“Nothing is harder to do than nothing.”
This is the opening sentence of a book I started back in September. This fall, in the middle of a hurricane-induced power outage, I began reading Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. I came to it with curiosity. I hadn’t heard of it before and the cover drew me in. I liked the colours and the design. I appreciated how the bright flowers were slowly growing over the title, the subtitle, and the author’s name. It felt clear, subversive, and a little delicious.
I assumed that I would be getting a meditation on the effects of social media and, to a degree, I wasn’t wrong. Odell, who is an artist, writer, and teacher, is primarily interested in where and how we give our attention. To this end, there are reflections on the ways in which social media platforms are designed to draw us in and keep us there. This doesn’t feel like new information. But Odell doesn’t stop, or even primarily rest in the effects of social media (and email and, well, capitalism) on our attention. Instead, what caught my [ahem] attention was her writing about how our material conditions structure what kind of attention we can afford. While this again feels obvious it resonates with me deeply. Especially now. Though, I think it will stay with me beyond the pandemic we are experiencing together. I will work to keep this knowledge in front of my eyes and in my attention.
Here in Nova Scotia we are heading into the fourth week of social distancing and isolation measures. We, of course, extends beyond my family of three humans and one very anxious old dog (who, frankly, is in love with what is happening right now. Never has he been so coddled, attended to, and doted upon with quite this fervour). We is everyone in our radically different positionalities and experiences of our own lives. We is us in geographic proximity, whether we’ve been able or chosen to interact at all.
Last week I wrote about my shifting strategies in this particular longue durée (which, for your humour, is worth knowing my computer keeps trying to auto-correct to longue purée). Last week I was working to pay attention to things and here is what I have noticed: I do seem to be developing a bit of focus. I am craving work, which for me and my blue-sky thinking, would ideally be research and/or writing. It would be reading. And I am starting to do the tiniest bit of that. I have noticed that I am getting marginally more articulate–for myself and others (the two humans + one dog)–about what I need. Indeed, I don’t think it is talking out of turn to say we all are. The four year old is very good at saying what she
needs wants. This is a good reminder. I am noticing that I seem to have one or two “good” days, and then a not so good day. Good for me in this context means mood. My despair and irritation are not gone, but they are themselves shifting. I have also noticed that fresh air is good, regardless of weather. This kind of freedom of movement–as restricted as it feels–is not available to everyone. Not everyone can afford this kind of action. I thought of this today as I worked to keep my distance from other people, out, moving.
I still don’t have sage thoughts about research or writing. You’re certainly not going to get a Ten Steps On How To Optimize Your Social Isolation for Academic Research post from me. Right now, what I can tell you is that I am reading a bit more in the last week. I am watching slightly less Netflix on some evenings. I have started keeping a journal, which I have done on and off since elementary school (& usually in times of duress, which leads to an archive of navel-gazing yet hilarious and sometimes insightful reflections on how life is hard, boring, devastating, fun, and exhilarating. Sometimes it is these things in the same week). I crave writing a little bit. Just a bit.
And you? How are you?
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