Jan 23, 2020, 05:57AM

A Debate About Doing Nothing Would Like Your Attention, Please

We live in an age of dialectical tensions.

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I am not human, I am a monster... It’s not that I have a mask of a theoretician and beneath I am a more human person: I like chocolate cake, I like this, I like that, and so on, which makes me human. I rather prefer myself as somebody who not to offend others, pretends, plays that he is human.—Slavoj Zizek

Understand that we’re fighting a war we can’t win.—Black Flag

Imagine the following experiment: you decide to spend a whole day doing the casual opposite of what your circumstances dictate. So, for instance, you take an Uber into the city near your home. The Uber driver expects to make conversation, since unless he makes a certain amount of good conversation, you’ll probably stiff him on the tips and ratings afterward.

Meanwhile, ignoring this gentle impulsion to converse, you act like a person who’s unable to hear anything said from the front seat. You quietly look out your window. At one point, you hum the tune “Camptown Races,” for unclear reasons. You’re not insane, or even bluntly impolite, of course. You just aren’t in this particular conversation that everyone who rides with Uber is supposed to have, regardless of whether they enjoy having it.

I’m hoping you see where I’m going with this. I needn’t spell out how you should behave at the fancy sushi restaurant where you will arrive by eight p.m. But do try ordering a glass of unsalted water instead of your usual green tea. And after dinner, you should fiddle around with your flatscreen to make it play AM talk radio stations. See how easy it is to be just the slightest bit less normal and well-adjusted than usual? An entire “Dada holiday” might unfold. I can guarantee that what I’m recommending here is perfectly legal. The user reviews I’ve received have been mostly encouraging. For many people this is the closest they’ll ever get to that movie The Game, by David Fincher, where Michael Douglas becomes increasingly paranoid, and increasingly suicidal, until he finally realizes it’s all one big, important, customized learning experience. (I knew something bad was going to happen to Douglas—and, by bad, I mean spiritually vital—the moment I realized his brother was Sean Penn. Penn is really intense. He’s exactly the kind of guy who would do all kinds of forbidden stuff just to induce his brother to have some overdue epiphany.)

If you prefer, we can put the matter in philosophical terms. We live in an age of dialectical tensions. Our lives are full of contradictions, which lead to cognitive dissonance, and... well, that’s a bad trip, man. I know you’re concerned about the sweatshops where oppressed foreign wage slaves make all of your clothes. You probably think the solution is locally-made, sweatshop-free, handcrafted clothing, none of which you can really afford.

But let me ask you something: have you ever just taken out a t-shirt from your shelf, and started talking about your friend Tony, who made it? Tony earns about six cents (US) per hour. He works 14-hour days. He has a cramp in both legs that seems to be getting worse, to the point where it’s medically serious: a blood clot. Tony enjoys making your shirts, it so happens, because they’re mostly printed on Saturdays, when the shifts aren’t quite so horrifically long. Tony got this job after being released from jail, where he was serving time for being a criminal. He was hired, reluctantly, by an old friend of his called Maurice. (Named after Maurice Chevalier.) A few years from now, Tony will die from the blood clots. I forgot to mention that. He’ll be survived by two young kids who won’t remember him as adults. His wife passed away—several years ago—due to a serious, rare attack of some autoimmune thing. Tony’s been raising the kids, a boy and a girl, mostly by himself, whenever he isn’t at work. I’m not sure what his two kids do to pass the time when he’s away.

Let me be clear. I’m not proposing that this detour through a fictional tribute to the entirely fictional “Tony” is some great step forward in the annals of empathy, and shows the power of art to evoke what other people suffer. That’s not the goal. I’m just trying to work with what you’ve given me, including the fact that you don’t really know who does make your lousy t-shirts, you can’t prioritize paying extra for shirts that are even worse (but “socially responsible”), and you end up being (let’s face it) worse than someone who’s merely ignorant. You end up smiling with embarrassment whenever the topic of international labor comes up, pretending to agree that we, as consumers, must be the driving force behind reform. It’s as if someone’s forced you to pretend you’re doing something to make modern industry live up to your (hypothetical) ethical standard. So if you care at all about staying sane in an insane world, you’ll try to avoid giving in. You’ll do anything, within reason, to skip the part where you mouth the platitudes. If the only alternative is telling whoppers about Tony the laborer until everyone just lets the matter drop, then that’s your best option, by far.

I’m thinking about these issues because I’m trying to get through Jenny Odell’s new book on “resisting the attention economy.” It’s called How To Do Nothing. It’s in a well-defined genre: prestigious self-help, for people with money who think nonfiction books recommended by Amazon are the path to a better life. I should acknowledge, at this point, that some parts of Odell’s book are more ambitious even than that. At times you catch her trying to lay the groundwork for new, spontaneous, personal disruptions of the capitalist order. Odell wants to be radical and grounded, at the same time, like everyone else in her Bay Area suburb.

For instance, here’s what Odell writes about sound: “Deep Listening was… ‘listening in every possible way to every thing possible to hear no matter what you are doing. Such intense listening includes the sounds of daily life, of nature, of one’s own thoughts as well as musical sounds.’ [Pauline Oliveros] distinguished between listening and hearing: ‘To hear is the physical means that enables perception. To listen is to give attention to what is perceived both acoustically and psychologically.’ The goal and the reward of Deep Listening was a heightened sense of receptivity and a reversal of our usual cultural training, which teaches us to quickly analyze and judge more than to simply observe. When I learned about Deep Listening, I realized I had unwittingly been practicing it for a while—only in the context of bird-watching.”

