I’m your host, Yifan Wang.
Today, I sit down with Dr. Nicholas Bartlett, a medical anthropologist at Barnard College, to talk about his 2020 monograph, Recovering Histories: Life and Labor after Heroin in Reform-era China.
I was interested in this book’s shifting away from addiction and its treatment of recovery as plural, historical processes. In particular, I was interested in the portrayal of the specific ways of experiencing but also ways of conceptualizing recovery at the junction of China’s economic reform. I was also curious to hear about the relation between risk-taking, the transformation of labor paradigms, and the shifting economic landscapes in post-socialist China. Here is our conversation.
YIFAN WANG: I want to begin today's conversation by asking you about the broader project and the research. So Recovering History is a book about the experiences of heroin addiction recovery in Gejiu in Yunnan province, and this is a city that had been known for its tin resources. So could you tell us more about how you get interested in this topic and this organization, which you called "Green Orchard" in this book?
NICK BARTLETT: Sure. I actually first heard about Gejiu about seven years before I moved there. And at that point I was working in a public health organization. I was in China at that point, working on an HIV prevention project, a bilateral program between the British government and the Chinese government. I actually remember being at a meeting where people were talking about particular sites where a lot of resources should be invested. At this particular meeting, people were reporting the epidemiological survey data.
And Gejiu came up as one of the places in Yunnan province that had a high prevalence that seemed like it would make sense to do a whole series of different interventions. And in the intervening years there were a whole bunch of projects that started there. And I, I actually never visited at that point, but continued to be involved in public health work in China and actually became more focused on specifically drug use as the, initially as, as sort of harm reduction related activities. And then as I got more involved in that work, I became very interested in drug users' lives and in particular sort of in getting to know people better. And it's very difficult working in public health because --or at least I found because-- I thought that the mandate of whichever organization I was working in at the time, whatever questions we were asking was very narrow and focused mainly on risk behaviors.
And so after working on a few different projects, I made the decision. I went back to school and was doing a PhD in medical anthropology and actually decided to continue to stay involved in certain public health efforts. But more and more focused on people with drug use history themselves. And so it was all working at a foundation where I was specifically looking to fund people who had heroin use history to create their own organization, to do their own advocacy. It was at that point that I heard about some groups that were forming in Gejiu in nearby cities.
And so I went for the first time in 2008. And then in 2009 sort of left the foundation formally and left all public health work for good. After leaving the foundation I basically moved to Gejiu and former grantees were my hosts while I was living there. So that was sort of the process of, and I write about it in the book in some ways it was messy too. It was both great that I got to know this particular groups and key figures. I got to know before I started the formal research, but also moving from a position of working at a foundation to doing field work was complicated in some ways as well.
YIFAN WANG: Could you tell us a little more about the setting of the Green Orchard? Of course, without sacrificing confidentiality.
NICK BARTLETT: So green Orchard is a group. I didn't have a formal relationship with them. There was a different NGO that I had been working with. That's a pseudonym, but it was a fairly large organization that had been set up specifically with the assistance of international funding. And there was quite a bit of funding in Gejiu and quite a number of groups, including people with drug use history who were involved in HIV prevention work. And it was fairly special in the sense that it had this really large drop-in center that had people at it every day. And it had sort of formal, organized activities sometimes, but a lot of the time it was just a space that... in part because the organizers were inside the government, the organizational structure was a little bit special. And it had basically the ability to more or less protect the people who had heroin use history while they were there. So it was a space where one could gather either actively using heroin or in various stages of recovery.
And You knew that the police weren't going to come in and make a raid or anything. And so it became a place that for me was a good place to meet people. I guess I taught some English classes there for a while. And I used to go in the afternoons and just sort of hang out and get to know people.
So it wasn't necessarily the main site where it was, but it was an important place for making connections.
YIFAN WANG: I see. Thank you. I think we'll come back to the question of the institutional or the clinical setting just a little bit later, but one thing that was striking to me is how much Gejiu's landscape features in this work. Right. So one thing that I would really love to hear about is, Can you say a little more about the relationship between Gejiu's landscape and the perception of time and space either for you or for your interlocutors?
