Sun of the Sleepless

The sleep experiment, back in Chicago in 1992… was that really more than 25 years ago?

In that experiment he could locate the seed of what would become of him—and millions of others. It was a study of night shift work, when it could still be called that. Maximizing labor efficiency by regulating bodies. Today, it seems as if the night shift has reached beyond its temporal confines and stretched itself across all 24 hours. Now the night shift is all there is.

He’d seen the flyer neatly stapled to the bulletin board at the university café. $600 for two weeks of sleeping. It looked legit. It would have been crazy not to jump at the opportunity to be a “paid volunteer.” It had been so hard finding real work.

He shared an old Victorian house in Hyde Park with two older adults, whose only income was Social Security, and a young woman he had been friends with in college. She waited tables at a restaurant. The rent was cheap and the four of them pooled their resources to make dinner every night. Their nightly gatherings were also a comfort.

When he got home he picked up the house phone and called the number from the flyer. An intake clerk responded. You’re calling about the sleep experiment? All right. I’m going to ask you a few questions before we make a screening appointment. What is your age? The zip code where you reside? Your employment status? Part time? So, how many hours per week is that? Sporadic? Oh. How about I just put down five—does that sound right?

The number wasn’t wrong, per se, but it was uncomfortably succinct.

The screening appointment was the next day at the university hospital. The office was located on the top floor of an unnamed neo-Gothic building on the edge of the main campus. When he got off the elevator the doors closed sharply behind him. Dead silence. His footsteps filled the vacant corridor as the office numbers led him past a dozen closed doors to the single office emitting a beam of bright florescent light. The door was open. In a very white room, empty, save for two chairs and a desk, a woman sat studying a bulky CRT monitor. She looked up at him with self-assured calm. I’m Rachel. Please come in and we’ll get started.

He sat in the other chair, ready to perform the best version of himself, whatever that needed to be. This felt familiar. Think of it as a job interview. The stakes were high. Someone somewhere said that when you successfully completed an experiment, your name was entered into a database that a whole network of scientists mined for future paid volunteers. This could become a regular thing. He sat up straight and locked eyes with Rachel.

Most of the questions she asked were about his lifestyle. Was he unemployed? Would he be able to sleep during the day? She told him the experiment would take place mostly in his own home. During week one, he was to sleep from midnight to 8am. During week two, from 12pm to 8pm. To transition his body between the sleep schedules, he would have to spend 36 hours awake in a lab before returning home. Once the experiment started, he was not to go outside in the daylight or otherwise be exposed to sunlight. Additionally, he was not to engage in heavy physical activity or to ever, ever drink alcohol. Lastly, throughout the experiment, they would monitor his temperature.

The conditions of the experiment seemed manageable. He agreed to them with exaggerated eagerness. The sooner things got started, the sooner the money would come in.

That year had been a real struggle. Months of sleeping on friends’ sofas; no work and no money. Finding work as a substitute teacher at a private school was a stroke of luck. Now, at last, it was possible to get a room in the Hyde Park house. But the work was only sporadic, so it was necessary to cobble together other ways of making money in the downtime. He knew some Italian and convinced the Romance Languages Department at the university to put him on a list they maintained for people looking to hire a translator. After just one month, there was a call from a man who was writing a fictionalized biography of Lord Byron and needed a stack of Italian-language documents translated into English. $500. It was a windfall. And translators made their own hours. Of course, translators are, in general fluent in the languages they translate, but maybe this was an opportunity to become fluent and become a translator at the same time? How hard could it be with a couple of dictionaries?

Things were really looking up. Work was coming in and future stability appeared shimmering on the horizon. When he was called later that evening with the news of his acceptance for the experiment, he counted in his head the money all his gigs would bring. Fantastic. Rent and food wouldn’t be a problem for at least a couple of months, maybe longer.

The following morning there was a knock at the door. A man in his mid-thirties dressed in casual business attire stood on the stoop. I’m Michael. I’m here to measure the intensity of natural light in your house. Both Michael’s face and voice were expressionless. Upon entering, he immediately got to work. Slowly and deliberately, he walked the hallways and the perimeter of all the rooms with a light meter in his hand. Periodically he fired questions: Do you ever enter this room? Do you stand by the stove and cook often? Or, he issued decrees: You cannot walk on this side of the corridor during daylight hours. When you use the bathroom, stay away from the window. His single-mindedness was admirable. Then, as if declaring victory over the light, he finished by taping sheets of thick, black plastic over his bedroom windows.

