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Jenny Odell and Discovering Life Beyond the Clock (Encore)

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Excerpt from the book cover, reading "Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock" superimposed on top of orange and pink geological features.

Excerpt from the book cover, reading “Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock” superimposed on top of orange and pink geological features. Credit: Penguin Random House

Have you ever really considered how we view time as a society? From work to leisure to appointments, we schedule every minute of our days, but how often do we think about why we treat time the way we do, our relationship to it, and why we value productivity over all else?

This week, we talk to Jenny Odell about the ideas behind her book Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock and How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. We talk about how time shapes all our lives, question the idea that time is money, and look to understand the capitalistic and colonialist roots of the way we view time every day. 

Featuring:

  • Jenny Odell, artist and author of Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock and How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

Episode Credits:

  • Host: Lucy Kang
  • Producers: Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, Amy Gastelum, and Lucy Kang
  • Executive Director: Jina Chung
  • Editor: Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong
  • Engineer: Jeff Emtman 
  • Digital Media Marketing: Anubhuti Kumar

Music:

  • “Simonero” by Keyframe Audio via Pixabay
  • “Documentary Ambient Guitar” by William_King via Pixabay
  • Clock sound effects by Pixabay and Semen Surin via Pixabay

More Information:

Learn More:

  • Jenny Odell: https://jennyodell.com/

Transcript:

Lucy Kang: September 9, 2020. If you were in the San Francisco Bay Area, you might remember this as the day that the world turned orange from wildfire smoke. Like a literal orange. Wikipedia even has an entry for it under “Orange Skies Day.” National outlets ran stories about it.

Sky TV news clip: The skyline of San Francisco looking more like an image from Mars, the orange glow from wildfires burning miles away, shrouding the city’s landmarks, the smoke blocking out the sun.

Lucy Kang: It was a weird day. It felt strange to have to carry on with my mundane tasks – like hopping on a scheduled call – while the world outside felt so apocalyptic. Like this was it, we had come to the logical conclusion of climate change, it was here, and everything was doomed.

Acclaimed author and artist Jenny Odell also describes this day in her book Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock. But uses it to make an argument against nihilism and in favor of hope.

And it all starts with how we think about time.

Jenny Odell: I’m much more attentive to the characteristics of any particular time or any particular day. And knowing that that’s never going to return exactly in that form. Which is like the most bittersweet feeling, right? Because like, that’s essentially acknowledging your own mortality. But it’s also the thing that gives those moments meaning at all.

Lucy Kang: So at work, time is often seen as this fungible commodity. Especially if you’re an hourly wage worker, one hour is often treated as interchangeable with any other hour. But we also intuitively understand that our experience of time can feel so differently. Like how an hour spent chatting with a good friend can fly by so much faster than an hour when we’re waiting for urgent news. There’s a whole history behind that idea of commodified work time that is deeply connected to the extraction of resources and labor under capitalism and colonialism.

Jenny Odell writes that untangling our experience of time from these extractive roots can show us that the future isn’t set and is still worth fighting for. So I talked to her for Making Contact about how saving time… can help us save ourselves.

Lucy Kang: So we’re here today actually to talk about your book Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock. And it’s just this really beautiful meditation about time, how we live through it, how it’s socially constructed, and how we can also begin to imagine different and more liberatory modes of time.

Just to start us off with a quote,you write in the introduction that, quote, “This book is my panoramic assault on nihilism. I wrote it in an effort to be helpful, but toward the end, I felt I was writing it to save my life.” So I’m actually going to start us off with a pretty broad question. Why was it important for you to write about time, and how is time also a call to action?

Jenny Odell: Yeah, I think, you know, it’s one of those things where it doesn’t feel so much like you had an idea, but it’s almost like the other way around, like something is chasing you for a long time. When I look back at sort of old journals, or just things that I was thinking about, I found that I often was describing my relationship to time in terms that seemed painful on both the level of the everyday, which is just like, I never have enough time, I’m always rushing around, I feel that all time is money.

And then on a longer range kind of level, right, like as someone who grew up in the time that I have, just seems like there’s a lot of dread in the air and like, sort of inability to imagine the future. It’s this kind of combination of like, I’m racing against the clock, but I also feel that I’m living at the end of time. Kind of this horrible combination.

