Deep Sleep

Matthew Fuller writes on his book »How to Sleep, the art, biology and culture of unconsciousness«, published in 2018.

Can one ever truthfully say, »I am asleep«? This is the somnolent version of the Cretan Paradox1, thought and being overlapped, and it also provides the grounds for the distinction between being awake, and thoughtful, hence conscious and knowing, and what is sundered from that state. In a line of thought mined by Augustine and Descartes, sleep cannot be directly known in its native state. In order to think about it we must be awake or to know something, to use devices for recording an analysis, and even then we must wonder what we know. Sleep, unlike any other part of culture has no capacity for reflexivity within its own conditions. In sleeping one simply sleeps, one does not know, anything. Sleep is ungraspable, unwritable only perceivable at its edges or its outside. There is no immanent critique of sleep, only embedded reporters who, necessarily, have no capacity of seeing. Sleep operates in oblique ways, arriving at reflexivity only by a detour into awakeness.

As Édouard Glissant says in his incomparable argument for the quality of opacity in relation to the forced transparency of global domination and that he also argues at the scale of the infrapersonal, »It does not disturb me to accept that there are places here my identity is obscure to me, and the fact that it amazes me does not mean I relinquish it.«2 Sleep is the regular occurrence of our own opacity to ourselves, a kernel of the posthuman inside the most apparently predictable of habituations and needs. Whether it is cosy, or a physiological burden that exposes one to danger, sleep is the third third of human experience, an unknown. Arguments for the posthuman have tended to find their evidence in the most exciting science or the most highly technical, adventurous activity. Sleep, by contrast, is mundane. In its opacity, is always both beyond the human and at its core. As the kernel of the human it is hardly represented in culture, and those places where it does leak out it is exceedingly telling, sumptuary, overpowering, animal, incomprehensible: escape and idyll and yet the subject of intense politicking and enculturation. In all of these it is also ambivalently cathected to the posthuman, where it also forms another potentially potent kernel, an abandonment of thought, of self, a relinquishment to the status of complexly active matter.

Sleep acts

In contemporary social thought sleep is shown to be inextricably influenced by society, but in its most common form the traffic only goes one way: from social norms, configurations and problems onto sleep. Whilst earlier critical thought had congealed the figure of the sleepwalker as that most adequate to describing the members of modern societies with all their stereotypic behaviour, contemporary capitalism is accounted for as having lost its sense of any dignity. It will thrust its shovel into any untouched place in order to prepare the fracking out of value. Emails and information are squirted in under high pressure in order to flush out any pockets of trapped consciousness that can be turned into fuel. Sleep is a new continent to colonise and establish intensive means of capture or to degrade as a superfluous and primitive wilderness.

We may say that sleep, as a sociological category, is something that is mainly acted on, rearranged and demarcated, gnawed at or ablated by social requirements, turned into another category of need and anxiety for which consumer items, services and treatments (including academic expertise) can be flogged.3 These are operative as factors. However, as factors, they modify something that is itself also active, a coefficient that is itself internally differentiated as much as it is acted on. The argument against the model of hylomorphism is familiar enough by now.4 Matter, stuff, practices, physiologies are not simply and identically moulded by ideal forms. Rather they exist in complex ranges of dialogic interaction and co-emergence with patternings, ideals, categories, formalisms and so on, that in turn have their own particular and specific qualities and propensities and that in turn are shaped, fatigued, propitiated and enhanced by their interactions with other kinds of entity and relation at multiple scales.

Sleep however is often figured as form of dormancy, as a state of passivity whose plasticity can only be mobilised by constructions from outwith. An argument I would like to make however is that sleep is a capacity, a power, that as it comes into combination with other objects, kinds of relations and capacities, becomes productive.5 This proposition is made as an extension of arguments around biological power, the will to power of Nietzsche where he addresses the capacities of complexly or simply arranged matter, or other accounts that acknowledge and work with the active capacities of matter in its various states.

