The film Sleep Dealer raises some provocative questions about the relationship between labour and embodiment. The film almost hyperbolically literalizes the Marxist theory of alienation by which the worker’s identity as a sovereign individual is severed from her labour; the “sleep dealers” quite literally cannot see the product or the process of their labour. Marx’s treatise, while expanding on the various forms of alienation experienced by the worker, does not consider in great depth the primacy of the material body of the worker as the site upon which this alienation is experienced, and the physical body is not always clearly distinguished from either identity (individual or collective) on the one hand, or labour-power on the other; within this context, I am fascinated by the relationship between corporeal form and identity as explored Sleep Dealer.
The central premise of the film – with its system of nodes, etc – resonates deeply with Katherine Hayles’ theories of the posthuman. This is perhaps best illustrated through the trope of the memory-transfer, by which memories can be detached from the person to whom they belong and become commodified. Here, information “has lost its body” but is still assumed to have retained its essence (as a ‘memory’) which exists outside of its material carrier – namely Luz’s body. Luz’ monetized, disembodied memories stand in stark contrast to Memo’s memories through which the film unfolds. As Memo’s cyborg body increasingly fragments his sense of self, his memories become the site of authenticity that sutures him to the past, to his family, to his home town. The very ephemerality of memory that gets Luz so easily co-opted into the capitalist system is what, paradoxically, protects Memo from completely losing his identity within it. The role of memory, especially collective memory, is of central significance when talking of exploitation of labour, for the notion of class consciousness is predicated as much on an awareness of long, undocumented histories of oppression, as it is on current conditions of material production. This complex relationship between identity, memory and embodiment in the film forces us to re-think how we conceive of labour within this kind of post-digital world, especially the possibilities of overturning hegemonic structures. If the working classes can rise only by recognizing their sovereignty and their identities as autonomous individuals who have the potential to be in control of their own labour power, how does one develop possibly emancipatory definitions of these concepts when the physical body of the worker is so inextricably – and literally – linked to the logic of capitalist system?