Purple Magazine
— Purple 25YRS Anniversary issue

Age of Anesthesia

by JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE

It’s the start of summer in Paris. I approach a small-time cocaine dealer of the sort that’s so prevalent nowadays. A 16-year-old kid with the total Uber mind-set: efficient, obliging, and compliant with the realities of his market. He’s fairly quick to admit his own amazement with his profits, since his merchandise is cut with either the lowest-rent speed or an anesthetic, not to mention all the other crap he’d rather not dwell on. It actually makes him laugh to think of how little cocaine there is in what he’s peddling. His phone rings and rings, and he never deigns to answer. Recovering some dignity, he quits chuckling and declares, without conviction, that his “shit” is nevertheless the best in town. There’s competition, sure enough. He tells me about promotional offers, the platform he’s set up, automatic dunning, half-gram sales to “target” the female population and students short of money. Others are already doing it. He’s waiting on the “results.” His phone keeps ringing. Somebody’s getting impatient on the other end of the line. Taking his leave, he turns serious. People are nuts, he says. They’re stressed out like madmen.

In 1860, the German chemist Albert Niemann isolated the coca leaf’s active agent. Back then, science was searching out molecules with anesthetic properties for the treatment of manic-depressives. As Belgian philosopher Laurent de Sutter explains in his book L’Âge de l’Anesthésie, la Mise sous Contrôle des Affects (Narcocapitalism: Life in the Age of Anaesthesia): “To feel better is to feel nothing at all.” Anesthesia shuts down every motor of being: the libido, sensibility, excitement, rebellion, dark thoughts, sunny thoughts, and so on. Anything that disturbed or troubled us had to be silenced. This led to pharmaceutical mass production of all kinds of antidepressants and relaxants, whose purpose was less to calm than to extinguish the person or personality, to artificially eliminate all symptoms positive or negative. Cocaine was at the time a potent local anesthetic, but it was also a stimulant that Freud unabashedly praised in his Cocaine Papers. But Freud’s cocaine had nothing to do with the product of the same name that we now purchase in the shadows.

German industry quickly began synthesizing the Freudian variety of cocaine, and in the 1920s Germany became the world’s top producer. There appeared substitute drugs, like oxycodone, which played a role in the blitzkrieg victories of the Wehrmacht, as Norman Ohler recounts in his fascinating book Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich. Make no mistake: whether it’s alcohol and drugs in the trenches of Verdun, LSD in Vietnam, or the Captagon of modern-day jihad, drugs and war go together.

In the early 1990s, cocaine was still a fairly expensive luxury drug, consumed mostly by society elites in finance, the club scene, the glamour professions, and the art world. It was used in the context of performance or a party. It was a drug of excess, driving people to self-destruction, as in a movie like Scarface. Twenty-five years later, weed is harder to find in Paris than coke! Coke has invaded every stratum of society. Professors, workers, and unemployed high-schoolers are all taking it. Today — and I can attest to this for Paris — cocaine represents nothing but a vague desire for detachment. The youngest users take it not to go out but to stay in. Cocaine has become a recreational relaxant. It has again flooded the world in the form of an anesthetic.

Once fuel for the brain, cocaine has become an aid to ataraxia. It no longer speaks to the artificial splendor of excitement. Instead, it now regulates the phases of our society’s tension. At a time when the individual (like our small-time dealer) is becoming an entrepreneur, cocaine provides its users with inclusion in the very system from which they seek detachment — no doubt precisely to sink them even deeper into its sticky bog. Such are the global workings of narcocapitalism. The detachment induced by a drug cut every which way unfailingly subjects our Western societies to another violent turn of the neoliberal screw, increasing the pressure and the profits. As de Sutter writes, “There is cocaine only insofar as it demands an economic system to match its volatility, its illegality,
its addictiveness. All capitalism is narcocapitalism.”

Extinguish minds to drive up consumption. Never has a drug so closely adhered to and so well served the system that produced it while pretending to combat that same system. Never has a drug been such an anti-drug. Never have users blended so well with the system their drug tries to provide an escape from. Cocaine is the cheap drug for the end of the mind’s revolt. Neoliberalism’s bargain-basement psycho-politics in the service of a society of fatigue’s new oblivion (see the works of German philosopher Byung-Chul Han).

A few days after my quick chat with him, I see the young Parisian dealer at an apartment party. He shakes hands all around and chats up his clients. Home delivery in less than 20 minutes: that’s his new hook. Things go down as simple as can be. Money trades hands. Attitudes are aloof and quasi-professional. It’s as if nothing could be more ordinary. I continue observing from a distance. I remark that among cocaine’s perverse effects is its ability to render group thinking void. The group does not exist. People speak without knowing what they’re saying and without listening to any replies. Others exist only to snort another line with. People are together, but it’s the mere shell of company. We just are. We are entrepreneurs of ourselves, performing subjects, ever more anesthetized and inoffensive. The deeper we nose our way into our era, the less we examine it.

Our so-called high is memetic of the dark and troubled age that floats around us like a fog. Within us, it generates a double of our time’s greatest banalities. Over the course of an evening, cocaine allows for the definitive coalescence and capitulation of our most singular affects. It is the mediocre drug to end all mediocre drugs. We all know it, and yet we go back for more. Its role is to serve as the anesthetic of thought, and it is playing that role to perfection.

[Table of contents]

Purple 25YRS Anniversary issue

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purple 25 YEARS 25 COVERS

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