In its repetition and unconcealment, it is one of the unvanquishable remnants of the everyday.
I just keep my mind blank as much as possible and . . . just let the music come . . .
It’s natural with me . . . That’s the way I’ve always improvised since I was a small boy, just playing stream of consciousness in the house all day long. Basically that’s what happens now when I’m on the stage,
I’m just playing stream of consciousness.
We lie awake in quasi-darkness, waiting indefinitely for the desired loss of consciousness. During this suspended time, there is a recovery of perceptual capacities that are nullified or disregarded during the day. Involuntarily, one reclaims a sensitivity or responsiveness to both internal and external sensations within a non-metric duration. One hears sounds of traffic, a dog barking, the hum of a white-noise machine, police sirens, heat pipes clanking, or feels the quick twitching of one’s limbs, the pounding of blood in one’s temples and sees the granular fluctuations of retinal luminosity with one’s eyes shut. One follows an uneven succession of groundless points of temporary focus and shifting alertness, as well as the wavering onset of hypnagogic events. Sleep coincides with the metabolizing of what is ingested by day: drugs, alcohol, all the detritus from interfacing with illuminated screens; but also the flood of anxieties, fears, doubts, longings, imaginings of failure or the big score. This is the monotony of sleep and sleeplessness, night after night. In its repetition and unconcealment, it is one of the unvanquishable remnants of the everyday.
One of the many reasons human cultures have long associated sleep with death is that they each demonstrate the continuity of the world in our absence. However, the only temporary absence of the sleeper always contains a bond to a future, to a possibility of renewal and hence of freedom. It is an interval into which glimpses of an unlived life, of a postponed life, can edge faintly into awareness. The nightly hope for the insensible state of deep sleep is at the same time an anticipation of an awakening that could hold something unforeseen. In Europe after 1815, during several decades of counter-revolution, reversals and derailments of hope, there were artists and poets who intuited that sleep was not necessarily an evasion or escape from history. Shelly and Courbet, for example, are two who understood that sleep was another form of historical time – that its withdrawal and apparent passivity also encompassed the unrest and inquietude of becoming that was essential to the nascence of a more just and egalitarian future. Now, in the twenty-first century, the disquiet of sleep has a more troubling relation to the future. Located somewhere on the border between the social and the natural, sleep ensures the presence in the world of the phasic and cyclical patterns essential to life and incompatible with capitalism. Sleep’s anomalous persistence has to be understood in relation to the ongoing destruction of the processes that sustain existence on the planet. Because capitalism cannot limit itself, the notion of preservation or conservation is a systemic impossibility. Against this background, the restorative inertness of sleep counters the deathliness of all the accumulation, financialization and waste that have devastated anything once held in common. Now there is actually only one dream, superseding all others: it is of a shared world whose fate is not terminal, a world without billionaires, which has a future other than barbarism or the post-human and in which history can take on other forms than reified nightmares of catastrophe. It is possible that – in many different places, in many disparate states, including reverie or daydream – the imaginings of a future without capitalism begin as dreams of sleep. These would be intimidations of sleep as a radical interruption, as a refusal of the unsparing weight of our global present, of sleep which, at the most mundane level of everyday experience, can always rehearse the outlines of what more consequential renewals and beginnings might be.
— Jonathan Crary is Professor of Modern Art and Theory at Columbia University. Excerpted from his recent book, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.