The Anaesthetic Condition: Psychopharmaceuticals and Contemporary French Art

Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2009
Supervised by Jean Khalfa (University of Cambridge); Examined by Alyce Mahon (University of Cambridge) and Louis Sass (Rutgers University)


What is the relationship between madness and art? Does the increased use and cultural prevalence of psychopharmaceuticals mean that the notions of ‘great art’ or ‘genius’ are going to disappear? What are the effects of the revolution in the medical treatment of mental illness, the ‘psychopharmacological revolution’, on ideas of creativity, autonomy, expression and individuality? These questions open onto a field of inquiry into the cultural and artistic consequences of the medical and social changes produced by psychopharmacology: a field that has been largely ignored. This dissertation addresses this significant gap in research and offers an explanation why this subject has not been previously considered. On the one hand, this study explores the ways in which a specific social and medical transformation in the understanding and treatment of psychopathologies affects the contemporary consciousness of personhood (both ‘knowledge’ of the self and phenomenological experience). On the other hand, it looks at how contemporary art reflects, contests and provides insight into these changes in the field of medicine and mental illness.

The proposed term anaesthetics is an attempt to describe this mode of creation or subjective condition in the absence of limits: a particular ‘experience of the self’ in history that is not just a sensation (i.e. dullness) but also a lack of interest in or motivation by transgression, a new relationship to norms. Anaesthetics suggests the absence of 'sensibilité' and the impossibility of extraordinary subjective experience: that of either fantasy or madness. Together, these analyses describe the sensation of a lack of sensation, art born from an absence of feeling. Contemporary art is a prism for cultural insight and may help us to see what we are doing to ourselves in a pharmacological age.