I struggled with Jonathan Crary’s 24/7. While his writing style certainly evoked emotion and interest through its tight, oftentimes poetic/polemic prose (and perhaps too tight—the footnotes/endnotes were far too scant or “just trust me on this”), I simply didn’t buy (pun intended?) his nightmarish vision (or should I say, his insomniac’s vision) of our sleepless future. And I didn’t buy it at the level of his thesis statement, which—for the purposes of discussion—I’ll quote most here:
In its profound uselessness and intrinsic passivity, with the incalculable losses it causes in production time, circulation, and consumption, sleep will always collide with the demands of a 24/7 universe…. 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 that remains an incongruous anomaly and site of crisis in the global present. In spite of all the scientific research in this area, it frustrates and confounds any strategies to exploit or reshape it. The stunning, inconceivable reality is that nothing of value can be extracted from it.” (10-11)
What I can buy is this: You certainly can’t work when you’re sleeping, so sleep in that sense is useless from an economic advantage point (and perhaps only tolerated right now due to its status as a human necessity). And I can fully get behind the idea that we are increasingly plugged in all day, every day. (The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is check my emails on my phone while still in bed…and it is the last thing I do at night.) People work first, second, and third shifts to keep up with the demands of contemporary capitalism…the 24/7. For me, it’s scary to think about how we demand those unnatural nocturnal schedules—the second and third shifts—which disconnect the (typically) most economically disadvantaged from the dominant tides of daily life (we should demand an “unplugging” and a time for rest…but then again there’s the issue of police officers, firefighters, doctors, so welcome to modern life).
Therefore, it’s not entirely impossible to imagine ways in which humans might try to pare down our necessity for sleep in the future, and how—despite noble intentions—that process could be exploited (if, and only if, we ever can eliminate sleep). But what time scale is this happening on? While Crary is quick to open with the image of the sleepless soldier as being just around the corner, in this excerpt he conversely states how “in spite of all the scientific research in this area, [sleep] frustrates and confounds any strategies to exploit or reshape it” (11). Which one is it, then? Are we only a few decades away or (more realistically) centuries away when it comes to “conquering” sleep? And while perhaps Crary’s point is that it doesn’t matter, that we need to act early—I can’t help but feel there’s more pressing issues being caused by capitalism that are going to shape human life far sooner –such as climate change, nuclear war, and bioterrorism.
But Crary’s thesis soon takes and even more troubling turn for me. He writes, “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…” When Crary states that hunger, thirst, sexual desire, etcetera have been commodified—I can understand that. We buy food, we buy drinks, we can buy sex, you can “rentafriend”… okay. Humans commodified hunger when we stopped hunting and gathering, though…is that really the sole result of capitalism? And have we really commodified the human feeling? It seems that to make that argument you would have to say that, if the apocalypse happened and we could no longer purchase food, we would simply all die off. And while I’m not saying that a majority of us wouldn’t die, the cause would not be that we had entirely lost the instinct to go out and hunt/gather our own food—we’d just suck at it and there would be too many of us for pre-modern systems to support. Whether intentionally or not, Crary makes it sound like nothing about food or fucking is part of a natural bodily process anymore, entirely “remade” by capitalism despite “commodification” that happened before capitalism. And while capitalism can bring us food and the other “f” much faster than other means (and in that way, frees up time for working in a way that sleep cannot be freed up), we still have the option of not buying food and not paying for sex (or not choosing to commodify romantic love in the way of flowers, jewelry, expensive weddings, etcetera, etcetera).
Besides this, how has sleep not been commodified? While Crary states that “nothing of value can be extracted from it,” I would think many a bed manufacturer, a real estate agent, and a pharmaceutical company hawking sleeping pills (not to mention countless other industries around sleep) would be inclined to disagree. Crary brings this up momentarily when talking about capitalism “encroaching” upon sleep and requiring drugs like Ambien and Lunesta to deal with the stresses of the 24/7 (18), but he doesn’t talk about how much certain parts of our capitalistic machine would stand to lose if people no longer required sleep. Beds would no longer be needed, houses would not have to be as big, sleeping aids would be unnecessary….and that’s millions, billions lost. How, then, is sleep any less commodified than hunger, thirst, and sexual desire by our modern world? If we are talking about the very act itself, that the body will sleep whether or not it has a bed—the body will also eventually eat and drink too whether or not it has a McDonald’s (and in that way, those functions have not been fully commodified). I don’t understand how Crary can hold up this distinction, making sleep some kind of agitator to modern capitalism.
Above all else, though, what bothers me most about a work like this is that it offers so little in the way of solutions. Crary does not seem to be pushing for a limitation or reevaluation of capitalism, as he states on the last page that “because capitalism cannot limit itself, the notion of preservation or conservation is a systemic impossibility” (128). In that way, it seems the only true answer becomes an entire overthrow of our global capitalistic society. (Simple enough, right?) But what replaces it? How do we meet the demands of billions without commodifying human need in some ways? Maybe I’m just that heartless neoliberal who fails to see the people who don’t fit within this modern capitalistic system and die because of it (44)l maybe I’m more willing to submit out of a fear of “falling behind or being deemed outdated” (46). I’d like to think what I am more interested in finding are tangible solutions that can both work in and against current power structures, small steps that can add up, as opposed to some dream of a revolution with no clear goals, no clear processes—at worst, nothing more than a lot of sound and fury.