24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep

The early war on sleep: Arkwright’s Cotton Mills By Night, 1782 by Joseph Wright of Derby.

Our beat on this blog has been appropriate technology, gardening and urban homesteading (whatever that means!). Ironically, Kelly and I have had to spend a lot of time in front of screens researching and writing about these very analog subjects that, for the most part, involve an off-line engagement with the natural world. We’ve done this at a time of the explosive growth of social media. Early on there was a line of thought that social media could be used for positive social movements. I think it’s safe to say that, at this point, only the most fervent Silicon Valley cultists still have any faith in garbage products like Facebook and Twitter.

My own ideas about the internet have whipsawed over the years from an enthusiastic optimism in the 1990s to, more recently, a gut feeling that we need to just burn it all down. Two books I’ve read in recent months fall into that burn it all down category. One, a collection of William Morris’ political writings, and the other, Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. Morris and Crary have much in common. Writing in the 19th century, Morris could see the brutal trajectory of industrial capitalism. Writing in our own century Crary itemizes the wreckage in a screed that the Los Angeles Review of Books described as, “a polemic as finely concentrated as a line of pure cocaine.”

24/7 takes, as its central metaphor, capitalism’s war on sleep. The book opens with a description of the U.S. military’s attempt to develop the means to eliminate the need for sleep as well as its use of sleep deprivation as torture. But we don’t need to reside in some CIA black site to find ourselves sleep deprived. Capitalism, ever seeking to extract value from the planet and from human life, seeks to eliminate, though keeping us glued to screens, the hours we sleep.

Central to Crary’s argument is capitalism’s “relentless capture and control of time and experience” through the use of addiction technologies that both keep us tied to our screen and control, narrow and channel the content of our communication. For Crary, the idea that these technologies are somehow neutral is absurd and, in the words of philosopher Giorgio Agamben, a “product of the media apparatus in which they are captured.”

Crary believes that the internet co-evolved with a particularly brutal stage of free-market capitalism that’s come to be called neo-liberalism. This isn’t a coincidence. Our communication technologies, Crary believes, are intertwined with our economic system.

Bowling Alone
I was particularly excited by a passage in the book where Crary mentions something that I’ve long noticed but never heard anyone else talk about, the media’s obsession with religious cults. It’s not that there aren’t such destructive groups, but the sheer number of documentaries about cults seems more about what Crary calls a “bourgeois horror of the crowd” that forecloses the possibility of communitarian forms of mutual support.

There are the countless narratives of cult-like communes of obedient converts ruled by homicidal madmen and cynical manipulators. Echoing bourgeois fears in the late nineteen century following 1871, the idea of a commune derived from any form of socialism remains systemically intolerable. The cooperative, as a lived set of relations, cannot actually be made visible–it can only be represented as a parodic replication of existing relations of domination. In many different ways, the attack on values of collectivity and cooperation is articulated through the notion that freedom is to be free of any dependence on other, while in fact we are experiencing a more comprehensive subjection to the “free” working of markets. As Harold Bloom has shown, the real American religion is “to be free of other selves.”

We get, in Crary’s words, “the elimination or the financialization of social arrangements that had previously supported many kinds of cooperative activity” through the false communitarianism of social media.

This brutal, every man for himself ethos intersects with the war on sleep in issues such as the way we deal with homelessness.

Public spaces are now comprehensively planned to deter sleeping, often including–with an intrinsic cruelty–the serrated design of benches and other elevated surfaces that prevent a human body from reclining on them. The pervasive but social disregarded phenomenon of urban homelessness entails many deprivations, yet few are more acute than the hazards and insecurities of unsheltered sleep.

Where do we go from here?
The book was written almost 10 years ago in 2013, but the only thing that dates this book is Crary’s attack on blogging which he calls a “one-way model of auto-chattering in which the possibility of ever having to wait and listen to someone else has been eliminated.” Guilty as charged, but blogging now seems quaint next to the horrors of social media which was only just gestating when Crary wrote 24/7.

Perhaps to update his argument a bit Crary’s has a new book, Scorched Earth: Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World which continues many of the themes developed in 24/7. To extract a personal strategy from either of these books is to miss the point. Pervasive, addictive technologies must be confronted in solidarity with other people. Nevertheless, books like these make me more inclined to pick up a garden spade or hand plane rather than a laptop and recognize how privileged I am to be able to make that choice.

Of Mushrooms and Capitalist Ruins

You really should join your local mycological society especially now that fungi are finally getting much overdue attention in the academy and popular culture. The Los Angeles Mycological Society has a book club overseen by Aaron Thompson that’s explored both the biology and our complex social relationship to fungi. The last book we read was one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.

The book begins with the stories of matsutake pickers in the Pacific Northwest, a heterogeneous group of recent Southeast Asian immigrants, middle class Japanese Americans and white survivalists. Beginning with the pickers and middlemen, she traces the long supply chain of this extraordinarily expensive mushroom, that’s given as a gift in Japan, and shows how these cultures interact with their histories and the environment.

