Jason Pine


On his book The Alchemy of Meth: A Decomposition

Cover Interview of March 18, 2020

The wide angle

I’m an anthropologist but I’ve struggled with the discipline since I began studying it in the 1980s. That was a time when some anthropologists were focusing on the taken-for-granted medium of writing and its underexamined potential for symbolic and material violence. It was also a time when some rigorously experimented with genre. Authorial violence is always present, but can an author at least mitigate it? I’ve never stopped thinking about this question and one answer I’ve come up with is to fully own my authorial power and, rather than apologize for it, skillfully wield it.

One way I do this is by submerging theory in the matter of what I’m studying rather than elevate it so that it hovers above as the voice of explanation. So, while this book is influenced by literature on affect and new materialisms, it doesn’t serve these literatures as a ‘case.’ The theory is performed in the writing.

Affect theory taught me that if you want to follow what’s happening in a scene, then persons, agency, and autonomy are a bad place to start. Forces often precede and exceed little humans and humans anyway are always more-than-human—they operate in concert with the media, materials, and other beings that make them possible. Literature on new materialisms helps me think about the implications of this lost traditional liberal subject. It gives me ways to write about objects, which sometimes crowd out the little humans. It also gives me ways to think and write ecologically, which necessarily includes postnatural ecologies like the late industrial landscapes The Alchemy of Meth is about.

A second way I take up my authorial power is by using literary techniques to ignite a scene around protagonists and pull readers in to join them. I’ve been studying creative writing because I feel strongly that my ethical charge is to reach as many readers as possible well beyond the academy. I’m not writing for my elite cohort alone. I want the people whose voices are in the book to read it without feeling alienated and inadequate. They already have plenty of things in their lives making them feel like that.

When I began writing this book I knew I was looking for a form adequate to the matter. That became a decomposition. It was only very late in the writing that I accepted that I was motivated, in part, by very personal reasons: my mother’s meth use and my own use of legalized speed, ADHD medication. My chemical proximity to the people I was writing about implicated me and my writing. Rather than clean myself up and regain composure as an academic, I performed the sickly task of exposing my personal life, including my struggles with writing, in the writing. The decomposition that I found to be adequate to the matter I was writing about has no limits, so to arbitrarily halt the decomposition when it reached me would have been entirely unethical. And that’s a third way I address authorial violence: I turn it on my own authority.