Tired? Distracted?

Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep

Verso, 144pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781781680933

reviewed by Maya Osborne

Recently, a friend said to me that she had banned herself from checking her emails over the weekend, but after an internal battle she had given in and logged on. We are more and more prone to checking our emails if we wake in the middle of the night, and no post on Sunday is as quaint an idea as a village green. Jonathan Crary observes in his 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep that the machinic ‘sleep mode’ ‘supersedes an off/on logic, so that nothing is ever fundamentally "off" and there is never an actual state of rest.’ For Crary, this globalised push towards a state of perpetual activity signals the inevitable decline of community, of shared goals, and of activity that avoids capitalist accumulation. We are blind-sighted in our striving towards individual gain, having forgotten that our very survival as humans is dependent upon our sociality.

It took me over a week to read 24/7, which consists of a mere 128 pages of engaging and accessible prose. My excuse for such slow progress is in keeping with the book's argument concerning our reduced levels of concentration in the face of myriad distractions. For me this included long work hours, a lack of sleep due to ill health, extensive time occupied by cybernetic activities, and ‘downtime’ televisual or online entertainment, which no doubt further reduced the amount of sleep I was getting. The book’s very structure works against the notion of an easily consumable technology: comprising four chapters titled 'One' to 'Four', 24/7 contains no headings, making it impossible to skip to the reader’s presumed ‘most relevant’ section. This is reminiscent of Walter Benjamin's writing style – so hard to pin down with exactitude – and no doubt connected with his distaste concerning the possibility that people might skim his books for the ‘main point’ of his argument. Like Benjamin, Crary has produced a text that avoids being bite-size despite its short length.

Crary directs our attention towards the ever-expanding world of wakeful technologies, succinctly formulated as ‘24/7’ living. This path towards a 24/7 lifestyle might appear powerful in its possibilities of self-aggrandisement and acquisition. Yet he is in fact presenting a situation in which the individual has been stripped of her freedom: in a Foucauldian turn of events we are informed that 24/7 ‘is fully interwoven with the mechanisms of control that maintain the superfluousness and powerlessness of the subject and its demands.’

The locus of rebellion against the 24/7 life rests in slumber; in its very nature sleep is anti-capitalistic – almost embarrassingly so in its denial of productivity and evasion of instrumentalism. ‘Sleep’, Crary informs us, ‘is an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism.’ He leads us into the terrifying dystopian arena of scientific advancement, where US government funded researchers can be found studying the behaviour of the white-crowned sparrow – a bird that can remain awake for up to seven days at a time during its migration period. The research is being carried out in the hope that this behavioural sleeplessness can be replicated in humans. If successful, this research could signal the advent of the sleepless soldier, as opposed to the soldier who is pumped full of drugs in order to stimulate a state of wakefulness.

Sleep continues to hold its power of resistance, according to Crary. Although as a state it has been relegated to that of an annoyingly time-wasting activity, sleep has avoided commodification. Human bodily activities – eating, sex, our varying states of waking consciousness – have been successfully packaged as lifestyle choices that we can opt in or out of. The pharmaceutical industry has been a forerunner in the pathologisation of emotional states such as anxiety, sadness and distraction, which can now be ‘cured’ through the consumption of drugs, profiting private companies. There is – as of yet – no avoiding the fact that humans still require sleep to live, and thus no solution for the fact that human production must naturally cease during sleeping hours. Yet Crary observes how even dreaming has been demoted, and is today primarily the fodder of New Agers. He also notes how films like The Matrix (1999) and Inception (2010) depict dreaming as a state that can be tampered with by outside forces, and which is thus potentially commodifiable.

24/7 is a mode that is assured through forms such as the internet, television, transport, and communication – technologies that never switch off. The world is envisaged as a flashing, whirring screen that teases the fragile edges of sleep and procures a lifetime of insomnia. As new technologies are sold to us – ones which advertise faster, higher quality living – we find that our dependency on them only ever increases. In Capital, Karl Marx cites John Stuart Mill's mistrust that technological advancement is ever useful to us: ‘It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day's toil of any human being.’ This ever-increasing dependence on 24/7 technologies makes life more stressful and complicated, and serves to estrange us from one another as we forget that it is possible to interact socially, outside of the realm of consumption and acquisition.

Crary makes a bold statement towards the end of his book, noting how the concept of communication has changed, from that of a communally invested and interactive exchange of information, to a more singular attempt towards relaying an individual message. Thus he argues that online blogs, which provide a platform for individuals to offer their opinions on any number of topics, only serve the project of social isolation. Although recent political events have demonstrated the value of forms of online communication and media, the book argues that individuals who forget the importance of proximity and shared experience ‘voluntarily kettle themselves in cyberspace, where state surveillance, sabotage, and manipulation are far easier than in lived communities and localities where actual encounters occur.’

Carefully and sparingly engaging with theory from philosophers such as Marx, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Hannah Arendt, Giorgio Agamben and Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as readings from Franz Kafka, Andrei Tarkovsky and Chris Marker's chilling La jetée (1962), Crary has produced a brilliant and distressing text that offers no simple solutions. Far from suggesting that we bin our internet connection and flee to the hills, Crary's hope for human survival rests in our ability towards genuine human interaction. He offers sleep as the site where we can continue to live in common, by which we can uphold a rebellious existence that deflects the sticky paws of 21st-century capitalism.
Maya Osborne is a writer based in London. She has just completed an MA in Critical Theory at the University of Sussex.

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#6: Posted by Jeffrey Petts on Sat 16 Nov 2013 10:58

Great to read a good, positive review of '24/7' - contributions to a thoughtful and critical appraisal of our 'experience economy' more generally