Once More unto the Breach (of capitalism and nature) – jonathan crary’s 24/7

24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep

by Jonathan Crary

Verso Books, 2013. 133 pp.


Years ago, I gave a talk at Stanford University, an hour drive north from Santa Cruz. During the question and answer period after the talk, an economist in the audience raised a question about my argument that despite widespread belief in the emergence of a 24/7 global society, in fact, what we’ve seen over the last two decades is the gradual and uneven retreat from a 24-hour society. It wasn’t a question so much as a statement that I was wrong. I suggested that from the perspective of Manhattan or Tokyo or Berlin, it may in fact look like we inhabit a 24-hour society, but that for the vast majority of people around the world, the 24-hour society has disappeared in the face of the widespread availability of the internet; who needs to go to the mall at 3 AM when they can just go shopping online instead? Moreover, for most American businesses, the 24-hour model is just unprofitable: employees want more pay, and few patrons mean that this higher pay is a precarious expense. And then there are the many, many people around the world who lack not only access to the internet, but also reliable nighttime lighting. To them, the idea of a 24-hour society must be entirely alien. The economist was undeterred: for him, the 24-hour society was already here and would soon engulf the world. As an idea, the 24/7 society is really only relevant to a select class of people, a global elite, for whom technology suffuses their daily lives and there is always more to be done – and so it seems for Jonathan Crary, who argues in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2013) that “24/7” has attained the level of what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari refer to as an “order-word,” the use of language to create a social reality (Crary 2013: 26). The idea of 24/7 is compelling enough, Crary suggests, that it influences individuals to act as if it is the social reality that actually exists; as such, it eventually brings that reality into being through collective belief and action.

What is that social reality? 24/7 is “the modeling of one’s personal and social identity…to conform to the uninterrupted operation of markets, information networks, and other systems. A 24/7 environment has the semblance of a social world, but it is actually a non-social model of machine performance and a suspension of living” (9). Moreover, “within 24/7 capitalism, a sociality outside of individual self-interest becomes inexorably depleted, and the interhuman basis of public space is made irrelevant to one’s fantasmatic digital insularity” (89). 24/7 appears as a caricature of the Protestant spirit of capitalism: individuals are fragmented from each other and focus only on their own personal gain. Even when they find themselves together, “there will always be something online more informative, surprising, funny, diverting, impressive than anything in one’s immediate actual circumstances” (59), so during our face to face interactions, we’re always thinking about what we could be watching on YouTube (as if YouTube is that easy to navigate!). As a concept, 24/7 is reminiscent of Marc Augé’s “supermodernity” (1995 [1992]): that supreme disenchantment associated with modernity and the production of spaces around the world that are devoid of content, and yet always familiar – airports and hotels foremost among them. Everything is the same everywhere, and this allows for the seamless integration of a global elite into any space, any social relation. But I’m not entirely sure that there’s any actual basis in reality for this 24/7 world, and, if there is, it is only for a very small set of individuals who choose to inhabit that world. The rest of us may be driven to check our email more frequently than we should, and we might carry our phones with us everywhere, but for most of us, there’s no actual need to be timed to the market, information networks and “other systems.” As such, 24/7 feels less like a diagnosis of a contemporary reality, and more like a screed without a subject. At its best, 24/7 feels paranoid; at its worst, it feels out of touch with reality.

24/7 first appeared just months after my own book about sleep and capitalism was released, and, like most junior scholars, I felt a narcissistic pang when I realized a more senior academic had just published a book about a similar topic. When I flipped through the endnotes, I quickly realized that Crary’s project is much different than my own, as he avoided engaging with any of the literature that has appeared over the last decade devoted to the critical study of sleep. Although “sleep” is in the subtitle of the book, there’s very little attention to sleep throughout it, other than to mention that “sleep is the only remaining barrier, the only enduring ‘natural condition’ that capitalism cannot eliminate” (74). Sleep, for Crary, stands as a romanticized, natural resistance to the endless search for profit. For readers interested in sleep, there is a host of other, more empirically grounded works that has been produced over the last decade. But Crary’s stance on sleep is emblematic of a kind of late Marxism that insists nature will lead us out of our contemporary cuckolding and simply depends on us throwing technology out the window. More attention to either sleep as it is actually practiced, or to technology and how people engage with it, would surely have made 24/7 less of a polemic, and more of a diagnosis of how people are living with the competing demands on their everyday lives.

