By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
The iPhone 7 was released today (no headphone jack or cord, so if the wireless earbud Apple is developing falls out of your ear while you’re jogging, it’s going to head straight for that puddle). That got me thinking how devices and screens seem to be infiltrating every nook and cranny of our lives — I like dumb phones, but I also travel with not one but two laptops, and not one but two iPads, for redundancy — including sleep (and not just because of blue lights from LEDs messing with our melatonin, either). Rather:
Lynn Taylor has a bad habit of sending emails at all hours of the night … at 11:45 p.m., then 12:29 a.m., and even as late as 2:23 a.m. When the rest of the world is checked out, Taylor is plugged in.
“I spend my day thinking of emails I need to send, and the only time I can catch up is after hours,” says Taylor, 36, a government affairs executive in Washington, D.C.
Whether it’s email, a video game, the Web, or TV, electronic devices and their offerings keep millions of Americans like Taylor connected 24/7. But the price for leading our fully wired lives is high: These diversions can keep us from both falling asleep and sleeping well.
That cause is said to be “cognitive overstimulation,” but I dunno; I always pictured myself as a terrible sleeper, but I’ve discovered that picture is false: I fall asleep (say) to the Civil War Podcast episode #158, where McClellan is about to lose the Penisula Campaign, and end up back at Fair Oaks, hours later and farther back in the past, having slept peacefully through Stonewall Jackson’s campaign in the Shenendoah Valley. Then again — as I type at 2:26AM — I’m also very much with Lynn Porter, too.
All of which is meandering way of introducing the book I plan to briefly comment upon, Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.
Capitalism and Sleep
24/7 is perhaps dazzling rather than illuminating; more a dystopian polemic than a work of scholarship. In fact — though this could be me, as I haven’t been getting enough slip — though I raced through it (24/7 is only 125 small pages long) it’s melted away from my mind, like a dream or perhaps like a pomo verbal confection. That said, Crary has one theme to which he returns over and over again, which I will excerpt (p. 10 et seq):
Many institutions [especially financial institutions] have been running 24/7 for decades now. It is only recently that the elaboration, the modeling of one’s personal and social identity, has been reorganized to conform to the uninterrupted operation of markets, information networks, and other systems….
As for example Lynn Taylor’s email. Or her iPhone. However:
In its profound uselessness and intrinsic passivity, with the incalcuable losses it causes in production time, circulation, and consumption, sleep will always collide with the demands of a 24/7 universe. The huge portion of our lives that we spend asleep, freed from a morass of simulated needs, subsists as one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism. Most of the seemingly irreducible necessities of human life — hunger, thirst, sexual desire, and recently the need for friendship — have neen 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 thus 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.
No doubt there’s an app for sleep… Now, I think Crary gets this exactly right: Just as capitalism has commodified water (for pity’s sake), it would commodify sleep. If it could. Technical barriers aside, why hasn’t it?
Workers and Sleep
The problem I have with 24/7 is that it presents the glittering irreality of capitalism as far more totalizing than it is in fact, and that Crary’s seamless exposition seems to provide no rent or tear through which the activities of dull normals can be seen; Lynn Taylor, after all, is a 10%er, a “government executive,” as surely is Crary’s audience as he glides smoothly from Foucault to Barthes to DeLeuze and Guattari. For that reason, I think Crary underestimates the determination of working people to take back their sleeping hours. For example, Pullman porters:
The heart of the [Alan Derickson’s Dangerously Sleepy] for me is the chapter on Pullman porters, who, beyond their proud place in labor history, accumulated valuable knowledge about the public health risks of systemic sleep loss. Founded in 1867, the Pullman Company employed only African-American porters in its sleeping cars because the founder, George Pullman, thought they were particularly suited to making beds, shining shoes, emptying spittoons, and other demeaning tasks the passengers demanded. And like steelworkers who worked the dreaded “long shift,” they were also subjected to temporal and spatial arrangements that made restful sleep impossible. While passengers slept in comfortably appointed compartments with soft bedding and padding protecting them against injury in the case of derailments or collisions, the porters had only couches in the washroom or smoking room. A porter in 1903 estimated that the average employee got less than four hours of sleep a night; making matters worse, the company disciplined those who fell asleep at the wrong time or the wrong place with up to 30 days’ suspension. Beginning in 1925, porters began to fight back, creating the first major national union for workers of color: the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Led by future civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, the Brotherhood highlighted connections between sleep loss and respiratory, cardiac, and mental health risks — issues that have been of interest to sleep researchers ever since. More successful than these appeals to health and safety were Randolph’s appeals to common interests of employers and employees. “It is a well-recognized principle in psychological physiology,” the socialist Randolph argued, “that fatigue destroys efficiency and lessens productivity.” Despite sporadic successes in limiting work hours, the Brotherhood didn’t secure a 40-hour workweek until 1940.
