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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Anorexia, breast binding and the legitimisation of body hatred

Forcing people to live in a body where they do not feel at home causes intense, often unbearable suffering.

In 1987 I underwent the first of three hospitalisations for anorexia. I was force-fed via a nasogastric tube. This led me to gain a significant amount of weight, which I hated. Furthermore, it made my overall psychological state not better, but worse.

Upon discharge I lost the weight again and in the years that followed I tried to play a game of keeping myself just thin enough to manage my anxiety, not so thin as to be coerced into further treatment. I was not always successful. I used to fantasise about the peace I would experience if only people were to leave me alone. The expectations they had for my life, my body, were not my own.

Decades later I have not come round to other people’s point of view. I still think force-feeding was violent, traumatising, if not downright abusive. I still reject the idea that one might somehow, by sheer force of will, learn to accept a body in which one does not feel at home. The portrayal of anorexia as some invading enemy, or a sly, toxic friend, is one I find wholly ridiculous. There was no battle between the “real” me and a manipulative, alien “Ana”. Every thought I thought, every feeling I felt, was mine.

Should this sound like the start of The Pro-Ana Manifesto, I would like to stress that anorexia robbed me of a great deal. It almost killed me. Perhaps, if I had been “left in peace”, I would not be around to write this today. Yet there was no simple cure, no demon to kill. There was, in the end, no Ana, no skinny mean-girl shadow stalking me, whispering in my ear. There was only me. There was only ever me and a world for which I desperately wanted – and still want – to be the right shape.

In Hunger Strike, Susie Orbach describes how recovery from anorexia is seen by many as having been achieved “when the normal weight is reached and appropriate sex role functioning is achieved”. It is not just a matter of “being healthy” or “looking normal”; gaining body fat means, for a woman, gaining hips and breasts and having to contend with the gendered expectations that accompany this. A female with hips and breasts has a job to do, a role to perform, both sexually and reproductively. I did not want this role. It was easier to change my body than to ask the world to accommodate my humanity.

There is a way in which I understand force-feeding and coercive eating disorder management as a form of conversion therapy, an attempt to impose gender conformity on an unwilling subject. The problem is not the anorexia sufferer’s refusal to eat; she is absolutely correct in assuming that by gaining weight, she will be expected to give up something very personal and meaningful to her. “I have gained weight, but lost myself,” writes Nancy Tucker of her own recovery. “How can I explain that inside I remain an anorexic, but trapped in a fat suit?” How can one be seen as human being while looking like a woman? The anorexic must struggle with this conundrum, at least if she wants to live, but it cannot be hers alone to solve.

I first became ill in 1987, aged 11. I’d been an early developer, already wearing a bra at primary school. I did not want to be that person, the fat girl, the slag, the one who got her breasts groped, her bra snapped, pushed into corners, the one who ended up playing that role anyhow, because it’s less shameful to be a slut in a slut’s body than it is to be a blushing eleven-year-old prude with tits. I tried it for a while, a good eight months, then I gave up and stopped eating. Such a pattern is not uncommon. Eating disorders are more prevalent in those of us who experience an early onset of puberty. I knew, absolutely and without question, that the body I had acquired was not the one I was supposed to have. I wanted to be one of the skinny, straight girls, the ones whose bodies were indistinguishable from those of the boys. Better still, I wanted to be a boy, to never have to gain hips and breasts, or to bleed, again.

Had I been born thirty years later, starvation may not have felt like my only option. By which I do not mean that the situation for pubescent girls has improved. My groping male classmates interpreted female bodies through the lens of Playboy and page three; the harder, faster, crueller world of online porn was yet to come. I mean I could have said I was not a girl. I did not feel like a girl. I was not a girl, not that girl, not that bleeding, stinking body I had become. It would not have been a lie. If I were going through what I went through thirty years ago today, perhaps I would not have needed to flee puberty all alone. I could have asked for help. Instead of having to face down my force-feeding adversaries, I could have found adults willing to support me in my efforts to sculpt a body more in keeping with my sense of self.

For instance, recent advice given to UK schools on how to accommodate the needs of transgender children includes information on chest-binding. According to Cornwall Council, binding can be “hot, uncomfortable and restrictive – but very important to [pupils’] psychological wellbeing”. Teachers are nonetheless told to remain aware of the risk of “breathing difficulties, skeletal problems and fainting”. Lancashire County Council offers the following advice:

“If you have young people who bind their chests, monitor them carefully during physical activities and in hot weather. It may be necessary to subtly offer more breaks.”

