Jenny Odell’s Search for a New Kind of Time

Jenny Odell’s Search for a New Kind of Time

Clocking Out

Jenny Odell’s search for a new kind of time.

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I first heard the term “kairos time” from the Rev. David Gerth. A minister based in St. Louis, he had seen both his life and his political practice transformed by the Ferguson movement, the rebellion that took over the streets in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing by police officer Darren Wilson. As young Black people faced down the weapons of the National Guard, things seemed to happen within a different time frame. Night after night, Gerth joined the protests, recognizing that “there is something of God present in what’s going on here right now.” His perception of time began to blur: The speed at which events unfolded, and the duration of the days of the uprising, made everything move faster and yet slower than normal. “You’re spending 14-, 16-hour days completely unpredictably,” he told me, “just watching Twitter to see: ‘Are we going, and where are we going?’”

People from outside St. Louis, Gerth said, would ask questions like “What are the demands?” and “What are the goals?” But in the midst of the uprising, such questions were impossible to answer, even ridiculous. Kairos, for him, was a tool to understand both the way that time seemed to expand in moments of protest, and the way that certain moments on the world’s clock acquire a heightened significance. “In the Christian church, we talk about kairos time—God’s time,” Gerth explained. “It doesn’t work on the clock. And a lot of us have felt like there’s something kairos about this.”

In her new book, Saving Time, Jenny Odell introduces the concept of kairos time to differentiate it from “chronos,” the kind of time we usually live by. Chronos time is capitalist time: the employee time clock, the relentless pace of work, the “you have the same 24 hours in a day as Beyoncé” memes urging productivity. “Kairos,” Odell writes, “means something more like ‘crisis,’” and it is marked by a feeling of uncertainty, a feeling that time itself is passing in a different way, but also a time that is more hopeful. It is the time in which change—transformation—becomes possible. It is the time in which we become the creators of our own world.

For Odell, too, the Movement for Black Lives was a moment of kairos. In her case, it happened in 2020, “in the weeks following George Floyd’s murder…this time was an unforgettable illustration of the relationship among kairos, action, and surprise. Time took on new topographies, and the author Herman Gray contrasted ‘the slow time of COVID and the hot time of the streets.’” The rebellion of 2020 was an insistence once again on what Gerth had felt in 2015: “There’s got to be a new normal, because the old normal was diseased.”

Saving Time, Odell writes, was composed “in kairos for kairos.” It is a book written in a period of overlapping crises that seemed to throw time itself into flux; and it is a book about how such periods of crisis can, in their very destabilizing of our perceptions, help us to act and live differently. Even as many of us have been shoehorned back into the old normal—back to the commute and the workplace, the misery and the grind—the feeling that we are in an interregnum remains. Climate change and state violence haunt everyday life, as does the pandemic, no matter how many people insist that it is over. The overquoted—and often misquoted—Gramsci line that “the old is dying and the new cannot be born” is popular right now for a reason: We feel trapped in an endless meantime with the “morbid symptoms” of Gramsci’s actual line, and the “monsters” of the misquote.

Jenny Odell is a creature of meantimes. She came to prominence in 2019 with her surprise bestseller How to Do Nothing, which urged readers to literally stop and smell the flowers, to turn away from the apps and screens and notice the birds and, indeed, the other human beings in our day-to-day lives. While that might sound trite, the book was anything but: It was a small, lyrical revolt against the attention economy. Rereading it recently, I found that it retained all the qualities that made it take off in the first place. It is both personal and political, existing in that challenging space between critiquing capitalism as it is and telling readers what they can do in their own lives to move past it. And while being told to “do nothing” might seem reassuring when rebellion looks too frightening (which might also have had something to do with the book’s success), Odell does not, in fact, want us to do nothing at all. Rather, she wants us to take control of our time.

