Reclaiming a ‘breathing-space’: The subversive power of attention autonomy

Choked on emotions

It has been the month of mourning. From the cold-hearted murder of George Floyd, to the miserable plight of labourers trying to make their way home, to the millions losing their job as companies try to stay ‘afloat’, to the millions of hectares of forests being cut to make way for more mining, to the frontline healthworkers dying to lack of basic PPEs, to the increasing inter-nation tensions and military confrontations, to the neglected victims of climate-change distasters, to the stranded refugees left with nowhere to go. Where does this misery end? What do we need to do in order to survive such rampant assault on our lives, interconnected as they are with other humans and the ecology? There are obvious degrees of suffering, and saying ‘our’ is not intended to reduce the wide range of inequities and differences to some homogeneous feeling of distress. However, it is clear that we all to stand to lose, unless we find the courage to defend and stand up for what we love.

The resistance of disengagement

Disparate, as the above incidents may seem, a common thread of displacement runs through all off them. From the histories of slavery and colonisation, to the pitifully short-sighted economic decisions driving the flight of migrants, to the irreversible loss of forests and rivers, displacement has been the foremost choice of violence. However, this doesn’t happen in isolation. Another insidious process at play is what artist and writer, Jenny Odell refers to as the ‘attention-economy’. In her timely book, “How to do nothing: Resisting the attention economy”, Odell provides a detailed argument of how capitalistic interests, interwoven with technological inventions (and interventions), now lay claim to our time in destructive, and draining ways. These moves are made under garb of productivity and efficiency, as if these are self-evident universal values to pursue. Productive for whom? Efficiency for what?

These thoughts are worth reflecting upon, especially given the extraordinary circumstances created by the pandemic. Most educational institutions, for example, have been asked to switch into an online mode and prepare for forthcoming semesters as if the physical, social and psychological issues created by the pandemic shouldn’t have any bearing on teaching/ learning processes. In an insightful article by Cara Hagan, she offers creative ways in which academic experiences can be made much more meaningful by turning it into a ‘gap year’ that allows students and faculty members to pick up useful skills, work in their immediate neighbourhoods and tune in to support the local community. None of these would be comfortable fit into categories of industrial productivity, and yet it is exactly what is needed. Thinking of alternatives takes time. It takes support. It needs a place in a community that can incorporate such practices. Yet, all of these have been stripped away from us.

Social media platforms add another dimension of cruel irony, because they feed on the very emotions that we ought to be able share with each other physically. Instead, every ‘share’ of outrage, or guilt, or ‘Like’ converts into profit algorithms. By now, my social media wall has had enough data points to figure out what will catch my attention, and the results are nothing short of emotional distress. The toxic mix of feeling enraged and helpless can lead to loss of agency or just a facile belief in the same because some online petitions have been signed. This is not to say that such acts are unimportant, or such media platforms shouldn’t be used. The point is, they shouldn’t be allowed to abuse us. Odell writes, “I am suggesting that we protect our spaces and our time for non-instrumental, non-commercial activity and thought, for maintainance, for care, for conviviviality. And I’m suggesting that we fiercely protect our human animality against all technologies that actively ignore and disdain the body, the bodies of other beings, and the body of the landscape that we inhabit.” Social platforms are a view from everywhere, and hence a perspective from nowhere. It thus becomes crucial that we resist getting swept by its infinite capacity to suck us into situations that are dead-ends in terms of actual meaning-making. We need to reclaim our attention, and thereby open the possibility of discovering alternate ways of being. Seen this way, the more radical outcome of a Universal Basic Income wouldn’t just be financial stability, but also the much needed time to attend to activities that refuse to participate in the commercial exploitation of productivity.

Bringing it all together: The politics of dwelling

If displacement marks the beginning of exploitation, the act of dwelling may offer a way to live differently. Anthropologist Tim Ingold refers to dwelling as acts that build relational contexts based on practical engagement with one’s surroundings. It is no coincidence that some of the most sustained political counter-movements have emerged from places of belonging, and rootedness. Anger will spark a revolt, but sustaining it is a matter of long-term commitments that can’t arise without acts of care, trust and attention. In a time marked with increased migration (in search of safety, refuge, education, employment etc), the need to find common ground is a matter of necessary and mindful intentionality. The right to literal and metaphorical breathing-space is not a matter of luxury. It is one in need of urgent attention.

In the years spent growing edible plants in urban community farms, my attention is naturally caught by the wild plants, trees and birds that that contribute to the unique personality of a place. Visit them enough number of times, and relationships are bound to grow. Anything that diminishes the quality of the place, human or more-than-human, is then felt as a personal loss. Not just a random person. Not just an anonymous tree. When places are co-created, connections become sacred. These are the spaces where roots of empathy can be nourished. Let them grow.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson (Image source:

Published by debbiebornfree

I am cynical, yet hopeful. I am scared, yet take a step into the dark. I am an introvert, yet I can fill the room with conversations. I listen to stories, as I write my own. I am human.

4 thoughts on “Reclaiming a ‘breathing-space’: The subversive power of attention autonomy

  1. I am just speechless. Such powerful writing, born out of deep empathy and awareness. It is so fulfilling reading you. I am speechless because every fact you bring out here- our sense of rootedness, displacement as the beginning of all capitalistic ventures, the unfilled void during this pandemic- these are the themes that truly concern us. Unfortunately, we have never realized this. We continue to believe that the themes that truly concern us are our jobs and our ventures of slavery in a capitalistic world. Please keep writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am glad you liked the article, Vidya. I have been really enjoying reading your writing too. It is a lovely feeling when written thoughts transcend space and time to connect with someone else. I am very grateful for your comments, and yes, I do want to keep writing 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Your writing is a class apart- it serves the true purpose of art. You have no idea how much difference this idea of displacement and rootedness connects to me at multiple levels. I now understand how my rootedness coupled with the constant displacement that characterized my life, explains the root of most of the suffering I endured. The anime ‘Only yesterday’ is also about this displacement and the resultant identity conflict, isn’t it? I feel privileged to have run into you.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The feeling is mutual, Vidya :). Here’s to hoping that we can continue to encourage each other through our writings, and find some peace in the process.


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