Political Science 404 A2: The Politics of Sleep

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All the documents for this course will be posted on this site.

Articles posted are for individual academic use only and must not be reproduced or distributed. Please do not give the site password to anyone not in the class. Go to posted articles.

Starter documents

1. Syllabus

2. Reading list (with complete bibliographic references).

3. Reading list with links to digital copies held in Rutherford library on-line, or with library call numbers matched to hard copy held in Rutherford Reserves. In case you can’t get access to this site, you should keep a separate copy of this reference list so that you can use the library copies as back-up.

4. Handout on how to read theory

5. Non-academic sleep resources (films, memoir, video etc.)

6. Presentation schedule

Weekly information


This week please spend your three hours doing self-directed tasks.

  1. Please watch this video, and answer the question: why do we sleep, according to Russell Foster?
  2. Read this article, Williams and Wolf-Meyer, “Longing for Sleep,” and think about…
  3. Answer the question: what is your own “sleep story”? (How, where, when, with whom did you sleep as a child? How, where, when, with whom do you sleep now? Do you have any problems with sleep? Do you like sleeping or not so much? If you could quit sleeping, would you?)
  4. Read the course syllabus, and come next week with any questions about it.

Week 2: Sep 11: Sleep and health

Wolf-Meyer, chapter four, “Desiring a Good Night’s Sleep,” from The Slumbering Masses
Hale and Hale, “Is Justice Good for Your Sleep?”
Chapter six of Wolf-Meyer is optional. Interesting for anyone thinking about sleep and health, or drugs more specifically. 

  1. In our discussion last week (partly in response to Jasmin’s presentation), several of you commented that diseases like ADHD are “real” and that drugs are “necessary” to treat them. Without for a moment thinking that these claims are not true, consider that Laura and Marcus Burton, the couple who provide Wolf-Meyer with his opening case study, are “by all accounts… normal” and “tired, basically.” How does Wolf-Meyer think about this example? How might it inform your thinking about what it means to have a sleep “disorder” and to seek medical treatment for it?
  2. Make sure you know what the sleep disorders discussed in the chapter are, nosologically [as classified diagnostic entities]: narcolepsy, sleep apnea, insomnia, and RBD.
  3. Narcolepsy is one of the more serious sleep disorders. Sam, “a middle-class white American…in his early forties” with narcolepsy, is, according to Wolf-Meyer, experiencing a “crisis of desire and intimacy” (109). Kate is “in contradistinction to Sam” (110), while Martin is “the model narcoleptic subject” (111). What political points is Wolf-Meyer making through these three case studies [Hint: top of 112]?
  4. The Hale and Hale article taps into a literature in “the social determinants of health,” which seeks to establish how social inequalities of various kinds create disparities in health outcomes. For example, members of racialized groups, the poor, women, immigrants, queer people, etc. in Canada have all been found to have worse health than comparator groups because of social inequity. Citing a paper in this literature by Daniels, Kennedy, and Kawachi, Hale and Hale summarize their “gradient argument.” What is it? What is “the voluntarism objection” to the gradient argument?
  5. In a section headed “relationship between sleep duration and socioeconomic factors,” Hale and Hale review an existing empirical literature on this relationship. What does it show? How do they interpret these findings?
  6. Sleep, Hale and Hale suggest, is a “peculiar [public health] behaviour.” What four things do they argue make it distinctive? (And do you agree with these claims?–they seem at odds with some of the arguments we’ve toyed with in class.)
  7. Justice is good for your sleep, Hale and Hale conclude, because an understanding of justice as autonomy is most likely to promote optimal sleep. Explain how they reach this conclusion. 

Link to series of Broadly stories about sleep

Week 3: Sep 18: History of sleep

Reiss, Chapter one, from Wild Nights
Ekirch, “Sleep We Have Lost”

  1. “Virtually nothing about our standard model of sleep existed as we know it two centuries ago” (Reiss, 24). What features of sleep does Reiss show are culturally and historically variable?
  2. Various technological and social changes have in turn changed sleep, Reiss points out. Make a list of the changes he identifies.
  3. We think of early modern sleep as “tranquil,” says Ekirch, but in fact it posed a number of difference challenges than sleep today. What were they?
  4. Ekirch’s main new contribution in this article–and the one he is famous for–is that after industrialization and especially the invention of the electric light, sleep in Western Europe moved from being “segmented” to “consolidated.” What does he mean? What happened between first and second sleep, and what might be its value?
  5. Wolf-Meyer’s very short article is a critical response to a piece of comparative anthropological research by Yetish et al. What argument did Yetish et al make, and what are Wolf-Meyer’s objections to it (and to the claims it embodies more broadly in sleep research)?

