Outside/In: How to Do Nothing with Jenny Odell | New Hampshire Public Radio

Outside/In: How to Do Nothing with Jenny Odell

Feb 6, 2021

A lot of us may feel like our time and attention is not our own, and can easily disappear into the ether of work and the internet. But rather than merely suggesting a digital detox, artist and writer Jenny Odell presents a third way.

In her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Odell draws on ecology, art, labor history, and literature, to seek a deeper kind of attention: an attention that probes our sense of selfhood, our relationship to place, time, and other species. An attention that reminds us of our being animal on this planet.

On Old Survivor

The last surviving old growth redwood in Oakland known as Old Survivor was “rediscovered” in 1969 – before then, it was thought that all of the old growth redwoods in Oakland were gone. Also known as the Grandfather Tree, this tree is around 500 years old.

“That tree was not cut down because it was considered small by standards of redwoods at that time, which were huge because they were old growth, and it’s also this strange twisted shape,” said Odell.

Old Survivor germinated not long after Machu Picchu was completed in the Inca Empire, just a few years before Queen Elizabeth I was crowned at Westminster Abbey.

Jenny Odell
Credit Ryan Meyer

Odell writes about how Old Survivor would have grown alongside generations of Ohlone people, living, growing old, dying. In the 19th century, it would have kept growing as grizzly bears, Coho salmon, and California condors disappeared from the East Bay.

“It's a witness. And what I find so amazing about that is… it's not abstract. That tree is the same tree. It has a physical aura about it, like you can put your hand on it and know that it's been living for that entire time,” said Odell.

Old Survivor appears in the introduction of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. The book is an exploration of how to withdraw our attention from the forces that would monetize it-- tech companies, for instance, or work -- and asks us to reexamine our participation in social media.

To Odell, Old Survivor is a real life example of the “useless tree” in a Taoist story attributed to the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou. In the story, a carpenter comes upon a gnarled old tree. It’s the wrong shape, too big in inconvenient ways, so the carpenter doesn’t cut it down because it’s not useful.

But later, the tree comes to him in a dream to ask him a question.

“Who are you to call me useless?” said Odell, summarizing the story. “Useful for what? My uselessness has been very useful to me because I have survived.”

“I just find it to be such an inspiring example, not only of refusal and resistance, but existing in a way that’s at odds with the surrounding value system. Obviously, that creates tension, but it may also be what helps you survive.”

On crows and cross-species friendship

When Odell moved to an apartment in Oakland, California, she decided to make it a point to get to know her neighbors.

“If I’m not in the living room, so they can’t see me, they will fly over on the roof corner that’s just outside my window and kind of stare at me,” said Odell.

These neighbors, by the way, are crows - and they’re still friends.  

Odell had learned that crows can come to recognize human faces, and are intelligent by human standards. She began to play games with her visitors: she hid a peanut in a small wooden bowl filled with rocks and pine cones. 

    View this post on Instagram           

A post shared by Jenny Odell (@jennitaur)

“They seem to really enjoy that… there was one day where they took the peanut from somewhere else and they put in the bowl, which was very confusing to me,” said Odell. “And now it's an advanced game where I put peanuts under a small silver bowl that’s upside down in the bigger bowl, and they're very into that.”

This was in 2016, and by the end of that year, Donald Trump had been elected president. It was a high-anxiety moment for a lot of people, including Odell. She found herself in a dark relationship with social media.

“You know, caught in a loop of urgency and reaction, what we would now call doomscrolling… just a very kind of claustrophobic way of being,” said Odell.

“To just look at [the crows]..., and see myself from their perspective, was so therapeutic to me at the time. It was like being reminded that I am an animal that is being viewed by another animal, that itself has a completely different understanding probably of space and time and what even a ‘place’ means.”

“I think a lot about what this hill looks like to them: it’s a completely different map.”

On public space 

Around the same period, Odell also found herself spending a lot of time in the Morcom Rose Garden in Oakland.

“It’s a little bit unusual because it’s got a very sort of labyrinthine quality and it’s very close to a lot of more urban-feeling stuff… so it’s kind of a little pocket hidden away. And so I was going there, and kind of sitting, and “doing nothing,” and then inevitably started thinking about why.”

