Review: 24/7 by Jonathan Crary (2013, Verso)


As an attempt to better engage with the text, I decided to write-up my notes on Jonathan Crary’s new book 24/7 as a short review. Enjoy!

“Night is part of the media day. It speaks, it emotes, at night as in the day. Without respite… Who can hold back the flows, the currents, the tides (or swamps) that break over the world, pieces of information and disinformation, more or less well-founded analyses, publications, messages – cryptic or otherwise. You can go without sleep, or doze off…” (Lefebvre, 2004: 46)

When I read this quote from Rhythmanalysis, I do so with a smile, wondering what an increasingly grumpy Lefebvre would have made of the explosion of communication and multi-media platforms that he, writing in the late 1980s, was only seeing the beginning of. In his latest book 24/7, Crary highlights the moment at which Lefebvre was writing Rhythmanalysis in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a “weighty historical moment” (121). At this time, the historical trends started by the emergence of industrial capitalism and the decoupling of work from natural rhythms began to fulfill new possibilities. Industrial capitalism saw the creation of new abstract temporalities, based around the logics of machines rather than human or natural timescales. In a society of 24/7, temporality is further dehumanised, leading to a “non-social model of machinic performance and a suspension of living that does not disclose the human cost required to sustains its effectiveness” (9). Crary’s work can thus be understood as a continuation of the themes raised by Lefebvre in his three-volume Critique of Everyday Life, developed further in Rhythmanalysis: a sort of chronicling of the continued incorporation of everyday life into the capitalist system, through the insidious expansion of temporalities which demand constancy and which reject moments of escape, rest, relaxation and solitude.

What is welcome in Crary’s book is the new attempt to revitalise debate around the ever changing relationship between capitalism and time in the ‘digital era’. Crary neither seeks to locate the possibility for revolution and change in the new fluidity and incessancy of social media, nor attempts to argue that the dominance of 24/7 equates to a complete inability to ‘switch off’. Rather, 24/7 is taken to be a dominant logic, and while “it does not eliminate experiences external to or unreliant on it, it does impoverish and diminish them” (31).

But what is 24/7 for Crary? For him it describes the new relationship between capitalism, everyday life and subjectivity. 24/7 emerges from the world of work, from capitalism and consumerism. Following a long line of theorists back to Marx, Crary argues that capitalism has always sought “the dissolution of the relation to the earth” (63), that is the removal of the natural, including the elimination of both places and times of rest and recuperation that have no value in capitalism. Accordingly, over a long period of time and assisted by technological development, capitalism has continued to expand into new domains. These other domains are what Crary labels ‘everyday life’: “the vague constellation of spaces and times outside what was organized and institutionalized around work, conformity and consumerism” (70). Thus with the expansion of capitalism comes the erosion of everyday life. Here, he identifies Deleuze’s claim of movement from societies of discipline to societies of control as marking the almost-complete infiltration of everyday life by capitalism, “characterized by the disappearance of gaps, of open spaces and times” (71). Again, though, Crary is at pains to emphasise the these changes do not happen overnight. Rather, the emergence of new forms of capitalism in areas previously forming everyday life sees new logics laid on top of others, so that “the continuous forms of control he [Deleuze] identifies took shape as an additional layer of regulation alongside still functioning and even amplified forms of discipline” (72).  Fordism and discipline is not replaced by post-Fordism and control. Instead the latter, forming logics of 24/7, are added as new ways of operating for capitalism.

