Digital Project

Revolution and/or Sleep

What follows is the introduction to Not Dead But Sleeping, Anna Della Subin's book-length essay on the cultural politics of sleep. Not Dead But Sleeping traces the origins and incarnations of the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, which has often been told (or rewritten) during moments of political awakening, from the founding of the United States to contemporary Egypt. Subin considers the myth’s speculative uses and revolutionary potential, poetically pushing back against Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dictum, “There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.” Originally published in 2016 as an ebook, Not Dead But Sleeping is now available in print.

“Everyone here is awake,” one young Egyptian activist told the New York Times in a 2011 report on nightlife in Tahrir Square, the unofficial capital of the Arab Spring. Who could sleep when there were slogans to be written, strategies to debate, news to discuss, poetry to recite, music to be played, and food to be prepared for thousands? The protester’s sentiment was echoed in a line of graffiti scrawled on the side of a tank: “The revolution is in Tahrir; no sleeping in bed.”

Revolution and sleep seem, intuitively, to be antithetical forces. When Anna Della Subin first undertook this book, in 2013, she proposed that sleeping be understood as a revolutionary act. For various reasons, this appeared to be incongruous with the conditions of life and politics in Egypt, which had partly inspired her research into Tawfiq al-Hakim’s 1933 play The People of the Cave and the story on which it is based. (The story, in which seven Christian youths fall asleep for three centuries only to awaken in a radically transformed world, is present in many cultures and religions, but it is particularly prominent in Islam.) The ouster of Hosni Mubarak had animated a previously moribund political system, turning it fluid and malleable. The country looked like it was up for grabs. Sleep seemed like an indulgence or a distraction.

Revolutionaries throughout history have expressed disdain for sleep. Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the nineteenth-century Russian revolutionary and an archetype for twentieth-century ascetics wedded to the cause, allowed himself to sleep only grudgingly—and when he did rest it was on a bed of nails. For Walter Benjamin and Guy Debord, the sleeper is a figure of complacency, and nodding off invariably means accepting the status quo. Subin quotes Martin Luther King’s famous admonishment not to sleep through the revolution.

Yet the sleeper, too, has a historical mandate. Coverage of the protest movements, revolutions, and occupations that have focused the world’s attention in the past five years is replete with iconic images of marching bodies with raised fists. But spend any amount of time reading about those uprisings, encampments, and mass mobilizations, and you'll discover a vast archive of images of repose.

Amid the buzz of Tahrir Square, protesters fell asleep at all times of day and night, sometimes napping in the shade of tanks. In Istanbul, they curled up beneath Turkish flags and posters of Atatürk in the tent city erected at Gezi Park. In Hong Kong, they sprawled beneath umbrellas on financial district highways, gumming up traffic. Recumbent, snoring bodies are just as effective “upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus,” as Mario Savio said in 1964, at making the machine stop—if only for the night.

In 2011, Occupy Wall Street activists undertook “sleepful protests,” making beds of tarps and sleeping bags on the sidewalks of New York’s financial district. #SleepOWS became one of the many fleeting hashtags associated with the movement, which shaped Subin’s disquisition on the power of slumber and influenced her understanding of the legacy of the people of the cave. The ceaseless marches and seminars and committee meetings were stoked and fortified by the quieter—but no less radical—act of falling asleep in public. One reporter described sleep as a ritual of OWS with a social dimension, “sleep, lying among your comrades, everyone vulnerable, everyone absurd, stretched out between the coffee trucks and the police cruisers, under the watchful eye of a mobile NYPD surveillance tower jacked up over a truck.”

The collective passing out of young people in the financial hub of the city that never sleeps might be seen as an affront to what critic Jonathan Crary calls 24–7 capitalism. The sleeper reclaims her right to rest contra contemporary working life, which hinges on the regulation of her body and her schedule in accordance with the whims (and on-demand systems) of employers, as well as on her free time being devoted to the indulgence of manufactured desire.

Subin reanimates numerous episodes in the history of the sleepers. She draws from a number of sources: sacred texts like the Qur’an, modern political histories like that of the Civil Rights movement, and contemporary artworks like Egyptian artist Wael Shawky’s The Cave (2005).

In her account, sleep marks a rupture in the continuity of experience. Subin’s sleeper-heroes range from the mythical shepherds of ancient Rome who snooze through the empire’s embrace of Christianity to the legendary Rip Van Winkle, who remained unconscious through the American Revolution, to Julian West, an otherwise hapless Bostonian who dozes through the arrival of Edward Bellamy’s nineteenth-century socialist utopia. These figures are wholly ignorant of the historical changes that have taken place while they slept, which makes them astute social critics. Equipped only with the common sense and the received wisdom of their time, they are forced to confront radically altered bodies of knowledge, beliefs, and prejudices.