The strength of this book is that Tsing doesn’t shy away from complexity and contradiction. She doesn’t try to tie everything into a tidy narrative. What emerges from this story of matsutake is not a neat timeline but an assemblage, a messy collision of cultures, biology and economics. Tsing’s ethonograpic mosaic mirrors the biology of the fungal world which is itself a bundle of contractions, at times symbiotic at other times parasitic with a complexity that we’ll never be able to fully grasp.

Matsutake, it turns out, thrives in forests disturbed by human activity. Like Kat Anderson’s masterful Tending the Wild, Tsing’s book shows the mistake of considering “nature” outside the presence of human beings. The matsutake economy, it turns out, is just about the perfect story with which to consider the neo-liberal and precarious ruin we find ourselves in. Tsing says,

Without stories of progress, the world has become a terrifying place. The ruin glares at us with the horror of its abandonment. It’s not easy to know how to make a life, much less avert planetary destruction. Luckily there is still company, human and not human. we can still explore the overgrown verges of our blasted landscapes–the edges of capitalist discipline, scalability, and abandoned resource plantations. We can still catch the scent of the latent commons–and the elusive autumn aroma.

Following the matsutake’s long mycelium threads, wherever they lead us, might just be what we need to do right now.

Spaceship Earth

When Eric Davis quipped that he follows new religions in the way that normal people follow sports he helpfully identified the nerd tribe I belong to. This explains why words like telos and eschatology bubble up in casual conversations around the Root Simple compound much to Kelly’s annoyance. It also means that I’ve seen every single hippie cult documentary ever made and, of course, immediately dropped a few bucks to stream the new documentary Spaceship Earth, a film centering on the not well known Synergia Ranch commune, the folks behind the Biosphere 2 project.

The Synergians were originally an avant-garde theater troupe led by a charismatic leader, John Allen, and they would likely object to me lumping them in with new religious groups, preferring to think of themselves more as ecologists or proto-space colonists. To which I’d counter that what do you call a group that thinks we’ll all someday head to a new Eden up in the heavens if not a group with eschatological hankerings?

The best part of Spaceship Earth was getting to see the background history of the Biosphere project from the viewpoint of the Synergians. After initially cheer-leading the Biosphere project, the mainstream press quickly turned on the group, focusing instead on a lurid reality show narrative, and concluding that a culty avant guarde theater troupe with a charismatic leader had no business taking up a science project. True, the Biosphere project was not science in the strict definition of the term. It attempted to do too much all at once without controlling for variables. And, with its colonizing space aspirations, it smacked more of scientism than science. But why shouldn’t artists be allowed the latitude to engage in an interdisciplinary folly? Perhaps we could use a bit less specialization and more interdisciplinary zaniness to explore the thorny problems we all face.

I wish that Spaceship Earth had focused more on the flawed ideas of the Biospherians/Synergians. Those ideas centered on the cybernetic notions of Norbert Wiener and (this might trigger some folks but I just gotta say it) deeply flawed thoughtstylings of huckster Buckminster Fuller (1, 2,) made popular by the Whole Earth Catalog utopians of the 1970s. The Biospherians/Synergians thought that they could create a complex, self-guiding model of the Earth and use that idea to escape our very real and material problems down here on dusty old Earth. Spaceship Earth doesn’t really explore this ideology. Maybe it’s because those ideas have gone mainstream, unfortunately. If you’re a fish you don’t recognize the water. We swim in an ideological sea polluted by automated control systems such as the failed algorithmic editing project going on over at Facebook, Twitter and Google as well as worshiping space colony charlatans like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. This cybernetic ideology has birthed an internet that promulgates rumors that Wayfair is sending out children in boxes and that pedophile rings are operating in the basements of pizza restaurants. Worse cybernetic monsters, I fear, are yet to come.

Exploring this scary new world is a lane occupied by documentarian Adam Curtis. If you pair Spaceship Earth on a double feature with the second episode of Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace and throw in a reading of Thomas Pynchon’s notorious Gravity’s Rainbow you’ll have enough fodder for a marathon discussion of the nightmares birthed by hippie commune notions of self guiding systems of control. At the end of this long discussion you might just all start gathering up the sledgehammers for the coming Neo-Luddite rebellion. Resist those algorithms! But I digress, comrades.

The Synergian sailboat Heraclitus.

Ideological quibbles aside, Spaceship Earth is a very well crafted documentary. The Synergians were not the stereotypical anyone-can-drop-in sort of commune. John Allen got an M.B.A. at Harvard and knows how to start successful businesses and raise money. He surrounded himself with equally ambitious and talented people. The Synergians had the resources to buy 16mm film cameras and shoot lots of footage. They built their own sailboat and sailed it around the world. Then, pairing with bazillionaire oil scion Ed Bass, they put together the ambitious Biosphere 2 project. The footage of all these antics make Spaceship Earth a fascinating documentary to watch. For added entertainment, weirdo Steve Bannon pops up at the end in the way that the vengeful singing statue shows up in act II of Don Giovanni to pull everyone down to hell.

