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Jenny Odell on attention, where we put it, how it forms us and how it can polarise society

Jenny Odell on attention, where we put it, how it forms us and how it can polarise society

Elizabeth Oldfield speaks artist, educator and author Jenny Odell 08/06/2022

Jenny Odell is an American multi–disciplinary artist, former art teacher at Stanford University and author of the New York Times best selling book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.

She spoke about attention, where we put it, how it shapes and forms us, and how it could be the key to understanding our increasingly polarised societies.

 

Elizabeth

Hello, and welcome to The Sacred. My name is Elizabeth Oldfield, and this is a podcast about our deepest values, the stories that shape us, and how we can be people who are part of the solution, not part of the problem in a deeply polarised age. Every episode I speak to someone who has some kind of public voice or platform, and I’m trying in these conversations to get to the people behind the positions, and some of them are known for or shaped by a particular view, maybe somewhere on the political spectrum. I’ve spoken to Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem MPs. Libertarians and Communists, Brexiteers and Remainers and loads of others. Some guests are from deeply by their religious or non religious beliefs. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, Andrew Copson, who leads Humanists UK. And other guests have experience and strong views on one of the fractures and divides we can see around identity has spoken to people about race, gender, abortion, disability, and more. If you listen long enough, you should quite quickly hear someone not at all like you. And this is part of the design, I would gently invite you not to just scroll past those people looking for the ones that you already feel warm towards, if you can possibly help it. It’s extremely easy only to listen deeply to people who we already agree with you. We see the rest as distant, two dimensional, and honestly, potential enemies, not people like us. And the way our information environment is designed, the way that we’re consuming content, some of the democratic and demographic shifts we’re seeing means that that gets easier and easier, and honestly, I think it’s really, really bad for us. It’s bad for us all. My hope is that in this podcast, we learn to listen deeply without trying to just hold an argument with the guests in our heads, trying to avoid the usual sound bites or adversarial posture. And through that grow in empathy and understanding, even if as seems pretty likely, we still don’t necessarily agree with all the guests we’re listening to. As well as those kinds of guests that are bringing illumination about the kind of richness or the depth of a particular position or a particular experience around an issue. Some guests just bring context are have learned a lot about crossing divides. And I think the guest today is one of them. Jenny Odell is the first visual artist that we’ve had on the podcast, which is interesting to me. It’s such an incredibly powerful cultural force that shapes our imaginations, and which I know very little about Jenny as well as being a practising artist undertaking projects such as the Bureau of Suspended Objects, in which she meticulously catalogued and researched and labelled pieces of rubbish from the San Francisco dump. She also teaches art in university settings. And she’s the author of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, which is one of my favourite books of the last few years. In this conversation, we tried to zoom out a little bit to this subject of attention more generally, where we put our attention how it shapes us, how it forms us, and how it might be a really big part of the puzzle, in understanding our increasing polarisation, and how we might become peacemaking, peace building kind of people. I should warn you before we kick off that this is the last episode of the current series. I really hope you’ve enjoyed it. I would love to hear your thoughts. As usual, please keep sharing, rating, reviewing, I do love a review. And I’ve loved people getting in touch to tell me their thoughts. So please keep doing that. Otherwise, you’ll hear us later in the summer. Meanwhile, here’s Jenny Odell. Jenny, I’m gonna ask what is sacred to you, which is not your standard on the bus question and glib, carefully polished answers are not expected or required. The hope is it just gets to a slightly different level of reflection on the kind of values and principles that have been anchor points or lodestar to you that you’ve tried to live by hopefully failed, not you personally, I fail. I think we all fail. It doesn’t have to be religious, you can reject the premise of the question, having had a small amount of time to sit with it, what bubbled up for you about what might be sacred or sacred equivalent?

 