Next were the materials. Michael handed him a stack of self-evaluation surveys, each with a handwritten six-digit ID number at the top. The surveys asked him to rate his mood on a scale from one to ten, against each one of five indicators: alert, anxious, sleepy, foggy and cheerful. Just before going to bed and right when he woke up, he was to fill out a survey, dial a computer-operated call center, state his ID number, and read off the scores on his self-evaluation.

His housemates gawked at them during these elaborate proceedings. The authority with which Michael conducted himself bristled. It seemed as if his presence would upset the fragile equilibrium that steadied their shared home against the economic insecurities that animated life outside of it. But this was a remedy, not the cause. $600 was a lot of money.

There’s one last thing. Michael handed him a black fanny pack and waited for him to take out its contents: a small hard drive, a long cord, and a thermometer. During the screening interview, Rachel had been transparent about this data-collection detail, but, now that the time had come, he realized he was unprepared for it.

The wire connects the thermometer to the drive. You’ll wear the thermometer inserted in your rectum for the full duration of the experiment. Michael, clearly used to seeing volunteers react to this information, didn’t pause to register his shock. Of course, you can take it out when relieving yourself, but it has to remain inside you at all other times.

As if this were not already enough, Michael added that, for his convenience, the device had an alarm that would go off if it registered a temperature below a certain threshold, indicating that the thermometer had slipped out. That way, he’d know to seek privacy, examine the situation, and reinsert the thermometer. Within moments, the temperature would rise again and the alarm would turn itself off.

It takes a little time, but you’ll get used to it. If there were any chance Michael’s words were meant to be comforting, it vanished in an instant. The data we gather from the device is essential to the experiment. To ensure that you are compliant at all times, we will call you in at random, on unscheduled occasions during the experiment to monitor your data.

So that was it. Comply. He accepted this new intimate attachment to the job he’d taken on, but he had yet to grasp that he was engaged in the intimate labor of rendering his body informational. Getting used to the apparatus was one thing. He had to relearn how to walk and sit. No matter what he did, he always felt uncomfortable. Moreover, the thermometer was intrusive. It was a constant reminder that he was had. Getting used to his new biomediated body was another thing.[1] It now took up more physical, and sonic, space. No longer self-enclosed, his body accommodated a scientific and economic apparatus whose role was largely opaque to him. “He” was now a configuration of material-discursive forces, life invested with capital.

The worst was when the alarm went off, which was often, at first, because his body wanted to reject the foreign object. Information repeatedly leaked out. Although it had become a familiar presence in the house, the device had a knack for announcing itself again and again, and at the most infelicitous moments. It would beep suddenly during dinner and one of his housemates would sarcasticallychide,What’s wrong, don’t you like my cooking? It would beep while talking privately with a friend, who’d ask, laughing, Do I turn you on? Or, when the alarm did not go off for a long stretch of time, his housemate would tease, Man, you got a hot ass! He couldn’t win.

But the most humiliating experience happened when he was called in to substitute teach a Social Studies class. He had learned how to be the cool sub by showing the kids that he, too, liked fun, but that they would only have fun by following the rules. All was going well when, just as he finished laying the law, his ass alarm went off.

Oh that. How had he forgotten? I’ll be back in five minutes. I want silence in here while you wait. He quickly left the room, found the bathroom and adjusted himself. When he was standing before the class again, he asked if they had any questions about the rules. A boy in the front row raised his hand. What’s that thing on your belt?

He could have gotten flustered, but instead he saw a great opportunity. It’s a very strange device and you wouldn’t believe what it does. If you all behave yourselves I’ll tell you all about it at the end of class. A wave of intrigue and excitement washed over all the faces before him. He had them now. Indeed, he not only managed to flawlessly execute the lesson, but he also enjoyed the kids’ company. Just before the end of class, they were done. He congratulated the students and told them he hoped to see them again soon.

What about that thing on your belt? The student in the front row looked at him insistently and others started chiming in. He’d forgotten to prepare his story. What now? It was going to have to be the truth.

