Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jayne Lewis reviews Anaesthetics of Existence

Cressida J. HeyesAnaesthetics of Existence: Essays on Experience at the Edge. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2020. 192 pp.

Review by Jayne Lewis

23 September 2020

Few words have been more prominent in recent philosophy and critical theory than “experience.” Yet its valences have traveled in opposite directions: from the inside out (experience is personal, private, one’s own) and from the outside in (experience is determined by politics, economics, history). In her provocative new book, Anaesthetics of Existence, Cressida J. Heyes finds that these itineraries converge in a single ideal of agential selfhood—rational, autonomous, deliberative, managed—that sustains the biopolitical grid. Michel Foucault was interested in the self-styling “aesthetics of existence” that might be possible for individuals within that grid. Heyes deftly isolates literally an-aesthetic modes of existence that have been excluded from the category of “experience.” In the postliberal moment, these have been “trivialized and stripped of their existential significance” (p. 50), along with the selves that undergo them. If “aesthetics” imply sensation, these are states of nonsensation. Numbness, deadening, unconsciousness, drugged obliviousness, obliterating pain, even ordinary deep sleep: such “abruptions and ruptures” (p. 50) have been degraded not only because they potentially undermine rationalized and productive bourgeois temporality but because they are also its unspoken condition.  

It’s important to try to get at these seemingly dead zones because they have been disproportionately associated with, imposed upon, and sought by women. It’s impossible to try without ambivalence because “technologies that enhance, control, deaden, or eliminate sensation” (p. 3) are both tools of domination and vital escape hatches from dominant “fantasies of autonomy” that can be “exhausting and deceptive” (p. 99). In response to this contradiction, Heyes moves gracefully between phenomenology and genealogy, “the lived experience of an individual and the conditions of possibility” (p. 19). From time to time, she also brings to bear her own “lived experience,” which ranges from nodding off at an academic conference to giving birth without an epidural. Her official interlocutors are (ever) Foucault, (often) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, (sometimes) E. P. Thompson, and a number of important feminist scholars who treat "women’s experience as a source of subaltern knowledge” (p. 28)—Joan Scott, Ann Cahill, Saba Mahmood, Lauren Berlant, Alisa Bierria, and others—whose work Heyes meaningfully complicates and extends. But her storytelling also resonates with Ottessa Mosfegh’s 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, as well as with Jonathan Crary’s pop-critical bestseller 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2013). 

Heyes’s compelling schema: liberalism minted time itself as “a currency to be invested, spent, wasted, or profitably used” (p. 21). Neoliberalism converts that currency into “postdisciplinary time,” which “introduces the potential for work into every moment” even as—multitasking!—it fractures and multiplies the stipulations of “disciplinary time.” “Anesthetic time” is a response to these depletions: “diffused,  drifting, unpunctuated, unproductive, and unsynchronized” (p. 22), it makes possible a radical questioning of the waking self, potentially even redrawing “the bounds of its self-imagining.”

An unpredictable opening chapter confronts the “double constituted aspect of existence” (p. 31) by revisiting the controversial case of the nineteenth-century farm hand, Charles Jouy.  Jouy’s molestation of a small girl, Sophie Adam, served Foucault as an exemplary case of power’s normative regulation of experience—Jouy’s. Some feminist critics have stressed Adam’s very different experience, thereby deexonerating Jouy. Heyes attempts to resolve this impasse by insisting on the “unknowable” nature of the “lived experience of Jouy or Adam” (p. 39). Unknowability can generate a more complex and demanding evaluation ethic, albeit one not as yet itself fully knowable. Heyes tests this ethic while considering contemporary sexual violence against unconscious or semiconscious women; as images of the women circulate through digital culture, “loss  of self” turns into  “collective visual representation” (p. 65). For Heyes, what’s at stake isn’t “the capacity of an individual so much as an embodied possibility that emerges from much larger social contexts” (p. 57). She finds that it is the sacrosanct “anonymity of the body” (p. 61), not its publicity, that’s violated in double-assault cases, updating a “necrophiliac aesthetic” (p. 67) long built on the bodies of dead or deadened women. This is not uncharted territory; one thinks of Elisabeth Bronfen’s inexplicably unengaged Over Her Dead Body (1992). But Heyes successfully seeks “a richer language for thinking about the harm involved” (p. 73), one that doesn’t simply reobjectify the deactivated body.

Elsewhere, drugs emerge as a response to postdisciplinary temporality’s demands for “increasing productivity, managing challenges of focus and distraction, and iteratively postponing adequate rest and leisure” (p. 76). How to opt out? Maybe by opting inward into the alternative temporalities that sleep and drugged states seem to open up. As for pain, Heyes’s last chapter explores its creative and edificatory potential by offering up her own riveting experience of labor without an epidural. This self-shattering radical exposure affords insight into everything from the problem of the west’s historical emphasis on the perspective of the newborn to the radical forms of temporality that unalleviated, world-destroying pain makes available.

These edgy “essays” are probing, bold, and shaped by fascinating reversals. Two cautions: Heyes is committed to “genealogy.” But—with the exception of the Jouy case, which is mediated through Foucault—a long historical perspective is absent. Such a perspective might have taken us into pre-anesthetic (and pre-liberal) culture (born in 1846) and its affordances: classical pastoralism and stoicism, medieval mysticism, neoclassical thought experiments in mechanized, embodied consciousness, even fictional explorations of the rapes of unconscious women, like Samuel Richardson’s 1747–1748 novel Clarissa, that worried the very culture that forged the disciplinary self. Speaking of mysticism, except where Heyes briefly considers a “secular” version of the Muslim virtue of sabr (passive resistance) and reluctantly deploys the “unavoidably Christian” word “epiphany” (p. 45), Anesthetics of Experience almost superstitiously avoids what might be a valuable resource: intimate religious experience and its apophatic discursive traditions. This is one of the very few edges of experience the otherwise intrepid, epidural-eschewing Heyes seems unwilling to test. But she’s hardly alone and besides . . . who has the time?