Transcribed from the 19 November 2019 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
What these demonstrators are doing is living together in public, and sleep is part of that. It is one of the daily routines that they are engaging in, in a fairly performative way. They are feeding each other, they are planning together, they are sheltering one another, and they are sleeping together. That’s a threat to authorities.
Chuck Mertz: Sleep is an act of dissent. Sleep, when used as a protest strategy, is immediately confronted by the state and police. Sleeping under the stars is a threat to capitalists, and they want none of it. But all we want—all veterans with PTSD want—is a good night’s sleep.
Here to tell us about the radical act of sleeping, Franny Nudelman is author of Fighting Sleep: The War for the Mind and the US Military. Franny is a professor in the department of English language and literature at Carlton University in Ottawa, where she teaches US culture and history.
Welcome to This is Hell!, Franny.
Franny Nudelman: Thank you, Chuck, for having me on the show.
CM: You write how you grew up an insomniac in a household of insomniacs, where each day began with a discussion of the night before: “’How did you sleep? What time did you wake? Sleeping pill or no?’ As an adult I was surprised that not everyone wanted to engage in lengthy conversations about the duration and quality of their sleep. For some people, sleep was no big deal, and this seemed strange to me.”
And you say that you envied your friends “who could take sound sleep for granted, but at the same time noticed that they didn’t seem to enjoy sleep the way I did.”
How do you “enjoy” sleep? To you, what is a good night’s sleep?
FN: A good night’s sleep is a long night’s sleep. It’s deep sleep punctuated by less deep sleep, and during the less deep sleep I’m very aware that I’m sleeping and aware that I’m enjoying it—as you would be aware that you had drunk a good glass of wine.
It’s worth saying that people have come around to valuing sleep in the past few years. There is so much more discussion of sleep and how important it is, and how fundamental it is to our well-being. But when I was growing up, my family was an outlier in this preoccupation with sleep.
CM: Why in the last few years? Why do you think suddenly people have become more interested in a good night’s sleep?
FN: The current craze for sleep, and self-help books about sleep, and the discussion of how important sleep is, is driven in really important ways by digital life. We don’t sleep as much. We hear that a lot. And that’s true. We don’t sleep as much and we don’t sleep as well, because we spend so much time not only in front of screens but also interacting. When we’re on our phone, when we’re on our computer, we’re often in dialog or responding. A state in which we’re quiescent, still, and solitary is increasingly alien.
That’s gotten people focused on what sleep means, what the importance of sleep is—mostly in individual ways, but increasingly in terms of our collective life and in terms of our communal life.
CM: You write about growing up in San Francisco in the 1960s and how your parents’ concerns over what we now call wellness “extended far beyond our home. During the 1970s they became anti-nuclear activists, and conversation in our house turned to apocalypse as often as it did to sleep.” And you point out that your dad is a doctor and an early member of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Do you think those grim realities contributed to the lack of sleep you or your parents experienced with insomnia? Due to the hellish nature and content of this show, I often lose sleep considering what I learn from our guests. Is insomnia simply an outcome of the grim realities of our times?
FN: Yeah. The book itself is about the troubled sleep of soldiers and veterans who are subject to war trauma. I was not subject to war trauma, but I was subject—in casual conversation with my parents and in watching their political work—to knowledge of the realities of war that a lot of teenagers don’t have. My dad would share with me photographs of victims of the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, photographs that he lectured about in his role as an anti-nuclear doctor.
Those kinds of things, those conversations with my parents, those images made an impression on me, and yes, they contributed to my insomnia, my sense that I was living in a world that was doomed.
CM: Do you think the public’s growing concern over sleep is an indicator of the rising grimness of our times?
FN: Yes I do. Increasingly we share a sense that our world is doomed. Maybe it was the case also during the height of the nuclear arms race, but again we are facing collective, planetary extinction. More and more of us are thinking about that and talking about that. The book is powered in some sense by this current moment in which sleep is tied in both positive and negative ways to this recognition that we’re in a lot of trouble.
