In the meantime, a new research field called Critical Sleep Studies emerged in the Anglo-American world One of the core observations discussed there, is that a vast amount of people in the US – or with Jonathan Crary in “Late Capitalism – suffer from sleep disorders. Even if they would like to spend their time with the reproductive labor of sleeping, their embodied minds refuse to collaborate. In capitalism, however, this is not necessarily bad news. On the contrary – from an economic perspective any physical or mental disorder is a wilderness that can potentially be civilized for a profit.
In The Slumbering Masses, anthropologist Matthew Wolff-Meyer shows that what we consider healthy and normal sleeping behaviors are not nature-given, but an effect of the disciplinary measures of capital. Over the course of the twentieth century, sleep cycles were installed, discovered, utilized, and so was the discourse around them. Compared to the early 1990s, for example, when the medical discourse largely ignored sleep, the amount of self-care and worry dedicated to maintaining healthy sleep cycles has risen significantly in the last twenty years. According to Wolff-Meyer, in the US, this transition is an effect of the direct-to-consumer advertising of sleep-inducing medications starting in the 1990s, which was accompanied by campaigns to popularize sleep as a health problem
Just around the time that direct-to-consumer-advertising of sleep aids became legal in the US, the giant calendar SCHLAF 1992, a pharmaceutical company-to-doctor-gift, appeared in our home in Leipzig (in a country, however, where public advertising of pharmaceuticals is still illegal to this day). Now, more than twenty years later, the women depicted month-by-month on the pages look like bleak icons of a neoliberal era that was about to begin. Here they are, sleep-deprived, isolated, individual consumers, who know how to take care of their molecular cycles, who have taken the right pill . . . only at the wrong moment – but that is just the misogynist joke of the calendar. These women have plugged their embodied minds into the semi-public space of science and capitalism. This space is not public in the political sense, because its purpose is not to facilitate articulations. It is a corporate, privatized space, produced by pharma®. Pharmaceutical products are not the same as regular commodities. They are more substantial than commodities, many of them are literally substances – intended to become part of your body and to transform your embodied mind. Produced to sell at a profit, a pharmaceutical product is truly successful if it forces you to consume this drug for the rest your life, which it, in return, helps you to prolong. If an antidepressant, for example, actually cured you of depression, it would be a rather unsuccessful product, being that a cured patient is effectively a lost customer as far as the health care market is concerned. In the same way, successful sleeping pills and stimulating drugs help to maintain the disordered sleep cycles that they are supposed to level and normalize.
A sleep aid, once supplied, becomes a supporter of the sleep disorder but one could also ask what it is, that causes these disorders in the first place? In 24/7, art critic Jonathan Crary casts a dystopian vision of round-the-clock-availability, interconnectivity, and constant exposure to screens laying ruin to both our sleep and our sensory skills. The book deals with a society where overworked and self-employed Americans are checking their emails several times a night and, as a result, are increasingly required to buy sleep in pill form. Sleep appears as an endangered physical and mental state, a prehistoric Lost World, finally, just about to be, conquered by Late Capitalism, while remaining incompatible with it at the same time. Trying to defend sleep against the capitalist attack, Crary characterizes it as “a periodic release from individuation – a nightly unraveling of the loosely woven tangle of the shallow subjectivities one inhabits and manages by day.
Obsessed with the idea of withdrawal, Crary turns sleep into a separate space, ready to serve as a container for everything that capitalism fails to be. He claims: “In the depersonalization of slumber the sleeper inhabits a world in common, a shared enactment of withdrawal from the calamitous nullity and waste of 24/7 practice. This fantasy of a sleeping “world in common” signifies a political pessimism quite typical of critics living in a society that they find unable to influence. The communal ideals that one has practically already given up on are projected onto an endangered world that is just about to be colonized and destroyed. Ironically, though, Crary’s Romanticism is very much in tune with Thomas Edison’s idea that sleeping is lazy and unproductive. Only the judgment is reversed and the assumed unproductivity is valued as a gesture of withdrawal.