Slides from Week 3

Short paper #1 due on the politics of sleep

Week 4: Sep 25: The politics of sleep

Williams, Introduction, chapter one, and chapter three, from The Politics of Sleep.
Goldberg-Hiller, “Is there a right to sleep?”

Our goal this week is to work out what we might mean when we talk about a “politics” of sleep, and to set some agendas for questions we’ll discuss in more detail later in the course. I recommend reading Williams fairly quickly; it is not a very argument-driven text, so much as a survey of issues. Goldberg-Hiller’s article is much more a piece of serious political theory, and we’ll focus our in-depth discussion on it.

  1. In his introduction, Williams identifies three “socio-political agendas” in the politics of sleep. What are they and how does he characterize them?
  2. In Chapter 1, Williams starts by surveying arguments that the “temporal rhythms” of contemporary western cultures have changed–mostly, the claim is that everything has speeded up. What exactly does this mean as a social scientific claim? Why does this thesis motivate a discussion of sleep?
  3. Fast forward to CHAPTER THREE on “(In)equality and (In)justice.” Williams suggests in this chapter that sleep is a basic human right, and then goes on to detail all the ways that inequalities and injustices have consequences for sleep. Make a list of these inequalities and how they map to effects on sleep.
  4. Both Williams and Goldberg-Hiller ask the question, “is there a right to sleep?” What does it mean to establish something as a right?
  5. Goldberg-Hiller is interested in two “philosophical and political discourses”–one (that he calls “phenomenology”) concerned with when the sleeper is a subject, and a second (that he calls “political theology”) that is concerned with sovereignty (historically, literally with the body of the king, and now with more abstract forms of ruling). He uses these two discourses and how they treat sleep to articulate an “affirmative biopolitics”–a richer account of rights and law that takes the living body into account. The point of all this is to encourage a rethinking of political and legal subjectivity. What do you take away about what that rethinking amounts to?
  6. Goldberg-Hiller discusses two important legal cases: the Hatton case (a complaint in the UK about being kept awake by planes landing and taking off at Heathrow airport) and the Ramlila case (a complaint in India about police violence against sleeping protestors in public space). Be sure you know the details of these cases. What do you think each one proves?

The Hatton judgment

Slides from Week 2

Week 5: Oct 2: Social acceleration

Rosa, “Social Acceleration”
Hsu, “The Sociology of Sleep and the Measure of Social Acceleration”

  1. Rosa tries to clarify the generic claim (popular throughout modernity) that “society is getting faster.” He separates it into three types: technological acceleration, the acceleration of social change, and the acceleration of the pace of life. Be sure you can describe each of these forms. How could we measure them?
  2. Social acceleration is driven, Rosa suggests, by capitalism, cultural expectations, and social structure. How does this work within each sphere? How are they mutually reinforcing?
  3.  What areas of social life resist acceleration–intrinsically or intentionally–according to Rosa? What relationship between acceleration and deceleration does he posit?
  4. Social acceleration has consequences both for personal identity and for politics in late modernity, says Rosa. What are these consequences?
  5.  The purpose of Hsu’s paper is to use sleep research to test Rosa’s social acceleration hypothesis. What kind of research does he survey, what failings does it have, and what does he conclude about social acceleration and sleep?
  6. Williams’ response to Hsu includes four “rejoinders.” What are they? Do you understand them as criticisms of what Hsu said, or suggestions for further things he could have said, but didn’t?

Slides from Week 4

Here’s the Seinfeld episode (short clip) where Kramer becomes a polyphasic sleeper.

Week 6: Oct 9: Time

Sharma, Chapter one and chapter two, from In the Meantime
Birth, “Time and the Biological Consequences of Globalization”

Our theme for the week is “time,” which follows from our discussion of the social acceleration thesis. We’ll focus class on Sarah Sharma’s very readable anthropological work on the temporality of different occupations, in which she contrasts frequent business travellers (who perhaps best exemplify the social acceleration thesis) with taxi drivers (who operate on a different temporality that is in part designed to support “fast” people). We’ll spend less time on the Birth article, but it is an interesting survey of how the neo-Marxist concept of “time-space compression” runs up against human biology.

