

First, how confident and unqualifying most entries were. They flowed out with a flourish and kept going. They made big claims, ignored huge assumptions, talked about deep truths with nontechnical glibness. They were more naive and less self-aware than my current writing. They hedged less. They did not go into deeper explanations, digressions, or intellectual genealogies to the same extent. They were less careful.

But on the other hand, the writing was much less heavy and much more lively, even raw. It also had a more transcendent quality, a reaching or over-speculating that was refreshing and exciting. It wasn’t worried about being “correct” or professional; it was about thinking through things.

It was less like a product and more like a process.

And in some ways, that can be bad, as it is messy and over-sharing, possibly more sure of itself than it should be. Even smug or self-centered. Navel-gazing, not considering its audience as carefully. As some composition scholars may term it, it was “writerly” prose, writing for the writer, and not “readerly” prose, writing for the reader. But I also really liked it. Or at least parts of it.

And so I come back to three larger observations.

First, how much easier or less stressful that kind of writing is. As someone moving to write as part of a living, I am constantly haunted by the specter of “the reader” when I write, a misty figure who always seems excessively invested in picking through my writing to find every possible shortcoming. Writing without that reader, even reading that writing, is liberating.

Second, I thought of Ira Glass’s famous thoughts on the “taste gap,” the uneven development of taste and ability:

Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?

As time has gone on, I think I let a lot of my creative writing go to the side because it did not feel good enough, or more perniciously, I would start a project and abandon it because I thought I would never be up to the challenge. If I feel the work is bad, so will they.

Though I think this is somewhat inevitable as Glass describes it, and as he suggests, we should just work through it, producing more writing. And on the other side, I think we may be throwing less spaghetti at the wall because we get better at making it. Writing that goes through our self-criticism gauntlet is indeed better–more informed, polished, and mature–but it’s a hard process, leaving lots of dead documents.

But conversely, I thought about Albert Camus revisiting his old writing and finding it refreshing, filled with a life and sensuous poetry that his more current writing lacked. It inspired him in his unfinished final novel, The First Man, to return to a similar style.

The style of the novel feels closer to some of his earlier essays, like in Nuptials, different from the deliberately sparse writing in The Stranger and the expressive yet restrained writing of The Plague, especially in passages like this:

He could breathe, on the giant back of the sea he was breathing in waves, rocked by the great sun, at last he could sleep and come back to the childhood from which he never recovered, to the secret of the light, of the warm poverty, which enabled him to survive and overcome everything.

Albert Camus, The First Man

Camus’ writing always has a depth, poetry, and a sensuousness, but it got more careful as he got published. Those early essays are a bit stumbling, over-extended, and unduly grand, but they have a certain intensity to them. A rawness. Just look at the opening few sentences of The Wind at Djemila:

THERE are places where the spirit dies so that a truth may be born which is the spirit’s very negation. When I went to Djemila there was wind and sun but that must wait. What has to be said first is that a great silence reigns there, heavy and without a crack. The cries of birds, the furred sound of a three-holed flute, the stamping of goats, murmurs from the sky–these are so many noises which made up the silence and desolation of the place.

Albert Camus, “The Wind at Djemila,” Nuptials

And it doesn’t let up much from there.

But finding that balance between the sometimes naive, exploratory confidence of immature writing and the careful craft of more mature writing seems essential. While they seem somewhat contradictory, I don’t think they are. I don’t know where the reconciliation occurs, but I think it mingles the hot fire of younger emotions with more reflective hindsight, somehow allowing both to breathe and inform the page.

On Frasier and Leaving The Past Behind

I’ve been watching a lot of Frasier the last few weeks. Maybe it’s a hankering for something funnier than today’s formulaic television comedies, or it’s probably just that the show is wickedly entertaining.

from fanpop.com
from fanpop.com

The 90s powerhouse comedy features Kelsey Grammer as the titular Dr. Frasier Crane,a pseudo-intellectual radio psychiatrist trying to get through life despite his multiple character flaws. He’s joined by his equally pseudo-intellectual psychiatrist brother Niles, his retired cop father and his snarky British housekeeper as he weaves through a series of unfortunate shenanigans.

In the episode “Seat of Power,” the Crane brothers attempt to fix a leaky toilet to prove to their father they can do more than recite Faulkner and wax poetic on a particularly good vintage. Of course, they fail miserably and call in a plumber; in a twist, the plumber is one of Niles’s high-school tormentors.

Niles wants no more than to shove his foe’s head into the toilet, giving him a “swirly,” the torture he endured many time in high school. Frasier talks him out of it, instead urging him to tout his success: the “living well” revenge.

When that backfires (the plumber drives a Mercedes and has a fulfilling marriage), Frasier recommends Niles simply talk it out with the bully. Though Frasier ignores his own advice when he takes a toilet-water infused revenge on a second bully-turned-plumber, Niles comes to terms with his aggressor and moves forward, settling some 20 years of pent-up anger.

You may wonder what my point is, but I was struck with how well Niles and Frasier’s misadventure mirrored my own struggles with leaving high school resentments behind.

Continue reading “On Frasier and Leaving The Past Behind”