Jenny

I think there’s probably two things that seem related to me. I definitely feel like something around curiosity is very sacred to me. I mean, that’s also sort of the oldest emotion that I remember, you know, like even being like a really, you know, like my earliest memory childhood memories are of just like a very sensory curiosity or like exploring an area. And I think that that sort of comes with this idea that things are are inherently fascinating. And all of my art and writing sort of comes out of that. And so I know that I need that. Like, if I didn’t have the ability to practice curiosity, I sort of wouldn’t be myself. But I, the thing that I’ve been thinking about more recently is like, what’s on the other side of that curiosity? And it’s, it’s clear to me that the thing that’s on the other side of the curiosity is like something that’s alive, and you know, alive is something that you could define in a lot of different ways. Like, I’ve been reading a lot of indigenous writing about the sort of argument that like, rocks are alive, right? Like, what is alive mean? It’s like, we have a very western idea of what it means to be alive. But I guess I would just say that it’s, there’s a subject on the other side, like I’m not viewing objects, or like, I’m not viewing, like inert, predictable processes. Like, the reason I’m curious is because the thing or the being on the other side, is not given. So like, I mean, the easiest example would be like bird watching, I got really into bird watching in the last like, seven years, seven or eight years. And that that’s like a manifestation that my curiosity took on. And I, you know, I talk in my book about how there is an approach to birdwatching that feels like Pokemon Go, where, like, you’re just I’ve seen it, and you check it. I don’t think anyone does. Yeah, but there’s, you know, it’s a spectrum. But, you know, the back of the Sibley West guide book has has checkboxes, right? Like, you can go and you can check them off. And, and so there’s like, I feel like that’s where you kind of start out, you’re just like, what is that? I just need to know what what is the name of that right? And then then it sort of turns into, like, Who is that at some point? And what are they doing? So I think it was in 20, early 20, before the pandemic, I reviewed a bird behaviour book for the Atlantic, by Jennifer Ackerman. And she’s talking about his recent research about, you know, what birds are doing that we’ve just discovered, we actually and it’s amazing, we actually can’t explain it. Like, there’s a species of bird that can sense like, sense hurricanes a month in advance, and they can adjust their migration schedule, and it’s like, and then and then it’s like, we don’t know how, like, we know that they can, there’s so many things like that we’re like, we know that, you know, such and such does this, but we don’t actually know how right and, and so I think that at a certain point, I sort of arrived at like birds being, you know, subjects, obviously, but like, there’s something really interesting to me in the effort to try to, and, you know, failure to try to imagine what it’s like to be the bird, right? Like, what world does that bird live in? Like, what how do I appear to that bird? Like, what is it sort of engaged in right now, like, I’ve learned a lot about, like, nests, buildings, I can sort of recognise, like, certain birds, like what stage they’re in what they’re doing, and, and see, like a sense of like, purpose, and desire to like what they’re doing. And I just, I think that’s very different than how a lot of people view like, you know, plants and animals, which is that like, yes, of course, they’re doing something, but they’re like doing it according to these laws that are very, you know, predictable. And they’re basically automata. And like, not, you know, agents. And so I feel like that’s that I’ve thought I’ve been thinking about a lot more, because that’s also an ethical question is like, who is an agent? And? And also, what does that mean for us as agents? Like, how are we formed as agents through our interactions with like the world?

 

Elizabeth

I want to hear more about your childhood. It’s such a beautiful thing to say like, my first memory of an emotion is curiosity. I’d love to just, you to paint a bit of a word picture about particularly big ideas, philosophical, political, religious, or other that you think were really formative for you as you were growing up in California in a town I’m gathering from your book. Just describe a little bit about for me.

 

Jenny

Yeah, I mean, I would say the biggest influence on me was, and this is in Cupertino, which is sort of San Jose is probably a better known. I was on the border of Cupertino in San Jose, which is not not super far from San Francisco, but very different. It’s the suburbs,

 

Elizabeth

A sort of sprawl by the sounds of it.

 

Jenny

Yeah. Yeah. Like all of the houses were built in the 50s. And they’re very cookie cutter. Yeah. So my, my mum told me that she noticed when I was a baby, that I was happier when I was outside. So she told me that she was like, I just let you do everything outside. Like they’re just photos of me like on a blanket outside like doing things that like you would do inside like she was just like, you were just happier if you were outside. And so she recognised that but I think she also she, it’s like she always wanted me to have something to look at and so like she, my mum also does respite care for foster children. So she spends a lot of time with babies. And she said that she noticed this with me, but also with these babies that she takes care of that, that if she would sort of push the stroller near like a shrub of some kind, that like the baby would get, like, really into like, wanting to touch the leaves and like, you know, look at like, get like, really, you know how babies are, right? Like they want to get in there and like that, actually, there’s something about a shrub that is like, very textural, right. And so, and I’ve been thinking about it recently, because I just got a jeweler’s loupe, a friend gave me a jeweler’s loupe, It’s like, I wish I had it so I could show you but it’s like a, a little…

 

Elizabeth

Like a magnifying glass.

