A guest blog post at Interesting Literature by one of the co-founders of Sleep Cultures.
Research in the UK has shown a correlation between affluence and a good night's sleep: 83% of high earners reported that they slept fairly well or very well most nights; a third of unemployed people had regular sleeping problems.
Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a world without sleep? Writers of SF and speculative fiction have been restlessly pondering this question in recent years, and the ‘sleepless world’ narrative now represents a thriving corner of the SF universe. Dana and Meir Gillon’s The Unsleep (1962), in which a future society becomes addicted to an over-the-counter ‘cure’ for sleep, founded the sub-genre. Recent notable contributions include Nancy Kress’s SF trilogy, Beggars in Spain (1993), Beggars and Choosers (1994) and Beggars Ride (1996); Jeanette Winterson’s magic realist short story, ‘Disappearance I’ (1999); Charlie Huston’s futuristic noir thriller, Sleepless (2010); Adrian Barnes’s postmodern disaster narrative, Nod (2012); and Michael Symmons Roberts’ BBC radio drama, ‘The Sleeper’ (2013). It goes without saying that all of the aforementioned works are dystopian in character. None of these writers believe for a moment that a world without sleep would be anything less than nightmarishly unpleasant. But for all their dystopian gloom, these texts are often tinged with a degree of optimism about the future of human slumber. It is rare for sleep to be fully or finally eliminated in the futures envisaged by sleepless world SF; slumber has a reassuring habit of infiltrating the worlds from which it has been supposedly banished. Purveyors of sleep-defeating technology and champions of anti-sleep ideology, meanwhile, are typically exposed as futuristic Canutes struggling absurdly to hold back the irresistible tide of human somnolence.
But why would writers invest so much imaginative energy in persuading us of something that no one would seriously dispute: namely, that sleep is a natural, inescapable and indeed pleasurable part of what it is to be human? We can consider two different ways of answering this question. The first is that literature can revitalize our imaginative relationship with a region of human experience that is all too easy to take for granted. Though we may acknowledge sleep’s importance in a general way, we struggle to appreciate sleep in the ways that we can appreciate, say, food or sex. It is in the nature of healthy sleep that we don’t -- indeed can’t -- notice it as it happens. And if we have slept well, then we don’t tend to devote much time to thinking about sleep when we are awake; it is a natural commodity available to all, at no cost, in inexhaustible quantities. For these reasons, we tend to be oblivious to the oblivion of somnolence. How can literature re-sensitize us to the value of sleep? Viktor Shklovsky theorizes that the goal of literary language is to refresh our jaded perceptions of everyday life, to make us look as if for the very first time at everything we take for granted in our lifeworlds; it is the job of art, as he famously puts it, ‘to make one feel things, to make the stone stony’. We might add, in a Shklovskian spirit, that the goal of sleepless world narratives is to make sleep sleepy, to rescue it from obscurity and restore it to us as a tangible and central element of human experience. They do so not by pushing sleep into the open but rather by subtracting it from everyday life in order that we may inspect the gap that it leaves, a sleep-shaped gap that we are more than likely to fill with a renewed appreciation of the hours we spend in the oblivion of slumber.
Another way of answering this question would be to refer sleepless world texts to the historical contexts in which they have emerged. This sub-genre is readable not as a set of prophecies about some nightmarish alternative world of the future but rather as a series of extrapolations from what is already happening in contemporary western society. Sleepless world texts are the fictional equivalents of Jonathan Crary’s polemical book, 24/7: Terminal Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, which mounts a fierce critique of the sleep-eroding effects of a global capitalist system that resents every minute we spend asleep, scandalously delinquent in our economic passivity, neither producing nor consuming. One minor but telling symptom of the modern hostility to sleep that Crary notices is the design of ‘serrated’ public furniture in, say, bus shelters or parks, on which it possible to perch but impossible to sleep. The eviction of the sleeper from public space is an entirely characteristic move from a system that seems willing to abolish sleep’s very conditions of possibility in a bid to capture our round-the-clock attention and participation. From the perspective of a writer like Crary, sleepless world SF is not a paranoid vision of the future but a lightly disguised portrait of a dystopian present in which the ‘unsleep’ has already happened.
Crary’s case is polemically one-sided -- and it has good reasons for being so. It is difficult to see how an attack on, say, the use of sleep deprivation as torture could be too angry or too forthright in its denunciation of what governments can do to people at their most vulnerable. But it seems fair to note in response to Crary’s book that for many commentators rumours of sleep’s demise in the twenty-first century have been greatly exaggerated. Matthew Wolf-Meyer argues in The Slumbering Masses that we live not in a 24/7 society of continuous wakefulness but rather in one where sleep has been ever more systematically integrated into our lifeworlds as a responsibility we need to discharge in a regular and timely fashion -- according to timetables laid down by the education system, employers, government etc -- in order that we may perform at our best as alert, productive, well-slept citizens. Sleep does have a future, it seems, so long as it continues to function as the obedient servant of productive wakefulness. In this sense, Wolf-Meyer’s study offers what turns out to be an altogether gloomier prognosis than the SF works that celebrate sleep’s natural irrepressibility in the teeth of institutional resistance and pharmacological control. How might the regimes of wakefulness analysed in The Slumbering Masses be challenged? What would it take for sleepers’ rights to be asserted? Maybe the next wave of sleepless world narratives will help us to answer these questions.
Raymond Tallis has some brief yet thoughtful remarks on sleep and philosophy, published in Philosophy Now.
New Sleep Order is a multi-disciplinary research project that investigates sleep as a cultural, economic, social and political phenomenon. Our research group carries theoretical and empirical research on sleep in the fields of tourism, consumption and marketing, and organization studies. The project is led by Professor Anu Valtonen, University of Lapland, and funded by the University of Lapland and Tekes.
The following statements summarize the key theoretical starting points of the cultural approach to sleep developed in the project.
1. Sleeping and waking are entangled and co-constitutive states of human beings.
2. Society and economy sleep in us.
3. Sleeping is a habit, technique and skill enacted by a biological and cultural body.
We explore, among other things, sleep and knowing in organizations (Prof. Susan Meriläinen and Senior lecturer Pikka-Maaria Laine, University of Lapland), napping in creative work (PhD Pälvi Rantala, University of Lapland), sleeping in nature-based tourism (PhD Outi Rantala, University of Lapland), the role of sleep in slow tourism, including sleep experience in the Arctic (PhD candidate Tarja Salmela, University of Lapland), and social and hedonic aspects of sleeping in consumer culture (Prof. Anu Valtonen, University of Lapland). The associated partner project, “Release!”, investigates the relation between sleep and leadership in a military organization (Prof. Aki-Mauri Huhtinen, Finnish National Defence University).