Night Terrors

By Matthew Fuller, 10 July 2013
Image: Precog in waking sleep state, in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report

Matthew Fuller reviews Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep


There are many self-help manuals that promise to cure sleep problems through hypnosis, positive thinking, careful routine or a deliberately casual vacancy. There even exist collections of stories claimed to be so soothing and peaceful that they render the reader’s over-busy brain incapable of anything except the sleep they need. Jonathan Crary’s new book 24/7 is unlikely to be denying shelf-space to either of these kinds of publication, and not only due to its brevity. Crary is an esteemed historian and theorist of technologies of visual culture and here he opens with a catalogue of episodes in which sleep has been turned against itself into commodity or systematically denied as a form of torture, becoming a tumbrel upon which bodies are constantly turned and jolted in the night. 24/7 is about the always on, always invasive imperatives of contemporary life in the overdeveloped world. It is about the denial of sleep and sleep as a potential resource for a politically attuned everyday.


Sleep as a biopolitical phenomenon has recently been taken up by a range of writers such as Alexei Penzin, (Rex Exsomnis), Simon Williams (The Politics of Sleep), and Matthew Wolf-Meyer (The Slumbering Masses) amongst others in the last couple of years. Another set of authors have been working on insomnia for rather longer. The general thrust of the arguments is around how sleep becomes a social, medical and physiological problem, rather than something inert and ostensibly natural that happens to occur to most humans with a relative degree of regularity, constituting a third of their lives. Drugs, technically advanced mattresses, a panoply of apps, and a whole battery of new scientific processes, of the kind ably mapped by Kenton Kroker’s exhaustive history of sleep science The Sleep of Others, are deployed in order to both roll back the hold of sleep on the human components of work systems and to make new products available to ensure that sleep can be had that is of a superior quality to that which is mundanely available.


Sleep is a blockage, a paradoxically animal impediment to time that would be better spent on work, communication, consumption and marketing. As recently mapped by historians such as Ekirch and Koslofsky, early modernity saw the beginning of a disenchantment of the night through the use of lighting, fireworks and, for certain classes in Europe, the ostentatious occupation of darkness as if it were day. There is a glittery thrill in bucking the solar cycle and inhabiting the dazzling spaces of illuminated night. Crary shows us how this tendency has become massified and rather tending to loose its appealing shine in an overstocked zone of endless neon, halogen and LCD light. The latter is what especially concerns him. On the other side of all those screens are information systems that never stop churning, alerting and eliciting, logging data and corralling attention. Sleep, for Crary, is a means of asserting both a reminder of vulnerable physicality and a requirement for social forms that protect it. As such it is both intransigent and rather frail, but what he establishes is that the specific inflection given to sleep as a social form is telling of the nature of its politics. Here the book nimbly assays numerous examples of the configuration of sleep from philosophy and literature, and it is the particular quality of sleep in its ability to pick out those that slumber and those that watch, and those that are rendered unable to shut their eyes, that gives the book a real acuity in re-reading authors such as Kafka or Arendt for their figurations of the sleeper and the solicitude that they require.


Crary wants us to attend to the ‘relentless capture and control of time and experience’ by systems of media and control, pungently warning against a media theoretical emphasis on the relatively superficial analysis of momentary media forms. From one angle Crary works something of the repeated plaint of the humanist that nothing is ever really new and that everything has been seen before – what we see happening to sleep can be read out from the trajectory of modernisation. But at the same time, he notes, present conditions of being ‘always on’ even when in sleep mode burn up reserves of consciousness that might have otherwise been drawn into reflection and contemplation, the time of individuation and thought. But also that of a deeper time that also implies the imagination of a future beyond the imperatives of the next few items on the task-list. In a sense, Crary talks little about sleep itself, but rather about the degradation of waking life implied by the technical and economic supercession of unproductive time. The loss of sleep is mere collateral damage in pursuit of the perfect flow distended into products, services and platforms that in turn serve up malleable and well-mapped subjects to the itchy minions of opinion and control.


Pharmaceutical and psychiatric techniques, such as those outlined in the ever-expanding and fabulatory Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, intervene to release unhappy persons into the state of blandness required to function in such a context. A recent Samsung phone was advertised as your ‘lifetime companion’. Billboards show a user leaping through its interface, as if through a portal, into a bright and lush void where smiling is mandatory and all relationships can be managed through the same interface. Everyday life just got better, brighter, and easier to navigate, backed up and monitored on restless servers.


Crary suggests a genealogy for such a situation that runs through the invention of the necessarily always-on factory systems of Arkwright through to the stabilisation of time established by the telegraph and rail, to television – something he figures as the comforter necessary after the twin triumphs of modernity in Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Nested deep within WW2 however was the code-breaking centre of Bletchley Park and the systematisation of computing machines. The incorporation of all symbolic domains into computational frameworks subtends the integration of their users, something parodied by Christopher Strachey and Alan Turing in their Love Letter Generator program written in Manchester in 1952. Both capitalism and computing present highly abstract, intensely mutable systems that are capable of movements of both great decentralisation and concentration and that provide a more or less adequate – the texture of which adequacy is immensely significant – means of interpolating other social forms to their characteristics. Crary follows their integration into previously distinct areas of existence, such as everyday life, and finds that the coercive facilitation being offered is rendering almost everything fully interoperable with them.


There is a sense in which a certain kind of critical theory is left simply watching and describing the immensity and effectiveness of contemporary forms of power. Others let something ineffable stand in for what is devoured in order to show the extent of the stakes: that something seemingly impossible to absorb is possibly subsumable suggests that things are getting harsh. Dreams indeed are figured as something on which such attempts are made. That films about mind control, where dreams are to download, and wild security-state fantasies about the revelatory capacities of brain scanners populate anticipations of the future in ever more abundant quantities suggest some of today’s tropic anxieties. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Chris Marker La Jetée provide points of reference here. Cinema and pre-cinematic technologies are means of achieving a related state to dream, one that is replicable and fungible. But, Crary suggests, there is something beyond such a condition, a form of subjective state that is irreplicable and fugitive, the hypnagogic state between wakefulness and dream, the capacity for unbidden free association and reflection, that arises before sleep. The mind wanders, loosening its moorings in front of screens, by drifting off. Sleep, for Crary, is a part of the everyday that has yet to be fully integrated, where we are vulnerable but also capable of moving into other forms of time. As such, sleep is a resource not only for physiological renewal, but one that provides, the book proposes, an exemplary space for rethinking the basis of the relationship of politics, the imagination and the processes of living.


Matthew Fuller <> is co-author of Evil Media (MIT) and author of Elephant and Castle (Autonomedia).



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