By Karl Miller
(Editor's Note: Things have been a wee bit slow around this ole blog of late due to work commitments and so I bring to you Karl Miller's review of the book "24/7 Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep" by Jonathan Carey. Karl is no stranger to these parts. A theatre blogger, writer and actor-- you can see his excellent turn in Marie Antoinette currently running at Soho Rep-- I've long looked forward to the day when Karl would write for Parabasis. I think with this review, you'll see why. -- IB)
SLEEP SO MUCH
24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep
by Jonathan Crary
Perhaps you’ve heard the Internet is ruining our minds. Symptoms include: snark bites, chronic blogorrhea and -- worst of all -- a starchy, purple discharge from the mouths of our media critics. By that last affliction I mean a kind of breathless, scattershot doomsaying essay whose mangled prose is the only cause for doom the author bothers to supply. It is as though someone wanted to warn us of a great dyslexia epidemic, but rather than research, report and argue the point, they just penned their warning entirely in spoonerisms and called it a day. For a ripe specimen of this sad condition, see the title above. To his credit, Crary wishes to alarm his reader and I confess I have been successfully alarmed.
Here is his argument as best I can parse it. Crary believes <Internet> is the sublime fulfillment of a reactionary political movement that began in the 1970s to suppress the flourishing of socialism. (I place Internet in brackets because you may have heard this same charge applied to many another culprit.) You see, <Internet> enables capital to course across the planet “24/7,” unimpeded by the rhythms and cycles of “everyday life.” With these rhythms and cycles bleached away, we have no common space or “temporality” with our fellow citizens and can therefore only transact with them as subjects in the neoliberal global capitalist system. Meaningful socialization and political organization is not just “impossible” now but “unthinkable” because <Internet>. Consequently, sleep is the only sector of human life that has not been appropriated by global capitalism and our only hope is that it cannot be. So if you want to find common cause with your fellow man, you should literally knock yourself out.
If you disagree with this dizzying and contradictory thesis, fear not, for you will find little in Crary’s book to persuade you otherwise. If your reading of history doesn’t happen to pivot on the year 1968, you will find nothing here to prove or advance the point; it is taken as axiomatic. If you recall that socialism, to its credit, had global “24/7” ambitions, too, you will find no mention of that as Crary strenuously binds all things “24/7” to capitalism. And if you believe global warming, green energy and the multi-polar nuclear world order are important issues requiring a global consciousness, you will find no engagement with those notions either.
But those are all sins of glaring omission. The real problem with the book is that it is a series of statements that rarely build atop each other to form what we in the industry call an argument. Which is to say the pages do not unfold in sequence as sections, chapters, paragraphs, sentences, phrases and words that synthesize and analyze examples, data and theories. Instead we get a few nice film and painting recommendations to investigate on our own time and a lot of verbose reiteration of the same general gripe. Here is a representative sample:
“If something as private and seemingly interior as dreaming is now the object of advanced brain scanners and can be imagined in popular culture as downloadable media content, then there are few restraints on the objectification of those parts of individual life that can be more easily relocated to digital formats.”
Why is dreaming “private” but only “seemingly interior”? How does a study of dreaming in the lab or a depiction of dreaming in art remove “restraints on the objectification of [other] parts of individual life”? What were the reigning restraints and who held the reins? There may be good answers to these questions, but in Crary’s treatment we never even get the questions. Try this:
“Sensory impoverishment and the reduction of perception to habit and engineered response is the inevitable result of aligning oneself with the multifarious products, services and “friends” that one consumes, manages, and accumulates during waking life.”
Adding scare-quotes to the word “friends” is about as close as Crary gets to analysis or demonstration. But that’s a sneer, not an argument. The quote above sounds true enough if you read it at the right gallop, but there is no explanation of which products, services, friends, together with what kind of consumption, management and accumulation results in “sensory impoverishment and the reduction of perception to habit and engineered response”. Consider a more specific example:
“We buy products that have been recommended to us through the monitoring of our electronic lives, and then we voluntarily leave feedback for others about what we have purchased.”
Sure, but what makes this different from the target marketing of yore, when advertisements were linked to certain sections of the paper, zip codes of the city, or times in the television broadcast clock? And remind me why voluntary feedback among consumers is bad? Are we doing too much of it at the expense of something else? Are there trends or numbers to prove so? Short of that simple metric, is there a qualitative difference to articulate? Should opinion-having be a credentialed profession again? We never learn. Each sentence is an implication that only triggers a fresh sheaf of implications. And like the manic web-surfer he seems to be criticizing, Crary himself cannot rest to establish any particular thesis statement before gliding face-first into the next one. Here is the following sentence:
“We are the compliant subject who submits to all manner of biometric and surveillance intrusion, and who ingests toxic food and water and lives near nuclear reactors without complaint.”
