‘Sleep / Agency / Activity’ Roundtable Discussion, Durham University, 8th May 2014 – Review

Evelyn De Morgan, "Night and Sleep" 1878, Oil on canvas, The De Morgan Foundation, London

Night and Sleep, 1878, Oil on canvas, The De Morgan Foundation, London

Patrick Levy, Philosophy PhD Candidate at Sussex University, writes: There is a certain degree of irony in a student of the philosophy of sleep sacrificing a substantial slice of sleep in order to attend a workshop on, amongst other things, sleep. With varying degrees of sleep deprivation (confessions of such abounded throughout the day) those of us attending the joint Centre for Medical Humanities & School of Modern Languages and Cultures Seminar and Roundtable Discussion, held in Hatfield College, Durham were set ambitious goals. We were to “explore a constellation of terms ‘sleep, activity, agency’ through a variety of methods, modes of presentation, and theoretico-cultural frameworks.” I was initially partly put off by the inclusion of the second two terms and interdisciplinary nature of the event – at this stage in my PhD, my topic being the phenomenology of sleep, tunnel vision has set in and all but the most relevant events are liable to fall by the wayside. Furthermore, the prospect of stepping into an area, the Medical Humanities, about which I knew virtually nothing seemed daunting. Thankfully, interest, advice from friends, and a real need to escape the office motivated me to sign-up anyway (I’m glad I did as attendance was good and the room was packed). Thankfully! Our set constellation of terms were indeed explored. Multiple methods certainly were brought to bear on a variety of concepts. As too were stories, films, first-person accounts, and socio-political phenomena. But most of all I left with a feeling of genuine excitement about the directions, varieties and complementary possibilities that interdisciplinary research into topics such as sleep, rest, and mental health, can offer.

After grabbing some lunch (which was kindly provided) and a quick cup of something caffeinated (sleep needed to be kept at bay at least literally for the next two hours) we settled down to the first of the three presentations: Cressida Heyes‘ ‘Sleeping Women, Wakeful Men: Gender, Rest, and Work’. Beginning by outlining the position of this particular project and her methodology – a concrete application of both phenomenology and Foucauldian genealogy – we were quickly plunged into the specific examples of such a concrete analysis. As was stressed a number times during the day sleep’s everyday, or perhaps everynight, character connects it with those other aspects of us which most fundamentally structure our lives and self-understanding. For example, gender and sexual identity. Heyes, whilst bringing out the centrality of sleep’s role in some traditional notions of femininity and, more worryingly – given some of her recent research into cases of rape whilst the victim sleeps – feminine sexuality, also problematised these understandings of sleep. Of course, this problematising was necessarily enforced by the fact that, as she pointed out, men too must, do, and even enjoy, sleep. Moving from, the suddenly disturbing, (or were they always a little disturbing?) fairytales of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, Heyes took us on whirlwind tour of sleep’s ambiguous relationship with gender identity and sexuality from, Rip van Winkle (sleep as an enabling his escape… from his wife), the bachelor reveries of the 19th Century (the liberating dreams gifted in sleep), through Julia Leigh’s 2011 film ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (sleep, amongst other things, commodified) all the way to last year’s book Dangerously Sleepy by Alan Derickson’s (wakefulness and masculinity).

Her discussion of this recent book opened onto an elaboration on the fascinating topic of sleep and time. In particular, Heyes suggested a new significance to sleep through the category of ‘anaesthetic time’ which sits in contrast with the all too pervasive demands that sleep, along with all our other activities, fits into the impossible demands of time-discipline that we are all to aspire to. Sleep’s relationship to rest, relaxation, and the drifting of time were intriguingly raised here, prefiguring the next presentation from Felicity Callard. The first presentation ended by reminding us that our concrete relationships to sleep which we all engage in with varying degrees of regularity, if we’re lucky every hora somni, bring with them philosophical, political and sociological presuppositions, many of which have yet to be explored.

My mind racing with thoughts, questions and concerns about sleep it could have proven difficult to move on to rest. However, Felicity Callard’s presentation – ‘Rest: Crossing Brains, Minds, Bodies, Cities’ – began with an impressive trailer for her successful grant proposal, along with four other lead investigators, to the Wellcome Trust to take-up residence as a research collective at the Wellcome Collection focusing on ‘rest’. The scale, variety, and interdisciplinary drive of such a project is extremely exciting. Like sleep, and due in part to their interconnected nature, rest concerns the public at large and placing this research centre in a public space and actively encouraging the involvement of the public is one of the many strengths of this project. With the overarching goals of the project described some more theoretical and political questions were raised. Such as: ‘who is it who rests?’; ‘when can we be said to be ‘at rest’?’; and ‘what is, if indeed there is one, the appropriate way to assess how much rest we need or deserve?’ Social phenomena like the quantified self movement alongside more personal phenomena such as day dreaming were raised as examples of what will be considered through the many methods brought to bear in the ‘hub’ space. Personally, I was struck, by, amongst other things, the ambition and subversive significance, in itself, of creating a space for rest in, of all places, the centre of London.