I just don’t think there’s a place for those Pullman Porters — past, or their present equivalent — in Crary’s paradig of “Late Capitalism” (and doesn’t “late” rather assume what it must prove?) Matthew Wolf-Meyer (to be fair, a competing sleep theorist) writes:
It seems that every so often, the idea of the 24/7 society resurfaces and compels someone to write a tract like 24/7. In the 1970s, sociologist Murray Melbin started such a project, which came to fruition in Night as Frontier: Colonizing the World After Dark (1987). Melbin had earlier published a similarly titled essay in the 1970s about the inevitable encroachment of capitalism into every spatial and temporal corner of American social life, but by the time he conducted the entirety of the research that laid the basis for Night as Frontier, his attitude had changed somewhat: yes, there was activity at night, but it was far from all-consuming, and the people who worked at night – police, truck drivers, nurses, restaurant servers – had a camaraderie based on their shared existence in the marginalized social world of night work.
“The lobster shift,” as we used to call it. And:
[T]he basis of Crary’s analysis is not the everyday lives of individuals, but the imagined experience of some unnamed individual, impelled to live a 24/7 existence, constructed through the casual reading of news items and 20th century French philosophy, with a sprinkling of references to paintings, documentaries, and a Philip K. Dick novel.
This lack of an empirical grounding is the most troubling aspect of 24/7, and it’s most likely to be the most frustrating aspect about the book for many readers. …
This leads to, or grows out of, his conception of capitalism, which is an abstract, placeless force that seems to have no instrumental actors, but, instead, only hapless victims – except for the artists and critics who are able to extricate themselves from capitalism’s morass.
How then, should sleepers and the sleepless be placed? Wolf-Meyer concludes:
[H]ow is 24/7 spreading around the globe and across class lines? How is it that once only elites were required to be on call at all times, and now even minimum wage workers need to respond to emergency phone calls from their employers when off shift? How is time-discipline, which E.P. Thompson characterized in the age of industrialization (1993), becoming sutured to ideas about 24/7 – or not? If 24/7 is such an order-word, who, exactly, does it compel, and how, precisely, is it capturing the imaginations and everyday practices of people around the world? And whom does it fail to seduce, and how are they articulating themselves against 24/7? True elites live beyond the seduction of 24/7 as much as the truly downtrodden do; it seems that 24/7 is aspirational, but only some will ever bother to aspire to it, regardless of the damage that ensues. But without firm empirical grounding from Crary, the reader can only imagine who that might be.
Returning to the iPhone: I was doing some Xeroxing at Staples last week, and while I was waiting for the job, I noticed a family, also waiting for a job — all staring down into their cellphones. And of course, whenever we go out to a restaurant, we see couples sharing a table, but each staring into their cellphones as well. Perhaps these are the sleepers who should wake from the dreams of their devices (or will, if we lose an Internet Exchange point or three to some disaster). Are they all checking their email at three in the morning? Or are they, not being 10%-ers, even aspirationally, not? Or perhaps all of us chained to the gears and complications of financial time are the sleepers, and we are the ones who should wake. I’m not sure. But I’m going to read a book before going to bed.
 The Los Angeles Times Book Review has an excellent comparative review of the “critical sleep studies” literature, which include a discussion of 24/7. There’s a lot more work being done in this field than I had imagined.
 “[H]ere’s what makes this campaign truly great, in my estimation–each sample of Coffiest contains three milligrams of a simple alkaloid. Nothing harmful. But definitely habit-forming. After ten weeks the customer is hooked for life. It would cost him at least five thousand dollars for a cure, so it’s simpler for him to go right on drinking Coffiest–three cups with every meal and a pot beside his bed at night, just as it says on the jar.” –Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants, 1953.
For the late night crowd, Bach’s Cantata 140: “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (“Awake, calls the voice to us”), BWV 140, also known as Sleepers Wake: