Though brief (a mere 133 pages) and lightly annotated, 24/7 is the capstone of Crary’s archeology of the spectacle and arguably the most significant of the lot. It’s informed by the erudition of one of the most thorough and original researchers at work today. The vast bodies of knowledge Crary seamlessly weaves together in 24/7 is reminiscent of the work of Michel Foucault, but without the gnarly, headache-inducing sentence structure. It’s marked by a moral passion that fuels Crary’s polemic and underscores what’s at stake, specifically the future of the human being in both the physical and emotional sense. Plus, it’s eminently readable, eschewing the critical theory gobbledygook of the tribe of radical art historians he’s most closely associated with, the so-called October group that includes Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster, and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh. (Those folks have done and continue to do important work in their fields, but the need for cultural critique these days is simply too dire to be locked away in the ivory tower.)
In the round-the-clock world of twenty-first century global capitalism, our only relief is sleep, and as Crary notes, even that is coming under attack. 24/7 starts with a report on research being undertaken by the US military to extend the amount of time combat soldiers and other personnel can go without sleep, seeking to extend it from days to weeks. Given that military innovations usually make their way into broader aspects of everyday life — air travel, the Internet, GPS, over-the-counter medications, all manner of consumer electronics, recreational assault weapons — there is every reason to believe, as Crary asserts, that the sleepless soldier is the prototype of the sleepless worker/consumer. “Sleep is an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism,” Crary writes. The endless here and now of 24/7 proposes to harvest surplus value not from only our bodies but from our psyches, rendering us little more than real-life Matrix pod-humans.
Crary doesn’t discuss it in 24/7, but an early iteration of this process can be discerned in the first part of the twentieth century when the techniques of mass manufacturing greatly reduced the amount of time needed to produce goods and services. In Time and Money: The Making of Consumer Culture, historian Gary Cross details the conscious policies adopted by the government and industry in the 1920s and 1930s to encourage material consumption, and along with it increased profit, instead of allowing spiritual respite. The commodity fetish, to use an old-fashioned term, became the mechanism by which capitalism increasingly inserted itself into everyday life, replacing personal relationships and local cultural practices with cold market logic mediated by consumer goods, proffering more stuff in lieu of more time.
A watershed moment Crary does address is the introduction of broadcast television after the Second World War. Following Raymond Williams ‘s 1974 study Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Crary recognizes the way in which TV was inserted into everyday life as a soft mode of social control. Through what Williams terms its “planned flow,” television organized the daily routine from morning commuting information and weather reports to midday newsbreak to evening entertainment, culminating in nightly sign off, all the while promoting the ostensible benefits of a mass industrial consumer utopia. In the 1950s and 1960s, television was a relatively stable system, drawing an increasingly suburban and decentralized population into a homogenized national imaginary. The advent of cable TV and programmable VCRs in the 1970s offered the opportunity for time shifting and what McKenzie Wark in his new book terms the “disintegrating spectacle,” the way in which control has become atomized and diffused yet more difficult to circumvent. This is represented today by such technologies as social media, wireless communications, and the Internet.