This article is part of the following series: Writing Life
Things that come to matter appear in the most banal ways, occluded by the ordinariness of their introduction. I was introduced to the work of Jason Pine as I shuffled in place, trying to keep warm over a cigarette, talking shop with two other grad students on a freezing New York January night. As the question of current research turned in my direction, I mentioned I’d been thinking through how fentanyl is not only the engine of an apparent epidemic or the specter of death but a part of life itself in late industrial rural America, and was finding the strangeness of this normalcy—and its implications—difficult to articulate. “You should read this book called Alchemy of Meth. It’s not quite the same but you might get something out of it.”
I did and I continue to, and since that night, through emails and videocalls, Jason and I have talked at length about the strange possibilities of places and people emerging from the everyday breakdown of social worlds. In our interview for Writing Life, edited from a longer conversation, we discuss the role of writing in the work of an anthropology concerned with incoherence both in the field and the academy.
Sean M. Muller: In Alchemy of Meth you ask at one point “What could writing, and only writing, do for anyone?”, and I think that’s a good place to start. As a scholar, a writer, an anthropologist, what is the role of writing in your work?
Jason Pine: When I write, I want to connect to the experience that I have and that others have, and to connect readers to that experience—palpably, not as ideas.
SM: Not a description of the experience.
JP: Or worse, a theoretical analysis.
SM: Despite that, your work engages with theory and you’re engaging in scholarly discourse, though you’re writing in a decidedly unacademic way. Its tone and style reflect a real desire to write about the thing itself, rather than to describe or ‘present a reading’ of the thing. What do you feel writing this way makes possible that the normative conventions of academic writing denies? Because I think there’s something strategic that you’re trying to do with the style that you write in.
JP: Yeah, I like that you say that I want to write about the thing itself. That’s everything, because if I focus entirely on what’s in front of me, it’s all there. I don’t need anything else. I already have the apparatus that comes from years of reading, thinking and conversation. I don’t need to turn to that; I’ve digested that and it’s a part of me. I can articulate all I need by simply staying with the thing.
SM: Writing becomes that event. It becomes you, the experience, and the meaning of the experience. You have to know yourself as an author to do that. Regarding that self-awareness as an author, maybe you could talk about why you include yourself as a character in all the work because I think it’s very important to what you’re trying to write and the way you’re trying to write it.
JP: I’m always questioning the moment of writing, or the moment of experiencing or researching, and I don’t like to black box it. I don’t think my experience is so awfully important, and I don’t want to sound like it is. It’s that I want to show my fallibility and the contingencies of my observations, to even be self-effacing and make fun of myself. In the first book I wrote, I sometimes go as far as making myself look ridiculous, and in the second book, I’m cringingly self-revealing. I have to say that when I began writing those books, it wasn’t my intention to be in them. It became a necessity. A gap showed up and I had to fill it. About the book on meth, the blind reviewers, who were excellent, said, “You really need to be in there more, you can’t just gesture towards yourself if you’re going to place yourself alongside all those others.” I had thought I could get away with acting merely as the bridge between illicit speed (meth) and licit speed (ADHD meds). I’m still not satisfied with what I did, in the end, because I may have poetically sublimated a lot of the pain I felt from family trauma. At any rate, I think that in both books my placement in the writing adds something to the writing because it undermines the tidy closure of whatever the work is. What you say — “writing becomes that event, it becomes you, the experience” – is so well put. In the kind of writing I like to do, everything is happening here and now with the thing before me, which is also me. Writing doesn’t come after.
SM: To acknowledge your own contingency and to be in there, alongside the people you work with is a beautiful rhetorical move, but also, in your writing, it’s a very important conceptual move. You take a very interesting approach in that the way you write about drugs and drug users is very unlike what we’ve come to expect from anthropology that deals those topics, and it made me wonder if that was an intentional divergence? To try treat it as though you were dealing with something ambient and atmospheric, rather than taking people as aberrant and abstract objects of inquiry, to write about the whole mess of social worlds that you and they were both occupying?
JP: It was a decision, but it only came with time, and I think this is something that anyone who’s interested in writing could think about—that the decisions come to you if you meditate on and stay with the thing and let it tell you what needs to be done. Then it can be serendipitous. I happened to be reading a lot of Bruno Schultz, this Polish writer…
SM: Yeah. Street of Crocodiles?
JP: Yeah, and it seemed: “Oh, this is this is the kind of excessive metaphoricity that the experience of meth is like.” Piles and piles of objects keep transforming either in realm of the sensible or in the not-yet-detected contemporaneous chemical sense. From the very beginning of the research, I was stunned by the fact that people are making meth— the procedures, the strange litany of materials and objects they use, the proprietary recipes cooks described to me, and the waste and the explosions and their aftermath. The matter itself was so alluring and I felt with absolute certainty that everything was right there. Major chemical industries, major consumer outlets (Big Box stores), Big Pharma, trailer homes and specific kinds of domesticity, and the myriad ways of tinkering with things. I sensed that focusing on the materials would bring out everything. Individuals were made of the materials while themselves re/making the materials, and I too was one of those individuals, because the chemicals are leaching and no one is clean. More than ambient or atmospheric I would describe this as ecological writing, however postnatural it may be.
