May 11, 2020
“I can sleep!” I thought on March 6, as the first event was cancelled. Ten days later, all classes at the university were cancelled. My travel to Italy to visit family was cancelled. My assistantship for the summer was cancelled. My colleagues. My workplace. My life.
“It’s not a snow day,” said the elders, while thinking “oh, deplorable,” with a frown at the students’ goodbye parties. Nevertheless, the demon of the rebel child inside me was grateful. The child had been very, very tired. For my inner child the interruption was close to sweet: a reminder of old fantasies of a Bolshevik general strike, although nobody took over. In another fantasy, Nature has revolted, with the swans deciding to like saltwater and settle in Venice. I had been longing so much for uninterrupted glorious sleep, a good sleep, possibly in good company, full of revelations from the realm of the dead and numbers to play at the lotto. The demon nodded, and prepared to go to bed.
Before the virus, life was sleepless. As many theorists of contemporary society have written, from Jonathan Crary to Bifo, from Rosi Braidotti to Tristan Garcia, working life is exhausting, exhausting all natural resources, “us” included. Life was careless. It was intense. It was spent in growing intimacy with the glare of luminous devices, which amplified insomniac states.
Since the virus made its (invisible) appearance, many live as in Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Here, longed-for states of rest and relaxation are achieved through what the protagonist calls “hibernation,” the author’s decision to quit her job, sleep for a year, and embark on a journey toward rebirth.
In Moshfegh’s account, hibernation is achieved thanks to the vast use of sleeping pills: Neuroproxin Seconol, Nembutal, Librium, Placydil, Noctec, Miltown, Litio, Ambien, Ativan. Some other medicines in the novel have names that evoke evanescence: Valdignore, Prognosticrone, Maxiphenphen, and Silencior. Real and seemingly real pills—they all tend to obfuscate memory. The oneiric state becomes the norm. Moshfegh’s protagonist, who does not have a name, seeks absolute sleep: sleep without dreams. The editing of personal memory, usually practiced in psychoanalysis by the dream work, will in fact not occur here.
Some of the medicines are literary inventions, like Anphiterol, the ultimate drug. It causes an up-to -three-day journey of sleepwalking, with side effects the narrator calls “blackouts,” during which the sleeper acts wildly and does not remember any of her actions the next day. Even if you are a princess, even the most unsympathetic princess, Moshfegh suggests, even if you have the privilege of embarking on a sleep-journey, your free labor will always be “natural” and appropriated as beauty by a character named The Artist. Memory of the journey will be fabricated in post-production, as The Artist films the existential experiment of Moshfegh’s protagonist and, of course, sells it on the open market as artwork. By definition, the Sleeping Beauty does not change the world, and the world does not change her.
In order to fall asleep, experts say, you should shut down all your electronic devices, at least two hours before bedtime. In this way, you will disperse electric stimulations, calm down the brain, and diminish cerebral connectivity. Electrified bodies, like bodies in constant interface with electronic devices, are intense. They are luminous and radiant. If intensity as such is a physical quantity of “power” transferred per unit, in La vie intense: Une obsession moderne by Tristan Garcia, it is also a moral and ethical value.
How did an optical measurement such as the “intensity” of light come to signify a philosophical ideal? According to Garcia, it is literature’s fault: from Alberto Moravia to Alice Munro, from Gustave Flaubert to Raymond Carver, the standardized language of the industrial periphery has taken over with its nostalgic reveries of a center that does not even exist. Literature sells us everyday electric heroism distilled in drive-ins, cinema dates, and overnight detours. Intensity pervades the collective imaginary as industrialization spans the landscape, or, as my grandmother would say, it “confused the day with the night.”
But what exactly is “intensity” in terms of aesthetic forms? Garcia calls it “primaverism” (it. primavera, spring; but also, prima, first + verismo, a realist literary movement). He refers to a rhetoric of “the first time” and “the first the better,” in which the unripe, the attempt, the uncompleted and unachieved are praised more than subsequent forms, for they convey more promise, more intensity.
The apotheosis of Garcia’s primaverism is the genre of the revival. And this is right, if one thinks that the revival does not aim at a new work like the remix. It is not even a remediation, a mash-up, or a patent abolition of previous works like dub and dubstep (which literally engrave new tracks on old recordings). The revival is just an “event” made of random quotations from a specific moment in life: youth. Actually, we did go to trash parties with cartoon jingles. Trash invaded the dance floor of the 2010s. We worshipped the cult of puberty when we were in our twenties. At thirty, one already felt that there had only been a future in the past. We were premature elders who experienced what Zygmunt Bauman has called “retrotopia.” The future had been a plethora of possibilities. Once. Not anymore. Once we cannot imagine a future, we idealize the past.
I do believe, however, that there is something deeper in the exorcism of media commodities that are trash parties. It is worth remembering how the nostalgic trend of trash parties started: with a new cycle of privatization of the commons, following the crisis of 2008.
2011 was the year of sleep-ins. With slogans such as “yes we camp,” anti-austerity camps opposed the catastrophic machinery of neoliberal European governance, with its calls to fund the banks, dismantle the welfare state, and blame the welfare state for the debt. The anti-austerity movement in Southern Europe established collective acts of sleeping together in universities, theaters, and other state-owned buildings, as a way to protect them from privatization. Some sleep-ins like the Indignados’ camp at La Puerta del Sol in Madrid lasted for months.
