Book review: 24/7


In “Digital Witness,” the first single of St. Vincent’s latest album, Annie Clark laments over a throbbing array of guitars: “What’s the point of even sleeping? / If I can’t show it, you can’t see me. / What’s the point of doing anything?” What Clark is not too subtly satirizing here is our seemingly endless need to catalogue everything online, on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr. It may sound like a hackneyed point by now, but the fact still remains that social media breeds a compulsive need to share even the smallest details with our “friends.” At least when we masturbate in real life, we have the decency to do it privately.

When I first heard “Digital Witness,” I was reminded of the personalised videos that Facebook made for each of its users on its tenth anniversary: here’s your first status update, here are the most popular photos you’ve uploaded since then, here are all the important memories you’ve laid bare on the internet. What I found so disturbing about these videos was the uncanny contradiction between the nostalgia they created and their manufactured quality. At first glance, your personalised video seemed so sweet and thoughtful. What became quickly apparent, though, is that even though the video had your photos and information in it, it really wasn’t about you at all. The videos were less a celebration of any individual person’s life than they were a big pat on the back for the website’s penetration into our everyday life – “Look at how deeply a part of your existence we’ve become,” Facebook seemed to be saying, “we’ve always been with you, and we always will be.”

It is this “always-on” nature of our contemporary society that Jonathan Crary’s “24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep” targets. Rather than reiterate the tired point that the modern world is experiencing a rapid disintegration of genuine interpersonal connection, Crary focuses on what he calls “24/7,” “a generalised inscription of human life into duration without breaks, defined by a principle of continuous functioning. It is a time that no longer passes, beyond clock time.” 24/7 markets and networks have existed before. What is new are the ways in which the 24/7 world is beginning to force people to conform their personal and social identities to its relentless tempo. 24/7 environments do not recognise the natural rhythms of the people that live in them. They seem social and organic, but are mechanistic, forming what Crary calls “a suspension of living.” 24/7 is an abandonment of any idea of progress; it is a “pure” capitalism that is driven only by its own reproduction. It is driven by “more,” with no regard for the fragility of human lives, or nature. In this way, 24/7 is intimately connected to an insatiable hunger for resources that disrupts the cycles and seasons of nature. 24/7 is not merely accompanied by ecological collapse, the two are complicit. If 21st century capitalism won’t stop for people, why would it stop for the rainforests of Brazil or the polar ice caps?

Against all this stands sleep. Capitalism has had little trouble commodifying and commercialising many of the other necessities of human life – hunger, sexual desire, and the need to interact with others. However, “the stunning, inconceivable reality is that nothing of value can be extracted from sleep.” While we sleep, we don’t buy, sell, or make anything. For an average of six and a half hours a night, 24/7 is suspended and the logic of unend-

ing capitalism is put on pause. As hard as 24/7 may try, the best it can do to sleep is stunt or diminish it. Beeping mobile devices are constantly vying for our attention, and Crary cites recent research that shows that the number of people waking themselves up in the night to check their messages is growing rapidly. In a fully 24/7 world, we wouldn’t need to take a break from the relentless process of producing and consuming. But at the end of the day, we just have to sleep. Or do we? Crary observes that scientists at the US Defense Department have been studying migratory birds to understand how their brains can withstand journeys that can last up to seven days without rest. Their goal is to change the brain chemistry in humans so that they can forgo sleep for long periods and remain productive – creating, in other words, super-soldiers who don’t need to interrupt their missions in order to sleep. It is not a jump to imagine this same kind of technology being used on civilians to create sleepless consumers, or workers. “24/7”’s horrifying vision of the future is one in which humans are fully integrated into a nonstop cycle of capitalism – one that never rests, never sleeps.

One of the central images of 24/7 is a network of screens—whether on a television, computer, or smartphone—that are constantly plugged in, producing an unearthly light that is always shining in our faces. Crary’s descriptions of the overbright glare of 24/7 immediately bring to mind Michel Foucault’s discussion in “Discipline and Punish” of a Panopticon prison, wherein light is constantly shining at prisoners who never know if they are being watched or not. 24/7, in its careful uncovering of counter-histories that oppose the main narrative of progress, has quite a lot in common with Foucault’s work on disciplinary societies. However, Crary specifically emphasises that 24/7 is far more insidious than anything “Discipline and Punish” proposes. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze had already pointed out that the limit of Foucault’s concept of the disciplinary society was that within it there still exist substantial periods of time in which we are not being disciplined. In everyday life, we are free to think and do as we please. What distinguishes 24/7 from the disciplinary society is that 24/7 doesn’t allow for “everyday life”—the time of discipline has extended to all hours of the clock. This is why sleep poses such a powerful challenge to it: you cannot discipline a sleeper.