I’m perfectly aware that one is not supposed to question guidance of this nature. But I think, just for one moment, we should be honest about what we are witnessing. Young people who hate their breasts, absolutely loathe them, would be willing to take a knife to them and slice them off, would be practically suicidal if someone told them that these breasts were with them for life. Young people who know without doubt that their inner selves, their very identities, are wholly incompatible with the ownership of breasts. Young people who, in other words, feel exactly as I did. And instead of challenging this self-hatred – instead of acknowledging the pain (which no one did for me), but also recognising that it is not caused by the body itself – grown adults are accepting this narrative without question. Because it’s easiest. Because yes, a child still suffers, but the ends (not looking female) are deemed to justify the means (physical pain and possible long-term damage).

Pink News recently described the drawing of comparisons between anorexia and certain narratives of transgender experience as “insulting”. It was not made clear who was being insulted, but I’m guessing it was not anorexia sufferers; after all, they’re the mentally ill ones. While I have no desire to get into a long discussion on the arbitrary nature of definitions of sanity, I think it is perfectly possible to acknowledge the cultural, political and gendered meanings of anorexia without going all-out pro-ana and suggesting it is not an illness at all. It is an illness that operates within particular social settings, in response to and interacting with particular cultural influences. “The world gets harder and harder,” writes Hilary Mantel on self-imposed starvation. “There’s no pleasing it. No wonder some girls want out.”  

The female-to-trans narrative offers a different way of framing the same impossible dilemma. We know that there are countless individuals who have always had this sense of not-belonging. It is now being suggested that contemporary trans politics is granting them to access the language and treatments they have needed all along. But another way of putting it might be that a vocabulary and treatment protocol have been created precisely in order to accommodate rather than challenge the relationship between gender and hatred of one’s own sexed body. What we are seeing remains a symptom, not a cure.

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson describes her partner Harry’s experiences of binding:

“Your inability to live in your skin was reaching its peak, your neck and back pulsing with pain all day, all night, from your torso (and hence, your lungs) having been constricted for almost thirty years. You tried to stay wrapped even while sleeping, but by morning the floor was always littered with doctored sports bras, strips of dirty fabric – “smashers” you called them.”

I can easily see myself, aged 14 or 15, reading words like this over and over again, every bit as reverently as I used to read every anorexia memoir I could get my hands on, absorbing every word, feeling ashamed of not being as hardcore, of not having proven myself yet. You still have breasts. You’re not bleeding. Do better. Do more. This is not to question the genuine pain that is being depicted here. At one point Nelson reports her partner’s response to her own lack of comprehension:

“Don’t you get it? you yelled back. I will never feel as free as you do, I will never feel as at home in the world. I will never feel as at home in my own skin. That’s just the way it is, and always will be.”

I don’t know a single long-term anorexia sufferer who has not expressed similar sentiments. And there is no simple response, because it is, in all likelihood, the truth. It is heartbreaking, a tragedy. We can acknowledge the validity of an individual’s suffering without losing sight of the fundamental injustice of it.

It would be wonderful if there were a simple answer to all this. Every day young women are encouraged – berated, almost – to accept their bodies, love their curves, not give a fuck about what men think. It doesn’t work. If it were that easy – if feminism were self-help, little mantras you repeat in your head, one long, extended Dove advert – we’d all be laughing. It’s not. Body positivity messages do not help, even those that do not come with advice on how to get “beautiful underarms” or “age-positive skin”. To really, truly get to the heart of what is wrong with female flesh, why it feels so hateful and alien to so many of us, we need to relate our alienation to the uses and abuses to which this flesh is put. And even then we need to accept that doing so will not necessarily save us as individuals. But the idea that sexed bodies do not match identities due to some innate mismatch – as opposed to the deeply political meanings inscribed upon them – is not just absurd, it is harmful. It leads us to focus only on our bodies and it short-circuits efforts towards long-term political change.

We are reaching a point where even questioning body-hatred is seen as a cruel denial of an individual’s inner self.  I have even seen articles including statements such as “personally, I would feel more empowered in my body […] if I heard that hating your boobs is OK”. How is one supposed to respond to that? ”Well, then, hate away?” Then there is the assumption that women who “consent” to be women – who choose not to bind or change their pronouns – must be so insensitive, so dumb, so politically unengaged as to be pacified by a quick “love your curves” slogan. The truth is that very few female people can accept their bodies as long as ownership of a female body – failure to starve it away, or crush it, or have it surgically corrected – is taken as implicit consent to be treated as a member of the inferior class.

I am not saying “burn your binders”. Forcing people to live in a body where they do not feel at home causes intense, often unbearable suffering. There is no quick fix, perhaps not even a lifetime one. But we need to think hard and keep asking questions, even if these contradict other people’s interpretations of what is possible for them.

We need to accept that an individual’s experience of themselves and their body is an interaction with the world around them. We need to do what we can to create comfort and hope. For women, there is a cost to growing and a cost to staying small. There is pain either way. But please can we keep open the option that it doesn’t have to be like this for all of us, forever? No matter how much it hurts we must at least believe that.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.