To sleep, perchance to resist?

Issue: 144

Mark Dunk

Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (Verso, 2014), £7.99

Touted as a short, sharp polemic on the expansion of capital into every waking minute, 24/7 is a curiosity that promises much but delivers little.

The main drive of Jonathan Crary’s musings is that modern capitalism is seeking to eradicate sleep as a barrier to accumulation and has created a new subjectivity constantly subsumed within the ever growing morass of media saturation. “There is always something more interesting happening online”, he states blithely. However, for all its gusto this grandiose statement cannot keep up with a reality in which, while the Egyptian generals turned off internet access, the masses were still in the streets making history.

Crary advances the argument that a new passive subjectivity has been imposed upon workers through means such as television and the internet. He reminds us of their addictive properties and their individuation of viewers/users. What he does not remind us of is that even the most addicted TV viewer or internet user in the workforce would find it almost impossible to spend as much time engaged in this kind of immersive activity each week as the 40 plus hours they spend in the workplace.

Crary’s privileging of “the new” tends to sideline the continuity of how capitalist social relations have always shaped the relationship of workers to the natural world. While he worries about the development of anti-sleep drugs and reduced average sleeping hours1 he misses the fundamental continuity of how workers’ relationship to nature has always shifted with the ebbs and flows of class struggle. It was because of this continuity that in 1897 Lenin was able to write in his pamphlet The New Factory Law:

“’Night’ for the common people, who have to toil all their lives for others, and ‘night’ for the fine folk, who live on the labour of others, are, according to the ‘law’, two entirely different things.”

For Crary the gaslight in Joseph Wright’s painting Arkright’s Cotton Mills by Night is replaced by the mid-20th century glow of television sets from windows. The all too common subtext is that industrial production is a thing from a bygone era. Indeed this must really be considered the main point Crary is making here; any serious attempt to find a modern comparator for Wright’s image would surely place the spill of electric light from the windows of modern textile factories as a closer match.

The problem with this is that it glosses over the distinction between production and consumption. The shirt Crary was wearing when he wrote his tome came neither from the past nor from someone’s television room. It came from a factory where workers today still have the power to unite and struggle both against their employers and the capitalist system as a whole.

Crary’s sleight of hand replaces Rosa Luxemburg’s valuable maxim: “Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken”, with something resembling the slogan and title of the 1980s BBC children’s television classic Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go Out And Do Something Less Boring Instead? Indeed, Crary’s position is worse. Rather than “something less boring” he simply advocates going to bed as a radical act in itself. To be clear—the author believes that sleep is the last realm free from capitalism’s influence and goes on to fetishise it as the wellspring from which a strategy of emancipation will leap forward. This is nothing more than a secular prayer, a call to shut our eyes and hope for a miracle. This absurd notion can only hold on the basis that our dreams are born not of our experience of the world we live in but are instead imparted from some fantastical plane beyond our knowledge.

The highly impressionistic method that the author employs often makes it an unnecessarily complex task to engage with the text—rather than rooting his critique of contemporary capitalism firmly in the process of production the author instead draws on an eclectic mix of materialism, academic traditions of psychoanalysis, and anecdote, fusing them with abstract conjecture. As a result Crary often seems to be alluding towards ideas but ultimately fails when it comes to explaining them.

At times the author also seems intent to make the facts fit his thesis. In one passage he asserts that capitalism has failed to commodify sleep—dismissing at a stroke the connection between sleep and shelter, not to mention the production for exchange of such outlandish items as beds and mattresses.

This book would be an amusing novelty if indulgent, dead-end narratives like it had not become such a banality on the left. Faced with a world in turmoil and a continuing employers’ offensive socialists need to be armed with clear analysis—they will not find it here.

1: Reduced, we might note, only in comparison to the post Second World War period of the “long boom” during which shorter working hours had been won by workers’ struggle.