What is a Situation?: An Assemblic Ethnography of the Drug War: Supplemental Material

This post builds on the research article “What is a Situation?: An Assemblic Ethnography of the Drug War,” which was published in the August 2015 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published articles on different aspects of the global drug war, including Ieva Jusionyte’s “States of Camouflage” (2015); Nancy Campbell and Susan Shaw’s “Incitements to Discourse: Illicit Drugs, Harm Reduction, and the Production of Ethnographic Subjects” (2008), Angela Garcia’s “The Elegiac Addict: History, Chronicity and the Melancholic Subject” (2008); and Charles Pearson and Philippe Bourgois’s “Hope to Die a Dope Fiend” (1995).

Cultural Anthropology has also published a Commentary series on the idea of becoming otherwise, including Debbora Battaglia and Rafael Antunes Almeida’s “‘Otherwise Anthropology’ Otherwise: The View from Technology” (2014); David Bond and Lucas Bessire’s “The Ontological Spin” (2014); and Emily Yates-Doerr’s “The Form of the Otherwise” (2014).

About the Author

Jarrett Zigon is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. His research interests include morality and ethics, being-in-the-world, political ontology, and possibilities for becoming otherwise. He takes up these interests from the perspective of an anthropology strongly influenced by post-Heideggerian hermeneutics and critical theory. His most recent book is HIV is God’s Blessing: Rehabilitating Morality in Neoliberal Russia (2011, University of California Press). His forthcoming book is entitled Possibilities: Critical Hermeneutic Essays on Politics, Ethics, and Ontologies.

Other Works by Jarrett Zigon

2014. “An Ethics of Dwelling and a Politics of World-Building: A Critical Response to Ordinary Ethics.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 20, no. 4: 746–64.

2014. “Maintaining the ‘Truth’: Performativity, Human Rights, and the Limitations on Politics.” Theory and Event 17, no. 3.

2014. “Attunement and Fidelity: Two Ontological Conditions for Morally Being-in-the-World.” Ethos 42, no. 1: 16–30.

2013. “Human Rights as Moral Progress? A Critique.” Cultural Anthropology 28, no. 4: 716–36.

2013. “On Love: Remaking Moral Subjectivity in Postrehabilitation Russia.” American Ethnologist 40, no. 1: 201–15.

Interview with Jarrett Zigon

Susan MacDougall: In this article, you suggest that anthropologists do both assemblic ethnography and assemblic analysis. You note that your own thinking on this assemblic approach evolved through a fieldwork journey that took you from St. Petersburg to New York to Vancouver and elsewhere. Can you talk about how your field site for studying the drug war expanded to include so many cities?

Jarrett Zigon: When doing my research in St. Petersburg on moral subjectivity and Russian Orthodox Church-based rehabilitation, it pretty quickly became obvious to me that those who found themselves caught up in the drug war recognized it as a global phenomenon. This, of course, does not mean that they didn’t also recognize the singularity of the localized manifestation of this war in Russia—a quite violent and harsh manifestation, by the way—but they knew precisely this, that it was just one localized manifestation of something that existed well beyond St. Petersburg or Russia. So when I decided to study anti–drug war political activity, I already had a good sense that this would have to be done in a way that was not limited, as you say, to a few sites. At the time, though, I had no idea that it would expand this much.

SM: At what point did you start to think of your ethnography as assemblic? I am thinking of this both practically and theoretically. When did you start to think that simply looking at what is happening in user unions in St. Petersburg, or at the Soros Foundation in New York, or downtown East Vancouver, is not adequate to talk about the way that the drug war shapes lives? And, in a related vein, when did you identify the drug war as your object of interest, rather than as so-called ethnographic context?

JZ: Once I began research on anti–drug war politics, it became clear pretty quickly that I actually needed to begin by asking the question of what is the drug war. I’d show up at the union in New York one day and they’d be talking drug policy, the next they’d be talking hepatitis C medication, the next they’d be talking housing, the next it would be police violence, and then racial discrimination and then income inequality and so on; all of this and more was considered the drug war. It became clear that this is political activity that does not simply look to reform a few laws or policies but is, in fact, what I call a politics of world-building. That is, those who do this politics experimentally attempt to build new worlds as political activity. And this is necessary because they know that their worlds are conditioned by the drug war. None of the things they talk about at the unions are separable from the drug war. They know that the drug war, to some extent, conditions all of our worlds and lives, and not for the better. So to try to get back to your question, having realized that these political agonists understand the drug war as a globally shared condition, I also realized that I needed to begin to think and research their activity and that which they are fighting—the drug war—in all of its widely diffused complexity.

