Cunning Sleep in the New Age

Curator's Note

In the late 1970s, army veteran Jim Channon reflected on America’s massive and traumatising failure to win the war in Vietnam. Channon came to believe that the fundamental problem lay in the bearing of the “guileless” American soldier: “The kind of person attracted to military service” according to Channon, “has a great deal of difficulty being…cunning. We suffered in Vietnam from not being cunning. We just presented ourselves in our righteousness and we got our butts shot off” (Ronson, 2004: 33).

To overcome this lack of ‘cunning’, Channon argued that the American soldier needed to be reborn under the banner of a set of New Age ideals which he outlined in his First Earth Battalion Manual (Channon, 1979). Funded by the Pentagon, Channon aimed to synthesise a range of New Age spiritual discourses and techniques of the self in order to produce the soldier of the future.

One aspect of this research was in the management of sleep, and the use of therapeutic sounds as a way of managing and extending soldiers’ mental and psychic power. As part of their New Age training, soldiers were sent to the Monroe Institute in Faber, Virginia. A front-page article in the September 20 1994 Wall Street Journal describes how not just soldiers, but also Fortune 500 executives and elite politicians had been drawn to the Institute, which specialised in guiding attendees through what it refers to as OBEs (out-of-body experiences). The Institute however had also researched means “to modify human brain-wave activity not only for out-of-body trips, but for other goals such as sharpening memory and controlling pain during surgery” (Ortega, 1994).

The First Earth Battalion is no more, and the US army has officially discredited its line of research into New Age spiritualism. The Monroe Institute carries on however, and its techniques for modifying human brain-wave activity, such as ‘binaural beats’ sound technologies, have been remediated and banalised as an aspect of popular sleep and relaxation apps like iLB Soft’s Relax Melodies (see O’Neill & Nansen, 2019). Binaural beats project tones at two different frequencies, one in each ear, which the brain physiologically resolves as a new brainwave frequency. Boosters argue that binaural beats allow users to precisely model and produce the neurological states associated with certain frequencies (see figure 4).

It is not the agony of war, but the wrenching aporia of sleep which troubles users of binaural beats apps. For Jean-Luc Nancy (2009), the anxiety of insomnia is in the fact of sleep’s capacity to confront us with an inescapable loss of control over the definition of our subjectivity – at sleep we are most ‘within’ ourselves, at the same time that we have most abandoned claims to intentional agency. We seek means to traverse this uncertainty, to regain that ‘cunning’ knowledge which would allow us to pick out a path (poros) through sleep’s aporia (cf Kofman, 1983).

“How to sleep, distraught soul, soul without soul, soul that floats lifeless over the field of battle or muck whose inanity an operating-room lamp garishly exposes?” (Nancy, 2009: 39).


Channon J (1979) First Earth Battalion Manual. Task Force Delta: Fort Monroe.

Kofman S (1983) Comment s’en Sortir? Galilée: Paris.

Nancy J-L (2009) The Fall of Sleep. Mandell C (trans.). Fordham University Press: New York.

O’Neill C & Nansen B (2019) Sleep mode: Mobile apps and the optimisation of sleep-wake rhythms. First Monday 24(6).

Ortega B (1994) Research institute shows people a way out of their bodies. Wall Street Journal. 20 September 1994: A1.

Ronson J (2004) The Men Who Stare at Goats. Picador: London.

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