Aesthetics and Anesthetics


It’s no secret that the present capitalist manner of organizing society is destroying the planet and our lives, and that global warming and economic inequality (two aspects of this larger phenomenon) are rapidly intensifying. It’s as widely accepted as the fact that the Earth orbits the sun. 

Despite study after study, and report after report, announcing the increasing severity of the crisis, however, for various reasons no emancipatory, salutary intervention seems possible. Rather, various short-term treatments, anesthetics, are proffered by the present order to maintain social stability — i.e., itself. 

Beyond the more conventional aspects of the anesthetics industry (alcohol, TV, religion, electoral politics), with the advance of the general algia of the 21st century new anesthetics have gained prominence. In addition to anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs like Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Klonopin and other top-selling pharmaceuticals, smart phones, endless television shows, and other forms of extreme entertainment (climbing Mount Everest, for instance) ensure that people are properly entertained, maintained, and contained. This ensures both that the general algia (the destruction of all aspects of the ecosystem, including mentation) grows ever more extreme and that, as a consequence, more and more extreme forms of anesthetics are developed (to keep up with the inflation of alienation).

It is in this respect that the Green New Deal can be regarded as a type of anesthetic — one facet of a broader politics-as-anesthetics (as opposed to an aestheticization of politics, or vice versa). As with anesthetics generally, rather than treating the root of the problem (the capitalist order may appear to be the root, the radix, though it is itself an outgrowth of a deeper ontology and deontology of domination and exploitation), the GND almost wholly treats symptoms — a treatment that proceeds by way of the sale of things. 

If the anesthetics industry is as prevalent as it is, though, it is important to identify the opposite, or negation, of anesthetics: aesthetics. While there is a porous boundary, no sharp dividing line, between the two, there nevertheless are key differences. Defined broadly as the critical examination of the interpenetration of art/culture and “nature”, more than just the opposite of anesthetics, aesthetics may be regarded as its overcoming. As opposed to the practice of a narrow, uncritical or instrumental aesthetics (which is in actuality but an adjunct of the anesthetic industry) a critical aesthetics not only analyzes the relationships and intersections between  “culture” and “nature.” In addition to paying attention to, and participating in, the generation and arrival of crises (ruptures of the order), a critical aesthetics recognizes that interpretation and reinterpretation redirect society — away from the general algia, from a world of generalized disease, toward its negation, one of radical and critical Ease. 

Ease, of course (the ethics of which, bound to that of care, are diametrical to capitalism’s ethic of work), and rest are inextricable from the history and actuality (that is, the unfolding) of critical thought. Examples of this are found in the ancient medical practices of, among others, the Greek philosopher, and physician to the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, Galen (to say nothing of the legendary Hippocrates, or the Fate-nullifying god Aesclepius). Believing that an organism’s innate healing power (the “vis medicatrix naturae”) allowed an organism to heal itself, and that rest enabled this best, classical medicine maintained that ease was essential to overcoming disease. According to this hardly controversial view (supported by contemporary medical research and practice), the physician’s role is to create the conditions that allow a body to heal itself. (An ease congruent with Barthes non-heroic ease, and William Burroughs’ playfully serious/seriously playful doctrine of Do Easy.)

Rest, of course, is anathema to the capitalist order which requires unlimited expansion and work. In spite of the harms its deprivation causes, rest is systematically subordinated to the dictates of the economy. Absent certain environmental crises, not even the sky is afforded any rest. When it is allowed to rest, though, what happens? Many no doubt remember the April 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland, and how it led to the grounding of thousands of air flights. Though less discussed than the economic loss engendered by the cancellation of so many flights, the cessation of air traffic also resulted in the elimination of an estimated 1.3 to 2.8 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. That is, less work triggers a virtuous circle: less work = less disease = less pollution = less disease. Likewise, the general strike in Spain in late 2012 (as with general strikes generally) led to decreases in Spain’s national energy consumption, with accompanying decreases in pollution, stress, and dis-ease. 

While a critical health (as opposed to the instrumental health of consumption — whether of fitness regimens, pharmaceuticals or other commodities — which isn’t pursued for its own sake) recognizes that energy must to some degree be consumed, the critical judgment of an actual aesthetics, among other disciplines, is well aware that, inter alia, the bulk of the energy and work undertaken in present economic production and distribution results less in goods and services than in atrophied health on one hand, and hypertrophied illness on the other.

Rather than the panoply of anesthetics administered to ameliorate the general (ecocidal) algia, a critical aesthetics recognizes the aesthetic necessity of ease, of rest, of not working. And just as Friedrich Schiller noted that “it is by way of beauty that one approaches liberty,” and that “the most perfect of all works of art is the construction of a true political liberty,” one of the most vital manifestations of a critical aesthetics (which recognizes the inextricability of beauty, fairness, and justice) is the radical cessation of alienated and self-alienated labor and the introduction of a critical ease. 

Rather than technological fixes, and other anesthetics, the current ecocidal crisis requires the actually aesthetic intervention of such a cessation, the most radical political form of which is the general strike. Not just as a counterforce to military strikes and other offenses in the global class war, the general strike ought to be waged offensively in order to achieve a type of global defibrillation, not only halting the cannibalization of the planet, and of ourselves, but allowing for the implementation of a critical (as opposed to an instrumental) ecology as well. 

Why not?

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Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at and on twitter @elliot_sperber.