 

Jenny

Yeah. And it folds out. And you can you know, and I’ve been I’m, I’m having that experience, again, as an adult, where you’re like, you see, literally again, shrubs, like I’m just walking down the street, and I like you have to get really close to it to use it. And it’s always like, shocking to me, like, it’s like, these leaves are hairy, and they have dewdrops on them. And there’s like a giant insect, it’s what you know, and it’s like, it, it’s like, I think it’s very telling that when adults have experiences like that, it reminds them of childhood, because childhood was the last time when that was really like encouraged, or, like really accessible. My mom also took me to a lot of live theatre, which I think because it was because she wanted me to be in live theatre, but, but it meant that, like, there was there was also that like, just a lot of like, visual stimulus. And like, just things happening, you know. And so I think, you know, that’s not like a, just not like a principle necessarily, but that’s just something that my mum did early on, but I, I credit a lot of like my thinking to that. And then, and both of my parents love the outdoors. And so there’s a lot of also, just like our family photo album is a lot of us just in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which is still where I go. So I’ve had this like very long term relationship with these mountains. And I think, you know, I’m hard pressed to remember like any particular things that my parents said or, or times that they convey this, it was just kind of there was a sense that have sort of just like respect for a place and that like, it’s, we’re lucky to be there. It’s like it’s beautiful, just like a sense of like deep appreciation like my dad’s still when we go, there’s this one hike that we go on. And you come over this sort of ridge, and you get this all sudden you get this view of the sort of the next ridge, and it’s very dramatic. And my dad, just he like, never can never help himself. But he’s just like, “Oh, look at that”. Like he just always has some kind of reaction. And apparently, his, my grandpa, so his dad used to always do the same thing. Like just like, what, what can account for this? Like, what if, you know, just like this total, like, sort of wonderment? So I think, yeah, I think that those things really influenced the way that I relate to like a place in life, of course, I’m still here. So there’s also that, you know, it’s like, I think it’s increasingly rare and a huge privilege to be able to live in one place for, you know, any amount of time really, but especially for your whole life.

 

Elizabeth

Yeah, yeah, rootedness is a complicated. And maybe we’ll come back to that in terms of attention. And I first want to just hear a little bit about where and if art in relation to I guess your calling now showed up in your life. You’re a writer, and probably most people know your name know you as a writer. But maybe first or maybe parallel to that you’re someone who makes art and teaches art. What are your earliest memories? And when did you begin to really pull on that thread?

 

Jenny

So actually, that’s, that makes me realise that I left something out of the last question, which is that my, my dad is also a musician and an artist. So I mean, that’s not his day job. But I, that was conveyed to me also very early on. So I mean, I remember him teaching me how to draw a tree. Because he was like, I think he said, like, you shouldn’t draw lollipop trees. It’s like how he put it, because you know, kids draw trees that’s like a circle. He’s basically he was trying to be like, there was more to the tree. Yeah, like, here’s but he was like, I know, it’s not easy, but like, you can draw something more than a lollipop tree. So I mean, I was basically yeah, I was drawing and making, you know, weird art projects like, as soon as I was old enough to be able to. I actually it’s funny because of the visual art that I was sort of best known for before the book came out was these collages that are made out of cutouts from Google satellite imagery, so it’ll be like, you know, 206 circular farms from the desert or, you know, wastewater treatment plants, and they’re all kind of painstakingly arranged. And one of the things that I remember doing as a little kid was I would draw these tiny people and I would cut them out, oh, scissors, and then I would put them in like one of those like, sailboat things that you can like, fold, you know. But it’s like, I would draw them to really small and detailed, like, as a challenge to myself to be able to get them out. And then I remember like, later, when it was making those pieces, I was like, wow, really, nothing has changed. I’m still just cutting things out.

 

Elizabeth

I love talking to visual artists, or those with who also have a visual sensibility like you, because it helps expand my mind. But I feel very ignorant around it, about art in general, but particularly around conceptual art. And I guess its place in culture. I just love to hear you reflect on what is art doing in our common life? What I guess what are you trying to do? And what what role do you think it plays? In that wider sort of sense of collective imagination? What’s it for? Just a small one. Yeah, I think for me, I mean, just to go back to the magnifying glass, like, to me, I think art is just like art that moves people or leaves some sort of mark on them as often something that changes how they see. So, and it’s often permanent, at least in my experience, right, like, in How to Do Nothing, I talk about having my hearing permanently changed by a John Cage piece. You know, it wasn’t just something that like wore off. I wanted to ask about that.

