Issue 4/2014 - Kognitives Kapital

How to Sleep: the art, biology and culture of unconsciousness

Matthew Fuller

Can one ever truthfully say, “I am asleep”? This is the somnolent version of the Cretan Paradox,1 thought and being overlapped, and it also provides the grounds for
the distinction between being awake, and thoughtful, hence conscious and knowing, and what is sundered from that state. In a line of thought mined by Augustin and
Descartes, sleep cannot be directly known in its native state. In order to think about it we must be awake or to know something, to use devices for recording an analysis, and even then we must wonder what we know. Sleep, unlike any other part of culture has no capacity for reflexivity within its own conditions. In sleeping one simply sleeps, one does not know, anything. Sleep is ungraspable, unwritable only perceivable at its edges or its outside. There is no immanent critique of sleep, only embedded reporters
who, necessarily, have no capacity of seeing. Sleep operates in oblique ways, arriving at reflexivity only by a detour into awakeness.
As Édouard Glissant says in his incomparable argument for the quality of opacity in relation to the forced transparency of global domination and that he also argues at the scale of the infrapersonal, “It does not disturb me to accept that there are places here my identity is obscure to me, and the fact that it amazes me does not mean I relinquish it.”2 Sleep is the regular occurrence of our own opacity to ourselves, a kernel of the posthuman inside the most apparently predictable of habituations and needs. Whether it is cosy, or a physiological burden that exposes one to danger, sleep is the third third of human experience, an unknown. Arguments for the post human have tended to find their evidence in the most exciting science or the most highly technical, adventurous activity. Sleep, by contrast, is mundane. In its opacity, is always both beyond the human and at its core. As the kernel of the human it is hardly
represented in culture, and those places where it does leak out it is exceedingly telling, sumptuary, overpowering, animal, incomprehensible, escape and idyll and yet the subject of intense politicking and enculturation. In all of these it is also ambivalently cathected to the posthuman, where it also forms another potentially potent kernel, an abandonment of thought, of self, a relinquishment to the status of complexly active matter.

Sleep is a means by which people turn themselves into objects, or by means of which they becomes most object-like, but it also figures in contemporary and modern literature as a means of reproduction for work, as a form of escape or a means of accessing the marvelous. More recently, sleep has become a means of mobilizing the
brain or of putting it to work for the purposes of problem solving. But in relation to
work and the state of everyday life, it is also often a means of escape, some kind of refuge from the incoming signals of the nervous system – and the wider systems they touch, border on and work through. Psychology and neuroscience as disciplines ‘own’ sleep, and indeed this is where the bulk of the sleep literature is produced, but sleep should also be examined and experimented with as a cultural and social
phenomena, one that is somewhat infrequently theorised and indeed as one that produces its own kind of conceptuality.
Sleep as a state is something that immediately ironises the alert, productive, learned
body. It is profoundly democratic of course to recognise the sleep of one snoring, farting philosopher, factory worker, princess (equipped with pea or otherwise) or administrator as the same as any other, but perhaps there are modes of distinction that can ruin this generic figure for us.

Sleep as a form of protest, as the straightforward display of bodies in refusal became a symbol of the Occupy movement, and a point of contention for the movement’s
As a hoax, heat-detection images of apparently empty tents gathered outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in 2011 were made. The machine did not pick up traces of body heat (being incapable of doing so) and was touted, by the right-wing newspaper that lead the story, as evidence that the tents were left empty overnight rendering the protest null and void. As a form of veracity, sleep is about the
aggregation of bodies willing to undergo discomfort in order to make an argument, but as a form of protest it also asserts the rhetoric of primality, putting the human body in a vulnerable everyday state at the core of political action.

