How to Do Nothing

by Jenny Odell · read October 27, 2021


I love the cognitive dissonance of identifying this as a productivity book, but this is what productivity books should be: an interrogation of the notions of productivity and optimization and a call to instead exist in time and space with other people. There was so much to love about this book and I essentially highlighted all of it, but in particular I enjoyed the emphasis on bioregionalism, learning how to see through art, and the necessity of encountering other people in reality. Now I just want to read Arendt and people-watch on the TTC.

Practices of attention and curiosity are inherently open-ended, oriented toward something outside of ourselves. Through attention and curiosity, we can suspend our tendency toward instrumental understanding—seeing things or people one-dimensionally as the products of their functions—and instead sit with the unfathomable fact of their existence, which opens up toward us but can never be fully grasped or known.


Introduction — Surviving Usefulness

Lives are being optimized and streamlined, but often at the expense of serendipity, presence, and purpose

Cultural and political stakes to sacrificing "unproductive" activities -> loss of effective discourse, art, etc.

"Nothing" is "nothing from the point of view of capitalist productivity"

Goal is to trace movements:

  1. Dropping out
  2. Lateral movement outward to our surroundings
  3. Downward movement into place

But the villain here is not necessarily the Internet, or even the idea of social media; it is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction. It is furthermore the cult of individuality and personal branding that grow out of such platforms and affect the way we think about our offline selves and the places where we actually live.

To resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system. To do this means refusing the frame of reference: in this case, a frame of reference in which value is determined by productivity, the strength of one's career, and individual entrepreneurship. It means embracing and trying to inhabit somewhat fuzzier or blobbier ideas: of maintenance as productivity, of the importance of nonverbal communication, and of the mere experience of life as the highest goal. It means recognizing and celebrating a form of the self that changes over time, exceeds algorithmic description, and whose identity doesn't always stop at the boundary of the individual. (xvi)

Lessons of resistance and of witness -> disengage with the attention economy, reengage with something else (time and space)

Bioregionalism — Peter Berg, 1970s

Just as practices like logging and large-scale farming decimate the land, an overemphasis on performance turns what was once a dense and thriving landscape of individual and communal thought into a Monsanto farm whose "production" slowly destroys the soil until nothing more can grow. As it extinguishes one species of thought after another, it hastens the erosion of attention.

Tendency towards "monoculture" is destructive, not helpful

"It's less a lecture than an invitation to take a walk."

One thing I have learned about attention is that certain forms of it are contagious. When you spend enough time with someone who pays close attention to something (if you were hanging out with me, it would be birds), you inevitably start to pay attention to some of the same things. I've also learned that patterns of attention—what we choose to notice and what we do not—are how we render reality for ourselves, and thus have a direct bearing on what we feel is possible at any given time. These aspects, taken together, suggest to me the revolutionary potential of taking back our attention. To capitalist logic, which thrives on myopia and dissatisfaction, there may indeed be something dangerous about something as pedestrian as doing nothing: escaping laterally toward each other, we might just find that everything we wanted is already here.

Chapter 1 — The Case for Nothing

Architecture that encourages contemplation where there would otherwise be none

In a situation where every waking moment has become the time in which we make our living, and when we submit even our leisure for numerical evaluation via likes on Facebook and Instagram, constantly checking on its performance like one checks a stock, monitoring the ongoing development of our personal brand, time becomes an economic resource that we can no longer justify spending on "nothing." It provides no return on investment; it is simply too expensive.

Personal time and public space are being encroached upon

Importance of boundaries — if work is everywhere, there's no separation from it

"Financially incentivized proliferation of chatter" online -> move from 'surfing' to 'seeking' — needs intentionality

Instances of censorship, he says, "are rather marginal when compared to what is essentially an immense informational overload and an actual siege of attention, combined with the occupation of the sources of information by the head of the company." It is this financially incentivized proliferation of chatter, and the utter speed at which waves of hysteria now happen online, that has so deeply horrified me and offended my senses and cognition as a human who dwells in human, bodily time.

"It turns out that groundedness requires actual ground." (21)

We exist in reality -> no wonder online communication is such a shadow

Strategic function of doing nothing -> repairing yourself, being able to listen

Berardi: connectivity (information between compatible units) and sensitivity (encountering, sensing another person, coming away different)

And to me it seems significant that it's not eight hours of, say, "leisure" or "education," but "eight hours of what we will." Although leisure or education might be involved, the most humane way to describe that period is to refuse to define it.