NICK BARTLETT: Sure. I mean that's kind of a, I guess in some ways a big question. I guess, to start with, I would say I didn't realize when I was moving there, how important the landscape and specifically the mountains were for the people who I was getting to know. I think it came about gradually that Gejiu is known as a tin mining city and you can't miss the mountains when you're in the city. They're quite beautiful. And kind of looming in the background and. Initially it didn't seem to me like the people who I was getting to know who had a heroin use history were working in the mines and are especially affected by the mountains. But especially as I began to talk to people more about their history, both of heroin use, but I guess more importantly of participating in the local economy, I came to really appreciate how important the mines were for the survival of the city.
But also in particular for this generation of heroin users who sort of had come of age at this really pivotal and complicated moment where or I guess you could say it's a span of several years where the mountains had opened up in a way that Sort of made it radically.
There was, there was a break with the way that their parents had engaged with and a couple of generations had been moving onto and off of the mountains and suddenly when they were entering the workforce, it was possible for anybody really who was brave and willing to take risks, to go onto the mountains in various ventures and to make what at the time was an enormous, or at least to try to make lots of money. There were a huge number of private fortunes being made right as they were entering the workforce. So that became important for the temporality of recovery.
In the beginning of the book, I set up a distinction between the Chinese term "jiedu" and "huigui shehui." And it's a sort of attempt to make this distinction that I think is important for the argument that unfolds in the following chapters.
And basically I argued that this term quitting drugs in China, which is broadly used, mainly refers to a bodily process that one can measure in sort of a quantitative way, the time of the watch to capture how long has one been clean? How so many of the different state organized efforts to promote quitting drugs is focusing precisely on this, that the bodily interests and the sort of more time is better. And when it accumulates time and in some ways, very simple but also very important because for example, police methadone clinics are all interested in counting this time.
And then there's the "huigui shehui", which is sort of a more phenomenological and much much, much more complicated question of returning to society. And I think that even just those words, asking people with heroin use history about that question opened up really complicated feelings, responses, and people have very different answers.
And so I became, in some ways that term, both the question of return has a really complicated temporality. And the question of society, like which imagination of society is understood as based on what model or ideal and one's position in relationship to some broader collective that sort of the tension between the different ways that individuals who I talked to answer that question.
Well, what does it mean to return to society? How does one return to society? How are you returning to society? That came from the structure of each of the last five chapters of the book, because each person or a small group of people in each chapter is a different way of answering the question of what does it mean to return to society?
YIFAN WANG: That is a beautiful analysis. And I do want to push what you said a little further. So in one way, I think your discussion of return echoes how Ghassan Hash and his colleagues conceptualize waiting, right? All of you take this idea that has been taken as a knot on the timeline and show us how this point is not to be taken for granted. It's a long process of working. So I wonder if you could tell us a little more about how you think about return or the actions of returning, the varieties of returning as analytic in your thinking and how your interlocutors take return ,"returns," differently --or they don't.
NICK BARTLETT: Sure. Yeah. I remember sort of the term "huigui" to me is the Chinese term. You know, I thought about how Hong Kong returned to China, right. What is one way that I had thought about the term? So this idea of, there's this place, a place that was part of this collective that's gone out on its own. There's a reuniting that happens. And I think that as I began to hear the term used more and more, I guess that that was an initial understanding that I was curious about, like when and how does one define the moment of this coming back to the whole? And I think that of course it's an incredible, I mean, the most common answer. I think that people would say as well, I'm not there yet, and I'm not sure when I will be there. So there's a deferral that tends to happen. Like I and I should say too, you know, the I didn't initially realize that I was going to be writing about recovery. I know that you're interested in the politics of methadone clinics.
And that was actually something that before I moved to Gejiu, that was, I wrote my proposal about methadone. And it was sort of later that I guess I was pulled in other directions. And the people who I was closest to during my field work, not intentionally sort of consciously trying to make the project move that way.
