How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

I suspect that readers of this blog will enjoy Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. I’ve been a fan of Odell’s work since reading her mind-bending essay There’s No Such Thing as a Free Watch wherein she describes how the internet’s nightmarish realm of disembodied Instagram babble results in actual crappy objects. If you’ve seen either of the Fyre festival documentaries you’ll know how these “influencer” nightmares play out.

If you’re looking for a book about how to be more productive in a world of Facebook notifications, text messages and endless emails How to Do Nothing, despite the deceptive subtitle ain’t that book. But, perhaps, that’s the point. Maybe the problem with our culture is the need to “be productive,” to live in the myth of endless growth on a planet with finite resources.

Central to Odell’s book is Walter Benjamin’s quirky interpretation of a Paul Klee painting Angelus Novus. Benjamin says,

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Odell sees our role as like Benjamin’s Angel of History, looking backwards, facing the destruction and injustices of our past and working to undo the damage, to “make whole what has been smashed.” In Odell’s words, “When we pry open the cracks in the concrete, we stand to encounter life itself—nothing less and nothing more, as if there could be more.”

Odell floats the idea of a “manifest dismantling,” an inversion of the industrialization and colonialism embodied in John Gast’s silly painting American Progress. The examples of manifest dismantling that Odell offers range from monumental, such as the multi-year dismantling of the San Clemente Dam in Northern California, to the modest, such as the volunteers that sustain and maintain public gardens.

Odell asks for us to consider a present grounded in remediation rather than obsessed with grand teleological visions. What if our heroes were caregivers, gardeners, bird watchers and people who fix things instead of venture capitalists, tech bros and mars mission obsessed CEOs? Personally, I think the readers of this blog are the sisters and brothers of the great dismantling. Let’s open those cracks in the pavement.

A Springtime Poetry Break

Image: Birds of Many Climes, by C.F.A. Voysey

If the Institute of the Present were to have an official poem this might be it. With the ever increasing distraction and abstraction of our over-screenified lives we might need to remind ourselves of what it means to be human: the joys, the pain, the fading of winter and the arrival of spring.

On Being Human by C. S. Lewis

Angelic minds, they say, by simple intelligence
Behold the Forms of nature. They discern
Unerringly the Archtypes, all the verities
Which mortals lack or indirectly learn.
Transparent in primordial truth, unvarying,
Pure Earthness and right Stonehood from their clear,
High eminence are seen; unveiled, the seminal
Huge Principles appear.

The Tree-ness of the tree they know-the meaning of
Arboreal life, how from earth’s salty lap
The solar beam uplifts it; all the holiness
Enacted by leaves’ fall and rising sap;

But never an angel knows the knife-edged severance
Of sun from shadow where the trees begin,
The blessed cool at every pore caressing us
-An angel has no skin.

They see the Form of Air; but mortals breathing it
Drink the whole summer down into the breast.
The lavish pinks, the field new-mown, the ravishing
Sea-smells, the wood-fire smoke that whispers Rest.
The tremor on the rippled pool of memory
That from each smell in widening circles goes,
The pleasure and the pang –can angels measure it?
An angel has no nose.

The nourishing of life, and how it flourishes
On death, and why, they utterly know; but not
The hill-born, earthy spring, the dark cold bilberries.
The ripe peach from the southern wall still hot
Full-bellied tankards foamy-topped, the delicate
Half-lyric lamb, a new loaf’s billowy curves,
Nor porridge, nor the tingling taste of oranges.
—An angel has no nerves.

Far richer they! I know the senses’ witchery
Guards us like air, from heavens too big to see;
Imminent death to man that barb’d sublimity
And dazzling edge of beauty unsheathed would be.
Yet here, within this tiny, charmed interior,
This parlour of the brain, their Maker shares
With living men some secrets in a privacy
Forever ours, not theirs.

Thanks to Fr. Mark Kowalewski for introducing me to this poem.

Making Mistakes and an Update

A big thanks to Erik Volkman who let me know that I had accidentally re-released episode 127 of the podcast (an interview with Fr. Mark Kowalewski on apocalyptic thinking) instead of episode 128 (an interview with James Heard and Ashton Hamm of UXO Architects). I’ve fixed the problem but due to the kludgy way that podcasts propagate your podcast app may still play the audio from episode 127 instead of the interview with the architects. You can hear episode 128 on the blog here. We’re also experiencing problems with editing blog posts and posting images, a situation our web czar and book designer Roman is working on.

And an update: the Silver Lake Progressive slate that ran for the local neighborhood council won in a landslide. They now have a slim majority of the council and will have their hands full fixing the damage done by their predecessors (who are busy holding last minute meetings in order to spend the last few dimes the council has left after blowing most of their budget on a dubious study). A more important task will be to lay the groundwork for taking the city council of Los Angeles which, according to a recent study, is the second most corrupt city government behind (of course) Chicago. Shake a palm tree here and a lot of rats fall out.