Saturday, August 8, 2009

Righteous Dopefiend by Philippe Bourgois

Fieldwork in the Gray Zone.

The autobiographical literature created by Holocaust survivors provides exceptional insight into how state coercion can make monsters out of the meek. Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi developed the concept of the "Gray Zone" to capture the ethical wasteland imposed by the Nazis on concentration camp inmates struggling to stay alive under genocidal conditions. In the Gray Zone, survival imperatives overcome human decency as inmates jockey desperately for a shred of advantage within camp hierarchies, striving to live just a little bit longer. The Nazis purposefully engineered the Gray Zone of the death camps to force inmates to self-administer to one another, with excruciating cruelty, the logistics of everyday life in the camps. As a contemporary ethical imperative, Levi urges readers to recognize the less extreme gray zones that operate in daily life, "even if we only want to understand what takes place in a big, industrial factory."

As with the concept of violence, we find it useful to think of gray zones in contemporary society as operating along a continuum of insupportable, structurally imposed settings. This perspective renders more visible the complex interaction between intimate behavior and larger coercive constraints. The homeless encampments along Edgewater Boulevard in San Francisco are obviously not the equivalent of Nazis death camps. The Edgewater homeless sometimes quip, "No one put a gun to my head and made me shoot heroin". Their lives also contain camaraderie, humour, and the joy of living. Never-the-less, addiction under conditions of extreme poverty and concerted police repression creates a morally ambiguous space that blurs the lines between victims and perpetrators. By extending the boundries of the Holocaust's Gray Zone to the everyday world around us, we can understand the Edgewater homeless as surviving along an especially coercive and desperate swath of the gray zone continuum.

Levi and other survivors assert that we do not have the right to judge the actions of inmates in the concentration camps because the Gray Zone was omnipotent. He implicitly contradicts himself, however, by devoting much of his writing to eloquently dissecting the moral dilemmas of human agency at Auschwitz through detailed descriptions of individual behaviors, decisions, and interpersonal betrayals. Following Levi, we explore the agency and moral responsibility of the homeless addicts we befriended without obscuring the structural forces that impose a gray zone. We examine in detail the micro-level mechanisms through which externally imposed forces operate on vulnerable individuals and communities; the everyday "state of emergency" ('space of death' and 'culture of terror') in which the socially vulnerable are forced to live.


  1. Ethnographies of gray zones such as homeless encampments reveal the limits of anthropology's notion of cultural relativism. They require an ethical stance that recognizes the consequences of power and inequality...We hope that this photo-ethnography of the everyday lives of the Edgewater homeless in San Francisco motivates readers to care about the phenomena of homelessness and income inequality in the United States.

    During the 1990s and the 2000s, the United States was the wealthiest and most military powerful nation in the world, yet a larger proportion of its population lived in abject destitution than that of any other industrialized nation. Globally, the United States promoted an ideological celebration of inequality and buttressed it with political-economic and military force. The United States rates poorly in international comparisons of the quality of life statistics that measure life expectancy, health, homicide, income inequality, incarceration, ethnic segregation, literacy, and homelessness (United Nations Development Programme 2006; 295-296). It has consisently had the highest levels of income inequality of any wealthy nation in the world. Its economy benefited from global dominance, but social disparities worsened signifiantly during the 1990s and 2000s...

    At the turn of the twenty-first century, most San Franciscans earned more money and lived in more expensive houses than the residents of almost any other metropolis in the world. The streets of their city, however, overflowed with people in visible physical distress who were incapable of paying for minimal shelter and food.

    The burden of lumpenization is even more extreme, painful, and violent in nonindustrialized poor countries that are transitioning into neoliberalism. Anthropology in the early twenty-first century cannot physially, ethically, or emotionally escape the hardship of the lives of its traditional research subjects. Even larger proportions of the world's population survive precariously in refugee camps, rural wastelands, zones of ecological devastation, shantytowns, housing projects, tenements, prisons and homeless encampments. The Edgewater homeless represent the human cost of the American neoliberal model. Tina, Carter, Sonny, Al, Frank, Max, Felix, Victor, Sal, Scotty, Nickie, Spider-Bite Lou, Hogan, Ben, Stretch, Vernon, Reggie, Hank and Petey are as all-American as the California dream.