 

Jenny

Yeah, I mean, you know, that example is just, you know, John Cage’s is someone who, you know, believed that all sound is just basically already music. And so his work reflects, reflects that, right? Like, it involves a lot of improvisation, but also sort of what we would call like, you know, everyday noises or, you know, not the orchestra instruments that you’re used to seeing at the orchestra. And I saw it at the San Francisco Symphony. So it was the contrast was very marked. You know, the piece that I saw the performers, were wearing street clothes, they used a blender, they were shuffling cards, there was a lot of chance involved. And then as I, as I talked about in the book, I walked outside, and all of the sort of sounds of that part of San Francisco became extremely palpable to me in a way that they just simply had not. So I really, I, I often find myself using the language of like lenses, although that’s like a visual metaphor, but something that allows you a different form of access to something that maybe you had already encountered, or you you’re always encountering, like the sky, for example. You know, there’s the James Terrell piece where you sit in a room, and the room has this sort of square shaped, it’s basically a skylight. But it’s constructed, so that sort of optimally, so that the sky really becomes the, the subject and the movement of the clouds becomes very visible. Of course, like, we all know that clouds move, we can go outside, we can see clouds moving, but you don’t have the same access to it as when you sit in this room. And then after you sit in the room, you look at the sky differently. So it’s this sort of like, giving you some sort of, almost like I don’t want to use like the word cognitive, but it’s like a sort of tool that stays with you that then you use maybe for the rest of your life. And I was actually talking to a poet friend yesterday about poetry. And, and I think that especially conceptual art can be compared to poetry, and that both can feel very intimidating to people. And they can also very easily be written off, like, oh, who has time for poetry, right? Who has time for conceptual art? Because conceptual art is often also not like overtly political, either, right? It’s a room with a hole in the ceiling and you sit in there. But, but I think that they both provide the same thing to me, which is that they, and sometimes, you know, it doesn’t just feel like a tool, it feels like a lifeline. If there’s something that you can’t think through, or there’s something about your relationship to the world that feels like stuck, or you don’t have the language for it. Like for me, those the ways to get through those have come from art and poetry, like there are lines of poetry that I feel like have saved my life.

 

Elizabeth

Yeah, I mean, those chapters in your book have really have changed how I see this sort of you’ve done for me what John Cage did for you in the in that sense, you know, talking about the artworks that you know, sat people down on the side of a hill with a velvet rope and Ushers and then you watch the sunset and applaud it or you know what the thing that’s always there, creating a context around it, your work on the things we throw away at the rubbish dump and telling the stories of them and bringing our attention to these things that were generally blind to. And I can see how you know, the child obsessed with the shrub. And that attention is so deep in you like paying attention to the world is so sacred to you. But I’d love to hear how you end up, ended up writing a book on the attention economy, because it strikes me it still surprises me. And I’m delighted that the kind of groundbreaking blockbusting book on the attention economy is not written by a technologist or a sociologist or an economist is run by an artist, how did you end up writing that book?

 

Jenny

So yeah, it is surprising, right? And I have I have journals. So I have the the ability to like, go back and sort of like trace ideas. And like, we really, we really like to think that like an idea, just like, kind of comes out of nowhere, or like a project has like a beginning, you know, both people on the outside from the outside view. And from the point of view of someone who makes something, right, it’s like, very easy to think that way. But because I have these journals, I can see that like, actually what it’s more like, something was sort of building up for a long time. And then there was like the match. And the match was like the 2016 election. So like, I feel like there’s there’s an easier reading of it, where it’s like – oh, the 2016 election happened, and then I needed to start thinking about the attention economy. But the truth is, like I had been sort of in it, right, we’re all in it and sort of thinking about it. And then that happened. And my relationship to social media became on a day to day level, like untenable. And then also, as I talked about, in the book, I started going to this rose garden that I live five minutes away from, and essentially, like trying to recover, or something like, I don’t think I would have used that language at the time. But I think that’s what I was doing. And so, you know, as I was sitting there, quote, unquote, doing nothing, I was thinking that gave me the sort of like, removal needed to then look back at my interactions with the attention economy, and start, start to question them or even see them at all. And so I think, you know, whatever, it’s a five minute walk, but it really makes a difference, like, Whatever, whatever kind of removal, you can get away with, is, is crucial. And then it’s just sort of a coincidence that the sort of art and technology conference that I had spoken at the year before, and sort of know a lot of people in had invited me to speak again in 2017. And I was like, Well, I can only give a talk on like, what I am thinking about right now, and this is what I’m thinking about. And I was also aware of the fact that a lot of people at that conference make things and I was observing this phenomenon in which people that I knew who make things, we’re all feeling really paralysed at that time. Like, there is like, we were all stopped in our tracks, and sort of like, what is the point of making these things that I was making, I have to change everything now. Like, you know, just a lot of despair that like wasn’t really getting processed. And so I thought that maybe it would be useful for that audience, it’s, it was hugely surprising to me that it ended up being resonant beyond that audience. Because it was really, I think, you can tell in a way, like Chapter One is basically based on that talk, it’s written, you know, sort of by and for artists, or get people who have to put things out into the world.

