The Gift of Sleep | Resisting 24/7

by , under Blog Posts, Economics

Happy New Year people. Been on school holidays for the past couple of weeks, which has mostly meant getting my head down writing (finishing novel / working on a follow-up to Mutiny-After Magic – more news of which soon).

I’ve also been reading a fascinating book – 24/7 by Jonathan Crary. It explores how 24/7 culture is eroding sleep, because sleep is economically useless.  I’d highly recommend it. From the conclusion:

Because capitalism cannot limit itself, the notion of preservation or conservation is a systemic impossibility. Against this background, the restorative inertness of sleep counters the deathliness of all the accumulation, financialisation and waste that have devastated anything once held in common. […]

It is possible that – in many different places, in many disparate states, including reverie or daydream – the imaginings of a future without capitalism begins as dreams of sleep. These would be intimations of sleep as a radical interruption, of sleep which can always rehearse the outlines of what more consequential renewals and beginnings might be.

Resonating with this, I spent a few days over New Year down at Pickwell Manor. It’s an annual bash – food, drink, time for conversation – and one particular discussion got drawn to this question of limits in economics and the monetization of favour. That’s to say – my parents generation pretty much never paid for baby-sitters. These things were done in an informal circle of favours, a cycle that has now been – inevitably – commercialised.

This brought me back to Lewis Hyde and Derrida’s work on gift that I’ve referenced extensively in my own work. The example of food transactions I used in the conversation I’ll repeat here: if you go to someone’s house for dinner the most rude thing you could probably do is offer to pay for the food at the end of the night. The gift of a meal leaves an imbalance – but it is this imbalance that works to build relational capacity. The person who has been invited might reciprocate by offering a return invitation at some future date, or, more classically, send the gift ‘out of sight’ (in Hyde’s terms) by inviting a different person for a meal – thus expanding the cycle of gift that may, eventually, return to the original hosts. The gift is thus given momentum not by fullness, but by the empty place.

This is in contrast to going for a meal in a restaurant. The money we exchange for food fills in this empty place – both parties leave with this balanced: food received for money taken. The money thus functions to remove any relational requirement. Because we pay the bill we have no need to rush to the chef and say ‘thank you so much, you must come round to mine for dinner sometime!’

This is not necessarily a bad thing – we don’t particularly want to have to forge relationships with every transaction we make. The problem comes when the monetization of exchange over-reaches into places it shouldn’t because this works to reduce capacity in relationships, working towards individualism, atomization and a lack of empathy/care/love  for others in our communities.

So what’s the connection with sleep?

Another quote from 24/7:

Sleep requires periodic disengagement from networks and devices in order to enter a state of inactivity and uselessness. It is a form of time that leads us elsewhere than to the things we own or are told we need.

‘Sleep’ includes the interval before sleep – the lying awake in quasi-darkness, waiting indefinitely for the desired loss of consciousness. During this suspended time there is a recovery of perceptual capacities that are nullified or disregarded during the day. Involuntarily, one reclaims a sensitivity or responsiveness to both internal and external sensations within a non-metric duration. One hears sounds of traffic, a dog barking, the hum of a white-noise machine, police sirens, heat pipes clanking, of feels the quick twitching of one’s limbs… the wavering onset of hynagogic events.

Sleep, in other words, is a gift. It is a deliberate move away from economic usefulness. 24/7 Capitalism hates any sphere of life or time that is not economically useful. It is not that we are shopping 24/7, but that – with the devices we own and in the cities we inhabit – we could possibly do so.

So the invitation to share food with someone – and have no economic activity associated with that transaction – is an act of resistance to 24/7 Capitalism. There is such a thing as a free lunch, it’s just that modern life tells us there shouldn’t be.

Sleep, I would say, can be seen in the same way. It is, in a way, a gift to the self. That moment when we check our social networks for the last time, finally put devices to one side (I dare not say ‘turn off’, or even ‘put to sleep’ – as this is probably beyond what most do to phones by the bedside) is a time to cherish. It is, as Crary puts so well, this beautiful interstitial space between sleep and activity where all the senses that we have dulled by screens and constant distraction are put away. Finally, the bombardment of advertising stops and we begin to listen. To hear what is around us. To think odd thoughts unrelated to shopping. To reflect.

I’m no fan of New Year’s Resolutions, but I’d end with a thought: what if we sought to elongate this period before sleep? What if we committed to entering that non-device state an hour earlier? I’ve been trying to do so, and it’s been wonderful. Better sleep, for a start. But also a sense of the return of control. Of limits. Of not having your face constantly eaten off by notifications.

Constant economic availability, constant activity are not only bad for our sense of self, but do nothing to build capacity in relationships. Our planet needs us to have limits if it is to sustain us. The celebration – rather than constant erosion and denigration – of sleep is one way we can begin. Capitalism cannot limit itself, but we can – and should – embrace our limitations. Let the revolution begin: have an early night.

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It is to these ideas of limits that I’ll be tackling in the follow-up to Mutiny and After Magic. Living in a finite world that is so enraptured by fantasies of the infinite. More news as and when.


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  1. adam

    Your new project (“Living in a finite world that is so enraptured by fantasies of the infinite”) reminds me of a quote from Cheryl Lawrie, one I return to often:

    “I’ve been thinking recently about our temptation to try to become more like God — more holy, more sinless, more perfect. Perhaps the thing we should be working for is to become more human — more fragile, more vulnerable, more unfinished; to be better at being human.”

  2. Jeff Gill

    Your new project, ‘living in a finite world that is so enraptured by fantasies of the infinite’, reminds me of the essays of John Michael Greer, especially the series he did over the last year on civil religion: http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.co.uk (Don’t be put off by the peak oil subject matter, the fact that he heads an order of druids or his long beard; he is emphatically not a loony.)

  3. Daniel Goodacre

    Hi Kester,

    I also recently read 24/7 and found it really thought provoking. I came to it having read a previous book of Crary’s called ‘Techniques of the Observer’. I’d highly recommend it, particularly if you fancy looking into the historical development of visual technologies and the way they transfered our perception of the world from the unpredicatble site of the body to the instrumentalised, flattened and ordered world of the camera. These technologies, beginning with the camera obscura, were understood to reflect the world in a passive, objective manner, but obviously had ways of structuring the ideas they recieved.

    I really valued the idea of sleep, reverie and daydream as sites of resistance.

    Thanks for the consistently interesting writing!

  4. KB

    Thanks – I’ve just ordered it – sounds really good, and just what I need to read for part of the research I’m doing.
    Thanks for the encouragement too… always appreciated!

    KB