Without having Googled Jonathan Crary, all I know about the author, from five brief lines on the inside of the dust jacket, is that he is a Professor of Modern Art and Theory at Columbia University and the founding editor of Zone Books. The key words are Professor and Theory, which may explain the many Post-its now decorating my copy of 24/7. Crary’s publisher, Verso Books, is, in the words of Harper’s, “Anglo-America’s preeminent radical press.” That seems pretty straightforward to me. No university imprint there, but this is academic writing written in the very specialized vocabulary of academics, a vocabulary often perceived as exclusionary by the general reader. Yet the title of Crary’s book, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is not academic and its subject should be of vital interest to every person with any sort of digital device.
I understand requirements of academia, the publish or perish we have all heard of, but when the professor’s subject is so relevant to nearly every living human (except possibly infants and very, very young toddlers), the professor would be doing us all a generous favor if he could drop the academic vocabulary and write with words to open wide, not to close the door to his subject.
Here are some of the words and phrases that both lengthen and weigh down this book: telematics; panoptic; actualized; epiphanic; decisionism; somatic; deprecation; periodicity; temporalities; periodizations; autopoesis; homologous; derivable; discursive; ubiquity; hierarchical structures; capillary models of implementation; ontological templates; qualitative dilation; inexorable cancellation; hegemonic; delimited object; constituencies; pathologized; derelict diachrony; and so many more! I love words and all their parts, prefixes and suffixes, but I had to ask, who is Crary writing for? Okay, for whom is Crary writing?
Something about his approach was hauntingly familiar. Then came the “ah ha” moment! His writing reminded me of the Catholic Church and its old insistence on Latin as the tongue to unite its Christians. The real goal of hanging on to Latin was to bring the flock to the Vatican, not to Jesus and his message of love. Latin became a roadblock to Christ, not the door. Crary writes about the digital virtual world and its questionable reality as it seeps nonstop into our lives, waking and sleeping. He cites philosophers, statistical studies, and even film (mostly French). His insights are hampered by his use of a language only easily understood within his own academic community of like-minded thinkers, digital or otherwise.
Why, if this book is so dauntingly academic in its approach, did I even bother with it? It’s the subject. The digital world has eclipsed just about every method of human communication that I recognize with some degree of comfort, due in large part to my DOB. 24/7 raises issues I’ve grappled with on my own, issues leaving me sounding like a curmudgeon wishing for the old days. As I got into Crary’s book, I had a hunch that 24/7 would move me away from curmudgeonly thinking to a more nuanced and even intelligent approach to such thoughts. And it did.
How much should we think about consumerism? Is the digital world really any different from, let’s say, the Industrial Revolution? Are there any looms left to smash? Is the virtual world real? Does privacy trump profit, economic or military? Does it matter that we are losing the ability to gaze? How young is too young to get one’s first digital device? Is a digital community really inclusive? Do we even have time to think? Are we losing the ability to wait? If the answers to most questions can be Googled, how important is critical thinking? How long can we stand or sit still? Is silence marketable? If something or someone is not marketable does that mean it is expendable?
If Professor Crary could rewrite 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep in language easily accessible to the general reader, I would write a review with these final words: If you email, shop online, e-read the bestsellers, Face Time, Facebook, Tweet, Text, attend webinars, or use a digital device of any kind, buy this book, preferably from a local bookstore, but buy this book, read this book. – Sunny Solomon