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

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A general election means Jeremy Corbyn's euroscepticism is finally an asset

The Labour leader's track record means he can connect with Remain and Leave voters alike. 

The first anti-establishment party leader to offer true ideological opposition and alternative to the Thatcher consensus in a generation is staring down the barrel of a 20 point polling deficit at the start of this snap election race. This leader has filled halls; galvanised hundreds of thousands and consistently voted on the side of freedom, progress and justice. So just why has he been abandoned by those who should support him?

While Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has rightly been held to account, the criticisms have been, at times, unfairly amplified both by hostile MPs and a condescending press. With the election just over 40 days away, the left must now realise the severity of the task at hand, and question whether its constant attacks are helping to create the monstrous Tory landslide we all so fear. In the run-in, Corbyn will need unified backing by all those who oppose austerity, inequality and injustice, in a way he’s so far failed to receive.

The votes for Brexit and Donald Trump show the sheer disillusionment with the extreme centre governments of the last decades, that have given rise to mass inequality, caused global instability and brought terrorism to our doors. While Corbyn’s policies – on nationalising railways, foreign intervention, supporting the NHS, tuition fees, and more – are overwhelmingly supported by the public, he has so far lacked the communicative edge to ride the wave of this new age of populism. Whereas policy-lite Trump romped home with the mere repetition of eight syllables, Corbyn often misses opportunities to sell the bright, inclusive future needed to inspire the British public. He needs to create the punchy soundbite that sells his vision, in one, short sentence what a future Britain can look like, and how it stands in stark contrast to that of the Tories.

Throughout his spell at the helm of the Labour Party, Corbyn’s style has constantly been ridiculed; from his dress sense to tone of voice. So what do we really value in a leader and how should they act?

As PM, David Cameron regularly hit home in Parliament, brashly mocking opponents with quips and digs. He stood smug and unrepentant as deeply damaging cuts were enforced. But while he was once considered a strong and stately leader, history now judges him quite differently. For inflicting austerity, and leaving behind a heavily divided Britain, he’s now recognised as one of the worst. Theresa May’s brief stint at leadership has already seen a humiliating u-turn, dodged live debate and false election date promises, all while cruelly playing with the lives of millions of EU nationals.

Meanwhile, Corbyn, who at times has been unfairly lambasted for his approach has consistently displayed personal and professional dedication to championing pro-people politics for over 30 years, undeterred by spin and political games. Compassion, equality, fairness - surely these leadership traits hold equal worth.

In an election based primarily on Brexit, Corbyn can take real and emboldened ownership. A lifelong eurosceptic, Corbyn has the chance to offer a people-led Brexit that works for the majority, reaching out to Leave and Remain voters alike.

Much of the Remain protest movement and post-referendum activism revolves around fears of Britain becoming racist, hostile and isolationist in its approach to would-be migrants, and EU nationals. In negotiations, if a deal on immigration is to be struck, Corbyn’s historically compassionate views on migrants and refugees could create the most fair, humane solution possible. In his move today, he’s sought to reassure EU nationals of a future far removed from May’s brutal nationalistic games. And in Corbyn’s lifelong championing of workers’ rights, and redistribution of wealth, he can at last speak to the working-class heartlands freely of an inclusive and beneficial post-Brexit future.

While there can be shortcomings in Corbyn’s communication, and occasionally muted approach; criticisms can frequently seem unbalanced. His inability to shout about recent budgetary u-turns, for instance, made headlines over the actual climbdown itself. The time has surely come to focus on the severity of the alternative.

Throughout his leadership, Corbyn has been targeted by all corners of the press, with focus poured on his character over providing a real and important platform to explore his policies. When he refused mass media engagement he was dubbed cranky and weak, yet we’ve largely let May off the hook for dodging much-needed live debate. Written off by Westminster, mocked and condemned by the media. A principled voice fighting for equality, inclusion and fairness. Not much has changed in 30 years.

While we must hold his leadership to account, there is a sense that we, on the left are at times helping to fuel the massive Tory victory we apparently dread. So now is the time to remind ourselves, and others, who and what we’re up against. The "go-home illegal immigrants" vans circulated, and then pulled by May; her election u-turn, reinvention and uncompromising hard-Brexit approach. A party of callous, brutal decisions that have caused despair and plunged many into poverty. A snapshot of their comparative voting records alone should be enough to put the choice ahead of us into stark perspective.

And just to reiterate Corbyn’s largely swallowed, forgotten record during his rebranding as meaningless, lost and ineffectual. He was right on sad, regrettable wars; he passionately protested apartheid, championed workers rights and equal pay, and has consistently stood up for the NHS – against party line.

That’s a name, record and leader many will be proud to put an inked endorsement by on 8 June 2017. 

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