PRINT September 2013


Jonathan Crary’s 24/7

Joseph Wright, Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night, ca. 1782, oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 49 1/2".

24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, by Jonathan Crary. Verso, 2013. 144 pages.

JONATHAN CRARY’S dark, brilliant book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep analyzes the nonstop demands of the contemporary global capitalist system and laments the damage we suffer from being caught up in the fascination and relentless rhythms of its technological production and consumption. This brief volume’s central claim is not that we are always awake—although Crary notes the growing prevalence of insomnia and use of neuropharmaceutical sleep suppressants and alertness aids—but rather that the division between wakefulness and sleep is being eroded, along with a series of other vital boundaries, such as those between day and night, public and private, activity and rest, work and leisure. Crary makes “24/7” a concise and powerful shorthand for this emerging social condition, which he characterizes as “a generalized inscription of human life into duration without breaks, defined by a principle of continuous functioning.” The constant availability of e-mail, online entertainment, and Internet shopping sites, the incessant call for attention from ubiquitous video screens, and myriad other potential occupations and distractions exert a persistent pull and eat away at the bases of noncapitalist life and rest. Sleep no more! Capital hath murdered sleep—or, perhaps better, sleep has been worn away by a minute clicking of little wheels.

Crary’s principal subject of investigation is the transformation of temporality that began with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and has vastly accelerated during the so-called Information Age. More specifically, he is concerned with how the coming sleeplessness will alter our sense and experience of time (and the distressing degree to which it already has). Reading this book, I was frequently reminded of historian E. P. Thompson’s analysis of industrial capital’s creation, in eighteenth-century England, of a new temporality defined by clocks, homogeneous temporal units, and universal synchrony. The older senses of time aligned with nature’s rhythms, such as the tides, or the duration of common tasks such as milking a cow, were gradually subordinated to workers’ experience of the precise measure of hours, minutes, and seconds—a machinic temporal sensibility. This new inner sense of time, which for Thompson is intimately tied to the creation of the working day and the strong demarcation between work time and nonwork time, spread from the factory over the course of decades and centuries to all other economic sectors and across society as a whole.

The temporal transformations of 24/7 capital, in Crary’s account, do not return us to precapitalist natural and task-based temporalities, nor do they destroy the uniform, homogeneous clock time that Thompson anatomized. In fact, Crary argues, modern machine time has perhaps only come to be fully realized and generalized in today’s nonstop rhythms. The crucial shift, for him, is instead defined by the ways in which contemporary media and other technologies have overcome those basic demarcations of the day that previously defined our experience and sense of time. Indeed, the blurring of the boundaries between work time and nonwork time is destroying the very notion of the working day and concomitantly altering our sense of time—a phenomenon felt more intensely in particular sectors of employment and regions of the world than in others. Some of the workers most affected have come to recognize that the ability to work online from any place at any time, which can at first appear a newfound freedom, ends up being a mechanism of temporal enslavement.

Crary focuses primarily, however, on more basic existential divisions than the working day. “24/7,” he writes, “steadily undermines distinctions between day and night, between light and dark, and between action and repose. It is a zone of insensibility, of amnesia, of what defeats the possibility of experience.” Instead of investing us with a new temporality, which progressively aligns all social activity and even our inner sense of time with the rhythms of the industrial machine, as Thompson conceived the changes in an earlier period, Crary theorizes 24/7 as a strategy of power that strips us of time, leaving us living in a kind of destitute nontime, “a disabled and derelict diachrony” that seems to preclude even the possibility of change.

Crary sees 24/7 as the fulfillment of a tendency inherent in capitalist modernity from the outset, and he articulates this point through a wonderful reading of British painter Joseph Wright’s landscape Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night, ca. 1782. He also demonstrates, however, that 24/7 is an unlivable condition (at least for humans), given that the time of reproduction, for physical and mental recuperation, is being reduced beyond sustainable levels. “Time for human rest and regeneration,” Crary writes, “is now simply too expensive to be structurally possible within contemporary capitalism.” This trend passes beyond the tipping point when expansion of the working day makes humans less, not more, productive, and it also threatens a more fundamental threshold: Beyond a minimum limit of reproduction time, capitalist production itself cannot be maintained—at least insofar as we assume it to be based on human productivity. Crary’s analysis thus identifies a contradiction by which capital’s fundamental tendency to erode the time of reproduction undermines its own sustainability. Some authors would develop this contradiction into a narrative about capital’s imminent or eventual collapse, but Crary instead leaves it as a background condition that adds to the gravity of our contemporary predicament. He is much more concerned with the demise of the human than with that of capital.