 

Elizabeth

Yeah. And in it, you’re naming this thing that so many of us feel of overwhelm, and hustle and productivity and you talk about a sort of nervous, a constant nervous feeling the constant amnesiac present and my kind of summary as I was I was writing about it was a sense that we have somehow allowed ourselves to get disconnected from ourselves, from each other from the natural world. In my language, maybe from the Divine from time from our bodies, you know, there’s sort of multiple layers of alienation and and from my tradition and my background, I immediately want to kind of put a spiritual lens over that and I can sort of some of the people that you’re referring to and quoting how much do you think about this as a spiritual problem? Or does that language not really work for you at all?

 

Jenny

No, I mean, I don’t use that language in the book but I also feel like it’s sort of this inevitable it’s almost like a ghost that appears in the background like it’s you can’t really read the book without thinking of that. And you know, like, there I have dr– I mean, so Martin Buber I talked about in the book like Ben Thomas Merton, yeah, there are like these figures that are you know, have like that, that background. And that’s continued to be the case like as I’m doing, you know, other research And I think it makes a lot of sense because, you know, I haven’t read it yet. But there’s a book that came out recently by Oliver Berkman called 4000 Weeks. And I’ve read his other writing before. So I have some sort of idea that like, one of the things that he’s dealing with is that time management is essential, like, at some point, assuming that you’re not totally coerced all the time, which like, actually, a lot of people are, but you have to make decisions about what’s important to you. Well, how do you make decisions about what’s important to you? Well, those are your values. Well, how do you decide what your values are? Right? It’s like, at some point, you’re going to have to arrive at something that like, whatever you want to call it, right? Like ethics, spirituality, like some, you’re gonna have to appeal to some higher order thing. The other thing I’ve been reading recently, I’ve been reading this book about alienation. And the the part I was reading was about first order desires and second order volition. So it’s like, what do you want? But then what do you want to want? And their example was an addict, and they don’t talk about social media. But you know, yeah, that’s…

 

Elizabeth

I do what I do you not want to do the like St Paul line that anyone, no matter what you feel about religion, you can get onboard with that line for the New Testament. Like, I don’t do what I want to do. Why don’t?

 

Jenny

Yeah, exactly right. And that’s like, I mean, what is more relatable than that, right? That’s like, the human condition is like you you want and then you want to want and then this part that I was reading, they were like, well, okay, but then how do you distinguish what the wants from the wants or wants, right? Like, which one has authority and they basically said that there had to be a third level of things you can’t help but want to want. And those are your deepest values and core commitments, that if you didn’t follow them, you wouldn’t be you. And so I feel like that’s and that you read that. And it’s like, that just sounds like spirituality to me, right? And she doesn’t say that, but it’s sort of again, I feel like it’s sort of in in the background.

 

Elizabeth

Because you’re, one of the one of the most interesting chapters for me in the book, which hasn’t come up that much, I think in the coverage of it is this whole thing, which is basically about, okay, what’s the alternative, and fascinating history of a lot of communes, particularly in the kind of your geographical area, and particularly in the 1960s. And I have to kind of dis… admit a vested interest in that I am currently trying to build slash live in some kind of intentional Christian community with friends from church that’s drawing on kind of new monastic rhythms, reading a lot of Merton just a huge cliche. But so that sense of okay, the society that we’ve set up for ourselves feels somehow sick. I need to escape, and then your chapter, which is these ways that could not go great. I’m just curious, like, what was that live question for you? Were you what, what was driving that? Like, okay, what are the alternatives? And why did they not look great, either? Did you think about going to join a commune?

