Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We use cookies to personalise your experience; learn more in our Privacy and Cookie Policy. You can opt out of some cookies by adjusting your browser settings; see the cookie policy for details. By using this site, you agree to our use of cookies.

Outrage: subversive sleep

Sleeping is a political act and one of the last bastions against the unfettered ravages of late capitalism



Source: The Picture Art Collection / Alamy

The peaceful and Picturesque painting Le Repos, paysanne couchée dans l’herbe, Pontoise (‘The Nap, a peasant woman lying in the grass, Pontoise’) by Camille Pissarro from 1882, subliminally betrays the artist’s political leanings. Pissarro frequently captured the labour of France’s peasant class in his paintings, then ironically sold to the Parisian upper classes

About 15 years ago, someone calculated the financial loss US companies incurred through workers’ illicit practice of sleeping on the job. Indeed, the trope of the lazy sleeper is an old one, resignified at present in our more than callous attitude towards the homeless, whose sleeping bodies punctuate many a journey to and from work. Even in this most passive stance – someone simply disregarding normative codes and regulations by giving in to a physical need – sleep seems suspiciously subversive. Less an act than a way of being, the sleeper, by sleeping when and where it is not condoned, challenges everyone else, who is doing/working/functioning/functionalised. Contrary to the tree falling in the forest, the sleeper in the workplace or in public space affects and thus ever so slightly transforms those around them. 

Meanwhile, a highly profitable sleep industry is soaring. People spend thousands on products that promise more effective sleep: mattresses, white noise machines, snoring-inhibitors or self-help manuals, for instance Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to a Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success. Corporations, football clubs and governments employ sleep coaches to prime their employees.The sleep industry caters to a working consumer’s wish to sleep less, yet sleep more productively, and accommodates transnational industry which has joined the state as a custodian of biopolitics. Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 spells out in detail how the state and a capitalist economy are encroaching stupendously on the private sphere, in which sleep was one of the last vestiges of unfettered time.  

‘Sleeping as a political act is a purposeful and a collective subversive practice’

However, the symbolic impetus at work here might be less about making sleep genuinely productive than about rendering it not unproductive. It would be rational if everyone stopped working quite so much – a study based on OECD and UN data shows it would be better for the environment, reducing emissions, cutting down on commuting, producing fewer goods and using less in the way of resources. Yet, society seems to fear the consequences of this kind of change more than the inevitable future costs of current productivity, for this would mean a radical revision of capitalist production and consumption cycles around which the world at large is structured today.  

Camille Pissarro’s Le Repos, paysanne couchée dans l’herbe, Pontoise (‘The Nap, a peasant woman lying in the grass, Pontoise’) from 1882, is a small Picturesque painting of a young farmworker asleep in the sun, her rake lying in the grass beside her. This is indeed a woman not at work. With the knowledge that anarchist Pissarro was sympathetic to the farmworkers’ strikes manifesting in the French countryside that summer, this can easily be read as a depiction of a worker who has laid down her tools of labour, asleep – and on strike. 

Historically, there are many instances of people using sleep as a conscious act of resistance, but one might also argue that today’s systemic sleep deprivation cuts us off from the potential use of uselessness. The capacity to think outside the box – and potentially create other visions of how we might live a good life or even simply change how society views work and consumption – is tied to the freedom to let our minds wander. Which is something we are prone to do when dreaming or even when half asleep or half awake. Dreaming, in a materialist and in a metaphorical sense, is an activity that allows us to dare think beyond social- or self-censorship. And maybe that is all creativity is. Alejandra Riera’s drawings inachevé, fév-juillet 2019 (‘Unfinished, Feb-July 2019’) depict a fusion of people and nature transcending an enclosure of forbidding concrete walls, and, in the artist’s own words are ‘simply the expression of a vital desire to stop the fires that destroy the possibility of connecting beings whoever and wherever they may be in the world’.

‘The history of sleep-strikes and sleep-demonstrations has yet to be written, but it is alive around the globe’

These works appeared in the exhibition Sleeping with a Vengeance, Dreaming of a Life, a series of exhibition sketches launched in 2018 and most recently at the Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart. Artists themselves contributed sketches, developed in future iterations of the show. The exhibition is an example of ‘slow curating’, challenging productivity as its guiding mode – curatorial practice is not immune to the persistence of productivity. The exhibition asks whether we can reclaim sleep and dreaming from the clutches of late capitalism. Can sleep be configured as a radical, subversive activity? Can the act of dreaming, be imagined as a political deed? And can the sleeper dream up a better life, a better future? 

Those succumbing to a need to sleep are not the only ones sleeping in factories or public space. The history of sleep-strikes and sleep-demonstrations has yet to be written, but it is alive around the globe. Haytham el-Wardany’s defence of sleep in the wake of the Arab Spring gives us this: ‘Sleep does not deny the possibility of revolution, but is one of its necessary conditions, for within itself it carries the potential for awakening, for being reborn, for starting anew’. Sleeping as a political act is a purposeful and a collective subversive practice. Without sleep, we cannot dream.

This piece is featured in the AR April 2020 issue on Darkness – click here to buy your copy today