Sleeplessness, Insomnia, and Ambien: On Jonathan Crary’s “24/7”

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Unlike ever before, the possibility that we are living in a culture that never sleeps is becoming a reality.   Whether it’s the constant need (or is it demand?) to check one’s email, post on Facebook, or go through Twitter feeds, none of us can escape being implicated in what the art historian and critical theorist Jonathan Crary would call 24/7.   His book, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep offers a very pessimistic prognosis of the reality we are in and argues that the only way to battle it is, strangely enough, through sleep. No form of “awakening” or resistance can dislodge or disrupt 24/7.   All forms of resistance that we have turned to in the past are ineffective against it: art, literature, protests, violence, etc.   And this includes the theoretical possibilities of resistance posed by such great thinkers as Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, and Hannah Arendt.

Crary argues that “24/7 steadily undermines distinctions between day and night, between light and dark, and between action and repose”(17). Like Walter Benjamin and Giorgio Agamben, he thinks that “experience” is no longer possible. But he has a different explanation as to why this is the case. It is 24/7 which is the culprit not speed or technology.   It is a “zone of insensibility, of amnesia.”   Crary draws on Maurice Blanchot’s book, The Writing of the Disaster, to explain:

It (24/7) is both of and after the disaster, characterized by the empty sky, in which no star or sign is visible, in which one’s bearings are lost and orientation is impossible.   More concretely, it is like a state of emergency, when a bank of floodlights are suddenly switched on in the middle of the night, seemingly as a response to some extreme circumstances, but which never get turned off and become domesticated into a permanent condition. (17)

The planet, says Crary, becomes a “non-stop work site or an always open shopping mall with infinite choices, tasks, selections, and digressions.” There is nowhere we can stop and think or have repose.     All of this is “hastening the exhaustion of life and the depletion of resources.”

The only “natural barrier” against the “full realization of 24/7 capitalism” is sleep. Nonetheless, it can be “wrecked.”   To explain, Crary points out how – as of a study in 2010 – around 50 million people in the USA are taking Ambien or Lunesta.   Today, that figure is likely much higher.   It would be a mistake, argues Crary, to think that they would totally eliminate insomnia: “insomnia is now inseperable from many other forms of dispossession and social ruin occurring globally”(18).   In other words, the mass experience of insomnia in the USA is “continuous with a generalized condition of worldlessness” and it isn’t going to get any better (regardless of how good the sleeping pills are).   24/7 is a global phenomenon and no first world country is exempt.

Citing Emmanuel Levinas’s reading of insomnia in terms of ethics – as a state of ethical vigilance in the face of “catastrophes of our era” – Crary argues that one form of insomnia may overtake another:

Insomnia corresponds to the necessity of vigilance, to a refusal to overlook the horror and injustice that pervades the world.   It is the disquiet of the effort to avoid inattention to the torment of the other.   But its disquiet is also the frustrating inefficacy of an ethic of watchfulness; the act of witnessing and its monotony can become a mere enduring of the night, the disaster….For Levinas, insomnia always hovers between self-absorption and a radical depersonalization; it does not exclude a concern for the other, but it provides no clear sense of a space for the other’s presence. It is where we face the near impossibility of living humanely. (19)

Playing on Jacques Derrida’s notion of the specter and Walter Benjamin’s mediations on the return of the (historically) repressed, Crary argues that the 24/7 world eradicates “shadows and obscurity and alternate temporalities”(19).   It is a “world identical to itself, a world with the shallowest of pasts, and thus in principle without specters”(19). Moreover, it seems to eliminate the wellsprings of both philosophy and religion (as per Aristotle, Heidegger, and AJ Heschel): wonder. 24/7 puts forth a “fraudulent brightness that presumes to extend everywhere and to preempt any mystery or unknowablility”(19). In the space of 24/7 nothing can truly come to light – no mystery, no awakening, no self-discovery that comes out of the darkness. Crary argues that 24/7 can “neutralize or absorb many dislocating experiences of return (or the past, specters) that could potentially undermine the substantiality and identity of the present and its apparent self-sufficiency”(20).

