We are all posthuman: Citizen Sleeper and growing strange in late-stage capitalism


 ‘Wake up, Sleeper’ would be an apt alarm-clock (emphasis on alarm) for millions of us labouring under late-stage capitalism. The narrative roleplaying game Citizen Sleeper, for which the phrase serves as tagline, is an overt critique of capitalism: its need to protect ‘property’ over life, how it operates through our inane repetitions, how we work until we break within a system which does not care for us.

In the game, the player is the eponymous Sleeper: a digitised human mind that has been sold to inhabit an ‘artificial’ body, in servitude to a corporation. The body you are placed in is continuously decaying due to planned obsolescence. During each ‘cycle,’ which represents a working day, you roll several dice to perform actions, whose number depends on your physical and mental state. If you are familiar with chronic illness and spoon theory, you can think of these dice as your spoons—your limited available energy per cycle, which depletes as your condition worsens.

At one point within the game, a ‘nest’ of data is described as moving like ‘a loop with no end’—which is what you begin to feel like as you end cycle after cycle, body deteriorating, having to choose between acting toward a goal or the endless drudgery of feeding yourself, charging your body in sunlight, fixing it with scrap, earning currency, clout, friendships and information to purchase stabiliser to slow the inevitable deterioration of yourself. The ‘commute’ between where you sleep and where you go to take your limited daily actions becomes frustrating, leading you to spend precious resources renting a capsule pod, or joining a commune. This mix of repetition and difference—the combination of finally completing a ‘drive,’ learning a new piece of lore, recharging your body by telling stories and sharing food—and mindlessly trying to earn the resources to do so, replicates working under capitalism. Capitalism, the game shows us, is merely the recurrence of movement: capital and exchange and flow.

While reviews have noted Citizen Sleeper’s ‘human heart,’ the game’s most radical offering lies in its emphasis on non-human relations, organic plant life, webs and flows of rhizomatic data and non- and more-than-human-capacities that broadens the traditional notion of the limits and boundaries of the human.

Citizen Sleeper, like Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, tells us that we are all posthuman, all cyborgs, all iterations of Sleepers woven with technology within capitalism—waking, sleeping, working ad infinitum in a liminal, fluid, hazy boundary between animal and machine. Haraway’s conception of the cyborg is an ironic socialist-feminist myth, divorced from Western capitalism’s racist binaries and hierarchies between nature and material, between the non-human and the human, yet is the telos of Western late-capitalism’s ‘apocalyptic’ ‘abstract domination’—complete individuation. ‘Modern production,’ Haraway writes, ‘seems like a dream of cyborg colonization work, a dream that makes the nightmare of Taylorism seem idyllic.’

To accept Sleepers as cyborgs and us as Sleepers is to accept power and relations as microscopic and interstitial. Talking about micro-power and invisible data, Haraway writes that ‘Cyborgs are ether, quintessence.’ Citizen Sleeper shows this through its dual map. You flip between two planes, two maps which you move through and take actions on: the material and virtual, the somatic and incorporeal.

Except incorporeal is not the right word, for what does data and information move through but the material in lines of flighted light (fibre optics), through hard drives and CPUs and the electrical receptors in the brain? Rather than binarising the two, you are given the sense of, not overlay, but of weft and warp and flow. The ‘network map’ you see is information chained: pure potentiality encoded by capitalistic power which you work to slowly unravel and hack free, as if pruning a plant to allow it to grow or following the trunk of a tree to its rhizomatic roots.

As you move away from the striated, capitalistically encoded data which articulates relations as flows of capital exchange, difference and smoothness blooms: there is no ‘map here, no nodes and threads, only a storm of interchangeable points shifting configurations endlessly.’ This is what Deleuze and Guattari might term the plane of immanence, endless singular (points) with endless virtual capacities through proximal relations (configurations)—a multiplicity. As they write in A Thousand Plateaus: ‘[I]t is not enough to say, ‘Long live the multiple … The multiple must be made …’

To resist a power—now merged with capitalism—that increasingly operates non-ideologically through the flow of data and the sale of potentiality and affective, ‘immaterial’ labour, it is not enough to ‘wake up’ in the class-consciousness Marxian sense. Both Haraway and Deleuze and Guattari note how power is codified through representation and identity, and reject the Freudian and Marxist notions of ‘original wholeness’—the ‘transcendent authorization’ of Western epistemology that rests on violent and exploitative self-other relations, per Haraway. As she further notes, there is nothing inherently collective about identity—gender and class consciousness are achievements and products of patriarchal, racist capitalism. Haraway’s cyborg myth offers ‘dangerous possibilities’ of ‘power and pleasure’ where our fusion with technics and technology does not have to aim toward subjugations or binarisms, but rather new-becomings which embrace kinship and contradiction.

Citizen Sleeper follows Deleuze and Guattari’s thought, whereby to resist one must move toward the plane of immanence and the multiplicity of capacities it offers. If we are all sleepers, then we must learn how to make new collectives, multiplicities and fleshly and virtual becomings. As my favourite ‘ending’ of the game tells us, we must turn away from identity, representation and ideology and ‘grow strange’ against the boundaries of capitalism.

Daniel Ray

Daniel Ray studies at the Australian National University. In 2020 he was awarded a travel grant to study in the US. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Westerly, Island Online and Cicerone Journal's 2020 anthology, These Strange Outcrops.

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