The Ethics of Care and Maintenance
I was asked to write an introduction to the Korean translation of How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. I was glad to take up the opportunity to revisit Jenny’s book, this time in Korean. The text ended up becoming an afterword 해제. I published the Korean version on my Korean language blog.
I first met Jenny at the EYEO conference in Minneapolis in the summer of 2017. She gave the talk at a large venue next to a river, on the final day of the conference. The venue had 600 or more people, mostly technologists, designers, artists, and curators who have been attending the talks one after another for three days. Her talk, which became the first chapter of the book, was solemnly personal and political. After 45 minutes of her talk, accompanied by a vibrant slideshow, the crowd responded with great enthusiasm. The illustrated transcript which later circulated widely through her blog, resonated with people in the particular time and place, the disgraceful years of the Trump administration of the United States. I also gave a talk at the conference, about art, teaching at an artist-run school, engaging with various activism and social justice work. Our worlds overlap with similar interests, people and relationships. At an Ethiopian restaurant in Minneapolis, Jenny gave me a tiny cute, colorful sticker that read FUCK TRUMP. A year later, I visited her studio at 300 Jefferson, Oakland, where she was writing the book. A year later, after her book was published with wild success, we walked around Prospect Park in Brooklyn to notice birds. She’s a soft-spoken conversationalist, gentle soul, and prescient observer who has a great sense of humor and a love for absurdity. Her book, like her, asks fascinating and challenging questions that demand your acute attention. I’m thrilled that her book has been translated and published in Korea. I will unpack some of the unconventional words she uses.
How to do nothing. The title is intentionally misleading. If you hope to read a book that will help you establish a healthy habit of Social Media(or SNS, Social Network Service as commonly called in Korea), you may be disappointed. How to do nothing is not a self-help book to lessen your screen time. It is a visual artists’ attempt at becoming more present in the time and place which she occupies, to have a deeper connection with nature through bioregionalism, a philosophy of sustainable political, cultural, and economic systems organized around naturally defined areas. Some readers may find the writing style difficult to follow. The book is densely packed with references in philosophy, art, technology and social justice. She dedicates the book to her students, which signals a pedagogical context for the references. Jenny weaves through the references, often in poetic prose without obvious connectors. Like Jenny’s art projects that are process-oriented, repurpose of ready-mades and found objects, the book is a process in itself, a scaffolding of various details that Jenny collected. In the end, the writing and reading of the book itself is an attempt at doing nothing.
Attention economy treats human attention as a scarce commodity. If you are like me, you may have touched your phone more than three thousand times just today. Whenever I am not doing anything, I open my favorite app, Instagram, Twitter, and scroll through the timeline, flooded with information and sensational stimulations that are algorithmically curated for me. No wonder the social media timelines are called feeds, it literally feeds into my consciousness. I have mixed feelings about social media. I want to keep my freedom to indulge in content that gives me joy and guilty pleasure. It also allows me to stay in touch with friends far and near. On the other hand, I feel a hint of addiction, dependency, and withdrawal. I feel wary of social media’s semblance to work and the satisfaction I get from it. Jenny also presents a dynamic view of the attention economy. Sometimes negative, “This question — of how versus whether — has to do with the attention economy insofar as it offers a useful attitude toward despair, the very stuff the attention economy runs on.” (pg 95). Other times positive, “iNaturalist, to identify species of plants I had walked right by my entire life. As a result, more and more actors appeared in my reality…” (pg 144) The duplicity of social media, our ambivalence, and defensiveness about it is the currency of the attention economy.
Bird noticing is an act of becoming more attentive to one’s surroundings. Bird noticing is not an escape into the nature. It is a practice of intentional observation of our time and place, by noticing birds. You too can begin to notice. The life forms you choose do not have to be birds or animals. I’ve been fascinated with lichens and an interdependent collaboration between living and nonliving organisms. Once you begin to notice the birds, lichens, or whatever you fancy, you notice the expansiveness of their ecosystems, symbiotic relationships in their time and place.
Doing nothing is not not doing anything. It is an active decision to transgress the pressure to fit in a box of productivity. This book is a product of a particular time and place, the exhausting years following the election of former US President Donald Trump. His administration, MAGA followers, and the ‘Silent majority’ normalized atrocities, racism and sexism through their policy as well as their incessant social media presences. Many of my friends who consider themselves progressive, felt deep despair and helplessness. Atrocities continue to today. In Minneapolis, the city where Jenny gave the talk, an unarmed Black man was murdered by a white policeman in May, 2020. The man’s name is George Floyd. A series of nationwide protests continued throughout the summer centering on Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police. In March 2021, a white man shot innocent victims, mostly Asian women, at a spa in Atlanta. It is a reminder of the terrible racism and sexism that many Asian people, especially women and people in the service industry experience in the U.S. In this long now, a great reckoning of systemic racism, many people feel like they are not doing enough, or they are doing too much, feel fatigued and burn out from activism. Doing nothing is contemplative prevention, and charging up in the evening to fight a meaningful fight in the morning. Doing nothing is “to resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system” (from the introduction).
Copernican shift or the Copernican revolution, a significant change in people’s understanding of the world. Nicolaus Copernicus, a Renaissance Polymath from Poland, advocated against the common belief at the time, and positioned the Sun at the center of the Universe. Jenny’s Copernican shift positions maintenance, repair, and care, at the center of the Universe, instead of productivity. In a society driven by quantitative achievements, the important work of repair and maintenance remains undone. Due to the culture of hyper-productivity at work, performativity in human relations, we often don’t make an effort to repair, take responsibility for our mistakes. This leads to disappointing and hurting people we care for. The Copernican shift towards maintenance begins from unlearning the shame and regret, making a genuine apology. Recognizing our universe requires maintenance in a “delicate web of relations” (pg 148), we can turn a moment of despair into a vitalizing moment for repair. Reparation begins with restoration. Manifest Dismantling.
I’m writing this note from an Airbnb apartment on Duffield Street in Brooklyn. I flew in from Seoul yesterday, after moving to South Korea a year ago. I started writing the note when the sun was setting in the overcast sky with Prussian blue. I listened to Tribe Called Quest’s 1998 classic “Find a Way.” A few hours have passed. Now, the sun is rising in magenta orange. There’s the BQE highway right outside of the apartment, the roaring sounds of trucks continue throughout the night. Lights from the housing projects, and Empire State Building are visible far out in the horizon. The earth has made another rotation around the sun.