In the First Person
Jonathan Crary: Practices of Radical Refusal
Afonso Dias Ramos

Almost a decade after publishing 24/7, an acclaimed essay about how the contemporary economic system forces us to work 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, abolishing the possibility of rest or even sleep, the US theorist Jonathan Crary talks to Electra about his newly-released book, Scorched Earth. This new work is an uncompromising analysis of how the digital era has failed to bring about the radical change that it once heralded, and instead revealed itself to be incompatible with the idea of a sustainable planet and of interdependence among human beings.


As the early days of utopianism about the internet seem to be an increasingly distant mirage, there has been no shortage of indictments of the costs and consequences of online life in recent years. After the international success of a small essay about the shrinkage of sleep and the nonstop circus of technocratic life in modernity, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2013), Jonathan Crary has returned with one of the most uncompromising putdowns of digital capitalism in his book, Scorched Earth: Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World (2022). ‘If there is to be a liveable and shared future on our planet,’ Crary states in the opening line of this pamphlet, ‘it will be a future offline, uncoupled from the world-destroying systems and operations of 24/7 capitalism.’ This provocative book puts forward the idea that the digital age means both social disintegration and environmental collapse. We have arrived at the terminal stage of global capitalism, Crary argues, as he openly exchanges the nuanced detail of academic writing for the forcefulness of social pamphleteering. ‘The internet complex’, he claims, ‘is the implacable engine of addiction, loneliness, false hopes, cruelty, psychosis, indebtedness, squandered life, the corrosion of memory, and social disintegration’, as ‘the speed and ubiquity of digital networks maximize the incontestable priority of getting, having, coveting, resenting, envying.’ The verdict is loud and clear: ‘The internet has crossed a threshold of irreparability and toxicity’, as we now face ‘a world operating without pause, without the possibility of renewal or recovery, choking on its heat and waste.’

Jonathan Crary is the Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory at Columbia University in New York, and has also been a visiting professor at Princeton and Harvard University. He was a founding editor (and continues to be co-editor) of Zone Books, an independent nonprofit publisher. An acclaimed political theorist, critical thinker and art historian, Jonathan Crary is the author of indispensable studies about the formation of visual culture in the 19th and early 20th century, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century (1990), and Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture (2000).

AFONSO DIAS RAMOS  In 24/7, you remarked: ‘That books and essays written on new media only five years ago are already outdated is particularly telling’. What prompted Scorched Earth nine years later? The urgency and drive of this book seem different.

JONATHAN CRARY  After 24/7, I worked on a number of different projects and only gradually realised that I needed to do a follow-up of 24/7, that 24/7 didn’t adequately address what I saw as worsening and potentially catastrophic developments and trajectories. I should say, first of all, that 24/7 was a conscious shift in terms of my own identity as an intellectual in that I wanted to move away from academic language and academic format. It was hardly a complete break because if you look at my footnotes, there’s still a number of literary and philosophical references. But 24/7 showed me that I could reach a wider readership beyond my academic work. Instead of getting emails mainly from scholars, graduate students and artists, I began to hear from people from many different backgrounds, often completely outside any academic umbrella. When I began Scorched Earth, I wanted to push that even further. Certainly I couldn’t pretend that I’m not an intellectual but I wanted to discard some of the limitations of academic discourse. The rhetorical choices I made in writing Scorched Earth were different even from 24/7. At the beginning of the book, I mention the historical tradition of the political pamphlet as it began in 17th century England and other places. I wanted the text to be a form of agitation, of incitement. I knew that it would be a polarising work and the responses since the book came out have proven this to be the case. But to go back to your question, just looking at the titles of the two books, 24/7 and Scorched Earth, one could ask: what are the inevitable consequences of a 24/7 world, as I described it? What are the consequences of the lights never being turned off, or the engines never being shut down? What results from a non-stop world of production, consumption and resource extraction – all of those things that I identified there? Very simply, the result is a scorched earth. One of the things I tried to do in this book was to expand some of the connotations of this familiar phrase. The environmental dimensions of a scorched earth were only one aspect of what I wanted to evoke. For me, a scorched earth is equally understandable in terms of capitalism’s degradation of human communities and its impoverishment of interpersonal and social experience. That is why what I call the ‘internet complex’ and its 24/7 omnipresence are one of the defining drivers of the crisis that we find ourselves in now. In both books, I’m addressing some of the devastating impacts of capitalism on a planet that should be organised around what is life-affirming and supportive of mutuality and community.




"The future has been reduced to a question of what new devices we will be obligated to buy and construct our lives around."

ADR  But if 24/7 is about that non-stop world without rest, or the experience of no longer having an on-off switch, Scorched Earth comes across more like a call-to-arms, a principled decision to log off and sign out, or what you call a ‘practice of radical refusal’.

JC  My first sentence that opens the book poses one of the important forms of refusal, which is to refuse the many restrictions on our political and social imagination. If we are going to imagine some kind of liveable planet honestly and realistically, our vision of a post-capital, post-growth world simply cannot include the technological milieus that we inhabit now. I don’t say that they will totally disappear. However, the lazy assumption that we could move beyond a capitalist organisation of the planet and yet still be living our lives within the systems designed and administered by transnational corporations is one of the great delusions of the moment. How can there be a post-capitalist world in which the institutions essential to 21st century capitalism persist and flourish. There are parallel delusions connected with solutions to climate change, for example the fantasy that electric cars are some kind of answer. In actuality they represent an intensification of capitalist patterns of consumption and production that are making things worse, with the reckless resource extraction needed to supply people with electric vehicles and their batteries. In the US, powerful interests continue to block funding for high-speed rail and mass transit. The fundamental ways in which we need to change how we live our lives are completely excluded from mainstream discourse.

ADR  The climate crisis briefly appeared in 24/7, but it came to the fore in Scorched Earth. In the interval between them, there has been a wave of literature claiming that a post-capitalist economy should embrace digital technology, as it can liberate us from work. You are very adamant that on the contrary, it is incompatible with a habitable earth and egalitarian forms of life. Your book is never anti-technology, but you are forceful that ‘there are no revolutionary subjects on social media’

JC  Another pervasive delusion is how we have been conditioned to equate ‘technology’ with a very small category of apparatuses and networks that are the property of a handful of global technology corporations. Yet anyone critical of those products or who questions their necessity is vilified as being ‘against technology’. This is absurd given the immense diversity of techniques and materialities that human ingenuity, over thousands of years, has bequeathed to us. Yet many people, including some who agree with me, are intimidated and are fearful of being labelled and marginalised as ‘Luddites’. In a sense, we are being asked to accept an idea of the future which is actually a paralysing and perpetual present in which these mandatory technologies are ‘here to stay’. The future has been reduced to a question of what new devices we will be obligated to buy and construct our lives around.