Jason Pine’s “Economy of Speed” positions the material reality of meth cooking in the American Midwest as a commentary and critique on capitalism by situating the lives of cookers and addicts as a dark mirror to the practices writ large in the hyper capitalistic lifestyles of Americans in general. By contrasting, however briefly, the recreational and professionalized use by students and respected professionals (day traders in particular), Pine establishes an economic Other that creates a social spectacle: vital, in the end, to the functioning of a marketplace that increasingly requires greater labor at less compensation. By applying a structuralist lens and elevating the materialist analysis from the personal to the institutional, the absence of a comprehensible structure becomes a critique in itself: the othering of these communities can’t be accounted for, which allows the “user-producer” identity to creep into mainstream culture (Pine 2007, 364).
Following Pine’s style of sensational narrative—building off of and within itself—I will establish the communities of meth user-producers in my imagination as an outsider looking in to those communities and then use that artificial other to examine the role of these ostracized communities within the institutional structure of the United States. By expanding the dark mirror from Pine’s ethnography, I argue for the usefulness of this seemingly tight focus to critiquing the increasingly normalized cultural practices borne from this hidden other.
Leering Into the Empire of Speed
The empire is a hollowed out, desiccated corpse littered with farmlands and burned down homes in no man’s land. The air is noxious with anhydrous. Methamphetamine blossoms out of the bodies of cookers and addicts alike. This spectacle is self-reinforcing and -perpetuating for everyone involved. Consuming-producing-consuming speed apotheosizes the user-producer to oblivion and safeguards the spectator against a precautionary other; after all, if the user-producer blows themselves up, the danger is already taken care of. In this way, the Empire of Speed is full of ghosts; unrecorded and therefore uninhabited by those looking in. Everyone knows how many are making meth and—then, in the public’s logic—how many (must) die. That’s all anyone needs to know about a charred graveyard.
The corpse is hollowed and now, more than ever, being bleed out. When once the speed could be made and sold, these allowances and affordances are slowly pruned; globalized like the rest of the economy (Pine 2007, 361-362). Now the only people left are the ones trying to get outside of time itself. Abandoned by society, sequestered from population centers, time is the last confine that the international marketplace (both in terms globalized and crossing the boundary from the Empire of Speed to greater America) can impose upon the empire’s citizens. Labor is plentiful and supercharged: now do more.
Ghosts are not bound by geography. The dead take their hyper time into the consciousness of society and we become haunted by them. Leering at their demise and then—much as they consume-produce-consume their meth—we take in the ghosts, hide away the yet-to-combust-themselves and leer once more. A symbol of infinity.
Our Haunted Reality
The fractious identities that constitute American culture most often abide as parts of the whole. Occasionally, as is useful, the hegemonic identity will detach itself in order to create an other and reify itself. Even before the current neoliberal landscape and individuated market dominance of society, W.E.B. DuBois laid bare the segmentation of consumer and producer populations in his explanation of racist employment practices in Philadelphia, cementing this institutional ideology in the marrow of the United States. By establishing the labor divisions of Black and white employees and, just as importantly, the incidental conditions that separated out Black from white employment, the structural affect of the hegemonic, American identity expresses itself. DuBois’s (1899) example of the church that employs Black people, but constructs a new building that will not hire Black people, demonstrates the scaling effect. “The business man said: ‘that building…is a business enterprise, to be run on business principles.’” And to finish, “…thus the Christian church joins hands with trade unions and a large public opinion to force Negroes into idleness and crime” (340).
The citizens of the Empire of Speed are the skilled, yet uneducated, labor force consigned to the other America. “Weakened labor unions, unprofitable farming, [and] joblessness…” leave them to work in jobs that either pay low or have high time requirements…possibly both (Pine 2007, 360). Speed becomes the vector by which to increase their own employment, though that was criminalized; the state looked at itself and cleaved off what it desired to cast out. For the hegemonic identity, meth use became prejudiced as crime. This sits in contrast with the use of Adderall by students and stock brokers, indeed as much of a geographic division as a class. In this way, the Empire of Speed becomes a psychic country that some can afford to visit to steal a bit of time while others are fractured off wholly to reside there timelessly.
