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The Slumbering Masses

Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life

Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer

Publication Year: 2012

Americans spend billions of dollars every year on drugs, therapy, and other remedies trying to get a good night’s sleep. Anxieties about not getting enough sleep and the impact of sleeplessness on productivity, health, and happiness pervade medical opinion, the workplace, and popular culture. In The Slumbering Masses, Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer addresses the phenomenon of sleep and sleeplessness in the United States, tracing the influence of medicine and industrial capitalism on the sleeping habits of Americans from the nineteenth century to the present.

Before the introduction of factory shift work, Americans enjoyed a range of sleeping practices, most commonly two nightly periods of rest supplemented by daytime naps. The new sleeping regimen—eight uninterrupted hours of sleep at night—led to the pathologization of other ways of sleeping. Arguing that the current model of sleep is rooted not in biology but in industrial capitalism’s relentless need for productivity, The Slumbering Masses examines so-called Z-drugs that promote sleep, the use of both legal and illicit stimulants to combat sleepiness, and the contemporary politics of time. Wolf-Meyer concludes by exploring the extremes of sleep, from cases of perpetual sleeplessness and the use of the sleepwalking defense in criminal courts to military experiments with ultra-short periods of sleep.

Drawing on untapped archival sources and long-term ethnographic research with people who both experience and treat sleep abnormalities, Wolf-Meyer analyzes and sharply critiques how sleep and its supposed disorders are understood and treated. By recognizing the variety and limits of sleep, he contends, we can establish more flexible expectations about sleep and, ultimately, subvert the damage of sleep pathology and industrial control on our lives.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Series: A Quadrant Book


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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Preface: Sleep at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century

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pp. xi-xvi

Significant changes occurred in the ways that Americans conceived of and practiced sleep between 1996 and 2006. New pharmaceuticals were produced and introduced to control sleep and wakefulness, as well as a variety of other sleep complaints. ...

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Introduction: From the Lone Sleeper to the Slumbering Masses

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pp. 1-24

Why do we sleep the way we do? Thomas Edison, who was a titan of industry, shaping the twentieth century through his inventions, business practices, and beliefs, provides one answer to this question. Among his many claims to fame are his views on sleep, a product of everyday life at the turn of the twentieth century: ...

I. Sleeping, Past and Present

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1. The Rise of American Sleep Medicine: Diagnosing and Misdiagnosing Sleep

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pp. 27-50

Definitions of sleep were plentiful in the nineteenth century. For instance, Henry Lyman begins his Insomnia and Other Disorders of Sleep, “Natural sleep is that condition of physiological repose in which the molecular movements of the brain are no longer fully and clearly projected upon the field of consciousness.”1 ...

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2. The Protestant Origins of American Sleep

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pp. 51-78

American sleep has always been tied to conceptions of death and the virtuous life. Take, for example, the thought of Cotton Mather, with whom so many American attitudes are founded.1 In The Serviceable Man, Mather’s paean to the importance of earthly works inspired by God, he writes: ...

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3. Sleeping and Not Sleeping in the Clinic: How Medicine Is Remaking Biology and Society

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pp. 79-96

One of the most curious cases I witnessed at the MSDC—not for the symptoms, but for the solutions—was that of an eleven-year-old boy named Ted. The presenting physician described the boy as evidencing insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness, the latter affecting Ted only between 6:30 and 10:30 A.M. ...

II. Cultures of Sleep

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4. Desiring a Good Night’s Sleep: Order and Disorder in Everyday Life

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pp. 99-128

In this chapter, I change my focus to examine the lives of individuals and families as they are affected by disorderly sleep. I move from the disciplinary and institutional logics of sleep science and medicine and attend the forms of life that they produce, largely in the lives of individuals who see themselves in need of medical intervention. ...

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5. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep: Children’s Sleep and the Rise of the Solitary Sleeper

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pp. 129-144

Children’s literature that takes bedtime as its central narrative concern is expansive;1 among the dominant themes in the stories are naturalizing solitary sleep and rendering the bed and bedtime as anxiety free. In so doing, the tacit objective of much of children’s bedtime literature is forming normative spatiotemporal desires: ...

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6. Pharmaceuticals and the Making of Modern Bodies and Rhythms

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pp. 145-158

In 2005, Sepracor launched a U.S. advertising campaign in the hundreds of millions of dollars to promote a sleep aid, Lunesta, reportedly spending up to forty-three million dollars in one month. Lunesta was developed as a commercial competitor of extant sleep aids that already had the support of health insurance companies, ...

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7. Early to Rise: Creating Well-Rested American Workers

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pp. 159-170

The pamphlet Practical Guide to Treating Insomnia, intended for distribution to physicians by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), describes the primary consequence of insomnia this way: “The direct and indirect costs . . . place a tremendous economic burden on society and employers.” ...

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8. Chemical Consciousness

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pp. 171-180

My first introduction to the complexities of the desire for sleep and its various intimacies came early in my fieldwork at the MSDC. In my third month of fieldwork, Dr. MacTaggert, one of the staff pediatricians, presented the case of a young girl who experienced severely disordered sleep, ...

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9. Sleeping on the Job: From Siestas to Workplace Naps

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pp. 181-190

From the 1970s through the 1990s, predictions of the way capitalism would “colonize” night were prolific, in both popular culture and academic discourse. What happened in the course of the 1990s was an inching away from this colonization of night: ...

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10. Take Back Your Time: Activism and Overworked Americans

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pp. 191-200

Abroad attempt to confront the causes of American sleep deprivation has come in the form of the Take Back Your Time (TBYT) movement, a loose network of academics and activists who have drawn attention to the persistent overworking of Americans. ...

III. The Limits of Sleep

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11. Unconscious Criminality: Sleepwalking Murders, Drowsy Driving, and the Vigilance of the Law

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pp. 203-224

Are we responsible for the things we do while we sleep? If we know that we are restless sleepers, snorers, sleepwalkers, or otherwise disorderly, are we liable for the actions we commit while unconscious? If there is a treatment for our disorderly sleep and we refuse it, are we liable for that decision? ...

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12. The Extremes of Sleep: War, Sports, and Science

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pp. 225-242

The U.S. military has had a long-standing science fictional interest in the control of sleep. In the early 2000s, a new Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project was begun, the Continuous Assisted Performance (CAP) project. ...

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Conclusion: The Futures of Sleep

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pp. 243-262

Early in the twenty-first century, sleep captures Americans’ imaginations, with stories often published by Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times Magazine and aired by Dateline NBC. This focus is the result of sustained interest on the part of the nonprofit National Sleep Foundation, medical professionals, ...

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pp. 263-264

My dissertation committee, Bruce Braun, Jean Langford, and Thomas Wolfe, helped me move from dissertation to the first draft of the book; Jean, especially, continued to push me in my thinking about medicine and its social and somatic effects ...


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pp. 265-284


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pp. 285-288

About the Author

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p. 306-306

E-ISBN-13: 9780816682737
E-ISBN-10: 0816682739
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816674749

Page Count: 312
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: A Quadrant Book