 

Jenny

No, I mean, I’ve been really, I’ve been interested in them for a long time. And it’s sort of inevitable, right? If you live around here, you just you end up learning about them, right? Where you meet people who lived on them, or. And I also, I also just want to point out that, you know, I hope that it comes through and that chapter that I also really, like I value like those efforts, and and I think that there’s like some irony in the fact that obviously, there are successful communes, but I think the reason we don’t hear about them is the same reason they’re successful.

 

Elizabeth

They keep their head down and don’t implode.

 

Jenny

Yeah, yeah, I mean, there are other reasons to right but I just, you know, I always want to, like point that out. But I think that, like, for me, it came from more of a personal thing, which this is, like, an ongoing thing in my life. But like, I because it’s very shaped by where I live, right. So I grew up in the sprawl, I now live in a city at well, I live in Oakland, I lived in San Francisco before that. And this whole time, you’re moving around this very sort of dense area, you can see you can always see the Santa Cruz Mountains, they’re always like, you can see them there, right over there. I know the shape of them, you know, it’s just kind of background thing. And then once in a while, I like go over there, and then everything like flips around. So now you’re in the mountains and you look down and you see the sprawl, and it’s like very easy to map all of your sort of worldly cares to that sprawl. Like, oh, like, look at who I am down there. You know, like, every time I did look, like literally happened to me, like last month, I was in the mountains, and I was like, I gotta go back there. Right?

 

Elizabeth

If I lived here it would all be so simple.

 

Jenny

Yeah. Or like, or, you know, I just see other things that are accessible to me up here that are not on there. So I think because I I’ve lived that sort of back and forth for a really long time. Like that, to me is like the source of tension, right? It’s like I don’t think I ever seriously considered like, moving to the mountains, but It’s also impossible for me to be there without starting to like, almost like think in that direction. Right? Which is why I think I so valued the the Merton, you know, writing about how can you sort of participate and not participate at the same time, like, kind of trying to disentangle that? Because I think I’m endlessly fascinated by like, how, how much we always want to collapse something into, like, a once and for all kind of answer, like, I don’t know, I guess it’s just more comfortable or, or it takes less effort or something, right. But it’s like, you know, even something like quitting social media, like it seems appealing, right? The idea of like, I’m just gonna delete all these apps from my phone and like, don’t get me wrong, like, I respect anyone who does that. But you know, it’s like, there’s something about the the hard line between the two that appeals to us. And so when the truth is, I think, like, there might be some sort of Messier thing that’s in the middle, and that’s where I’ve lived.

 

Elizabeth

So this huge, this may or may not be interesting. But for me, as a reader, there are huge, huge echoes and resonances with, I think, a debate that has always happened in theology, but feels very live now. There is a, there is a conversation that I listened into with my friends who are kind of politically progressive, interested in building a better world that is very much, you know, your your book is connecting with, and then there’s a conversation happening. And if you change some of the nouns, you would have the same conversation within churches, which is, how much do we basically assimilate to wider culture whose values week were we question? And I want to say here, don’t insert into the gap, the things that the US religious right, necessarily think define Christian values, depending on which Christian you talk to, they will have different things. But there are definitely ways in which most Christians are like, this current culture is not fully representative of justice and reconciliation. And anyway, how much can we fully retreat and there is a big? Well, there is a movement, the Benedict option is the kind of thing that gets talked about under that thing of like, there’s, there’s no point engaging, let’s retreat Anabaptist, you know, the Amish at various points in Christian history, there have been groups that have been like, “okay, we’re out bye”, like, let’s go off and do the equivalent of your communes and live untainted somehow by this sick society. And then there are those who are like, “it’s fine, we can totally engage, like, let’s just use all of the skills let’s let’s give our church a super slick marketing campaign” or, you know, whatever it is just like, use all the tools of the culture changing from the inside. And then I think a huge swathe of us who are just like, “what does it mean to live in the tension and the balance”, and you have this great phrase, which is resistance in place? And I’d just love to hear what does that actually mean for you, in your own life in your practices? What do you think a healthy, teetering balancing in the world as it is now might look like? Yeah, I mean, first of all, I just have to say that my cousin does social media for a church so very sympathetic to this dilemma. She’s like, lives in it. But I, I mean, to go back to what I was saying about how much we want something to fall into one or another bucket, I think that the sort of resisting in place for me is just having the energy to not fall into one or the other bucket. And it just means like, it sounds exhausting. I mean, this is what I was talking to my friend, my poet friend about yesterday. I was like, it’s like, I think people do that, because they’re just tired. Right? Like, I mean, not everyone, right? But it’s like, it is easier to just sort of accept, like, we were talking about climate nihilism, basically, right? It was like, maybe, you know, it’s like, that just sounds appealing to someone who’s just tired and exhausted, like spiritually exhausted, and otherwise. Hope is too difficult to sustain.

