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11 March 2023

The new politics of time

How should we spend our hours in the age of burnout? Arguably not by reading Jenny Odell’s frustrating new book, Saving Time.

By Hettie O'Brien

Recently, it has been difficult to plan for the future. Few politicians speak about it, preferring to invoke nostalgia in place of new ideas. Few people know whether they will have the same job in five years. Many aren’t sure whether they will be living in the same place. This sense of uncertainty and stasis, of a present that stretches on without end, is particularly disorientating because elsewhere time is speeding up. The delicate clocks that determine when a flower blooms or a bird migrates are accelerating and unwinding at an erratic pace. Because our perception of time is rooted in the work day, it bears little relation to the environment’s rhythms. Another problem is our inability to imagine beyond ten or 20 years. What the world might look like in 2050 feels so hazy a prospect that it becomes easy to ignore the alarm bells sounding from outside.

Jenny Odell’s Saving Time is concerned with bewildering disjunctions like these. A recursive, impressionistic discussion of clocks, capitalism and the climate crisis, her book is composed of anecdotes, cut-and-pasted histories and cultural criticism.

[See also: The uncomfortable truths of Hag feminism]

Odell, a multidisciplinary artist and writer who teaches at Stanford University, has long been concerned with what eats away at our time, or at least our perception of it. One of these time wasters, explored at length in her first book, How to Do Nothing, is the internet. She is fascinated by the “utter garbage” of digital culture. Her 2017 pamphlet There’s No Such Thing as a Free Watch investigated the network of ersatz digital storefronts and global supply chains that undergird online commerce, via the origins of a smooth-faced watch that was being offered for free on Instagram.

In other projects, she assembled objects to produce novel juxtapositions: items from a local dump, for example, or satellite images from Google Earth. These collages evoke an eeriness and human absence. In Saving Time, however, this technique feels more like an attempt to cultivate profundity in the absence of an argument.

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Days are timed in hours and minutes, but time itself is not, Odell writes, “fungible” – a clunky term she uses frequently to describe the common perception of time as a unit to be spent, a tick tick tick. The questions Odell poses – about whose time is devalued, and why our idea of time is out of kilter with the quickening pace of climate change – are pressing, but her execution is too hasty and frustratingly digressive. For a book about urgent subjects, from an artist who is otherwise in the habit of what James Wood described as “serious noticing” – paying careful attention to revelatory detail that “rescues the life of things” – it is surprising that reading Saving Time, as other critics have noted, feels like such an arduous way to spend it.

[See also: Why we need the Women’s Prize for Non-fiction]

To time someone, or oneself, is to enact control. Standardised time is a relatively recent invention. In early modern Europe, time was tracked according to the seasonal patterns and agrarian rhythms that dictated rural life. The historian Giordano Nanni, one of many scholars whose work Odell draws on, writes that our current idea of time began to take shape in the early years of the sixth century, when St Benedict formulated a law for organising monastic life that involved a taxing routine of work and prayer – seven “canonical hours” throughout the day, which later orders marked with bells. These were “more of an alarm system than a clock”, Odell reflects. As churches and village squares put their own bells in place, time spread outside the walls of monasteries and into the communities beyond. Ever since, the division of the day into hours and minutes has been as ineluctable as the weather. As the historian EP Thompson described in reference to the imposition of clock time on 19th-century factory floors, workers began to fight “not against time, but about it”.

Odell’s book is ripe for a moment when a perceived lack of time and overwork have become cultural reference points. Phrases such as “burnout” and the “great resignation” have delighted journalists, some of whom have wondered, in a tone of mild moral panic, whether younger generations are “quietly quitting” the workplace. It is difficult to tell how much of this malaise is new and how much of its newness is a contagious truism that provides something to write about. Still, for those who have continued to work from home since the pandemic, the division between work and leisure has blurred, while the buzz of WhatsApp notifications and social media timelines is depleting attention spans. Modernity, Odell suggests, is making it hard to slow down.

Not having enough hours in the day can be both an accurate depiction of reality and a reflection of time’s subjectivity. Our experience of time is mutable; a workday can go by in a flash, if you enjoy the work you do, or linger for what feels like an eternity of clock watching. There is a German word for the environmental cues that entrain our circadian rhythms: “With a zeitgeber, someone or something is always giving time to someone else,” Odell writes. If you work on a shop floor and are constantly being interrupted and harried by customers, or are at home with small children who repeatedly plead for your attention, your eight or nine hours will be jolted by the wants and demands of others. These “zeitgebers” will zap your time, and may leave you feeling as though you’ve not got enough of it.

[See also: Adam Gopnik’s pursuit of the perfect sentence]

Odell is at pains to recognise the power relations and pressures that shape our subjective experiences of time. There are fleeting moments where her attempts to shift perspective from the universalism of ticking clocks and calendar days to a more variegated idea of time become interesting, such as her brief discussion of “crip time”, the phrase used to describe how disabled people experience time and space. At other points, however, these attempts feel more like exculpations. “I have tried to make the case here for both the difference and the link between those… who can say no to work and those who cannot,” Odell writes. The act of refusal – of leaving a job by resigning, say – is one of the few powers that people have to reclaim their time. Odell seems anxious to remind us that this power is not evenly shared.

Often the book gives a claustrophobic impression, as if Odell is treading so carefully to avoid offending potential critics that she narrows the perimeters of her argument and avoids saying anything new. How to Do Nothing, a surprise bestseller in 2019 that made it onto Barack Obama’s reading list, was the type of book that someone might dream of writing: a critique of capitalism disguised as a self-help manual that sold well without compromising the ethical principles of its author. After it was published, critics questioned whether Odell’s manifesto for inner tranquillity and refusal was something that only a person who spent most of their time presumably doing what they most wanted – that is, making art, teaching at Stanford, and writing books – could enjoy. In Saving Time, Odell circles back to these criticisms, and revisits ideas from the previous book. “Let me return to an argument from How to Do Nothing,” she writes. And: “I, too, had used the language of sanctuary and peace of mind in How to Do Nothing…” Such references may have been conceived as thoughtful interrogations, but they read as self-referential and dull.

[See also: The secret history of how we measure time]

Odell rehearses structural analyses of capitalism, racism and colonialism but they feel rushed and cursory. What is leisure, if not recovery from work? What other words might we have to describe the climate crisis if “the Anthropocene” is anthropocentric? “The world is ending – but which world?” There is a sense that Odell is trying to pinpoint a deeper truth, but doesn’t know precisely what it is. Theorists are relentlessly cited and etymologies deployed, as if an origin story reveals something revelatory about a word. And so we learn that the word “experience” has a common origin with “experiment”, and that “doubt” contains the Proto-Indo-European root “dwo”, for “two”, with the Latin “dubius” meaning “of two minds, undecided between two things”.

It is possible to finish Saving Time and remain undecided about the argument Odell wants to make. Some sections are composed primarily of the work of other writers, who are introduced at such a jagged pace that readers are left with little time for contemplation. Common observations, such as the idea that capitalism is orientated not towards free time but to economic growth, stand in for originality.

Odell’s writing is strongest when she is articulating a slow and detailed awareness of her surroundings – observing the quality of light at a particular time of day, the leaves appearing on trees, or the moss spores that emerged in her kitchen and “set about dividing, differentiating, grabbing hold of the potting soil with hair-like rhizoids and growing tiny green leaves”. Such descriptions evince a careful, studied attention, hinting at a different and more expansive conception of time – time that has been better spent.

Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock
Jenny Odell
Bodley Head, 400pp, £20

Hettie O’Brien is an assistant editor and leader writer at the Guardian

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This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe