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The case for doing nothing: It's an intentional strategy, not a luxury or a cop-out

Resisting the attention economy isn't a passive act. It can help bring about real change


Jenny Odell
April 8, 2019 9:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy," copyright © 2019 by Jenny Odell. Reprinted with permission from Melville House Publishing.

In early 2017, not long after Trump’s inauguration, I was asked to give a keynote talk at EYEO, an art and technology conference in Minneapolis. I was still reeling from the election and, like many other artists I knew, found it difficult to continue making anything at all. On top of that, Oakland was in a state of mourning following the 2016 Ghost Ship fire, which took the lives of many artists and community-minded people. Staring at the blank field in which I was supposed to enter my talk title, I thought about what I could possibly say that would be meaningful in a moment like this. Without yet knowing what the talk would actually be, I just typed in “How to Do Nothing.”

After that, I decided to ground the talk in a specific place: the Morcom Amphitheatre of Roses in Oakland, California, otherwise known simply as the Rose Garden. I did that partly because it was in the Rose Garden that I began brainstorming my talk. But I had also realized that the garden encompassed everything I wanted to cover: the practice of doing nothing, the architecture of nothing, the importance of public space, and an ethics of care and maintenance.

I live five minutes away from the Rose Garden, and ever since I’ve lived in Oakland, it’s been my default place to go to get away from my computer, where I do much of my work, art and otherwise. But after the election, I started going to the Rose Garden almost every day. This wasn’t exactly a conscious decision; it was more of an innate movement, like a deer going to a salt lick or a goat going to the top of a hill. What I would do there is nothing. I’d just sit there. And although I felt a bit guilty about how incongruous it seemed—beautiful garden versus terrifying world—it really did feel like a necessary survival tactic. I recognized the feeling in a passage from Gilles Deleuze in "Negotiations":

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We’re riddled with pointless talk, insane quantities of words and images. Stupidity’s never blind or mute. So it’s not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves; what a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying.

He wrote that in 1985, but I could identify with the sentiment in 2016, almost to a painful degree. The function of nothing here—of saying nothing—is that it’s a precursor to having something to say. “Nothing” is neither a luxury nor a waste of time, but rather a necessary part of meaningful thought and speech.

* * *

I want to be clear that I’m not actually encouraging anyone to stop doing things completely. In fact, I think that “doing nothing”—in the sense of refusing productivity and stopping to listen—entails an active process of listening that seeks out the effects of racial, environmental, and economic injustice and brings about real change. I consider “doing nothing” both as a kind of deprogramming device and as sustenance for those feeling too disassembled to act meaningfully. On this level, the practice of doing nothing has several tools to offer us when it comes to resisting the attention economy.

The first tool has to do with repair. In such times as these, having recourse to periods of and spaces for “doing nothing” is of utmost importance, because without them we have no way to think, reflect, heal, and sustain ourselves—individually or collectively. There is a kind of nothing that’s necessary for, at the end of the day, doing something. When overstimulation has become a fact of life, I suggest that we reimagine #FOMO as #NOMO, the necessity of missing out, or if that bothers you, #NOSMO, the necessity of sometimes missing out.

That’s a strategic function of nothing, and in that sense, you could file what I’ve said so far under the heading of self-care. But if you do, make it “self-care” in the activist sense that Audre Lorde meant it in the 1980s , when she said that “[c]aring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” This is an important distinction to make these days, when the phrase “self-care” is appropriated for commercial ends and risks becoming a cliché. As Gabrielle Moss, author of "Glop: Nontoxic, Expensive Ideas That Will Make You Look Ridiculous and Feel Pretentious" (a book parodying goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s high-priced wellness empire), put it: self-care “is poised to be wrenched away from activists and turned into an excuse to buy an expensive bath oil.”

The second tool that doing nothing offers us is a sharpened ability to listen deeply. To do nothing is to hold yourself still so that you can perceive what is actually there. As Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist who records natural soundscapes, put it: “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.” Unfortunately, our constant engagement with the attention economy means that this is something many of us (myself included) may have to relearn. Even with the problem of the filter bubble aside, the platforms that we use to communicate with each other do not encourage listening. Instead they reward shouting and oversimple reaction: of having a “take” after having read a single headline.

I alluded earlier to the problem of speed, but this is also a problem both of listening and of bodies. There is in fact a connection between 1) listening in the Deep Listening, bodily sense, and 2) listening, as in me understanding your perspective. Writing about the circulation of information, Marxist theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi makes a distinction that’s especially helpful here, between what he calls connectivity and sensitivity. Connectivity is the rapid circulation of information among compatible units—an example would be an article racking up a bunch of shares very quickly and unthinkingly by like-minded people on Facebook. With connectivity, you either are or are not compatible. Red or blue: check the box. In this transmission of information, the units don’t change, nor does the information.

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Sensitivity, in contrast, involves a difficult, awkward, ambiguous encounter between two differently shaped bodies that are themselves ambiguous—and this meeting, this sensing, requires and takes place in time. Not only that, due to the effort of sensing, the two entities might come away from the encounter a bit different than they went in. Thinking about sensitivity reminds me of a monthlong artist residency I once attended with two other artists in an extremely remote location in the Sierra Nevada. There wasn’t much to do at night, so one of the artists and I would sometimes sit on the roof and watch the sunset. She was Catholic and from the Midwest; I’m sort of the quintessential California atheist. I have really fond memories of the languid, meandering conversations we had up there about science and religion. And what strikes me is that neither of us ever convinced the other—that wasn’t the point—but we listened to each other, and we did each come away different, with a more nuanced understanding of the other person’s position.

