Aside from work, capitalism creeps along the axis of regularised time into our leisure via the attention economy’s incessant notifications and psychological manipulation. Here, too, is the threat of disappearing “outside of time”, where non-participation equals social irrelevance. Where true rest exists it is only to recharge us for more work.
Odell suggests that doing nothing is, for those who can afford it, an act of rebellion. While depressingly passive, this speaks of our arrival in late-stage capitalism where traditional refugees from timed work such as mindfulness, community or unstructured socialising, have been ruthlessly commodified, leaving the only one action left: inaction.
What makes regularised time so difficult to shake is how deeply embedded it is in culture. The protestant work ethic, with its demand for constant striving, lives on despite the decline in religious observance. Many of us have internalised this virtue, extracting as much work as possible from ourselves. This mindset led to burnout during COVID because in the void of lockdown, instinctive work practices held firm, revealing an unsettling truth: follow the cracking whip and often you’ll find your own hand.
While on a mountaintop waiting for the sun to rise, the author states, the thing we’re waiting for is usually just over the horizon. Here is time’s ultimate false bargain: sell yours now to buy all you need later. When you get down to it, this is the meat of most self-help: run one’s life like a multinational and be your own boss, with the mumbled caveat that first you must become a tyrant and turn exploitation inward.
Saving Time runs deeper than a Marxist-style critique of today’s work. To this, the astounding diversity of literary, philosophical and political sources cohere early on but in later chapters things begin to disintegrate, the mosaic becoming kaleidoscopic, arresting but the argument failing to hold. Perhaps this is by design. The first mode of time is so deeply entrenched while the other mode can only be inferred anecdotally or understood through experience. Even so, the latter variety is still, by the end of the book, elusive and strange, a catch-all for any non-Western type.
So why does time actually matter? For one, it’s running short. The extractivist mode has exhausted our environment. Last month’s IPCC Sixth Assessment Report Synthesis Report contained its “final warning” on the climate crisis. Many solutions tabled exist in regularised time, they demand more striving, more growth but will always lead back to the same place, albeit by detour. As Odell explains, keeping the same car is better than buying an electric one. True change involves considering other, radically different sorts of time beyond the relentless commodified beat, before time of every sort runs out.
Saving Time by Jenny Odell is published by Bodley Head, $35.
Jenny Odell appears at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne on May 22 (wheelercentre.com) and at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (swf.org.au) May 22-May28.
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