The Flat Circle: On Jenny Odell’s “Saving Time”
By Mary RettaMarch 2, 2023
Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock by Jenny Odell
You get to start over infinite times.
Anywhere on a circle can be a beginning.
Anywhere on a circle can be an ending.
You can change. You cannot become someone you are not. Yes!
Each slide on gendersauce’s post was accompanied by an image of an ouroboros, a figure of a snake curved into a circle in an attempt to eat its own tail. The image, which originates from Egyptian folklore and dates as far back as 13th century BC, is meant to refer to the movements of time, which the Egyptians understood to be cyclical rather than linear. Because snakes regularly shed their old skin, they are often seen as a symbol of rebirth and renewal. In the ancient Egyptian calendar, the flooding of the Nile in the summer marked the beginning of the year: the water’s waves would wash the old years away and create a new slate for the days to come. The ouroboros, encompassing both the snake and the circle, therefore makes the perfect symbol for infinite second chances; an ideal image for an anxious yet hopeful doomscroller to view before the clock strikes midnight and we promise to better ourselves in the coming year.
In the first few months of the pandemic, people’s perception of time shifted: not only did hours and days blend together during months of monotonous quarantine, but major life events like weddings or graduations also were moved forward, backward, or canceled all together, morphing the timeline of our lives into an erratic zigzag. While 2020 may have brought skepticism of linear time to the mainstream, symbols like the ouroboros prove that various cultures have rejected the notion of standard time for centuries. Similarly to the ancient Egyptians, Native Americans have long viewed time as cyclical, drawing on processes from nature like the growth of mycelia out of decay and the flow of one season into the next as proof of the nebulous lines between day and night, or even life and death. Native Americans did not use a traditional clock until one was forcibly introduced to them by Westerners, a process many Native people found confusing or traumatic. Many Black Americans, furthermore, have embraced the framework of Afrofuturism to project themselves into brighter futures without the horrors of slavery, incarceration, and other forms of racist violence. Queer scholars such as Jack Halberstam and Jose Esteban Muñoz similarly speak of queer time—the idea that many queer folk who grew up closeted or came out later in life live on a “delayed” or different timeline than the mainstream heteronormative model we are offered. Likewise, many disabled and neurodivergent people employ the framework of “crip time,” which addresses the ways that their communities experience time differently than neurotypical and able-bodied people. In her 2017 essay for Disability Studies Quarterly, writer Ellen Samuels puts it plainly, citing her friend’s explanation that, “rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds.”
Frameworks like crip time and Afrofuturism suggest two things: that linear time as we experience it in the West is a colonial construction, and that each person’s experience of temporality is—or, at least, once was, and could be again—informed by their identity, geography, and lived experience.
Both of these ideas are at the heart of Jenny Odell’s new book, Saving Time. A writer and artist from California, Odell became a near-household name in 2019 with her first book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. That book argued that doing nothing in a society that constantly demands our productivity and attention is a difficult but crucial task, and that “solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive.” Her newest book falls along similar thematic lines, but rather than arguing for the importance of “wasting time,” she is exploring the nature of temporality itself.
At its heart, Saving Time is a condemnation of the modern clock, which Odell explains is a relatively new invention of the West, made with the express purpose of colonizing and subduing marginalized people. Precolonial societies had several apparatuses for measuring a day: sundials, which used the movement of the sun; clepsydrae, which used the flow of water; and fire clocks, which used the burning of incense. These communities felt little need to divide the day into equal numerical units. This changed during the 19th century with the introduction of the first-ever spreadsheets, which plantation owners used to determine how much labor slaves could perform over a given amount of time. In addition to providing a history on how the traditional clock came to be, Odell chronicles how the clock has mutated and multiplied, ensuring that every aspect of our days is carefully cataloged and controlled. There is the “personal clock” governing how we spend our days; the “climate clock,” noting how much time we have left on a dying planet; and, of course, the “corporate clock,” which accounts for time as money, and which all workers are forced to live on for the majority of their lives.
In 2023, little of what Odell argues is provocative: most people would agree that climate change makes it feel like we’re living on borrowed time, or that a full-time job makes us feel like our days and weeks are not our own. Where Odell complicates these ideas is through a political and sociological analysis of how and why our time is robbed from us. This is a refreshing balm to the mantra, touted in magazine articles and TED Talks, that individuals must “reclaim” their time, with no instruction manual on how to do so. How are Black people meant to reclaim their time, for example, when the police can easily and legally steal their time through long periods of incarceration? How can a mother reclaim her time when social constraints have made it so that she alone must give her time to her children’s moods, health needs, and school schedule before spending it on herself? Even contractors and freelancers, whose lives are typically presented as an antidote to the corporate clock, can fall prey to the same traps experienced by people working a 9-to-5. “[B]y constructing passive income streams,” Odell writes of the modern contractor, “you free yourself from the constraints of capitalism by recapitulating it within your very person.” Though not an outwardly “political” book in the traditional sense, the strength of Odell’s work lies in her ability to coalesce various social frameworks—prison abolition, labor rights, gender equity—toward the simple conclusion that fighting for these principles could bring us closer to making our time our own.