 

Jenny

Yeah, and it’s in its, it means that every day you have to wake up and not know that you’re like, any, and also it means that you’re gonna have to wake up every day and not know, then you’re gonna have to respond to that situation. And you have to respond over and over again, for the rest of your life. Right and, and on, it depends on the day, like some days that sounds exhausting to me. And other days, that sounds like the definition of being alive. So it’s like really goes back and forth. But I think for me, it’s like, I, especially in the last couple of years, like I have come to recognise how that does take energy. The energy has to come from somewhere. And like, it generally seems to come from meaningful connections to a place to other people. Just something or someone like outside of yourself. That like there’s just no way to sustain that stance. Alone, as we would say, right, like if you were to go by that model of the self. I think I was just in my journal or somewhere else I was writing yesterday, that it’s like a pond that doesn’t have a an inlet or an outlet, right just get stagnant. So, yeah, that’s I mean, like I, I spent, I think three hours in a botanical garden yesterday talking to this friend about climate despair. And it’s not like it made our despair go away. But it, it was very you know, like if I don’t have that I will not have the strength to continue facing that day after day without sort of giving up on it.

 

Elizabeth

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. You are wise and I wish, I wish that wasn’t true. The energy. But I think you’re right, with rooted roots deep into something. We can sustain it. I guess I’d love us to finish there. On how this way of being in the world that you’ve talked about so beautifully is affecting our ability to encounter each other. I have a particular interest in kind of polarisation and tribalism. And I’ve done this podcast for three years now. And whenever I say to people, what is driving these things that seem to make it harder and harder to for us to really hear each other to tolerate each other to build a common life together? And social media and this kind of information technology comes up again and again and again as the answer. Do you agree with that? And if you do, what can we all as individual citizens do in the attention environment that we live in, to commit to be part of a solution and not part of the problem to be trying to act somehow against these polarising trends that dehuman us, dehumanise other groups of people?

 

Jenny

Yeah, yeah. I mean, I, of course, like, I think social media has a lot to do with it, but I don’t. These days, I don’t necessarily fully blame it. On social media, I really believe in sort of feedback loops seem to be a very big thing in like biology, but also in culture, right. And so I think a lot about, like, runaway processes, for example, or like things that become strengthened over time. You know, like, neural pathways is another example, right? Like, the more you use it, it’s going to get stronger. And then it’s just, it’s this kind of like continual strengthening of a particular pathway that makes it harder, you know, to maybe use other ones, and or less likely. And I just, you know, I’m in California, I’m sure this is somewhat at least somewhat similar in other states, but the sort of urban rural divide has become very, very, very marked, like, in the time that I’ve lived here. And it has a different feeling about it. And it’s, you know, when I think back, like, it’s always sort of been there, but it didn’t have it would didn’t feel so sharp, it didn’t feel so high stakes. And people didn’t identify so much with it, for at least from, from what I can observe. And then that, then that in turn, like feeds into social media, right. And then social media feeds back into that. And so I think it’s like, important to, to note that there is this kind of process, yeah, this process going on that social media is a piece of. And so, I don’t know, when I think about trying to push against that. I feel like you have to equally acknowledge, like, okay, like, on the one hand, I think of a friend of mine, who I met at a conference that I still don’t know why I was invited to that I did not politically agree with the majority of people there. And, and so I made this friend, this is now like years ago, and on paper, I say on paper via Twitter bio, you would think that we would not necessarily be very good friends. And, but we, we have these like, you know, long wide ranging conversations, we, you know, deeply respect the fact that the other person is trying is trying to make the effort to understand, you know, the milieu of the other person, we also both don’t exactly fit into the sides that we appear otherwise to be on. So, and I’ve learned so much from our conversations, because it’s not simply reinforcing something that I am already having reinforcing all the type that said, this is not a friend who thinks that like I don’t have the right to exist, right like or this is not like my my engagement with like these views is not threatening to me. Right. So like, it’s, it’s one thing to say that right that like, oh, you know, we should sort of try to, you know, live in these or inhabit these in between spaces. It’s another thing to say like, you know, you’re to be a non white person to go to certain parts of California and show up in the town. Right? And that somehow, you should just not feel totally unsafe doing so. Right. So like, I think that both can be true, right? Like you can. And that’s why I think that it’s so important that like, as these patterns become more pronounced, that those who have the ability or the privilege or whatever you want to call it, situational advantage, to inhabit other pathways to the extent that they can, it’s really important to like at least keep open the space that we have before it becomes even more sort of shut down.