Where, then, does this leave subjectivity? The subject as always been able to retreat to, and encase itself within, places and times outside of the control of capitalism. Crary draws from the arguments of Arendt, who argues for the necessity of a private and independent public sphere, in order for the maintenance of the public and active self. Crary describes this as “a rhythmic balance between exhaustion and regeneration: the exhaustion resulting from labour or activity in the world, and the regeneration that regularly occurs within an enclosed and shaded domesticity” (22). Under logics of 24/7, however, the loss of the everyday causes the self to lose this domesticity: subjectivity becomes networked, non-human, as part of “processes in which everything once considered personal has to be recreated and deployed in the service of adding dollar or prestige value to one’s electronic identities.” (99) This splinters the self into “a patchwork of surrogate identities that subsist 24/7, sleeplessly, continuously, as inanimate impersonations rather than extensions of the self” (104). Under Crary’s argument, the continued expansion of capitalism into everyday life threatens selves, and the ability to be political. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Crary is sceptical about the possibilities of change via social media. Social media already belongs to the logics of 24/7: “one of the goals of Google, Facebook and other enterprises (five years from now the names may be different) is to normalize and make indispensable, as Deleuze outlined, the idea of a continuous interface” (75).

Where, for Crary, does hope lie? Like Lefebvre before him, Crary is aware of the power and strength that capitalism has in eroding everyday life. Perhaps unsurprisingly in an argument centred on the loss  of natural temporalities and rhythms, Crary sees sleep as ensuring “the presence in the world of the phasic and cyclical patterns essential to life and incompatible with capitalism” (126). Sleep is the major remaining natural barrier to the full realization of 24/7, and while “sleep cannot be eliminated”, it can “be wrecked and despoiled… methods and motivations to accomplish this wrecking are fully in place” (17). Defending sleep and the ‘right to sleep’ (not a phrase used by Crary, though he does allude to the idea) is thus a new battleground for the defence of the social. In seeking to defend sleep, Crary rejects notions of the sleeper as separate and independent from society. Sleeping is a deeply social activity, relying upon the security and good-will of others and society in order to be sustained.  Sleep is “one of the few remaining experiences where, knowingly or not, we abandon ourselves to the care of others” (125). Crary builds on this. What is lost in logics of 24/7 is the time and space for pause, for waiting. Sleep is the restoration of this, a “remission, a release from the ‘constant continuity’ of all the threads in which one is enmeshed while waking” (126). As capitalism cannot abide a limit, sleep acts as defiant limitation to 24/7, and as a source of refuge for subjectivity.

Crary’s account is persuasive. Stepping away from polemic, it situates the transformations of social relations associated with digital capitalism into a longer history of the creation of abstract temporalities and rhythms which pervade ever further into subjectivity and everyday life. While I share some of Crary’s concerns about the ability of social media and blogging to cultivate change, I do not fully share his view of these activities as “the triumph of the one-way model of auto-chatting in which the possibility of ever having to wait and listen to someone else has been eliminated” (124). In deciding to convert my reading of his book into a blog post, I slowed-down, increased and deepened my engagement with the text of 24/7 in a way that I would not have done with notes written for myself. (Successful) communication for all forms of social media involves crafting responses which intend to engage in some way: the notion of blogging and social media as a series of people shouting ever-louder at one another does not seem to reflect most forms of engagement that take place on it. Although hardly an example of the positive political outcomes that come from social media, the various threats sent to Caroline Criado-Perez in light of her campaign to have a woman feature on the reverse of British banknotes is proof that interaction on social media is communicative, for better or for worse. The blog post, the comment on a news article, the moment taken to sign a petition, could all be understood as moments of pause in themselves: a rejection of the one-way flow of media, a pause taken to respond, to construct, and to create.

Nevertheless, this text significantly updates current debates about incessant modernity. It offers a vision of 24/7 not as simply an elite’s dream, but as a new dominating logic enabled by ever more intense forms of abstracted, non-human temporality which threaten the pause, the gap, which otherwise generates rhythm.

 

Bibliography

Arendt, H. 1958. The Human Condition Chicago: University of Chicago

Deleuze, G. 1992. Postscript on the Societies of Control  October  59 (Winter, 1992): 3-7

Lefebvre, H. 1991-2005. Critique of Everyday Life Volumes 1-3 London: Verso

Lefebvre, H. 2004. Rhythmanalysis London: Continuum

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