:: Article

24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep

By Joseph Nechvatal.

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

I have long admired Jonathan Crary’s elegiac style (in the interests of full transparency: in 1985 Jonathan Crary wrote a stunningly insightful review of my art exhibition at Brooke Alexander Gallery published in that year’s January issue of Art in America). His books Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century and Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture are masterful introductions to modern visual culture and have been irreplaceable references for me concerning my investigations into the immersive aspects of (first) virtual reality and (secondly) noise. His editorial work at Zone Books is laudatory.

It is then with immense regret that I cannot enthusiastically praise his newest book 24/7 here, as I cannot accept some of the most grandiose assumptions and claims that he makes in this examination of human perception within the operations of today’s global information and communication network. In a nutshell, he seems to view 24/7 digital access as mandatory and de-humanizing — using at times negative-priest technophobic hyperbolics similar to those of Paul Virilio and Jean Baudrillard — and I don’t. I recognize the subjective costs of 24/7 digital access to artistic attention as the dynamic working arena; not as a given to be either surrendered unto or escaped from by looking backwards and moaning.

The book is slim (indeed the material seems better suited for a blog, website or e-book than a 144 page tree-killing hardback), and at first glance I told myself that I would read it all within the next 24 hour period. This proved to be impossible as, I am sorry to say, I frequently battled with falling to sleep in my chair while attempting to read it.

The first chapter on human sleep started out very well: a nice mix of arcane scientific research (that needed more citations) and post-68 political opinion. It has the zing of a good long essay from The New Yorker magazine, weaving in juicy details about sleep-deprivation torture and panopticonic lighting conditions with historic philosophical, filmic and literary references and reflections. I was riding high, alert and stimulated, for the first 28-page chapter. Jonathan has much of worth to convey there.

But then the gas went out of the Zeppelin, as chapter 2 turned turgidly reactionary in its anti-digitalization and anti-commercial screed. Un-nuanced polarities are left unquestioned and straw men arguments are executed in ceremonial fashion. Ho Hum.

There were a few exciting parts, most notably his incomplete claims concerning recent emerging strategies of control and surveillance, now already outflanked and outdated by the historic revolutionary actions of Edward Snowden. But extensive sections of the book dwell on the well-worn argument that laments ubiquitous consumerism of entertainment and leisure distraction. There is a good deal of explaining how digital 24/7 communications makes political solidarity and uproar less likely, rather than more. Again opinionated information made redundant by the real time images and internet reports of the Egyptian uprising and overthrow on the electronic digital network.

So chapter 2 put me in the bummer mood I feel when reading books like Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985) by Neil Postman. That sort of over-reach-scare rhetoric can’t help feeling but like the over-heatedness of a delusional gold sales-pitch scam right wing fanatic. As both of us are, or were, based in New York City (The City That Never Sleeps) the claim that “the marketplace now operates through every hour of the clock, pushing us into constant activity and eroding forms of community and political expression, damaging the fabric of everyday life” feels to me more like provocative pumpkin hyperbole than a threat to the sensibilities of human perception. Yes we can shop on the internet all day long every day, but you are not required to do so. The colonized mind is just another option among so many others (including net abstinence).

Sorrowfully for me to say then, the general tone of the book’s rhetoric is that of a technophobe posturing to be a savvy (but jaded) technophile. Of course, for me by now, both polar positions are rather pathetic intellectual stances. Especially vexing, Jonathan seems deeply concerned in recovering a mythical search for drop-out separation. I do agree with many of the observations he makes in the book, but a return to separation as a way of overcoming the impairment of perception within the (supposedly) compulsory routines of contemporary technological culture I find doomed to failure – and a waste of time. We are not getting back to a Thoreau-like fabled garden or some equally mythical original “actual” reality.

Anyway, most of this attitude towards media excess and the actual has already been covered in scenarios of totalitarian governmental seizures of individual rights by hippies inspired by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where people medicate themselves into bliss and voluntarily sacrificing their rights. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we don’t have to theorize about that any more. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution Bill of Rights (which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, along with requiring any search warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause) has been voluntarily superceded by the fear of 9-11 like terrorist networks and the coupling of search engines with artificial intelligence algorithms. Drawing an analogy with the Huxley scenario, Jonathan sees 24/7 access as a present-day soma.

Of course, he is right about how unfettered capitalism has disturbed public spaces and financial safety nets, and how capitalism’s ever-more-closer-to-total consumption of the planet is a reality, but he seems ideologically blinded to new ways of using our never off attention spans as a means of détournement.

Again I wish to stress that 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep does have an excellent analysis of the commodification of sleep in it. One that once again brought back to my mind Tatsuo Miyajima’s 1996 installation at La Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, where he made two large installations which dealt with the abstract constitution of time in the digital age. Both installations consisted of abundant LED signal-lights that flashed a countless bevy of over-excited digital numbers in what appeared to be a never ending random order. One installation, Time Go Round, had twenty green and red digital modules spinning in various circular orbits against an imposing dark wall. One discerned there a mystifying data constellation in transit, reminiscent of passages from William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). Time Go Round was an attempt to delineate the crisis of time in relationship to the dispersed ontological self in the information age (where digital time as the only time has become non-problematic in computational work environments). Like Miyajima’s artistic sense of time in crisis, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep served to encourage me to value the freedom of my own interior sense of time. Perhaps that is its central lesson and benefit.

Since 1986 Joseph Nechvatal has worked with ubiquitous electronic visual information, computers and computer-robotics. His computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. From 1991-1993 he worked as artist-in-resident at the Louis Pasteur Atelier and the Saline Royale / Ledoux Foundation’s computer lab in Arbois, France on The Computer Virus Project: an experiment with computer viruses as a creative stratagem. In 2002 he extended that artistic research into the field of viral artificial life through his collaboration with the programmer Stéphane Sikora. Dr. Nechvatal presently teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City (SVA). His book of essays Towards an Immersive Intelligence: Essays on the Work of Art in the Age of Computer Technology and Virtual Reality (1993-2006) was published by Edgewise Press in 2009. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library’s Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. His archive is housed at The Fales Library (Downtown Special Collection) at N.Y.U. in New York City.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 10th, 2013.