  1. Sharma opens chapter one with an anecdote about a young software developer she meets in an airport. He cites the work of Zygmunt Bauman, the famous social theorist who died in 2017. If you want to know more about “liquid modernity” (a concept that relates to our discussion of modernity and Rosa), you can check out this interview.
  2.  Sharma introduces her account of speed and time through three case studies of frequent business travellers (or “road warriors”): Claire, Darryl, and Ken. What do these examples show?
  3. Sharma is interested in “technologies of time maintenance” and “temporal architecture.” What are they, what do they do, and what is their relation to sleep?
  4.  Chapter two is an ethnographic study of taxi drivers. Sharma introduces an alternative account of speed and time through three case studies: Abraham, Judy, and Billie. What do these examples show?
  5. This population also thinks about social acceleration and time, but Sharma deliberately contrasts their experience with the “road warriors.” What are the differences, and what do they show about speed, time, and work?
  6. Taxi drivers also have a relationship to rest and sleep. What is it, and, again, how is it different from more privileged temporal subjects?
  7.  “The suppression of embodied temporal conflicts is part of the postmodern condition” (217), says Birth. What do you think he means?
  8. What is “time-space compression”?

Slides from Week 5

Week 7: Oct 16: Work

Kathi Weeks, chapter four, from The Problem With Work. The introduction and chapter one are also posted, but are optional reading.

Baxter and Kroll-Smith, “Normalizing the Workplace Nap”

1.  I put up Weeks’ introduction just so you could see more about her project if you were curious. Just focus on two points: i. Around pp. 3-4 she gives two reasons why “work” has been neglected in political theory. What are they? and ii. Work has a number of roles other than production, says Weeks. What are they? (note: on pp. 8-10 Weeks uses the way that gender organizes work [and vice versa] as an example of how work more broadly creates subjectivities. Make a note to come back to this passage as it connects to Derickson’s analysis of masculinity.) Then note that the paragraph on p. 30 summarizes Weeks’ position in the book as a whole, and also note that paragraphs in the following section summarize each of the chapters, including four, which should help your reading.

2. Background concepts:

i. Chapter one is optional, but its key concept is “the work ethic”–a phrase made famous by German social theorist Max Weber in the early twentieth century in his long essay The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weeks summarizes and interprets Weber, who basically argues that the vestiges of religious faith–suborning oneself to God, and being virtuous in this life in exchange for the promise of heaven–are carried over into the secular idea that work is a “calling” and that working is good for one’s character and involves deferral of reward.

ii. Both Weeks and Kroll-Smith/Baxter mention “Taylorism,” named after Frederick Taylor, the early twentieth-century businessman who tried to increase factory efficiency. They also both refer to “Fordism” (and to “post-Fordism”), named after Henry Ford, the US automobile entrepreneur, who pioneered mass production strategies.

3. Chapter four is Weeks’ defence of the political demand for shorter working hours (without concomitant reduction in pay). “So what might we want when we demand shorter hours, and what might we want to do in those hours?” asks Weeks. As you go through, note her various answers to this question, as well as those answers she rejects.

4. “My point is that the work ethic and the family ethic remain joined together by a host of historical, economic, political, and cultural threads. This renders shortsighted any claim to challenge the schedules of waged work without addressing the organization and distribution of unwaged reproductive work, and makes problematic any effort to demote prevailing work values while either promoting or leaving uncontested prevailing family ethics” (166). a. The most common justification for shorter working hours is that is allows workers to spend more time on/with family. Weeks considers Arlie Hochschild’s work on this question, and raises a number of objections to this rationale. What are they? b. In the next section, Weeks considers a manifesto for shorter working hours that doesn’t attend to the whole picture of work and family. What are her objections here?

5. Weeks articulates a different vision of the benefits of shorter working hours that focuses on a more expansive account of “freedom and autonomy.” How does she understand these concepts, and what would be the value of less time on work (paid or unpaid, public or private) in her view?

6. Kroll-Smith and Baxter argue that the growing tolerance or even prescription of the workplace nap reflects a shift in the distinction between the public and private. Explain what this distinction is, and how Kroll-Smith and Baxter use the workplace nap to show its changing nature.

