From fast-fashion to high-frequency trading, speed is now the prime mover in the world’s economy, so much so that it has entered our bio-chemistry. Anthropologist JASON PINE’s research into homemade meth production in rural Missouri shows that a backwater drug epidemic is in fact the spectre of an advanced mode of capitalism.
In his essay “Tweaker Projects,” anthropologist JASON PINE describes how a meth habit can be spotted from a rural highway. It is easy to see if you know what to look for: twisted piles of rusting car parts, plastic tubs, old baby strollers, and other mass-produced throwaways protruding from front lawns like junkyard totems. These are the markers of labor without employment, speed-fueled home projects trapped in a psycho-chemical feedback loop of hoarding, organizing, breaking, repairing. They are sculptures spun out from the churn of directionless velocity.
Amphetamines were first synthesized in 1887 by chemists at the University of Berlin. Like most 20th century technologies – computation, telecommunication, nuclear fission – its practical use was developed as part of the World War II military-industrial complex. What once kept soldiers and pilots awake, later became a postwar aid to dieters, truck-drivers, and others looking to give themselves more energy. In relation to other recreational drugs, methamphetamine and its mass-market pharmaceutical cousins are outliers in that they are inherently un-“recreational.” Marijuana and LSD have hippies, ecstasy has ravers, but meth has no iconic home in subculture. It is not a platform for inspiration or lotus-eating. It is productivity distilled into its purest form. It is the drug of a society that feeds itself off high-frequency trading and the rapid collection of data. It is the drug of a society that lives in fear of fatigue. In this sense, meth is not the sub of any culture. Meth is the chemical embodiment of our economy.
032c’s Thom Bettridge spoke to Jason Pine about his field work in rural Missouri, and how the marginal practice of homemade meth cooking is a reflection of mainstream society.
THOM BETTRIDGE: How did you first get into doing this research on meth and the people who make it?
JASON PINE: My first university job was at the University of Missouri, Columbia, which is in the center of the state. In the news – and amongst students and colleagues – I kept hearing about meth. The statistics in Missouri say that it was the meth capital of the United States. There are many ways I could dispute those statistics from what I discovered, but it’s definitely pure fact that there’s a lot of meth in Missouri. So, I targeted the highest bust-rate county within the state, which is near St. Louis – a rural pocket that people don’t really enter.
How did you go about infiltrating this community? Or was it “infiltrating”?
That’s not a good word to associate with me. As an anthropologist, it’s unethical for me to misrepresent myself. I’m always upfront. It’s in my best interest anyway, because if you’re caught in a lie, it just peaks suspicions. People were already suspicious. They didn’t know what my motives were. The best way to do that kind of research – and it was the same when I researched organized crime in Naples – is to find someone who understands your project and can vouch for you. So I found someone like that. And this was the mother of a former student of mine, who was taking care of an addict who was dying.
“These are cottage-industry workers, not drug cartels.”
Was it fluid to relate to these people? Or was there a cultural gap?
A huge gap. Masculinity is different there. So, men are men if they drink and fight – if they don’t talk as pretty as I do. My car was super queer to them.
What kind of car was it?
I had no idea! That drew a lot of attention. Just on the level of gender, it was really difficult. My education level made me simultaneously more credible and less credible. I had one guy agree to an initial meeting – a “cook” – who was sober when I met him. Then he went to the bathroom and slammed a lot of vodka and came out raging. He said. “Who the hell do you think you are? Why are you trying to find out things that people are spending all of their mental energy trying to hide? What do you think you’re going to achieve?” So I would just back out of those situations.
And were you able to watch people cook meth?
I listened to accounts of it, but I didn’t see it. I was willing to watch the cooking process, but I was worried about the possibility of an accident and an explosion. I also tried very hard, at the end of my field research, to enroll in a police training course where meth is cooked in a controlled environment – so that narcs are familiar with the chemicals and materials found in the various stages of the cooking process – but I was unsuccessful.
But you were probably around a lot of people who were high on meth. On an inter-personal level, how would you describe socializing with people who are on meth?
Well, if you’re alone with someone who is high, it’s different than when they’re in a group, because they kind of amp each other up. Alone, someone would get really enthusiastic about talking to me and just go on and on. They start to glide into abstractions and philosophize about the meaning of life, or the meaning of this drug. Some would want me to do it with them, maybe to test whether I’m a narc. But I always refused.
Were you ever tempted?
I have used it, but before beginning this research. It would be absurd to write about meth without knowing what its effects were.
“Sometimes the cooks’ environments were more articulate than they were. The frenzied materialities arrayed in masses of objects. The tinkering. The hoarding.”
So I wasn’t tempted by it. Especially because of what I was seeing. If you’re on the outside, some of these scenes can look pretty monstrous – the kinds of homes cooks live in and the transformations their bodies have gone through. Even just how some people sound when they’re chronic users for years. I’d understand every fifth word, maybe. Sometimes the cooks’ environments were more articulate than they were. The frenzied materialities arrayed in masses of objects. The tinkering. The hoarding.