CM: You recount a little-known, seldom-recalled episode that caught and held your attention, serving as a gateway into one of sleep’s many histories: “In the spring of 1971, Vietnam Veterans Against the War fought the courts for the right to sleep on the National Mall as part of their week-long demonstration ‘Operation Dewey Canyon III.’ When the courts denied their petition, veterans decided to break the law by sleeping anyway, turning good rest into a form of dissent. Hundreds of veterans fell asleep wondering whether they would be arrested by daybreak.”
Sleep as a form of dissent? Why is sleep apparently a form of dissent that concerns those in power to the degree that it seems to, when considering their prohibitions of protesters sleeping in public spaces? It seems that is one thing that really irks the state. Why sleep? Why does that seem to bother law enforcement and the state so much?
FN: One really pedestrian reason is because you can’t have a mass protest or demonstration that lasts longer than a single afternoon without a group of people sleeping in public space. In the case of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, they were planning this big week-long demonstration in Washington, and they were notified two days before it was about to begin that it wouldn’t be allowed to sleep on the National Mall. They argued in court, “Look, we have veterans coming from all over the country. Thousands of veterans who have no other place to stay.”
If you want to organize an ongoing demonstration—which are the most effective demonstrations—you need to sleep in public. That’s one reason the state clamps down on public sleep. But one of the less obvious reasons is that when you sleep in public, you put the needs of the body on display. And you also put the power of the community to tend to the needs of the body on display.
In the case of the VVAW, what they suffered from was not violent experiences of war writ large; it was war crimes that they had committed. Those were the memories that they sought to excavate and go public with. They felt that the American public was simply not aware or not responding to knowledge of the atrocities that US solders were committing against the people of Vietnam.
I think about the VVAW encampment in relation to other encampments by civil rights demonstrators at Resurrection City, by the American Indian Movement at Alcatraz, by Occupiers at Occupy Wall Street. In each case, what these demonstrators are doing is living together in public. And sleep is part of that. It is one of the daily routines that they are engaging in, in a fairly performative way. They are feeding each other, they are planning together, they are sheltering one another, and they are sleeping together. That’s a threat to authorities. That’s a threat to state institutions, because it’s a public display of people creating community, and it makes clear that what communities do is take care of one another.
This past week in Las Vegas, a ban was passed by the city on homeless encampments. It’s now illegal in Las Vegas for people without homes to sleep on the street if they have a bed in a shelter. Again, issues of shelter are deeply tied to issues of sleep and what the community is bound to provide.
CM: Another occupation, I would say, would be Standing Rock. Like Occupy, it seems that both of those events not only led to a community spirit, but led to people networking together, and when they went home they continued that networking. The work of Occupy and the people who were in Occupy and Standing Rock continues to this day.
Is that the real threat? That this can be a network? And then those people can go out into the world and take the message that they networked together for days if not weeks?
FN: Yes, absolutely. We saw this in early October in London, when Extinction Rebellion was encamped at Trafalgar Square. The metropolitan police in London swept in at night and dismantled their encampment, and they had to find another place to sleep. Yes, this is absolutely instrumental to not only protesting, but as you’re suggesting, to movement building—to creating networks, to creating forms of political intimacy that will carry on.
CM: You write about PTSD throughout your book. You write, “During World War Two, psychiatrists who treated soldiers suffering from war trauma observed how frequently their patients experienced disturbed sleep. Roy Grinker and John Spiegel, who treated US soldiers in North Africa, reported: ‘Either our patients have difficulty going to sleep because of hypnagogic hallucinations repetitive of battle experiences, or they are awakened from sleep by severe catastrophic nightmares.’”
And you add, “The disturbed sleep of Vietnam-era veterans provided an important source for the development of the diagnostic category of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, first codified in 1980, which included difficulty falling asleep and recurrent nightmares as two of the syndrome’s symptoms.”
Why do we call postwar trauma “post-traumatic stress disorder?” What does “postwar trauma” reveal that “post-traumatic stress disorder” may not?
