Banal Insomnia: The Ethics of Sleeplessness

Jerome, Isabelle. 2023. Banal Insomnia: The Ethics of Sleeplessness. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

In recent years, sleep has been cast by theoretical and activist movements as a powerful act of resistance to the dominance of capitalist culture. Jonathan Crary articulates this potential powerfully in his 2013 work 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, seeing in sleep ‘one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism.’ This thesis counters this one-sided celebration of sleep by first recognising sleep’s inherently asymmetrical nature, namely that sleep requires a vigilant wakeful subject who keeps watch over the sleeper.

This thesis therefore addresses contemporary cultures of sleeplessness by specifically focusing on the sociality of insomnia. By foregrounding the necessity of the vigilant subject for any collective sleep project, this thesis is primarily interested in the ethics of sleep and insomnia. There are two elements to this perspective: on the one hand, this thesis seeks to address, in line with theorists like Crary, the disempowering, oppressive nature of our 24/7 culture in which exhausted modern subjects struggle to keep up with the demands and stimulations of 21st century society. I call this banal insomnia. On the other hand, I consider the phenomenological experience of insomnia as understood by philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who characterises it as a visceral and irrepressible awareness of our ethical duty to others. Therefore, the core question of this thesis is: is it possible to perceive in our exhausted, often cynical, culture of sleeplessness a persistent reminder of our duty to the care of others?

This thesis approaches this question by exploring scenes of insomnia in late modernity, what I call “ends” of sleep, which range from 24/7 entertainment to sleepless threats of 21st century acts of terrorism. Through an analysis of literature and art from the last 30 years, I consider how these artworks represent our contemporary exhaustion, revealing not merely the damage of our unsustainable insomniac lifestyles but also our persistent, inextinguishable and above all, wakeful, responsibility to one another.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):


insomnia, sleep, literature

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


30 April 2023

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

19 Jun 2023 12:57

Last Modified:

26 Jun 2023 14:48


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