Image: Severed fork ends with prongs resculpted into the form of hands giving you “the finger,” discovered in an abandoned meth lab in Missouri.
Anthropologist Jason Pine is interested in small-scale methamphetamine production that happens in impoverished, rural areas of the United States. In the latest issue of the magazine, Distillations interviewed Pine about his research in a county in Northeastern Missouri that is known as the Meth Capital of the United States. The entire interview couldn’t fit into the magazine, so we’re posting bonus questions here. To read the rest of Pine’s responses, check out the article.
In the past, you’ve connected meth production to alchemy. Tell me about that.
I am exploring the relationship of methamphetamine manufacture to alchemy, particularly alchemical practices that were not linked to elites (e.g., aristocracies and royal courts). It is not my goal to trace historical continuity linking pre-Enlightenment alchemy with present-day meth manufacture. Rather, I want to pursue the idea that the relationship of alchemy to chemistry has possibly reverberated at various moments in history in homologous relationships, including that of the present, where unorthodox, rogue chemists engage in their own version of the medical, economic, and psychic practices engaged by the pharmaceutical industry.
Alchemical literature, both original and secondary, is vast and demands years of careful study, but I believe that it is heuristically valuable to speculate that alchemy-chemistry tensions may in some form animate contemporary home meth manufacture. And referring to alchemy in my analysis not only conjures the distinction between “modern” laboratory chemistry and DIY “rogue” tinkering—a meth cook’s homemade elixir versus Shire Pharmaceuticals’ product Adderall—but it throws into relief many peculiarities of meth cooking itself. For instance, recipes are often kept secret and transmitted through apprenticeships, sometimes between family generations.
Your first book examined the relationship between DIY music and organized crime in Naples, Italy. What draws you to these secretive, underground societies? What can we learn from them?
The main lesson I have learned from both of my long-term research projects is that secretive, alternative economic and cultural formations are not at all distinct from or adjuncts to legitimated, mainstream formations. Instead, they are rather in sync with the affects and aesthetics that fuel and contour the more ordinary everyday lives and throw under examined aspects into relief. To me this is punk. When I temporarily participate in and look honestly at these alternative lifeworlds, the questions that arise implicate my own lifeworld—my vocation, my methods of getting by economically and socially—and challenge them. I think honest and vulnerable self-reflexive inquiries can steer a person away from further marginalizing people who are poor and/or engaged in fringe practices and instead see how the so-called margins are uncannily familiar.