So connectivity is a share or, conversely, a trigger; sensitivity is an in-person conversation, whether pleasant or difficult, or both. Obviously, online platforms favor connectivity, not simply by virtue of being online, but also arguably for profit, since the difference between connectivity and sensitivity is time, and time is money. Again, too expensive.

As the body disappears, so does our ability to empathize. Berardi suggests a link between our senses and our ability to make sense, asking us to “hypothesize the connection between the expansion of the infosphere . . . and the crumbling of the sensory membrane that allows human beings to understand that which cannot be verbalized, that which cannot be reduced to codified signs.” In the environment of our online platforms, “that which cannot be verbalized” is figured as excess or incompatible, although every in-person encounter teaches us the importance of nonverbal expressions of the body, not to mention the very matter-of-fact presence of the body in front of me.

* * *

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.

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This is the place to mention a few regulars of the Rose Garden. Besides Rose the wild turkey and Grayson the cat (who will sit on your book if you’re trying to read), you are always likely to see a few of the park’s volunteers doing maintenance. Their presence is a reminder that the Rose Garden is beautiful in part because it is cared for, that effort must be put in, whether that’s saving it from becoming condos or just making sure the roses come back next year. The volunteers do such a good job that I often see park visitors walk up to them and thank them for what they’re doing.

When I see them pulling weeds and arranging hoses, I often think of the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Her well-known pieces include "Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside," a performance in which she washed the steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum, and "Touch Sanitation Performance," in which she spent eleven months shaking hands with and thanking New York City’s 8,500 sanitation men, in addition to interviewing and shadowing them. She has in fact been a permanent artist in residence with the New York City Sanitation Department since 1977.

Ukeles’s interest in maintenance was partly occasioned by her becoming a mother in the 1960s. In an interview, she explained, “Being a mother entails an enormous amount of repetitive tasks. I became a maintenance worker. I felt completely abandoned by my culture because it didn’t have a way to incorporate sustaining work.” In 1969, she wrote the “Manifesto for Maintenance Art”, an exhibition proposal in which she considers her own maintenance work as the art. She says, “I will live in the museum and do what I customarily do at home with my husband and my baby, for the duration of the exhibition . . . My working will be the work.” Her manifesto opens with a distinction between what she calls the death force and the life force:

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1. IDEAS

A. The Death Instinct and the Life Instinct:

The Death Instinct: separation, individuality, Avant-Garde
par excellence; to follow one’s own path—do your own thing;
dynamic change.

The Life Instinct: unification; the eternal return; the perpetuation
and MAINTENANCE of the species; survival systems
and operations, equilibrium.

The life force is concerned with cyclicality, care, and regeneration; the death force sounds to me a lot like “disrupt.” Obviously, some amount of both is necessary, but one is routinely valorized, not to mention masculinized, while the other goes unrecognized because it has no part in “progress.”

That brings me to one last surprising aspect of the Rose Garden, which I first noticed on the central promenade. Set into the concrete on either side are a series of numbers in the tens, each signifying a decade, and within each decade are ten plaques with the names of various women. As it turns out, the names are of women who were voted Mother of the Year by Oakland residents. To be Mother of the Year, you must have “contributed to improving the quality of life for the people of Oakland—through home, work, community service, volunteer efforts or combination thereof.” In an old industry film about Oakland, I found footage of a Mother of the Year ceremony from the 1950s. After a series of close-ups on different roses, someone hands a bouquet to an elderly woman and kisses her on the forehead. And for a few days this last May, I noticed an unusual number of volunteers in the garden, sprucing everything up, repainting things. It took me a while to realize they were preparing for Mother of the Year 2017, Malia Luisa Latu Saulala, a local church volunteer.

I’m mentioning this celebration of mothers in the context of work that sustains and maintains—but I don’t think that one needs to be a mother to experience a maternal impulse. At the end of "Won’t You Be My Neighbor?", the stunning 2018 documentary on Fred Rogers (aka Mister Rogers), we learn that in his commencement speeches, Rogers would ask the audience to sit and think about someone who had helped them, believed in them, and wanted the best for them. The filmmakers then ask the interviewees to do this. For the first time, the voices we’ve been hearing for the past hour or so fall silent; the film cuts between different interviewees, each thinking, looking slightly off camera. Judging from the amount of sniffling in the theater where I saw this film, many in the audience were also thinking of their own mothers, fathers, siblings, friends. Rogers’s point in the commencement speeches was made anew: we are all familiar with the phenomenon of selfless care from at least some part of our lives. This phenomenon is no exception; it is at the core of what defines the human experience.

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Jenny Odell

Jenny Odell is an artist and writer whose work exists between the disciplines of writing and visual art. She has been an artist-in-residence at Recology SF (otherwise known as the San Francisco dump), Facebook, the Internet Archive, and the San Francisco Planning Department. "How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy" is her first book.

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