Heraclitus remarks in a well-known fragment that, »Even sleepers are workers and collaborators on what goes on in the universe.«6 And this sense of sleep as something more profound than a state of dormancy is important. Indeed, to trace this movement, we can follow the way sleep science elaborates an understanding of sleep arising out of the interaction of two relatively discrete processes and systems, the circadian system and the homeostatic system.7 This understanding of sleep as dynamic, slightly out of kilter, and possessed of pulsions and forces that have their own degrees and kinds of expressivity in such interaction is key here.

In a survey of the changes to the spatialisation of sleep in the Victorian era, Tom Crook notes that in combination with beds, bugs, sexual desire, poverty and other factors, sleep was thought capable of producing moral contagion and pestilential atmospheres, and thus had to be contained, demarcated and then spaced out through the disciplinary techniques of dormitories, barracks, hospital wards, improved doss-houses, hygienic bedding, model dwellings and the separate bedrooms of middle class housing.8 Sleep changes, but sleep as a force also makes itself active in these places and as such there is a process of becoming between kinds of sleep and the artifacts, norms, experiences, organisations and understandings of sleep and what is attendant to it.

It can be noted that sleep indeed produces problems, or what might be termed expressions of its power - such as snoring and apnea, key symptoms of concern, in sleep’s medicalization, and it does so in combination with the tissues of the throat, as they become slack when horizontal. These in turn provide the opportunity for chemical and mechanical commodification of sleep. (Through sleep drugs and treatments such as CPAP)

Sleep also produces the conditions for dreams, nightmares, night terrors, and the various active or passive means for demands and obligations to be placed upon people by others. (The argument amongst parents contains the lines: You feed or change the baby, this sleep is fast upon me and I am unable to wake as you can see by my immobility, which is not after all stubborn but simply a necessity that you, by virtue of being awake already can see, and, which, were you a sane person not given to the cruelty of waking another, would acknowledge). Here, there is a rhetoric of sleep that operates at multiple scales, in the shifting of labour from one person to another, the refusal to partake in it, but also sleep as disinterest, the folding of the body to take up the smallest space possible, or a voluptuous abandonment to the carousing of the organs, glands, processes, cycles, that cohere as sleep.

Ingredients of sleep

As well as proliferating outside of the body, sleep in humans is composed by the range and complexity of several kinds of activity within and between different parts of the brain and the rest of the body it entails. Equally complex are the ways in which the phases of sleep involve different kinds and rates of synchronisation between these elements at different times. These can be described at different scales of generality, one of which is in terms of systems that produce two key means of producing sleep.

Firstly a sensitivity to circadian rhythm, entraining sleep to light via the eyes and a consequent chain of other nervous and glandular systems.

Secondly a biological clock or homeostat that itself runs slightly beyond 24hours, primarily enacted through hormones. The simple interplay between these two predilections sets up moiré patterns of timing within and amongst bodies and what composes them.

The mammalian body is an assemblage of intense variation and peculiar intimacy and that of the set of humans within them is a reasonable context within which to explore the meta-animality that is implied by the freaks of luck that constitute their shared and variable characteristics. Nevertheless, to map the ingredients of sleep is to figure it within myriad systems of interpretation and scales of existence, each with their own attendant modes of enquiry and hierarchy within scientific history and imaginary of order of causality and precedence, such as the cosmogonic stack of scales interpreted by the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, culture. Each of these can become an entry point and exploratory base for any of the others whilst retaining the distinct characteristics and relative degree of autonomy of each scale, each of which is also potentially momentary, multiple and fissiparous as they are interrogated and constituted by others. Any description of sleep must fall short of an impossible fullness, may lack, for instance sufficient relation to its operation within the terms of a certain scale at the same time as the watchword of any synthetic account of the inventiveness and conditions of sleep must be to proliferate.