 

Elizabeth

Jenny Odell, thank you so much for speaking to me on The Sacred.

 

Jenny 

Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

 

Elizabeth

First thing that strikes me listening back to that conversation is how increasingly delightful I find earnestness. Jenny’s just completely unselfconscious kind of geeky interest in the things that she loves. I am so bored with cynicism, and performative criticism and tearing stuff down and having someone come on and just enthuse about birds, and how interesting they are, was so good for my soul. Just seeing her eyes light up when she was talking about all the things she had been learning and the way she can recognise individuals and have a sense of a presence. Looking back at her when she looked at a bird was just delightful. She also the fact she has a jeweler’s loupe, which I had to go look up it’s a little magnifying glass really powerful magnifying glass really made me want one. And all the way through this episode, I was thinking about the GK Chesterton quote that another guest in this series, Frank Cottrell Boyce, quoted which is that “the world is not perishing, for lack of wonders, but lack of wonder”. And Jenny reminded me that birds are wonders that flowers are wonders that the tiny granular details of the world deserve or maybe reward our attention to them. And I spend so much time away from the embodied concrete practical reality of my surroundings, and my neighbourhood and the people in front of me in a digital space with my mind occupied by giant, complex global issues. And I don’t know if that’s any good for me doing that so much. But even as I find myself saying, you know, birds are wonders, flowers or wonders, I can fear I can fear, I can feel myself fearing that I sound cheesy. And it’s come again and again, as I speak to people this sense that there’s like a aesthetic problem with talking about our deepest things. And our most important things that saying pay attention to birds or pay attention to flowers immediately makes me feel like you’re going to take me less seriously, that it’s somehow insubstantial. Yes, yes. You know, birds, nice flowers. Nice. But what about war, that, this move that so many of our wisdom pa rs, invite us into, you know, consider the lilies, be mindful of where we are slow down, still ourselves receive the gifts that we’ve been given, go so against the dominant aesthetic and the dominant narratives, to the point that it feels almost kitsch. And it’s really hard to do it without fearing that we end up sounding like a greeting card or a fridge magnet. I think that lot about spirituality in general. And my faith in particular that Christianity’s public perception is either something actively toxic, or something sort of primary colours and cheesy and two dimensional, which has not been my experience at all, but the words and the way we communicate about it, keep tripping us up. That’s my bugbear for this week. And back to Jenny. I really loved her saying that at the heart of things, we get to higher order values that we spend so much time thinking about the urgent, the economic, you know, the immediate challenges ahead of us. But eventually, we have to get to something higher order whether you call that morality, or ethics or spirituality or theology. And we spend so much time distracting ourselves from that question about what we think a good life is and how we grow in the hard task of pursuing it. But there couldn’t be anything more important. Which obviously makes me super intense to be around because that’s the main thing I’m interested in. I keep wanting to talk about it. So, my goodness, thank you dear listeners for supporting this podcast which allows me the space to keep calling myself and hopefully others back to that depth that ground beneath us what very early guest Jonathan Darbishire talked about as he quite Birkenstein saying, you know, eventually, when you’re digging, your spade hits bedrock, there are some things underneath you, which you cannot dig. Okay, sermon over. I loved Jenny Odell, I think she has something of the prophet about her. I’d really recommend reading her book as usual. She is wonderful and articulate in person, but most writers I think their ideas fly best on the page. That’s all for me. This is the end of our series, I probably will be doing a little kind of post series reflection on Instagram. So if you don’t follow us there, please do sign up. Send me your emails, send me your tweets. Thank you so much for those who have been writing and I really love those little running conversations I have with some of you. And as usual, if you can share and review the podcast, it really helps you. It doesn’t really help you. It really helps us maybe helps you too, who knows. Until next series, thank you so much for listening to The Sacred.

 


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Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth is host of The Sacred podcast. She was Theos’ Director from August 2011 – July 2021. She appears regularly in the media, including BBC One, Sky News, and the World Service, and writing in The Financial Times.

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Posted 8 June 2022

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