So, I’m participating in a sleep experiment and part of it involves measuring my body temperature around the clock, night and day. A slight hesitation. It’s a thermometer. After a few seconds of silence, a wave of revulsion washed over all the kids’ faces. Some even looked down in embarrassment or visibly recoiled. I know, it’s gross. Feebly he sought their complicity, but it was too late.

Now, he’d had enough. The news would spread like lice and he’d be the butt of endless jokes. His authority would be shot. Subbing was going to be hell forever more. You try your best to hustle up a living and one gig ends up cancelling out another? As he walked home his mouth watered at the thought of a drink. There was Jimmy’s just up the block. His favorite bartender would be there. Maybe just one beer…

Two days later, Rachel called him in for a review of his data. She unplugged the thermometer cord from the hard drive and attached the drive to a desktop computer. Unable to see the screen, he scanned her face as she clicked through what seemed were a series of images. He struggled to discern even a flicker of an emotion. What if she discovered his transgressions? Damn, he blew it. Why was he so impulsive?

When she finished reviewing his informationalized body, Rachel turned to the real thing. So the reason we collect these data is because we know that temperature changes correlate with sleep in a predictable way. She spoke with the kind patience of a good teacher. It was reassuring. This is what the temperature change across a period of sleep looks like. She turned the computer screen toward him and pointed to an inverted peak. He nodded appreciatively. Your sleep-temperature charts follow this pattern consistently. She clicked on image after image to demonstrate, with just-so simplicity, the sublime regularity of predictive science. He could have sworn that deep inside he felt his body shift into alignment and become regular. But then she paused before clicking on Thursday’s graph and his breathing halted. Here it was.

When the image appeared on the screen she watched his reaction. Where was the inverted peak? There was the dip, but it was hardly like the steep, deep drop he had seen in all the other graphs. The line was jagged. He was a volatile stock value.

It was pointless to feign surprise. Her surety left no room for it. You were told that you cannot drink alcohol during the experiment. She didn’t even invite him to speak. I’ll give you a warning this time, but if we find that you’ve broken any of the rules again, you’ll be terminated from the study with zero compensation.

He returned home defeated. Now they were on to him. They would watch him. They would call him in for extra random checks. They would follow him.

It was fortunate that the Byron documents arrived in the mail that day. Although he feared the translation would be a huge challenge, at least he’d have something productive to occupy him during his prison sentence. He opened the large bubble wrap folder and pulled out a bundle of photocopied articles. He skimmed the first one, growing uneasy. It must be fatigue. Italian wasn’t going to make any sense now. But it was difficult to resist eyeing the other documents, too. Unease accumulated until it became full-on panic. What were all these words? He’d never seen them before. Even if he found them in the dictionary, they still wouldn’t necessarily add up to decipherable sentences. He got the gist, but was that good enough?

He managed to calm down. He talked himself through it. What did he know about Byron? That he had run off to Italy to avoid scandal at home. That his purported affair with his half-sister and his queer loves made it difficult to navigate British society. Byron was a romantic, in every sense of the word, who pursued his desires and his writing was inflected with them. Maybe the press on Byron would reflect this, and, maybe, knowing this would help fill in the blanks in the story.

He buried himself in Byron’s world. He had a zoo in his Venetian palace—dogs, cats, monkeys, a badger, a falcon, a crow, and a fox. Once, he decided to take a shortcut home and swam fully dressed across the Grand Canal. Here was a person who made his own rules, a “fount of fiery life.” Of course he had the luxury of inherited wealth. To be able to fill your hours with life lived however you choose—what kind of writing would that inspire? How could any reader separate the living from the writing in the case of Byron?

The first week of the experiment was over and he was called in to join the other participants in the much-anticipated all-nighter at the lab. He arrived at sundown to find only two fanny-packed women around his age waiting in a large and windowless garage-like space. He recognized them from college. One of them, like him, had been an Anthropology major. So, he wasn’t the only one cobbling together a living post-graduation.

The technicians said we’ll start any minute—they’re in the other room. The Anthropology major sighed with an air of defeat. The other woman had surrender written on her forehead. He knew what that was. And neither seemed to know anything more than he did about what was going to happen next—not that knowing mattered. When two technicians appeared from a windowed booth in the far corner, the three volunteers looked at them resignedly.