The last presentation, before the roundtable proper began, was from Jenny Laws: ‘A pro-active disposition: performing and practising active desire’. As part of the opening gambit of a larger project on ‘the active patient’ this presentation began by a consideration of that, seemingly paradoxical concept. The patient, as one who undergoes something, is here supposed to be active, the very opposite of passively undergoing. With this in hand the problems associated with medical efforts to “rescue you from your passivity” can be, Laws showed, brought into relief. Moving on from this general consideration, the role of desire and desiring were considered. In particular, the idea, so prevalent in folk psychological chatter, that in cases of depression and related conditions one ‘has to want to get better to get better’. Laws artfully teased out both the epistemological presuppositions of these sorts of claims – namely, that people with depression must after all, at least partly, want to be depressed – as well as demonstrating the circular nature of demanding that those with mental health conditions desire to get better before they are allowed access to treatment – after all one of the main ways of defining conditions like depression is loss of desire. These kind of considerations along with empirical work – interviews with people with depression – raise important questions about how we conceive of desire in relation to our status as agents or / and patients and potential patients. The social, political and medical implications of such questions were evidently significant long before they were brought out further in the discussion.

The discussion itself, and this would perhaps be my only complaint, was a little short. (Though this was essentially dealt with by the usual milling around after these events and a nice trip to a local cafe.) Whatever it lacked in length was more than made up for in detail, breadth and critical focus. For example, sleep’s relationship with gender and sexuality was further problematised by questions and comments drawing on H.G. Wells, post-war German and 19th Century Russian literature, as well as the classic film – Nosferatu. The discussion opened with a more theoretical discussion, raised by the co-organisers and co-chairs Angela Woods and Caitríona Ní Dhúill, about the relationship between these three terms, presentations and the notion of the individual or self. Many intriguing and promising avenues of investigation resulted from these questions and from the responses from the presenters. It seems appropriate in closing this review to end with some questions which the presentations, following discussion, and post-event further discussions raised for me:

1) Sleep’s involvement in gender identity, however, complex this involvement is, seems clear. But, to what degree can we read back from this to sleep’s essence itself? Or put another way, what does Hypnos care whether we paint it as a peaceful sleeping man (see Evelyn De Morgan’s ‘Night or Sleep’ [1878] – see above) or idolise it as a paradigm of feminine beauty?

2) What of sleep’s ambiguity, both mine and yet not identical with my wakeful self, is imported into our conceptions of rest and what do our attempts to ‘productively colonise’ rest tell us about sleep, rest and activity?

3) If desires are problematically conceived as something one can will oneself into then what sort of passivity are we dealing with when we desire and how does it relate to other (more?) radical sorts of passivity?

Patrick Levy is currently completing his PhD in Philosophy on ‘The Phenomenology of Sleep’. To read more about his current work, click here.

2 thoughts on “‘Sleep / Agency / Activity’ Roundtable Discussion, Durham University, 8th May 2014 – Review

  1. Thanks, Patrick, for this excellent précis and your apposite questions. I’m intrigued by your first question and especially by the idea that there is something called “sleep’s essence itself.” I know (partly from our conversation in said “local cafe”) that this is your phenomenological bailiwick. What could it mean to talk about an essence of sleep that has nothing to do with its representation or management?

    • Thank you Cressida! For your presentation and for this question. You make a good point and I think that I chose my words – in particular the word ‘essence’ – hastily. However, I think the core of the point stands. You’re right in connecting my question back to my use phenomenological methods. My thought could perhaps be better explained (certainly than I did in my initial question) through the following quotation from Levinas’s ‘Existence and Existents’: “The localization of consciousness is not subjective; it is the subjectivization of the subject. …Unconsciousness as sleep is not a new life which is enacted beneath life; it is a participation in life by non-participation, by the elementary act of resting.” (p. 66)
      The details of this extract and the fascinating engagement with sleep which surrounds it are too complex to go into here but it seems to me that at least the second of these sentences can act as a reminder of the more general phenomenological goal to roll-back, theoretical, explanatory claims about phenomena and thus allow the phenomena to show themselves. This general move from the explanatory to the descriptive is, of course, undertaken in a number of different ways by those philosophers we are accustomed to calling phenomenologists (and not all of those applications sit completely comfortably under my notion of a shift from explanation to description). One thinks of Husserl’s suspensions and of Heidegger’s ‘letting be’, for example. However, when it comes to sleep, a phenomena (if indeed we can even call it that) which seems precisely defined through what is not given, how are we to describe its content phenomenologically? The temptation, and seemingly the approach most have taken, is to describe it entirely by association or contrast with waking life. I think we find both an example of this too quick move away from describing sleep and back to explaining it in relation to waking life in the Levinas quotation above (“it is a participation in life by non-participation”, and a warning against it (“sleep is not a new life which is enacted beneath life”).
      So to return to the question of gender my thought would go something like this: can we apply the categories or dichotomies of waking like to sleep as if sleep – las some have understood the unconscious – were but another waking life – consciousness – beneath that in which we live?
      A caveat: this is not meant to suggest that we should be aiming to find a hermetically sealed essence (this is why my use of that word was poorly chosen in my initial question) of sleep but rather that our descriptions of sleep must be, due to its (at best) reticence as far it comes to phenomenological givenness, particularly on guard against simply describing sleep through the lens of waking life. What alternative is there? I think that we won’t know that until we try. Which is one of things that I take you to be doing in your present projects, but, I hope, my worry merely reveals one of the potential dangers involved in such projects (mine certainly included).
      Thanks again for your question.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *