Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by Jonathan Crary: Sleep is a standing affront to capitalism

When hungry digital companies measure success in "eyeballs" is sleep the last remaining zone of dissidence, of anti-productivity and even of solidarity?

24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep
Jonathan Crary
Verso, 144pp, £9.99

When I close my laptop, it goes to sleep. It’s a curiously domestic metaphor but it also implies that sleep in humans and other animals is just a kind of low-power standby mode. (Do computers dream of electric sleep?) Last year, Apple announced a twist on this idea: a new feature for the Mac operating system called “Power Nap”. Using Power Nap, your computer can do important things even while asleep, receiving updates and performing backups.

The name Power Nap comes from the term describing the thrusting executive’s purported ability to catch a restorative forty winks in 20 minutes but the functioning of Apple’s feature symbolically implies a yet more ultra-modern and frankly inhuman aspiration: to be “productive” even while dozing. It is the uncanny technological embodiment of the dream most blatantly sold to us by those work-from-home scams online, which promise that you can “make money even while you sleep”.

Sleep, indeed, is a standing affront to capitalism. That is the argument of Jonathan Crary’s provocative and fascinating essay, which takes “24/7” as a spectral umbrella term for round-the-clock consumption and production in today’s world. The human power nap is a macho response to what Crary notes is the alarming shrinkage of sleep in modernity. “The average North American adult now sleeps approximately six and a half hours a night,” he observes, which is “an erosion from eight hours a generation ago” and “ten hours in the early 20th century”.

Back in 1996, Stanley Coren’s book Sleep Thieves blamed insufficient rest for industrial disasters such as the Chernobyl meltdown. Crary is worried about the encroachment on sleep because it represents one of the last remaining zones of dissidence, of anti-productivity and even of solidarity. Isn’t it quite disgusting that, as he notices, public benches are now deliberately engineered to prevent human beings from sleeping on them?

While Apple-branded machines that take working Power Naps are figured as a more efficient species of people, people themselves are increasingly represented as apparatuses to be acted on by machines. Take the popular internet parlance of getting “eyeballs”, which means reaching an audience. “The term ‘eyeballs’ for the site of control,” Crary writes, “repositions human vision as a motor activity that can be subjected to external direction or stimuli . . . The eye is dislodged from the realm of optics and made into an intermediary element of a circuit whose end result is always a motor response of the body to electronic solicitation.”

You can’t get more “eyeballs” if the people to whose brains the eyeballs are physically connected are asleep. Hence the interest – currently military; before long surely commercial, too – in removing our need for sleep with drugs or other modifications. Then we would be more like efficient machines, able to “interact” with (or labour among) electronic media all day and all night. (It is strange, once you think about it, that the phrase “He’s a machine” is now supposed to be a compliment in the sporting arena and the workplace.)

Crary’s denunciation of the 24/7 world’s saturation in web-enabled media results in some splendid formulations – such as when he argues that activists who organise on the internet “voluntarily kettle themselves in cyberspace, where state surveillance, sabotage and manipulation are far easier than in lived communities”.

It also tempts him into some portentous exaggeration. He claims, for instance, that “wireless technologies” have accomplished an “annihilation of the singularity of place and event”. (Radical thinkers often seem to take pleasure in noticing some putative extreme violence in cultural change.)

There is an unfortunate passage arguing that our age has universally dulled everyone’s faculties – except, implicitly, those of the percipient critic: “24/7 is part of an immense incapacitation of visual experience,” Crary declares. “The contingency and variability of the visible world are no longer accessible.” Really, to no one? What’s more, he writes: “Contrary to many claims, there is an ongoing diminution of mental and perceptual capabilities rather than their expansion or modulation.” To this sentence is appended no footnote offering evidence.

Despite such rhetorical surfeit, Crary’s book is, on the whole, a humane and bracingly splenetic counterblast, with a lot of interesting micro-theses along the way. (Forget the heavy breathing of the celebrants of gadgets and networks; according to Crary, “the most important techniques invented in the last 150 years” are “the various systems for the management and control of human beings”.)

Into the baleful realm of 24/7 he draws, too, the diagnostic inflation of the pharmaceutical industry (always “discovering” new mental disorders for which it solicitously offers new pills), the pseudo-mandatory self-fashioning of social media and what he sardonically calls “the absolute abdication of responsibility for living” represented by all those bestselling “bucket-list” books that instruct us on “the 1,000 movies to see before we die”.

For him, the antidote to all of that is sleep and also its cousin daydream or “reverie”. At the end of the book, Crary waxes poetic about this and laments that few people these days besides New Agers are interested in their dreams. Crary complains that films such as The Matrix portray societies of sleepers as inert and duped and so work as propaganda for 24/7. So, too, he argues, do films such as Inception, in portraying dreams as, in essence, like movies: in theory, commodifiable and “sharable”.