I had the idea for this book right before the pandemic started. But obviously, the pandemic and the experience of time in the pandemic influenced the way I wrote the book. So it sort of made the question more urgent, I guess. Or more, more immediate. How does the way that I reckon time or think about time change my experience of it, and what I think it is, and therefore what I think is possible?

Lucy Kang: Yeah, and there are moments in the book where you just like, it’s so clear that you’re grappling with your sense of fear and grief around our collective future. And I really appreciated having just like something that was so relatable in that moment of feelings that I also experienced, but have not articulated nearly as well as you.

And so, you know, one of the parts that you start off the book is around this idea of like, hey, the relationship between, what we think of as our daily, work time pressure and the devastating effects of climate change that happened on this larger time scale are actually really related at the root to a specific concept of time. Could you just talk about that and explain what is connecting them?

Jenny Odell: Yeah, so I feel, as you said, you know, those feelings seem very different. But when you sort of dig down historically, which is just something that I’m obsessed with doing, it’s like, especially anything that we sort of take for granted or seems like it’s just kind of like in the ether and just really trying to pinpoint the things that led to other things that led to this kind of condition. And so when you dig down from each of those, you find this kind of common root. And I found in doing that research, I kind of started to think of quantifiable abstract clock time as like an invasive species that had grown in a set of conditions, very specific historical conditions, specifically colonialism and then was actually physically exported around the world.


And so for anyone who’s interested in this, I really can’t recommend enough the book that I quote quite a bit at the beginning of my own called The Colonization of Time. And that’s written by a historian who’s looking at specifically British colonists bringing these notions of time and work to colonies in South Africa and also Australia. Like, it’s these people showing up with an extractive view of time. Basically, time can be filled with labor. Time is a means of discipline. And time is like stuff, right? Time is money. And it’s clashing with this, these other notions of time that are, you know, the communities that are no less attentive to time, but in very different ways.

And I feel like just going back to that moment in history for me was really eye opening and kind of like defamiliarizing this really sticky notion, right, that like an hour is an hour. Right? Which the idea of an hour is, is very much tied to a labor hour or a labor day. But labor hours and labor days in the history of humans, right, is pretty recent.

And so, it was just, um, it was interesting to go back to that moment and see, like, oh, this was a really important kind of constellation of things that not only obviously led to us having this notion of time, you know, that is fungible, basically, and that is the time behind the feeling that you’re racing against the clock or someone else is pitting you against the clock. But it’s also part of this moment of where you see the extractive mindset really kind of coming into its own and sort of thinking about landscapes and people as resources and resources that you can extract from.

Lucy Kang: Yeah, well, I guess like in the first part of the book, you look at and kind of disentangle the ways that, as you say, time is typically treated in a capitalist society. So seen as productivity, seen as money, this whole idea that like time is money. And you actually trace the roots of modern kind of time management slash productivity practices to West Indian and U.S. plantations in the 18th and 19th centuries. Could you just retrace a little bit of that history and how time specifically was used as a tool under those extractive circumstances?

Jenny Odell: Yeah, I would say, one of the other books that was I think equally as important for me was Accounting for Slavery by Caitlin Rosenthal, who is a historian who did like an incredible amount of work and just kind of going back and looking at the origins of what we would call a spreadsheet.

She gives a lot of examples in that book of these pre-printed logs, work logs, that plantation owners who are often absentee owners, so they’re overseas, would be using to  sort of crunch the numbers, like the sort of labor days of slaves on those plantations. So, you know, as she notes and points out in that book, it’s like this very notion of the time grid that many of us are familiar with.

And I think I before reading that book would kind of assume came more from a factory context that there’s actually this very different context in which they arose. And it’s obviously like, you know, basically the most exploitative relationship. But I thought that that was really important as kind of like a really extreme example of what kinds of relationships these notions of time encode. And it’s kind of interesting when you think now about how many contemporary time management books tend to include grids still.

And obviously that’s very different in terms of how it’s being used. But it is this kind of echo of a relationship where you are the master of your own labor and you’re trying to make it go faster and sort of get more value out of it.