So your task is to stay awake for the next 36 hours. You are here together to make that easier. The woman spoke while a man stood beside her, his eyes moving slowly and impassively from volunteer to volunteer. The rules are as follows: The three of you will sit there. She pointed to a circular beige laminate table with three chairs. Between the chairs stood three towers of LED lights. You can talk, you can play games, you can do what you like, but you must keep your eyes open and your hands must be on the table at all times. We’ve provided two packs of playing cards, as that has been the easiest way for participants to pass the time. Every hour, you can take one ten-minute break, during which you can use the bathroom, or smoke a cigarette, but you cannot sleep. When the 36 hours are over, you can return home and go to sleep. Any questions?

They took their places at the table and someone in the booth switched on the light towers. Wow. These weren’t just lights, they were spotlights! The three of them looked at each other, as if about to say something, but, strangely, they held back. Were they too afraid to show their alarm? Afraid that if they revealed to their captors that they were unhappy with the terms of their confinement, they’d be terminated from the experiment without compensation?

The “suggestion” that they play cards felt loaded with significance and they tacitly agreed it was how they’d proceed. So it was rummy, hearts, poker, and pinochle, which became their favorite. Dix. Melding. Trick. They played and played and played until sometime in the middle of the night they started to relax. Naturally they exchanged tales of humiliation. I’ve never had so many people on my ass before. Everyone’s been telling me I’ve got something up my ass. It’s frustrating when your orifices speak out of turn… And so on.

The three of them learned from each other the circumstances that had brought them to their present ignominy. Crippling student debt, unpreparedness for the job market, an intellectual formation that invited rigorous questioning, but provided little insight into how to live in this world. It was all too familiar.

They turned the hours they were dealt into a delicate formation. The non-stop card games opened a timespace where artful strategies, subtle communication and chance bound them to a communal challenge that, because it was never-ending—or at least it felt like it was—would never be zero-sum. They germinated an intimacy on their own terms, even if they knew their bodies were networked by the same grand apparatus commanded by people and institutions they would never face.

Maybe it was this comforting complicity that inspired the other Anthropology major to venture into new territory. What do you think they’re going to use the results of the experiment for? I think it’s to maximize the efficiency of night shift factory workers.

Her speculation made perfect sense and there was no reason he and the other volunteer shouldn’t support it, but they said nothing. Instead, they, all three, looked down at their pinochle hands and focused on their next play.

After just a few more plays, the atmosphere lightened again and they were back to their comic banter. They even made fun of each other. Making it through this middle phase of the experiment with grace felt like an achievement to be proud of. Their unique bond could have provided solace for the week to come, the week of the night shift. Why didn’t they exchange phone numbers before they went their separate ways?

* * *

Back home at last, nothing was more important than the solitude and silence of sleep, to metabolize the everyday.[2]It was now almost noon and it was impossible to think of anything else but sleep. Dutifully, he set his alarm for 8pm, filled out a survey (extremely foggy, extremely sleepy, zero alertness, zero anxiety, zero cheer), checked in with the phone-activated computer, turned off the light in his blacked-out room, and closed his eyes. At once, deep slumber dragged him under.

Sun of the sleepless! melancholy star!
Whose tearful beam glows tremulously far,
That show’st the darkness thou canst not dispel,
How like art thou to joy remember’d well![3]

When the alarm went off, he awoke disoriented. He peeked at the world outside the black plastic on his windows and saw that it was night. He heard the voices of his housemates and followed them to the kitchen downstairs. Good morning, it’s dinnertime! The air was thick with savory aromas. Baked chicken and steamed vegetables? His stomach contracted. And his housemates’ energetic conversation was just too much. He made himself coffee and brought it to the living room. He looked in vain for the newspaper but guessed it had long been read and thrown out, so he just sat by the window and stared into the moonlit night. Dix. Melding. Trick. The fog of sleep slowly lifted and the marathon pinochle games started coming back. They have to hear about this. He went to join the others, but they had already finished dinner and each was winding down in their rooms, watching TV or reading. His heart sank. They’d soon be in bed and he had a whole day, or, rather, a whole night, of translation ahead of him.