FN: Postwar trauma specifies war as the source of that trauma. Post-traumatic stress disorder generalizes those symptoms. The diagnostic, when it was first published in 1980, made that specific by saying anyone who has had an extreme experience outside of ordinary experience can develop PTSD.
It can be considered a way of broadening the symptoms of war trauma to extend to a lot of people who have suffered a lot of different kinds of trauma, all of which may also cause the same symptoms. But it tends to blur the connections between traumatic symptoms and war.
CM: Prior to that it was referred to as “shell-shock,” correct?
FN: For a long time, disturbed sleep, insomnia, nightmares, and later in the twentieth century, flashbacks have been associated with soldiers and veterans. We tend to think that what we call those symptoms changes in each war. We went from ‘shell-shock’ to ‘combat fatigue’ to PTSD. But in fact, the symptoms themselves also change. The symptoms that Vietnam veterans exhibited are not the same as the symptoms that World War Two veterans exhibited. So what is it that transforms not only what we call trauma, but also how trauma manifests itself from one era to the next?
Activist veterans of the Vietnam era, members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in particular, had an enormous hand in determining what the Vietnam-era traumatic symptoms were. Those symptoms, then, bled out into the psychiatric profession.
CM: Is there a link between the symptoms and, potentially, increased brutality in war due to ‘improved’ warmaking technologies?
FN: It’s interesting, but that’s not my angle on it. I’m more interested in the way that the symptoms were tailored by veterans themselves to be more conducive to political organizing.
For example, detachment, while not totally new to the literature of postwar trauma, is something that Vietnam veterans really emphasized in their work with postwar trauma and antiwar politics. They really stressed an initial detachment: the veteran would return home, and for a year, possibly eighteen months, not experience traumatic symptoms. We can think about this detachment as giving the veteran time and space to reflect on his own symptoms as they begin to emerge.
Antiwar Vietnam veterans gathered in groups called ‘rap sessions’ as early as 1970 to discuss the symptoms they were experiencing as they emerged. Detachment is instrumental to them saying, “Look, we have the ability and the right to interpret, analyze, reflect on, and mobilize our own traumatic symptoms,” as opposed to being analyzed by psychiatrists.
CM: I find that so fascinating, that in trying to treat postwar trauma, it seems that studying by the military led to veterans who would become antiwar. Are antiwar veterans the result of the military studying postwar trauma?
FN: No. I don’t think so. But in order to mobilize against war, they had to loosen themselves from the grip and the institutional authority of military psychiatrists. So the complexity of what veterans did in relation to war trauma was that they didn’t abandon the definitions that they had been handed by the psychiatric institution, but they turned those symptoms that were already well-known and codified—they adapted them and turned them new uses. This was a complex historical transition. I don’t think it was psychiatry that caused them to become antiwar. I think it was their experience of the war that caused them to be antiwar, and then they thought, okay, so how do we take these now-popular understandings of what war does to the mind and the personality, and turn them to radical uses?
CM: You write, “Drug-induced sleep served as a routine form of treatment and a means of inquiry and experimentation. Inducing deep and twilight sleep in clinical settings, military psychiatrists studied the effects of war violence on the soldier’s mind. In the process they redefined the nature of memory in ways that would have far-reaching influence, and pioneered techniques of brainwashing that would weaponize both memory and sleep.”
I knew the military wasn’t going to get out of this Scot-free. What do you think was their emphasis? Was their emphasis on a cure and they just stumbled on it as a weapon? What was their emphasis?
Public sleep is free speech first because it’s a performance. What the Vietnam Veterans Against the War said they were doing on the National Mall was simulating an encampment in Vietnam. They said part of what they were doing there was guerrilla theater, and that is a kind of expression. But the First Amendment guarantees not only free speech but also the right to peaceably assemble.
FN: It varies from clinician to clinician. Some were somewhat more instrumental in their approach to their soldier-subjects. But there was generally an urge to use sleep to help traumatized veterans and soldiers during World War Two feel better. Sometimes clinicians would put traumatized soldiers into deep sleep states, what they called ‘clinical comas,’ so they could get some rest and feel rejuvenated (and go back to fighting, usually). I write at length about experiments in twilight sleep, in which psychiatrists would inject a traumatized soldier with barbiturates, and while he was half awake and half asleep, conduct a rapid course of talk therapy that would help him to relive his traumatic experience and hopefully be cured by that reliving.