  2. Drug Consumption as Racialized Habitus

    The whole crack package- the rapid spending, the celebratory binges, and the stimulating physiological effect- meshed with the racialized late twentieth century persona of the enterprising black "outlaw" which, on Edgewater Boulevard, was mobilized in opposition to the persona of the broken-down white "bum". Most of the homeless on the scene, of course, fell somewhere between these two stereotyped ways of being in the world, but the African-Americans in our social network strove more consistently to maintain the public appearance of being in control of their lives and having fun. In sustaining a sense of self-worth, they embraced an ecstatic commitment to getting high.

    Most of the whites, in contrast, considered themselves to be depressed and, indeed, most of the time looked and acted dejected. Furthermore, even though we often observed Frank, Hank, Hogan, Max, Petey and Scotty nodding after they injected, they usually claimed with stoic boredom that they no longer enjoyed shooting and that they were merely staving off withdrawal symptoms;" I get well. I don't nod no more."

    Everyone in our scene had severely scarred the veins in their arms as a consequence of long careers of injection. It was difficult for them to "direct deposit" heroin into a vein. By the midpoint of our fieldwork, most of the whites had given up searching for operable veins and skin-poppped. They sank their needles perfunctorily, often through their clothing, into their fatty tissue- a dangerous practice leading to infection, abcesses, disfigurement and death.

    In contrast, the African Americans, even the the final years of our fieldwork, rarely skin-popped their injections. Instead, they often spent up to forty-five minutes searching for a functional vein. This could become a bloody process as they made a half dozen or more punctures, pulling back on the plunger each time in order to register a vein. Rejecting the aura of failure and depression associated with whites, even the oldest African-Americans continued to pursue this kind of exhilarating high....

  3. The middle-aged whites in this study sought to mitigate their pariah status as public masculine failures by presenting themselves as traumatized Vietnmanm veterans. This identity was predicated on their victimization and the pity they elicited for suffering from a psychiatric disability labeled posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)...some of the blacks also claimed to be Vietnam veterans...

    We obtained everyone's military records and found that only Vernon, Carter, and Petey had actually been in the military. None of these were sent to Southeast Asia; in fact, both Carter and Petey had served after the end of the Vietnam War.

    Arguably, however, these men did suffer from what could be diagnosed as PTSD, but it had been induced by the continuum of violence in the gray zones of their childhood homes and of their ongoing lives on the street.

  4. Heroin Prescription

    Opiate withdrawal symptoms are indisputably painful, and they merit medical treatment without stigma. A heroin prescription program delivered through pain clinics and treatment programs would immediately reduce the everyday torments of the Edgewatwer homeless. Arguably, a simple prescription constitutes the short-term, magic bullet solution for much of the embodied suffering presented in these pages.

    In the mid-1990s, Switzerland pioneered opiate prescription programs for long-term heroin addicts who had repeatedly failed attempts at methadone maintenance and abstinence treatments. Soon after entering these programs, outlaw addicts with life histories of crime, violence, vagrancy and ill health (at great cost to society) often began to lead comparatively stable, pacific and healthier lives through the simple, cheap, medical intervention of precribing heroin and allowing them to experience the drug's pleasurable effects.

    Heroin injectors in the Swiss prescription programs have generally had better outcomes than those enrolled in other treatment modalities. They tend to stay in treatment more consistently, engage in less poly-substance abuse, reduce their participation in crime and violence, and score higher on quality of life indices. Most dramatic (and initially counterintuitive) was the finding that over time patients treated with heroin transitioned to complete abstinence more frequently than those on methadone maintanence. (such programs are conducted in Holland and Germany as well.)

  5. "Righteous Dopefiend" by Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg (California Series in Public Anthropology) University of California Press, Berkeley, 2009

    A report on fieldwork conducted near Edgewater Boulevard in San Francisco between 1994-2006.