The Slumbering Masses

The Slumbering Masses

Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life

Book - 2012
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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.

Baker & Taylor
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 19th century to the present

Book News
Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer is an anthropologist (U. of California at Santa Cruz) in a tradition focusing on critique of one's own culture. His subject here is sleep and the treatment of sleep disorders in the US. Early on, the author admits a dual programme; he wants to critique science and medicine, but in doing field study he has seen medicine at work, and is not wholly against it. Critiquing science and medicine in the terms of critical theory without being wholly against them is a tall order. However, the author mostly succeeds. He does so by balancing his interest in critique with an interest in the social history of sleep in America. The book is clearly written; if the author had stuck to social history, this would be an interesting work for general readers. But his sense of the basic introductory information required in the first few pages includes naming Michel Foucault, Henri Lefebvre, Bernard Stiegler, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari. This dissertation style will limit the book's audience, excluding most medical professionals, people with sleep problems, and general readers interested in social history. The book will be a welcome example of good prose and practical examples for readers in economic, political, and critical theory, however. Emancipatory anthropology needs villains to fight, and Wolf-Meyer finds them in two places. The first is in the idea that people should need to be awake at specific set times, rather than sleeping whenever they want. Readers who attend public school or work in most jobs may find the author somewhat naïve here. The second is integrated or whole-person medicine, which the author sees as a realm of Big Brother-esque social control. But he also notes that the restricted specialties and discipline fragmentation that integrated care was designed to replace lead to misdiagnosis and poor medical care. Wolf-Meyer is too interested in real people to be a good Marxist, and too interested in critical theory to be a good popular writer. He is at home and at his best in academic social history, tying together American ideals of proper work, proper sleep, and proper productivity, and pointing out the economic thinking behind medical concepts like "sleep debt." Annotation ©2013 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Publisher: Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, c2012
Description: xvi, 288 p. ; 24 cm
ISBN: 9780816674749
Branch Call Number: 362.196849 Wol


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