Here he’s at least talking about familiar threats, but he doesn’t empower the reader to make a complaint. Is there a nuclear reactor in Washington Heights I don’t know about? What toxins? How might I complain? How am I being prevented from doing so? And how is the first half of the sentence connected to the second except by vague exasperation with <Internet>?
This is followed by a real kicker:
“The absolute abdication of responsibility for living is indicated by the title of the many bestselling guides that tell us, with a grim fatality, the 1,000 movies to see before we die, the 100 tourist destinations to visit before we die, the 500 books to read before we die.” [emphasis mine]
Is this Columbia art historian so literal-minded that he doesn’t know that any recommendation on any subject from any source comes with an implicit “before you die” attached? Crary’s academic art history roots might explain this unremitting, declamatory posture to his writing. After all, in a painting, things are always already happening and all linear narrative is imposed by the viewer. So when Crary writes that an index of good books “indicates” an “absolute abdication of the responsibility for living,” he may just be stretching the vernacular of his day job around a more complicated subject, like a plumber describing heart surgery.
But for those in his audience who don’t happen to be Marxist art historians, a simple entry-level problem remains. We need fact, stipulation, sequence and context for any economic, political, historical or psychological argument to persuade us and Crary provides none. If he is trying to say that even these rudimentary footholds for the rational exchange of ideas have been washed away in the slippery blizzard of cyberspace, he has still failed to offer any evidence beyond his own white noise to prove so. He “indicates” much but explains little.
In Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Neil Postman, deftly articulated how a televisual discourse had supplanted the typographic discourse that preceded it. In written language, sequence and continuity determine what is true and false. By contrast, in televisual language, the film editor determines what is true and false. As Goddard said, “Film is truth 24 times a second and every cut is a lie.” If you follow this, you can see how the easy discord between audio and video tracks, the jump-cut and the montage all dismantle prior definitions of “sequence” and “continuity”. Taken together, these techniques amount to a new governing syntax for all that passes through it. The gravest consequence of this new discourse is that it makes contradiction and hypocrisy almost impossible to hold accountable. So if you watch more news than you read, you will lose the ability to detect contradiction and hypocrisy. Postman then demonstrated how this new discourse changed education, religion and politics, often for the worse, and he closed his book by offering some solutions for mitigating the change and recovering what we had lost along the way.
By contrast, on every page of 24/7, we get the general impression that a similar transition has taken place, but there is no sequence or continuity to Crary’s case as it is written. Consequently, Crary can only reify himself with escalating feats of verbosity. The spectacle is comic, then tedious, then pitiable. By the end, my frustrated marginalia condensed into one solemn wish: Academician, deconstruct thyself. Consider this statement:
“Modernization could not proceed in a world populated with large numbers of individuals who believed in the value or potency of their own internal visions or voices.”
Now try to square that with something the author writes two pages later:
“It is impossible now to conjure up an individual wish or desire so unavowable that it cannot be consciously acknowledged and vicariously gratified.”
Both statements are attempts to articulate a problem. In the first, Modernization affronts our individuality, but in the second, individuality is the problem. Which is it to be? Can I believe in the potency of my internal visions and voices or can’t I? If so, why is my “conscious acknowledgement” and “vicarious gratification” of them a problem two pages later? Why are “voices and visions” good and “wishes and desires” bad? There is no coherent argument to bridge these two unwieldy declarations. Here Crary embodies the heedless discontinuity of thought that Postman patiently dissected.
This is unfortunate. We need lucid analysis of globalization in all its forms. You don’t have to be a Luddite or techno-utopian to appreciate that. Nor do you have to be a Marxist or libertarian (though these seem to be the only categories our media critics care to engage). If, like me, you are already open to the notion that Internet and capitalism have profoundly altered how we enter and exit consciousness, you will instead find yourself profoundly aggravated by Crary’s one-note hysteria on the matter:
“The more one identifies with the insubstantial electronic surrogates for the physical self, the more one seems to conjure an exemption from the biocide underway everywhere on the planet. At the same time, one becomes chillingly oblivious to the fragility and transience of actual living things.”