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this, their desolation…[4]

Something happens during the night shift. Wonderment and existential doubt intensify. The days are vanquished and you think you see the everyday for what it is. There, on the outside, the silence and stillness come alive, and you see the edges of what you hitherto experienced as a seamless power. The regulation of sleep and wakefulness in the interest of capital.

And so went the week, with nightly days and daylit nights. Waking to hours of translation work when his housemates had just washed off the day’s labor, and going to bed when, for his housemates, the workday was in full swing. Conviviality and commensality were lost to him.[5] Regulated time was turned on its head, and its shape became perceptible. The night shift, usually a compromise to eke out a living, inadvertently reveals the forces that contour both work and ‘life itself.’ In this way, the night shift has the potential to reveal just how naturalized the temporal regimes of American societyhad become over the course of the 20th century.[6]

He never learned how the findings of the experiment were ultimately used, but it is likely that the experiment contributed to the growing business of regulating sleep and wakefulness by way of pharmaceuticals. The medical treatment of sleep disorders has since become focused on the aberrant nature of individual patients to meet the inevitable nature of everyday life, with its rhythms of work, school and family.[7] What gave the rhythms of everyday life their inevitability, their unyielding force?

* * *

November 15, 2005. He started on the Adderall. Was it only a coincidence that it was during the fieldwork for his new project? His drug was amphetamine salts and theirs was methamphetamine. Phenomenologically, they’re the same.

It was overwhelmingly sad. People living in rural Missouri, more than anywhere else in the US, were trying to make ends meet by working longer hours at the factory, in trucking, in cement work—in every difficult, low-paying job. They manufactured methamphetamine in their homes because when they took it, it gave them the energy and motivation to work double and triple shifts, and go for days without sleeping. Meth floods the brain with dopamine while also inhibiting its reuptake, creating hours and hours of anticipatory excitement of good things to come. It was like manufactured hope.

Meth is easy to make, and, when there was something left over, to sell. People could earn some extra income. Many said that using the drug made producing it even easier because it kept them alert to potential explosions and police busts. When they wanted to sleep, they used heroin and other opioids to come down. The pharmaceuticalization of sleep and wakefulness, the temporal regulation of bodies, had insinuated itself into the most impoverished late industrial regions of the U.S., but in a grotesque, impoverished DIY form. It created a world where people came undone under the rhythmic imperative to exploit their embodied resources to assume increasing levels of risk. Those homes, landscapes and bodies bore the most visible marks of the dominant temporal regimes.

Getting the prescription was shockingly easy. The shrink said it sounded to him like the problem wasn’t so much depression as it was attention deficit disorder, although the two often occur together.

But having his feelings of depression sidelined to make room for some other disorder felt like a slight. Couldn’t his sleepiness and difficulty concentrating be a result of depression? There was something bogus about ADD. It was steeped in an ideology of productivity and the diagnosis suggested its own remedy, to entrain your bodily rhythms to dominant political and economic temporal regimes.[8] Mass synchronization.[9] The externalization and financialization of inner life.[10]

The shrink wasn’t interested in what seemed like an intellectual debate. Professors were bad patients. Whatever the problem was, ADD medication had a good chance of remedying both ADD and depression. Just try it.

* * *

Adderall was fantastic in the beginning. All at once, the fog lifted and there was a clearing. Depression was now just an obstacle and it could simply be waved away or barreled through. Hope was bodily. Anticipation was in the skin. It was cellular. It was in each choppy breath. It was in the bones, the ready-to-move limbs, like that kick that long-time meth users missed from the dirty, old-school crank they reminisced about. Heart beating hard…How did his palms get so sweaty? Dry mouth. Adderall made writing about meth users easier, and faster, but there was an uneasy chemical proximity.

Writing. He got up earlier and earlier and worked later and later. At both ends of the lengthening shift, there was night and night. Every sentence, every word makes a difference. Composing, decomposing and composing again—it became something, and, then, something else, but was it crystallizing? Speed is excess…a thing that’s always ahead.

The sleep experiment. How oddly relevant it is now that he’s doing research on wakefulness—and not just researching and writing about it, but struggling with it bodily. He was no more sober than the people he was writing about. And the writing was intoxicated with hope and melancholy, much like the lives of the people he got to know. Could the writing do them justice? What could writing, and only writing, do for anyone? What was it doing to him?