In 1982 Alexander Borbély proposed the model of the two oscillators,9 the homeostatic and the circadian systems. These two interact as two uneven waves, modulating each other’s thresholds. They are instrumentally identified in turn by waves of electrical activity in the brain. (building on work by Ernst Berger in the 1930s) Each oscillator has a different characteristic cycle of change over the course of a roughly daily cycle. The homeostatic process is governed10 by the hours of wakefulness, during which it increases, in terms discussed more fully below, and by sleep during which the pressure to sleep decreases. The homeostat functions rather like an hour-glass, gradually building. The circadian rhythm has a different degree of periodicity (roughly 24.5 hours) and rather than being set by the pressure to sleep, modulates when the sleeper will awake in interaction with the homeostatic process.

One aspect of the interaction of the two oscillators described by Borbély therefore is their non-linear character. Accordingly, if the time of sleep’s onset is delayed from the habitual time by a shorter amount of time (four to twelve hours) the total length of time asleep shortens. If it is delayed by sixteen to twenty-four hours, the total time asleep is extended.11 Simply by the interaction of two slightly out-of-synch characteristics some of the complex qualities of sleep are arranged.12

Here too, in describing sleep in such term we are also recognizing its variable, contested and difficult interweaving with systems of measure, instrumentation, counting and recording. We may make recourse to charts, graphs, groups of equipment that make such traces and that call upon the reliability of certain entities within bodies in order to posit, witness and to map such patterns. There is a ripple of standing in for, or of transduction13: electrical activity for sleep, the sensitivity of electroencephalographic equipment to such activity, the skill and work of experimental subjects and operators in placing and working the equipmental apparatus, the acuity of numbers and models to articulate and array the quanta as organized data (for instance in charts directly drawn onto or by numerical recording on computer), and the capacities of interpretation, dissemination and evaluation of wider networks of knowledge systems with, in turn, their wider systems of machining by evaluative metrics, funding, the direct or indirect investment into certain problems rather than others, and the variable kinds of noise, politicking and interpretation that feed out in turn from such brain waves and their wider interpellation within such systems and the activities of thought and understanding that they in turn stand in for. Finding means to articulate the interaction of such parts and processes becomes key to understanding the wider ecology of sleep.


And here I want to turn to two formulations of an aesthetics of sleep. Chronobiology is one of the interdisciplinary scientific fields that feeds into the wider and unevenly composed context of sleep research. Concerned with the nature, effects and gestation of time and timings in organisms and ecologies it moves across the scales of matter, species and habitats to develop a richly composed aspect of what might be thought to be a ‘meta-biology’. Time and cycles of time allow for a means of cutting across different biological and social operations by means of this scale of interpretation. Thus an issue of ‘The Journal of Biological Rhythms’, one core to the field, might include a discussion of the effects of light on certain proteins, the role of the hormone adenosine in circannual hibernation cycles in ground squirrels and the effects of shift-work on the cardiac-nervous system in humans.14

In another issue of the journal, Derk-Jan Dijk and Malcolm von Schantz describe how sleep is produced by a ‘symphony of oscillators.’15 Within chronobiology, this sense of multitudes of interactors inhabiting, producing and modulating multiple scales and thicknesses of time makes a fascinating complement to the Rhythmanalysis proposed by Henri Lefebvre and others that attend to such characteristics at scales such as the urban.16 Chronobiology posits time and timings as a significant factor in evolution and in turn, the development of such time as being that of a process of evolutionary kairos. How do bodies choose and make timings?
Timings hinge on, are blocked, stepped, modulated, subject to various forms of structuring relation or are amplified by their location within organisms, within and amongst a species or a kind or organisation of organic matter, and within ecologies and across a planet. The speed at which a muscle may respond to a nerve impulse; the rate at which an eye can sample movement or at which a plant can bend towards a source of light; the mode of inhabitation, asleep or awake, of a particular evolutionary niche; the rate of undulation of a cilia or the capacity for reproduction within a species or individual all have both evolutionary bearing and the capacity to be analysed as chronotopic factors.