Lucy Kang: So I really appreciated how you painted also this sweeping picture of how social hierarchy also underpins this specific conception of time. So you bring up a few examples. Like one of them being the time tax of poorly run bureaucracies that poor people have to deal with. And then another one is how the time and the lives of Black people are stolen by incarceration or overpolicing. And then later on you also talk about how mass incarceration is this infliction of a type of social death. And so I wanted to ask you, how did these examples get to these important questions that you ask around whose time is more valuable and who gets to control whose time?

Jenny Odell: Yeah, those for me were ways of thinking about time as something that’s social, part of a social fabric, in part because I think I was reacting against this, you know, the idea that everyone has 24 hours in a day. You know, I have a box that gets magically refilled with 24 hours every day. You have your box that gets refilled with 24 hours, you know, this kind of idea that very much thrives, I think, in the US, in a kind of bootstrapper culture, which is that you have the same amount of time as everyone else and you just like, it’s your job to use it better.

And so I think the idea of time as being part of a social fabric is a really helpful antidote to that because it recognizes that the way  you experience time – so that might include like numerically how many hours you, you say you have, but it also includes other things like, you know, are you, are you rushing? Are you waiting? Like, who are you waiting on? Whose schedule are you on? In that free time, like, how does the time even feel free, right? Like all of these other kind of much more maybe subjective seeming things compared to number of hours, that these are all affected by basically a hierarchy of power.

And so you kind of start to see that everyone is embedded in this fabric holding different positions and the person with the most power is the person who can experience, who not only has the most time, right, but like has the most control over their time, which is what it’s really about.

On a kind of more hopeful note, I feel like if time is part of a social fabric, then the ways that you imagine making more time are collective. You know, whether that’s a union, which is like a very obvious example of people working together to make more time for everyone or have everyone have more control of their time. But others and other things that I think all fall under this category of like an agreement, like an agreement among people, a contract of some type among people, whether that’s formal or informal, that redistributes that power and therefore changes everyone’s experience of time versus like, a bunch of people individualistically trying to make their time grids work better.  

Amy Gastelum: You’re listening to Making Contact. For more information about today’s show, check out radioproject.org. Tell us what you think! Okay, now, back to the show.

Lucy Kang: We’ve been talking with Jenny Odell, author of Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock. In the first half of the show, we dug into the ways we typically think of time as labor and time as money – ideas with capitalist and colonialist roots.

On the rest of the show, we’ll continue that conversation and learn ways to cultivate new ways of relating to time in ways that can begin to liberate our thinking and our lives.

So I do want to make sure we get to the portion of your book that talks about a more liberatory concept of time. You know, throughout the book, you toggle between these really intimate scenes to thinking about almost these impossibly large eons of geologic time. And then we get the sense of how, you know, we are beings that really live within all these overlapping systems and scales of time. Can you define like chronodiversity for our audience and just maybe explain how we can also experience it on a daily level?

Jenny Odell: So it is for me, what it sounds like it’s, it’s a diversity of varieties of time. So, you know, Barbara Adam, who’s a sociologist that has written like really, really beautifully about just like – if you think about something as simple, I think she gives the example in one of her books of sitting on the plane. And just all of the things that are happening, like she’s remembering, she’s having memories of people in her family. But she’s also on this plane going between these two destinations, and there’s a timetable of the flight, right?

Like, there’s just so many layers going on at any time. Even if you think you’re doing something as simple as, you know, just walking to the store, because we are people with memory and hopes and dreams, right? And we’re in areas that also have history and, you know, things are changing. And so as she puts it in her book, like, it’s actually pretty intuitive, right? This idea of chronodiversity. It’s just that it gets kind of buried or drowned out by this one way of thinking about time that is just kind of creeping into the entire day.

But I would say that if you do have, you know, some amount of latitude, I think even just thinking about it, like, being aware of it, that time, it does feel different, and really kind of ruminating on that. It kind of renders you more sensitive to those changes. I guess what I’m saying is like any sort of any amount you can get away with and just kind of courting this feeling or this kind of attention to how time feels for you, which is, I think sometimes not even something we really ask ourselves.

Lucy Kang: I think that there’s something so interesting and intuitive about the different ways that you talk about what time could be instead. So I’m thinking specifically about this, like, story that you share about your friend who had some beans that then she gave to her friends and then, you know, maybe spread this line of beans across the country.

