Does Sleep *Really* Escape Capitalism?

Sunday, January 26th, 2014 by samanthalong88

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. 


8 comments on “Does Sleep *Really* Escape Capitalism?

  1. eadodge says:

    Your second to last paragraph here really resonated with my response to the book — I have my reading notes and one of the questions I wrote was: “How many sectors would change without sleep?” I think that sleep has a very commodified space in capitalist culture, for the reasons to which you point. It strikes me that with the realization that sleep is still a space controlled by capitalism — because even on a basic level, capitalism is the reality from which our brain reconstructs images in dreams — one sees that the argument Crary poses is symbolic. (I think this sense of the symbolic especially comes out in his discussion of insomnia. I’m close to individuals who have insomnia, and when I quoted from page 18 of Crary’s book, in which he discusses insomnia as Levinas conceptualizes it, what I received in response was an eyebrow furrow followed by a scoff.) I think that ultimately, his point was to try and point to sleep as a personal or private space (one of the last such spaces available to us) where one can ignore the gaze of media and try to conceptualize and create with only our brains to limit us. I am realizing though that even with this attempted addendum to Crary’s thesis, I can still see a flaw in the argument — if capitalism is shaping our subjectivity and thoughts, then those aspects will carry over into dreams. The distinction between sleep and capitalism is a convenient one, but you’re right to point out that it doesn’t quite hold up.

  2. dparker90 says:

    Just a small point, but I think there needs to be an important distinction between satisfying basic human needs versus commodification. We can “meet the demands of billions” for food, let’s say, without trying to profit off those billions. I think that’s what makes capitalism’s commodification of resources different than simply giving food to the hungry. So, food isn’t a commodity when there’s no capital gain.

  3. Good point, Deven. I guess I just wonder what moving back towards a bartering system (for lack of a better term) would look like at this point, or how it would work for a highly-specialized, techno-centric workforce in the first place. And perhaps I’m too cynical – but more than anything I just don’t see that happening (end of world v end of capitalism sentiment I suppose). I see the possibility of scaling back profit and exploitation (and creating more even distribution) within capitalist systems, but it doesn’t seem that Crary does…I guess that’s my biggest beef.

    • Lori Emerson says:

      Hi Samantha, we’ll have a great discussion, I’m guessing, about your post and the book in class today but I wanted to point you to Jodi Dean’s The Communist Horizon that came out last year – there’s greater and greater interest in developing new/alternative theories of communism as an alternative. Not sure if this is what Crary has in mind but no doubt he’s reading along these lines.

  4. willminor2 says:

    Maybe this is what Crary envisions? (rated PG-13)

    In all seriousness, I think Crary is worried less about sleep becoming another thing to be capitalized on, and more about biological commodification. The supersoldier is an extreme example of what may be a somewhat less obvious problem in the near future. Humans will still have to sleep, but sleep will lose all meaning as a crucial component of humanity’s diurnal relationship to nature, a relationship which is part of cycles like night and day, the seasons, the moon, and so forth. Once sleep becomes just ‘a thing you gotta do’, then humans will have been cleaved from any kind of place within a greater world. Instead we’ll be a floating signifier, adrift on the continuous system of exchange which has no beginning or end. Right now sleep is a kind of glitch in the 24/7 no-time of late capitalism (I hate that phrase), it’s a lone reminder of our past connection to nature. Once sleep stops being a glitch and becomes unmoored from even the cycle of night/day – something that has already happened to EMTs, the Police, taxi drivers, people who go to clubs in Berlin, among others) then we will have completely lost our identity as a species.

    • Haha what a great video! And that angle of the argument is more sensible when it comes to losing sight of the natural. I guess I just push on what’s really “natural” for us anymore. It’d be great to watch this video in class!

  5. Renee F says:

    I’m on board with the commodification of sleep observations. This troubled me throughout this Crary’s book. Will, I have a hard time understanding how a line will be drawn between a biological commodity and just plain capitalism. The supersoldier is not that different from the super-grad student, who could endlessly pump out twenty-five page papers. Unfortunately, I could see this progression moving from “devalued sleep” to “disgusting sleep.”

  6. Lori Emerson says:

    Samantha, I wanted to register how much I appreciated your thorough engagement with Crary and the way in which your post clearly stimulated a lot of discussion on our blog and in class. You’re right to point out some of the inconsistencies in his writing – I got the sense as I was reading that he had presented this material a number of times to different audiences and had likely gotten similar feedback and then tried to tweak his argument so it was less hard-lined…but still, the same argument remained despite these tweaks. I think that our class discussion helped me see that sleep may not be exactly what he’s interested in – that sleep is just a means to think through the possibility of time, life, spent outside of late capitalist modes of consumption. Anyways, nice work here—

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