But in the process of conducting these experiments, as is often the case, psychiatrists started to find out really interesting things. For example, they found out that it tended to work as well to make up a story that didn’t in fact happen to the individual soldier as it did to have him relive his actual experience. They found it doesn’t really matter whether he remembers something that actually happened or whether he remembers a generic war experience that we tell him happened.
Given their line of work, this was a source of interest and intrigue, and one basis for later coercive experiments in brainwashing: that you could tell someone something that didn’t happen and have it become fundamental to their sense of self.
CM: You write, “Vietnam Veterans Against the War were ambivalent towards the prospect of recovery. Even if individual healing was hoped for, their activist program conveyed the difficulty of leaving the past behind. In public testimony and performative direct action, veterans demonstrated the ongoing power of the past to disrupt the present. In the process, they developed and refined a particular account of the way that traumatic memories recur. A contemporary understanding of how trauma works—lying dormant for a time and then flaring up suddenly with unpredictable consequences—is itself the fruit of veterans’ antiwar organizing, which employed the persistence of traumatic symptoms to make the case against the war as the war dragged on.”
Is remembering the traumatic instances experienced in war an antiwar political act, while simultaneously being what veterans want to forget? Does the VVAW, or anyone who is a veteran opposed to war, depend on soldiers remembering the worst moments of their time at war and not moving beyond the traumatic events?
How can you do these two things simultaneously? How does the VVAW suggest veterans deal with what would seem to be conflicting forces?
FN: In the case of the VVAW, the thing that they suffered from was not violent experiences of war writ large; it was war crimes that they had committed. Those were the memories that they sought to excavate and go public with, because they felt that the American public was simply not aware or not responding to what they were aware of: knowledge of the atrocities that US solders were committing against the people of Vietnam.
The things that they publicized were things that they had done. It wasn’t the generic “I was traumatized by seeing my friend killed.” It was, “I was traumatized by the people I brutally murdered.”
That gives their trauma a specific quality—one that makes recovery more difficult. And oftentimes they seem to describe what they were doing as trying to ensure that people were educated so that the war would stop. But their own recovery was something that they were writing off, something that they could not expect, because of their criminal guilt.
FN: You write, “The VVAW’s legal arguments over the right of veterans to sleep on the National Mall continued to reverberate, invoked in the early 1980s to defend the tent cities that were erected to protest homelessness, and more recently by New York’s former mayor Michael Bloomberg when he cleared Occupiers from Zuccotti Park. He sounded a lot like the US district judge George Hart when he explained the First Amendment to protect speech does not protect the use of tents and sleeping bags to take over public space. Alan Levine, who was counsel for the Occupiers, took the opposing point of view when he argued to the contrary that Occupiers were sleeping in the park for expressive purposes.”
Why is sleeping in the park free speech? Isn’t it just loitering and vagrancy?
FN: Two reasons that it’s free speech. According to the VVAW, and according to a lot of activists since then who have made that argument, public sleep is free speech first because it’s a performance. What the Vietnam Veterans Against the War said they were doing on the National Mall was simulating an encampment in Vietnam. They said part of what they were doing there was guerrilla theater, and that is a kind of expression.
But the more consequential and significant argument was that the First Amendment guarantees not only free speech but also the right to peaceably assemble. Very clearly, to gather in a peaceful demonstration is guaranteed by the First Amendment. We usually think about the free speech part but don’t remember that free speech is tied to peaceable assembly.
This gets back to the point you made earlier about networking. When people come together to talk together, to speak together, it’s about speech. And speech is also about assembly.
