Meet the white-crowned sparrow. Although it might look like any regular North American bird (albeit very cute and fluffy), the zonotrichia leucophrys has a distinguishing factor that sets it apart from our Dutch mus: its ability to stay awake for seven days during its migration. Over the past few years, various American universities and research facilities have been investigating the white-crowned sparrow in order to create some sort of drug that mimics the sparrow’s sleeplessness to be used by the military to maximize soldiers’ performances. When a drug that fends off the body’s need for sleep eventually is realised, it probably won’t be long until it finds its way into society and will be commonly used along with sugary energy drinks or hip pick-me-ups such as coconut water and goji berries to prevent afternoon slumps or even go without any repose at all. What will happen when the 24/7 dream is fulfilled and humans can go without sleep best resembles the nightmarish plot of a post-apocalyptic science fiction film: we’ll end up stuck in an uninterrupted process of work and consumption without any time for rest and individualisation. At least, that is what Jonathan Crary argues in his novel 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. Taking the brain facilities of a species of sparrow as a starting point in this sleep-defending novel, Crary ventures to set forth the alarming socioeconomic consequences of the loss of sleep in our late-capitalist society.
For us students, sleep is either seen as an obnoxious impediment and something one can easily go without for at least a few days, or, on the contrary, as a rare luxury for the overly busy perfectionists juggling their studies, multiple afterschool activities, and a busy social life both online and offline. As Crary shows, not only students struggle with getting enough sleep: worldwide, people of all ages are getting less and less sleep on average. The average American adult now gets around 6,5 hours of sleep per night instead of the 8 hours the previous generation was getting. This might seem something that should be celebrated rather than lamented, meaning that we have increasingly more time to invest in work and leisure, but Crary believes it is now more important than ever to get a good night’s rest. Why? Because sleep is the only aspect of human life that the capitalist machine of commercialisation and mechanisation has not yet been able to get its hands on. This may sound far-fetched at first, but when you think about your daily activities Crary might bring to light some ugly truths. As he points out, “[t]here are now very few significant interludes of human existence (with the colossal exception of sleep) that have not been penetrated and taken over by work time, consumption time, or marketing time” (15).
We live in an era where sleep is predominantly seen as an out-dated impediment to maximized productivity and profitability. As it is, sleep is useless and unprofitable and remains the last human aspect yet to be commercialized and cashed in on. Reducing or even fully obliterating the human body’s need for sleep would turn us into full-time consumers contained in a non-stop world of global exchange and continuous functioning. In the resulting 24/7 society, human life would be rid of its rhythmic structures and functioning having lost the distinction between day and night. Little would then set us apart from the insatiable zombies of George A. Romero’s Living Dead films (except, perhaps, their carnivorous tendencies).
There is a reason that sleep deprivation is oftentimes used as a form of torture. Long-term sleep deprivation affects the human immune system and destabilizes vital functions. It slowly shatters an individual, rids humans of their humanity, which makes more than clear the necessity of sleep for daily recuperation of both body and mind. In 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep Crary offers us a form of resistance. Since sleeping is without value to a 24/7 society it can be seen as a form of protest, a form of revolution against our daily cycles of producing, consuming, and discarding. By sleeping we halt our endless wastefulness for a while, stop depleting the planet’s resources, and resist turning into insatiable customers of an always-open market place. Perhaps the white-crowned sparrow’s sleeplessness is not something we should aspire to after all. Perhaps it’s time to start a revolution from our beds.[i]
Crary, Jonathan. 24/7: Late-Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. New York: Verso, 2013. Print.
[i] Thanks to Niels van Doorn and Abe Geil and their interesting course Media, Time, and Space for inspiration!