This article was written on 15 Nov 2013, and is filled under Urbanities.

Sleep and technology

Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (Verso, 2013)

Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (Verso, 2013)

I want to follow up on Justin’s last post and, in the process, talk about a book that I just recently finished reading. It’s a great insight to note that, if we are going to talk about “soft architecture” at all, the term should really encompass “the underlying structural processes and manipulations of force by which the spectacle is produced.” That is, what’s soft in this case isn’t architecture’s “phenotypical expression”—the flashing lights that wrap some buildings in luminous, undulating skin—but rather “the digital networking architecture clustered in lower Manhattan around the area of the World Trade Center, by which global financial markets thrive.” There is, between the two sorts of digital production, “an accidental overlap (though perhaps not accidental at all),” and that overlap is where we lose sight of the real “soft” forces underlying the “shiny object” that is the building itself.

I’m interested in the parentheses in Justin’s formulation. The overlap between digital phenotype and digital architecture is accidental, but perhaps it isn’t. The productive tension in this sentence gets at the general relationship between digital technologies and capitalism. An examination of that same relationship makes up the center of Jonathan Crary’s often insightful, elegantly written book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.

As its title indicates, this book is about the politics of sleep in the age of late capitalism, a phase in capitalism made possible by digital networking technologies. It’s also, more broadly, about the ecology of sleep, in particular the relationship between the human body and cycles of light and darkness. The book begins with a discussion of experimental military research. We learn about ongoing research aiming “to discover ways to enable people to go without sleep and to function productively and efficiently.” Crary casts this investigation in the history of the military’s push “toward removing the living individual from many parts of the command, control, and execution circuit.” And he is frank about the ultimate consequences of success in this area:

As history has shown, war-related innovations are inevitably assimilated into a broader social sphere, and the sleepless soldier would be the forerunner of the sleepless worker or consumer. Non-sleep products, when aggressively promoted by pharmaceutical companies, would become first a lifestyle option, and eventually, for many, a necessity.

In other words, so goes the military, so goes civilian life. One possible, dystopic future lies in the drug-induced bypassing of sleep.

If this scenario comes to pass, it will represent, Crary argues, a radically new enclosure. While he is careful to note that the history of sleep is highly varied, dependent on historically situated norms, in the present it represents “one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism.” When we are sleeping, we temporarily escape the cycle of production and consumption typical of capitalism’s harnessing of our bodies:

Sleep is an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism. Most of the seemingly irreducible necessities of human life—hunger, thirst, sexual desire, and recently the need for friendship—have been remade into commodified or financialized forms. Sleep poses the idea of a human need and interval of time that cannot be colonized and harnessed to a massive engine of profitability, and thus remains an incongruous anomaly and site of crisis in the global present.

Sleep is the last frontier, a “scandal” in as much as it corresponds to the “rhythmic oscillations of solar light and darkness” that 24/7 capitalism seeks to overcome.

Crary finds an early representation of the tendency to vanquish the cycle of light and darkness in Joseph Wright of Derby’s 1782 painting Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night. What is most sinister about this painting, for Crary, is the series of little gas-lit windows in the buildings. “The artificial lighting of the factories,” he writes, “announces the rationalized deployment of an abstract relation between time and work, severed from the cyclical temporalities of lunar and solar movements.” Its painter is prescient of the long trend toward the end of nighttime. On this point, which recurs throughout his book, Crary is not only referring to the illumination of our cities. He also mentions the uses of light in nocturnal military raids (“the calculated ruination of nighttime itself”) and the glowing devices that many of us go to bed with and wake up next to (“a relatively unbroken engagement with illuminated screens of diverse kinds that unremittingly demand interest or response”). The common strand among these different uses of illumination lies in the slow or fast violence that subordinates the needs of human bodies to the imperatives of global capitalism.

As I read through 24/7, I kept thinking about the visual sequence with which Miramax movies begin: a pan over New York City (the city that never sleeps) at dusk. We see buildings become illuminated as nighttime quickly falls, the light of their windows eventually forming the movie studio’s logo. The sequence joins the logic of nighttime illumination to the logic of an increasingly visual, screen-centered culture.