… and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless…

To be able to live the hours however you choose—what kind of writing would that inspire? Couldn’t you separate the writing from the living?

* * *

August 3, 2015, 7AM. What was happening this morning? Adderall deficiency. Irritating that the effects of the medication stopped being predictable, stopped making the mornings predictable. The pills had more or less eliminated these crapshoot days where either work was interesting enough to even be exciting and useful enough to even seem important, or where there was no good reason to be doing it at all. Let someone else do it if they can convince themselves it’s worth the humiliation.

But the pills had put a stop to all that, for years—until recently. What happened? With the Adderall, it was like the wires were finally properly grounded, closing the circuit. Just feeling the circuit was revelatory: now “Off,” now “On.” Noiseless electric thoughts.

But now the cruel roulette wheel was spinning again. How long was it going to last? There was a deadline. Open the computer calendar: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. September 8-10, 6am to 4pm—no, better make that all day. Was this a work schedule or a scheduled malaise?

Depressive drudgery and threadbare concentration: nothing was more interesting or poignant than this futility. The world only reconfirms you’re too small to respond to it. There are people who scale back their hopes of meeting the world and there are those who diminish themselves. Who made up this structure of failure anyway? Of course he did, et cetera, et cetera.

Have to piss again. How was he supposed to get any writing done if it made him go all the time? While midstream, a thought, a short, silent burst of fireworks. This was always going to be part of the research, the feeling that things can easily take a turn. That the research will turn on you. Yes, it was so true. Must remember it. Of course inspiration came when it was inconvenient. Hurrying back to the desk—shouldn’t he eat? No, don’t. Sitting back down in front of the computer. Brush a fleck of cuticle off the keyboard. Posture—neck and shoulder will be ruined again. Straightening up. The chair is too high. Lowering it. But, arms mustn’t be raised in order to reach the keyboard. Have to get the wireless keyboard. No, not now—there was something…Something important. What was it? It was about—biting a fingernail—about writing about depression. Fingers slapping keyboard, arms arching, neck craning forward. Posture! To write about the feelings of inadequacy and futility motivating him to take legalized speed because it created a kinship with the people he was writing the book about—OK, that was it—and there was confirmation that he could write about these feelings in Cvetkovich’s book on depression. What a relief to read her suggestion to let depression linger and to explore it rather than insisting that it be transformed or reconceivedand put to good use.[11] A surge of elation. Sitting up straight now.

* * *

December 10, 2015. He stopped the Adderall. Just like that. Now there was dragging anhedonia. Caring about anything took too much energy. Understanding why you should care took even more.

* * *

Late December, 2015. Delicious sleep! This was a new feeling. Drifting, sinking, falling, no edges, no resistance, like an embrace. Was this how it was before the Adderall? Or, did going off it actually enhance sleep, making it better than ever? Now getting up was hard—and it wasn’t so much the dread of what awaited as much the seductive allure of sleep. Sleep was not nonlife, but constituent of life itself.[12]

It was good to be off it. Maybe. At least to know that you were clean. And, empty, though it felt like being emptied of everything.

* * *

July 10, 2016 at 3PM. The appointment was highlighted in red on the calendar. It was just a few more days, but they couldn’t pass any sooner. Everything was moving so slowlythe thoughts, the writing, the thoughts about writing. Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day. Wonderless night without end.

Modafinil. Ever since that New Yorker article he had wanted to get his hands on it, a non-amphetamine dopamine reuptake inhibitor. Amphetamines were bad, but dopamine was good. That was persuasive. It’d show the shrink he wasn’t a speed freak.

The article described how entrepreneurs, stock-brokers, scientists, and academics were using the drug not to treat ADD or depression, but to enhance their performance. Neuroenhancers don’t offer freedom. Rather, they facilitate a pinched, unromantic, grindingly efficient form of productivity.[13] But why should he care? As long as the work gets done…The problem was that doctors weren’t allowed to prescribe Modafinil for anything other than narcolepsy, sleep apnea, and shift-work sleep disorder. The first two were only diagnosed through testing, but SWSD was
easy enough to perform.

