DEEP MEDICINE: The Politics of Sleep

Mirene Arsanios& Sidsel Nelund
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“As you said ‘could be on dreaming and sleep’ this was on my path.” Photograph by Sidsel Nelund

Sidsel Nelund is a writer, art-researcher, life-coach, healer–a friend I met twenty years ago while studying in London where we bonded over shared intellectual affinities, and an understanding that writing and thinking can’t be divorced from the way we live, sleep, love, and congregate. Although we live far away from one another, I’ve followed Sidsel’s work, the multiple healing practices she’s developed over the years and their relevance to larger cultural and artistic discourses. In this conversation, we talk about sleep, healing, and how self-care can move beyond the self, toward collective life. 

MA: In Ancient Greece, and prior to that, in Ancient Egypt, the ill would seek treatment in a sleep temple where they were treated with chants, hypnosis, but mainly through dreams in which they would receive instructions from the gods on how to find a cure to their ailment.  You have been working with sleep for a few years now. What is sleep for you, and how is it healing? 

SN: Sleep is a rhythm, which like other cycles is defined by its recurrence. Yet, its character can never be predicted and it is impacted by solar, lunar, hormonal, seasonal and life cycles, as well as one's immediate surroundings: will it be long, short, blissful, painful or existing at all? Sleep is a process of becoming intimate with oneself dependent on a social contract: do not disturb the sleeping body. Sleep is a practice, pedagogy, and an activity. It’s a teacher in yielding, as the body ceases to move and sense, and instead engages in the transportation of hormones and sensory input from one place to the other in the brain. Sleep is a wave of varying intensity. It is the moment in which I am the most transparent to myself and the world. There is more to say on the collective and the healing aspect of sleep and I am wondering if in your question, I am hearing a longing for a collectivity around illness that is based in yielding and receiving and not in acting and doing?

MA: Your answer makes me think of a passage in In Praise of Risk in which Anne Dufourmantelle writes, “It is dangerous to undermine the belief that the subject might regain her “self” and construct herself through immediate decision. This belief forms the armature of our myths, the very root of the political. . . . Whereas in fact, metaphors, nebulous images, and uncertainties describe us best. Being in suspense returns us to the penumbra…” 

I have always equated politics with action and a desire for self-determination, whereas I’m now considering other, “darker” avenues of collectivity. Sleep is work’s invisible labor (if it weren’t for sleep, there would be no work). The writer Haytham El Wardany talks about this in his excellent book, The Book of Sleep. So besides thinking of sleep as a site of collectivity and resistance, I’m also interested in writing that challenges the binary between sleep and wakefulness, the kind of images, or language that emerges from a self who isn’t entirely defined by its actions. I’m drawn to “slow” fictions; narratives which aren't plot oriented and that pause and expand our experience of time (I remember reading Amina Cain’s Creature and being blown away). You just released a book, Things in Contemporary Curating: The Aesthetics of the Right to Assemble and the Need to Withdraw. How did you write it? Did you allow yourself to withdraw from the writing process?

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“Offering menstrual blood to the dry soil on day five of my cycle and of the uprisings in Lebanon in 2019.” Photograph by Sidsel Nelund 

SN: Things in Contemporary Curating entertains the use of democratic ways of assembling in exhibition making. In the book— inspired by the social scientist Albert Hirschman and his observation of ‘exit’ as a strategy applied in the relationship between citizens and the nation—withdrawing is defined in short as: “I am available, but not on these terms, in this space, in this time, I therefore choose to go elsewhere.” This is an activist strategy I apply to myself to balance the part that wants to work and write 24/7. I am also aware of what contexts make that part louder. So I actively, and not always without some internalized shame because they are often full of status, withdraw from those. Plato said that in a sleep state, one ceases to be a citizen, i.e. physical action and participation in public life is the defining principle of a citizen. Since then, Western society has, simply put, equated wakefulness with power. As Tricia Hersey of the Nap Ministry says, sleep and rest are the gateway to imagining the new, so with a sleepless society we stay stuck in the status quo.

The process of writing the book coincided with pregnancy, two years of full time parenting and COVID, and withdrawal was imposed on the process. The actual writing took place when I had enough energy and mostly in chunks of 60-75 minutes while my son was napping in day time and during the rising energy months, from March to August, each year. Many paragraphs were written in a trance state and thought in the liminal hypnagogic or hypnopompic states of falling in and out of sleep while breastfeeding at night. The thing about these liminal, darker or penumbra states is that they are deeply creative in their visioning quality. The brief time I had to write and edit was therefore well prepared for with all the liminal, visionary non-writing time. I guess what I am trying to say is that perhaps the word ‘action’ needs some revisioning. Or; to withdraw is an action in itself.

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Sidsel Nelund and Mirene Arsanios, “Reading/ Sleeping,” Beirut, 2011

MA: Yes to everything that you’re saying! When the pandemic hit, we were “forced” to withdraw from social life, which was hard, but also allowed for a deceleration of our 24/7 lifestyles. You argue in your book that to voluntarily step away enables us to listen more carefully and attune ourselves to another, more present life. But it could also be seen as a gesture of self-preservation, one oriented toward individual well-being that leaves more structural injustices unaddressed. You say that for Plato, in a sleep state, one ceases to be a citizen, which means that one is stripped of their status as a political subject with rights, demands, and desires. I’m interested in how you, together with other writers and thinkers, are re-politicizing sleep. Sleeping in public space, on public transport out of exhaustion or in the subway out of homelessness, speaks of the brutality of this late capitalist age. In The book of Sleep, Haytham  El Wardany writes: “Workers have no right to sleep from an unwillingness to work, or out of idleness or discontent, nor even to sleep because they want to sleep. Their only right is to sleep wrecked by exhaustion and exertion; to remain as members of a mythic class which cannot change its conditions. The working class labours even in sleep.” Sleep, in other words, is a luxury not everyone can afford.  

SN: No one sleeps well until all sleep well. Veronica Gago’s point about the pause as political time in which to protest abuse, and strategize for the future brilliantly underlines the crucial importance of politicized “non-action”. I find hope in Jacques Rancière’s early work on workers writing poetry at night, or Ricardo Piglia’s take on Franz Kafka as a materialist writer in that his writing depended on him not sleeping. To see struggle as an ecosystem in which biodiversity in practices and positions are needed for an ecosystem to thrive also gives me hope. The frontier is always in front of us and pausing is what gives me the nerve and presence to show up according to my politics in the routine of everyday life. This is where a walk to the nursery becomes an antiracist, anti-classist, anti-sexist, and anti-extractionist manifestation, in its own way.  

Witnessing the presidential takeover ceremony in Chile in 2010 when a big earthquake aftershock hit and vacated the parliament leaving the new president alone behind the mic was for me a defining moment. It is possible to walk out. Sometimes our bodies have to live the experience through until  the end to know it again. The power in consciously walking out or withdrawing, as I see it, speaks to the  sovereignty in asking from a more regulated, strategic and visionary position; where, with whom, why, and how to return?

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