Professor Reiss argued in this talk that Henry David Thoreau is one of the great critical modern sleepers, someone who both diagnosed and resisted the commodification and regulation of the sleep-wake cycle. Thoreau recorded modernity as a series of shocks to the sleep-wake system (producing chronic exhaustion, insomnia, sleepwalking, industrial accidents, and addiction to stimulants and sleep aids) coupled with a contradictory set of demands to regularize the body’s rhythms according to the needs of industry and commerce.
The sleep disturbances that were endemic to what Thoreau called “the restless, nervous, bustling, trivial nineteenth century” have only intensified in our time, when sleep has become a battleground of late-stage capitalism. It is increasingly studied and tinkered with by the forces of biomedicalization, corporate (micro)management of time and behavior, and a consumer culture that is fed by the first two. Re-reading Thoreau’s work in this light can help us to see the sources of these problems and to re-imagine the place of sleep in our world.