Reality and Its Alternatives   /   Summer 2019   /    Book Reviews

Do Something!

In her new book, Jenny Odell offers much that is true but little that is fresh.

Charlie Tyson

Self-Portrait for Tomorrow (detail), 1973, by Guillermo Perez Villalta (1948–); Private collection/Bridgeman Images/© Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VEGAP, Madrid.

When it comes to doing nothing, style is everything. Substance, by definition, is absent. With two exceptions—Montaigne and Whitman—the most vivid chroniclers of vacant time are authors whose prose styles are tortured and anxious, effortful in a way that doing nothing never is. Consider Henry James, listless and constipated, charting the languid meditations of characters seated in drawing rooms. In every omission or aborted utterance gleams some sign of inscrutable personality; emptiness of content meets laboriousness of expression.

Or take Oscar Wilde, so gleefully disdainful of hard work, so brazenly enamored of the pleasures of the fleeting moment. One scene in The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde complained, took him “fully five minutes to write.” But his effortlessness was just appearance. As Sos Eltis relates in Revising Wilde: Society and Subversion in the Plays of Oscar Wilde, the dramatist’s manuscript drafts show evidence of drafting, re-drafting, agonizing self-correction.

Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing is not an ode to idleness, exactly. “Doing nothing,” Odell argues, can be a way of resisting a version of untrammeled capitalism that demands ceaseless labor. This labor includes the uncompensated privilege of generating “content”—rage-fueled tweets are her paradigmatic example—that hurts our psyches while feeding the profit margins of tech platforms.

But Odell, an artist and a lecturer at Stanford University, wants us to do more than stare out the window. Rather, we should withdraw our attention from commercial social media and commit our energies to contemplating, and caring for, the people and other creatures around us. Readjusting our attention so as to sharpen our sensory awareness of the natural world is crucial, because the individual capacity to pay attention is prerequisite to collective action. (While we rage-tweet, the earth burns.) In place of virtual content stripped of context, Odell celebrates local ecological stewardship as a promising future ground for humane politics.

Yet as I read this earnest blend of activism, nature writing, art criticism, and self-help, I began to have the discomfiting feeling that I’d encountered something like it before. Not between the covers of a book, but late at night, browsing Twitter, scrolling and skimming. For Odell’s method of presentation is recognizably lifted from the very medium she criticizes: the online world of circulating content, ripe with bromides, targeted less toward the curious reader than toward the algorithms that coordinate literary distribution in what now passes for our public sphere.

Odell masterfully deploys one of the reigning genres of digital content: the parable-like anecdote, offered not for narrative pleasure but didactic instruction. (I owe this point about the ubiquity of sentimental anecdotes online—see, for example, the website Upworthy—to Tess McNulty.) To illustrate our reliance on strangers, she tells how she called 911 on the way to the grocery store after seeing a woman collapse in a seizure in front of a church. Ten pages later, to decry the blandness of living inside a filtered bubble, she relates how her ex-boyfriend’s brother ate only at chain restaurants when he traveled. She weaves together a fashionable range of references—from Deleuze to David Foster Wallace—with the Carrie Bradshaw–esque formulations so typical of the early-2000s blogosphere: “As I looked at X, I couldn’t help but think of Y.” At the level of the sentence, too, the book slips frequently into a bloggy casualness. Army engineers have to “literally blow up” a rock submerged in San Francisco Bay; indigenous populations suffered not “genocide” but “straight-up genocide.” The seed of this book, a keynote talk Odell gave at a festival dedicated to art and technology, first gained traction as a 2017 blog post, “how to do nothing,” on Medium.

Odell lives in a culture dominated by online content, as do you and I, and the fact that her book’s style reflects an entanglement with commercial social media does not invalidate her insights into the value of local activism as a potential path toward saving species and ecosystems that are currently being destroyed. One perennial challenge of progressive thought is confronting the culture in which you are embedded while using terms and values that are comprehensible to that culture.