CM: You write about “aimless time,” and “unhurried time,” which I find absolutely fascinating. We recently spoke with Bree Busk, from Santiago, Chile, the site of recent massive protests. She explained that when protesters went on a general strike, people came out of their homes and into the streets and started sharing their experiences under neoliberalism, and realized that they were not alone, that everyone had the same feelings of precarity and loneliness and depression. Bree explained that with no work to go to, people started engaging with each other, and started to create people’s assemblies like those of Occupy and the kind that exist in Brazil today, which were part of the early 2000s’ World Social Forum.
So is the most rebellious aspect of sleep, then, that unhurried, even aimless time? Is that the greatest threat to capitalism, when they see these kinds of protests?
FN: Yeah. It’s extended non-productive time (not productive in the narrow sense). Also, conversation is absolutely central. The idea that sleep is a form of free speech leads us to ask: what happens when people camp together in order to sleep together, and are not in a rush? Well, they talk about exactly the kinds of things that you’re mentioning.
They establish forms of solidarity through conversation, and one of the amazing things that happened with the Vietnam veterans who were camped on the Mall is that when the supreme court said that they would not be allowed to sleep on the Mall, ruling that they could stay on the Mall but that they couldn’t fall asleep there, the eight hundred veterans who had already been camping there for three days caucused by state and debated whether they should break the law and fall asleep or obey the law and stay awake, and then they voted. Jan Barry, who was the founding president of the VVAW, said that it was that conversation that amazed him. Eight hundred veterans talking about whether to sleep or stay awake. He said that was democracy in action.
In a lot of different ways, sleep is tied to talking with one another. That’s really important to organizing but also, as you’re suggesting, to discovering things that we’re experiencing in common.
Sleep is a site of creativity, and dreams are themselves potential sources of better futures. But I would add to that: given some of the political challenges we face, we just need to be well-rested.
CM: You write, “This account of veterans’ activism is positive, even celebratory, because I admire their accomplishments and because their contribution to the field of antiwar protest has not been fully recognized or closely studied.”
That is very odd. In your opinion, why hasn’t it? Is there something about veterans being antiwar that is an obstacle to the public knowing about the contributions of veterans in peace movements, which are significant as you point out?
FN: You’re right, it is odd. So much has been written about the movement to end the war in Vietnam, and also a lot has been written about the VVAW and other antiwar veterans’ organizations. But in terms of the really specific material nature of what the antiwar veterans did, the modes of organizing that they used (which I think were extraordinarily innovative), very little has been done.
When we think of protest forms, we tend to think of big marches, or Abbie Hoffman and Yippie political theater, throwing money on the New York stock exchange. But the kinds of activism that the VVAW pioneered, the forms of activism like public testimony, public sleep, the rap sessions that they held early on—these have not been discussed in depth. I want to restore their contribution to antiwar organizing, which is always cross-pollinating with other groups.
They borrowed from second wave feminists, and other people borrowed from them. But I still think that they have been under-studied in these materialist ways, and that’s in part because the radical therapists that they worked with, who went on to establish the PTSD diagnosis, are given a lot of attention and a lot of credit for things that the veterans themselves actually thought through for themselves.
CM: You write, “In the book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, author Jonathan Crary suggests that our current interest in sleep is inseparable from the threat that late capitalism poses to it. He begins by describing military efforts to design a sleepless soldier who can remain awake for many days at a stretch without adverse effects, and predicts that if these experiments succeed that the sleepless soldier will be a forerunner of the sleepless worker or consumer.”
This reminds me of how the Third Reich would give Pervitin to women—they were prescribing it to everybody during Nazi Germany. This is incredibly frightening. What would life be like without sleep, even if the process doesn’t cause any adverse effects?
FN: It would be awful. It would be hell. We actually can’t give up on sleep, for all kinds of reasons. The specter of a sleepless consumer, a sleepless worker, sleepless soldiers, is probably at this point not what we need to be focused on. Those are not beyond the realm of possibility, but there are lots of incursions on our sleep that are going to happen before then that we need to prevent.
