When I was a kid in the 1960s one of the big questions I remember being tossed about was what to do with all of the free time that modern society would afford us. That there would be a virtually unlimited horizon of material abundance and thus leisure, and how best to use it, was a topic of talk in the media and at dinner. Year after year, union contracts (back when there were such things) negotiated increasingly generous benefits, including substantial time off from work. John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1958 classic The Affluent Society set the terms of the conversation early on by challenging Americans to muster the country’s broadly experienced largesse, made possible by the productive capacity of modern mass manufacturing, to serve the larger social good. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was subsequently founded on the notion that widespread wealth, and along with it leisure, were faits accompli.

The decades since have provided the answer to what we would do with all of our spare time, though it’s not the one most people expected. We have dealt with the problem of leisure by getting rid of it. Instead, we now work nonstop. Digital technology and the communications network it supports allow us to be on the job morning, noon, and night, wherever we may be. In his important new book, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, visual culture theorist Jonathan Crary tells us that rather than herald a new age of freedom and self-determination, the new media technologies have ensnared us in a stickier web of control. This condition is characterized by the obligation to always be “on,” the better to surrender ourselves to the continual means of our own mutual self-surveillance and hence domination in the form of Tweets, Facebook and Tumblr updates, texts, emails, blog posts, multi-tasking regimens, and the like.

Jonathan Crary
Jonathan Crary

Crary, who is Meyer Shapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory at Columbia University, is the author of two other significant books. The first, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, published in 1990, looks at the origins of modern visual culture in the first half of the 1800s, in particular the ways in which then emerging physiological science reduced human perception to a function of biological impulses, replacing the spiritual definition of self (i.e., the soul) with a more mechanistic one grounded in pure motor response and base instinct. The second, the award-winning Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture, was published a decade later and looked at the crucial period between 1880 and 1905 when vision was redirected toward solving the problem of attention (actually the lack of it), called upon to focus on specific phenomena as a way to combat the sensory overload of newly industrializing society. Both books essentially argue that these changes came about in the service of capitalism — a cadre of isolated self-interested individuals was created who could function as perfect cogs in the machine constructed by the modern division of labor.

Though brief (a mere 133 pages) and lightly annotated, 24/7 is the capstone of Crary’s archeology of the spectacle and arguably the most significant of the lot. It’s informed by the erudition of one of the most thorough and original researchers at work today. The vast bodies of knowledge Crary seamlessly weaves together in 24/7 is reminiscent of the work of Michel Foucault, but without the gnarly, headache-inducing sentence structure. It’s marked by a moral passion that fuels Crary’s polemic and underscores what’s at stake, specifically the future of the human being in both the physical and emotional sense. Plus, it’s eminently readable, eschewing the critical theory gobbledygook of the tribe of radical art historians he’s most closely associated with, the so-called October group that includes Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster, and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh. (Those folks have done and continue to do important work in their fields, but the need for cultural critique these days is simply too dire to be locked away in the ivory tower.)

In the round-the-clock world of twenty-first century global capitalism, our only relief is sleep, and as Crary notes, even that is coming under attack. 24/7 starts with a report on research being undertaken by the US military to extend the amount of time combat soldiers and other personnel can go without sleep, seeking to extend it from days to weeks. Given that military innovations usually make their way into broader aspects of everyday life — air travel, the Internet, GPS, over-the-counter medications, all manner of consumer electronics, recreational assault weapons — there is every reason to believe, as Crary asserts, that the sleepless soldier is the prototype of the sleepless worker/consumer. “Sleep is an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism,” Crary writes. The endless here and now of 24/7 proposes to harvest surplus value not from only our bodies but from our psyches, rendering us little more than real-life Matrix pod-humans.

Crary doesn’t discuss it in 24/7, but an early iteration of this process can be discerned in the first part of the twentieth century when the techniques of mass manufacturing greatly reduced the amount of time needed to produce goods and services. In Time and Money: The Making of Consumer Culture, historian Gary Cross details the conscious policies adopted by the government and industry in the 1920s and 1930s to encourage material consumption, and along with it increased profit, instead of allowing spiritual respite. The commodity fetish, to use an old-fashioned term, became the mechanism by which capitalism increasingly inserted itself into everyday life, replacing personal relationships and local cultural practices with cold market logic mediated by consumer goods, proffering more stuff in lieu of more time.

Book cover of Television Technology and Cultural Form by Raymond Williams © 2003 Routledge form-raymond-williams-paperback-cover-art
Book cover of Television: Technology and Cultural Form by Raymond Williams © 2003 Routledge

A watershed moment Crary does address is the introduction of broadcast television after the Second World War. Following Raymond Williams ‘s 1974 study Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Crary recognizes the way in which TV was inserted into everyday life as a soft mode of social control. Through what Williams terms its “planned flow,” television organized the daily routine from morning commuting information and weather reports to midday newsbreak to evening entertainment, culminating in nightly sign off, all the while promoting the ostensible benefits of a mass industrial consumer utopia. In the 1950s and 1960s, television was a relatively stable system, drawing an increasingly suburban and decentralized population into a homogenized national imaginary. The advent of cable TV and programmable VCRs in the 1970s offered the opportunity for time shifting and what McKenzie Wark in his new book terms the “disintegrating spectacle,” the way in which control has become atomized and diffused yet more difficult to circumvent. This is represented today by such technologies as social media, wireless communications, and the Internet.

Against the relentless tide of 24/7 production and consumption, Crary proposes that we reclaim sleep as a site of unregulated desire, a mode of resistance to the rational calculation of the market, a state in which we might imagine “a world without billionaires, which has a future other than barbarism or the post-human, and in which history can take on other forms than reified nightmares of catastrophe.” Going to sleep presupposes that one will arise anew the next day, refreshed and with the hope of new possibilities. As the web of 24/7 gets harder and harder to escape, sleep becomes as good a place as any to kickstart the opposition. So, workers of the world — go to bed!

This article was first published in Motown Review of Art.