This sounds serious, until you recall that our globalized 24/7 culture is what made global warming detectable in the first place. Without a planetary consciousness, which would be 24/7 by definition, we cannot mobilize our fellow primates to fight the biocide that Crary thinks we cannot even see. Moreover, if you read that passage again, you will find nothing there that could not be grafted onto a discussion of television decades ago. Or a discussion of the printing press centuries ago. Or, indeed, a discussion of the written word millennia ago. What makes an “electronic surrogate” different from a literary or theatrical one?
This is the operative distinction at play, but with Crary all we get is more gobsmacking about kids these days. Here he is on blogging:
“The phenomenon of blogging is one example – among many – of the triumph of a one-way model of auto-chattering in which the possibility of ever having to wait and listen to someone else has been eliminated. Blogging, no matter what its intentions, is thus one of the many announcements of the end of politics.”
So sorry we at Parabasis cannot match the depth and calm decorum of cable news, talk radio or the newspaper editorial page (where one has no choice but to passively consume) but, respectfully, has Crary ever interacted with a blog? The comment section of any post may be a bloody trench – a core sample of ideological hatred – but it is hardly “one-way auto-chattering.” Even at its most shrill, blogging is a net positive for politics, in this sense. And what was the alternative venue that blogging “eliminated”? Waiting in lines:
“As Sartre showed, the queue is one of the many banal instances in which the conflict between the individual and the organization of society is felt … The suspended, unproductive time of waiting, of taking turns, is inseparable from any form of cooperation or mutuality. All the preceding decades of authoritarian rule had not nullified certain enduring features of community, in part because brutal but crude forms of Stalinist discipline allowed many of the underlying rhythms of social time to persist unchanged.”
True, Stalin did bless his citizens with new and longer lines, but if I’m using my iPhone to sign a petition for marriage equality whilst standing in line at Duane Reade, am I really missing a more ripe political exchange in the fluorescent muzak of the moment? How would a more tedious DMV make my neighborhood a better place? When you sink to calling Stalin “brutal but crude” – as though his crudeness somehow tempered his brutality – it’s safe to say your argument is strained. These are the limits of applying Marxist art history to <Internet>. The brutal but crude ideological frame simply cannot contain this big sloppy canvas.
So 24/7 will not persuade those who disagree with its countless stipulations, and those who start the book with some kindred interest will be frustrated by the absence of developed argument. But you can be wrong in argument and right on the merits (Christopher Hitchens). And you can be wrong on the merits but a delight to read (Christopher Hitchens). So is 24/7 worth reading as a Marxist rallying cry? Sadly, no. Crary’s sentences are built from an evasive phraseology that only gets mushier the closer your inspect it. And this is where 24/7 goes from being merely weak to actively harmful. When you’re wrong at the word-to-word level, you’re going to cause some real damage to the reading public, regardless of its ideological affiliations.
How so? Well, for such a short book, it’s alarmingly redundant. If something goes without saying, Crary will be sure to say it thrice over. In the space of five pages, he warns of “collective normalization” and “generalized sameness” and the “fabrication of pseudo-necessities.” He never bothers to itemize, trace or even name our “necessities,” never mind our “pseudo-necessities”. But if we have reached the sorry state where the “pseudo” has been “fabricated” (don’t ask how it could be otherwise) then what authentic spring of nature or man may provide our “pseudo-necessities” in the raw, as it were, furthermoreover? Is he saying that even our fake delights are fake? I have no idea. Because he never pauses to talk about what, precisely, counts as “normal” or what he means by “collective,” he just fuses the two synonyms into an ungainly mash-up that doubles the word count but halves the meaning. In this fashion, each sentence manages to be elaborate without ever proceeding to elaborate anything. Behold the ravages of Internet! Redundant echoes infect yet ensicken the syntactic verbularities of his mentalized cognitisms.
I mock with great sympathy because I sincerely believe that, absent Internet, Crary would have written a passionate purple tract against some other broad sociological phenomenon, but would have done so with a little more clarity, cohesion and perhaps an ounce of consideration for the motherfucking reader. Something about 24/7 reality really has scrambled an otherwise fine mind and hampered its ability to communicate with other minds. As my Kindle highlighter bled out in the grocery line, I got the dreadful feeling that Crary wasn’t trying to speak to me, the reader, at all. (And really, how could he speak to me if he’s already concluded that both individuality and mutuality have been annihilated in the “collective normalization” of 24/7 Internet?) Better to speak directly to Internet herself, dodging her snark and algorithmic snares with language that is purposely, perhaps strategically, disjointed and obscure – like the characters in that last digital shibboleth for humanity:
I started by saying Crary’s superobjective was “to alarm” and that he had succeeded. Here is the “grim fatality” of his own treatise. If sleep really is our last and best stand against global capitalism, then we are left to believe that we are most connected to our fellow citizens when we are least conscious, that is, when we are out cold, paralyzed or dreaming. But as anyone who’s ever dreamt or listened to another person’s dream knows, dreaming is the most exacting and peculiar individual experience we can have (pace Jung). In dreams, we accept whole premises without complaint or reflection – such and such a house is now our house. Such and such a lover is now our lover. We are undermined by our dreams, but safely so precisely because the body is paralyzed. In this private theatre, rational control, ideology and language are all delivered over to the imperatives of the subconscious, which, I’m sorry to report, never sits still.
This is a vulnerable condition. Crary is right when he points out that it is predicated on a trust for each other. We must trust each other to broker common rules for public and private life in order to have a safe space for sleeping and dreaming. So maybe our new insomnia comes from a new anxiety about new global threats? This sounds plausible enough until you recall that this has been a founding anxiety for most animal life on the planet. So to ask for the umpteenth time: what makes this age so different?
I’d like to close with a theory for further investigation – one that might answer that last question. And it’s a theory inspired by one of the better passages of 24/7. Crary’s art history vernacular may be inadequate to his larger subject, but it works well to describe a few things:
“In my account, modern sleep includes the interval before sleep – the lying awake in quasi-darkness, waiting indefinitely for the desired loss of consciousness. During this suspended time, there is a recovery of perceptual capacities that are nullified or disregarded during the day … One follows an uneven succession of groundless points of temporary focus and shifting alertness, as well as the wavering onset of hypnagogic events.”
As we drift to sleep, we see our thoughts run before us of their own inertia, no longer driven by the rational intentions and demands of the animate working day. We see our thoughts unbraid into a web of associations. A memory of Duane Reade, the drug store, morphs into a memory of Duane Miller, my father. This free association tends to happen in sleep because the associative is the least taxing form of cognition. Unlike the intentional, the linear, the synthetic or the analytic, the associative relation is built on the simple economy of “generalized sameness.” At some ungraspable point in this gentle regression to the associative level of thinking, we lose consciousness itself. Not just consciousness of ourselves and our fellow citizens, but consciousness of any object. We stop taking in new experiences so we can cement the memories of the old ones. We sleep.
If we are trying to identify an insomnia peculiar to our times, we must investigate how this hypnagogic gateway to sleep has been mirrored or inverted by a new conscious activity like web surfing. Online we likewise careen across a network of associations, of links, often marveling at just how far afield we can run from our original intention. An article about Miley Cyrus may take us to the Wikipedia page for the Island of Nauru, for all we know. Is it possible this new daily labor depletes your ability to lay in bed and let your brain passively range over its own internal, individual network of associations? Is it possible that a person conditioned to surf, organize and share his or her experiences will find it difficult to ease into this hypnagogic state where the surfing cannot be controlled, tagged and validated instantly? Would such a person be more likely to crave the clean, binary on-off switch of narcotic sleep aids if the liminal space between consciousness and unconsciousness only creates fresh anxiety? And is all of this the lone rampage of capitalism or is something else going on here, too?
I think this is what Crary means by “perceptual categories that are nullified or disregarded during the day.” On that crucial point, his argument finally connects with the promising themes kicked up by his title. But as the preponderance of his book clearly demonstrates, we desperately need something more than Marxist art history to confront it. Globalization may be an outgrowth of late capitalism, but global warming is hardly a boon to the same. The Internet is a marketplace, but it is also a forum. It frees speech, information and political exchange but it redefines privacy and intellectual property along the way. Most importantly: socialism, like the Internet, presumes a planetary, species-wide identity and concern. And we happen to have far more in common with each other than our daily shift as passive bodies.
Put another way, if a ready capitalist like George F. Will sees all civic and public life as one big annoying line at the airport, we may say that George F. Will has a sad and stunted view of civic life. But if Crary’s ideology leads him to crave annoying lines at the airport and to see the Internet as one big annoying commercial … what does that “indicate” about his ideology? Both men have their favorite bedtime stories, I’m sure. But the rest of us could use a better lullaby.