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.

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