Yawning. I have a hard time staying awake. I teach three days a week, and then I work weekend nights at a hotel to make ends meet. Yawning. It’s hard switching back and forth between sleep schedules, but I have to do it.

Was it convincing? Of course the bit about hotel work on the weekends was a strategic lie–but not all that implausible. It was hard living in New York City on a state university professor’s salary. The last few shrinks were awful—so rigid, and they were always skeptical, even when he didn’t perform. This shrink was different, though.

I want to avoid amphetamines. I don’t like the way they make me feel, and I worry about the long-term effects. She specialized in sleep medicine, so maybe she was used to this script.

So…I’m wondering if…Modafinil would be better. There, he’d said it.

Sure, we can put you on Modafinil. She didn’t even blink.

That was easy. It was almost disconcertingly easy. At that moment, something seemed to coalesce, something 25 years in the making. As the shrink turned to her computer to print out the script, he realized the sleep experiment back in Chicago had never really ended. What began when he was a twenty-something as an odd money-making stop-gap had decades later turned out to be the rule, not the exception.

Precarity was no longer limited to the tough times of a life transition; it was now the inevitable nature of everyday life itself. Tinkering with sleep and wakefulness was no longer a trial but accepted practice, part of the essential, constant management of living in and through precarity.[14]

This shrink understood that. She wasn’t just on his side, she was in on the con. At any rate, the important thing was that the Modafinil would make everything easier. TheNew Yorker confirmed it.

She handed him the slip of paper. As he reached for it, he could already feel the alertness and anticipation washing over him.


Jason Pine is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Media Studies at Purchase College, SUNY. His research focuses on affect, materiality and alternative economies. He is the author of  The Art of Making Do in Naples (Minnesota 2012) and A Decomposition: Methlabs, Alchemy and the Matter of Life (2019), both published by University of Minnesota Press.



[1]Clough, Patricia T. 2008. ”The Affective Turn: Political Economy, Biomedia and Bodies.” Theory Culture & Society 25(1): 1-22

[2]Crary, Jonathan. 2013. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. Verso.

[3]Byron, George Gordon Byron Baron. 1815. “Sun of the Sleepless” in The Works of George Byron: Poetry, Vol. 3. edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge and Rowland Edmund Prothero. J. Murray 1904, 399.

[4]Byron, George Gordon Byron Baron. 1816. “Darkness” in The Works of George Byron: Poetry, Vol. 4. edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge and Rowland Edmund Prothero. J. Murray 1904, 42.

[5]Hirschman, Albert O. 2001. “Melding the Public and Private Spheres: Taking Commmensality Seriously” in Crossing Boundaries: Selected Writings, 11-32.

[6]Wolf-Meyer, Matthew J. 2009. “Precipitating Pharmakologies and Capital Entrapments: Narcolepsy and the Strange Cases of Provigil and Xyrem.” Medical Anthropology28(1): 11–30, 15.

[7]Wolf-Meyer, Matthew J. 2009. “Precipitating Pharmakologies and Capital Entrapments: Narcolepsy and the Strange Cases of Provigil and Xyrem.” Medical Anthropology28(1): 11-30, 15. In Slumbering Masses (2012), Wolf-Meyer writes, “the consolidated model of sleep is predicated upon the solidification of other institutional times in American society, foremost among them work time. Consolidated sleep provided a clinical model to train aberrant sleep toward. This might seem to be necessary only for insomnia, but all sleep disorders impact consolidated sleep and often confound its “efficiency” by rendering it neither deep nor sound enough” (38).

[8]Nielsen, Mikka. 2017. “ADHD and Temporality: A Desynchronized Way of Being in the World.” Medical Anthropology36(3): 260-72.

[9]Crary, Jonathan. 2013. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Verso.


[11]Cvetkovich, Ann. 2012. Depression: A Public Feeling. Duke University Press, 14.

[12]Wolf-Meyer, Matthew J. 2012. The Slumbering Masses, University of Minnesota Press.

[13]Talbot, Margaret. 2009. “Brain Gain: The Underground World of ‘Neuroenhancing’ Drugs.” The New Yorker. April 27, 32-43.

[14]Stewart, Kathleen, 2009. “Precarity’s Forms.” Cultural Anthropology27(3): 518-525.