One of the most durable of the Western – or perhaps I should say Axial – metaphors associates waking with enlightenment, with spiritual vision, and sleeping with everydayness, with existential blindness – sleeping through life.
Like many of these Axial metaphors, in the capitalist world, there is a certain literalism that takes over and, while destroying the material basis for these metaphors, continues to use them as though our value system were unchanged. In this, it is like what has happened to youth. There are complicated demographic reasons that the material basis of youth (what it connoted, socially) started changing in the seventeenth century. Partly this was due to the end of the family house – in much of Western Europe, sons ceased to live in the family house when they got married, but started their own, a business that required capital that was usually unavailable to an eighteen or twenty year old, thus opening up a period of suspense, of being neither in nor out of the family, and creating the protoform of youth. But this transformation still did not change so much the Axial value set on youth, always in reference to Age. It signified the time of rebirth, of freshness, of adventure. Only in the late nineteenth and twentieth century did youth become a mandate – an actual goal in life. Since life is biologically about aging, the imperative of youth – which has resulted in advice about “staying young” given to codgers who are fingering the shroud, so to speak, or posted up on corkboard in old folks homes – destroyed the culture of age, with its ideal of wisdom. The realisation of that ideal was, of course, rare – you are old, Father William – but it has now been put on the kind of reservation the west always uses to manage aborigines.
Sleeping, too, has been swept into the anti-biological regime of late capitalism. A metaphor for the enemy of enlightenment, it is now targeted for liquidation by the plutocracy and, in an ironic twist, its absense causes enlightenment to become an impossible dream, a relic. To sleep is to escape from the 24/7 world, to refuse – by the most basic of refusals that the consciousness can make – the function of producer and consumer. Jonathan Crary, in 24/7, recounts a research project being funded by the military that is seeking to unlock the biochemical secrets of the white crowned sparrow, which doesn’t sleep during its fall migration. “The aim is to discover ways to enable people to go without sleep and to function productively and efficiently. The initial objective, quite simply, is the creation of the sleepless soldier, and the white-corwned sparrow study project is only one small part of a braoder military effort to achieve at least limited mastery over human sleep.”
The old revivalist and revolutionary cry – wake up people! – is now in the hands of the worst. Strike a blow against the Empire, and oversleep tomorrow.