Off the Clock
On Jenny Odell's time trials
Requiem, 2019, Jonas Mekas, still.
This past winter a small Manhattan gallery screened Jonas Mekas’ final film Requiem. Next to a table of bread and wine, visitors were invited to gaze at Issa’s haiku about napping and watch handheld footage of flowers set to Catholic liturgy. Mekas shifts our attention from the blissful nature of camellias to cars on fire, linking the words of a requiem to our waning attention. Time-based art like the video work of Jonas Mekas makes the clock tangible, letting weeds, birds, and hands flutter across the screen like a funeral dirge. So often artists use nature to represent the passing of time and our inability to turn from screens. Mekas, however, brings the natural world and technology into conversation, destroying a false dichotomy and allowing us to redirect our attention by grazing. Visual art is often the strongest case for slowing down. Our initial misperceptions and confusion over contradiction force us to ponder and chew the cud. We’re all trying to rediscover ways to connect to time.
Jenny Odell's How to Do Nothing has become the go-to recommendation for soft-spoken feminist artists everywhere: a treatise on slowing down, gardening, and "resisting the attention economy." Since the book’s 2019 debut, backlash to the omnipresence of social media has only crescendoed, even as it continues to consume our time. Many of us want to cultivate our inner sanctuary, but we’re burdened by jobs that increasingly demand more from us for less money and the chaos of never being able to disconnect. We are constantly looking for avenues to escape the grind of capitalism but so often new escape avenues merely become side hustles.
Odell’s journey from visual artist to anti-productivity advocate comes at a time when the literary market has been flooded by books on nesting, wintering, and the Danish concept of hygge, which in the United States has come to represent a cozy-core aesthetic. And Odell knows how easy it is to co-opt rest as a marketing scheme to increase productivity. In her new book, Saving Time, she seeks to challenge the capitalist conception of time as money. Odell charts alternative forms of time that allow us to be free, even if just for a moment. But is it really possible to get off the clock in our neoliberal society—and who gets to enjoy the downtime?
The Greeks speculated there were two kinds of time that Odell outlines in her foreword: “Chronos, which appears as part of words like chronology, is the realm of linear time, a steady, plodding march of events into the future. Kairos means something more like ‘crisis,’ but it is also related to what many of us might think of as opportune timing or ‘seizing the time.’” Kairos gives us the ability to see beyond our present moment, envisioning the past and future as part of a cycle. When we don’t view time as a fixed arc bending towards the end days, curiosity becomes a political act. Curiosity allows for time to rupture. As the COVID-19 pandemic emphasized, when our routines are scrambled we are more easily able to see the cracks in the way things are. This is certainly true for those who experience a life of relative ease, what begins as wandering away from the productivity clock can shift the way we orient our days. Outrage over inequality can turn to tenant unions, birding can turn to preservation efforts, love can turn to politics.
Saving Time is Odell’s “assault on nihilism,” a defiant act against the ideology of declinism, especially climate pessimism. The subject matter teeters between the personal and the structural. Odell considers the way time is built both by our personal history and the structures that create our shared sense of reality. The book offers an ambivalent answer to the question, “Do you need a therapist, or do you need a union?”
No one moves through the world with the exact same sense of awareness, yet capitalism calls us to improve ourselves to meet certain standards—investing in our wellbeing as a way to increase our value. Odell believes that even acknowledging the fragility of time can allow us to think critically—and to fight for the right to stroll aimlessly. We should be able to rest for the sake of resting, not merely in order to generate more capital.
Touching on Charlie Chaplin films, the panopticon, and the history of public parks, Odell argues time has always been shaped by the worth of our labor. She explores the Protestant work ethic and describes monks who created rudimentary clocks in order to pray more efficiently. But she also points to the early use of spreadsheets as a way to track the productivity of slave labor. Under wage labor, the ability to own and distribute time has also served as a racialized weapon. The clock is all too often leveraged as an instrument of control.
Still, Odell argues, even under the punishing grind, people find ways to create their own time warps. Tenuous moments, from gardening classes in prisons to hours spent looking through an underutilized archive, become threads of optimism in Saving Time. Odell makes the case that there is something valuable in these reparative moments where we feel “it”—that feeling of being outside time, a sort of deja-vu that lies beyond nostalgia. If that sounds poetic, that’s because it is. The opposite of capitalist time is not logical but arrhythmic.
Much of the second half of Saving Time focuses on the climate clock. Odell approaches the concept of the Anthropocene with skepticism, and instead explores Indigenous relationships to time and what they may mean for non-Indigenous people. She considers rocks, moss, and water as living entities that offer us a way into kairos. A tree’s rings allow us to see the enormity of the cosmos. The strange rollicking patterns of moss remind us that crashing forward is not the only way to grow. High tide dissolves silt and sand through centuries, reminding us of ages past and ages to come. According to Odell, this vantage point is a way of reframing climate change. We begin to see that humans are a tiny fraction of the universe, one steward among many. She also points out that climate catastrophe narratives are often ahistorical ways of centering whiteness when we talk about the apocalypse. When we argue the world is ending, whose world are we talking about? Perhaps white people’s world is “ending,” but this ignores countless accounts of genocide and colonialism. It’s a powerful point, though there is a paradox in using another’s apocalypse to try and push back the nightmare that colonialism has wrought. How does citing genocide work to help those living through ongoing violence instead of merely paying lip service to shifting epochs? If instead reframing the apocalypse becomes a self-soothing technique, it quickly becomes an individualist technology for absolution. These are heavy questions that deserve serious answers about the purpose of apocalypse narratives in our pessimistic age. Too many revel among the ruins and admit defeat, allowing themselves to believe that the world is declining, the very nihilistic rhythm that Odell is trying to ward off.