I’m going to read you just that quick passage about this that really struck me. It goes like this. “Time is not money. Time is beans. Saying it meant that you could take time and give time, but also that you could plant time and grow more of it, and that there were different varieties of time. It means that all your time grew out of someone else’s time, maybe out of something someone planted long ago.” And that’s just such a beautiful passage. Could you just recap that story for us real quickly?

Jenny Odell: So that was my friend who lives in the Santa Cruz mountains, who I visit a couple times a year. And I’m very blessed to have a handful of friends in their seventies, which is also, I think it’s really affected the way that I think about time because I’m in my thirties. And she has an amazing garden.

So in the book, actually leading up to that bean moment, there is also an important detail that she was planning where she had planted lettuce and she was trying to give me a bunch of lettuce. And I didn’t, I had some resistance to taking it because I was like, I don’t want to take your lettuce. And she’s like, no, I need to get rid of these outer leaves in order for this plant to grow in the way that I want it to, I’ve been giving lettuce to everyone.

And that like this sort of made me realize that I, okay, so assume that everything is a zero sum game that I could not imagine that if she gives me something, we both have more, right? Like, um, so just like even that kind of simple image because time, when time is in the grid, you have your grid and my, my grid. It is very much a zero sum game.

And then shortly after that, she was planting some beans that, yeah, she gave to a bunch of friends who all loved them. She couldn’t find them anymore. This is 20 years ago. She doesn’t remember where she got them. And those friends, luckily they gave some of them back to her. And then they gave some of them to their other friends. And so these beans are sort of spreading around and around for 20 years. And so now she has them or she has the descendants of them, right?

And she knew that I was working on this book about time. And so we were, you know, we were talking about it. And how, you know, we need different metaphors for time. And I was kind of like, oh, you know, beans are a really interesting metaphor for time because like she understood that what she was getting back was not exactly what she had given and also everyone now had more.

But also because, you know, if you think about an individual bean – and I’m a person who, especially during the pandemic, I got really into beans. Like I’ve spent a lot of time looking at thinking about beans. But I just hadn’t really thought about the fact that they’re also seeds, right? And so like, in a sense, they can grow more beans. So they have, they could, each one individually contains the possibility of other beans in the future.

And I just, I started to really prefer thinking about time in this way, because when I think back, you know, just kind of trying to trace the origins of some of the most important things or experiences in my life, that does do a better job of explaining them. Like, I think about like, you know, something small that someone did for me a really, really long time ago, and maybe it actually didn’t really mean anything or do anything for years. And then all of a sudden it opens up this whole new thing, right? This whole, this thing that leads to another thing that leads to like my entire life changing. And so I find that it’s much more sort of like a generous and hopeful way of thinking about time that really encourages interaction and like prizes interaction.

And I still find, especially after writing the book that I feel like less of a time hoarder,  you know. Like I don’t presume to know what’s going to come out of certain things. I’ve never been able to have, I’ve never lived anywhere where I have a garden. But I do know some gardeners like that friend. And I feel like I have the humility that a gardener has, a gardener is not really a master of that space, right? Like a gardener is a collaborator or steward. They have some humility about what is possible to control and what you should even want to control. And I think that’s how I feel more about time now.

Lucy Kang: Yeah, absolutely. And it wasn’t until I read that passage that I realized you could plant store bought beans, that they’re still like alive in that way. And I was really interested in the ways in which you describe, like how we can begin to peel ourselves away from that habitual, like vision of time and you talk about unfreezing time as a way to decommodify it into something else. Can you talk about how we can unfreeze time?

Jenny Odell: Yeah, I use the example in the book of like choosing something to pay attention to on an ongoing basis. So for me, that was a California buckeye tree in a park that I was walking through quite a bit during the pandemic. And, you know, that’s the tree, if you’re familiar with the buckeye tree, you know, it goes dormant in the summer and just has a very striking kind of procession of these buds that show up in the winter and they don’t open until the spring. And then there’s these amazing flowers with this incredible smell that I will only ever be able to smell at that time of year.  And then those wither and then the leaves sort of start turning brown and then the whole tree goes dormant for most of the summer. And sometimes those changes happen really quick, right, like it’ll look different the next day that you walk by.

