Geographies of Crisis and Histories of Failure: Deindustrialization and Addiction in Rural America
By: Sean Muller
The pure products of America go crazy
-William Carlos Williams, To Elsie
Driving around northeastern New York on the roads known as ‘heroin highway,’ the landscape once shaped by growing industries is a familiar blur of dispossession. The towns and spaces in between along the winding line of weathered asphalt are defined by overlapping narratives of crisis: the chemical dehumanization and death– embodied in the synthetic opioid fentanyl[i]– and the damaged environments, illegible economies, and suffering bodies of late industrialism.[ii] My early work with law enforcement agents, drug courts, and archives found these overlapping crises to be far from total: seemingly “ruined”[iii] people and places along the highway are entwined with the area’s postindustrial middle class, extensive green spaces, and thriving ecotourism.
The state neglects the places ‘heroin highway’ traverses. Well-funded prisons, drug courts, and regional Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) task forces make the area seem like a sick world driven by criminality while underfunded public healthcare, infrastructure, and education reproduce this reductive appearance. In addition to these kinds of from-above organization, everyday interaction between people, objects, institutions, and media naturalize the self-evident order of crisis. The literature printed by rural care providers on medically assisted treatment options severs drug addicts from the social realities of deprivation– a lack of resources and possibilities inextricably connected to an excess of violence and aberrance (Stewart 1996)– and locates them as subjects fixed within purely chemical circumstances whose agency ends at prescription (Mack 2021). Clinics address the iatrogenic problem of pain management– laying blame on greedy pharmaceutical corporations and doctors– but have no language to address the lived experiences of dispossession’s social, psychic, and bodily effects. My interlocutors in this project describe life along the highway in ways that reinscribe psychically and historically simplified narratives of rural addiction and abandonment. My father, who still lives in the area, calls to tell stories of junkies sifting through gas station ash trays looking for cigarette butts as evidence of an omnipresent crisis surrounding him. Local police on a DEA task force describe the people they arrest for using, possessing, or selling drugs, and those they resurrect with Narcan[iv] in terms of fatalistic expectation: “that it really could be anyone.”
“The failure of industrial dreams I traced in these archives was a recurring constitutive event in the rural material and affective landscape, not a recently emerged crisis produced by an inevitable historical trajectory.”
The social, political, and epistemic framework of crisis is impressed rather than imposed. An impression is pressed into flesh like a wound, affecting how people experience and imagine themselves in relation to their worlds, while imposition covers a subject, altering appearance through tint and occlusion.[v] Crisis narratives dehistoricize and depoliticize the existence of “zone[s] of simultaneous emergency and abandonment” through impression (Simpson 2016: no pages). They scar the surface of complex political, material, and affective histories, rendering rural dispossession as both urgent problem and common sense– represented in statistics tracking the rising numbers of overdose deaths, dropout rates, and unemployment. In this work, I begin tracing the landscapes, memories, and bodies that encapsulate and exceed these representations to consider how crisis operates as a designation of failure and how its use as a diagnostic can obscure the legibility of a long and political history of the American dream.
I. What dreams are made of
Whitehall is a former industrial town in Washington County where ‘heroin highway’ occupies overlapping roles as a central artery of a decimated downtown and anxious object of a political and public health crisis. When locals talk about what life was like in Whitehall before it was defined by fentanyl’s presence and capital’s absence, they refer to the early-1950s to mid-1970s as the town’s industrial prime. “There were fifteen gas stations and fifteen bars along the main drag, and everyone was busy all the time,” Michael, a narcotics agent on a DEA task force in the area who was born and still lives nearby, tells me. Trucking and tourism made the town somewhere to visit. He continues, “[Now there’s] a couple gas stations and one bar no one who isn’t there everyday would ever go to.” Across from the few remaining gas stations and solitary bar, at the top of a large hill and on the far side of the stagnant canal passing through the center of town, stands Skene Manor– an ornate mansion whose presence indicates a history of failure preceding 1970s deindustrialization by over a century.
While searching local archives for records of this building, I found a document composed of newspaper reports from the 1870s to the 1990s, property surveys, family photographs, and oral histories with the title “Castles, Manors, and Other Charming Residences.” Finding histories of other buildings from an era of earlier abundance surprised me because of its singular presence in the region’s familiar deindustrial environment– the demolished silk mill’s remaining smokestack at its southern edge, the disused railroad tracks and canal at its center, and the nostalgic narratives of its post-war productive prime. The document’s opening pages described the effects these grand buildings had on the town’s appearance:
The visitor to our fast-growing village as he casts his eyes about him will observe upon our hilltops [sic] Castleated [sic] and Gothic mansions giving an air of antiquity… [and] When Judge Potter erects his mansion on Skeens [sic] Mountain, Whitehall with her hills covered with noble edifice, will surely equal ‘Rome with her seven hills’ (Historical Society of Whitehall, NY 2015).
