In 2019, Oakland-based artist and writer Jenny Odell published her first book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. In that work of dazzling hybridity, Odell drew together scholarship and artistic practice to argue that our attention is our most vital personal asset, and also the most difficult to protect. This March, Odell is back, with Saving Time: Discovering Life Beyond the Clock (Random House), a follow-up to HTDN that subverts dominant notions of time in order so that we might reclaim it for ourselves and one another. The Nation spoke with Odell about her intentions for the book, and how writing it has shaped her own thinking and practices.
Sara Franklin: Tell me about the inception of this book.
Jenny Odell: I think of it as the long lost twin for How to Do Nothing. After HTDN came out, I got the sense that there were people who maybe agreed with ideas from HTDN but had certain objections about time, and I had all kinds of privileges that shape my experience of time that were not explored in that book.
The pandemic experience, for me, was writing this book. I’m trying to write my way through something I don’t know the answer to. It bothers me, and it hurts.
SF: At the beginning of the book, it feels as though you’re writing to pull yourself back from a brink or a threshold.
JO: There are things that kind of float in the background, that maybe don’t seem like a brink until you’re close enough to them. I’m trying to approach the conversation about whose time is worth what with an awareness of global capitalism as the thing hovering in the background of all our conversations about labor, wages, and personal time management.
SF: You write, “Declinism is a close relative of nostalgia,” and urge us to avoid easy ways of looking toward the past. Is the nostalgia here a belief that everything was once okay?
JO: Yes. If you’re someone for whom nostalgia comes up, you’re probably someone for whom things have always been okay. It’s easy to back-project to a stable time. Much easier than recognizing there’s been instability at every point. Things have changed drastically for a very long time. I think you can acknowledge that and still acknowledge the loss of things you love and things that are valuable. It’s a perspective thing—where are you standing?
SF: You work with ideas of “fungible” or “stretchy” time. In relation to care work, where do you see that helping us move towards different ways of living and being?
JO: Everything I think of has some collective quality to it. We just saw the opposite of that during the pandemic. Every family unit having to do their own stuff. The social fabric seems to be turning more and more into these little units that aren’t connected. It’s getting logistically difficult to stay connected and share. Anything and everything that falls into the category of rebuilding those ties, I think, would make everyday things easier.
SF: Yes, but it also demands having a comfort asking for assistance and not feeling it immediately needs to be quantified or reciprocated. That feels like a heavy lift when you aren’t living in a culture that functions that way, or honors that.
JO: It’s like having to learn a new language you have to learn how to speak.
SF: You write beautifully about the receptivity that can result from submitting, completely, to fatigue.
JO: You can’t continue moving forward in an aggressive way when you’re in a state like that.
I noticed cedar waxwings for the first time because I was semi-immobilized by exhaustion. I was so open because I was so tired. But a close relative of that feeling is when you’re so full of observing something that you almost feel like you don’t have a self. That’s an incredible feeling. A very meaningful feeling.
SF: I’m so glad the birds were back in this book as a motif. How has birdwatching shaped your sense of time?
JO: I’m lucky. Oakland has a lot of birds. I’m constantly bird watching, just all the time. The birds made me very aware of seasons and migratory patterns. Their departures and arrivals are obviously starting to get a little strange because of climate change, so when they arrive at a different time than you expect, it’s a reminder that obviously the ducks don’t have a Gregorian calendar.
SF: What kinds of practices did the work on this book help activate for you? Which of them, if any, have stuck?
JO: I like to pick specific plants and pass by them a lot as points of reference. Their change over time becomes something you’re aware of. I also have a jeweler’s lens, a little 10x lens a friend of mine gave to me when I was writing this book. I bring it with me and look at everything. Every time I’m with a friend who has never looked into one before, especially if they’re skeptical, they always have the same reaction. I try to get them to look at something, and they say, “Yeah, whatever,” and then they look and they’re like, “Oh my god! That’s amazing!”
SF: How has this deep study of time affected your ambition and how you work when you work?
JO: Thinking about time as stages has given me more respect for stages of all kinds: stages of your life and seasons, which can be really valuable as a counter to the feeling that you should always be doing something of a certain type or making a certain type of progress. The time when you don’t feel like you’re doing anything or making anything is often the time when it’s all getting made. It’s made me have a more patient and nuanced view of what it even means to make anything. And to have some patience for a time that looks like confused casting about or exhaustion. That’s important, that’s meaningful.
SF: It calls to mind composting or the critical nature of fallow time.
JO: The other day I was at the [Morcom] Rose Garden. There are no roses there right now. But, there’s so much work that has to be done in the winter. I was talking to one of the gardeners after we had a huge storm, and he was working on the rosebushes. He said, “this April is going to be so incredible, with all these colors.” I was in awe of how he could hold both of those things in his mind. But everyone who works in that garden is very aware of, “it’s this time, now we do this.”
SF: It’s an act of faith.
JO: Yes, because you can’t see it right away.
SF: You wrote, “There is wanting more for yourself and then there is simply wanting more.” Can you say more about that?
JO: I’ve always felt like my work was motivated by the same impulse that you have as a kid when you find something really amazing and you have to show someone else. It’s always about the thing; it’s not about me. I want someone to share in it with me because it’s so amazing. That was a force that was driving the book.