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Poisonous Knowledge

Poisonous Knowledge

April 20, 2011

Every so often a thinker will earn a place in history through the force of a single really bad idea. Cesare Lombroso (1832-1909) was such a figure. Examining the physiognomy of known felons, living and dead, the pioneering Italian criminologist concluded that some people were organically predisposed to breaking the law. It was just in their nature. They were degenerates, in the strictest sense: biological throwbacks from civilized humanity to something lower on the evolutionary scale.

Various physical traits signaled the regression. This was the bright side of Lombroso’s theory, since it told you what to watch out for. Rapists tended to have abnormally round heads. Women with masculine faces and excessive body hair were a menace to society; a lack of maternal instinct made them capable of acts more vicious and depraved than male offenders. Left-handed men were closer to the state of "women and savage races," thus more prone to crime or lunacy than we law-abiding right-handers.

All of this proves less amusing given how influential Lombroso’s books remained into the early 20th century. Somebody probably went to jail for having a sloping forehead and asymmetrical ears.

A few years back, Duke University Press brought out translations of a couple of Lombroso’s works, which apart from their historical significance, are fascinating for the images the esteemed researcher used to demonstrate his argument. They are haunting, especially the photographs. The faces wear various expressions: hardened, hungry, bitter, confused, terrified. Each evokes a long story of bad choices or bad luck, or both. I’m not sentimental enough to believe that all of them, or even most, were innocent. There are some tough customers who look ready to stick to their story, no matter what. (“That guy was already dead when I got there.”) But the crimes are long forgotten. What remains now is the trace of misery, caught in the gaze of a criminologist who has reduced them to specimens.

On page 78 of William Garriott’s Policing Methamphetamine: Narcopolitics in Rural America, published by New York University Press, there is the reproduction of a poster called “A Body on Drugs.” The author, who is an assistant professor of justice studies at James Madison University, found it taped to the wall of a sheriff’s office in “Baker County” -- the name he has given to an area in West Virginia where he did ethnographic fieldwork in the mid-2000s.

Garriott calls the poster “reminiscent of the catalogs of criminals from which the 19th-century criminologist Cesare Lombroso sought to discern the distinctive features of congenital criminality.” I will return to this idea later, but first should describe the poster itself. Because it has been reduced to the dimensions of a single page in a book, the text is almost impossible to read, but you can still make out the photographs, which show the long-term effects of methamphetamine use on the body through a combination of mug shots and close-ups, plus brain scans.

All of it is ghastly. “The arms and legs had open sores,” recalls Garriott, “the hands were scabbed and bandaged, the mouth was missing teeth, the brains showed signs of malfunction, and the faces were prematurely aged.” If anything, the images may understate the impact of meth. The festering sores result from an accumulation of toxins in the addict’s body. They can also induce psychosis. “Cooking” meth in improvised labs, besides running the risk of explosion, generates extremely dangerous contaminants.

The social profile of crack cocaine, 20 years or so back, was black and urban, while meth’s “brand identity” tends to be white and (especially in recent years) rural. Garriott initially went to West Virginia as a cultural anthropologist to study “the treatment experiences of addicts working to overcome their addiction to meth,” he writes, “what I thought of as the ‘therapeutic trajectory of their recovery process.' ” The focus of the project shifted as Garriott noticed how often “drug problems generally, and the methamphetamine problem specifically, were framed locally as matters for the criminal justice system,” rather than as a medical issue.

To describe the relationship between addict and community, then, was impossible without assessing the role of the police. This is hardly surprising, and perhaps least of all in rural areas, where state and civil society tend to meet at the same diner and church socials. But Garriott’s analysis leaps from the ethnographic particulars to broad claims about what he calls the “narcopolitics” of meth. The term is modeled on Michel Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, which covers a host of ways the modern state seeks to monitor, classify, regulate, and control the population of human organisms within its territory. (However befuddled Lombroso’s dubious Darwinism, for example, his work is the perfect instance of a biopolitical strategy: identifying a defective and dangerous human subspecies enhances the power of the authorities over the social order. That was the plan, anyway.)