SM: Materiality seems important to that ecology and to the way you weave alchemy into allegory to make and mark a constant de- and re-composition of subject and place. Could you say a little bit about that writing process and why, in Alchemy, you chose to incorporate the passages from alchemical texts?
JP: When you’re picking through the pieces of an aftermath – of an explosion or a decomposition, each piece has its own history. I learned this from Walter Benjamin. You need the tools of alchemy to fabricate or fabulate something. I love what Stuart Mclean says about fabulation as a necessary and, for him, totally welcome part of anthropology. I started with a bizarre array of fragments and then I felt that the form of the book should not take wholeness for granted and do the work of cohering the world. The thing before me was busted and its bustedness and potential for recompositioning mattered most and expressed the most. Human narratives can’t take up stable forms when they take place as an ontological flickering. We come up with storylines—for ourselves and for others—to comfort ourselves, and part of me did want to find a story that could give shape to what I saw many people going through. But people just don’t live lives that necessarily break through to a denouement—I don’t, you don’t, and the people in the world in Missouri where I spent time don’t.
The alchemical passages: I had to be careful because I didn’t want to be esoteric in the literal sense of esotericism. I didn’t want to be Alistair Crowley, the English occultist who at the turn of the 20th century participated in a rather superficial ‘revival’ of alchemy, which has had an enduring effect on how alchemy is perceived today. I selected passages that resonated with what was happening with meth cooking, the pharmaceutical industry, and with embodied capitalism and value extraction. One thing I tried to do, although I don’t know if it was successful, was to have the book creep more and more toward the surreal, just as alchemical writings veer off into poetic fabulations about matter and ontology. My queered allegory of the Tin Woodman is where alchemy, an allegorical art, finds its late industrial expression.
SM: I think we’re at an interesting point where we can get into what you see as the value and possibility of metaphor. I see this process we’re talking about as a way of writing that makes metaphor do something. It’s not just that alchemy or the Tin Woodman or cooking meth act as metaphors for uncertain kinds of life. Metaphor is very much at work in the critique and the events themselves that you are writing about and I wonder how you see its potential. Can metaphor be more than just a comparative tool? Can it be a way of writing clearly about things that overflow with ambiguity?
JP: Before I even began writing the meth book, and it was years and years just trying to figure out, what the hell do I do with this? I kept asking everybody, what do you know about material metaphors? I couldn’t find the language for it, but there was a thing I wanted to get a hold of, and that was one way I described it. Alchemy did not feel like simply a metaphor for describing meth cooking, but it kept appearing whenever I thought or wrote about it. At last, I understood that the relationship is not representational but a material correspondence. And alchemy itself offered the logic of correspondences.
SM: The difference between metaphor as a writing technique and metaphor as a conceptual method is something that I think is really interesting in considering how a writer can push a metaphor to exceed its bounds. Which is, of course, the process you’re talking about in the book when it comes to late industrial outcomes. Meth is the product of lithium batteries and Sudafed that exceed their form, these are people who have exceeded their form, both to great effect and at great risk. And this returns us to the question we started with: can writing become a material thing, not just in the sense of a book, but can it exceed that form and take on material meaning or create material effects? I wonder if your writing tries to operate in this way, to make something with or through, rather than out of, these heavily criminalized people who are inscrutable and obscure even in their own environment?
JP: Well, their stories are near-verbatim transcripts. I recorded most of those conversations, and then I edited the transcripts so that there weren’t too many repetitions and self-corrections. Then I changed the verb tense, and then I made tweaks to put the voice into free indirect discourse. Finally, I made some small embellishments with descriptive detail about context or place. That I did with confidence, I felt, I know this county really well, I’ve spent a lot of time here, driven around day after day sifting through things, in homes, in junkyards, outside in the woods. This I can describe with great detail. But when it came to how people presented themselves, I wanted to intervene as little as possible. Their words were so moving and so articulate that I felt really small before the task of treating their thoughts in any way other than to simply offer them to readers as-is. Even still, I did make mistakes, serious mistakes, and I revealed them. For example, with the character Christian, when I storied his transcripts, I depicted his mother as a hard woman who didn’t really care for him too much, or only when she remembered to. And then later, in my correspondences with Christian, I wanted to correct that shortcoming and I asked him to tell me more about his mother. I learned from him that he thought she was cool. She collected rocks, she took him on adventures, she was loving (when she was loving), and he loved her back dearly. So, instead of erasing my shortcoming, I left the evidence in the book. I wanted my smallness as author to remain in sight.
