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  • The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life by Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer
  • Brigitte Steger
Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer. The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. xvi + 288 pp. Ill. $24.95 (978-0-8166-7474-9).

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is interested in “the embodied limits of the elimination of sleep—the defiance of bodies to particular technoscientific futures—as they are produced in the discursive practices of medical practitioners and in scientific literature and as they are lived by individuals” (p. 244). Such writing style, with frequently confusing grammar and semantics, and the lack of chapter conclusions make it difficult to summarize what the book argues. But here is an attempt:

Wolf-Meyer points out that sleep behavior, although intimate and personal, is very similar for millions of American and an integral part of everyday life (p. 13). The book asks how sleep has been discussed and shaped, through American history, and during the past few years, when sleep has come to the center of medical attention. He has used primary sources of preachers and medical sleep specialists, and he has also conducted long-term participant observations and interviews with patients attending a sleep laboratory.

In the book, Wolf-Meyer contends that “[m]uch of sleep maintenance insomnia is not a sleep disorder at all but simply a social disorder” (p. 162). For instance, the main problem for someone who regularly wakes up during the night but instead has the “desire” to sleep in several phases is that American bosses hardly ever allow their employees to nap during the day and adjust their work time accordingly. If it weren’t for the need to adjust to normative “spaciotemporal” regimes, irregular sleep would not be a disorder. He goes on to criticize that “[s]leeping at inappropriate times is often interpreted as a behavioral problem rather than a biological one” (p. 175). On first view this seems to contradict his earlier claim that many disorders are actually a social nonalignment, not a biological one. But then, we understand that a patient, diagnosed with a disorder, is also demanded to treat it, in order to adjust to the social order. In any case, Americans often rely on medicine and feel that they are responsible to sleep the normative pattern of consolidated nocturnal sleep and to stay awake (and alert) to adjust to social activities. [End Page 477]

Sleep medicine, not least in the military (pp. 225–31), sometimes attempts to eliminate the necessity to sleep altogether, at least for a couple of days/nights, supported by pharmacy. What Wolf-Meyer wants to get across, I believe, is that the American capitalist fantasy to eliminate sleep is not achievable, as sleep will always be necessary both biologically and socially. Most sleep disorders are disorders only because the person suffering from them fails to align her or his sleep patterns to the “spaciotemporal” regime, that is, the normative rhythm of everyday life (he does not talk about the spatial dimension), influenced by protestant work ethic and capitalism. “Disorderly” sleepers are required to spend billions of dollars on pharmaceutical products and take medicine to stay awake and sleep at appropriate times. This hegemony, he argues, should be replaced with a new “bioethics” that accepts human variation in sleep patterns.

Those readers who have not thought much about sleep medicine as a social and cultural phenomenon can get some understanding of how sleep has always been social, “affecting others and affected by others” (p. xv), but although his case studies are insightful, few of his arguments are original. While the book is sufficiently “academic” in its language, the corpus of sources he refers to is comparably small, certainly for a book that is based on a doctoral dissertation. In particular, not a single work from the now substantial body of anthropological and sociological sleep research is quoted. Nevertheless, it is obvious that some of these works have influenced him considerably, most notably Kroker on the history of medical sleep research and the two edited volumes on sleep by Lodewijk Brunt and myself containing chapters on American protestant preachers, bed-time rituals, sleep experiments in...


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pp. 477-478
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