And I think that really helped me to see. First of all, to see the tree as not a static entity, the tree is alive, and also to see time as just, you know, quite simply time is just change, right? And change is registered in things and beings. And it’s not really anything else. Like that’s kind of it. It’s, it’s kind of like trying to remove that grid from just change, and just trying to be as attentive, so closely attentive to that change that it  feels more prominent just in that moment than like the clock or the calendar. Because like, that is what time is like at the end of the day, right?

I mean, I got really into geology while writing this book and got a lot of help from Andrew Alden who wrote Deep Oakland. He’s so great. And it really gave me an appreciation for the fact that just nothing is standing still, nothing is standing still, you know. We live right next to a giant fault. So I think just that kind of appreciation that we’re not these sort of like static entities producing work that are just somehow on top of this static world that is not speaking back to us or changing in any way.

Lucy Kang: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. And there is in this section of this book also a part where you talk about the fossil fuel industry and how it has attempted to make its vision of the future all of our collective futures. And I don’t think I had read before that BP, for example, is the corporation that popularized the idea of the individual carbon footprint. What is the power that they have in creating and controlling our time and our future?

Jenny Odell: I mean, it’s, it’s sort of twofold, right? It’s like if we have a ticking, climate clock, it’s because of them, right? So it’s on a very sort of real material level, right? Like, our time is being limited by them. And you know, with all of the information that we have, they’re still opening up new extractive areas and just, you know, it’s insane.

Like so, the whole idea of a carbon footprint calculator assumes that we are simply doomed to always use more and more. And your only avenue for change is for you personally to reduce your footprint. It’s the way that it’s kind of framed where it’s like they’re kind of like throwing up their hands. They’re like, look, we just make this stuff. You’re, you’re the ones who are going to keep asking for more of it forever and ever because that’s because humans are economic animals and they’ll just, that’s what they do, right? Like it, it’s like, it’s incredibly narrowing, right?

It’s selling you the idea of a future in which they will always have relevance. Which makes complete sense for a company to do, or an industry to do, right? And you almost succumb to that idea that they’re selling you, that this is just how it’s going, and then you’re like, wait a minute, who has the most vested interest in making this seem like the inevitable future?

Lucy Kang: Wow. Yeah. And I think that, like, leads us really well to my last question for you, which is just, you know, near the end of the book you say, quote, “It makes me wonder if one meaning of having time is to halve (h-a-l-v-e) time, to make a cut in kronos and hold the past and future apart as much as hope will allow.” So my question is, what is the role of hope, and how do you hope that time can save us?

Jenny Odell: Yeah, I think of hope as being extremely related to obviously how you see the future, whether you see the future as open ended or not. And that these two things have a deep relationship to each other. And I wrote a letter to the future for the Sydney Writers Festival, and I delivered it there.

On the one hand you have declinism, which is like the belief that everything is always going to get worse. Everything is necessarily getting worse. And then on the other hand you have kind of almost like triumphalist obsession with technological progress, which is similar but kind of going in a different direction, right?

And trying to find something in between those two and I ended up talking about this phrase in Tagalog, bahala na, which depending on who you, I asked my mom, she said it meant like whatever happens, happens.

But it’s just kind of like, it’s like the thing that you would say, like, when you’re not a hundred percent prepared and you’re just going to do it. And you are sort of accepting the present situation as it is. Not as just or desirable. You’re just accepting the contours of the moment that you live in. I was born at the time I was born. This is the task that lies in front of me. How do I creatively respond to this?

Yeah, and to me that’s really been the thing that has saved me from that. Just like they talk about at the very beginning of the book where I have no relationship to time, like where I have no relationship to historical time, where you actually you see how many moments of contingency there were in the past in your own life and then in historical time where people have fought against the odds over and over again, right?

And those things have led to conditions that we all now take for granted. So it’s sort of like our task in this moment to see that contingency again and make our own response to it. And for me, that really changes the way the future looks.

Lucy Kang: Well, Jenny Odell, it’s been fascinating to talk to you. Just thank you so much for inviting us inside the world of your book, which is also your world and also your time, for a little bit. It’s just been such a pleasure to talk to you.

Jenny Odell: Oh, thank you so much. It’s my pleasure.

Lucy Kang: That was Jenny Odell, talking about her book Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock.

And that does it for today’s show. If you want more information visit us at radioproject.org. Or leave us a comment on Twitter or Instagram. We’d love to hear from you.

I’m Lucy Kang. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.

Author: Radio Project

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