But there were people who really were very, very committed to trying to restart their lives. And so a lot of the energy of their conversations with me and with other people as we were around were really focused on, you know, finding jobs, repairing relationships, figuring out this attempt to move to new or old ways of moving through the world.
And so I guess if you're talking about returning, I mean, that's another key thing that I think I didn't realize initially was certain people with heroin use history understood that the previous decades as defining who they were in important ways and the economic opportunities that were available to them. And they'll say the late eighties and nineties now are a very different moment. And so. A lot of their attempts to return to society are very much fixated on the historical present and what, if anything can be done to allow them to get back to some sort of position of influence sort of often related to entrepreneurial activities in, in a landscape now that is quite different. And so there's sort of there oftentimes there's this kind of doubled quality to thinking about return because it's also the city itself in certain ways is really struggling. And it's kind of, it's, it's been named sort of, there's a scarcity of 10 since a few years before I left, they got this national, or, sorry, before, before I arrived in video, I got this national designation of it needs to turn into some sort of a post-industrial city and start new industries.
And so there's an anxiety that is shared about the relationship to tin and how a tin is extracted. That itself is really complicated because the current moment, in certain ways, is worse than what came before it, but which moment from before should be used as a model to help shape future attempts to figure something else out if there isn't tin. And so I think that there's an interesting resonance between their struggles and the broader struggles of people living in the city.
YIFAN WANG: That's a really interesting answer. And it does remind me of when I first read about this idea of returning to society, the thing that came to my mind was this TV program I was watching when I was in high school in China. It was a program about workers in the prison teaching soon- to- be- relieved convicts how to use subway cards. They made this model subway entrance and they taught convicts who had to be in prison for 20 years and told them, Hey, this is how the city works nowadays. It's a completely new world when you go out and you will need to learn how to use these things to move around. But I think it's interesting because what you write about is not so much the technicalities of how to use a card or how to, I don't know, nowadays how to use electronic payment. But really that people feel that they are from a different time and the way they move around in the city belongs to a different era. And I think that that contrast was intriguing to me and to a lot of readers.
NICK BARTLETT: Yeah. Thanks. I mean, I think it came up very explicitly as a particular type of discourse. Like I fell behind the times to recover means to catch up. And it was something that I remembered hearing before I went to Gejiu. I think it's fairly common in China. And actually I think and see it in a lot of different ethnographies of, of different populations and, you know, the classic like migrants needing to somehow catch up to sort of urban citizens when they're moving to big cities and this, the feeling of sort of development being kind of an internal experience of being being behind, which I think very much stems from a particular way that the government talks about how particular people should be oriented towards the future. And so in some ways, I guess it, wasn't surprising to find that people were talking this way, especially heroin users or people with heroin use history, because this group, in the group that I got to know you know, were generally had used heroin heavily off and on for, for 20 years or more, it was what it was a common amount of time.
And so they did have a quite complicated and everybody different obviously, but a complicated history of using the drug, not using the drug, being in state compulsory detoxification centers, the sort of legacy of the Maoist and laboring to recover a system and then being employed in.
The formal and informal economy in and around Gejiu and then being unemployed. And so I started to pay more attention to how over a period of time, these very, sometimes very distinct phases of their lives that they move through in complicated ways influenced how they were living in the present when we were interacting in the, you know, the early 2000 tens.
YIFAN WANG: I think what you just said perfectly captures the sense that I had when I was reading the book. On the one hand, this developmental mentality is prevalent. But your case is especially compelling because it's not about how this narrative in time embraces a very colonial order of things. The West is "ahead" of "us." But really how these narratives give structure to your interlocutors life experience. And I think that is one of the things that was really valuable in this book. But to just shift the conversation a little bit, I think you started to touch on that idea, the question of labor. This book's subtitle is “Life and Labor after Heroin in Reform-Era China.” And I wonder if you could say just a bit more about how the concept of labor helps you to wave together a life history around drugs, but also a life history, in post-socialist China. By life history I mean how people live their life and make sense of their life.
