Photo Courtesy of Buena Park High School

May 10, 2024

XU | On Sleep and Difficulty

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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.

The Israel-Palestinian conflict is troubling because the link between the US and Israel is both material — technical, financial support of their arsenal — and imagined. Israel stands for the haunting presence of an imagined America that is out of joint with the real face of America. As with the internet that looks to precede real life, the imagination of a nation-state precedes the messy reality of a country pulled taut with tension from various parties, sometimes from within.

For those who are counting Palestinian deaths, there is no more distinction between mourning and melancholia. The inability to effectively mourn death before the situation gets worse produces a sense of helplessness that stands in place of the act of mourning. Sleep is situated between mourning and melancholia, where the ego is simply absent from its place in loss. In a volume cleverly titled The Fall of Sleep, philosopher Jean Luc-Nancy summarizes sleep as the moment when the subject “I” becomes ambiguous and falls into an invisible collectivity. Neither mourning nor melancholia finds that invisible collectivity, but it is nevertheless a necessary element of human survival.

There’s a reason that chants about Palestine focus on life, eternity, and freedom. Protestors know that their message, against the enjoyable circulation of markets, against the easy flow of a college student lifestyle, will have to fight for its breath. Looking at the popcorn-oriented, lifehack-inspired culture writing nowadays, it seems that old school critique — one that combines criticism with insight about modern society and its foundations — will soon be out of favor. I am not arguing that reading a book, or writing about one, will stop the mass extermination of Palestinian people. I am, however, encouraging difficult reading, difficult writing, as well as sleep, even if it’s difficult. In fact, fall asleep to a difficult book. Or let it keep you awake. If college taught me anything, it’s how not to shy away from implicitly political discussions about how things should be — and perhaps they should be difficult.

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