Being there, she told me, felt instinctual. 

“One of the things that became noticeable to me was the importance of a space like that: a space where you are not a customer, you're not a performer. You know, you're just a visitor.”

“There's something about things like public parks and libraries that to me are very inspiring in terms of spaces of recuperation but also inspiration and fellow feeling with humans and nonhumans.”

On doing nothing

“My ‘nothing’ only appears as nothing from a certain point of view, and that point of view would be one in which productivity sort of equals work-output-per-unit-of-time maybe, or capitalism-informed notions of what progress and growth mean.”

“That kind of view of progress and productivity would tend to see a lot of the types of activities and attention that I’m advocating for as nothing, because they don't produce anything and often I think also are maybe difficult to commodify, difficult to verbalize.”

“To use a kind of dumb example, it’s something that’s uninstagrammable, right? It’s like, you just experienced it, and then it was gone, and you don’t ‘have anything to show for it,’ even though to me those are some of the most meaningful moments in life.” 

“It’s sort of tongue-in-cheek. It’s obviously not ‘nothing’ to me.”

On the role of nature in resisting the attention economy

“I think it's a little bit unreasonable to stop paying a certain type of attention without suggesting another type of attention. So, for me, I started paying attention to ecology, specifically to birds.”

“So, it's not like I suddenly gained this ability to not be absorbed in anything. It’s that I was able to find something that made me feel more in the world rather than out of it and that was also able to help me break out of these cycles of anxiety and despair, and these kinds of feelings that are really driving the attention economy.”

“As a metaphor, ecology is really useful for me in thinking about the role of context. You can't look at any supposed ‘entity’ in ecology without starting to notice how interconnected it is with so many other things.”

“One of my favorite examples is the way fungus interacts with trees, and at the point of contact, sometimes the fungal bits are almost in the tree. It’s very hard to separate them, even functionally.

“And, I mention in the book, I'm biracial. I like thinking about in-between zones, or things like atmospheric rivers that bring water from the Philippines to where I am. I think it teaches you how to think about and appreciate complexity and really sit with that, which is, to me, the opposite of how information circulates on social media.”

“So, that’s the metaphor part of it. But I think just as a subject… I don’t know, maybe not everyone feels this way, but I think you can just pick anything and look at it and you just, pretty soon, get bowled over by how strange and amazing it is.”

On placefulness

Odell grew up in Cupertino, where the Apple campus is now located. How to Do Nothing is specifically rooted in the Bay Area, where it engages with the idea of becoming a citizen in one’s place, an idea also known as “bioregionalism.”

“For me, I think it’s a familiarity, just like with a person. It’s a familiarity with the character of a place... my reading of it is informed by the experience of growing up in the Bay Area without knowing what the Bay Area is, until basically right before I wrote this book.”

Odell writes about how connecting with nature can bring a welcome sense of our own smallness, breaking down a sense of selfhood and reinforcing our own membership in a community that is bigger than human and bigger than this time.

“So the landscape is a community, it has these relationships, and you are a member of that community and you have responsibility to that community.”

While a profile on social media centers the user, nature breaks down the idea of an individual self, of a species, or of human constructions.”

“My favored version of bioregionalism is one that actually makes the notion of boundaries and borders absurd. I think that's what you see with tree roots and the fungus, but also things like weather and migration, successional stages.”

“There’s a place I really like to hike that has a bunch of bay trees and manzanita and there’s a really lovely sign that basically tells you, if you come back in 100 years, it's not going to look like this. Because there are stages! Right? In these places, nothing is frozen. And so that’s, when you observe the character of a place, it's always a moment in time.”

In a way, an engagement with the local ecosystem is a reframing device:  a mechanism that makes it possible to notice something we haven’t noticed before, to literally see something from a different perspective.

For instance, Odell decided to reacquaint herself with the Calabazas Creek, a body of water which had existed in the background of her childhood. She decided to visit it at different points along its journey, leaving the channels in which people move, like the sidewalk and the street, and following the creek where it had been directed in a concrete channel behind a strip mall. 

