I picked up Jenny Odell’s book in the hopes of finding inspiration and solidarity in a creative life. Guidance or thoughts on how to make art for art’s sake. How to be at peace with being “unproductive” in a capitalist society. How to be happy with a simple life, how to feel accomplished without producing. Reading has taught me a bit about that, or at least a bit about how the capitalist attention economy is actively trying to make me feel bad about doing nothing, but How to Do Nothing is not a book of answers. It is intentionally meandering in the way it encourages readers to meander, pausing to notice seemingly unrelated things. It is not a how-to book.
More than being geared towards artists specifically, the book is a way for any person to incorporate a different kind of attention into their current life. I was immediately reminded of Canada’s efforts to decolonize, to reconcile and reconnect with our Indigenous co-habitors, to pay more attention to the land. Odell acknowledges the teachings of Indigenous people, but mostly focuses on the white history of resisting the attention economy. (White people in the broadest sense of the word, acknowledging that Odell herself is half-Fillipino and first-generation American) It often feels like white people lost their culture a long time ago, so it’s neat to see examples of ancient philosophers and modern artists and 1970’s hippies grappling with society and human existence.
One of Odell’s main arguments is against the idea of dropping out entirely, which makes for a much more complicated existence, but perhaps a more feasible one in the end. She asks early on: “What would “back to the land” mean if we understood the land to be where we are right now?”, which offers the possibility that we might be able to run off to a cabin in the woods simply by changing our mindset and taking time to notice nature in the city. She addresses the idea of quitting Facebook by arguing that the technology and social connectivity is not the problem so much as it is the apps run by corporations for profit, filled with purposefully addictive qualities. It is comforting to think that change could be possible without totally blowing up the existing system. That a great deal of it can be done without changing anything except what you pay attention to.