In one of your essays, you give very detailed descriptions of the junkyard ruins in front of homes where people do meth. The way you describe them is almost like they are sculptures. I found that very interesting, because meth is a drug that is historically rooted in productivity. So in these messes and in these tinker projects you see a type of productivity that’s completely detached from meaning. It’s something that almost sounds spiritual – to toil without any purpose.
There is a kind of high to be had in anchoring your desire to tinker and to explore materiality. It is a kind of ecstasy itself. There is also a possible physiological explanation for it. With high amounts of dopamine, you have more of an impulse to forage and explore. But I find it interesting that this sense of productivity is not harnessed for ordinary economic goals, like accumulation. It’s like an economy gone off its rails.
In your writing, you root meth in a very particular time and place in modern capitalism – depressed areas, underemployment. How would you describe the socio-economic conditions of meth use?
In the area that I studied in Missouri, people are going through a de-industrialization still. They live in what the anthropologist Kim Fortun calls “late industrialism.” There is no post-industrial replacement for the jobs that have disappeared. A lot of people are still working in manufacturing, or they’re working in service positions, but they’re not making ends meet. So some go into meth cooking. Many people already have a facility for material tinkering, because it’s part of a repertoire of practices that they engage in as country people who know how to fix things, rather than just consume and move on to the next product. Many people are also familiar with a lot of the chemicals used to make meth, because they clean their own porches with muriatic acid, or when they were kids they might have experimented with chemicals to make little homemade bombs. The productivity part comes in when people can work longer hours with the meth that they use, since they are not getting by from the pay they get from a regular work shift. Meth-cooking itself will yield a product that they can sell, even though they’re making very small amounts. These are cottage-industry workers, not drug cartels.
How do people learn how to make it?
They usually learn from someone else. They may read about it, but most of the people I’ve talked to said they’ve learned it from a mentor. It seems to be like an apprenticeship, which makes me think of alchemy.
It’s funny you mention alchemy, because it’s also alchemy in the sense that you’re creating value – or “gold” – out of cheap consumer products. In that way, meth is very connected to the supply chain of big-box retailers like Wal-Mart.
Actually, Wal-Mart has been pretty good about limiting what kinds of pseudoephedrine products they have, so the cooks have to go to other places. But you can get all the other supplies at Wal-Mart, or Lowe’s. But with this latest method that came out called “Shake and Bake” – which is already several years old – you cannot make more than a certain amount, because it’s all in a single bottle. Depending on your usage pattern, the yield is pretty much enough for you, and maybe a little extra for a friend.
So it’s become more atomized. It’s not the type of thing you buy from dealers.
Yes. It’s almost as though it’s its own self-sustaining system. A body that consumes, and produces, and self-produces. It is the enactment of a more-than-human chemical self.
And this new self is made of the same garbage that American consumer culture persuades us to consume anyway.
It’s not only the same products that we’re all consuming. For many of us, even our homes and apartment buildings are constructed with these materials. All of the chemicals used to make meth are already part of the typical American home.
So the meth is just a concentration of what’s already there.
Which is kind of the overarching theme, I find. Many as- pects of what is going on in this grotesque-looking meth world are just a hyperbole of what is happening among us. Meth is a performance enhancement drug, but we have many others. I make strong parallels with ADHD medications, which are just legitimated amphetamines.
You went to Missouri because you were teaching at a school, right? In colleges, everyone’s on mainstream versions of meth.
I have students who use ADHD drugs, and I myself have been diagnosed with ADHD and have used those drugs. I have a lot of ambivalence about it. I make sure to include that in the work that I’m doing now, as part of this ethical push to level the playing field between people who are often marginalized and people who are somehow legitimated.
So while you were teaching, you were spending part of your day with people from the academy on ADHD medicines, and the other part with people using the illegal version.
And there are even academics on meth.
“We may not have the junk, or the marks but we are still anxious and overwrought beings who feel underproductive and want to extract more out of ourselves.”
Like actual meth?
Yes, yes, yes.
Culturally speaking, what do you think the difference is between people doing home-cooked meth, and people who take, say, Adderall?
There is also Adderall in rural Missouri – and I’ve encountered people who are dealing it – but people seem to be more willing to take the risk with meth than maybe they would be on Wall Street. People also feel safer with pharmaceuticals. Because they’re in that aestheticized form – whether or not you’re taking it with a prescription – they seem somehow safer, or more appropriate.
Pills are packaged in a way that feels more consumable, whereas homemade meth has a folkloric quality. It’s almost a rustic offshoot of a very contemporary idea. But what are meth users getting amped for? On Wall Street, the idea seems to be, “Okay, I can stay up all night and trade options in Asian markets.” Similarly, you see all these electronic technologies used to make the trading itself faster. But in rural America, where does the need for speed come from?
It’s still to work more. The majority of people I spoke to started meth on the job – working concrete, or roofing, or factory work. Their colleagues are doing it. Their boss knows about it. It’s because they want to work longer hours, and because the job is dull and difficult. You also feel better about life. I mean, you’re high. But you have a functioning high.
What happens when this productivity spins out of control? There must be a point where you become non-functioning.
