The primacy of the useless

For much of my life I have done ‘nothing’, and for almost all of it I have resisted or involuntarily recoiled from the ‘somethings’ that I was supposed to do. At school I was horrified by the expectations of teaching staff and my peers alike, and to this day I fail to grasp the moral basis on which anyone who doesn’t want to be there is required to attend. I have had an arms-length relationship with the workplace, to say the least, and it has always seemed vastly preferable to me to have no money, which has been my lot for most of my life, than to do anything whose sole purpose is to get some. Throughout this biography of refusal, like everyone else, I have been repeatedly hailed by pieces of public discourse which insist that their auditors are subjects with particular forms, including advertisements, newspaper articles, political speeches, Hollywood movies, TV dramas, magazine articles, documentaries, Top 40 singles, posters of Impressionist paintings, pub quizzes, menus from takeaway restaurants… I have always resisted that insistence, and refused those forms. Sometimes this refusal manifests as an obdurate obliviousness, allowing texts and images to wash over me without their content lodging in my awareness, and sometimes it takes the form of a furious, vocal denial – as anyone unlucky enough to have sat through TV ads with me can attest.

To the central expectation of our socio-cultural system, which is that each individual is engaged in a linear process whose teleology is the production of something of ‘value’, I have fallen victim, I must admit. Many hours have been expended in furiously practicing music, writing, reading theory, analysing work in any number of art forms, honing arguments against imagined political opponents and so on; but I have largely resisted the insistent call to validate my efforts by seeking the approval of others, academically or commercially, and I have rarely treated any of these activities as instrumental. They are things that demand to be done simply because I am this thinking, speaking being; and I have always balanced that focussed, progressive, productive self, the straight line of a working, doing body, against the self that simply is, the expansive, unbounded erotic that we inhabit when we go outside and listen to the birds singing, letting their voices pull us gently in all directions.

How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy didn’t change how I see the world, contrary to the Malcolm Harris quote on the cover – but it did provide me with a few new angles and sources with which to think about my continuing, decades-old refusal to submit to mass culture. Its author, Jenny Odell, is an artist and thinker who sees the world in ways that are congruent with my own perspectives in many ways, although she’s clearly been much more successful at persuading herself to find ways to turn her obduracy into a living. She is coincidentally also a birdwatcher, much more knowledgeable than I am (I basically like that birds are there, and know the names of a handful), but like me enamoured of the way that observing the aurality and other physicalities of ones immediate surroundings serves to locate one emphatically in the here and now. This observation is a central plank of her book.

Odell’s argument, roughly, is that what we attend to, and whether it has presence, whether it is situated in a material context that can be apprehended with it, is what determines whether we are locked into that linear treadmill where we and all our actions are instrumental to some mediate end. If we can reserve our attention to our locality, to face-to-face interactions, to the ecologies of which we are part, to that which simply is, we can begin to repair the damage that is done to us by what she calls the ‘attention economy’. I would guess that Odell is somewhat younger than me: I was born in 1970, and although I have used computers since I was a child, online since such a thing first existed, and was a relatively early adopter of social media, I don’t qualify as a digital native. As such, I have experienced first hand how the persuasive technologies of a site like Facebook operate, but they didn’t play a part in forming me, and I found them quite easy to resist (or indeed ignore) when I noticed that I was giving them my time for no appreciable benefit. Odell’s generation, whatever that may be (she looks youngish in her dust-jacket photo), and those younger than her, find it much harder to resist the deliberately addictive design mechanisms of social media sites, and the coercive demands of the late-capitalist labour market.

Of course we can’t all just decide to refuse the demands of the capitalist economy, unless we’re ok with being homeless, and the youngest generations of adults in developed economies face a labour and housing market more inhospitable than at any time since the Second World War. Odell does not overlook the extent to which circumstances coerce particular behaviours, but she looks for ways to resist that are accessible to all, advocating ‘the ability not just to withdraw attention, but to invest it somewhere else, to enlarge and proliferate it, to improve its acuity.’ Her book examines not just how this might be done, but its historical precedents, its benefits, its theoretical justification, its political implications. At heart she advocates attending to ones immediate context, and letting that attention ground you in conditions that are not subject to arbitrary, inexplicable change without notice.

How To Do Nothing is, for me, an exemplary philosophical work, which is to say that it is not a piece of abstruse scholarship dealing with obscure authorities and convoluted logical arguments, but that it is a reflective examination of how we might live life in a better way than is generally done. As such it is not a set of complete arguments for everything that subtends Odell’s central thesis, and if you don’t agree with a lot of her positions then the book may not seem very persuasive. I found myself pleased to encounter a thinker who shares many of my own unfashionable lines of thought: the usefulness of ecology as a model for examining any complex system; the primary importance of living over producing; the importance of refusing to respond to the hails of propaganda and persuasive technologies; the value of remaining engaged rather than retreating into hermeticism, even when refusing the default social discourse; the paramount importance of place and community.  It is playfully and informally written, though the prose develops hard edges when an argument requires precise elucidation, and although it is notably lacking in any attempt to make itself ‘literary’, it offers significant rewards simply as a piece of writing. It’s both a gentle polemic, and a kind of poem, which counters the constantly distracting decontextualised information streams of the networked world with close attention to, and an insistence on, the fundamental primacy of things that do not appear to be useful.

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