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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When will Brexit actually happen? An Article 50 timeline

Knowing the precise date of "Brexit Day" depends on the outcome of numerous untested laws

It’s the question on the lips of every Leaver - what is the date Brexit will finally happen? Article 50 is set to be triggered no later than March 2017. But reaping the changes of a full removal from the Union could take a lot longer. From rewriting legislation to negotiating the diverse interests of the European Union, Brexit is going to involve a lot of waiting.

Will it still actually happen?

There are a few things that could trip up an exit from the EU, however unlikely that might seem. The House of Lords, who have already started their voting process on Article 50 could potentially block the bill, but is more likely to threaten to block the bill in an attempt to leverage amendments - such as the position of EU citizens in the UK. Amendments that the House of Commons unilaterally failed to pass.

Julia Rampen writes about every Remainer’s dream - some sort of backdoor challenge that The People’s Challenge, a campaign group, believe exist. According to the founders, it is entirely reasonable to revoke Article 50 at the end of negotiations, if Brexit is not a done deal.

Okay, so if it does happen, when?

Prime Minister Theresa May has stated that she wants to trigger Article 50, a clause of The Lisbon Treaty in March 2017, which gives a country two years to decide the terms of the departure. This puts Brexit approximately happening in Spring 2019, providing all the negotiations are complete in that estimated time period.

But in effect, this only means Brexit will begin in Spring 2019. The results of leaving the EU, such as all the changes to laws that were once determined by the Union, will take years. As for the economic promises made by the Leave campaign, they may take even longer (if they even exist). This leaving process will begin with The Great Repeal Bill - an as of yet unpublished bill created in order to help a transition from EU laws to UK laws. This bill essentially states that the authority of EU laws will be revoked, and “where practical” will be transposed to domestic laws, able to therefore be adapted as appropriate for the UK.

A telling part of the Government's briefing on The Great Repeal bill is the quote that adapting EU laws for domestic use “may require major swathes of the statute book to be assessed to determine which laws will be able to function after Brexit day” (Brexit Day not being a national holiday of mourning, but the day the UK officially leaves the European Union). This is where the core issue lies, that in theory we could have left the EU by 2019, but in practice, the changes that will invoke won’t be in play for years.

The main ambiguity with Brexit lies in the fact that these are relatively new and untested laws. Since it was written in 2009, Article 50 has never been invoked, so the estimation of a two year negotiation period is largely a theoretical one. Various MPs such as Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer, have noted that the process would likely exceed the two year framework - something that could be dangerous for the prosperity of the UK.