On getting some sleep

I’m one of those people you’d describe as “not a morning person”. In an ideal world I’d start my evening around 8pm, go to bed between 12 and 1am, and rise between 9 and 10am. I work well in the early afternoon. I hate teaching early morning classes. (And this semester I have two 9am starts. Ugh!) I have the circadian rhythms of an actor, clearly.

If this confession makes you want to judge me a little, go ahead; I always expect it to provoke judgement. My mom (hi mom!) used to battle to get me out of bed, even resorting, in my high school years, to turning a spray bottle on me (relax: it only contained water). For years I forced myself to get up by 8am, in an effort to be A Good, Productive Adult – because waking up early = intrinsically productive, right? In fact, when I was a PhD student I’d get up at 6am to swim every day. I was smug in those years. I was also pretty freaking tired.

This year I’ve decided to give myself a break. On days when I don’t need to be anywhere before noon, I sleep until my body wakes me up (usually after 9, rarely after 10). This amuses my husband and dog (who always get up and head straight for the park at 6:30am, and usually lumber to bed together around 10pm), but they don’t pressure me to change. They know I’m exhausted, and that rest is one of the few gifts I can give myself unequivocally.

There’s a fair amount of research now about sleep patterns and wellbeing; for example, there’s some evidence that sleeping too much, as well as too little, can adversely affect one’s health and fitness. My measurement of my own experience has been entirely anecdotal but fairly consistent: when I am woken by my alarm before 7:30am I’m almost always deep in a dream, and the alarm breaks the REM pattern; I get up but am dreadfully groggy and very, very tired (rather than productive, note) by late afternoon. When I give myself the freedom to rise in my own time, I wake up more refreshed in general, and with more energy 60-90 minutes after getting up. So, I can’t get up late, hop out of bed and run; I can, though, have a very productive afternoon if I get up mid-morning, in my own time. (Last year, when Jarret and I were training for, among other challenges, the Scope L2P24 ride, we’d typically wake at 7am on a Sunday and get out the door on our bikes before 8am for a 5-8 hour ride; I struggled enormously with that schedule and always sensed I wasn’t really riding my best. By comparison, last Sunday I got up at 10am, was on my bike and out the door at 12:30 – shockingly late for a “real” cyclist! – and had one of my best training rides of the last 12 months, including posting a personal best overall pace.)


Health, wellbeing, and feeling good aside, I’ve also lately been reading some cultural theory about the crucial social and political importance of a proper, self-guided night’s sleep. As part of my current research project on realist stagecraft, political performance, and neoliberal ideology, I have just finished reading Jonathan Crary’s new 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (Verso, 2013). This is a crossover book, for both an academic and a lay readership; it includes footnotes but not many of them, and no bibliography. It’s also not as well referenced as I’d like, but as a result it’s also really accessible, and helpfully so as it’s a provocative polemic about the ways in which late (neoliberal, also known as finance-driven) capitalism is invading every waking moment of our lives. Thanks to the advent of “smart” technology and the mediatized social worlds and markets it generates, rest, sleep, and the crucial time for free thinking, dreaming, and imagining a better world that rest and sleep support have become rarer and rarer indeed.

Sleep is an example of one kind of “free” time, something so few of us now seem to have in any supply. As Crary argues, late capitalism has replaced the quotidian rhythms of earlier, less frantic eras with a postmodern space/time in which all of us are consistently marketed to, required to market ourselves to one another online, and otherwise pressured to keep pace with the constantly self-renewing technology that now shapes our movement patterns, our consumption patterns, and governs our waking lives. More and more we’re being forced into boxes in which six or seven hours’ sleep is hard to come by, let alone the time to stop and think about what we are actually doing with our lives, buying with our money, or learning from our reading or our constant, largely banal conversations on Twitter, Facebook, or email; Crary cites statistics suggesting that more and more of us (like my husband) are waking in the night to check our feeds and profiles, anxious at being out of touch even in our moments of unconsciousness. This, for Crary, amounts to nothing less than an attempt on the part of a variety of powerful agents (from banks to governments to tech companies to marketing firms) to commodify what has until now been uncommodifiable: the time to switch off, renew, and awake refreshed and able to think critically about the choices we need to make every day. In a perfect 24/7 world, the lights would never shut off, keeping us plugged constantly into the expectations at which we direct our endless clicking, liking, following, purchasing. In a perfect 24/7 world, nobody would ever have time to plot a revolution; they’d be, among other things, far too tired.

At times Crary gets carried away, overstating his case and risking the label of technophobe; at his best, though, he makes a remarkable claim, one I find genuinely compelling: that sleep is a passive form of activism, and that prioritising uninterrupted sleep may thus be a truly activist gesture! After all, he writes: “Sleep is an irrational and intolerable affirmation that there might be limits to the compatibility of living beings with the allegedly irresistible forces of modernization” (13); it is therefore

…an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism. Most of the seemingly irreducible necessities of human life – hunger, thirst, sexual desire, and recently the need for friendship – have been remade into commodified or financialized forms. Sleep poses the idea of a human need and interval of time that cannot be colonized and harnessed to a massive engine of profitability, and thus remains an incongruous anomaly and site of crisis in the global present. (10-11)

To sleep, perchance to dream of a more liveable world. One in which we are consistently given the space and time to read a difficult book, or a piece of long-form journalism, and debate its arguments, its evidence, and its merits with friends and colleagues. One in which my students and I can spend more than two hours a week together, talking of just such things, because I don’t need to keep time back for the mind-numbing administrative tasks that have been downloaded onto me and my colleagues by a university system in thrall to a government that rejects our very raison d’être as teachers with whom to read, write, and think freely. One in which it’s OK (really OK) for me not to have a Twitter account. One in which I don’t need to check my email while on holiday because I’m afraid that dozens of advert blasts will clog up my inbox each day, freezing me with anxiety when I launch the program upon my return and see the number next to the tiny envelope icon. One in which getting up with my body, between 9am and 10am, need not be a source of shame for me (“within the globalist neoliberal paradigm, sleeping is for losers” [Crary 14]), but rather can be a source of pride, a way for me to nurture my productivity, my sense of self, and my political spirit, all in my own good time.

Sleep well, friends!


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