Manifest Dismantling: Thoughts on "How to Do Nothing" by Jenny Odell


One of the reasons that I like book clubs is that I read books that I normally wouldn’t. I am a part of a small local book club, and it’s atypical in that we meet quarterly to review the best and worst of our reading lives and chat about books generally. So nice! It’s moved either outside or online since 2020.

Say what you will about the pandemic (and it’s mostly bad), I’ve had to find virtual solutions to sheltering in place. Doesn’t it feel unreal that many of us had only the vaguest sense of true online video communication? When “zoom” meant to zip around in your car doing errands quickly? Now zoom is Zoom, and a verb: to Zoom. And when I looked online for literary or creative events I found an astonishing wealth of content. I’ve done a read-along book club with A Public Space (APS), called Tolstoy Together in 2020. I read War and Peace with other readers across the world. I plan to do this again in March 2022, when APS is reading Moby Dick (yikes!). I’m currently reading Dante’s Divine Comedy along with 100 Days of Dante, a read-along that includes videos of scholars discussing each Canto. Amazing!

This brings me to Creative Mornings (CM). It began as a Friday morning breakfast and talk in NYC, around themes of creativity, but spread to many cities around the world, including Vancouver BC. Somehow, I got on their email list years ago, but could never attend, as I worked Fridays. Then came the pandemic (and I also retired last year). CM talks pivoted online, which was great. Then I discovered their Field Trips, online events hosted by creative people all over the world to teach and inspire. That’s where I made a book project, guided by Rachel Hazel, from her book Bound. Finally, they started an online book club, the Creative Mornings Book Club hosted by By the way, all of the events and read-alongs I’ve done have been free.

And that’s how I picked up How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. Amazing how one thing leads to another, leads to a great and educational reading experience and fantastic discussion with people from around the world. The book club discussion was one of the highlights for me.

Given how brimming with ideas this book is, I can only give a short summary. Odell is an artist, and concerns herself with the attention economy, and how it leads to our individual and collective distraction, in a time and place where we need as much focused attention as we can get to address global problems. I like that she brings her artist sensibility to this conundrum, and addresses not only the digital world, but the natural world. Her approach to this complex subject appealed to me, as the chapters were logically laid out, and one idea built beautifully onto the next. It spoke to my logical soul!

She started by defining “doing nothing” which is a misnomer. It is more about opting to consciously change and focus the direction of our attention. She then explored past models of completely “opting out” of society, but concludes that total retreat never works, coining instead the idea of “refusal-in-place,” or “standing apart”. How this “third space” might look over time, and some of the science behind bias and structuring our refusal-in-place, form the next chapters. She then explores ideas around what these collective spaces with others might look like, and equates our internal and collective environments with the natural world, giving us context. I loved the Epilogue, where she brings it all together and challenges the reader to think of actions to move forward.

So many ideas! I will just detail a couple of ideas that I loved, completely out of context.

The first is her discussion of our culture unfairly valuing growth over maintenance:

“...the practice of doing nothing has something broader to offer us: an antidote to the rhetoric of growth. In the context of health and ecology, things that grow unchecked are often considered parasitic or cancerous. Yet we inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and the regenerative. Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way.”

She gives examples of volunteers maintaining a park’s beauty, and parenting, noting that growth and progress are valourized; and cyclicality, care and regeneration are often unrecognized. I considered my own work over the years in mental health. We grapple with the idea that the ability to maintain mental health at a manageable level of symptoms is often success, despite the oft expectation that “cure” is the goal. I thought of many of my current responsibilities: housework, gardening, parenting, and how they are valued. On a larger scale, the maintenance of the earth versus unchecked market growth is critical to consider.

The second idea that resonated with me was at the end of the book: manifest dismantling. I love this concept so much! Odell speaks of an 1872 painting by John Gast titled American Progress, illustrating the concept of Manifest Destiny, “an enormous blond woman…striding westward into an unruly, dark landscape, trailed by all the hallmarks of Western civilization. Cultural domination is inextricable from technological progress in this image.” There’s that word again: progress. Odell then observes that this progress was characterzed by depletion of natural resources, genocide and extinction. She says, “I can’t help but read the white-robed woman in the painting as the harbinger of the cultural and ecological destruction.”

She calls the opposite of Manifest Destiny manifest dismantling. “I imagine another painting, one where Manifest Destiny is trailed not by trains and ships but by manifest dismantling, a dark-robed woman who is busy undoing all of the damage wrought by Manifest Destiny, cleaning up her mess.”

This image will stay with me. I’m thinking of concrete ways I can manifestly dismantle things.
  • I can start to dismantle the colonization of my mind by a western education that never taught me real things about the colonization of this land. I do this by beginning to educate myself about non-settler histories of North America, and by reading stories written by BIPOC people.
  • Dismantling the anxiety that a growth mindset instilled in me and much of my culture. Meditation helps me with this, as does making a conscious effort to value the maintenance work that I and others do every day.
  • More concretely, I have dismantled some of my front lawn to make it into a vegetable garden. This gets me outside in the soil, learning about how to grow food, and learning about my bioregion and what grows here.
There is always balance to be had. We need progress, but rethinking what our goals for progress are, individually, ecologically and societally is so important. Maybe we will need to redefine “progress”. I can start by learning more and making some changes in my own life. Though conceptual, How to Do Nothing was also practical and I will make some concrete changes because of reading it. Well worth picking up!


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