It seems that every so often, the idea of the 24/7 society resurfaces and compels someone to write a tract like 24/7. In the 1970s, sociologist Murray Melbin started such a project, which came to fruition in Night as Frontier: Colonizing the World After Dark (1987). Melbin had earlier published a similarly titled essay in the 1970s about the inevitable encroachment of capitalism into every spatial and temporal corner of American social life, but by the time he conducted the entirety of the research that laid the basis for Night as Frontier, his attitude had changed somewhat: yes, there was activity at night, but it was far from all-consuming, and the people who worked at night – police, truck drivers, nurses, restaurant servers – had a camaraderie based on their shared existence in the marginalized social world of night work. Arriving the same year, and more akin to Crary’s book, was Jeremy Rifkin’s Time Wars: The Primary Conflict in Human History (1987). Rifkin, whom I discuss in a recent article, sees the rise of the computer as an encroachment on human social life and foresees that the integration of the personal computer into daily life will lead to the widespread experience of “computime,” in which every second of our days will be measured by and against the productivity made possible by computers. And so it is for Crary: social media, blogs, smart phones, and television too – which he suggests might be a cause of autism (85), based on a deeply problematic study – are all taking us away from honest interpersonal communication, which might lay the basis for political change. Recent social movements, Crary insinuates, are less potent that those of the 1960s, when, it seems, they were based on an organic desire on the part of the individuals who participated in them (111-113). If this seems a little curmudgeonly, it may be due to the fact that, unlike Melbin, the basis of Crary’s analysis is not the everyday lives of individuals, but the imagined experience of some unnamed individual, impelled to live a 24/7 existence, constructed through the casual reading of news items and 20th century French philosophy, with a sprinkling of references to paintings, documentaries, and a Philip K. Dick novel.

This lack of an empirical grounding is the most troubling aspect of 24/7, and it’s most likely to be the most frustrating aspect about the book for many readers. Crary doesn’t situate his analysis in any one location or time, but instead rambles from the late 1700s through the turn of the 21st century. Crary is at his most convincing when he lingers on contemporary marketing technologies that have grown out of surveillance technologies (48-50); one can’t help but imagine that a book focused on these technologies would produce a much more supple understanding of contemporary American capitalism by one of the leading scholars of technologies of visualization. But instead of limiting his attention to one kind of media or technology, he brings together texts that inspire his momentary attention. This leads to, or grows out of, his conception of capitalism, which is an abstract, placeless force that seems to have no instrumental actors, but, instead, only hapless victims – except for the artists and critics who are able to extricate themselves from capitalism’s morass. But social scientists have been working through capitalism’s local particularities over the last decade to show how, for instance, Japanese capitalism isn’t the same as capitalism’s American iteration, and this is apparent even in the sleeping practices of Japanese (Steger 2003) and American citizens.

When I first started the project that eventually became The Slumbering Masses (Wolf-Meyer 2012), my assumption was much like Crary’s: I imagined that sleep was a kind of natural barrier to the expansion of capitalism, that it was part of the human experience that could not be capitalized upon. But, as I immersed myself in the worlds of sleep in the U.S., I quickly came to realize that the ideal type of subjection produced by American capitalism is not insomnia, but, rather, narcolepsy. As I write at the end of my book and Crary mentions at the beginning of his, military experiments with sleeplessness offer a tantalizing if fearsome vision of a future of insomniacs – workers who can work endlessly, or, alternatively, a new class division between the sleepless and the sleepers. Despite decades of research, we seem to be no closer to the sleepless American. Instead, what we see is that Americans are increasingly relying on alertness-promoting chemicals and sleep-inducing ones, which aligns with the experience of narcoleptics – drugs to both wake you up and put you to sleep. Crary imagines sleep as existing outside of value production, but, in fact, the pharmaceutical industry depends on sleep-inducing drugs more than alertness promoting ones, and the last two decades have witnessed a revolution in bed technologies and other gear expressly marketed to make us better and more efficient sleepers. Sleep and dreaming are revolutionary, Crary would have us believe, but he gives the reader nothing to dream about; the interested reader might seek out Thierry Paquot’s The Art of the Siesta (2005 [1998]), which is much more hopeful about the future possibilities of sleep in its outlook.