NICK BARTLETT: Sure. So I guess , labor became incredibly important in, in, in different ways. And I guess in some ways being attentive to laboring allowed me to put together different sort of methodologies and also different ways of understanding the work of recovery. Because I guess one aspect of labor that came up all the time was just this question of when and how people reenter the economy and how people with heroin use history were narrating that process.
But I guess. labor also became very important to me in trying to become more attentive to the bodily experiences of recovery. And so I was able to be with people with heroin use history as they were finding different jobs and sort of able to see how they were navigating with ease or really struggling to kind of re-enter the economy in different ways.
And so there's the narrative, but also actually getting to be in certain spaces and see how they're interacting with other people. But also the laboring became a way of getting at this concept of historicity that's really important to the book because in trying to ... whatever the example is in driving a car or in dancing, in certain moments in trying to become a salesperson again, in different ways, which a number of different people were involved in of trying to reenter some sort of be self-employed be your own boss was a big theme for a number of people. In those moments, the certain anxieties and memories and ways the past is staying with one, which in certain moments, this being a really important asset and kind of seeing yourself come back sort of certain aspects of oneself come up and this being enormously important in pushing forward certain ideas about recovery. And then in other moments, kind of having the past reemerge in working situations in ways that was really painful and difficult. So I think that I think that labor allowed me to tie together the stories, the narrative, as you're talking about, but also the different modes of trying to orient and push towards certain futures, which was something that I really became very interested in because I think that's part of the reason why addiction is such a difficult condition to be lived.
It lived in lots of different ways, but this, this feeling in Gejiu of constant deferral and how does one have the hope and the energy to come back day after day after so many years where the realized return is distorted or deferred in certain ways. So I think that yeah, I think that labor was a category that I came to realize was expanding. It was in more places than I realized it was happening in more... because in certain ways, you know, one of the chapters, for example, talks about the work of repairing personal relationships is not necessarily remunerated, but there's an enormous amount of labor that happens, caring labor and labor with families that happen so that this intimate work to try to build support for various other parts of, of life and to repair things from the past. So I think that that's kind of how it became really central to every chapter in the book.
YIFAN WANG: So this might not be a fully formed question. But what you just said makes me think about whether ideas of labor also have their own time. So for example, in Maoist China, there's a whole narrative and history of how labor is fundamental to be in a human and a member of a collective. You write about this in the book about how labor has been understood differently across generations. So in a way, speaking back to the question of how your interlocutors learn to navigate their lives, how do these different understandings of labors speak to the recovery life?
NICK BARTLETT: Yeah. I think that you bring up a really important point, which is, and it's something that I hope in the book I was able to, I was really trying to get at precisely I think the question that you're interested in, which is sort of how at different moments, even within the reform, let alone the Maoist period, there are very different ideas about the ,ways in which Laboring and personhood laboring and recovery, laboring and achieving a full life and labor and the role of the state is really shifting very, very quickly.
And this generation, and they really are in this sense, I think a generational cohort. This is common. So whereas the individual ideas about what type of life do I as a recovering drug user, they think is unacceptable, did a huge variety of answers, but around these ideas sort of where my ideas about career shifting from when I was a teenager into, you know, into adulthood? I think there's a lot of shared aspects and specifically the Maoist legacies of laboring in a tin mining city where state-owned enterprises played this incredibly central role in every aspect of life, it was initially hard for me to understand how important Yunnan Tin, this giant employer and its partners were in every single aspect of the small society that was built in Gejiu. So a lot of the people who I came to know their families were iron rice bowl workers, and they had grown up in households where the state had provided all sorts of different benefits through the work unit.
So on the one hand, there's the work unit and the particular understandings of labor that they grew up with just in that particular environment, but then there's also their experiences of these compulsory labor centers, or that the older name is reeducation , "laojiaosuo," re-education through labor.
