Among Coach House Books’ summer offerings is the insomniac confessional of RM Vaughan, a prolific Canadian writer, poet and video artist who has wrestled with the reality of this subject since a young age. Bright Eyed: Insomnia and its Cultures aspires to look at insomnia not so much from a scientific perspective, but from the vantage of how modern society is normalizing sleeplessness, and the broader social consequences of this trend.
Such an inquiry provokes two approaches, between which Vaughan tends to alternate: the personal and the political. Vaughan’s particular insomnia has manifested in ‘Restless Leg Syndrome’, and a significant portion of the book – easily half – focuses on his own personal account of wrestling with the problem, visiting sleep clinics, trying medications, experimenting with the latest in sleep technology, and dealing with the irritating if well-intentioned advice of friends and strangers.
The upshot of all this is basically: nothing works. The extended narrative of nothing working may be insightful for some, but mostly insofar as it demonstrates how a society which thinks it can master any problem with pills, technology or behavioural adjustment drifts into self-delusion when it comes up against problems it can’t solve.
The other side of insomnia’s cultures is the growing normalization of sleeplessness, which is a result of technology which facilitates this bad habit (artificial lighting, 24-hour services, smartphones) but also of a workplace culture whose work ethic is still grounded in the valorization of unhealthy sleep habits. “Now we have colonized the night,” laments an Icelandic sleep researcher interviewed by Vaughan, and it’s an apt description. Accounts of the stress felt by Vaughan’s corporate friends (and even those in the non-corporate world) at the need to be accessible and responsive around the clock, to work long hours and be seen visibly and publicly doing so, underscore the aggressive battle against sleep that is being waged by modern labour practices.
Much as doctors and therapists fail to offer much in the way of substantive solutions to sufferers like Vaughan, Bright Eyed doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions, either. But it makes a heart-felt argument for looking beyond the symptoms to the root cause of our sleepless culture, which is our own acquiescence in its formation. “(E)asy corporation- and tech-shaming will get us nowhere,” writes Vaughan. “Until we recognize that the fantasy possibilities of the Twenty-Four-Hour Workday are wildly seductive because they speak to our still-lingering modernist urges to live sleeker, more mechanized lives, whisper to us that if only we work more and for longer and longer hours, the same mega-capital riches we now bolster will bolster us. And until we acknowledge that we are as much in love with our sleeplessness, both as a metonym for abundant productivity and as a morbid act of inverse bravado, we will be wide awake until our bodies and the corporate body finally, perhaps irrevocably, collapse.”
The book is, ironically, a manifestation of its own argument. It dwells less on facts and concrete theories, and instead drifts hazily through a narrative of the author’s own recollection. After several chapters of memoir-style first-person narratives of sleeplessness, my own attention began to drift, with a vague irritation that there wasn’t more concrete substance going on. And then, eyes beginning to flutter and an ironic sleepiness descending, a paragraph lightly ingested jolted me back to consciousness:
Because the insomniac mind favours mild amusement over strenuous investigation, dream logic over stratagems, insomnia culture’s products typically avoid the traditional lures of entertainment – narrative through lines, vivid characterization and reliable structures, problem-situating and/or problem-solving, arguments and positions, the affirmative in general. What they don’t provide in ‘hard’ story-building, products of insomnia culture more than amply supplement with buckets of whimsy, random anecdote and flashes of urban near-surrealism.
Rarely has an author so aptly described his own book to the tee. If the intent is to convey a sense of what insomnia is like, it works, but before long – or so I had felt – the narratives drift into overkill. And what irritated me – lack of “’hard’ story-building”, the endless stream of “whimsy, random anecdote and flashes of urban near-surrealism” — was precisely what the author argued to be the characteristics of insomniac writing. In fact, the realization offered me a new appreciation for the text. Was I being insomnia-phobic by yearning for more structure and substance?
Perhaps. Vaughan makes a compelling argument for seeing the subtle effects of insomnia as they manifest beyond our mere bodily health: in art, in literature, in popular culture. But (says the avid sleeper reviewing it) the book is strongest when it moves beyond the author’s own perspective and applies this sort of insight to the broader cultures at which the title hints. When the author critiques contemporary art movements – New Minimalism, a turn to the infantile and the faux-outsider – it demonstrates how the influence of insomnia can be detected in the production and appreciation of artistic moments. The disproportionate sense of significance attributed by these artists to minimal objects – paper clips, fluorescent tubing, light fixtures – which might seem contrived to those of us who sleep soundly, resonates with powerful significance for those who lie helplessly awake throughout the night staring at such items. This is good stuff indeed, and it’s a pity there’s not more of it.
Likewise, the author has a knack for humorous accounts of his own encounters with others over the affliction: a first-hand account of visiting a sleep clinic and a chat with a psychiatrist are charming (and full of truly insomniac whimsy). There’s an interesting interview with an Icelandic researcher who can’t afford rats and therefore studies sleep in fishes instead (but it’s led to some interesting insights). There’s an interview with Douglas Coupland, too, which is amusing largely because it failed so spectacularly (owing to a combination of Coupland’s curmudgeonly attitude, and the author’s idiosyncratic questions). It’s entertaining stuff, even if the bulk of the book unravels within the author’s own head.
Bright Eyed is an interesting introduction to a broader approach of thinking about insomnia as not just a neurological or biological condition, but as a condition of a neoliberal capitalist work-obsessed society that valorizes sleeplessness and is ferociously inventing new technologies and new methods of facilitating more of it. And if these socio-economic forces succeed in so thoroughly disrupting one of the core human biological processes, warns Vaughan, there’s no limit to what they may do. “(O)nce capital convinces a generation of workers to live ‘post-sleep,’ it will only seek out other core human activities to gradually eradicate, because if one bodily necessity is deemed counter to profit, why not another?”
Now there’s a thought to keep you up at night.