Spaceship Earth also disrupts the stereotype of the Drop City sort of drug and insanity fueled 1970s commune. I suspect that there were other M.B.A. run communes like the Synergians that we’ve never heard about. The Synergians have some things in common with the commune known as The Farm that, after having a major meltdown, ended up not so much growing food, but instead launching entrepreneurial projects such as designing and selling electronics, running a midwife school and operating a soy dairy among many other activities. You can see in these groups both the ideological and economic origins of Silicon Valley.

It should also be noted that any film that depicts people sealing themselves up in a pod makes for perfect pandemic viewing, at least for those of us non-essential types. And what could be more non-essential than hippie avant-garde thespians? For us urban homesteader types, it’s also good to have a reminder that hubris in the face of complexity is an occupational hazard of anyone who attempts to garden, keep animals, cook from scratch or otherwise interact with things other than laptops and iPhones.

You can stream Spaceship Earth via the YouTubes for here.

If you haven’t seen Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace do a little googling and you’ll find it on the interwebs in its entirety.

The New Homemade Kitchen

I have many fond memories of teaching bread baking classes for the late Joseph Shuldiner’s cheekily named Institute of Domestic Technology. Joseph had a unique formula for the curriculum of the IDT. I’d summarize as “stuff that you’d never think of doing from scratch but once you find out how easy it is your life will be transformed.” In addition to the aforementioned bread baking, the IDT offered classes in mustard, cheese making, jam making, coffee roasting, cocktail crating and much more.

Joseph gathered the recipes and collected wisdom of these classes into his posthumously published book The New Homemade Kitchen: 250 Recipes and Ideas for Reinventing the Art of Preserving, Canning, Fermenting, Dehydrating, and More just released this month by Chronicle. The section on cocktails is a good example of the IDT’s methods. Yes, you get a Martini recipe. But you’ll also be making your own vermouth and it will be easier than you think.

Then there’s the life changing chapter on coffee roasting. One of the perks of teaching at the IDT was getting to sit in on the other classes. This was how I learned to roast my own coffee in a Whirley-Pop roaster. Like a lot of IDT obsessions, roasting your own coffee simultaneously up-scales and bomb proofs your pantry. Green coffee can sit around for a long time and knowing how to roast it is a useful skill in our current crappening. In short, this book is very quarantine friendly both in the sense of having skills handy when supply chains are broken and having something more productive to do than binging Netflix.

In addition to coffee you’ll find chapters on pickles and preserves, baking, dairy, meat and fish, cocktails, fermentation and dehydration. You’ll also learn how to make your own mustard, ketchup, harissa, sriracha, preserved lemons, vanilla extract and much more.

Joseph was a gifted artist, designer, activist and photographer and the book reflects his ability to represent and explain, in clear language, information that can seem intimidating. I learned a lot about how to teach from working for Joseph. Many of the classes took place at the Altadena home of Gloria Putnam and Stephen Rudicel. They tended to be day long affairs with a lunch served to students and an after-party for the instructors. At the end of the day, over glasses of wine, we would review the classes we taught and figure out ways to make information clearer. Joseph was a team player with a thoughtful leadership style. I can still hear his laugh and miss him greatly. This book, for me, is a kind of time capsule of those happy days teaching at the IDT that felt more like attending a lively party than work. And I have this book to remember Joseph’s joyous spirit and knowledge.

The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour

I’ve sprinkled references in the past few posts to a book I just finished reading, The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour. The central thesis of the book is that we are all writing more than we ever have in history in the form of tweets, Facebook updates, texts, emails etc. Seymour contends, however, that we are not so much writing as being written by the platforms we use and that we all have a propensity for trolling and narcissism that tech companies exploit with a kind of algorithmic agnosticism.

Seymour chronicles the horrors of these platforms: the trolling, doxing, mob hate that we all, at this point, are familiar with. It’s hard to imagine anyone now coming to Mark Zuckerberg’s defense. But Seymour notes that this mass violence is nothing new and only breaks out thanks to pre-existing conditions, within all of us, that Silicon Valley exploits for a business model built on the unholy combination of gambling addiction psychology and mass surveillance.

Paul Klee, The Twittering Machine.

What separates Seymour’s book from others chronicling our current dystopia is a nuanced analysis of the crisis combined with a admonition not to fall into the simplistic “backlash” style of criticism of the sort I’ve been guilty of on this blog. Seymour says,

The backlash style, despite having the advantage that it disputes the inevitability of our assimilation into the Borg, is reactionary. It is compromised by a subtending fantasy that it could somehow be sufficient to exhort others to quit which is further underpinned by a fantasy that the frequent flights into mob irrationality, paranoia, nihilism and sadism characteristic of social media could be solved simply by ‘going back’. As though these phenomena had no deeper and father-reaching roots.

Seymour retells the often mis-reported history of the Luddites who were not opposed to technology, but instead against the ownership of the machines of production by the upper classes. He suggests that we need to develop a Neo-Luddite “escapology.” He leaves it to us to develop that alternative but implies that it might just an internet owned by all and stripped of exploitation and “gamified capitalism”–an internet that, in his words, leaves space for and encourages a sense of reverie, a stroll in the park with a pen and notepad or a quiet time in a church with our eyes closed. With Seymour’s nuanced and insightful analysis we might just be able to start mapping creative ways out of our predicament.