We often conflate productivity with novelty rather than maintenance

But beyond self-care and the ability to (really) listen, the practice of doing nothing has something broader to offer us: an antidote to the rhetoric of growth. In the context of health and ecology, things that grow unchecked are often considered parasitic or cancerous. Yet we inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and the regenerative. Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way.

Ukeles's 1969 "Manifesto of Maintenance Art"

I'm suggesting that we protect our spaces and our time for non-instrumental, noncommercial activity and thought, for maintenance, for care, for conviviality. (28)

Chapter 2 — The Impossibility of Retreat

A lot of people withdraw from society, as an experiment. So I thought I would withdraw and see how enlightening it would be. But I found out that it's not enlightening. I think that what you're supposed to do is stay in the midst of life. —Agnes Martin

Running away is to neglect responsibility

Epicurean program -> running away from the world, seeking contemplation and the "absence of trouble"

Need reason and ability to limit desires to be happy

Communes in the 60s sought to recreate a way of living

Problems with running away:

  • Role of privilege
  • Technocratic solution (design > politics)
  • Shirks responsibility

Poswolsky writes of their initial discovery: "I think we also found the answer to the universe, which was, quite simply: just spend more time with your friends."

B. F. Skinner and Walden Two -> life is controlled, predicted, and optimized

Arendt's The Human Condition addresses the temptation to replace politics with design

Like Frazier's pastoral scene with which he wordlessly answers the accusation of fascism, Thiel's "escape from politics" could never be anything more than an image that existed outside of time and reality. Preemptively calling it a "peaceful project" avoids the fact that regardless of how high-tech your society might be, "peace" is an endless negotiation among free-acting agents whose wills cannot be engineered. Politics necessarily exist between even two individuals with free will; any attempt to reduce politics to design (Thiel's "machinery of freedom") is also an attempt to reduce people to machines or mechanical beings. (52)

It's in this exchange that such experiments become valuable for the world, as points in a dialogue between inside and outside, real and unrealized. As Ursula K. LeGuin writes in The Dispossessed, a novel in which a man returns to Earth for the first time from an anarchist colony: "The explorer who will not come back or send back his ships to tell his tale is not an explorer, only an adventurer." (55)

Look into Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action

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:

"We have to be able to do both: to contemplate and participate, to leave and always come back, where we are needed." (61)

Stand apart: take the view of the outside without leaving

To stand apart is to look at the world (now) from the point of view of the world as it could be (the future), with all of the hope and sorrowful contemplation that this entails... But most important, standing apart represents the moment in which the desperate desire to leave (forever!) matures into a commitment to live in permanent refusal, where one already is, and to meet others in the common space of that refusal. (62)

Chapter 3 — Anatomy of a Refusal

Refusals: "The Trainee", "the Dead Guy", Diogenes (performance art)

For a moment, the custom is shown to be not the horizon of possibility, but rather a tiny island in a sea of unexamined alternatives. (67)

Diogenes inhabited a "third space" — neither assimilated nor exited

"Bartleby, the Scrivener" -> refuses the term of the question

Concentration or paying attention implies alignment — can also be a collective phenomenon

"A social body that can't concentrate or communicate with itself is like a person who can't think and act." (81)

Refusal requires latitude — less social/financial vulnerability

   Margins are shrinking (precarity)

Look into Malcolm Harris' Kids These Days, Grafton Tanner's Digital Detox

Chapter 4 — Exercises in Attention

David Hockney -> paintings contain the amount of time spent making them

He used photography to explore how we see (through time, not simply a snapshot in time)

Believed that looking was a skill

The film is called The Exchange, by Eran Kolirin, and to be honest, it doesn't have much of a plot.

Attention and curiousity move us away from instrumental understandings

Buber's "I-Thou" for seeing the irreducibility of the other

notice: doing so allows one to transcend the self. Practices of attention and curiosity are inherently open-ended, oriented toward something outside of ourselves. Through attention and curiosity, we can suspend our tendency toward instrumental understanding—seeing things or people one-dimensionally as the products of their functions—and instead sit with the unfathomable fact of their existence, which opens up toward us but can never be fully grasped or known.

Attention is naturally fleeting — it requires will to maintain sustained attention

Attention renders reality for us

   -> once we notice something, we notice it everywhere

Chapter 5 — Ecology of Strangers

We make choices about how to perceive other people

studio, at the water's edge and the end of the line. For many people, myself included, public transportation is the last non-transactional space in which we are regularly thrown together with a diverse set of strangers, all of whom have different destinations for different reasons. Strangers have a reality to me on the bus that they cannot have on the freeway, simply because we've agreed to be in an enclosed space in which we are subject to each other's actions. Because we share an understanding that we all need to get where we're going, for the most part people act respectfully, literally making space for others when necessary. (130)

Louis Althusser's Philosophy of the Encounter -> society requires some kind of spatial constraint

   "constraints... impose a law of proximity without asking men for their opinion"

Why should we care about the people who live near us?

