How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

Reviewed by Aptly editor Anna Ruth Yates


This year’s most celebrated self-help book How to Do Nothing was written by artist and environmentalist, Jenny Odell, whose practice loosely belongs to the perplexing category of post-Internet art. Odell’s book does not contain any clear-cut lists, steps, programs, or formulas for a more optimized life, and in this way it is not particularly motivating. As the author admits early on, the title of her book is a minor deception, ‘do nothing’ is not in fact a call to enter a drug-induced Otessa Moshfegh style coma, or join a rural jam-making cult. The nothing of her title is, “nothing from the point of view of capitalist productivity” and rather than focus on transforming her reader’s psyche, she deconstructs our collective belief in productivity and the feeling that we’re always working.

Actually doing nothing is really hard, it makes us uncomfortable and squirmy, paranoid we might be missing out on something. These feelings are compounded by our devices and the design of attention-baiting apps which keep us endlessly accessible in a way that allows us little space to sustain or replenish our thoughts. There are many small, commonplace moments in which we feel some inner conflict as digital citizens, like when we sign those fine-print user agreements and sense implicitly that we are sacrificing something.

For me, there is nothing worse than losing the blank slate of an early Sunday morning- that could have been spent somewhere in the vast beautiful city in which I live, or absorbed in a book- to being caught in a tailspin of checking Instagram and drafting work emails. Odell reckons that our un-observed use of online networks leads to a kind of illusory precariousness; a sense that it is more perilous not to stay up scanning the news, answer an email or text promptly, or check a twitter feed, than it is to put down our devices. In drawing attention to the intersection of the physical and digital worlds that we inhabit, she considers what is at stake if we do not invest more in our collective experience in these spaces.

Moving fluidly between different subject areas, Odell binds labor rights to performance art to Greek philosophy and 1960s counter-culture communes. A characteristic ‘post-Internet’ concern with networks and origin stories shapes her tangential interests into a unified and personal reflection. One thread in which she explores the intersection of bio-regionalism and urban development ties the occupation of our time logged on to corporate-owned social media platforms, to the current nature of real estate development in US cities. Following this development is a popularisation of nostalgia-infused interior design (see Ruinophilia) that uses distressed or salvaged materials, without place-specific historical context. Meanwhile, our collective inheritance of exterior public spaces, such as national parks and recreational areas in cities, not linked to a commercial function, is diminishing.

This insightful connection between the encroachment on our personal time and attention as digital citizens, and non-commercial spaces as city-dwellers, is similarly described by writer Jeremiah Moss in his book Vanishing New York  as a process in which the wealthy and “risk-adverse” develop an urban area reproducing an aesthetic which gives them a sense of safety. In the online realm, this paving-over is akin to censorship and Odell pins (with a nod to Walter Benjamin) the reproduction of content, and the censorship or self-censorship of individuals to a commercial logic, with the aim of mass appeal.

The titular ‘how to’ of the book is spread out among its chapters and through minor forms of resistance she reminds us that rebellion can be outward as well as inward. “Some hybrid reaction is needed, we need to be able to do both: contemplate and participate, to leave and always come back, where we are needed.” The responsibility we feel to the networks we are part of is real, but the way we have become attuned to this reality is constructed in ways that are superficial and exploitive. Here I am reminded of  Donna Harraway’s 1985 Cyborg Manifesto, in which she describes the biggest threat to power as the “interruption of communication”, of the flow of information across boundaries. How to Do Nothing reckons with the practicality of creating our own boundaries as digital citizens, and ultimately leaves us with a sense of the fragility of the world outside, reminding readers that the material world is a source of originality and imagination.