During the late 19th and early 20th century, Whitehall’s location along the Delaware and Hudson Railroad and the Champlain Canal made it an important supplier of boats, lumber, silk, and labor to all points north and south between Montreal and New York City. The area’s working class achieved stable means of social reproduction through employment as carpenters, sawyers, weavers, and sailors. Industrialists who owned the mills and shipyards created a small cosmopolitan society in this valley between the Adirondack and Green Mountains– complete with opera houses and “the most elegant mansions in Northern New York” (Historical Society of Whitehall, NY 2015, 2016).
The failure of industrial dreams I traced in these archives was a recurring constitutive event in the rural material and affective landscape, not a recently emerged crisis produced by an inevitable historical trajectory. The other “castles and manors” became sites of tragic accidents, fires, and ordinary neglect. Shipyards, mills, and factories were shuttered or took on new functions that employed fewer people at lower wages, casting the area’s population into an uncertain financial and existential state. In the absence of capital’s promised continuous growth– and without the means it provides to support individuals, families, or communities– utopian industrial dreams began to break down. An American Rome realized, lost, and lingering continues to impress a normative expectation of progress through what remains: emptied buildings, industries, and landscapes. Rural space is recognized over time for these failures alone despite the affluence it exits alongside; a repeatedly reproduced crisis that becomes a naturalized condition– a wasteland inside a dreamworld “defined by what it is not, what it could and should be but for some aberration” (Fennell 2022: 429).
II. Fields of disregard
After over a decade of struggling with addiction, I began spending time on ‘heroin highway’ because it was the last part of the long drive between where I live in Brooklyn and my parent’s home in upstate New York. I didn’t know the road’s illicit utility or moniker until I was already going back and forth on it regularly to kill time spent feeling trapped between addiction and recovery. Passing the same places over and over, I began to recognize an attachment to the emptied out towns haunted by the loss of their thriving industrial past and the impossibility of a better postindustrial future. Experience does not grant critical authority, but it opens a door onto a set of problems– whose details become all the more unsettling when recognized in different contexts. Weed filled vacant lots, materially indiscriminate constructions, and accumulations of debris suffused the landscape beside the road in a sentiment familiar to an addict: the feeling that nothing can happen to alter a damaged present.
“Most of the abandoned looking structures here don’t totally collapse. They remain occupied in spite of their abjection.”
Everyone I talked to had a story about the intimacy of their lives with the opioid and economic crises: of someone they knew whose life was emptied of meaning and opportunity through cumulative severances– from jobs, from friends, from family, from futures– only to be filled up with alcohol, opioids, and despair. Legal experts told me stories of spectacular violence at the hands of traffickers in small mountain towns, repeated with conviction and no evidence; apocryphal junkie-criminals evoked as figures natural to a world where dwindling opportunities conjoin to material and psychic decay. Everyone knew someone whose life had been devastated by poverty, addiction, or both. Watching the local morning news with my mother at the kitchen table, a reporter explained the signs of an overdose– shallow breathing, slow heartbeat, cold skin– and how to administer Narcan. My research began in these moments, in conversations with people who lived and worked along the highway. Spending time with Michael, the local detective attached to the DEA task force, in a basement decorated with photos of himself outfitted for tactical warfare alongside certificates of commendation for community policing, talking about how federal money flooded into a place where the best chances at upward social and economic mobility were through moving, selling, or policing illegal drugs. These conversations led me to search for how this rural world was transformed from a pastoral landscape into one shaped by multiple crises. As I worked in local archives I drove the highway, attending to what occupied the emptied and abjected space it cut through: looking beyond the smooth surfaces of appearance and into the “epistemic murk” (Taussig 1987) of events, objects, and affects composing conditions that appear as crises in everyday lives.
Houses built following Whitehall’s time as a thriving waystation during the middle 20th century are set back off the stretch of highway that becomes the town’s Main Street. In these neighborhoods, houses with slumping porches, boarded up windows, and dirt yards crowded with mechanical and domestic detritus abut those with fresh cut lawns, frequently re-paved driveways, and bright colored siding. The latter’s material care is a defense against the “infrastructural and social rot that has settled into [this place’s] interstitial spatial tissue” as the productive forces of industrial growth are replaced by the relentless propagation of its destructive effects (Povinelli 2017: 508). The legibility of these homes as spaces where the good life can be realized is obscured by narratives emerging from others overgrown and neglected across the road or, often, right next door. Between what rots and what struggles to remain, Whitehall becomes a marginal place legible as a geography of crises embedded within the American dream.
