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Do Nothing; Do Something
A quick note on Odell and Arendt
I’ve just returned from two weeks in the Bay Area travelling for work and the subsequent discombobulation got in the way of me writing anything down. Thanks for being patient.
On Tuesday I’m off to the UAE for 5-8 weeks. Work again! Hopefully, there’ll be time to devote some mental energy to non-work projects, but I’m not that optimistic. I’ll do everything I can to maintain a mind outside of the workplace, but I’m sorry if things get a bit intermittent.
Some things to read
I’ve been thinking a lot about How To Do Nothing. The book is Jenny Odell’s answer to the fact that we are losing control of our brains.
Pinned between the defining features of contemporary capitalism — economic precarity and omnipresent marketing — young people in the developed world find themselves unable to separate their minds from the spider’s web of online media. To be alive and engaged is to be the subject of a relentless assault on your attention. In consequence, you cannot choose what you think about; it is as if the world has decided to do that for you.
Not being able to decide what you think about is a quality shared by the insane and the intoxicated. It makes being alive feel like being at sea, at the whim of the current. It is an attention-control disorder that eventually resembles not thinking at all.
If you’re like me, you might recognise in yourself whole periods of thoughtlessness, sections of life in which the exhaustion of labour deletes your critical faculties and a whirlwind of media consumption threatens to swallow the possibility of an independent mind. Who has time to think when there are emails to answer? Who can plan for a future that may or may not be hospitable for human life?
(These are themes well-articulated Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, which by now just about everyone has read.)
The consequence of the status quo for us as individuals is that we become (have become?) automatons. We risk having an experience of life akin to the experience of looking up from our phones, unable to recall an hour’s mindless scrolling. We risk looking up from our phones at 70, unable to remember our lives.
If that’s not bad enough, my fear is that this is like saying that that the world is making Eichmanns of us.
What struck Arendt about Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who facilitated the mass exportation of Jews during the Holocaust, was not monstrousness but mindlessness. He was monstrous only to the extent that his capacity for independent thought had been stripped from, or forfeited by, him. The remainder — a reliance on cliche and a plasticity in the face of authority — was all that was required to enthusiastically carry out the commands of the Führer. The prosecution’s attempts to reveal the antisemitic monster inside of Eichmann largely faltered. Monstrous antisemitism, Arendt writes, was not a necessary condition for participation in the Holocaust.
The crucial distinction in Eichmann in Jerusalem is the difference between the doer and the deed. Operating under an older conception of evil, her critics thought that a monstrous act could only be done by a monstrous mind. Arendt, finding in Eichmann only mediocrity, teaches us that mindlessness is all evil needs. This is what makes it banal.
If you think it’s a bit much for me to equate the mindlessness encouraged by late capitalism with the mindlessness of a Nazi, I ask you only to remember that in my country, Australia, the governing policy of both major parties is to place refugees migrating by boat into offshore concentration camps. In the United States, a similar policy has been enacted to facilitate this country’s own deportations. In each country, bureaucrats enthusiastically facilitate these policies on behalf of their government.
(While we’re here, I suggest to you that the desire to free the country of undocumented immigrants is not altogether unlike the desire to make Germany judenrein. We should perhaps also remember that, in order to deport the Jews, Hitler first had to declare them non-citizens. (Deporting a citizen, of course, would be illegal.))
The truth about Eichmann is simply that he did not have what it takes to not be a Nazi. He lacked the thing that must come prior to courage — his own mind. He lacked the capacity to conceive that he could, should, do something differently. That observation should give us pause. We might wonder what alternatives we, in our mindlessness, have lost the capacity to conceive of. Until we think again, they will remain unknown to us.
As it happens, and to return to a theme, whether or not we as individuals have become like Eichmann, this modern condition does all it can to erode our ability to resist together. If, in rich countries, large sections of the population are forced to split their attention between the workplace, the news maelstrom, and the ephemera of the marketing economy, their possibility for solidarity is stripped from them. There will be no possibility of collective agency: in such a world, people cannot organise, they cannot cohere, they cannot resist.
Something to listen to
Nick Cave is a weird and occasionally problematic figure who produces too much music to keep up with. But this album is beautiful and deserves your attention.