People lose their jobs, or they quit their jobs, or they just stop going. They’re just working on trying to make the meth.
So, at a certain point, the initial desired effect becomes something separate from the practice itself.
The productivity is now just a sensation, rather than a reality. Maybe it always was. It puts into question the kind of frenzy that anybody would put into making a life. I have always read it like an allegory. If you can point a finger at it and say, “Look at this person with no teeth who is living in a junk-yard.” We may not have the junk, or the marks on our body, but we are still anxious and overwrought beings who feel underproductive and want to extract more out of ourselves.
I mean, you see energy-seeking consumer behavior across so many segments of culture. Everyone is running away from fatigue, or obesity. And productivity seems like a very clean and normal thing, but then when you look closer, there’s always something scary leaking out of it. Take a brand like Monster Energy, with this green slime motif. Or Red Bull promising that you’ll grow wings and transform. It all plays into some occult notion of humanity. What are the metaphysical side effects of drugs like these?
There are people who feel like they’re on a different plane altogether. Some call it an “astral-plane.” People feel that they’re in touch with something that only other meth users are in touch with. If you’re a meth cook, you are like a sorcerer or an alchemist, who has somehow tapped the forces of Satan. Or if you survive a meth lab explosion, then God has either given you a sign you need to quit, or he’s giving you a pass. There was one person I spoke to who felt that he was a priest and that he had parishioners whom he fed this drug. He felt that the drug was something that enhanced their lives. All of this is a transmutation of what a human is. It creates a whole different world that has its own monuments produced through tweaking and tinkering with materials.
Do you see reflections of that in mainstream society as well?
Absolutely. I mean, it’s a total norm now to be all re-done with plastic surgery, or having to be buff. Any kind of body modification that is meant to enhance your status – whether it be your sexual status, your work status, or your social status. I also see the ways in which people are pushed to stay awake longer. They themselves are transforming into more goal-oriented people. They can’t just sit and talk. They’re thinking about the utility of every moment.
“It seems like the only way out is to speed up what is already at work.”
In your writing, you use the term “embodied capitalism.” What do you mean by that?
I borrow the term from Vassilis Tsianos and Dimitri Papadopoulos, but that’s also by way of Gilles Deleuze. It’s the idea of when a body becomes inducted into the system of production and consumption of an economy, then it itself embodies the practices that animate capitalism. For example, an anxious body is exhausted and on-edge. It readies us for a certain environment that demands this type of behavior – whether it be a job, or just the general climate of the economy itself. Nothing is safe or stable.
There seems to be a kind of double bind, because we now live in this society of torpor, and the only escape seems to be to have too much energy. And that creates some kind of horrible burn-out. It doesn’t even seem like there is a middle road.
It seems like the only way out is to speed up what is already at work.
They’re just accelerating destruction, basically. Speeding up the ills of capitalism until it all crashes.
Yes. You could consider what they are doing when they are cooking and doing meth as an act of sovereignty. They are acquiring some kind of freedom, some kind of escape, by burning things up themselves rather than being burnt up.
It’s funny you mentioned sovereignty. The high of being on speed is not a community-based feeling. It’s not like taking mushrooms and hugging people. There’s no togetherness. What does a meth community look like?
Church is very important. I don’t know anything about how many people go to church, but it is an important institution. Especially because there’s a lack of other institutions, like drug recovery centers. A lot of people refer to religious language when they talk about recovery, or when they talk about what they’re doing. They talk in terms of God and the devil. Church is a way for them to sustain good relations, or what they consider to be good relations that don’t reinforce bad habits. If they go to church, then they remember family and other community members. It’s a place of non-judgment, and meth in a lot of these towns is so common and ordinary that people are willing to talk about it and not treat it like a taboo. It becomes something that can even enter into a discussion among church-goers. It has effected everyone in one way or another, so they can’t judge.
So these people aren’t outcasts?
Some are, of course. There might be really hardcore users who are holed up and have caused trouble. But meth use and cooking itself can’t be entirely marginalized. I attribute some of that to the presence of churches, where people are also tolerant, or have a level of tolerance that enables them to ad- dress the issue. I also noticed that the church marquees have really interesting messages that seem to allude to the problems of meth.
Like what, for example?
In my presentation, I have eleven of them. One was, “Strategize Less and Pray More.” Or, “Time is God’s Tool.”
The “time” one is interesting. Because doing stimulants is a way of buying more time in your life. Everyone is afraid of dying, right? So you say “Okay, I have X years to live. I can actually just get more out of them by being able to do more within that period of time.”
It’s the central concern. Time is a commodity in these hardcore environments, where you absolutely need to work more hours to live. You need that income. But it is also what everybody wants, or seems to want. We feel driven by this need to produce – to produce something meaningful. Or maybe we’re missing out on some kind of consumer item, or some kind of fun experience that we’re not living. A phrase that I heard among meth cooks was “to get more life.” And “more life” can be measured in time. It can be measured in what you do with that time, or your superhuman abilities to overthrow time. The youthful energy you acquire, the amped anticipation you feel, the excitement about a future. All of these phenomena add up to more life.