Vaudevisuals Bookshelf – “How to do Nothing” by Jenny Odell

Nothing is harder to do these days than nothing. But in a world where our value is determined by our 24/7 data productivity . . . doing nothing may be our most important form of resistance. 

So argues artist and critic Jenny Odell in this field guide to doing nothing (at least as capitalism defines it). Odell sees our attention as the most precious—and overdrawn—resource we have. Once we can start paying a new kind of attention, she writes, we can undertake bolder forms of political action, reimagine humankind’s role in the environment, and arrive at more meaningful understandings of happiness and progress. 

Far from the simple anti-technology screed, or the back-to-nature meditation we read so often, How to do Nothing is an action plan for thinking outside of capitalist narratives of efficiency and techno-determinism. Provocative, timely, and utterly persuasive, this book is a four-course meal in the age of Soylent.

From the New York Times Review:

“Though trained as an artist, Odell has gradually become known for her writing. Her consistent theme is the invasion of the wider world by internet grotesqueries grown in the toxic slime of Amazon, Instagram and other social media platforms. She has a knack for evoking the malaise that comes from feeling surrounded by online things. Like many of us, she would like to get away from that feeling.

Odell suggests that she has done this, semi-successfully, by striking a stance of public refusal and by retraining her attention to focus on her surroundings. She argues that because the internet strips us of our sense of place and time, we can counter its force by resituating ourselves within our physical environment, by becoming closer to the natural world.

Many of the chapters in “How to Do Nothing” consist of Odell methodically setting out an idea that’s key to her philosophy. Among the most important is refusal, which she vividly illustrates through a variety of disciplines. Refusal, she writes, was exemplified by the Greek philosopher Diogenes, whose life’s work was to point out the absurdity of conformity. Refusal was also the staple act of Melville’s Bartleby, one of Odell’s favorite refuseniks (she admires the brilliance of his stock phrase: “I would prefer not to”). And refusal was the fundamental act undertaken in 1934 by a longshoremen’s union that led to a strike that spread from the Bay Area to ports throughout the West Coast.”

To purchase this book:

Jim R. Moore


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