CBR Bingo Square: GUIDE
I got this in a CBR gift exchange…a couple years ago, maybe? And it has haunted me ever since as I kept finding reasons to read other things (I’m so busy with grading/researching! I’m in a nonfiction book club and those books keep taking up the nonfiction slot!). But after the spring semester wrapped, I went to South Africa to visit my sister, and I put this in my suitcase, determined to finally read it. And I did.
And I liked it. I was wary of it, having read (in that aforementioned nonfiction book club) Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus, which includes some very scathing critique of the tech industry that steals our focus and then also monetizes and bootstraps our efforts to get it back, without taking responsibility for what they’ve done. I was afraid that Odell might similarly cast the attention crisis as a problem for individuals alone to solve, rather than consider the larger forces we’re enmeshed in, but thankfully, she largely avoids that. Rather than simply bash the tech industry or give cheap how-to instructions (which are also usually aimed at non-disabled and neurotypical), Odell considers what it means to pay attention to what’s around us and to come into a deeper relationship with the world that cradles us, seeing attention crisis and climate catastrophe as being deeply interrelated issues.
I do think Odell is perhaps a bit more glib about some of the larger tech issues than Hari, who makes them almost his sole focus, but her political aims here are larger and equally important: refusal, for instance, isn’t just about having the willpower to put down your cell phone, but it’s a larger political stance that pushes back against all kinds of structures throughout history, and she gestures toward, for instance, the philosopher Diogenes and Melville’s Bartleby the scrivener as potent predecessors in this effort. It’s all too easy to get trapped in acquiescence to all kinds of things we wouldn’t actually consent to, and the stakes are, understandably, high.
Moreover, Odell tackles the issue of modern bogeyman like “productivity,” noting that it, too, is a critical problem: “Our very idea of productivity,” she writes, “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 does not go quite as far as she could in considering how this is a profoundly gendered issue as well, but it’s easy to extrapolate.) Capitalism is, indeed, very much a core enemy here, and social media exacerbates that problem by encouraging us to make constantly-producing brands out of ourselves. Instead, Odell suggests, we need “a view of the self and of identity that is the opposite of the personal brand: an unstable, shapeshifting thing determined by interactions with others and with different kinds of places.”
It’s not a perfect book, but I think, paired with other texts like Hari’s Stolen Focus and Tricia Hersey’s Rest Is Resistance, there’s an array of books out there that are offering us sharp critiques of that which saps our focus and energy, but also encourages us to find ways of being still and recovering our sense of self–whatever that is in the moment–in ways we badly need.