A week ago I found myself in a two day free-to-attend ‘festival’ hosted by the Malaysian Ministry of Finance and organized in collaboration with the Central Bank of the country – Bank Negara Malaysia. Titled LIFT, an acronym whose expansion stood for Literacy in Financial Technology and Living in Future Times, the event purported to showcase the burgeoning developments in the digital world of finance and technology. In between the short time before one speaker concluded her talk and the next one was preparing to take the podium, the emcee, with a view to eliciting participation from an otherwise reticent but polite crowd, asked as to how many people upon waking up every morning reached out for their smartphones instead of turning towards their spouse. More than 75% of the hands instinctively shot up prompting a burst of spontaneous laughter.

While I am yet to share my bed with a spouse, this question by the Emcee triggered a bout of introspection. I would be lying through my teeth if I was to deny the fact that the first thing grabbing my attention every morning is a rectangular instrument that furnishes me with an unending ticker tape of likes, notifications, comments and mentions. Every other tangible object and intangible element does not stand a chance in so far as vying for attention is concerned. It is almost as if I have divided myself into fractals with each fractal being enslaved by its favourite social media outlet. This in spite of me having read, and reviewed the social recluse Jaron Lanier’s influential book, “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.”

So how does one disentangle oneself from the addictive, if not downright pernicious grip of social media? Does one go ‘dissipati peribunt’ by deactivating every social media account and retreating to the hills, or does one adopt an outside-in approach by remaining detached in spite of putting on a veneer of attachment? Jennifer Odell, an American artist, writer and educator based in Oakland, California tackles this very question in her extremely thought provoking, timely and tantalizing work, “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.” Fully concurring with Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert’s assertion that “every age needs a Diogenes”, Ms. Odell emphasizes the necessity of possessing the singularly peculiar mind set of this eccentric Greek Philosopher, who once ordered Alexander The Great to move aside since the Emperor was blocking the philosopher’s sun! Odell also takes refuge in one of the most hardboiled, provocative and enduring refuseniks of all time, Mr. Bartleby, Herman Melville’s fictional character who drives his employer to the wall by just sticking to his stock phrase “I would prefer not to” and exactly adhering to it.

An avid bird watcher, a la, Jonathan Franzen, Ms. Odell confesses her obsession towards watching birds in action This obsession in turn enables her to perceive in a more purposeful and aesthetic manner, nature that surrounds her. Bio-regionalism – a concept dealing with an awareness not only of the many life-forms of each place, but how they are interrelated, including with humans – first articulated by the environmentalist Peter Berg in the 1970s and the works of John Muir goad Ms. Odell on further nurturing her ornithological fascination. Borrowing from Donna Haraway and Martin Buber, Ms. Odell, exhorts us to concentrate upon where we are now, to acquaint ourselves with the world as it currently stands, and not go about imposing our will and subjectivity on it.

Drawing from a plethora of empirical research, Ms. Odell strives to imprint upon us the need to look beyond the periphery of our restrained boundaries of attention. The genesis underlying the coining of the term “inattentional blindness” by Berkeley researchers Arien Mack and Irvin Rock in the 1990s while studying the drastic difference in our ability to perceive something if it lies outside our field of visual attention, finds a detailed mention in Ms. Odell’s book.

Ms. Odell does not expect us to emulate Thomas Merton in escaping to the hills thereby engaging in a life of contemptus mundi, or to retreat to the woods, Thoreau-fashion thereby enjoying our own personalized Walden. “I am less interested in a mass exodus from Facebook and Twitter than I am in a mass movement of attention” she writes, “what happens when people regain control over their attention and begin to direct it again, together.” Instead, the secret is to occupy what Ms. Odell terms is the “third space” in the attention economy. This represents inculcating the requisite will power not only to withdraw attention, but to transpose it elsewhere, so that it stands enlarged, proliferated and improved in so far as its acuity is concerned. This according to Ms. Odell means introspecting across variegated timescales when “the mediascape would have us think in 24-hour (or shorter) cycles, to pause for consideration when clickbait would have us click, to risk unpopularity by searching for context when our Facebook feed is an outpouring of unchecked outrage and scapegoating, to closely study the ways that media and advertising play upon our emotions, to understand the algorithmic versions of ourselves that such forces have learned to manipulate, and to know when we are being guilted, threatened, and gas lighted into reactions that come not from will and reflection but from fear and anxiety.”

Thus doing nothing is the diametric opposite of assuming the stillness of a mendicant (at least in so far as physical movement is concerned) or severing the relationship with social media cold turkey and vanishing into oblivion like a fading mist. In the opinion of Ms. Odell, the act of doing nothing is an art that has a three-point perfection:

  • It is art of a dropping out;
  • Developing a lateral movement outward to things and people that are around us; and
  • Moving downward into place.

My only reservation with the ideas propagated and proposed by Ms. Odell is the aspect of implementation. In a world that brooks no exception and where bucking the trend is more a fortunate – and perhaps in a few exceptional cases courageous – exception than the norm, it is more than just a gamble to dissociate oneself from the everyday hustle and bustle, thereby paying paeans or obeisance to the lives of either Diogenes or Epicurus. Also it would be far-fetched if not downright idiotic to expect society to accord either the same patience or magnanimity towards the goings on of a resurrected Diogenes. Hence, unless there exists a secure financial backing or an assured avenue for leading a life filled with fundamental essentials, let alone luxurious accompaniments, it would be next to impossible to assimilate either Berg’s bioregionalism or Muir’s naturalist wanderings, as the core of one’s existence.

But having said that “How to do nothing” provides a handy channel to plan a much needed escape from the clutches of an unrelenting and remorseless form of capitalism.