There’s a recent subgenre of commercial nonfiction that reads like watered-down academic theory. Citing scholars like Susan Sontag, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Sadiya Hartman, these books take an abstract idea like freedom, bias, or nonviolence and meander through historical and artistic footnotes before delivering a banal verdict on the value of their chosen theme—and they often mention how COVID-19 has changed our understanding of that theme. While Saving Time does not fall into all of these familiar traps, it does not always create the very space it argues for.
Odell intersperses a poetic direct address narrative in Saving Time that works as a nonlinear requiem for California. Set in italics, she writes about changing highways, archives, and harbors: “We creep past the unforgiving gaze of the 880 Minion, a painted metal sculpture of a bacteria-shaped, overall-wearing Minion from Despicable Me that someone has affixed to their roof so it can loom over the sound barrier.” Odell’s road trip ends on a hill near a cemetery, the ultimate life cycle. These disjointed fragments attempt to illustrate the break from time that Odell describes. However, time isn’t disrupted in the book so much as built source by source, chapter by chapter. This is in stark contrast to many of the writers Odell adores and cites. Take Robin Wall Kimmerer. In books like Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, Kimmerer’s stories stretch and curve. Her work is slow, often based on personal experience and myth, teaching us both the content and how to read it. While Odell delves into archives and shorelines, rarely is the warmth of human presence felt. Instead, we get a wall of information about slowing down with dense prose. Some of the best defenses against this accumulation of theory-speak aren’t prose. Poets like Layli Long Solider have nimbly condensed and expanded time like a riptide: “because of a lifelong stare down/ because of centuries in sorry.”
If How to Do Nothing is a more political version of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, then Saving Time is a curious follow-up. While rehabilitating the individual can have a communal effect, there are many manuals for reconnecting to our inner spirituality and less that explore what it looks like to move with groups in a more generative way. As individuals we can catch pockets of reclaimed time, but as a collective we could end the marriage of time and wage work altogether. In an essay for the Paris Review that reflects on criticisms of How to Do Nothing that argued the book leans too hard on individualist solutions for societal woes, Odell described how such an individualist perspective had unintentionally seeped into her first book: “I saw that I had absorbed from my family and my upbringing a specific brand of individualism, valorizing and transmitting it unknowingly. I’d done this throughout my entire life, but especially in How to Do Nothing.” Odell had claimed it was “an activist book disguised as a self-help book,” yet there is little political strategy within it. The same holds true for Saving Time, despite it being intended as something of a corrective. In both books, Odell chooses instead to gesture at “conceptual tools” we can tap into to shift where we place our attention.
When we come to nonfiction books like this we want to discover new ways of thinking about the world, fresh takes on old problems that illuminate our gruesome loneliness and unite us in shared purpose. We want, most of all, to be surprised. Of course we should slow down and pay attention to the world around us. Of course we should greet our neighbors. All of this Odell illustrates with clarity. But these are not simply tasks for individuals to meditate on in their private lives. They are urgent calls to learn how to sit with each other’s pain. Odell hints at what could help us transcend capitalism’s chokehold on our attention. For her it is usually the beauty of nature, especially birds—or it is thinking itself. “Would it be possible not to save and spend time but to garden it?” she asks poignantly. But connectivity—our ability to band together against pessimism—is another possibility only hinted at.
Odell tries to offer ways forward that center on thinking local, such as unions or “bioregionalism.” Bioregionalism argues that human activity should return to smaller areas, focused on the problems and issues in one’s material zone. Both concepts strike on community as an antidote to capitalism’s extractive expansionist mindset. These concepts don’t merely idealize small town mindsets; unions and bioregionalism can improve our corner of the world as a way to build something new from the ground up. Local connectivity can look like food redistribution, making a meal for a friend recovering from surgery, or listening to someone talk without feeling the need to minister to them. In a lonely era amid the crumbling of public and social infrastructure, we need to embrace new ways of caring for one another. We are surrounded by invitations to redirect our orientation to time in ways counter to the cottage-core industrial complex. Comfort is not the only virtue.
Last year, the Art Institute of Chicago finally updated the plaque for Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA) (1991) by Félix González-Torres. The piece is 175 pounds of candy. Museums can choose to keep adding to the pile or let it dwindle. What the Art Institute of Chicago failed to elaborate on in their wall text until chastised on social media was that the piece corresponded to the body weight of González-Torres’s lover Ross Laycock who died of AIDS-related illness the same year the piece was first displayed. It was not the first time AIDS was erased from the context of his work and surely won’t be the last, despite the fact González-Torres himself also died from AIDS. Context matters. This elegiac work offers another way to disrupt time, both utopic and despondent, peeling the mask off linear time by making it hypervisible as we consider the legacy of the ongoing pandemic of AIDS. Through his installations and billboard art, González-Torres asks us to pause and reconsider how we relate to each other through time. Do we recognize this fragility and cherish it? Installations like the recently mounted “‘Untitled’ (Sagitario)” ask if we let ourselves pool into one another. If the purpose of reorienting towards time is to ask such questions, art is often a stronger case for alterity than a treatise.
Pay attention to whose time is expendable, Odell cautions us, before everyone’s time is sold to the highest bidder. If we look for mystery, we can hold onto alternative timelines and plant our feet firmly at the same time. Veeries, a variety of woodland thrush Odell describes in Saving Time, can detect hurricanes months before they materialize and migrate out of harm’s way. Perhaps we should follow suit.
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