Crary describes this aspect of contemporary life in great detail, often arriving at counterintuitive conclusions. He posits that the visual spectacle is not so much about vision itself. Rather, our visual continuum is subordinated “to a broad field of non-visual operations and requirements,” namely spending time “in habitual forms of individual self-management and self-regulation.” Vision isn’t always about seeing. Crary finds in the colloquial use of “eyeballs” (as in what click-baiting websites hope to attract) a dislocation of the eye “from the realm of optics” toward its conversion into “an intermediary element of a circuit whose end result is always a motor response of the body to electronic solicitation.” Reading backwards from this development, he similarly notes that television aims not (or not only) to generate “mass-deception, but rather states of neutralization and inactivation, in which one is dispossessed of time.” Our contemporary screen culture, in these terms, works to generate bodily dispositions that go beyond the eye—dispositions that ultimately look like sleeplessness.

It is here that we can get back to Justin’s formulation, which I’ll reframe as a question: Digital technologies overlap with the functioning of contemporary capitalism, but is this overlap an accidental one? Crary seems to say that it’s not. He writes disparagingly about blogging, for example, contending that it represents “the triumph of a one-way model of auto-chattering in which the possibility of ever having to wait and listen to someone else has been eliminated.” It thus announces, “no matter what its intentions,” nothing less than “the end of politics.” Key for politics, as Crary sees it, are the acts of waiting and listening, which he sees eliminated in the instantaneous publication dynamics of blogging. While he concedes that political activism “means creatively using available tools and material resources,” he also sees, in digital tools in particular, the imminent end of that activism.

I agree that activism “should not entail imagining the tools themselves to have intrinsic redemptive values.” I also find most techno-utopianism to be tired and short-sighted. However, blogging is not just one sort of activity; it designates all sorts of writing and generates all sorts of interaction. To make an obvious point, the text I am writing this very moment will soon be published on a blog, and I don’t think that it’s a case of “auto-chattering.” Such is the case for a lot of what I read on screens every day, and I’m sure that’s true for many people. I find much that is valuable and politically relevant on blogs all the time, to say nothing of other sorts of social media. I’m confident that others do too.

In an essay that Crary glosses and critiques, Gilles Deleuze proposed that “[t]ypes of machines are easily matched with each type of society—not that machines are determining, but because they express those social forms capable of generating them and using them.” Machines do not determine social forms, but they do express something important about the societies that use them: quite simply, the capacity to create and deploy them. The formulation rejects determinism, while retaining a clear and productive link between technology and other realms of culture. It thus allows for us to establish correlations, but it also opens up the possibility of dynamic change.

I think that Deleuze’s comments at least help clarify the relationship between machines and the groups of people who plug into them. Our machines cipher us, but they do not exhaust us. There’s a constant, immanent interplay between humans and technologies. Both the former and the latter have all sorts of uses, not all of which are reducible to the economic system that produces them. Crary wants a just world in which we are free to sleep. I don’t know what role digital technologies will play in such a world. But I would guess that those at least some of those roles are already being played out under the surface, imperceptibly producing something other than an insomniac capitalist rationality.


  1. Sleep | Nonhuman Collectives
    November 15, 2013

    […] a quick post to link to some comments I wrote elsewhere on Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of […]

  2. Henry Sussman
    December 5, 2013

    Systems invariably speak in double-binds. That is their idiom. Craig Epplin’s suggestive review of Jonathan Crary, coming in the context of his dialogue with Justin Read, underscores the double-bind with which we are all beset by cybernetic technologies. They are not only fitted out with amazing range in browsing, memory, and editorial capability, and even with certain self-critical (or “autopoietic”) features: they have radically altered the sense and deployment of time (hence Crary’s most timely book, no pun intended). Yet these technologies have also initiated radical change to our social interactions and expectations, communications and a whole host of socio-economic functions, and even to the phenomenological parameters of experience and cognition. The damage-report on any negative developments in these spheres is far from being issues, even in preliminary form. The “Urbanities” desk’s response to Crary thus picks up and speaks in the inevitable double-speak of the contemporary cybernetic Prevailing Operating System.