7. What is “flexibility” in the context of work?

8. “If fatigue was the primary problem of working bodies in the era of industrial labor, it is safe to say that drowsiness, defined as the absence of mental acuity, is the primary problem of working bodies in the era of flexible employment and mental labor” (39). This problem, the authors suggest, can be solved by breaktime napping and worktime napping. What are these practices?

9. What does the normalization of the workplace nap do for employees? For employers?

Some media coverage of the four-day week:

Article in The Atlantic about “workerism” (the work ethic) in the US.

Handout from Week 6

Slides from Week 6

Short paper #2 due on social acceleration or time

Week 8: Oct 23: Gender

Alan Derickson’s book, Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness, is, as the title suggests, a history of labour in the US, with an emphasis on how sleep and sleep deprivation figure in campaigns for workers’ rights, or in pushback from employers. Part of Derickson’s thesis is that staying awake and powering through was rhetorically powerful as a norm of masculinity (figured against feminine fragility and the need for rest) that organized conditions for working-class men in new industrial economies. His work is closely conceptually connected to Kathi Weeks’, but has a more historical focus. Let’s bracket it for now, but it will be useful to anyone thinking about doing a presentation connected to work, masculinity, or labour rights.

Cressida J. Heyes, “Dead to the World: Rape, Unconsciousness, and Social Media.” Go here to see a worksheet on this article that will guide our discussion on Feb 27; we’ll focus most on the questions in section A. Also go here to see a list of recent cases. Feel free to research and add your own.

Slides from Week 7

Short paper #3 due on work (chapter four of Weeks, or Baxter and Kroll-Smith)

Week 9: Oct 30: Race

Reiss, chapter four, “Sleeping Slaves, Waking Masters,” from Wild Nights (NB near the top of the reading list below)
Wolf-Meyer, “Biomedicine, the Whiteness of Sleep, and the Wages of Spatiotemporal Normativity”

Really interesting articles about the art installation “Black Power Naps”:

These Artists Want Black People to Sleep

Reparations for Black People Should Involve Rest

  1. “So a great deal was at stake in controlling the sleep-wake cycle of an enslaved people,” concludes Reiss (128). What does he show was at stake, in the context of slavery in the antebellum US?
  2. Different sleep habits, Reiss shows, were sometimes claimed to be inherent to differently raced bodies. What were the various stereotypes about white and black bodies in the racial theories of mid-nineteenth century America Reiss focuses on?
  3. “In this article, I argue that the bodies that U.S. sleep medicine produces are aspirationally ‘white’” (Wolf-Meyer, 447). He develops and applies an account of whiteness that exceeds “skin colour;” what is it, and how does it enable him to approach the racial politics of sleep in a new way?
  4. Wolf-Meyer, a medical anthropologist, did ethnographic research in a sleep clinic, at sleep medicine conferences, and on the promotion and marketing of sleep-related products. How do examples from these contexts make his case about how whiteness functions?

A news story about the “Sleeping Mexican” stereotype, which commonly appears in folk art/racist lawn ornaments.

Slides from Week 8

Week 10: Nov 6: Children’s sleep

We’ll focus on Amrute, “Go the Fuck to Sleep”

  1. This essay “turns toward infant sleep” in order to investigate what topics? What is Amrute’s thesis?
  2. What is “cry it out” and what is “attachment parenting,” as strategies for getting babies to sleep? What makes these topics that appear in an essay in social and political theory?
  3. Different messages about and strategies for managing infant sleep are transmitted to (and employed by) “low-income” and “middle-class” parents. What is the difference?
  4. What is “productivist sleep”?

Stearns, Rowland, and Giarnella, “Children’s Sleep”
Wolf-Meyer, “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep”

Slides from Week 10

FALL BREAK (No class November 13)

Week 11: Nov 20: Stories

Re-read “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White” if you haven’t read them for years. We’ll focus our discussion on the Jones article.