Once, the narcopolitical imperative was summed up in the slogan “War on Drugs,” which you don’t hear invoked much anymore. (To quote Detective Ellis from "The Wire": “You can’t even call this shit a war… Wars end.”) Yet the constant mobilization against illegal drugs not only continues but blurs the line between narcopolitics and the “normal” functioning of the state – including, in Garriott’s catalog, “the election of officials, the administration of justice, the practice of law enforcement and the formation of public policy (both foreign and domestic), the allocation of social services, the use of military force, the interpretation of law, and the behavior of the judiciary.”

And because the prosecution and incarceration of drug offenders is one of the few areas of governmental action with broad public support, narcopolitics serves to legitimate the state itself. Policing the availability of illegal drugs and the behavior of their uses becomes a means through which the authorities establish and maintain public order -- or can at least be seen trying.

These tendencies become self-reinforcing. Drug abuse ceases to be a social problem. Rather, social problems, including violence and poverty, look like effects of criminal drug enterprises – which means resources should be channeled towards interdiction and incarceration.

With this notion of narcopolitical power -- as with just about any schema derived from Foucault’s work -- you soon get the sense of a juggernaut rolling over the landscape, flattening everything in its path, with nobody resisting because nobody can, and you’d pity the fool who tried.

In an epilogue, Garriott takes up the question of what reforms of the system suggested by his analysis -- then admits that none really follow. I respect his candor. If you can’t change the world, might as well interpret it, not that doing so makes much difference. But there is at times a strange disconnection between his analytic framework and his descriptions of life in Baker County.

The narcopolitical imagination, by Garriott’s account, “maps” social space according to its own imperative to track and control illegal substances. The community learns to define itself in opposition to the menace of drug dealers and addicts. Social anxieties become focused around them. The preferred response is punitive. Therapeutic treatment for meth abuse is something prescribed by the legal system; it is part of a continuum, with prison at the other end. And all of this functions in a closed loop -- with the problem always finally defined as a matter of criminality, thereby reinforcing narcopolitical power.

But Garriott’s fieldwork shows a community with every reason to regard meth as a real menace – not because it is a convenient explanation for social disorder, but every phase of its existence creates actual dangers. The author does not mention this. Cooking one pound of meth creates six pounds of toxic byproduct. Recovery from addiction is difficult and rarely lasts for very long. Nor does accumulation of narcopolitical power by the state generate confidence in its authority. Garriott notes rumors that local officials are failing to deal with the meth problem because they are somehow involved in trafficking. And while Foucault's thinking about biopower treated certain new disciplines (criminology for instance) as modes of domination over the social field, the knowledge gained by the police and citizens clearly has the very opposite effect. Garriott quotes one officer saying, "Sometimes I wish I was more naive." The awareness that a trash bag on the side of the road might be filled with deadly chemicals from a meth lab is itself a kind of "poisonous knowledge," as the author puts it.

"A Body on Drugs," the poster mentioned earlier, is a concentrated bit of such poisonous knowledge. Garriott borrowed its title for the dissertation later revised as this book. His commentary treats the images as a contemporary narcopolitical variant of Lombroso's work, "drawing attention to a generic type of criminal and the signs by which they could be identified." Recognizing the open wounds, rotting teeth, and emaciation "made possible ... understanding both their physical appearance and their criminality as symptoms of their addiction." The poster did not say they were "born criminals," as Lombroso might. But the narcopolitical gaze was linking their biology and their criminality just as closely.

Having finished reading Policing Methamphetamine, I used a magnifying glass to examine the poster closely. You could see, for example, the little jar that one woman used to collect the imaginary bugs she felt crawling under her skin and removed with a knife. So I learned from the captions. There were some mug shots taken of people who had been arrested before becoming addicted to meth and then afterward. Garriott calls them "a concrete means of imagining the temporality of the relationship between drugs, addiction, and criminality," which is certainly one way of putting it. But in spite of prolonged squinting, I never saw any mention of criminality on the poster. That was not its point. It was about suffering.

 

 

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