The last few years have witnessed a growing off-the-cut lament that “linear time is fake.” I myself have said this often, when days blended together during COVID-19 quarantine, or when I hear that the government might “get rid of” daylight saving time. It’s an easy catchphrase, a way of recognizing that the way we measure our days could be improved without deeply questioning how or why. But without exploring the social and material roots of linear time as it exists today, Odell argues, “we risk entrenching a language about time that is itself part of the problem.” I am fond of the title Saving Time, because it implies a mutualistic relationship between temporality and the individual or communities that experience it. To save time could be to collect it, but it could also be to rescue it—from misuse, from rigid definitions, from people or entities who make time feel imposing rather than friendly, alive, and personal. Odell herself puts it best: “The idea that we could ‘save’ time—by recovering its fundamentally irreducible and inventive nature—could also mean that time saves us.”
That the ouroboros, a symbol that is several thousand years old, is being transposed into social media today suggests that art or writing that contemplates time is, in a sense, timeless. And there is a certain perpetually present-tense quality that Odell brings to her work. Though she has never explicitly promised us anything of the sort, readers often come to Odell’s work looking for answers, a prescription to solve the doldrums of everyday life. But this was not the purpose behind Saving Time, as Odell writes in the book’s introduction: “this book is not a practical means for making more time in the immediate sense—not because I don’t think that’s a worthwhile topic, but because my background is in art, language, and ways of seeing.” Odell instead provides frameworks that allow the reader to conceptualize how their individual time fits into the social and political moment they live in.
One such tool is a helpful graph that illustrates the periods throughout the year that sundial time runs ahead of or behind the standard clock. “The graph shows both readings of time,” Odell explains, “yet they are not equal,” as the sundial allows for a stretchiness of time—some minutes longer than others, some unaccounted for all together—in a way that the clock does not. In a different chapter, Odell references German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper’s delineation between horizontal time, “a pattern of forward-leaning labor time punctuated by little gaps of rest that simply refresh us for more work,” and vertical time, which “negates the entire dimension of workaday time” and “runs at right angles to work.” True rest or leisure, Odell argues, can only be achieved on the vertical axis of time, an experience of temporality that is not concerned with or defined by labor. She then speaks to the times she has achieved this:
I have experienced “leisure” while cooking, sorting socks, getting the mail, waiting for the bus, and especially riding the bus. If you have ever had a good trip on psychedelics, you know how something normally tedious and everyday, part of the horizontal realm of time, can switch into the vertical realm and become dizzying, fascinatingly alien.”
While I appreciate these academic frameworks, it is at points frustrating to read about how our time has been stolen from us without being offered any tangible solutions. Odell addresses this absence, though does not dwell on it, in the book’s opening pages by directly acknowledging that the personal project of reframing temporality must go hand in hand with structural changes that would allow individuals and communities to live out their days on their own time. Despite this, the text dances around the question—is there a way to live outside of the corporate clock in our world today, not just theoretically, but tangibly?—while rarely considering it directly. It is certainly too tall an order to expect Odell to give us all the solutions to our time not being our own. That said, at times I yearned for her to push readers more aggressively in the direction of the only historically proven method to achieving the large-scale political and economic changes she alluded to being necessary: revolt.
I’m reminded of a passage from Toni Morrison’s 1992 novel Jazz, where Morrison describes the protagonist’s complicated relationship to leisure. “This notion of rest, it’s attractive to her, but I don’t think she would like it,” she writes. “They are busy and thinking of ways to be busier because such a space of nothing pressing to do would knock them down. […] They fill their mind and hands with soap and repair and dicey confrontations because what is waiting for them, in a suddenly idle moment, is the seep of rage.” Here Morrison astutely points out that we have been so conditioned by our political and economic conditions—to moving too quickly, to the thrill of a busy calendar, to sprinting through our days without experiencing their texture—that we are not actually comfortable with the idea of rest. Even if the political and material conditions of the world we live in were to change tomorrow, and our time was suddenly not occupied by labor or profit, we as individuals would still need to make personal, emotional, and spiritual changes to adapt to this new world order. Saving our time—collecting it, protecting it—is a crucial step in this political project.
Mary Retta writes about politics and culture. Her work can be found in New York magazine, The Atlantic, The Nation, and elsewhere.
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