XU | On Sleep and Difficulty

Perhaps it is trite for the college student to write about sleep, especially as a theme that has persisted into the days preceding graduation. As someone who knows what it’s like to lose sleep, I envy those who doze off into the night without a single care, no matter how their day has been. In school sleep has always been conditional — coming after other seeming priorities like schoolwork or a certain social life. Embarrassingly, I might have stayed up more to chat with friends (once until 5am, at which point we simply drove to Dunkin when they opened, at 6am sharp) than to finish actual schoolwork. This all has to do with the mystical quality of nighttime, where gossip and secrets — sometimes about fellow housemates — are shared with excitement or hushed voices, and the mental clarity of everyone involved collectively declines as the night goes on.

Biologically speaking, the human body necessitates sleep as a restorative act, but sleep is also necessarily a cultural thing, insofar as we can consider wellness to be a culture. I take issue most with the idea that sleep is meant to be productive. In his book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Jonathan Crary imagines a dystopia where screens and offices run tirelessly, and we have to inevitably become suprahuman, or anti-human, just to survive in this economy. Moreover, in this current moment we are condemned to lose sleep because of an effect of haunting: when what is imaginary joins, exceeds, and transcends what is real. The specter of what is to come overwrites what is feasible for the subject at hand. In the same way, the anticipation of a social interaction, the promise of a polished final project, will always overshadow the disappointment that reality brings: a “normal” or “average” experience, a patchy essay that barely holds itself together. We always invest in something that seems to be bigger than ourselves, only to realize later that we’ve bought into a deceptive promise, hedged a bet on mere possibility.

While researching late capitalism and sleep for class last semester, I was keenly aware of how sleep was impossible for those entangled in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Adults and children alike in Gaza are being deprived of sleep because hunger and malnutrition are rife. Even if the material conditions of sleep were met (a bed, shelter, warmth), they might be kept awake by the sound of sirens, bombs, or the memory of war. They might be kept awake simply from worry, fear, anxiety for the future. For those fearing for their lives, sleep is out of reach or out of the question, unattainable; there is a reason that sleep deprivation was used as a torture tactic at Guatanamo Bay. One can only hold up for so long without sleep.