Proust, on writing about falling asleep, required 30 pages to discuss merely tossing and turning. Matthew Wolf-Meyer, set out to debunk the notion that consolidated sleep is a scientific fact and norm in fewer than 300 pages. Wolf-Meyer undertakes a substantial project, at times, made evident by single sentences (that take on a fourth or more of a page). I have now read the book twice and am still weary of summing it up and before I attempt to I would like to point out that Wolf-Meyer's The Slumbering Masses does exactly what an anthropological ethnographic critique of a scientific notion should. It provides very in depth historical data as well as numerous theories to draw on. The fieldwork is comprehensive as well as engaging. Finally, although Wolf-Meyer provides a kind of solution to the problem namely that there is not a singular right way to sleep because there are not singular biologies, he also posses rhetorical questions that may raise potential problems in the future.
There are many claims integral to Wolf-Meyer's premise. I will not address all of them. However, I will suggest that if you--as a reader and learner-- are intrigued by the subject of this book namely sleep, but don't think you'll be able to get through the language within it, do some research about both what science studies are and what a medical anthropologists (who is writing an academic book) should achieve within an ethnography. A simple Wikipedia search will suffice. Two concepts that will help put into context why someone might have the audacity to claim that the eight hour consolidated sleep structure is a social construction and that there are, in fact, many ways to sleep are: 1) science undergoes paradigm shifts (read Thomas Kuhn) and 2) the laboratory is not exempt from the social and cultural (read Bruno Latuor). Wolf-Meyer offers us a solution: multibiologism. This notion, at least to me, makes a lot of practical sense. Just think about all the people you know. Do all the people in your life unanimously like mornings, evenings, require a lot of sleep, or a little bit of sleep? Or is there variation among them? This is variation that, to a degree, is normal.
Why do we even need a solution? Well, when we look at how and why Americans sleep the way we do there is a recognizable historical landmark that changed the acceptance of variation: the industrial revolution. In summation: the industrial revolution along with capitalist systems changed the workday. Factory workers were required to work a consolidated 9-5 (or similar) shift and consequently sleep too became consolidated. This change created a new everyday spatiotemporal rhythm and routine, one that marginalized those bodies that did not fit into the order of the new system. These disordered bodies were brought into to the forefront of sleep scientist's research recently. This is not to say the dominant conception regarding sleep in America has remained the same over the last few hundred years. On the contrary, science, medicine (more specifically integral biomedicine), and popular culture affect attitudes because we are situated in time and space. Which is to say, our notions of sleep on not only biological but also social and cultural, these are always interconnected (see Wolf-Meyer's Introduction).
The everyday is that which is the connection in the seemingly unconnected aspects of our daily lives, or more specifically, the everyday is the way in which we manage individual and separate projects but can still find a fluidity to life. According to Wolf-Meyer, the everyday American life, in its spatiotemporal organization, is dependent on sleep from 11-7--this is a normalized ideal--and as such all the connections in life mold to this model of a day. School is from 8-3/4, work is from 9-5, this is the order society takes and those individuals within society that need help fitting in can use an plethora of concoctions to assist them. This also seems obvious, if anyone has attended school K-12 as that was the schedule. If anyone works an office job, that is the schedule. Wolf-Meyer provides convincing ethnographic data from individuals who speak from an array of backgrounds to evidence the use of stimulants such as caffeine, soda, and energy drinks. However, Wolf-Meyer points out how in the 90's an attempt to make a 24/7 norm with places like Kinko's (ironically, his source of income as an undergraduate was the 3rd shift at a Kinko's) staying open from dawn to dawn. This later proved unprofitable (because of a 24/7 internet culture), but there are still numerous factors, such as stress, that contribute to some sleep disorders. His claim is that it has become normal for us to take a sleeping pill at night and wake up with coffee in hand. This is due in part to the fact that there is such a small nighttime job market, in part because the movement to nap throughout the day has been thwarted, in part because noncompliance is a form of protest. There is no place in society for a disordered body, we must take the pill and drink the stimulant. Wolf-Meyer reminds the reader, several times throughout the book the phrases: "early to bed early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise" and "the early bird catches the worm". These phrases have a moral implication and create a type of ideal American worker. And since we are desiring subjects, which are "formed through a complex interaction of internal and external forces we are impacted by both the cultural and `biological' norms". These are the structures that sleep clinics and integral medicine attempt to support in finding "scientific data" to prove that we need consolidated sleep.
The ethnography is laden with intellectual jibes at a hegemonic capitalist idealized norm. Satirical, insightful, and at times oddly passionate. Wolf-Meyer addresses everything from the effect sleep can have on children to murders committed while sleepwalking.
I know this is not nearly a complete review. This book is dense and not a "casual" read. Unless you're a genius. I would like to end from a quote from the book that may or may not be relevant, but that I found beautiful and poetic in it's own right (although diverse from Proust's poeticism).
"The imposition of the inevitability--that the everyday must unfold in particular ways and that all bodies should behave similarly--creates parity among actors, in this case between individuals and society, between one and the masses; it renders them isomorphic and subject to the same rules. In the social formulation of the inevitabilities of American capitalism and expectations of human desire, these isomorphic bodies are rendered congruent in rough fashion and inseparable".