But my complaint about style concerns more than ornament. Odell tells us that we should be directing our attention toward certain objects (such as night herons, or redwoods, or the color-field paintings of Ellsworth Kelly) in order to recharge our senses, numbed by social media. This emphasis on the education of feeling is persuasive. Encountering the twined copper of redwood trunks or the cold experiments of abstract art will not, on its own, lead us to care more for the communities in which we live. Nevertheless, by momentarily making us feel small (yet part of something larger than ourselves), and by alerting us to the riches in our immediate sensory field, the strange beauty of nature and art can spur us to wake up and protect the world.

A stronger version of this book, however, would not just endorse aesthetic perception; it would elicit it. Odell comes close when describing a hike in the Santa Cruz Mountains:

But on my leisurely hikes through the redwoods, I noticed that the light filtering through the trees was red in the afternoon. That was because the nearby mountains, like so many other mountains in California, were on fire.

The keenest observers do more than tell us where to look. They teach us how to look. The modern writers with the deepest affection for the receding natural world—Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Alice Oswald, and Maureen McLane among them—train our attention, modeling and cultivating modes of perception rooted in concrete visual detail and sympathetic awareness. Odell senses, correctly, that one foundation of a local, ecological politics will be attention to the particular: a granular perception capable of discriminating among various sounds, textures, and species. Yet too often her descriptions are pitched in a register of broad generality. She writes of a painting in the Berkeley Art Museum: “It was just as beautiful as ever, just as earnest a question about what art could be, what life could be.” She does not tell us what the painting looks like.

Odell similarly avoids bestowing any fine-grained attention on her book’s key antagonist: the “attention economy” itself. This central term is never defined, nor is it broken down analytically into its constituent parts—the firms, institutions, people, and algorithms that harvest our clicks and our data, and the highly permissive legal and regulatory environment that allows technology firms to amass oligopolistic power, sell data to third parties, and turn a blind eye to conspiracy theories and misinformation. She instead uses the phrase as shorthand for commercial social media. It is accurate enough, if overly simple, to say, as Odell does, that “the attention economy profits from keeping us trapped in a fearful present.” If our lives are a record of what we pay attention to, we can’t blame her for looking away. But her averted gaze turns what ought to have been an object of analysis into a specter that encompasses a host of contemporary ills, including “capitalism, colonialist thinking, loneliness, and an abusive stance toward the environment.”

The book contains much that is true but little that is fresh. Odell’s defense of empathy and attention is rooted in sources—such as Martin Buber’s famous distinction between “I-It” and “I-Thou” relationships, or David Foster Wallace’s appeal for compassion in his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, “This Is Water”—that have already embarked on that slow decomposition from insight to cliché. Because she doesn’t modify or reanimate these ethical arguments for sympathetic receptivity, but instead presents them, in simplified form, as evident truths, the book loses a chance to persuade rather than evangelize.

Odell is slightly more persuasive in her championing of a politics of place, organized around what she calls “manifest dismantling”: the partial undoing of damage wrought, in her analysis, by the nineteenth-century doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Manifest dismantling involves repairing ecological and cultural injuries to ecosystems and communities, especially indigenous communities. Removing dams, ripping up sidewalks, planting trees, and renaming campus buildings are among her examples. Alongside manifest dismantling, Odell recommends a refined attitude toward place, one that emphasizes bioregions—what grows where in the natural environment—rather than political boundaries.

An argument for local action, then. What’s new here? Nothing, except that this localism might typify an emerging political sensibility, for now most visible on the West Coast, that could help solve two problems on the left. One problem is strategic: a disabling focus on national politics. The other is spiritual: a melancholic resignation (“left melancholy,” in the words of the political theorist Wendy Brown) about the looming emergency of climate chaos and the alleged need for, and impossibility of, toppling huge political and economic structures. Anyone who, like me, has spent too much time in a university English department, or (worse) on Twitter, will recognize this ethos, a knowing fatalism that veers close to quietism.

City and state governments and community activists are well positioned to lead in the fight against climate change. Odell’s home state of California has committed to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045; its municipal bus fleets are slated to go fully electric by 2040. Odell offers more bottom-up examples: A group of Oakland residents are attempting to restore a local creek. Berkeley students are helping to plant seventy-two new oak trees. In pointing progressives away from their screens and toward their neighborhoods, Odell is teaching them a valuable lesson: how to do something rather than nothing.