The Cultural Meanings of Insomnia

In the final post of the Sociability of Sleep series, Nived Dharmaraj reviews the Keynote given at Somnambulations 2- on insomnia and the contemporary ‘sleep crisis’.

Beginning with a scene from the hit HBO show The White Lotus, in which Aubrey Plaza’s character (Harper Spiller) asks for an Ambien (a medication that treat insomnia) to help her sleep because of “everything that’s going on in the world,” Diletta De Cristofaro (Newcastle University) dives into a discussion of the contemporary sleep crisis. Scaffolding talks with the use of pop culture references is great for capturing an audience’s attention. But, as De Cristofaro points out, the White Lotus anecdote is productive not only because it provides an entry point to the research, but also because it highlights how conversations around sleep are commonly framed in the media: as a problem to be solved. This remains an ongoing theme of her presentation, from the initial framing of the sleep crisis, to its manifestations in the memoirs of insomniacs and science fiction dystopias.

What exactly is a/the ‘sleep crisis’? Is today’s 24/7 society its first iteration? Is there really a crisis to speak of, or has this rhetoric arisen from false perceptions? For De Cristofaro, the answers are not definitive. As she lays out the number of ways to address this question, she argues that what matters is not the splitting of hairs over how we define a sleep crisis, but the impression that we are living in one.

Sleep and its perceived issues convey existential and humanitarian concerns about society—indeed, De Cristofaro’s preference for the term “societal insomnia” is meant to capture the metaphorical and encompassing quality that blankets such concerns. As the sleep crisis lacks a distinct temporal moment, such expansiveness allows for its “slow violence” (a damage that results from the steady accumulation of nightly struggle) to be better understood.

The Labour of Sleep, Ilona Gaynor

De Cristofaro proposes that the memoir and the science fiction novel are the two literary genres that best address the sleep crisis. The science fiction novel is a means of situating individual experiences of sleep loss in the larger context of societal insomnia, while in the memoir, the writing about sleep mimics the writing about love that commonly occupies this genre. Ultimately both seek to convey the vexing experience of unachievable desire, as well as the frustration felt by those who do not understand troubled sleep. Authors of memoir are able to convey the loneliness of insomnia, with their writing either acting as a bridge to foster community among other insomniacs or as a bridge to foster empathy from those who have “good sleep.”

Building on this idea of “good sleep,” De Cristofaro places it in conversation with Silicon Valley culture, in which sleep loss is used as a badge of honour and success. Here, “good sleep,” is derided entirely under the economic benefits of sleep deprivation. De Cristofaro uses the Silicon Valley ‘tech-bro’ as a contemporary example of how insomnia is- and has historically- been seen as a privileged problem to have, commonly associated with inventors and philosophers. She contrasts them with the hidden insomniac, such as  Oumarou Idrissa, the protagonist and collaborator of Miranda July’s 2018 art installation, “I’m The President, Baby.” Idrissa and July’s project reveals a sleep crisis that wracks those in lower social brackets, affected not just by the demands of a 24/7 capitalist society, but by the exacerbated separation and connection of a globalised world. Both examples are indicative of parallel sleep crises: the existential one that the Elon Musks of the world revel in, and the psychological crisis, which the ‘gig economy’ workers and night-shift employees are part of.

These dual crises neatly fit into the two main tropes of science fiction novels that centre societal insomnia: the crazed scientist who seeks to eradicate sleep (JG Ballard’s short story “Manhole 69”) and the apocalyptic loss of sleep in a not-so-futuristic dystopia (Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun, Sleep Donation by Karen Russell).

Transitioning into the final section of her talk, De Cristofaro points out the clear moral imperative of the first scenario, a warning against instrumental approaches to sleep, as all novels that follow this vein ultimately end as dystopias. The second trope also cautions against instrumental approaches, but does so indirectly. Sleep loss is not an end goal in memoirs, but the unfortunate consequence of humanity’s greed.

De Cristofaro points to the important connection between insomnia and the climate crisis, demonstrating how sleep-based extinction is tied to environmental collapse, both being driven by the same economic motivators (e.g, capitalist accumulation through extracting natural resources).

Ending her talk in a full-circle return to the White Lotus anecdote, De Cristofaro points out how Aubrey Plaza’s insomnia is intrinsically linked to the fact that she watches the news while her companions, who are able to sleep well, do not. And as forest fire smoke from northern Quebec was choking a sweltering Montreal during the Somnambulations 2 symposium, the final remarks could not have been timelier: must we close our eyes and let the world burn in order to get “good sleep”?

About the author

Nived Dharmaraj is a graduating master’s student in McGill University’s Department of English. His MA thesis, “Estranging History in Contemporary Indian Science Fiction,” focused on the intersection of speculative and historical fiction, placing such literature in conversation with recent political interventions made by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.

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