Men Explain Things To Me – Rebecca Solnit

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In the year 2006, activist and sexual harassment survivor Tanana Burke took to Myspace, an American social networking website, for empowering vulnerable women, especially from low wealth communities. Ms. Burke pioneered a ‘culturally informed’ curriculum to discuss sexual violence within the Black community and in society at large. For furthering such an endeavor, she employed the hash tag #MeToo. What began as a hesitant effort soon spawned into a gargantuan movement that had at its core the egalitarian right of every woman in society. The #MeToo movement reached its apogee in early October 2017 following the widespread sexual-abuse allegations against former American film producer Harvey Weinstein.

The towering voice and influential writings of Rebecca Solnit, have arguably done more for embellishing feminism, than can possibly be either envisaged or imagined. Monumental testimony to this fact is her scintillating and irascible work, titled, “Men Explain Things To Me.” This staid, non-decrepit and matter-of-fact sounding heading takes on a more derisive and deprecatory tinge once the content within the covers have been assimilated by the reader. If Ms. Solnit’s objective is to knock impudent men off the perch of their condescension or pretentiousness, then rest assured, she accomplishes this feat with an aplomb usually reserved for a virtuoso!

Juxtaposing wit with vitriol, Solnit makes a rousing case for the obliteration of the term weaker sex (the latter part of the sentence, my personal interpretation entirely), thereby restoring women to the place where they belong – on an equal pedestal with men. The book begins with a party in a forest slope above Aspen. It is 2008, and Ms. Solnit and her companion Sallie find themselves in a Ralph Lauren-styled chalet at 9,000 feet. Their host, a wealthy man, upon learning that Ms. Solnit is a writer waxes eloquent about a recent book featured by the New York Times. Having not bothered to even give the book a read, the man holds forth on the aesthetics of the literary work. Solnit’s friend after three or four unsuccessful attempts at casual interjection, finally succeeds in bringing home the point that the book in question is actually written by Solnit. “And then, as if in a nineteenth century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn’t read….so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless – for a moment, before he began holding forth again”.

The aforementioned incident sets out the theme of the book which is also incorrectly thought to have birthed the term, “Mansplaining.” Divided into nine essays, including a deeply poignant one on Virginia Woolf, “Men Explain Things To Me” forcefully argues for paradigm shifts in societal mindsets in so far as the concept of gender equality is concerned. The belief that the feminine is subservient to the masculine is a belief that is not only preposterous but also incorrigibly well entrenched. Ms. Solnit evidences this unfortunate fact by bringing to the reader’s attention the writings of the British judge William Blackstone way back in 1765. In his widely read commentary on English common law and, later, American law, judge Blackstone expounds:

“By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.” The fact that a woman should not have a standing of her own in society is an insidious concept that has inevitably and invariably eroded even the very depths of the subliminal. This erosion has in turn, conceived an ‘entitlement’ culture where it becomes the undisputed right or the untrammeled entitlement of a man to not only possess a woman by whatever means deemed appropriate, but also, subsequent to such a possession, do unto her what the possessor’s whim and fancy dictates. A brutal fall out of this philosophy is a permeation of rape culture. This term found itself in the limelight when in December 2012, a physiotherapy student in Delhi was brutally gang raped in a moving bus before being left for dead on a road in India’s capital city Although she fought courageously, the extent of the heinous internal injuries ultimately resulted in the death of the victim. Lawyers representing the rapists, put forth arguments that went beyond the ken of nauseating and the domain of the repulsive. Shifting the blame squarely onto the unfortunate victim, they stubbornly postulated that a lady had no right walking back or taking a public transport at that time of the night.

Such crimes of entitlement are not the singular preserve of Asian or developing nations. As Ms. Solnit illustrates with reference to America, “a rape is reported only every 6.2 minutes in this country, the estimated total is perhaps five times as high. Every 6.2 minutes. (Another way to put it: the more than 11,766 corpses from domestic-violence homicides between 9/11 and 2012 exceed the number of deaths of victims on that day and all American soldiers killed in the “war on terror.”)”. The mental and physical abuse of a woman is not restricted to acts perpetrated by the illiterate, under privileged, mentally unsound or psychosomatic genre of men. The rich and famous, movers and shakers of the ilk of Dominic Strauss Kahn, Mason Mayer, Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar form a perverted coterie taking pleasure in objectifying women and treating them as pure fractals of lust. This, according to Ms. Solnit is the world of ‘Manistan’.

“Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion or nationality, but it does have a gender”, says Solnit. It is just a class of impudent and intransigent people trumpeting, “I have the right to control you”.

The nineteenth-century geologist and survey director Clarence King and twentieth-century biologists have used the term “punctuated equilibrium” to describe a pattern of change that involves slow, quiet periods of relative stasis interrupted by turbulent intervals. The phenomenon of punctuated equilibrium resonates with the birth and furtherance of feminism and other movements upholding the cause of and case for women. “The term “sexual harassment,” for example, was coined in the 1970s, first used in the legal system in the 1980s, given legal status by the Supreme Court in 1986, and given widespread coverage in the upheaval after Anita Hill’s testimony against her former boss, Clarence Thomas, in the 1991 Senate hearings on his Supreme Court nomination.”

Similar has been the sprouting of opinions by celebrities reacting to and forming part of the #MeToo movement. On October 15, 2017, American actress Alyssa Milano posted on Twitter, “If all the women who have ever been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, then we give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,”.  Her act was soon emulated by a slew of high profile women celebrities of the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lawrence, and Uma Thurman.

We are still a long way away from restoring the rights and privileges that are inherent and inalienable to the life of every woman. But as Ms. Solnit points out we have at least commenced asking the right questions. In “The Mother of All Questions” Ms. Solnit proposes that we narrate the stories of women to the world. Such an act would change the way that the world treats women. In so far as this initiative is concerned, Ms. Solnit is a trendsetter herself.