Although Hannah Arendt’s work is celebrated by Judith Butler and many others as offering a possibility for radical change and a “political life”(bios politicos). Crary disagrees. Drawing on her work that distinguishes the private from the public realm, he argues that for this distinction to work there needs to be a clear distinction (as she notes) between light and dark:

Over many years, she used figures of light and visibility in her accounts of what was necessary for there to be any substantive political life. For an individual to have political effectiveness, there needed to be balance, a movement between the bright, even harsh exposure of public activity and the protected, shielded sphere of domestic or private life, of what she calls the “darkness of sheltered existence. (21)

But without the space or time for privacy (away from what Arendt calls the “implacable bright light of constant presence of others on the public scene”), avers Crary, there “could be no possibility of the nurturing of the singularity of the self”(21).   Crary, echoing Arednt, says that only this kind of self could make a contribution to the public good. But…what happens when that kind of self is no longer possible because of….24/7?

The rhetoric of political or spiritual awakenings whether through Paul, Jewish mysticism, or the Communists, so as to recover some kind of sleeping authenticity, has no effect in 24/7. Playing on Carl Schmidt, Walter Benjamin, and Giorgio Agamben, Crary argues that “awakening” as a “form of decisionism” in which “the experience of a redemptive moment that seems to disrupt historical time, in which an individual undergoes a self-transforming encounter with a previously unknown future” is “incongruous” with the “global system that never sleeps”(24).

The only thing left, argues Crary, is (to) sleep:

The larger thrust of my argument is that, in the context of our own present, sleep can stand for the durability of the social, and the sleep might be analogous to other thresholds could defend or protect itself. As the most private, most vulnerable state common to all, sleep is crucially dependent on society in order to be sustained. (25)

The obvious question is how sleep can change the world. This proposal doesn’t make any sense and, given the excitement over the word “revolution” in the present American political campaign, it seems counterintuitive. But, as Crary would argue, any claim to changing the system would still be under the domination of 24/7. For Crary, sleeplessness makes all these activities seem trivial and even nostalgic.

Regardless of what you think, all you of have to do is take note of how many times you felt the urgent need to check Facebook, update a status, or Tweet something in order to seem relevant and alive (while at same time feeling exhausted and depleted) to know that 24/7 is not simply a concept…it’s a reality.   The question we need to ask is whether – as James Joyce wrote in his epic novel Ulysses, we can “awake” from “the nightmare of history.” Or will we just have to accept it? Will literature, art, or poetry no longer provide us with shelter from the storm?

What are the implications of 24/7? If the metaphor of awaking and starting something new and authentic is foreclosed by 24/7, perhaps the only metaphor left is sleep. If all the ghosts of history are, so to speak, busted by the endless light of 24/7, what is left to shake history? Can we be vigilant anymore when insomnia is endemic and violence is constantly reabsorbed into the media? Can we nurture our singularity in the darkness of our private spaces when there the private space has been effaced by 24/7? Can we hope for a spiritual or political awakening when we are always awake?

As you can see, I have many questions for Crary.   All of these questions must address his pessimistic claim that all previous models of resistance seem to have been foreclosed by 24/7. Is he correct? I think it is imperative that we answer this question. Otherwise, most of us who posit this or that thing as a form of resistance are willing to ignore the elephant in the room.  As we upload our next status update…like everyone else…we should try to pause and take notice of how restless we have become.   It seems as if you or I don’t have much time to keep up. But if you or I don’t, we have nothing to worry about.   Simply abstain from taking your Ambien and you’ll have time..you just won’t have sleep.

2 thoughts on “Sleeplessness, Insomnia, and Ambien: On Jonathan Crary’s “24/7”

  1. I think you have the answer. If you want to go to sleep, go to sleep. People can get in the habit of needing the little boost of validation, but you don’t need to. You can figure out why there’s the pain that requires (or seems to require) those constant little boosts. That said, I don’t buy his thesis that you need sleepiness or sleep to feel wonder: I feel wonder lots of times in the morning when I’m wide awake.

  2. Yes. I think that the pessimism regarding wonder is really quite extreme. There are moments where one’s world is slightly shaken (in a Heideggerian or Derridian sense). But most of these moments are private not public. (You say you find wonder in the daylight hours. What kinds of things bring you wonder? What surprises you? Literature, film, art? Living experiences?) Even so, Crary thinks that the 24/7 culture touches all our activities and that today finding time is impossible because all time (and private space) to reflect on wonder (or having our world, as Heidegger would say, nihilated) is contaminated by the 24/7 global network. What do you mean by figuring out the pain and “constant little boosts”? And how does that relate to 24/7 culture?

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