The Research Project
For thousands of years, sleep—and, thereby, dreams—have been subject to myriad myths, tales and images that try to grasp the “essence” of sleep and its significance for human existence. But even if sleep itself or our reasoning about it could be understood as an “anthropological constant”, the way in which sleep is thought of, described, scrutinized, measured, controlled and practiced has changed fundamentally over the last 130 years. The perception of the human being, of the sleeping body, of the dreaming soul or brain has undergone a radical transition. Since the late 19th century, new methods and techniques have produced a “scientific” approach to sleep, and the time and space for sleeping has had to be adjusted to the rhythms of a highly industrialized society.
Against this backdrop, this project aims to tell the German history of knowledge about sleep during the “long 20th century” (Raphael) and to identify factors in its transatlantic intertwining with the growing field of sleep research in the US. Such a history has to be much more than the history of a mere scientific concept: Knowledge about sleep has been closely linked to cultural patterns, ideological settings, social changes and power relations, and, last but not least, economic developments and interests within modern society.
From the beginning, sleep experts have not only been interested in understanding and healing individuals, but also in optimizing sleep. People have needed to meet the challenges of everyday industrial life, the working process, but also extraordinary situations such as illness and war. Human beings in industrialized society were thought to need “good” or sufficient sleep to maintain their powers and resources, but there was also a perception that people needed to sleep “faster”, as some experts of the 1920ies stated it. Sleep had to be timed carefully and fitted into the new and changing time orders of work and consumption, of family life and the frontlines. Moreover, sleep could be used to “govern” the human being in a very direct way: As a form of therapy, “healing sleep” was enforced by drugs, often for several weeks at a time, and the deprivation of sleep served as a means of torture. Thus, the historical analysis of knowledge about sleep can reveal how modern society has tried to govern the individual and optimize and control the individual with the help of science.
At the same time, the history of sleep indicates the limits of control, too: The sleeping individual has always resisted attempts to be completely understood, and sleep remains a barely controllable “mystery”. It is not by chance that the rise of modern sleep research has accompanied the growing fear of losing sleep, of mass sleeplessness. If nothing else, sleep has always marked the limit of the working day and, day by day, night by night, it provides a very individualized space for sealing oneself off from the demands of society and for being unproductive and just enjoying one’s dreams.