Sleep acts In contemporary social thought sleep is shown to be inextricably influenced by society, but in its most common form the traffic only goes one way: from social
norms, configurations and problems onto sleep. Whilst earlier critical thought had congealed the figure of the sleepwalker as that most adequate to describing the
members of modern societies with all their stereotypic behaviour, contemporary capitalism is accounted for as having lost its sense of any dignity. It will thrust its
shovel into any untouched place in order to prepare the fracking out of value. Emails and information are squirted in under high pressure in order to flush out any pockets
of trapped consciousness that can be turned into fuel. Sleep is a new continent to colonise and establish intensive means of capture or to degrade as a superfluous and primitive wilderness.3
We may say that sleep, as a sociological category, is something that is mainly
acted on, rearranged and demarcated, gnawed at or ablated by social requirements,
turned into another category of need and anxiety for which consumer items, services and treatments (including academic expertise) can be flogged.4 These are operative as
factors. However, as factors, they modify something that is itself also active, a coefficient that is itself internally differentiated as much as it is acted on. The argument against the model of hylomorphism is familiar enough by now.5 Matter, stuff, practices, physiologies are not simply and identically moulded by ideal forms.
Rather they exist in complex ranges of dialogic interaction and co-emergence with patternings, ideals, categories, formalisms and so on, that in turn have their own
particular and specific qualities and propensities and that in turn are shaped, fatigued, propitiated and enhanced by their interactions with other kinds of entity and relation at multiple scales.
Sleep however is often figured as form of dormancy, as a state of passivity whose plasticity can only be mobilised by constructions from outwith. An argument I would like to make however is that sleep is a capacity, a power, that as it comes into combination with other objects, kinds of relations and capacities, becomes productive. This proposition is made as an extension of arguments around biological
power, the will to power of Nietzsche where he addresses the capacities of complexly or simply arranged matter, or other accounts that acknowledge and work with the
active capacities of matter in its various states.
Heraclitus remarks in a well-known fragment that, “Even sleepers are workers and collaborators on what goes on in the universe.”6 And this sense of sleep as something more profound than a state of dormancy is important. Indeed, to trace this movement, we can follow the way sleep science elaborates an understanding of sleep arising out of the interaction of two relatively discrete processes and systems, the circadian system and the homeostatic system.7 This understanding of sleep as dynamic, slightly out of kilter, and possessed of pulsions and forces that have their own degrees and kinds of expressivity in such interaction is key here.
In a survey of the changes to the spatialisation of sleep in the Victorian era, Tom Crook notes that in combination with beds, bugs, sexual desire, poverty and other factors, sleep was thought capable of producing moral contagion and pestilential atmospheres, and thus had to be contained, demarcated and then spaced out through the disciplinary techniques of dormitories, barracks, hospital wards, improved dosshouses, hygienic bedding, model dwellings and the separate bedrooms of middle class housing.8 Sleep changes, but sleep as a force also makes itself active in these places and as such there is a process of becoming between kinds of sleep and the artifacts, norms, experiences, organisations and understandings of sleep and what is attendant to it.
It can be noted that sleep indeed produces problems, or what might be termed
expressions of its power - such as snoring and apnea, key symptoms of concern, in
sleep’s medicalization, and it does so in combination with the tissues of the throat, as they become slack when horizontal. These in turn provide the opportunity for
chemical and mechanical commodification of sleep. (Through sleep drugs and treatments such as CPAP) Sleep also produces the conditions for dreams, nightmares, night terrors, and the various active or passive means for emands and obligations to be placed upend people by others. (The argument amongst parents contains the lines: You feed or change the baby, this sleep is fast upon me and I am unable to wake as you can see by my immobility, which is not after all stubborn but simply a necessity that you, by virtue of being awake already can see, and, which, were you a sane person not given to the cruelty of waking another, would acknowledge). Here, there is a rhetoric of
sleep that operates at multiple scales, in the shifting of labour from one person to another, the refusal to partake in it, but also sleep as disinterest, the folding of the body to take up the smallest space possible, or a voluptuous abandonment to the carousing of the organs, glands, processes, cycles, that cohere as sleep.

Ingredients of sleep As well as proliferating outside of the body, sleep in humans is composed by the range and complexity of several kinds of activity within and between different parts of the brain and the rest of the body it entails. Equally complex are the ways in which the phases of sleep involve different kinds and rates of synchronisation between these
elements at different times. These can be described at different scales of generality,
one of which is in terms of systems that produce two key means of producing sleep.
Firstly a sensitivity to circadian rhythm, entraining sleep to light via the eyes and a consequent chain of other nervous and glandular systems. Secondly a biological clock or homeostat that itself runs slightly beyond 24 hours, primarily enacted through hormones. The simple interplay between these two predilections sets up moiré patterns of timing within and amongst bodies and what composes them.
The mammalian body is an assemblage of intense variation and peculiar intimacy and that of the set of humans within them is a reasonable context within which to explore
the meta-animality that is implied by the freaks of luck that constitute their shared and variable characteristics. Nevertheless, to map the ingredients of sleep is to figure it
within myriad systems of interpretation and scales of existence, each with their own attendant modes of enquiry and hierarchy within scientific history and imaginary of
order of causality and precedence, such as the cosmogonic stack of scales interpreted by the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, culture. Each of
these can become an entry point and exploratory base for any of the others whilst retaining the distinct characteristics and relative degree of autonomy of each scale, each of which is also potentially momentary, multiple and fissiparous as they are interrogated and constituted by others. Any description of sleep must fall short of an impossible fullness, may lack, for instance sufficient relation to its operation within the terms of a certain scale at the same time as the watchword of any synthetic account of the inventiveness and conditions of sleep must be to proliferate.



1 That paradox coming down to the statement, “This sentence is false.”
2 Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor,
1997, p.192.
3 Jonathan Crary, 24/7, Verso, London 2013; Alexei Penzin, ‘Sleep, Capitalism and Subjectivity’, in
Anke Hoffman and Yvonne Volkart, Subverting Disambiguities, Verein Shedhalle, Zurich, 2012;
Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer, The Slumbering Masses, sleep, medicine and modern American life,
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2012; Simon Williams, The Politics of Sleep, governing
(un)consciousness in the late modern age, Palgrave, London, 2011.
4 A typology for such action drawing on a survey of social theory and sleep is set out by Arber,
Meadows and Venn who describe four modes of action on sleep: “1. The shift from public to private
sleeping, 2. The relationship between work and sleep, 3. Sleep within consumer societies, 4.the
medicalization of sleep.” Arber, Meadows and Venn, “Sleep and Society”, in, Charles M. Morin and
Colin A. Espie, The Oxford Handbook of Sleep and Sleep Disorders, Oxford University Press, Oxford,
5 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, capitalism and schizophrenia, trans. Brian
Massumi, Athlone, London, 1988.
6 Heraclitus, Fragment 90
7 See, Derk-Jan Dijk & Alpar S. Lazar, “The Regulation of Human Sleep and Wakefulness, sleep
homeostasis and circadian rhythmicity”, in, Charles M. Morin and Colin A. Espie, The Oxford
Handbook of Sleep and Sleep Disorders, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012, p.38-60
8 Tom Crook, "Norms, Forms and Beds: Spatialising sleep in Victorian Britain", Body and Society:
Special Edition on Sleeping Bodies 14 (4) (2008), pp. 15‐36.