Cover Page

Theory Redux

Series editor: Laurent de Sutter

Published Titles

Alfie Bown, The Playstation Dreamworld

Laurent de Sutter, Narcocapitalism:

Life in the Age of Anaesthesia

Roberto Esposito, Persons and Things

Graham Harman, Immaterialism: Objects and

Social Theory

Srećko Horvat, The Radicality of Love

Dominic Pettman, Infinite Distraction:

Paying Attention to Social Media

Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism


Life in the Age of Anaesthesia

Laurent de Sutter

Translated by Barnaby Norman


‘It’s all about chemicals.’

Andy Warhol


Sara Amari, Franco Berardi, Pascal Chabot, Ewen Chardronnet, Gilles Collard, Neil de Cort, Nicholas Deschamps, Marguerite Ferry, Peter Goodrich, Line Hjorth, Geraldine Jacques, Elliott Karstadt, Monique Labrune, Louise Lame, Aude Lancelin, Camille Louis, Sophie Marinopoulos, Lilya Aït Menguellet, Barnaby Norman, George Owers, Bernard Stiegler, John Thompson, Henri Trubert, Paul Young, and Marion Zilio.

Goin’ Down

§0. Patent US4848. On 12 November 1846, Charles Thompson Jackson and William Green Morton, from Boston, filed a patent with the United States Patent Office. It received the number 4848, and, as its introduction noted, concerned the ‘improvement of surgical operations’.1 The improvement in question took the form of a new technique, based on the inhalation of diethyl ether vapours by the patient undergoing the operation, which would produce a state of nervous insensitivity and allow the surgeon to work without causing discernible pain. Even though, as Jackson and Morton acknowledged, this kind of product had been used in the past for various levels of pain reduction, the decision to use inhalation was still an unprecedented medical move. This was why they were claiming the protection of intellectual property rights for the procedure they had developed; it mattered little that they were only the last link in a long chain of more or less fortuitous discoverers. Indeed, before ether, other forms of inhaled anaesthetic had already been tested – starting with nitrous oxide, used by the English chemist Humphrey Davy in several experiments prior to 1799, twenty years after it had been isolated by Joseph Priestley.2 And, as early as 1818, Michael Faraday, the inventor of the cage bearing his name, had demonstrated the anaesthetic properties of ether – although it never occurred to him to file a patent for something that seemed to him to be a natural phenomenon.3 The word ‘anaesthetic’, moreover, did not yet exist, as any reader of Jackson’s and Morton’s patent can see; rather than a precisely defined concept, we find vague circumlocutions and general descriptions. It was Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Boston doctor and conversationalist (whose son would become the greatest ever US Supreme Court judge) who, in a letter criticizing his plan to call his invention ‘letheon’, suggested the word to Morton.4 The reference to Discord, the goddess of Oblivion, daughter of Eris, seemed dubious to Holmes – after all, with the inhalation of ether, it was less a question of amnesia than insensibility, less a case of returning from the world of the dead than of staying in that of the living. No matter; the US Patent Office gave Jackson and Morton the patent they had asked for – and with this, a new age dawned: the age of anaesthesia.