  • Network of support with those nearby (in face of disasters, accidents, etc.)
  • We're lonely when we're not connected to others
  • Leaves space for novelty and surprise

Capitalism's "be yourself" is to be consistent, recognizable, and static

When the language of advertising and personal branding enjoins you to "be yourself," what it really means is "be more yourself," where "yourself" is a consistent and recognizable pattern of habits, desires, and drives that can be more easily advertised to and appropriated, like units of capital. In fact, I don't know what a personal brand is other than a reliable, unchanging pattern of snap judgments: "I like this" and "I don't like this," with little room for ambiguity or contradiction.

Schulman's The Gentrificaton of the Mind

What's especially tragic about a mind that imagines itself as something separate, defensible, and capable of "efficiency" is not just that it results in a probably very boring (and bored) person; it's that it's based on a complete fallacy about the constitution of the self as something separate from others and from the world. (139-140)

"Bioregionalism teaches us of emergence, interdependence, and the impossibility of absolute boundaries." (154)

Chapter 6 — Restoring the Grounds for Thought

... an ecological understanding takes ime. Context is what appears when you hold your attention open for long enough; the longer you hold it, the more context appears. (155)

Example of bird-watching — you move from birds on their own to understanding their context (seasons, places, environments, etc.)

Context collapse online: no understanding of audience

Marwick and boyd describe how context collapse creates a "lowest-common-denominator philosophy of sharing [that] limits users to topics that are safe for all possible readers."

Joshua Meyrowitz: No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior

Options are to either be offensive or bland

The surprise homecoming party is an example of the useful architectural metaphor that Meyrowitz employs in No Sense of Place: it's as if all of the walls around different social environments have come down. Unfortunately, those rooms and walls were precisely what provided the spatial context for what was said in them, since they summoned a distinct audience out of the anonymous masses by only letting some people in.

We lose temporal context as well

"Just as a series of rooms are dissolved into one big "situation," instantaneity flattens past, present, and future into a constant, amnesiac present."

As Oliver Leistert puts it in "The Revolution Will Not Be Liked", for social media companies, the public sphere is an historically elapsed phase from the twentieth century they now exploit for their own interests by simulating it.

Changing your mind is bad for your brand — maintaining or monetizing an "image" to all possible audiences is anathema to healthy change and growth

Decentralized web: peer-to-peer networks, open source software, Mastodon, mesh networks, Scuttlebutt, Patchwork

   What would it look like for online spaces to be contextualized? -> Having community networks that aren't privatized, that are limited to a specific group of people in a geographic region

Before I got older and started carrying around a heavy black rectangle of potentiality and dread, it worked like this: You thought about the call you needed to make, you went to the phone made the call, and then you walked away. If you decided you had something more to say, you called back later. Not only that, the interaction was with the one other person you had decided to contact. Even calling someone to chat aimlessly had more intention than many of the ways I communicate now.

If we have only so much attention to give, and only so much time on this earth, we might want to think about reinfusing our attention and our communication with the intention that both deserve.

Arendt's space of appearance: a collection of people who speak and act meaningfully together

I would be surprised if anyone who bought this book actually wants to do nothing. Only the most nihilist and coldhearted of us feels that there is nothing to be done. The overwhelming anxiety that I feel in the face of the attention economy doesn't just have to do with its mechanics and effects, but also with a recognition of, and anguish over, the very real social and environmental injustice that provides the material for that same economy. But I feel my sense of responsibility frustrated. It's a cruel irony that the platforms on which we encounter and speak about these issues are simultaneously profiting from a collapse of context that keeps us from being able to think straight.

This is where I think the idea of "doing nothing" can be of the most help. For me, doing nothing means disengaging from one framework (the attention economy) not only to give myself time to think, but to do something else in another framework.

Conclusion — Manifest Dismantling

Walter Benjamin's "On the Concept of History" re: Paul Klee's Angelus Novus

   We see history as contingent, we revisit it to "piece together what has been smashed"

Masanobu Fukuoka's "do-nothing farming" -> collaborate with the environment

   Jedediah Purdy: "work is not only industry... but also reproduction"

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