The cordoning off of these part-time criminals, part-time workers creates a new America that reflects, in some way, the hegemonic identity. As mentioned above, the cultural identity of the United States is fractious and made up of many subcultures. This, tied with market driven usefulness of consumer-producer identities, creates tangible means of relationship at the institutional level that individuals may access as relational shortcuts. To see and be seen is to recognize and be recognized; the other is constituted. As society separates out the Empire of Speed geographically and legally, it is not wholly cleaved off, but those not in the empire are dissuaded from looking at it too closely. This becomes an expression of Mark Granovetter’s (1973) “weak tie:” the relationship between subcultures in the United States is not negligible between any two that could be chosen, but many, depending on a person and a community’s identity, are restricted and cannot be(come) strong (1361). Importantly, this creates a “bridge” between the hegemonic identity and the Empire of Speed, given that the tie between the two is not (and cannot be) absent. Geographically, this weak tie bears out in the distance between population centers: nearby or next to, but not occupying the same space. Legally, the difference in Adderall and meth: production, branding and criminality, but same effect. Therefore, the identities, in their fractious state, are bound but not intertwined. In Granovetter’s (1973) model, this mimics the multivalent figure illustrating the local bridges, but with varied points of structural identity based on geography, politics, marketplace and more instead of individual actors (1364-1365). It is across this bridge that America leers at the Empire of Speed and the empire leers back.
It is also across this bridge that the ghosts of the empire “come back,” retranslating the narco-capitalistic drives of speed back into the general population. Everyone can go faster, do more, “get more life” (Pine 2007, 357). Not everyone will do Adderall or whatever the designer drug name of choice may be, but the marketplace will accept user-producers all the same. As the cottage industry of Missourian meth production has clans, contracts and recipes (Pine 2007, 363), so too do the increasingly captured users-producers of platforms such as YouTube or TikTok. As the necessity of side hustles increases, people have less and less time; the substance of choice may not be meth, but the reflection across the bridge doesn’t need to be perfect. Better if it isn’t so that America can continue to ignore the Empire of Speed and get more ghosts.
By reconfiguring Pine’s ethnography into the imagination of an outsider trained to look from a distance at the narco-capitalistic communities enclosed by hegemonic lawmakers and capitalists, the Midwestern communities come to reflect back at the larger, structural America the labor conditions slowly infecting the general population that have ravaged the independent user-producers and clans. By elevating Pine’s work with a community to a symbolic identity on par with other subcultures used as symbolic identities, the negotiation and translation that occurs across the bridges borne out of American (subcultural) weak ties becomes an important point of interpellation between communities. The overriding effect of the capitalistic market—particularly in regards to time—ignores the identity-laden politics and reproduces the most effective methods across social divides; more work, performed faster, by a labor force that regulates itself extra-judiciously, though the market can also intercede as needed (only ever to its benefit).
This critique hopes to add a middle level to structural arguments by using micro-level interactions tied to macro-level patterns to speak to the sometimes volatile state of intergroup or inter-institutional interactions, where often multiple layers are useful in analyzing the movements and intentions of structures that represent some individuals, but not all, and, more importantly, those structural interactions.
- DuBois, W.E.B. “The Contact of the Races.” In The Philadelphia Negro, 322-367. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press: 1899.
- Granovetter, Mark S. “The Strength of Weak Ties.” America Journal of Sociology 78, no. 6 (1973): 1360-1380. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2776392.
- Pine, Jason. “Economy of Speed: The New Narco-Capitalism.” Public Culture 19, no. 2 (2007): 357-366. https://www.doi.org/10.1215/08992363-2006-041.