Sharing the vulnerability of sleep did not stop the machinery. But without the heated political climate of 2010–13, artistic experiments with sleep would be unthinkable, as the artistic practices explored the collective dimension of sleep. For instance, sleep is at the center of the unusual performance Natten (nights) by Swedish choreographer Mårten Spångberg (2016). In this piece lasting five hours, the audience was invited to fall asleep scattered in a circle. Armed with blankets, pillows, and Spångberg’s book of poetry, “Natten,” we fell asleep under soft, very low lighting.
A handful of dancers moved over the bodies of the spectators with choreographed cyclical motions. Sometimes they would stop, and others would come to take their place. Everybody rested. Everybody took breaks.
Another symptom of this desire to share the “hypnagogic phase,” the phase before falling asleep, is the return of long forms of theater, at least in Northern Europe. In spite of all the choirs of technophobic uncles and aunts that declare my generation structurally affected by attention deficit disorder, the five-hour Attic tragedy as reinvented by Eimuntas Nekrošius is a good example of a successfully attended long form. The Lithuanian director, who died at age sixty-five in 2018, has staged full-length novels as physiologically challenging theater works.
Trash parties are not fun anymore. And in a time of social distancing, sharing sleep with theater attendees sounds like an illusion. What remains of intensity now is truly a normalized high standard for work performance.
One can decide not to play the game, but escapism does not make us immune to the technology that produced addiction to competitive standards in the first place, as we read in art theorist Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep.
Regulating individual sleep is the frontier of capitalist hyper-productivity. In 24/7, Crary claims that absence of sleep would reach the complete integration of the individual into the information system. Everyone should work as a permanently active information site. The film and pharmaceutical industries have conquered sleep and facilitated the transformation of sleep into a terrain of data extraction.
Franco “Bifo” Berardi came to a similar conclusion in, among many other works, The Soul At Work. The Italian “operaista” had precisely revealed how the mechanism of the job market pushes pleasure always further from desire. The satisfaction of desire is constantly denied, inducing collective depression: the mood of the new millennium. Depression is frequent especially for “cognitarians,” the younger and precarious segment of the IT and academic industries, whose job is to attempt new research, or to “innovate.” In other words, to learn what is useful to society.
There is something unsettling about the ultimate proposal of Crary’s 24/7. In opposition to Bifo’s call for cognitarians to unite and restore their mental health, 24/7 ends with a chorus of “back to normality!” But sometimes, normality means the execution of yet another task feeding the process of (chronometric and anxiety-inducing) social reproduction. “Take care,” “sleep well,” “take your time,” “do yoga”… the advice is not only the (unsatisfying) voice of self-help. The advice comes more and more often from corporate management and it entails yet another parameter to measure work performance. The capacity to regenerate one’s energy is part of that minimal care of the self that qualifies a worker as employable.
Apps like f.lux paint the laptop’s screen first yellow, then progressively red and violet, prompting the user to go to sleep, sometimes during the first movie of the night, or the fifteenth draft of the document due two days before. Melatonin erodes lucidity in the morning. Not to mention the usual advice to shut down all luminous devices two hours before bedtime … useless. The shortcuts did not really work, as long as sleep was considered to be unproductive time. It was almost a vice.
Before the virus, sleep used to be time subtracted from “work.” Thus, it had to be shortened and optimized, in the best case, turned into a site for data analysis. Do the back-up while you sleep. Send the paper before midnight. Reply to the email after you sleep: “Let it sit.” This was the tune. Sleep was a pause in the productivity of daytime. So intended, it was only time to “recharge the batteries,” for the sake of the next task, the next achievement. The best part of life was during the day, and sleep never felt good enough. I always wanted to sleep more, but could never sleep well enough.
Life under “lockdown” has re-enchanted sleep. For those who do not work, or work slower, or don’t have to commute and can sleep longer, sleep has become a fascinating voyage, hand in hand with oblivion. We discover our REM phases. We resume a dream journal interrupted years ago. Or, simply, we dream more. As the New York Times as recently written we dream more vividly during lockdown.
So, after nearly eight weeks of lockdown, are we less tired? Are we all well rested and relaxed? This does not seem to be the case: more sleep is not always a good thing. It depends on the circumstances.
Sleep is not always pleasant. Inspired by Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams (1966), someone has already started collecting the “viral” dreams people are having. The site is founded by Erin Gravely, working in collaboration with illustrator Grace Gravely and dozens of dreamers. Common tropes include “prohibitions on large gatherings,” proximity and touching (this is my own recurring dream), being stuck with others in elevators, train cars and similar spaces in which “social distancing” is impossible. The archive also offers suicidal pets; sudden displacements after new “shelter-in place” orders; deportation to dubious locations; and, customers that keep lining up at the door.
The lockdown presents vital energy that is not conveyed into and identified with respectable work—think of the labor of housewives or prisoners. If we do not want either to sacrifice our dreams to the imaginary of prisons, or to deprive ourselves of the pleasure of sleeping tout court, it is perhaps time that we figure out how to identify with forms of existence that are not reduced to the old forms of respectability. In other words, work softly, work necessarily. As in the slogan from Bifo’s Radio Alice: “lavorare con lentezza,” work slowly. Take time to feed Bolshevik children and the demons that wear slippers.