Most of the abandoned looking structures here don’t totally collapse. They remain occupied in spite of their abjection. These buildings and their inhabitants bear “the representational burdens of ‘nothingness;’” their capacities to not fully decay or disappear become familiar counter-narratives of resilience amidst abandonment (Fennell 2022: 419). Their deconstruction[vi] shapes the “infrastructure of feelings” – the affective and material architectures (Gilmore 2017; Berlant 2022) that are imaginable and actionable for rural lives and landscapes existing under conditions of impossibility. Anthropology that heroizes resilience under such conditions without asking how its particular forms become predictable or valuable keeps genealogies of those infrastructures below the line of politically meaningful regard (Fennell 2015). Tracing the limits of crisis logic– rather than the resilience it produces– through how it is impressed by the state, through chemicals, care, criminalization, and between individuals enables questions about its historical production, political effects, and critical utility. To think within the timely framework of crisis risks remaining at the surface of the social, economic, and psychic problems it is used to diagnose.
III. Mirror crises and shadows of visibility
A designation of crisis can bring productive changes to the social, economic, and affective life of people and places or perpetuate their deterioration. But these former changes often address themselves to imagined post-crisis populations without considering the stratigraphy of historical, political, and epistemic forces that compose the realities of present suffering (Dawdy 2016). Only certain kinds of repair become imaginable. Redevelopment projects that promise to transform the area’s mostly emptied downtowns through the construction of condos, coworking, restaurant, and retail spaces are brought before town boards and fought over for years. Construction begins but never ends, a string of missed deadlines and partial completions.
Meanwhile, rural clinics implement much less ambitious initiatives: medically assisted treatment programs that distribute medications like buprenorphine, naltrexone, and suboxone to treat physical and psychic symptoms of addiction, but without accompanying professional and peer support networks, these initiatives fail to work against the underlying structures of harm.
Crisis-driven interventions do nothing to stop the problems they address– illicit economies continue to proliferate and define the emptied landscape while overdose resurrections and deaths rise over statistical expectations. Attempts at redevelopment and repair only arrest damage in space and time, “focus[ing] on stabilizing a present condition” in which exceptional forms of violence are made ordinary and invisible in their ubiquity (Masco 2017: S73). An attention to suffering as a sudden emergent crisis rather than slowly accumulating condition impresses an endless emergency whose urgency obscures the reproduction of failure embedded in the pursuit of the American dream.
Interpreting the apparent crises of addiction and abandonment as mirrors in which to consider the destructive effects of that dream builds on Foucault’s notion of the mirror as a reflective field in which to imagine “a kind of contestation… of the space in which we live” (1998: 179). Crises are a mirror held up to utopian expectations. Mirror images appear both real and unreal, simultaneously rendered with exacting fidelity to their referents and totally reversed. The backwards image looks right because it is familiar, but when anthropologists take that apparent rightness as a historically produced problem the mirror becomes a place to find “a kind of shadow that gives [us our] own visibility” (ibid.). A political critique of crisis narratives considers the devastating effects of opioids on American rural life through the material and affective infrastructures that emerge in a deindustrial landscape. By looking for what life in the shadow of utopia fails to become, a critical anthropology can address how that failure is marked, managed, and understood by the people whose worlds are defined by its effects, policy makers who govern them, treatment professionals who care for them, and researchers who study the conditions of their existence. Crisis’ self-evidence, studied in a mirror, might be found to be its opposite, an intricate and intimately constructed architecture and history of dispossession.
[i] The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a report in December of 2021 naming fentanyl as the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 18 to 45 (Ahmad et al 2021).
[ii] Late industrialism is a term proposed by Kim Fortun (2001, 2012) which refers to still on-going industrial processes at work in the shadow of the postindustrial service and knowledge-based economy. Fortun sees the late industrial as zones of wasted landscapes and toxic life created by the destructive entanglements “of business and governments, of law and politics, of war and farming, of natural and technical systems” (2012: 447).
[iii] Following Stoler’s (2013) use of “ruination” as a diagnostic entry point, I am interested in interpreting the epistemological and political effects made possible by seeing rural geographies as ruined, not claiming that they are, in fact, totally destroyed.
[iv] Narcan, the brand name of Naloxone, is a drug used to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose used frequently by local police and DEA agents working in the area around ‘heroin highway.’
[v] The work of Rosalind Morris is essential to my theorization of impression, particularly her study of the deindustrial spaces of South African deep earth gold mines (see Morris 2018).
[vi] The notion of “deconstructed homes” I owe to the conversation between anthropologists Alison Feser and Catherine Fennell cited in Feser’s dissertation Reproducing Photochemical Life in the Imaging Capital of the World (2020).
Sean Michael Muller is a PhD student in Anthropology at Columbia University. His research draws connections between addiction and deindustrialization by tracing how the opioid fentanyl crisis becomes a part of everyday life in rural northeastern New York State.
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