How Capitalism Killed Sleep

  • 2019-12-30
  • The Spectator

Inspired by Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Somerset House’s new exhibition brings together works by 50 multidisciplinary artists examining the root causes of our sleeplessness and proposing solutions. The trouble started, obviously, with artificial light, but before the Industrial Revolution burning the midnight oil was an indulgence of the educated classes who could afford the fuel, and the laudanum, to counter the effects. Then along came gas lighting and 24-hour production, and bang went the body clocks of the working classes.

In our own telecommuting era, every home is a potential non-stop workplace illuminated by the blue light of a digital screen. Where once sleep filled the idle hours between dusk and dawn, it is now regarded as a waste of time and money. ‘In its profound uselessness and intrinsic passivity, with the incalculable losses it causes in production time, circulation and consumption, sleep’, says Crary, ‘subsists as one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism.

While our eyeballs are occupied, we’re being watched. The show traces the evolution of the surveillance society from Jeremy Bentham’s 1791 design for a ‘Panopticon, or Inspection House — A New Type of Prison’ to the diary-room chair from the first Big Brother series, which you can pay money to charity to sit in. Now we live in a sousveillance society in which self-tracking allows employers to monitor productivity and fitness through their employees’ own mobile devices.

But perhaps the inability to switch off is a simple fact of modern life. It’s probably no coincidence that the master of pre-digital social media, Andy Warhol, devoted a five-hour film to the subject of sleep.