Sleep and Synchronicity

Two spectacularly haunting new works of fiction share a frightening and resonant premise: a world in which sleep is disappearing. Insomnia has a storied history, of course, as both ailment and plot ...

Two spectacularly haunting new works of fiction share a frightening and resonant premise: a world in which sleep is disappearing. Insomnia has a storied history, of course, as both ailment and plot device, from the Book of Esther to Fight Club. But what seems strikingly timely about the sleeplessness imagined by Karen Russell’s novella Sleep Donation and Kenneth Calhoun’s novel Black Moon is its epidemic dimension. For much of the modern age—and especially in the West since the early 19th century, as increased artificial illumination produced what Wolfgang Schivelbusch described as the “disenchanted night”1—sleep has been valued as a realm of intimate experience and solitary reverie. By contrast, these insomnia tales treat 21st-century sleep as something shared, transferred, and infected. At a time when the act of sleeping seems less synchronized in our society than ever before, and when individuals—liberated from the rigid temporal regime of astronomy—ought to be able to wield more control over their sleeping lives, Russell and Calhoun pursue the paradoxical idea, supported by a growing number of cultural critics, that sleep has become a point of deep and vulnerable interdependence.

If indeed we live in interesting times in the mysterious history of sleep, it is because of our rapidly evolving relationship to the idea and the experience of shared time. Fictional visions of mass insomnia, like complaints about the culture of continuous wakefulness, raise questions not just about our individual nerves and synapses, but also about our collective clocks and calendars.

Sleep Donation narrates its insomnia outbreak from the perspective of Trish Edgewater, a traumatized and grieving volunteer at an organization that arranges slumber transfers from healthy sleepers to those afflicted by the spreading plague. Black Moon depicts something closer to total horror-film apocalypse, interweaving the stories of four characters variously trying to locate missing loved ones in depopulated urban and suburban landscapes or seeking safety from hordes of homicidally deranged insomniacs set on appropriating sleep from a dwindling healthy population.

These two fictional epidemics of sleeplessness differ in scope, rates of progress, and vectors of transmission, but the similarities are telling. Both outbreaks confound experts and resist definitive explanation, leaving narrators and characters to imagine cosmic forces at work—oceans, magnetic poles, light, or what one of Calhoun’s protagonists perceives as a rising black moon, “a sphere of sleeplessness that pulled at the tides of blood.” In both stories, etiological speculation also circles around the conditions of modern life, suggesting that something about the way we live today has imperiled our ability to sleep.

Calhoun’s narrative offers competing theories: toxic dust, a hole in the ozone, or any of a host of man-made environmental catastrophes. Or “maybe it was the overload of information,” a military doctor considers, shortly before succumbing himself. “Maybe it was the networking craze, the resurrection of dead friendships and memories meant to be lost, now resurfacing like rusted shipwrecks to reclaim our attention and scramble our sense of time.” Russell’s plague attracts more pointed indictments. “Dour professors” pronounce the end of sleep. “According to these professional Cassandras, sleep has been chased off the globe by our 24-hour news cycle, our polluted skies and crops and waterways, the bald eyeballs of our glowing devices.”

Among real-life academic Cassandras, Jonathan Crary might be the dourest. In his new manifesto, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Crary, an art historian and critic who has written influential studies of modern visual culture, offers a scathing critique of the “expanding, non-stop life world of twenty-first-century capitalism” and a bleak view of its implications. Crary’s beef is not simply with the continuous operation of stores, websites, and work spaces, which afford us no respite from the imperative to buy, trade, and labor. Rather, Crary argues that the ideal of continuous availability stands for a new temporal order, indifferent to natural rhythms and human needs, “against which the fragility of human life is increasingly inadequate and within which sleep has no necessity or inevitability.” 24/7, as Crary reads the phrase, is the battle cry of a war on sleep.

Reversing the traditional call to awaken from dogmatic slumbers, Crary wants us to sleep our way to a revolution.

In many ways, Crary offers a familiar dissent from the technophilic optimism of our era. New devices and habits of illumination and communication have helped erode the temporal borders that long defined work and consumption, much as they have extended the spatial reach of the workplace into our pockets and bedrooms. But Crary is not offering a standard lament about the decline of leisure or the disappearance of downtime. Nor do his warnings about the melting ice caps of our slumbering lives rehearse conventional public health reckonings of the hidden costs of sleep deficits or improper sleep hygiene. The problem with all our devices and connectivity, he argues, is not that we don’t sleep sufficiently or soundly; it’s that we are enlisted into a world of docile accessibility within which sleep is devalued and in some sense disabled.