And then and then sort of th the name changed to "geli qiangzhi jiedusuo." Well, which is a compulsory isolated laboring facility. So in those institutions, there's still this commitment to I think what I trace back to sort of a 1950s Maoist idea of laboring as remodeling of the person in this fundamental way, where it is a particular ontology that one's value as a person is inextricably connected to, not just laboring, but particular forms of manual physical labor that can sort of extract the bad habits that have settled into your body and give you a new ways of moving through the world.
And of course, like it was very tricky writing the chapter about compulsory labor because the work that I did at the foundation was incredibly critical of and collected lots of stories about how horrible these institutions are. And so I certainly don't want to apologize for the existence of these camps.
And at the same time, I think that when people with heroin use history have been in and out of them for long periods of time, there is a certain way that they can make certain claims on the state. And they learn certain things. They'll learn a lot of things that I think that they wish that they hadn't learned in those facilities. They're very unhappy places and people's relationships with other people in the centers are, you know, they're horrible spaces and they spend years of their lives. Working in this very disciplined way. And so kind of part of the critique that emerges of the state that I think is quite different from what we hear in the U S for example, is this idea of like you know, I've spent years of my life sort of doing exactly what the state wanted in allocating my labor. And now when I came out, where is my job? The way that they link their own idling, unemployment to the absence of the states present in their labor, I think is directly related to the history of the city and also to their movement in and out of these facilities, which has this extra layer of critique because of that past.
YIFAN WANG: Yeah. That is just so beautifully said. And I think it leads us to another question that I was curious about when I was reading. At a number of places you italicize the word, "type." And you write about a different "type" of worker, different "types" of narcotic and different types of actors and so on and so forth. When I was reading, I think they tell us the type points. There's something very important about inhabiting altogether different ways of moving around in the world as a worker, but also circulating in the world as a drug. But I wonder if that was your intention or what do you mean by these types otherwise?
NICK BARTLETT: I guess each one of them probably has their own specific intention behind it. So I wouldn't want to say that they all do the same work necessarily, but I would say I'm trying to make the argument throughout the book that this group of, I mean, a dozen or so, a small number of people who I write about in more detail, but more broadly having gotten to know, 50, a hundred, 150 people who are all around the same age, all born between the sort of say, 1965, The late 1970s. That's the great majority of people with heroin use dependency in Gejiu is from that particular cohort. So, I'm trying to make a broader claim, not just that they're a generational cohort because they were born in those years because heroin was a problem with that particular generation. But also that they fundamentally share a particular set of horizons, a set of historical problems that are related to when and how they grew up.
And so I think the "types" that you're referring to are where I'm trying to emphasize distinctions that they drew that can help to To highlight the ways that even as their lives are quite different and, you know, some certain people were doing really well and other people when I knew them were struggling and that there are all sorts of differences that I think are really important.
I'm really resistant to saying that there are certain elements of recovery that are universal. Because just like if you understand huigui is something that comes to be defined in potentially different ways. I just, I just kept on seeing people refusing to agree with other people's ways of moving through the world.
But, with that said sort of the, for example, one of the types you mentioned is the type of different drugs and on the one hand opium being something that was popular in previous generations and specifically in pre-Maoist times was quite common. In the Maoist years it was around, but much less common. And then heroin became sort of arriving in Gejiu in the mid eighties in huge quantities and then drug use and heroin almost being synonymous for a decade or so. And then, especially in the new millennium sort of new styles, xinxing dupin in this class of drugs that replaces heroin in many ways as the type of drug that parents today would be more focused on talking with their children about like more common in clubs, in different places.
And so that the different types helps to mark them as, as a generational cohort and to mark the problems that the, and sort of who they are around, there's all these important consequences how the police responded or people using these. Is it in a sense there's sometimes defined as different types of drug users and the punishments are different the way you think about the trajectory of their lives are different.
But then types of workers, I like the question. I hadn't put those particular distinctions together before, but I think it is helpful. One of the types that I'm interested in tracing in chapter two is different types of entrepreneurs and different types of, for example, the category of boss.