For this reason, Saving Time feels less like a fully separate book than a B-side, or maybe more accurately the extended version of an album, the additional tracks an artist drops after the finished record, the not-quite-complete thoughts that didn’t make the first cut. What is beautiful about it is largely the same as her breakout hit—loving and meandering descriptions of the natural world. But there was a confidence in How to Do Nothing that is oddly missing in the sequel, replaced with a second-guessing of herself that leaves the book feeling less directly political when it seems to aim to be more so.

At the center of the new book is the idea of chronos—the kind of time encapsulated in the ticking clock of productivity, a trap that organizers and radicals can get caught in as easily as capitalists and workers. The world we live in, Odell argues, moves on this chronos time. It is the time on which capitalism runs and, in particular, on which wage labor works. We sell our time to employers, who get to use it as they see fit, more or less, depending on how much power we have in the workplace, individually or (more likely) collectively. Working time has been at the heart of labor struggles from the beginning of the factory to the most recent strikes and union drives, in which fights over forced overtime, flexible scheduling, and paid sick leave have dominated. Karl Marx, Odell notes, spent a lot of time writing about the conditions of work, the length of the workday, and the way that humans become “nothing more than personified labour-time”—or, in Odell’s phrase, “interchangeable, separate repositories of this usable time stuff.”

But how does this way of living shape our view and practice of time? Odell gives us a capsule history of the measurement of time, its entanglement not only with capitalism but with Christianity, and its role in colonizing the earth. The technology for timing prayer was eventually used for timing work, a kind of micromanaging Christian capitalist time that feels like the diametric opposite of the way Gerth described “God’s time.” Time zones, which were imposed across the world in order to regularize time, similarly were techniques of empire. “Clocks,” Odell writes, “arrived as tools of domination.”

But the chronos of capitalist time is more than just a measurement tool. It is also the intensification of time, the pressure to squeeze more into those neatly clocked hours—the “more” being, of course, more productivity. Even slowness and rest, Odell notes, are mostly touted these days as ways to improve one’s productivity at work. Those who are timed—wage workers—have to make their schedules line up with the demands of those who are doing the timing. And with timing comes many other forms of surveillance, all designed to ensure that the timed are doing the absolute most with their hours. Today’s algorithmic management tech—wearables, cell phone trackers, cameras in delivery vans—have automated the work of watching, but surveillance has been inherent to capitalism from its very beginnings. Or, in Odell’s words, “productivity and policing are two sides of the same coin.”

Capitalist time’s vaunted efficiency, however, has not freed humans from work. While thinkers for over a century, from Lucy Parsons to John Maynard Keynes, have predicted a future with far shorter workweeks, many people now often end up working longer hours, even with our increasingly automated and surveilled workplaces. As Odell notes, disability-justice thinkers have also shown that the standardized nature of capitalist time is unsuitable not only for disabled people but, in fact, for any human body at all. By forcing us to labor according to standardized ideals of human capability, these endless work metrics treat us more like optimizable machines than thinking, feeling, hurting beings. And it is not only our bodies but our hearts that have been Taylorized, broken into component parts that the boss manipulates. We are supposed to keep our personal feelings to ourselves and indulge in them on our own time, but the smartphone, the gig app, and working from home have erased the boundaries that might once have existed between our time and the boss’s time.

Meanwhile, Odell points out, even as today’s capitalists attempt to give themselves endless time in the form of actual immortality, there are millions of people from whom time is taken away. Prisons and jails have expanded alongside the tech economy, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes, to warehouse the surplus population created by deindustrialization: “What’s extracted from the extracted is the resource of life—time.” Indeed, “doing time,” Odell writes, is “more complicated than paying a certain number of years, if not one’s entire life, to the state.” Incarceration, too, changes one’s relationship to time, and that change is not contained by prison walls—it leaks out to every person who has a loved one in prison, whose relationships are always colored by waiting. A society cannot inflict social death on some of its members without being shaped by that violence.

