Review: Narcocapitalism: Life in the Age of Anaesthesia – Laurent de Sutter

Posted February 8, 2018 in Print

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Narcocapitalism: Life in the Age of Anaesthesia

Laurent de Sutter


Narcocapitalism is the capitalism of narcosis, that enforced sleep into which anaesthetists plunge their patients so as to unburden them from everything that prevents them from being efficient in the current arrangement space – space which means work, work and more work.”

Narcocapitalism: Life in the Age of Anaesthesia is a short work of theory by philosopher and professor of Legal Theory Laurent de Sutter, weaving together a history of drugs (both prescribed and self-prescribed), mental illness and crowd control. It’s a brief but winding narrative, filled with digressions on topics as diverse as the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis, the left-wing origins of the nightclub, or on the meaning of the phrase ‘running amok’ (originating in the Malaysian term ‘meng-âmuk’, a culture-bound syndrome where an individual, usually a man, suddenly picks up a weapon and embarks on a violent frenzy).

There are some less exciting moments – it’s likely that at this point most readers already know about the origins of Coca-cola as a cocaine-laced ‘tonic wine’, and about the menu of vitamins, psychoactives, enzymes and poisons administered to Hitler by his doctor, Theodor Morell. But as cans of worms go, this book is good one to pry open. Paul B Preciado’s Testo Junkie is eventually, inevitably, referenced– Narcocapitalism seems, in a sense, to be written in its shadow, as many future books doubtless will be – and while de Sutter’s book is neither as euphoric nor as galvanising as Preciado’s, it does share a breadth of scope, a tendency to leap between subjects in a surprising yet persuasive way, grounding its core theme of ‘narcosis’ in a far broader cultural narrative than one might expect. The figure of the somnambulist lurches throughout, as patient under ether, zombie, or ideal worker under capitalism.

De Sutter makes the case for a politics of anesthetization, the cancellation of pain as a cancellation of the future: “Indeed, as now capitalism developed, it’s never stopped arguing for the need to make all politics impossible, through the promotion of an anthropology from which all excitation could be stripped – and with it, the possibility of its viralisation.” There is no ‘getting better’ in this treatment plan, but there is some comfort to be found in de Sutter’s ‘politics of the amok’, which implies that our capacity for feeling might be enough to inspire an alternative.

To politicise madness is nothing new, nor is it especially sensitive to those declared to be mad. But de Sutter avoids this trap by turning his analysis back upon those who claim to offer a cure via ‘administration of the psyche’; Narcocapitalism explores, and questions, the demarcations on which ‘sedate’ society is built, the lines between night and day, delight and anhedonia, excitation and sedation, anesthesia and brutal, unfiltered pain. These arguments branch far beyond psychopharmacology, proposing that “to be unsatisfied is also to be free”.

Words – Roisin Kiberd

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