If you're reading this late at night or in the middle of the night, you're corroborating the thesis of a new book published by Verso: Jonathan Crary's 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. -- Jacques Dubois discussed the Columbia professor's ideas on Thursday in an article posted on the French news website Mediapart and translated below. ...
By Jacques Dubois
August 28, 2014
There's a revival of anti-capitalist thought taking place on American campuses. One example of it is a recent essay by Jonathan Crary, whose central thesis is as original in its conception as it is devastating with regard to the facts he analyzes. According to Cray, capitalism has taken possession of just about every part of our lives except one: our sleep. But capitalism is now in the process of taking possession of sleep, too, along with all its intimate and private aspects. This is what Cray calls the 24/7 structure, in which we unfortunate consumers are kept alert seven days a week and 24 hours a day. Superstores will soon be open continuously, television is always on, the Internet is permanently accessible, and our residences are constellated non-stop with little luminous signals.
Attempts to resist this powerful grip and the technological hydra that permits it turn out to be utterly illusory. We're dragged along with the movement, and already there are many who get up at night to examine their email. And what a comfort it is, and how easy, to go make purchases on a Sunday morning or any day of the week in the middle of the night! Soon Amazon's drones will come to deliver to our homes the merchandise we have ordered with a single click. And all without seeing that an enormous project has been carried out whose final goal is to force us to consume, spend, and acquire continuously. And so, in rich countries at any rate, we're in a system that takes possession of us far beyond what consumer society ever did. A system that literally reifies us, making merchandise of our very selves.
In Crary's insightful work, the connection to sleep may at first seem vague. But it isn't, not at all. In addition to the fact that most of us sleep less than in previous centuries (we're said to have gone from an average of ten hours to eight, then to six), we are alerted by permanent sources of light (screens, night-lights, shop windows seen from within). The calls of the capitalist machine "hook" us uninterruptedly, tell us we're lucky enough to belong to the great network, and we submit to it effortlessly. "Submission to this apparatus," writes Crary, "is virtually irresistible, given the fear of social and economic failure, the fear of falling out of touch, of being considered old-fashioned. The rhythms of technological consumption cannot be separated from the requirements of permanent self-administration" (p. 57).
An enormous assault on human sleep is underway. For those who doubt this, Jonathan Crary reports on experiments conducted by the Pentagon aiming to accustom soldiers to a week of sleep deprivation so as to make them more operational. Which reminds us that such deprivation was used as an instrument of torture under Bush at Guantanamo. In Europe, moreover, studies have tried to capture sunlight by satellite in order to redirect it to the Earth at night. The goal: daylight all night long! Isn't it time we decree that access to darkness, like access to clean water, is a "human right"?
Reviewing the history of mass media in the 20th and 21st centuries, Crary's work shows that we have entered a period of timelessness that is swallowing up every aspect of social life and that is reducing personal life to very little. In the 24/7 system it's not enough to incite people to consume, they have to be made docile, isolated individuals as well.
In addition to evoking great filmmakers (Marker, Hitchcock) or certain surrealist poets, Crary, a professor at Columbia University in New York and very American-academic in his radicality, brings us back in the end to three thinkers, all of them French. He sees them as guides: Gilles Deleuze and his "societies of control," Guy Debord and his "society of the spectacle," and, above all, Jean-Paul Sartre and his theory of the "pratico-inert," a theory referring to the way "seriality" becomes a part of our everyday life. Thus Sartre put on trial the more and more frequent routines that have taken control of our lives -- beginning with the line at the bus stop!
It is almost superfluous to say that the "24/7 structure" has only enslaved us more and more to this all-pervading inertia, and just as superfluous to say that it functions as a watchword. So how can we resist? How can we recover the taste for uninterrupted sleep, for dreams? How can we revive a genuine social life, the kind that hippies and drop-outs tried to recover in the Sixties? We might as well admit it: Crary's innovative book, which tends to go off in all directions, doesn't really propose a solution.
Jonathan Crary, 24/7. Le Capitalisme à l’assaut du sommeil. Translated by Gérard Chamayou. Paris: Zones/La Découverte, 2014. € 15. [Original: 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. Verso, June 2014. $12.95.]
--Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003