After finishing this book, I had a dystopian nightmare. One day, through clever magnetic stimulation of the brain, it might be possible to insert adverts into our dreams. You could even volunteer to have them interpolated into your sleeping life in exchange for money. (“My dream last night was sponsored by Facebook and Walkers Crisps.”) If that day ever comes, we won’t be safe anywhere – even in the arms of Morpheus.

Steven Poole’s most recent book is “You Aren’t What You Eat” (Union Books, £7.99)

Waking life: Francisco Goya's The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. Credit: Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France/Archives Charmet/The Bridgeman Art Library.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

Helena Smith
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Can religion trump the climate change deniers? Meet the inter-faith environmentalists

The role of faith in fighting intolerance, protecting the planet, and trumping Trump.

"I need my brothers here with me - Canon Giles and Rabbi Natan," said Dr Husna Ahmad, motioning for the two men to join her at the pulpit. Taking their hands and raising them above her head, she continued:

“[I need them] to be my voice, to fight for my right to practice my religion, for my right to wear the hijab and to care for my sons and daughters and granddaughters - as they would care for their own”.

Why do I ask for this at an evening about climate change? she asked, her voice now shaking with emotion. “Because only when we think as one humanity can we save this planet.”

The meeting at St John’s church, Waterloo, saw Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders come together for the first-ever "Faith for the Climate" event. Their message echoed the wider Interfaith movement's statement on climate change: that caring for the earth is our shared responsibility. 

As so often with environmental subjects, the effort felt at risk of being shadowed by the more tangible needs of the soup-kitchen operating in the dusk outside. Yet at a time of rising Islamophobia and anti-Semitism building cross-community connections and tackling prejudice matter more than ever.

Not least since the fledgling consensus on climate change is also under threat. In the US, one of the world's great polluters, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is a climate change denier. 

During last night's televised debate Hillary Clinton took the businessman to task for saying that climate change was "a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese". Trump denied the accusation: "I did not, I did not, I do not say that," he responded. Yet his tweet history suggests otherwise - revealing how a toxic mix of xenophobia and climate scepticism play their part in his wider message.

Prepped with tea and pitta bread, attendees bore witness to a talk by Sir David King - the Foreign secretary's special representative on climate change. By 2035 the world needs to be at net zero emissions, King explained.

Unbearable heat waves, extreme flooding and biblical-levels of crop-destruction wait on the other side of this deadline.

Last week’s UN conference in New York has seen over 30 new nations, including the UK, officially commit to the Paris climate treaty.  Yet against such optimism must be set the looming prospect of a Trump Presidency in America. 

Not only has Trump said he would “cancel” America’s commitment to the Paris agreement. He has also promised to end the “war on coal”, scrap the Environment Protection Agency, and appoint an oil executive to be the Interior secretary. Without America’s support for global action on climate change, the 1.5 degrees target would be impossible to reach.

So how can religion help? On a direct level, many faith-based bodies are already utilising their vast networks to help tackle the challenge.

Since 2004, Operation Noah, a UK-based Christian charity, has called on the church to divest from fossil fuels.

Sir King also described the Pope's 2015 environmental encyclical as an important part of the "crescendo" that set the stage for the successful negotiations on the global climate deal. On the back of such international progress, groups such as Christian Aid, Islamic Relief and the Big Church Switch are strengthening their interventions. Just last week, Christian Aid announced a new $53m fund to improve energy efficiency in developing countries. 

But there is perhaps also another, less direct, way that religion is helping. Christian evangelicals in the US have been more likely to be climate sceptics. Yet in inter-religious contexts, the multiplicity of interpretations can also be an invitation to a deeper interrogation - of the very way we form assumptions about the world. 

Just look at how many takes there have been on the Noah story within Christianity alone. Mike Hulme at Kings College London points to an American Christian evangelical coalition which supports fossil fuels for their ability to provide cheap energy for the poor. Others have claimed that God’s promise to Noah not to drastically alter the earth again means that the impact of climate change will be softened. In contrast, others read floods as a punishment for human sin. According to the Bishop of Carlisle, the 2007 floods were “the consequences of our moral degradation, as well as the environmental damage that we have caused.”

While it may be tempting to pack unpalatable viewpoints off in a "basket of deplorables", or wipe them out with an apocalyptic flood, the takeaway from events like last Wednesday's seems to be a message of expanded community and common ground.

For Canon Giles, simply watching members of different faiths united in prayer had transformative power. "In that moment, we were no longer a gathering of different faiths and dogmas," he said. "We were simply members of the muddled human species, pooling our hopes and prayers."

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.