The constant, relentless drumbeat of pressure to make our time productive would not be necessary if humans really wanted to work constantly. But we do not, and our lives were never meant to fit perfectly into the pages of a calendar or within the hands of a clock. There are moments that spill beyond the bounds of chronos, that seem to reorder the passage of time.

Grief is one of those experiences, and it is one that Odell returns to repeatedly in this book. Despite the common tendency to talk about “stages” of grief, the reality of grieving is that it does not follow a linear path or happen according to the boss’s schedule. If we are lucky, we may get a few days off work for bereavement leave, but those may not be the days when we are flattened by the loss. And this applies only to the forms of grief that are socially sanctioned—the death of a parent, a partner, a child. Yet there are other forms of loss that we are simply expected to metabolize in order to keep working. And so we are left to grieve alone, in whatever time we can snatch back from work.

That isolation is dangerous. It not only leaves us vulnerable; it prevents us from seeing the losses that other people have borne in other times and continue to bear. Odell notes that while many today feel beset and confounded by a wave of new crises, for others, those crises arrived long ago. She quotes the Māori climate activist Haylee Koroi, who observes that the climate crisis arrived for her community with colonization, and they have been experiencing the symptoms for generations. And even today, for so many, climate catastrophe is not some looming, amorphous future, but a constant presence.

For Odell, grief has both moral and political implications: “If aliveness means touching and being touched, being in the world, being kept alive—then the scale between living and dead is inescapably social.” To recognize the threats to life and the loss of life is to allow ourselves to be changed by the experience, a transformation that will extend into the time we have left and that will give us a greater sense of our collectivity.

The Covid lockdowns inducted so many of us into grief time, shaking us loose from our normal routines and leaving us, suddenly, with time to contemplate the loss happening all around us. It is not surprising that with this different relationship to time came an equally changed relationship to care, to mutual aid, and the explosive rebellion after George Floyd’s death.

What can we do, then, to resist? Strangely absent from Saving Time are most of the living, breathing, vibrant struggles over time that are happening right now. While she discusses the idea of a shorter work week, the actual organizing for a four-day week, which as I write has led to the trialing of shorter working hours around the globe, is not discussed in the book; nor are the strikes in 2021 at Kellogg, Frito-Lay, and Nabisco, where workers struggled against a constantly expanding workweek. “The worst is when you work a 7-to-7 and they tell you to come back at 3 a.m. on a short turnaround,” said Daniel Osborn, a Kellogg worker and the president of the local union, speaking to a Rolling Stone reporter. “You work 20, 30 days in a row and you don’t know where work and your life ends and begins.” The fair scheduling laws passed in the Bay Area, though closer to home for Odell, also go unmentioned. She gestures toward the importance of unions, observing that a union is, in essence, a social organism for making change that begins with the most basic act of communication. Despite this understanding of the value of worker organizing, examples of such organizing in her book are few.

Saving Time’s imagined reader, as with so many of the books about work that Odell criticizes, seems to be the office worker, the “achievement subject” who aims for a “dream job.” At one point, she admonishes these white-collar workers to see themselves, ultimately, as workers like all the rest, while at other points she chides them for their privilege. Her decision to tell the story of working time largely through management literature and self-help books, even if she is critiquing these texts, winds up reproducing their middle-class focus. When she discusses women who hire domestic help, she still writes in the voice of the employer and not the employee.

Saving Time also wavers between individual solutions and the awareness that change must be collective. It is a line that How to Do Nothing straddled by pitching itself as a kind of self-help book intended to get us to look past our selves to our interconnectedness, but the new book does not quite succeed at this balancing act. Odell suggests that high achievers could address some of the time crunch they face by “dialing down personal ambition.” Yet when it comes to the workplace, this too is not a solution. The ambitious person did not come up with the idea of working long hours on their own; that expanded workday is the result of power relations as surely as the forced overtime at Kellogg, even if those long hours are less body-breaking spent at a desk.

