When it comes to climate change, a book titled “How to do nothing” may appear to be not just meaningless, but also vulgar and even deadly. Not to mention that, after more than a year of living with the pandemic, many individuals are understandably exhausted at the idea of continuing to live lives devoid of social activities.
Jenny Odell’s lapidary work, a meditation that is, ironically, a call to action, is all about toying with our conceptions of activity and contemplation.
Odell is a well-known Bay Area artist who has worked as an artist in residence at a number of institutions, including the Internet Archive and Recology, San Francisco’s garbage collection and processing company. Her art focuses on paying attention to the nuances that surround us in this world and what we may learn from them. It’s an activity that takes her to Oakland’s public parks, such as the Morcom Rose Garden, for birding and lengthy walks.
It’s worth noting that Odell’s book is named “Resisting the Attention Economy,” and she’s made it her mission to wean a generation, if not a population, of the spasmodic negativity that pervades our social media platforms. In fact, she has a loftier ambition: to wean people away from the belief that activity is the main worth in life, that action is the only useful yardstick by which we can judge ourselves. She’d like to draw our attention to something more essential.
“I completely comprehend the consequences of a life of constant focus. She adds in the preface, “In brief, it leads to awareness.” The crucial term here is “sustained,” and there’s a link between that and “sustainable” and “climate” in general.
We have plenty of knowledge, facts, and viewpoints. In truth, the trash of human thought has swamped us. According to some research, modern knowledge workers read more words per day than ever before in history — but they’re reading social media postings, emails, Slack messages, and other detritus that are all nibbling at our attention and collectively consuming it. For many of us, what’s left isn’t much of a thought at all.
The world is more frantic and chaotic than it has ever been, but we have exchanged a deeper awareness of ourselves and our place in it for an endless barrage of media. Odell wants us to even out the playing field.
For her, this entails honing her ability to pay attention for longer periods of time. Most of us have little practice with this skill (which, strangely, we may not even be aware of), and maintaining focus may even involve refusing to connect with the world around us on a regular basis. In her opinion, this is a good thing.