Short stories: “Sleeping Beauty,” “Snow White,” “Rip van Winkle,” “Manhole 69”
Jones, “Sleep, Radical Hospitality”
Fay, “Sleeping Beauty Must Die”

1. What is “makeover culture,” according to Jones?
2. What is Jones’ thesis about the connection between makeover culture and sleep?
3. Jones makes her case through a series of examples. In the context of makeover culture and sleep, what does she say in general about fairy-tales and science fiction, and then about two specific examples—Julia Leigh’s 2011 film “Sleeping Beauty,” and Phillip Lachenmann’s short film “SHU (Blue Hour Lullaby)”?
4. In what sense do you think Jones is offering us an argument in political theory?

First draft of final paper due.

Week 12: Nov 27: The future of sleep

Reiss, chapter six, from Wild Nights. (Note: all the Reiss chapters are toward the top of the list, below.)
Heyes, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”

Here are the slides that accompany my talk.

Reading questions:

Just do the reading!

To discuss: would your utopia include more sleep for all, less sleep for all, more sleep for some, less sleep for some, no sleep at all, nothing but sleep…?

Week 13: Dec 4: Paper-revising workshop and capping exercise

No new reading

Final version of final paper due 0900 April 17


1. Grading practice for the course, and checklist for effective participation.
2. Guidelines on writing short papers. Three quite different examples of successful past papers by real students in a different POL S course (anonymously reproduced with their permission): first one; second onethird one.

3. Presentation guidelines: a slide version of the class discussion.
4. Final paper guidelines.


For individual academic use ONLY. Please do not reproduce or distribute.
Full references are available at this reading list.

Simon Williams and Matthew Wolf-Meyer. 2013. “Longing for Sleep: Assessing the Place of Sleep in the Twenty-First Century.”

Simon Williams. 2011. The Politics of Sleep: Governing (Un)Consciousness in the Late Modern Age.

Jonathan Goldberg-Hiller. N.d. “Is There a Right to Sleep?” Please do not circulate this paper.

Benjamin Reiss. 2017. Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World. Chapter one. Chapter four. Chapter six.

Roger Ekirch. 2001. “Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-Industrial Slumber in the British Isles.”

Matthew Wolf-Meyer. 2016. “Can We Ever Know the Sleep of Our Ancestors?”

Hartmut Rosa. 2003. “Social Acceleration: Ethical and Political Consequences of a Desynchronized High-Speed Society.”

Eric L. Hsu. 2014. “The Sociology of Sleep and the Measure of Social Acceleration.”

Simon J. Williams. 2014. “The Sociology of Sleep and the Measure of Social Acceleration: A Rejoinder to Hsu.”

Sarah Sharma. 2013. In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics. Chapter one. Chapter two.

Kevin Birth. 2007. “Time and the Biological Consequences of Globalization.”

Kathi Weeks. 2011. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Introduction. Chapter one. Chapter four.

Vern Baxter and Steve Kroll-Smith. 2005. “Normalizing the Workplace Nap: Blurring the Boundaries Between Public and Private Space and Time.”

Alan Derickson. 2013. Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness. Chapter one. Chapter two.

Cressida J. Heyes. 2016. “Dead to the World: Rape, Unconsciousness, and Social Media.”

Matthew Wolf-Meyer. 2015. “Biomedicine, the Whiteness of Sleep, and the Wages of Spatiotemporal Normativity in the United States.”

Matthew Wolf-Meyer. 2012. The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life. Chapter four. Chapter six.

Benjamin Hale and Lauren Hale. 2009. “Is Justice Good for Your Sleep? (And Therefore, Good for Your Health?)”

Peter N. Stearns, Perrin Rowland, and Lori Giarnella. 1996. “Children’s Sleep: Sketching Historical Change.”

Sareeta Amrute. 2016. “Go the Fuck to Sleep: Well-Being, Welfare, and the Ends of Capitalism in US Discourses on Infant Sleep.”

Go here, for the medieval version of Sleeping Beauty, “Sun, Moon, and Talia” and for Perrault’s “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood” (top two links).

C19 version of Sleeping Beauty

C19 version of Snow White

Washington Irving. 1889. Rip van Winkle

J.G. Ballard. 1985. “Manhole 69”

Meredith Jones. 2015. “Sleep, Radical Hospitality, and Makeover’s Anti-Matter.”

Carolyn Fay. 2008. “Sleeping Beauty Must Die: The Plots of Perrault’s ‘La belle au bois dormant.’”

Cressida J. Heyes. 2019. “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: Agency and Work in Political Imagination.” Unpublished manuscript. Comes with slides.

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