Sunday, March 23, 2014

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

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"Sleep, he argues, is perhaps the only area of human existence yet to be conquered by the productivity-maximizing logic of capitalism. Twentieth-century capitalism already squeezed our sleep into an artificially compact period of eight hours. Scientific, historical and even literary evidence (pulled from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”) suggest that two separate chunks of nighttime sleep, plus daytime naps, are the more natural pattern for human beings. Electric lighting has irrevocably altered our circadian rhythms, and newer technologies and modes of production have done more damage. Siestas are incompatible with the assembly line or the all-night box store. (Just ask Spain, which is considering doing away with the tradition.)

The Pentagon has even been funding studies of the physiology of migratory birds to figure out how soldiers can go up to seven days sans sleep without experiencing a decline in cognitive functioning. Pills or genetic modifications that allow us to go days without sleep might sound far-fetched now, but Crary notes how many innovations by the military — microwaves, satellites, the Internet — have been widely adopted in civilian life.

But in the last year or so, we’ve actually conquered sleep in a more insidious way. We’ve shown that sleep is an element of continuous functioning. Instead of being a strange, wild, mysterious Land of Nod whose purpose we don’t fully understand, sleep has been colonized by our ambition, becoming just another zone of the day to be farmed for productivity, generating new components necessary for performance like serotonin and healthy glial cells. Crary suggests that we despise sleep because “the stunning, inconceivable reality is that nothing of value can be extracted from it,” but with our new science and the interventions of folks like Tony Schwartz, that no longer appears to be true. We can now sleep in order to maximize our economic value." --from Eve Fairbanks, "How Did Sleep Become So Nightmarish?" (New York Times) 

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