As her reader, I of course listened very Deeply to what Odell was trying to say here. When I’d come to some conclusions, they were unsettling ones. Look, for instance, at the way her hero Oliveros describes listening as “giving attention.” That description is really hard to swallow. It’s just—so goddamned complacent. Oliveros has transcended the ordinary world of noisy, random auditory inputs, it seems. She gives her attention now. She glides through a world of utter generosity, simply by hearing things really, um, in detail, or whatever. I guarantee that at some point Oliveros described silence as a kind of music to anyone who would listen. This is a person who has renounced all true humor in favor of whimsy—later, again in raptures, Odell unabashedly quotes Oliveros’ biographical blurb: “Pauline Oliveros is a two legged human being, female, lesbian, musician, and composer among other things which contribute to her identity. She is herself and lives with her partner… along with assorted poultry, dogs, cats, rabbits and tropical hermit crabs.”

But it’s just not fun, or funny, or quirky, to pretend you’re living in your own little Ark, like Noah, God’s favorite seasick cat lady. Oliveros is not living, listening deeply, and having her royalty checks sent to Jim Carrey’s apartment in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The way she strains for effect by mentioning “hermit crabs” offends me; it ought to offend every decent, hard-working American who has ever laughed at anything. Is it humble to call yourself “two legged”? No, because weird literalisms aren’t humble. Just the opposite. They come from arrogance, from the foolish belief that you are always looking winsome in the eyes of the world.

I’ll give you another example, just so you know I’m serious, and not arbitrarily picking on Jenny Odell for idolizing Pauline Oliveros. (I won’t even go into the way Odell finds Deep Listening profound even though she’s being doing it already, without neologisms, for [it seems] her entire life.) Odell also quotes Chuang Tzu at length. She re-tells, mainly through paraphrase, a Chuang Tzu parable about a “useless” tree that has managed to stay alive forever by evading easy categorization (e.g. as a source of fresh produce, or a source of ceiling beams, or anything else). Now it just so happens that when Odell tells this story, she spells “Chuang Tzu” like this: “Zhuang Zhou.”

I had a hunch about this little eccentricity of hers, so I looked up “Zhuang Zhou” on Google Books. If you add “useless tree,” pretty much the only result is... Jenny Odell. If you search just the Chinese name, you get a lot of books referencing the butterfly story, which is another famous Chuang Tzu parable. (It’s the one where Chuang Tzu can’t tell if he’s dreaming of being a butterfly, or if he’s a butterfly having a dream that he is Chuang Tzu.) To make a long story short, Odell’s using and quoting James Legge’s translation of Chuang Tzu from the 1890s. Sadly, Legge’s clumsy, tone-deaf versions are still available via “discounted” Kindle e-books, bumper stickers that quote “Zhuang Zhou,” and (of course) outdated citations in books from past decades. This means Jenny Odell is the sort of person who thinks a good story—a parable she heard about, years ago, but still kinda resonates with her—should count just as much as any “rigorous,” academic, modern translation. Odell knows what that Chinese philosopher was trying to say. Or close enough. She also knows it looks good to cram your chic self-help book with erudite quotations, particularly ones that hail from distant lands, where Nature is held in higher regard.

The danger inherent in writing books that tell people how to live isn’t all that obvious. It’s not a problem to assume a position of moral authority; all good authors do that necessarily. It is, however, dangerous to reach the conclusion that everything is capable of improvement, and that there’s an answer waiting for anyone willing to stop, to read, and to apply what they’ve learned. That’s where a certain kind of writing always leads you—if, that is, you allow it to. Narrative nonfiction ushers you towards a feeling of triumph. It’s the feeling of triumph that tricks writers into thinking how perfect life would be if everyone put their heads together, and talked these problems out. If only everyone would try being their best selves, we’d be halfway there, maybe more than halfway there! The worst thing to do, at this point, is to deny the capacity of caring human beings to remake the world while living happier, more fulfilling lives! This isn’t the time to start arguing about how to spell the name of some Chinese philosopher. This is the moment when we’ve all got to get out of our chairs, join together, and say we’re ready for change, because we can’t make do for even one second longer with anything less!

I’ll admit that sometimes even history becomes a tempting way of straying from one’s goals. It’s easier to start tracking down new translations of Chuang Tzu than it is to bring the moment, any moment in an ordinary day, to its crisis. I could tell you, in incredible detail, how the lousy, optimistic agenda Odell calls “resistance” dilutes far more unprecedented and enigmatic critiques of modern life by Martin Heidegger, first, and then by radical performance artists known as the Situationists. What would that really help you accomplish? I guess I can’t really tell you. It just seems worth finding out what came first. Heidegger and the rest are still in print for a reason. Their books are more honest and braver than anything currently being heavily marketed as “Great On Kindle.”

If you don’t know exactly what your next epiphany/awakening is going to be, that doesn’t make you a failure. Everyone starts there. In fact, you’re better off staying loyal to it. Don’t make a big production out of falling back in love with the stupid hobbies you already have. (Bird-watching? Bird-watching?) Don’t follow any train of thought that leads you to quote Taoist parables you never sat down and read, yourself, but seem to recall from this one college lecture you attended freshman year. Eschew activism. Decline to formulate a plan. Drive away anyone who comes around asking you how happy you are, and whether you might just coincidentally be at a point in your life where you’re ready to try something new.

Do nothing. Just like Jenny Odell, in her bestselling new treatise, earnestly advises. It won’t be long until the world starts making concerned house calls. You’ll see. The acceptable range of norms will be delivered right to your door, and you’d better respect them. Or it’ll be bad, really bad, just like what happens in that movie, you know. The thriller. With Michael Douglas.


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