Almost like looking at the back of a piece of embroidery, she attempted to see her hometown from the water’s point of view.

On art as a reframing device

“John Cage is, for me, on the level of sound, one of the best examples of how an artist can create an architecture of attention,” said Odell, referring to the composer most famous for 4’33”, a piece which brings audiences into a music hall and seats them for four minutes of silence.  

“I think he had a very good sense of humor,” said Odell.

“My personal experience of that was going to see a John Cage piece performed at the San Francisco Symphony… it was a composition that involved three vocalists, all dressed in plain clothes, which was really strange to see at the symphony, and the score had lots of chance operations in it… shuffling cards, the director Michael Tilson Thomas making a milkshake in a blender… just all kinds of interesting sounds being considered as part of this musical composition.”

“It had two really interesting effects on me. One, was to notice things about the Symphony Hall that I hadn't noticed before: usually musicians wear black, usually people in the audience don't laugh.”

“And then I walked outside, and I just realized that I could hear everything better, or I could hear some things probably for the first time. This whole composition going all the time: the buses, people walking,... just everything that's been going on this whole time that I did not have access to, perceptually.”

“I don't think I ever heard anything the same way after that, and that sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not. It permanently changed the way that I hear things. And that’s one of the reasons that I find that kind of art to be so generous. Because I think it puts new things in the world for you, and it makes your experience richer, and it gives you more access to the things that are around you.”

On “I would prefer not to”

For Odell, engaging with place and ecology also meant taking on a responsibility to that place. She wrote, “It’s important for me to link my critique of the attention economy to the promise of bioregional awareness because I believe that capitalism, colonialist thinking, loneliness, and an abusive stance toward the environment all coproduce one another.”

In this culture, Odell wrote, “Attention may be the last thing we have left to withdraw.” 

But not everyone has the same liberty to “do nothing.”  Even the idea of an eight-hour work day was hard-won: it’s the product of a labor movement, beginning in the mid-1800s, which advanced the radical idea that people deserve 8 hours to work, 8 hours to rest, and 8 hours for “what you will.”

Odell quotes Samuel Gompers, a 19th century labor group leader (who, sidenote, was also pretty racist). Gompers wrote, “What does labor want? It wants the earth and the fullness thereof.”

But the eight-hour work day is far from universal. It is arguably not an ideal honored by contemporary work culture: the gig economy can turn any available minute to a potential earning opportunity. Performance-based jobs reward productivity and even punish the lack thereof. And meanwhile, work emails ping their way into dinnertime -- social media might be a way to connect with friends but it becomes, unwittingly or not, a personal brand - and ideals of self-optimization can make even meditation competitive.

Odell points to examples, both historical and fictional, as examples of mechanisms of refusal, including the short story by Herman Melville, "Bartleby, the Scrivener."

“Bartleby is a copyist, who is asked to copy something by his boss, and keeps saying, “I would prefer not to,” and there’s never really an explanation. And it's told from the point of view of the boss, who is just completely perplexed. And the thing I find so magical about that phrase is: it's not, ‘I won't.’ It's not ‘I will’ and it’s not ‘I won’t.’ It’s, “‘I would prefer not to.’” 

Philosopher Slavoj Žižek sports a tee emblazoned with Bartleby's famous phrase, "I would prefer not to."
Credit SRF Kultur on Youtube

“And I think it’s worth noting that the boss was not asking about his preference. Like his preference was not a part of the equation. So, not only is he not doing it, he's also completely refusing the terms of the question, which I think is a much wider form of refusal, and is so helpful as a sort of model of engagement or disengagement, whatever you want to call it.”

“The 'I would prefer not to’ kind of approach for me is to… be very aware of oneself, that platform, and the ways it's working up on you and working upon your reactions… things like anger, and shame, and loneliness, these are things that very quickly can fuel your interactions with social media…”

“The other part of it is kind of taking the center of gravity, and moving it out of that and into the world around you, and these kind of more specific, context-filled connections that you have with people, or with a place, with other beings… for me, that is what will anchor you. I’m suspicious of digital detox rhetoric for so many reasons but that’s one of them. I think if you want to truly shift your relationship, it’s going to have to be about something bigger than that.”