The political theorist Hannah Arendt proposed that a fundamental component of a productive civic life is the balance between what she called the private and public realms. It is necessary to have some time to oneself, to reflect and restore, so that one can fully participate politically in the public sphere. 24/7, however, eats away at this private time. We are constantly barraged with information, and requests for more information, by devices that grow increasingly intrusive with each iteration. Crary marks the introduction of the television into households as the beginning of this trend. The more advanced technology gets, the deeper it penetrates into our everyday life and the more attention it demands from us: TV gives way to VHS, which is then superseded by personal computers, then smartphones, Google Glass, and so forth. The irony of all this is that as new technology becomes more invasive, we become more willing to devote more of our time and energy to it. In a sense, Crary is charting just one way in which contemporary society is fulfilling Foucault’s terrifying warning of a society in which disciplinary institutions are irrelevant simply because everybody disciplines themselves.

One of the main paradoxes of 24/7 is that it is when we spend time engaging with online “friends” and “communities” that we are most alone and isolated. As the drive to stay plugged in intensifies, so does our estrangement from one another. Crary stresses that the instantaneous and always-on nature of a 24/7 lifestyle makes it far more detrimental than anything we’ve encountered before. He sees blogging as the prime example of this: millions of people chattering away, with nobody really engaging with anyone else because they’re all too busy being consumed with their own thoughts. There’s no need to wait and hear what someone else has to say, because you can instantaneously spout your own opinion—a dangerous threat to “the individual patience and deference that are essential to any form of direct democracy.” Reading this with February’s controversy surrounding Robert George and Cornel West still on my mind, the immediate question arose: to what extent has 24/7 influenced the way we interact with each other here on campus? It can be comforting to think of Swarthmore as a safe haven from the ravages that Crary describes—a place of community, where people care about what others have to say. However, it’s hard not to see elements of 24/7 everywhere you look: students pulling all-nighters to write essays, texting in class, or making the performative trek to McCabe to browse Facebook somewhere outside their dorm. I remember a tour guide telling me that the Crum woods has wifi—does anybody else find that unsettling?

How about ITS requiring every computer on its network to install something creepily called Bradford Persistent Agent? While President Chopp waxes lyrical on liberal arts institutions producing a new generation of thinkers, is there also a certain sense in which they are preparing us for entry into a more properly 24/7 world?

Unfortunately, Crary occasionally gets carried away by his forceful rhetoric, and in places his argument devolves into preachy romanticism. He is correct to be wary of technology, especially given unfortunate trends of techno-fetishism (think Ray Kurzweil or Larry Page) that are, just like the 24/7 society, blind to the human costs of technological advancement. However, his dismissive attitude towards the internet seems unfounded and hasty. For example, he warns us that the increasing encroachment of the internet on our daily lives—usually through the conduit of always-on smartphones—will lead to a situation where “real-life activities that do not have an online correlate begin to atrophy, or cease to be relevant.” Really? Later, he claims that any counter-cultural movement that has its roots in social media will ultimately be useless at seriously disrupting the encroachment of the 24/7 into our world. It is misguided to just whole-handedly dismiss the radical potential of turning technologies of domination against their intended purposes.

Regardless, “24/7” paints a powerful image of sleep as a site of potential resistance. Despite everything, sleep still stands as a safe haven from the “shallow subjectivities” that we are constantly engaging with during the day. When we sleep, we relinquish our obsessive focus on ourselves. In its continuous insistence on its own valuelessness, sleep provides one of the most stubborn challenges to a fully 24/7 world. It models a kind of collectivity that neoliberal capitalism has increasingly tried to limit and deny. Crary rhapsodizes: “The restorative inertness of sleep counters the deathliness of all the accumulation, financialisation, and waste that have devastated anything once held in common.” In his view, the revolution will not be televised, tweeted, or reblogged—it will begin in bedrooms, peacefully and with some snoring. To sleep is, perchance, to dream of an alternative to 24/7.

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