Sleeping, according to Crary, has become the paradigmatic unacceptable activity in an economy that demands unremitting participation, both because sleepers opt out and because sleeping is a unifying rather than an atomizing activity. In celebrating sleep as a vulnerable holdout against the imperium of capitalism, Crary is not arguing that sleep somehow resists commodification. The ubiquitous marketing of thread counts, customized mattresses, pharmacological aids, corrective surgeries, and sleep disorder clinics would make such a suggestion absurd. But sleep, as an irrational and enchanted activity, remains nonetheless a powerful affront to the 24/7 injunction, which is why Crary is at such pains to defend it, not as a private retreat from oppressive social demands, but on precisely opposite grounds. As “a nightly unraveling of the loosely woven tangle of the shallow subjectivities one inhabits and manages by day,” sleep stands in this manifesto for a shared, communal world. We go to sleep to dream, but Crary argues, contra Freud, that our dreams are meaningful not because they express our individual wishes but because they transcend our individuality.

As in Russell’s and Calhoun’s fictional depictions of contagious insomnia and shareable dreams, Crary sees our sleeping lives as collective and our dream worlds as “trans-individual.” His political grievance indicts a society unable to value sleep, bereft of meaningful dreams, and incapable of imagining “a collective overturning of omnipresent conditions of social isolation, economic injustice, and compulsory self-interestedness.” Reversing the traditional call to awaken from dogmatic slumbers, Crary wants us to sleep our way to a revolution.

Conventional narratives of the making of modern time stress the rise of new experiences, expectations, and norms of synchronicity. With the spread of telegraph wires, railroad tracks, telephone lines, and radio transmissions, time annihilated space. Far-flung communities coordinated their clocks. Railroad conglomerates, national governments, and international treaties imposed standard time zones. Newspaper readers imagined distant events as meaningfully contemporaneous. Modern society and modern subjectivity, in the accounts proffered by scholars and critics from Benedict Anderson to Stephen Kern, are the products of far-reaching temporal coordination.

Crary, Calhoun, and Russell help us see a very different story, in which we are now moving in the direction of temporal isolation. Temporal isolation is a term of art used by sleep scientists to describe experimental conditions in which a human subject is cut off from access to sunlight and other astronomical time cues, and typically from other people as well, in order to test hypotheses about internal time clocks, natural sleep patterns, and circadian rhythms. In 1989, a friend of mine (I’ll call him Chief) enlisted as a subject in the laboratory of renowned Harvard sleep scientist Charles Czeisler, where friendly technicians prompted him to sleep at odd and irregular intervals (as long as 52 hours, he later discovered), repeatedly measuring his mental acuity with arithmetic tests while vigilantly monitoring fluctuations in his core temperature.

Chief followed a long chain of subjects into the depths of temporal isolation: Nathaniel Kleitman (the Chicago physiologist who co-discovered REM sleep) ensconced himself with a fellow researcher in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave for 32 dark days in 1938; French speleologist Michel Siffre did something similar (but notably alone) in 1962 in the French Alps, and then again a decade later in a cave in Texas for six truly unhappy months; German researchers Jürgen Aschoff and Rütger Wever recruited over four hundred subjects to a specially constructed underground bunker in the 1960s.

Like the experiments to which Chief contributed, these earlier studies confirmed a fundamental chronobiological insight: human beings have internal time clocks that can function independently of astronomical cues and be reset through the use of artificial light. But the experimental mode itself is quite striking. To plumb the depths of the mysterious human need to sleep, scientists must dislocate subjects from two powerful synchronizing forces, one natural, the other social, that together produce the human sense of time: patterned movements of planets and stars and the patterned behavior of other people. Sleep study subjects are thus not simply sequestered in dark and quiet places; in a profound sense, they are in fact isolated, cut off from time itself.

Crary, Calhoun, and Russell help us see how we are all moving in the direction of temporal isolation.

Temporal isolation is also the condition of the insomniac, which Sleep Donation dramatizes at its frightening extreme. As the narrator recalls of the final day of her sister, one of the earliest victims: “She died awake, after twenty days, eleven hours, and fourteen minutes without sleep. Locked flightlessly inside her skull.” In milder form, temporal isolation would also seem to describe the inhabitants of a 24/7 order, at least in its hypothetical maximal form. In maintaining ourselves perpetually at the ready—to work, purchase, browse, communicate—we ignore the temporal cues of nature and society and live in our own fragmented time.

Many recent developments clearly seem to confirm this trend toward fragmentation and isolation. Whereas newspaper periodicity in the 19th century and television broadcasts in the second half of the 20th century famously epitomized the tendency of modern media to create increasingly synchronized mass rituals of uniform consumption, in the current century we inform and entertain ourselves asynchronously, on our own time. Every year more of us discharge our collaborative work obligations asynchronously as well, often with people who inhabit different time zones. Not everyone jets across the globe, but many more people speak to 24-hour call centers of indeterminate location. “What time is it for you?” might be a rude question in some contexts, but it is an eminently meaningful one.