The driving force in Crary’s analysis is the increasing technological domination of our world, and he positions this polemic against “technophilic intellectuals and writers” who believe that new technologies will somehow necessarily or automatically bring justice and equality. In many respects, this is a familiar script about the dehumanizing effects of machines (no less familiar, of course, than the continual trumpeting of each new technology as the bearer of mankind’s salvation). Karl Marx, along with many nineteenth-century reformers, lamented that the lifelong vocation of the artisan was destroyed by the factory, wherein the worker, rather than employ his tools, himself became an instrument wielded by the industrial apparatus. Crary recognizes a similar inversion of subject and object in the contemporary developments of new media and digital technologies. “Everything once loosely considered to be ‘personal,’” he observes, “is now reconfigured so as to facilitate the fabricating of oneself into a jumble of identities that exist only as effects of temporary technological arrangements.” The increasing animation and vitality of the technological apparatuses in which we are enmeshed corresponds to a draining of subjective potential from our existence, leaving us degraded, reified beings.

One danger of such a lament is that it might lead to nostalgia. As the relentless rhythms of information technologies overtake our world, we can easily, understandably, find ourselves yearning for technologies and temporalities of the past. I remember fondly the experience of receiving a letter in the mail and taking the time to read and respond to it, for instance, and the sensations of the dark peacefulness of the night when all shops were closed and all machines turned off. Crary admirably casts aside all misty-eyed nostalgia for an idyllic past. As he sees it, we are all inside the 24/7 world, and there is no turning back. However, no sooner is the danger of succumbing to nostalgia warded off than arises another: that our lament of humanity’s degradation in the face of unremitting technological advancement leads merely to a profound pessimism according to which humanity is trapped in a closed technological dystopia with no way out.

Some critiques of technological innovation steer clear of the dual perils of nostalgia and hopelessness by recognizing that the new, in addition to intensifying the means of control and domination, also contains the seeds for previously unknown potentials for liberation. That is a core element of Marx’s own critique of capitalist technologies, for instance. Does 24/7 capitalism create its own gravediggers—that is, antagonistic subjects who arise “inside” and directly as a consequence of capital’s own development? Is there a way not only to sabotage, to jam the gears of, the nonstop machine but also to transform its tools into weapons for liberation? This is the path I would pursue to address our current predicament.

Crary’s primary mode of resistance does not draw from the arsenal created by the development of 24/7 capitalism but instead focuses on one irreducible human need that is intrinsically incompatible with capital’s regime: sleep. Indeed, some of the most beautiful passages in the book (weaving together insightful readings of Tarkovsky, Kafka, Chris Marker, and Philip K. Dick) are paeans to slumber. Sleep has long been a primary expression of the refusal of work, and its powers of resistance become even greater today, especially insofar as capitalist production and consumption rely increasingly on attention. Against the destructiveness of a global system that never sleeps, Crary writes, “sleep can stand for the durability of the social.” In the sleeping exodus from capitalist control, moreover, Crary senses the potential for community. In sleep we are vulnerable and rely on the care of others in a way that suggests to him the possibility of a form of being together: “In the depersonalization of slumber, the sleeper inhabits a world in common, a shared enactment of withdrawal from the calamitous nullity and waste of 24/7 praxis.” In the time of sleep, when we can dream a better future, Crary locates the potential to resist the pressures of contemporary capital and rescue our humanity from its destruction.

Michael Hardt, a professor in the program in literature at Duke University, is coauthor, with Antonio Negri, of Empire (2000), Multitude (2004), Commonwealth (2009), and Declaration (2012).