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Emergent Strategy and How to Do Nothing – a reading response

This semester I am in an interdisciplinary research seminar with Norah Zuniga-Shaw. For the class, we are all diving into our own research projects of choice, supporting and holding each other accountable along the way. We had two required texts: Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown and How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. I read both books slowly, simultaneously over the first six weeks of the semester. I am happy that I approached them in this way – allowing the ideas of each author to swirl around and rub up against one another. As I read each book, I would often pause mid-page to close my eyes and take a few deep breaths—allowing the ideas to surround and fill me. I have noticed many ways in which both of these books have effected me—both in cognitive, perspective-on-life sort of ways and in embodied, intentional-choice-making-in-life sort of ways.

I have picked through Emergent Strategy before, reading sections I felt called to based on ideas swirling in my head at the time, but this is the first time I’ve sat down and read the whole book cover to cover. As I continue to read and re-read adrienne maree brown’s words, I am struck my how much deep resonance her sharings have. Reading about her understanding of the world and the intentional way she has integrated that understanding into every choice she makes in life/work/pleasure/relationship, creates a vibration inside me of instinctual excitement—a sense of, ‘this is the way the world is meant to be!’ I have also been slowly reading Pleasure Activism since December and listening to her podcast with Toshi Reagon, Octavia’s Parables, so I have been steeping myself in brown’s sharings of emergent processes and practices. I have noticed both subtle and obvious changes in my choice making over this time of steeping – choices to slow down, to remain present when I would normally check out, to speak with vulnerable honesty, to ask for help even when my patterning tells me not to, to invest my time and energy more with people and relations than I do with tasks and ‘obligations.’ Emergent Strategy is deeply effecting the way I am approaching my research, and also deeply effecting my engagement within many layers of my life.

I have countless phrases and passages underlined and dog-eared in the book, but here are a few quotes that stood out to me today when I paged through them:

“…pleasure evokes change—perhaps more than shame.” p.21

“How we live and grow and stay purposeful in the face of constant change actually does determine both the quality of our lives, and the impact that we can have when we move into action together.” p. 69

“Adaptation reduces exhaustion.” p.71

“It’s data, all this learning. Tender data.” p. 96


I finished reading How to Do Nothing yesterday and am honestly sad that it’s over. In the first week of class, I wrote in the course discussion thread that the book reminded me of my dad, and it continued to do so over and over again. Reading this book felt like being in my dad’s presence. He has this calm, settled way of showing up in his life, and not because he has no struggles or worries, but because he is intentional with his attention. Before he retired he was the middle school science teacher that would take his students on walks over to the creek that ran behind the school to observe life happening there.  He, like Odell, is a birdwatcher and will spend weeks at a time ‘(not) alone in nature,’ sleeping in his car, listening to and watching the behaviors of birds. Just this year he got his first smartphone and he frequently forgets where it is, leaving it out of his mind for hours or days at a time. When he sees my performance work he notices layers of symbolism, meaning, and allusion that few people do (even some things I didn’t realize were present). As I read How to Do Nothing, I noticed myself adopting energies that I usually associate with my dad. I’ve noticed an ‘I-Thou’ layer of awareness bubbling up in my relationship with the world surrounding me. More and more I am finding ways to embody ‘refusals in place’—especially in regard to the norms and expectations within higher education.

Again, I have countless pages with sticky notes in this book, but here are some stand out bits that drew me in as I combed through the book today:

“How endlessly strange reality is when we look at it rather than through it.” p. 103

“Attention is a state of openness that assumes there is something new to be seen.” p. 112

“Communication requires us to care enough to make an effort.” p. 132

“Whether we are the fluid product of our interactions with others is not our choice to make. The only choice is whether to recognize this reality or not.” p. 140

“…ecological understanding takes time. Context is what appears when you hold your attention open for long enough; the longer you hold it, the more context appears.” p. 155

“…the ability to seek and understand context is nothing less than a collective survival skill.” p. 166

“Out fates are linked, to each other, to the places where we are, and to everyone and everything that lives in them.” p. 183

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