I actually turn away from better-known experiments in inducing sleeplessness—the sleepless soldier, yes, but more importantly the use of sleep deprivation as a form of torture in recent American wars—and I look instead at experiments in inducing sleep, in producing sleep. The story of sleep doesn’t go in any single direction. It can be used in malicious ways to keep people awake, and it can be used in malicious ways to put them to sleep. I argue strenuously that we need to look at the context. Sleep in a particular space, at a particular moment—who are the institutional actors in managing and controlling it? But generally, let’s pay attention to who controls where we sleep, how we sleep, and who we sleep with.
CM: You write, “Sleep is necessary for our collective survival. Sleep interrupts the homogeneous time of late capitalism. During this pause or time of waiting, we are free to imagine a shared world whose fate is not terminal. Crary hopes that in sleep we will recover our ability to imagine a future that is radically different from our present, writing, ‘The beginnings of a future without capitalism begins as dreams of sleep.’”
Do we need dreams and sleep in order to have the transformative revolution we need to overcome the epidemic of depression and loneliness that so many of our guests have linked to late capitalism?
FN: Yes, I think so. I have not been able to let go of the idea which runs throughout the culture of sleep: that sleep is a site of creativity, and that dreams are themselves potential sources of better futures. But I would add to that: given some of the political challenges we face, we just need to be well-rested. That’s the more basic thing. To deal with some of the stuff that we’re dealing with, we need to have the presence of mind and the sense of calm that a good night’s sleep provides.
CM: You write, “Current debates over trigger warnings in the university classroom, for example, rely on the construction of the ‘flashback’ that veterans helped to bring into the diagnostic realm. National affairs correspondent for the Nation magazine Jeet Heer describes the Vietnam Veterans Against the War rap sessions as the ’embryonic safe space where the concept of PTSD emerged,’ and rightly observed that the current popularity of trigger warnings and safe spaces on college campuses indicates the expanded reach of PTSD in our society as well as the lasting influence of the antiwar movement.”
Are the current college debates that the right is so indignant about the result of actions by veterans and soldiers they support? If you told a Fox News commentator complaining about trigger warnings or safe spaces that those all come from the antiwar work of veterans who have fought postwar trauma, that these are all caused by militaries fighting wars, you’d be shouted down. So are veterans responsible for safe spaces and trigger warnings?
FN: Yeah. Vietnam veterans. The very notion that you can be ‘triggered’ is essentially a belief in the flashback, which is the intense waking recollection of traumatic experience. There were no flashbacks before the Vietnam war. I mean, there were flashbacks—they used flashbacks in movies and they called it that, and it was a term that was popular in the drug subculture—but it became associated with traumatic experience during the Vietnam war, and antiwar veterans were largely responsible for that. Not solely responsible, but largely responsible.
So yes, what we call now a ‘trigger’ is essentially something that produces a flashback. And the very notion that you can be going about your business and suddenly be overwhelmed by a traumatic memory that obliterates the present and puts you wholly back in this terrible past experience is a historically specific notion that we inherit from the Vietnam era, and the public activism of Vietnam veterans routinely performed the experience of flashing back for an American public.
CM: You write about a “slow violence” that we are all experiencing and the possible response to it with a “slow activism.” There’s slow violence of the forever war that we are all experiencing and at the same time the response of slow, persistent activism.
As you point out, when people are together in a space where they sleep together, that can be the creation of the slow activism that we need in response to the slow violence that we are experiencing today.
Of the book 24/7 by Jonathan Crary, you write that “he argues that sleep is under siege and mounts an impassioned defense of its value, observing that sleep is the only regular activity that cannot be easily commodified in a world in which we produce, consume, and interact around the clock. He argues that sleep represents a formidable obstacle to the full realization of 24/7 capitalism—let’s all be very thankful that they haven’t figured out how to put commercials into our dreams yet.”
So, Franny: is sleep a threat to capitalism? Is it a commie plot?
FN: Yes, it is a threat to capitalism—or at the very least it’s necessary to finding alternatives to capitalism, and also to finding ways to effectively resist capitalism. Is it a commie plot? You don’t really want me to answer that question.
CM: I really appreciate you being on the show.
FN: Thank you, Chuck, it’s a pleasure.
Featured image: painting by Syrian artist George Maher