SM: I think there’s something important about the distinction between that kind of approach to writing as something that communicates meaning and affect and aesthetic, and all of those uncertain things—the incoherencies that make up a life—versus writing that is a vector for information.
JP: One thing I insist on is no in-text citations. I’d rather that all be at the end, so as not to disrupt the flow of a life’s incoherence with the apparatus. The thing itself should be allowed to stand on its own. Then, if a reader wants, they can look at citations—but they can also not look. I wrote an essay called “Last Chance Incorporated” about a guy in what first appears to be his junkyard. The essay devours itself because I maniacally cite everything, like the branding of the matter of a world that is busting apart as people exceed themselves in order to be viable as meth cooks, or as academics. The citational frenzy performs my struggle with the academic milieu. A man is decomposing before my eyes linguistically, physically, emotionally—he pulled out some drugs, he got weepy—and I’m thinking, how the hell do I write about this? I have so many references at my disposal and none of them are adequate. They are disposable like the piles of things that engulf us. The essay piles it on in order to say, Enough. Really, it’s enough.
SM: Do you think at a certain point academic writing fails at its goal of creating knowledge, and there’s a way to confront that failure through writing in another mode?
JP: I have talked about this with a lot of people, but one thing that stays with me is how Beth Povinelli, who not only writes really beautiful essays and profoundly abstract books that are at times very challenging, but also makes films, said to me, “Multiply rather than subtract!” Then I was thinking, what would life be like without Beth’s books? Without her ideas? For me it would be pretty impoverished. So, I do want to say yes to all forms, but right now I’m in a moment of just one. I’m working on a novel and this is always going be more than me being a novelist because of everything I’ve read and researched, but also, it’s not going to be me the academic using the novel form to convey my ideas. I am trying to find my way in public scholarship. I want to communicate with more general audiences.
SM: That’s a huge issue for us as scholars and as writers because we’re working with these concepts and ideas and what we want to do with them but, you’re exactly right, legibility is central to the utility—and the vitality—of our work.
JP: I really care about writing. I don’t see writing as merely the medium to get ideas across. Every time I write I want to take care with words. I’m not only talking about the responsibilities and politics of representation. I’m talking about writing as an art that I respect. I write to someone, a public, I look for the words that work, and I try to use fewer words. And not only writing, but also giving talks. Why go up in front of a public and read something that sounds like a published paper when it’s meant to be in a different genre? I prefer to treat a talk like a performance because it’s live. Why not mine that opportunity? There can be visuals, sound, interaction with the audience, pauses and silences. I respect people’s time. I take it that we have come together to make something happen. Especially if air travel was involved. I can’t justify the ecological cost of a live talk that sounds like a paper.
SM: What else is writing if not an expression of an attempt to communicate? We have to ask ourselves: when we present our scholarship to a public, however minor it may be, if everyone’s completely bored by it—if no one can listen—have we failed to communicate?
JP: I learned that through error. I learned something else through error, as well: the Q. and A is also an event to care for and you can manage that moment. I remind myself and hope to remind others that we’re just people who sometimes or a lot of the time just don’t know. And we also have the opportunity to share things with each other—isn’t that why we’re meeting? And don’t we all question what we’re doing, some more than others, sometimes? So why not just address it when it’s right there in the room with us?: I’m really unsure about writing anthropology and I really want to talk about this with you.
SM: Yeah, I know I struggle with that and I sort of suspect—though we don’t talk about it openly—everyone struggles with that.
JP: We all struggle. We could be really talking.
Sean M. Muller is a graduate student in Anthropology at the New School for Social Research whose work traces the opioid fentanyl across geographic, economic, and affective landscapes as it becomes a part of everyday life in rural America.
Jason Pine writes, makes installations and gives performance lectures on alternative economies and ecologies in The United States, Italy and Iceland. His publications include The Art of Making Do in Naples (2012) and The Alchemy of Meth: A Decomposition (2019), both published by University of Minnesota Press.
About the series
Writing Life focuses on the craft of writing in the social studies of medicine. Amidst the current challenges to making texts, this series invites scholars in our field to take time to reflect, in conversation with each other, on how to navigate and nurture their craft.
Each post in Writing Life delves into the black boxes of writing life, exploring the specificities of producing texts about the lives of those entangled in illness, care, pain, diagnosis, experiment, research, suffering, and recovery. The spirit of the contributions is collaborative — an exploration through dialogue. In crafting the posts, authors also explore a research practice central to our fields – interviewing – and the work and art of transcribing and editing other people’s words.
The first installment of the series appeared weekly in Somatosphere from early December 2020 and the second from June 2021. We continue to openly invite further contributions to the series. Please contact series editors Anna Harris (email@example.com) or Denielle Elliott (firstname.lastname@example.org) to express interest in contributing to series 3.