SM: You write in the article that “the anthropologist doing assemblic ethnography can never know beforehand where the research will lead and when it will do so.” How would you suggest that anthropologists preparing for or conducting fieldwork incorporate this perspective—and the flexibility it requires—into their approach? Put more simply, what does fieldwork methodology that supports assemblic ethnography look like?

JZ: In some ways, I realize that this is difficult for anthropologists, who tend to be trained to focus on sites. Now, something anthropologists are already very good at doing is looking for and recognizing complexity; that’s what we do. But we have always bounded this complexity in some way. Even now, this is done with the concept of globalization. Consider Anna Tsing’s image of friction or the ethnography of global connections: this is essentially a mapping of connections across a bounded globe. You can see it as if on the globe on your desk, you can follow connections from site to site via the internet or on a plane, and then write a proposal accordingly. But assemblic ethnography differs from this. It cannot be seen beforehand, and yet one must begin somewhere. How to begin thinking? This was one of Martin Heidegger’s motivating questions. It necessitates thinking and imagining in non-Euclidean forms, conceiving of shared conditions that are noncontiguous and nonidentical, understanding phenomena that are so complex that they defy everyday empiricism. Honestly, I don’t know how to write a proposal for this kind of research. I never have. In a sense this fieldwork methodology, more than anything, demands an attunement to what Heidegger called the presencing of phenomena as they occur, what others might call their emergence or unfolding. Can we write presencing in a proposal without sounding a bit goofy? I’m not sure. This would entail not only the flexibility of the fieldworker but perhaps, more importantly, of the proposal reader.

SM: Why did you choose the term “situation” to describe the nontotalizable assemblages that you discuss in this article? Did you consider other terms in the writing process or did you begin with this one in mind?

JZ: I probably did consider other concepts, but I honestly can’t remember now what they were. “Situation” seems, to me, to capture well what I am trying to get at. As I write in the article: let’s consider what we mean when we say something like “what can I do, this is the situation I’m in?” Among other things, we mean something like: 1) this situation conditions what I am able to do, say, think, and so on at this moment in time; 2) others have been in this same situation (one response to the question would be: “let me tell you, because I’ve been in this situation before”); 3) others will be in this same situation in the future (we can imagine giving advice similar to the advice we were given); 4) this same situation has been and will be in other places, that is, not only here; and 5) although we say “this same situation” we actually mean “very, very similar,” provoking us to ask the question of how to think and articulate shared conditions that are not identical. For these and other reasons, then, I thought that the concept of situation captures well the singular multiplicity of a widely diffused phenomenon and our experience of it.

SM: In that vein, my next question is on the use of terms that refer to concepts more generally. Your approach makes use of terms that have their origins in theory written outside of anthropology (I am thinking, in particular, of the term assemblage, which is associated with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari). Can you share a bit about the way in which your use of terms evolved through the process of writing this article?

JZ: I actually studied philosophy before coming to anthropology and I jumped disciplines, as it were, because I wanted to do philosophy through ethnography. So in that sense, I have always thought of myself more as a philosophical anthropologist than an as anthropologist per se, albeit not in the terms of early twentieth-century German philosophical anthropology. I think this is pretty clear in my work. For me, fieldwork is an opportunity to study the human condition, to become intertwined with others in their worlds and then try to think and write that intertwining. The concept assemblage is one way of articulating this intertwining. But we should be clear: today it has become very faddish to assign nearly every interesting concept to Deleuze and Guattari as if thinking did not exist prior to their partnership. In fact, concepts very similar to assemblage had already been articulated several times over the half-century prior to Deleuze and Guattari within the phenomenological tradition. Here, I’m thinking of central phenomenological concepts such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s intertwining, Heidegger’s thing and gathering, and Hannah Arendt’s crystallization. One of my biggest concerns is that as anthropologists increasingly turn to the philosophical tradition to help them think in ways that the anthropological tradition does not necessarily allow, there seems to be too much cherry-picking going on. It is one thing to borrow a concept or idea here and there, but if we as anthropologists intend to engage seriously with philosophers and other theoreticians, then we must do so with a better understanding of the traditions we engage. Otherwise, I fear, we end up looking a bit naïve. So to try to get back to your question: in my research and writing I try to participate in an intellectual conversation that has been going on—at least in the tradition of which I feel a part—for at least twenty-five hundred years, and I begin to feel very uncomfortable if asked not to do so.

Related Reading

Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Connolly, William E. 2013. The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1997. The Visible and the Invisible. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press. Originally published in 1969.

Morton, Timothy. 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Schürmann, Reiner. 1990. Heidegger on Being and Acting: From Principles to Anarchy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.