The May 2016 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Last Chance Incorporated,” by Jason Pine, who is an assistant professor at Purchase College, State University of New York. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Joey Russo conducted with Pine about the article and his approach to ethnographic writing.
Joey Russo: Your recent article deals in incommensurability, both in content and form. The piece foregrounds a weaving of theoretical and ethnographic modes; it speaks of itself as always reaching towards that which is “out of time, yet still here.” Yet we are also treated to precise, incommensurable field encounters, with the smile of the cashier placed in stark contrast to the smiles of the advertisements. There is a particular seamlessness in the weaving of your intense encounter with Drew and your reflections on meth cooking as late industrial alchemy.
Maybe you could start by speaking a bit about your ethnographic writing style and your feelings about experimentalism. Reading this piece, one gets the feeling that the stylistic choices surpass aesthetic decisions—rather, they seem to enact an altogether different mode in which the ethnographer eschews the reduction of data into tidy analytics, instead opting to present vivid experiences intermingled with a metaprocess that is speaking of its own experiential unfolding.
Jason Pine: Writing style, for me, is always more than an aesthetic choice. Each field site calls for its own methods and each offers resources for thinking and writing. In the world where I found Drew, the proprietor of Last Chance Incorporated, material things competed with people for my attention. The objects of his encampment were strikingly expressive not only because of their great numbers, but also because of their deformations, their unfamiliar juxtapositions and assemblies. Ruminating on the objects—literally sifting through them and photographing them for a couple of hours—helped me find a red thread. The thread connects objects materially, semiotically, and affectively and it weaves a cultural geography. This rumination preceded everything else. After that, I found that I could reflect on the story that emerged through both historical materialist and so-called new materialist theories and strategies. The style I developed is my attempt to leave the writing, the writer, and my ethnographic aspirations in the material thickets that generated them.
Alchemy is what I would call, clumsily, a material metaphor in this story. It is a master metaphor that is materially entangled with the world it comments on. It cannot be separated out. Alchemy surfaces in the work of Bruno Schulz and Walter Benjamin as well. Both writers refer to a Messianic world of lost opportunities and the coming redemption. Both refer, in their own ways, to Jetztzeit, the time of now, a time that is out of joint with the hegemonic, historical unfolding of time. The mass-consumer objects and people like Drew who are potently bonded with them are alive (and not-alive) in myriad ways that can only be known by a speculative science like alchemy. Alchemy is and was many things at many times and places, but I am talking here about a contemporary late industrial incarnation.
It’s great what you suggest about incommensurability. I think I am reflecting on the incommensurability of overdrawn hopes where there is dispossession, the hyperbole of a consumer–producer–self-producer high in the midst of progressivist industrial capitalism gone broke. The couplings and assemblies that take form in this time out of joint are nascent stories of matter; they are sense-fictions because they lead the way to a universe that just barely begins to make sense. The idea of sense-fiction comes from critical design theory, a thinking practice that yields object designs that provoke difficult or reflective affective-aesthetic experiences, where the objects are not so willing to recede into the background. In this story people live with the leavings of late industrialism in provocative ways.
JR: Reading “Last Chance Incorporated,” these vividly described material-affective geographies really stand out as specific to a region and time. Doing fieldwork in rural southeast Texas, I recognized a number of your descriptions of rural Missouri that are true to my experiences here as well. I often struggle to find descriptors for the affects of these regions of the mythic American South—predominantly poor, white, rural spaces that are usually subjected to classist/racist dismissals by middle-class liberals—these zones that are called backwards, violent, forgotten. Feral whiteness is a concept I’ve been working with to get at the feeling of these spaces and their inhabitants as untamed, uncivilized. As an ethnographer, one sees the ways in which these sensations do circulate in public spaces (I am thinking of rural car shows I have attended in which the feeling of something like a marauding horde is not only achieved, it is also desired—significant amounts of labor are performed to achieve it) and also the ways that they are flattened into the dismissals of stereotypy.
JP: I think if you can re-evoke the material-affective contours of a place in your writing and in other ethnographic forms, causing readers to experience both the allure and the discomfort, you make it difficult for them to critique at a distance, or worse, to judge by way of well-worn stereotypes. Additionally, it can be powerful to indicate through writing how the kinds of places you and I have studied are contiguous or homologous with a more familiar mainstream world. Such a tactic might entail subjecting this implicit, unmarked mainstream to the same theory and critique we use to address the places where we do our fieldwork. It might also entail entangling the ethnographer’s project in the matters of the field, or destabilizing intellectual apparatuses of theory and critique so that it’s difficult to maintain clear distinctions between places and levels of analysis.
JR: I’d like to hear more about Walter Benjamin and his notion of Jetztzeit in relation to the roving eye of the ethnographer. What is ethnography able to capture that other types of engagements with space cannot? What are the connections and divergences with the literary modes you cite, which are concerned with the micro-specific and which reward paying close attention to what our mentor Katie Stewart might call expressivities taking form? What, more broadly, does the literary contribute to ethnographic practice?
JP: The work of an ethnographer is very strange and I think it’s productive to fully take this strangeness up. Although I try to attune to the rhythms of whatever everyday I’m studying, I also find myself in the peculiar timespace of not being home and not being wholly myself while still being not really where or who I am in the field. In Missouri I explored how this feeling might help me understand, by analogy, how late industrial landscapes are likewise ambiguously lived and composed, out of time and yet still here. When I periodically fell out with the meth cooks I knew—because they became suspicious or disappeared or died, or because I became too afraid or saddened—I literally roved about the state by car and on foot. I found that I could glean insights by way of a psychogeographic attention to landscapes and materials (I also visited some two hundred addresses where meth lab busts have been recorded).
Likewise, I drew inspiration from the ways other writers and thinkers have addressed objects, landscapes, and the materiality of language allegorically. What I learned from James Clifford’s (1986) remarkable essay “On Ethnographic Allegory” is not only that allegorical registers are embedded in ethnographic writing, but that allegory is a rich resource for troubling the relationship between literary form on the one hand, and theory, critique and argument on the other. Benjamin’s exploration of how an allegorical sensibility can access an untimely life helped me appreciate the ways that Bruno Schulz, Don DeLillo, and William Gay render their fictional universes in allegorical terms and thereby succeed in expressing profound and nearly ineffable insights. In my essay I am pursuing something ineffable yet real.
Clifford, James. 1986. “On Ethnographic Allegory.” In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus, 98–121. Berkeley: University of California Press.