Book Review: Bright Eyed
Insomnia and Its Cultures
by R M Vaughan
Coach House Books, 2015
Right at the beginning of his short, punchy, moving new book Bright Eyed: Insomnia and Its Cultures, R. M. Vaughan offers his readers “a note on terminology”: by “insomnia” he intends to mean “any medical or psychological situation wherein a symptom is the inability to sleep.” The term, he writes, “is not exclusively used to describe the imposition of a lack of sleep but also to describe a culture that normalizes and privileges the lack of sleep.”
The two sentences occur at opposite ends of the same paragraph, but they more properly belong in two different books. The first sentence is talking about the actual physiological condition – entirely involuntary and unwanted by its sufferer – of being unable to fall asleep or unable to remain asleep. The second sentence is talking about a cultural fad in which an increase of distracting tech-gadgets prompts some people to stay up past their bedtimes. The first sentence is talking about something that happens at random to people. The second sentence is talking about something people intentionally do to themselves. These are, obviously, radically different subjects.
By lumping them together and branding the slouching, misshapen result “insomnia culture,” Vaughan fatally handicaps the book-length discussion he’s about the undertake, but at least he does it right at the beginning, so that readers irritated by the sleight-of-hand can discard the book without wasting any precious reading time.
The hardier readers who stick around will be glad they did, because hamstrung argument or not, Vaughan is a stimulating writer, even when he’s full of hooey. He himself attempts to straddle the gap between those two opening and opposite definitions, describing himself as a life-long insomniac but also making repeated references to “my fellow sleep-dodgers.” He clearly sees no ideological divide:
Insomnia is a health issue that has morphed into a cultural condition, like alienation or bullying/being bullied. Insomnia is not just a problem of the body; its an all-encompassing, polysymptomatic, deeply embedded and perhaps irreversible environmental condition. Insomnia has a culture and has bred new cultures. Insomnia takes a toll on public health, and yet we continue to create environments and attach ourselves to new products and habits that allow insomnia to become more entrenched and more widely experienced.
“It’s not hard for an insomniac to live and work and love and play in a world populated by insomniacs,” he writes. “Everyone is sleep; few of us sleep. The number of people reporting sleep difficulties are alarming …” and then he dutifully lists those numbers and fleshes them out with examples. None of the examples describe actual insomnia. Instead, they describe people who voluntarily allow their bosses to call them after 5 pm without correction, who take their tablets and laptops to bed with them, who refuse to shut off their phones even at 2 or 3 in the morning, and so on. Such people aren’t sick: they’re weak – calling them sick not only pathologizes dumb behavior and thus feeds their weakness, it also makes things just that much harder for the far, far, far smaller number of people in Vaughan’s “insomnia culture” who actually are suffering from insomnia. Bright Eyed isn’t ultimately a discussion of insomnia – it’s a screed about the 24-hour media cycle and the abuse of the Internet.
Part of the reason for this conceptual confusion quite possibly derives from Vaughan’s own personal experience of the world. Certainly it’s colored by his, shall we say innocent knowledge of human history, which he characterizes – in a rhetorical move that’s almost certainly accidentally funny – as all about sleeping:
A community starts with a bed. Diminish the role and value of a bed, and its primary purpose – sleep – and you diminish the role and value of community-building itself. Which, perversely, feeds into the repositioning of the ideal worker as a person producing and producing without need of not only sleep, but sleep’s many epiphenomena: a sense of home, a creation of safe space that excludes the outside world, the gut need for privacy and comfort and familiarity, for inclusion in the rhythms of nature, the building of a world of one’s own, a world that is wholly apart from one’s work, a place where one need not be ‘on’ at all times.
Throughout human history, the overwhelming majority – probably something like 90 percent – of all the people who’ve ever lived have slept where they worked and never experienced a single moment of privacy, of “building a world of one’s own.” Most of the humans who’ve lived in the last 150,000 years have never had (nor probably would have wanted) the experience of closing a door and being in a private space of their own, and at least half the humans currently living on Earth haven’t had that experience and therefore obviously have no “gut need” for it, or else the whole planet would be one huge heaving gut need. Somebody who can write with such certainty about the innate human need for a comfy bed in a private room is somebody who’s perhaps spent most of his life in the tidy suburbs of Canada.
Still, people do tend to spend too much time staring at their phones. So there’s that.