martedì 24 settembre 2013

Megan Heuer: Who sleeps ? On Jonathan Crary's 24/7 @ Rhizome mag, 17th September 2013

Megan Heuer: Who sleeps ? 
On Jonathan Crary's 24/7 @ Rhizome mag, 17th September 2013
Labor Day is supposed to be a day that honors those of us who work for a living with an extra day of rest. I'm writing this on Labor Day, at home on my own laptop, avoiding a long list of other tasks I need to attend to in order to keep my work, and my life, manageable. That work happens all the time and increasingly also at the worker's own expense isn't news, but it helps bring into sharp, urgent focus the arguments in Jonathan Crary's terse, polemical new book, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.
Instead of focusing on labor, Crary takes sleep as a lens through which to consider economic and social transformations wrought by late 20th and early 21st century techno-global capitalism. Offering a genealogical account of the reformatting of time from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to the present, 24/7 is relentlessly negative: sleep is the last unleveraged form of human activity and it is violently threatened by a world in which the divisions between night and day, between rest and work, are disappearing due to mutations in the experience of time produced by unceasing digital networks, new metrics for productivity, and ever-expanding forms of control and surveillance.
Opening with chilling descriptions of contemporary military-industrial research on how soldiers might function without sleep and torture techniques based on sleep deprivation, the book quickly establishes sleep as an activity that is constitutive of human life at a basic level.[i] That sleep is threatened not just in extreme situations but in the realm of everyday existence has to do with what Crary describes as "a generalized inscription of human life into duration without breaks, defined by a principle of continuous functioning. It is a time that no longer passes, beyond clock time." As he elaborates the specific textures (or lack thereof) of this new temporality, signaled with the shorthand 24/7, Crary ties the disruption of sleep to an emerging and intensifying set of demands around our productivity as workers. More than simply an elaboration of Marxist theories of modernity that hinge on new concepts of space and time (think of the work of Fredric Jameson, Ernst Mandel, E.P. Thompson, among others), 24/7 seeks to specify how an increasingly homogenous construction of time reorients human activities and experience, and is thus transforming us from the inside out.
In part, this new uninflected temporality is tied to the constant illumination of screens through which we are connected, regardless of what we are actually doing, to mechanisms of surveillance and algorithms that continually serve us more of what we have revealed that we "like." For anyone familiar with Crary's work on vision and attention in modern culture, this argument comes as no surprise. But 24/7 has a broader scope, arguing that visual experience and its function within digital culture are far overshadowed by other kinds of sensations and activities. Key concepts here are self-management—the way that we willingly, even eagerly participate in producing profits for multinational corporations and in state surveillance via products like Facebook and Gmail—and a continual cycle of consumption as production—in which our productivity as workers relies on our consumption of commodities from smartphones to streaming movies to (mostly useless) information itself.
The smartphone in particular exemplifies Crary's understanding of the economic and social reorganization that has taken place over the past three decades, often referred to as neoliberalism. It represents two seemingly opposed tendencies: on the one hand, there is the standardization of experience and mass synchronization, and on the other, "the parcellization and fragmentation of shared zones of experience into fabricated microworlds of affects and symbols." This apparent contradiction is key for understanding the particular impossibility of the current state of technological experience: we might all be doing the same thing (looking at our own individual screens, typing and swiping), but the effect is increasing separation and irreversible damage to any kind of collective experience.
It is worth attending to how carefully Crary demarcates this contemporary regime of experience. Nearly twenty-five years ago, in his first book Techniques of the Observer, he argued that with industrial reorganization and scientific studies of perception in the middle of the 19th century, the camera obscura, which had functioned as a model for human vision for centuries, was surpassed by a new regime of vision based on the perceptual apparatus of the human body itself. Now he eschews such epistemic breaks based in scientific and technological discourse, positing instead that we need to focus on paradigms of experience and perception.
[I]t must be emphasized that we are not… simply passing from one dominant arrangement of machinic and discursive systems to another. That books and essays written on ‘new media’ only five years ago are already outdated is particularly telling, and anything written with the same goal today will become dated in far less time. At present, the particular operation and effects of specific new machines or networks are less important than how the rhythms, speeds, and formats of accelerated and intensified consumption are reshaping experience and perception."
There is a challenge here (of no small relevance to Rhizome itself) to theories of "new media" that focus on technical or aesthetic mutations rather than addressing the modes of attention and cognition demanded by digital devices and formats in general. By turning exclusively to a theory of the user and leaving behind a certain materialist inquiry, Crary never explicitly considers those affected by contemporary technology who aren’t its intended consumers, such as victims of drone strikes, soldiers fighting to control the supply of coltan, or workers in smartphone sweatshops, implying simply that indifference and lack of attention to these positions is yet another effect of the dull sameness of 24/7 time. Still, Crary’s provocation is certainly a useful reminder of the fact that perceptual paradigms extend well beyond any specific technology.
In particular, this argument is useful in articulating the possibilities of resistance for those embedded in the 24/7 experiential regime. As in his other work as art historian, Crary develops such arguments through a rigorous mix of Marxist analysis, Foucauldian histories of power and institutions, and a commitment to a Situationist tactics and aesthetics. A kernel of 24/7 appears in Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (1999), where he argues that in the late 19th century,
…spectacular culture is not founded on the necessity of making a subject see, but rather on strategies in which individuals are isolated, separated, and inhabit timeas disempowered. Likewise, counter-forms of attention are neither exclusively nor essentially visual but rather constituted as other temporalities and cognitive states, such as those in trance or reverie.  
Now, more than a decade later, Crary laments the disappearance of many of these "counter-strategies" found in seemingly non-attentive states (i.e. dreams and sleep) with the intensification of spectacular culture wrought by digital technologies, such as the personal computer and the Internet.
Picblog: Andy Warhol's Sleep (1963)

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