“Hold Yourself Still”: Jenny Odell Would Now Like Your Attention

It should be noted that you’re reading a book review on the internet. You could just as easily be watching a YouTube vlog or scrolling through Twitter or shopping for toner cartridges and shower curtains on Amazon, but for the moment you are attending to criticism rather than, say, an Instagram story. Whatever your specific vice, the internet is a polestar for instantaneous yet fleeting dopamine hits; reading a piece of online literary criticism is probably not a primary instinct when you open a web browser. And why would it be? In the age of the algorithm, where organized feeds and curated queues rule the day, there’s scarcely a need to read long-form of any kind. As Christian Lorentzen observes in his recent Harper’s essay, “Books coverage now rises or falls in the slipstream of social media. The basic imperatives of the review—analysis and evaluation—are being abandoned in favor of a nodding routine of recommendation.”

In How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Melville House), artist and critic Jenny Odell argues that this algorithmic phenomenon can largely be attributed to a redirection—and potential erosion—of attention. To Odell, the attention economy weaponizes commercial technology in ways that “encourage a capitalist perception of time, place, self, and community” and collectively keeps us “in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.” Indeed, if we are to understand the attention economy as a system wherein corporations vie to economize our attention as fuel for consumerism, then “anything nuanced, poetic, or less-than-obvious . . . cannot be tolerated because they cannot be used or appropriated.” How to Do Nothing’s raison d’être, then, is to wrest individual and collective attention away from capitalist forces and toward the “public, physical realm.” According to Odell, this movement is accomplished by doing nothing.

But how does one do nothing? In Odell’s estimation, to do nothing “is to hold yourself still so that you can perceive what is actually there.” It means to inhabit public, noncommercial spaces and prioritize “solitude, observation, and simple conviviality . . . as ends in and of themselves.” Odell draws on art theory, naturalism, neoliberal criticism, bioregionalism, and anti-capitalist ideology to argue that our twenty-first century cultural myopia and dissatisfaction are not simply inevitable consequences of modernism, but misdirections of attention. She considers attention as “the last resource we have left to withdraw” from financially driven platforms that seek to exploit our inner-lives for monetary gain. For Odell, reclaiming attention from the hyper-productive, achievement-oriented ethos of late-day capitalism may be the only way to save our culture from a potentially bleak, techno-deterministic end. She writes: “In a cycle where both financially driven platforms and overall precarity close down the space of attention—the very attention needed to resist this onslaught, which then pushes further—it may be only in the space of our own minds that some of us can begin to pull apart the links.”

Resisting the attention economy is no easy task though. To embody the sort of awareness Odell advocates for, one must first deny attention to the addictive drove of notifications and updates we are blitzed with daily. Harder still, technology offers a payment plan to aid nearly every aspect of our lives (even meditation! even sleep!). Odell writes, “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.” And if a fundamental part of being human is to imbricate “time and consciousness (the one striving endlessly to integrate the other),” as literary critic David Cowart puts it, then our life online makes time a commodified, inescapable space where one is either connected or not. And if connectivity and productivity are our chief markers of value, then standards for “quality of life” and “fulfillment” become dogged in neoliberal notions of success—notions that, per Odell, depend on “a consistent and recognizable pattern of habits, desires, and drives that can be more easily advertised to and appropriated, like units of capital.”

Yet, refreshingly, How to Do Nothing does not ask its readers to throw their phone out a window or delete their social media accounts or snub their nose at a society that creatively stymies them. Odell writes: “I am less interested in a mass exodus from Facebook and Twitter than I am in a mass movement of attention: what happens when people regain control over their attention and begin to redirect it again, together.” This movement, however, is not a full-fledged rejection or withdrawal from contemporary society. Odell devotes an entire chapter to debunking the myth that retreat is a viable escape from conditioned modes of being. Whether it is a back-to-the-land commune or a digital detox vacation, Odell is skeptical of such alluring short-term fixes: “A spatial move to the country, or into an isolated communal house, did not always equal a move out of ingrained ideologies . . . it meant rehashing timework struggles over governance and the rights of the individual.” A necessary angle of Odell’s argument is that resistance to the attention economy is inextricable from our participation within that economy. She isn’t anti-technology or social media averse; Odell herself has a vibrant Twitter presence. Rather, the course of action she lobbies for is akin to Bartleby’s refusal or the historic longevity of Old Survivor, one of the few redwoods in Oakland that endured logging in the 1800s. Odell considers Old Survivor a paradigm of “resistance-in-place,” immovable yet transcendent of capitalist annexation.

Of course, withdrawing and withholding attention from addictive online technologies is difficult now that our identities have become so intimately intertwined with our devices. Yet Odell does well to remind us that who we are and where we come from cannot be technologically quantified. “It’s a vital reminder that as a human, I am heir to this [ecological] complexity—that I was born, not engineered,” she writes, drawing a connection between the destruction of the natural world and the destruction of our attention spans. This reminds me of literary critic Katherine D. Johnson’s claim that commercial technology seeks to conflate our essential humanity with the virtues of neoliberal capitalism: “While sites like Facebook pitch themselves as platforms for users to express their ‘authentic selves’ . . . the profiles are perpetually incomplete and outdated . . . In our profile society, identity is dispersed across and through multiple databases, undermining notions of coherent identity.” Odell sees this same conflation at work and urges readers to “disengage from one framework (the attention economy),” where “our interactions become data collected by a company, and engagement goals are driven by advertising,” and instead engage in “a [communal] place where I’m addressed, understood, and challenged—thus providing a known context for what I say and what I hear in this space.”

How to Do Nothing is a necessary and urgent work that establishes Odell as one of our brightest contemporary thinkers. Throughout the book, she reveals simple yet radical insights that will force you to blink, pause, and attend to the sounds beyond your window—the singing of a wood thrush, the screeching of car tires, the hum of a radiator. How to Do Nothing’s true wisdom, however, resides in Odell’s unique way of seeing the world. From her beloved practice of “bird-noticing” to her belief in “Deep Listening,” this book showcases Odell as a much-needed meditative paradigm in our over-reactionary, context-collapsed society.

Jenny Odell is an artist and writer who teaches at Stanford University, has been an artist-in-residence at places like the San Francisco Dump, Facebook, the Internet Archive, and the San Francisco Planning Department, and has exhibited her art all over the world. She lives in Oakland, California.