In the long history of timekeeping, this fragmenting, isolating tendency seems significant. We are still unimaginably far from the conditions of temporal homogeneity sometimes implied by the slogan 24/7, as any commuter in the United States can attest, but the steps we have taken in that direction trouble enough of us to make a jeremiad like Crary’s resonant. The significance of these steps toward temporal isolation is complicated by the fact that 24 and 7 actually mark the erasure of two quite different forms of temporal coordination, much as experimental sleep studies seek to screen out two quite different types of temporal cue.

The heterogeneity of the 24-hour day has always depended in large part on the presence, absence, and quality of sunlight. Part of why cultural critics find capitalism’s blurring of the borders of day and night so unsettling is that it appears to be an assault on nature, in the form of both the natural rhythms of sleep and waking and the natural pattern of day and night that entrains those rhythms. Like a range of earlier developments associated with the industrialization of time (including intensified artificial illumination, the proliferation of mechanical timepieces, and the standardization of the length of the workday), the recent erosion of the day-night distinction radically diminishes the significance of nature as a synchronizing force.

The order of 7, by contrast, stands for the kind of temporal coordination that is entirely enforced by social scheduling rather than astronomical cues. Seven-day weeks are artificial constructs that many societies have lived without until relatively recently. Flattening or erasing differences among days of the week doesn’t entail tuning out nature, and suspending the week doesn’t portend the end of sleep or the end of dreaming (only the end of resting, which is not quite the same). Crary includes the technically redundant 7 in the 24/7 slogan because 7 reaffirms the capitalist goal of continuous operation against the respite represented historically by weekly holy days in various religions and, much more recently, by the increasingly globalized standard of the Saturday–Sunday weekend. But the differences between the blurring of the primordial division between day and night and the unraveling of the remarkable scheduling technology that is the seven-day week may be far more interesting than their similarities.

<i>Lua Crescente</i>. Photograph by Bianca Barbosa / Flickr

Lua Crescente. Photograph by Bianca Barbosa / Flickr

The fascinating and underexplored history of the seven-day week, especially as it has proliferated, intensified, transformed, and undergone serious challenges in the last two centuries, suggests some of the complexity of human attempts to impose heterogeneity (and not just homogeneity) on their experiences of time. This history also highlights the social construction of many of our core experiences of time. Weeks are artificial, in ways that days, months, and years are not, but the unraveling of the week (certainly a possibility) would entail a fundamental temporal reorientation.

Whether the week remains, as Crary suggests, some kind of bulwark, practical or symbolic, against the pervasive deterioration and degradation of our sleep capacities, is hard to say. Many societies over the course of recorded history have managed to sleep soundly and meaningfully without anything resembling a week. Yet it is noteworthy how the modern Western week can provide a rubric for thinking about rest, and even for imagining the outer limits of sleeplessness. In late 19th-century America, for example, pedestrian races (the most popular spectator sport in the nation at the time) featured indoor competitions in which athletes sought to cover as much distance as possible while sleeping as little as possible—all within a six-day period. Pedestrian contests lasted for six days (rather than longer, or indefinitely), in part to conform to laws or mores in British and American cities regulating or stigmatizing commercial entertainment on Sundays. But the presumption that even a marathon endurance event like walking for five hundred miles without a full night’s sleep ought to remain within the confines of a single week is telling. Bold attempts to decouple human sleep patterns from the cycles of day and night stopped short of defying the essentially artificial cycle of the seven-day week.

A more recent example of such boundary testing comes from the records of military sleep research. For several years, we now know, scientists lavishly funded by the Defense Department have been engaged in an elaborate quest to reduce or eliminate the human need for sleep (or at least the deleterious consequences of sleep deprivation) in order to engineer the sleepless soldier of the near-future. These alarming ventures in profound temporal isolation provide Crary with the perfect opening vignette for his manifesto, since they highlight the affinity between the war on sleep and other parallel Pentagon projects, such as armed drones, that circumvent or diminish the “living individual.” But even the military sleep experiments respect some version of this boundary. The Continuous Assisted Performance program identifies as its goal the ultimate extension of “the capabilities of soldiers to perform their duties for up to seven days without sleep.”2 The sleepless soldier knows no days and nights, only weeks. Will the sleepy civilians or insomniac subjects of the future know a completely different calendar?

Further Reading

Matthew Algeo, Pedestrianism (Chicago Review Press, 2014)

Jeremy Campbell, Winston Churchill’s Afternoon Nap (Simon & Schuster, 1986)

Stanley Coren, Sleep Thieves (Free Press, 1996)

A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (Norton, 2005)

Till Roenneberg, Internal Time (Harvard University Press, 2012)

Matthew Wolf-Meyer, The Slumbering Masses (University of Minnesota Press, 2012)

Eviatar Zerubavel, The Seven-Day Circle (University of Chicago Press, 1989) icon

  1. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century, translated from the German by Angela Davies (University of California Press, 1988).
  2. DARPA, Fact File: A Compendium of DARPA Programs (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, 2003), pp. 46–7.
Featured image: Insomnia. Photograph by Alyssa L. Miller / Flickr