The other option, for many on the ambition treadmill, is not just marginally less success; it’s a return to the other side of the work inequality that Odell discusses, to service work or something else that many people fought hard to leave behind. It is an inability to pay down the debt acquired in the service of “ambition.” These are conditions, in other words, that are not just worse in these workers’ heads but in their wallets and bodies. The line between white-collar work and the gig economy isn’t as clear as we might like to think, and the middle class is marked always, as Barbara Ehrenreich so memorably wrote, by its not-irrational fear of falling.

Odell is aware that individual life changes will do nothing without a renewed collective struggle constructed on real connections. We require, she writes, “the articulation of a global working class that extends way beyond traditional notions of blue collar and white collar,” and she also argues for “a kind of life extension that reaches outward instead of forward, an increase in aliveness for everyone that begins with mutual regard—a world with living beings in it, not zombies.” The problem is that this is a pretty nebulous program for organizing. I don’t expect concrete policy proposals from Odell—indeed, when she gestures that way, it feels insufficient. But as she herself acknowledges, “the most realistic and expansive version of time management has…to entail a different distribution of power and security.”

If, as Selma James writes, “capital takes who we could be and limits us to who we are. It takes our time, which happens to be our life,” then we need something more than personal transformation to change course. There are movements today, in the workplace and in the streets, fighting for less work and more pay, for safe housing and care. Organizing is how we make our moments of personal transformation concrete in the world.

A different distribution of power, prompted by organizing and action, would lead to a different distribution of free time and of freedom itself. But can free time also be political? Can we value it for its own sake, rather than simply justify it as a way to enable, in one form or another, more work? Odell cites the philosopher Josef Pieper on the idea of true leisure, something that “exists on a ‘vertical’ axis of time, one whose totality cuts through or negates the entire dimension of workaday time, ‘run[ning] at right angles to work.’” Such leisure requires not simply temporary freedom from work—the ability to clock out, turn off the app, ignore the dings of e-mail alerts—but a stability and security that today’s precarity rarely allows.

It also requires space—a remaking of what is often enclosed into public realms of freedom. Enclosure was key to the very beginnings of capitalism, as people were shut out of what had been common spaces and pushed to work for a living, and it is central to still-ongoing colonial projects—look at the matrix of walls, fences, bulldozers, guns, and checkpoints that encroach on the mobility of Palestinians. And one key concern in the pursuit of kairos is the space in which it can take place: What is free time, after all, if you cannot choose where and how to spend it? Think of the Stonewall Inn, defended physically against the incursions of police; reclaimed community gardens and squatted spaces; the occupied squares of the early 2010s; and the police-free zone in Seattle during the 2020 rebellions. In these spaces, kairos time can prevail.

Odell calls on us to understand that we can, collectively, remake the world only if we understand that it is bigger and stranger than we can immediately comprehend; to think in a sort of planetary time. This suggestion calls to mind the sociologist Bronislaw Szerszynski’s writing on “Drift as a Planetary Phenomenon,” where he nods to a “middle voice” mostly missing in modern English, somewhere between active and passive. Drifting things are neither exactly doing nor being done to; they are somewhere in between. Not simply a break from activity, yet not complete inertness either. Drift is interactive but gentle, unlike the world of work, ambition, power, and drifting things help us imagine a “planetary ethic,”which could help us, Szerszynski writes, “recognize our obligations of care towards all drifting things.”

Drifting will not be enough to overhaul the relations of power we’re trapped in; that line of thinking would lead to complacency, tiny lifestyle changes, and despair. There are many things that do need to be done, and quickly, in order to avert the worst outcomes. But I cannot help thinking of the crowds in the uprisings in 2014 and again in 2020, insisting that Black lives matter and flowing through the streets like water, ahead of the drifting clouds of tear gas and pepper spray and smoke, splitting and rejoining when faced with obstacles; of the way such movements emerge out of organizing but also cohere out of something ineffable; of how time itself feels different, and the old normal cannot quite take hold again.

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