Crary takes the time to note that those who don’t participate in the 24/7 society are its detritus, only valuable to the degree to  which they can provide fresh organs for the elites in need of a transplant or as sex slaves (44). What’s troubling is that these people also seem to be cast aside by Crary. There is no sense of who is being left out of the new global economy, in the U.S. or elsewhere. And this runs parallel to Crary’s citational practices: there are no people of color cited, nor any work of art or text produced outside of the North Atlantic. Engagement with scholarship and art produced by those capitalism would cast aside, or obscure the presence of, might have provided 24/7 with more nuance and more of a promising dream of revolution. And this oversight seems like the most promising avenue for those enamored with 24/7 (the idea) to pursue: how is 24/7 spreading around the globe and across class lines? How is it that once only elites were required to be on call at all times, and now even minimum wage workers need to respond to emergency phone calls from their employers when off shift? How is time-discipline, which E.P. Thompson characterized in the age of industrialization (1993), becoming sutured to ideas about 24/7 – or not? If 24/7 is such an order-word, who, exactly, does it compel, and how, precisely, is it capturing the imaginations and everyday practices of people around the world? And whom does it fail to seduce, and how are they articulating themselves against 24/7? True elites live beyond the seduction of 24/7 as much as the truly downtrodden do; it seems that 24/7 is aspirational, but only some will ever bother to aspire to it, regardless of the damage that ensues. But without firm empirical grounding from Crary, the reader can only imagine who that might be.

On my drive home from that talk at Stanford, after a dinner and drink with friends, I found myself 15 minutes into my drive and needing to pee. I stopped at off ramp after off ramp to see if I could find a gas station. At 10 PM on a weeknight, the only station I could find was closed, and the bathrooms were locked. Lacking a bathroom, I found a dark space on the street and relieved myself. 24/7 might be a compelling idea – and even something to fear – but it is very far from being a material reality for the vast majority of Americans and people around the world. I’m sure that in Manhattan I could have found any number of places to pee, but in sleepy Cupertino – less than a mile down the road from the home of the early 21st century’s capitalist paragon, Apple – I still had to find a dark spot on the side of the road.


Matthew Wolf-Meyer is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His work focuses on medicine, science and media in the United States to make sense of major modern-era shifts in the expert practices of science and medicine and popular representations of health. His book The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine and Modern American Life was the first book-length social scientific study of sleep in the United States. It offers insights into the complex lived realities of disorderly sleepers, the long history of sleep science, and the global impacts of the exportation of American sleep. He is currently finishing a book manuscript on the alternative histories of American neuroscience, seen through the lens of neurological disorders, tentatively titled The Other Century of the Brain: Disability, Neuroscience and the Politics of American Care. He is in the beginning stages of a project entitled The Colony Within on the history and contemporary medicalization of digestion and excretion in the U.S.


Works Cited

Augé, Marc. 1995 [1992]  Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. J. Howe, transl. New York: Verso.

Crary, Jonathan. 2013  24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. New York: Verso.

Melbin, Murray.  1987  Night as Frontier: Colonizing the World After Dark. New York: The Free Press.

Paquot, Thierry.  2005 [1998]  Art of the Siesta: A Book About Stealing Moments of Repose. K. Hollings, transl. New York: Universe.

Rifkin, Jeremy. 1987  Time Wars: The Primary Conflict in Human History. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Steger, Brigitte.  2003  Getting away with sleep — social and cultural aspects of dozing in parliament. Social Science Japan Journal 6(2):181-197.

Thompson, Edward Palmer. 1993  Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture. New York: New Press.

Wolf-Meyer, Matthew. 2012  The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

One Response to Once More unto the Breach (of capitalism and nature) – jonathan crary’s 24/7

  1. Pingback: Intimate, Familiar and Strange, or Why I Don’t Teach a Class on Sleep | Somatosphere

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