Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Zone of Insensibility: Jonathan Crary's "24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends Of Sleep"

In addition to being very interested in its subject matter, I recently read Jonathan Crary's 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep with increased determination after stumbling upon a book that is the exact opposite. As a bookseller, one of the joys of early morning shelving is skimming the books being put away, and as I do this, I tend to spend half the time making mental notes and the other half scoffing. Rarely has a book made me pause out of fear, but a few weeks ago, I saw a copy of Unconscious Branding by Douglas Van Praet. Of course, I'm committing the sin of judging a book by the cover, but I don't think I can be blamed for doing this. The cover image shows a woman with her eyes closed, possibly sleeping, with bar codes under both of her eyes. The subtitle is "How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing." Yes, technological advances are always developing and expanding; I'm not trying to come across like a cranky Luddite. But the idea of scientific advances for marketing/financial gain is terrifying to me. Without going into any discussion of the recent NSA revelations, everyone has at least a vague idea of how algorithms and unseen data mining are being used for the sake of marketing and commerce. The central theme of Crary's book shows that sleep is being considered a nuisance in the wake of nonstop capitalism. A human function and necessity that shouldn't even be questioned is being circumvented and chipped away in the name of filling every available moment with a chance to sell or add to the infinite collection of branding. This book, classified as philosophy in my bookstore, isn't an everyday screed against big capitalism and corporate dominance. It takes its title seriously, offering sobering examples of how sleep isn't taken into account in the dizzying world of global markets.

This book isn't presented from an angle of scaremongering, but with sober, detailed examples of the hypothesis. Military research studies of a species of bird are done to determine how to make humans (workers/soldiers) eliminate the bodily need for sleep. There are no timetables for when these developments could come to pass, nor does Crary claim it's right around the corner. His style is more focused on the fact that these kinds of researches are being done with the hope of them coming true. There's no scaremongering because it simply isn't needed; the examples alone do all the work.

"The sleeplessness research should be understood as one part of a quest for soldiers whose physical capabilities will more closely approximate the functionalities of non-human apparatuses and networks. There are massive ongoing efforts by the scientific-military complex to develop forms of 'augmented cognition' that will enhance many kinds of human-machine interaction. Simultaneously, the military is also funding many other areas of brain research, including the development of an anti-fear drug. There will be occasions when, for example, missile-armed drones cannot be used and death squads of sleep-resistant, fear-proofed commandos will be needed for missions of indefinite duration. As part of these endeavors, white-crowned sparrows have been removed from the seasonal rhythms of the Pacific coast environment to aid in the imposition of a machinic model of duration and efficiency onto the human body (Crary 3)."

Of course, times change. Humans engage in different activities, there are more opportunities to engage in various media outlets, and the digital revolution means that access to information and connection is always within one's reach. But before this century, sleep was an afterthought, except for people with sleeping problems. Now, there's the ever-nerve wracking idea that those precious hours are precious not for respite, regeneration, and cognitive means, but as a series of hours that could be engaged in some form of capitalist outlet. Crary mentions people waking up to check e-mail or the internet--I think everyone has done this out of habit, with a cell phone on the nightstand. But the idea of sleep as another social aspect, a part of our lives that can be broken down, into, or otherwise manipulated, is clarified.

"The huge portion of our lives that we spend asleep, freed from a morass of simulated needs, subsists as one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism. Sleep is an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism. Most of the seemingly irreducible necessities of human life--hunger, thirst, sexual desire, and recently the need for friendship--have been remade into commodified or financialized forms. Sleep poses the idea of a human need and interval of time that cannot be colonized and harnessed to a massive engine of profitability, and thus remains an incongruous anomaly and site of crisis in the global present (Crary 10-11)."

This keeps making me come back to my initial reaction to the Van Praet book--the woman on the cover could very well be sleeping, therefore adding a visual element to Crary's ideas. He doesn't write about physical means of harnessing data or statistics while we sleep, but there's an uneasy feeling that these capabilities are not too far away, along the same lines of the military studies on reducing the need for sleep. But the whole concept of 24/7, while tied with sleep, is a philosophical/cultural notion of itself, of a world and money never stopping, and therefore putting everyday citizens within its control. The notion of communal access to widespread information seems democratic at its core, but as Crary explains, this isn't the case. The powerful will want and get access to the information they need, even if its solely in the name of dollar signs. Because this is through digital means, it gives new meaning to the adage of "large, faceless corporations."

"For the vast majority of people, our perceptual and cognitive relationship to communication and information technology will continue to be estranged and disempowered because of the velocity at which new products emerge and at which arbitrary reconfigurations of entire systems take place. This intensified rhythm precludes the possibility of becoming familiar with any given arrangement. Certain cultural theorists insist that such conditions can easily be the basis for neutralizing power, but actual evidence supporting this view is non-existent (Crary 37)."

The above citation shows the strengths and weakness of Crary's writings. He can present complex ideas and make them logical without stooping or dumbing down the material, but many passages end in a similar thread. As a reader, I want evidence of "the actual evidence supporting this view." There are citations in the back of the book, but at times, there are so many ideas that almost demand concrete evidence. For me, it doesn't take away from his overall thesis, but these are the kinds of dead ends that critics can leap on and offer counterpoints to, potentially with statements like "evidence supporting this view does exist." This might be a weak example, but in today's age of intense, divisive opinions on where the world is going, it doesn't take much for a critic or someone desperate to shake a finger at someone's opinion to jump on this kind of wording. But Crary saves himself quite often by offering details explanations of other theorists and ideas that relate to the concept of 24/7 dominance.

"The everyday was the vague constellation of spaces and times outside what was organized and institutionalized around work, conformity, and consumerism. It was all the daily habits that were beneath notice, where one remained anonymous. Because it evaded capture and could not be made useful, it was seen by some to have a core of revolutionary potential. For Maurice Blanchot, its dangerous essence was that it was without event, and was both unconcealed and unperceived. In French, the adjective 'quotidienne' evokes more strikingly the ancient practice of marking and numbering the passing of the solar day, and it emphasizes the diurnal rhythms that were long a foundation of social existence. But what [other philosophers] also described in the 1950s was the intensifying occupation of everyday life by consumption, organized leisure, and spectacle. In this framework, the rebellions of the late 1960s were, at least in Europe and North America, waged in part around the idea of reclaiming the terrain of everyday life from institutionalization and specialization (Crary 70)."

As I mentioned before, he never lapses into personal opinions. He lets the ideas, whether his own or someone else's, flourish and stand on their own. 24/7 is a slim title that easily could have been doubled in size with meandering. What amazes me is how much information and how many ideas are packed into less than two hundred pages. This also leaves no space for an afterword or a summary of how people can stop or evade the 24/7 complex. Had he done this, it would have pushed the book into the pile of political and sociological books that cast blame or claim to have all the answers. By merely presenting how the world is changing and adapting, it's enough for readers to come to their own conclusions that some capitalist mindsets are scary and dangerous. Overall, we need to cling to the hours spent devoted to sleep--every other waking hour has been commercialized, and for the sake of what it means to be human, solitude and evasion of outside influences is imperative. There are other books that approach these same issues, but Crary outlines the ideas in ways even the most conscious citizens haven't realized. As technology grows, we need more reminders of our intangible natures, free from cash, exploitation, and data.

Work Cited:
Crary, Jonathan. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. Copyright 2013 by Jonathan Crary.

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