The condition of sleep needs to be understood as part of, but not reducible to these manifold and dynamic range of factors. Dijk and von Schantz’s figure of the symphony of oscillators then, certainly spreads out beyond sleep, but it also vividly sets out the complexity of interactions making up such a symphony. It implies an organology, one of music, but also of organs.

(Abbreviated version of a chapter in W.Neidich, ed., ‘Psychopathologies of Cognitive Capitalism’, Berlin, 2018)

[1] That paradox coming down to the statement, »This sentence is false.«
[2] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1997, p.192.
[3] A typology for such action drawing on a survey of social theory and sleep is set out by Arber, Meadows and Venn who describe four modes of action on sleep: »1. The shift from public to private sleeping, 2. The relationship between work and sleep, 3. Sleep within consumer societies, 4.the medicalization of sleep.« Arber, Meadows and Venn, »Sleep and Society«, in, Charles M. Morin and Colin A. Espie, The Oxford Handbook of Sleep and Sleep Disorders, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012
[4] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, capitalism and schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, Athlone, London, 1988.
[5] Something relevant is made at another scale in Feuerbach’s notion of species being, and Marx’s re-reading of it.
[6] Heraclitus, Fragment 90
[7] See, Derk-Jan Dijk & Alpar S. Lazar, »The Regulation of Human Sleep and Wakefulness, sleep homeostasis and circadian rhythmicity«, in, Charles M. Morin and Colin A. Espie, The Oxford Handbook of Sleep and Sleep Disorders, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012, p.38-60
[8] Tom Crook, »Norms, Forms and Beds: Spatialising sleep in Victorian Britain«, Body and Society: Special Edition on Sleeping Bodies 14 (4) (2008), pp. 15-36.
[9] Alexander A. Borbély, »A two process model of sleep regulation«, Human Neurobiology, vol.1, no.3, Oct 1982, 195-204. A prior, but unrelated, suggestion of sleep being produced by two interacting systems is made by E. Brouwer, Harmonische Analyse van temperatuurcurven, Nederlandsche Tijdschrift van Geneeskunde, 27 Oct. 1928, no.74, pp.68-85. The first system consisted of a combination of the effects of food-intake, muscular and intellectual work, and waking and sleeping. The second factor, whose contours were mapped by Brouwer, was tantalisingly unknown. Brouwer’s work remains a tantalising aporia in the history of sleep science. Kleitman (1939) pp198-199 discounts Brouwer’s model as being unnecessarily complex and it is not included in the extensively revised second edition of Sleep and Wakefulness of 1963.
[10] The cybernetic terms of the governor is not accidental to this discourse. Sleep science, as with Cybernetics, emerges in part through an attempt to get »inside« the organisms to, in the terms of the Macy Conferences, the underlying physiological mechanisms deemed sealed off by Behaviourism. See, Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain, University of Chicago Press, 2011.
[11] Paul Achermann and Alexander Borbély, (1994) Simulation of daytime vigilance by the additive interaction of a homeostatic and a circadian process. Biological Cybernetics, no.71, pp115-121.
[12] See for an exploration, Steven H. Strogatz, The Mathematical Structure of the Human Sleep-Wake Cycle, Springer, Lecture Notes in Biomathematics no. 69, Berlin, 1986
[13] Adrian Mackenzie, Transduction, bodies and machines at speed, Continuum, London, 2002.
[14] Journal of Biological Rhythms, June 2013 vol. 28 no. 3
[15] Derk-Jan Dijk & Malcolm von Schantz, ‘Timing and Consolidation of Human Sleep, Wakefulness, and Performance by a Symphony of Oscillators’, Journal of Biological Rhythms, August 2005, no20, pp. 279-290.
[16] Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis, space time and everyday life, trans. Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore, Continuum, London, 2004; Steve Goodman, Sonic Warfare, sound affect and the ecology of fear, The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2010.