There really is an interesting way that in their stories and their understandings, what it takes to be successful in reform era China, has these distinct, like quite like at a certain moment, a certain type of local Gejiu person with who is brave and physically willing to take on like physical risks. Like that was the person who everybody who I knew who had those categories. Like, I mean, you can get in a lot of trouble, you could be killed, but you could also really be the wealthiest person around. And so sort of an understanding of entrepreneurial qualities that were valorized in the eighties against the types of people who came into the private sector. And then especially in the late nineties and beyond when you know, the have an MBA or several, or those sort of to have a state background and then get into, or to be able to get loans and have the particular connections that you need that to access to capital for larger projects, this all becomes really important, even in the mining industry, but ten years after this is the earlier wave of people who are moving in. So it's trying to get at those distinctions that I think others, other scholars of China have talked about in the past, but here it's not in an academic distanced way of categorizing the landscape of different entrepreneurs entering, but it's from the perspective of, you know, as you mentioned earlier, like the people who understand themselves as left behind precisely because they were the certain category that itself more broadly has been pushed out of the economy in different ways.
YIFAN WANG: Yes. I guess it begs another question about the types of economy that I try to trace in your writing. Partly I'm thinking about this because I work on elder care as an economic frontier. And that asks a different question about the economy and the future. And one interesting thing in your writing is that earlier on you mentioned in the book that there are, some of your interlocutors mentioned that Goodwill is a comfortable place to grow old, right? But towards the end of the book, you write about how Gejiu is seeking to sort of rebrand itself as a place for retirement. And they have these new condos built for tourists. But I think these two are decisively different things, so the, the, the, the way you interlocutors puts it reads to me to be a nostalgic reflection of the stable, safe, enclosed iron rice bowl life that they were familiar with and most of them want to get out of from. But in the latter case, I think it imposes a new economic frontier that is predicated on older people's life. So both of these narratives are tied to a vision of aging, but they offer drastically different understandings of the relation between the population, the economy, and most importantly of the future. Do you agree with that reading? But also I wonder how might a city of Gejiu might help us to understand the dynamics of economy but also the people living in history, because in a way it is a very typical town.
NICK BARTLETT: Yeah. I mean, I think Gejiu is a really intriguing place to think about some of these questions about the future of the city and its identity, which is very explicitly sort of what the government leaders are supposed to be experimenting with. And it's received all this funding from the central government, quite a bit of money to develop new industries and to expand tourism and exactly what you're talking about. I mean, retirement... I never got the figures on how many people are actually moving to Gejiu or retire. I have a feeling I'm not sure that that actually was happening in a significant way. It was a narrative that was circulating and I think it's important it indexes what types of citizens were desirable, which of course are people who had made their fortunes in Gejiu is great but especially elsewhere, if you want to come to this beautiful climate, surprisingly enticing nature and lake. And so there was an attempt to redefine who were desirable citizens of the city. And I think that drug users, people with heroin use history experience that very directly as an attack.
And there's a moment in the book where there's all these tourist activities that are always happening in the city. There are fireworks as part of this promotion. And one of the people with heroin use history is talking about how, instead of investing in the workers of the city, there's the spending to try to attract other people from other places. And so it's taking this in this very literal personal sense. Wang Jing has an essay about the disciplining of leisure as consumption that I think is really powerful, that gets exactly at this feeling, that they feel so acutely precisely because of how they participated in the local economy, where a lot of them as sort of in their late teens or twenties were the ones who were consuming the first of whatever it was. And there's lots of stories about remembering that I had this type of watch before everybody else I had this video game or, you know, whatever the thing was.
So they saw themselves in a particular way as a certain Vanguard of both production and consumption. And then now having the feeling, both being, you know, in, in middle age, you know, approaching retirement age as a cohort being in a very different place in relationship to the same questions, but also in how they've, on the one hand, it's been radically expanded consumption has to so many citizens in good Gejiu, but also the winners and losers from the reform and opening has shifted and their own awareness as they're moving through the city. I think certainly certain people have grown much more acute.
And so that becomes part of the pain. It doesn't speak to their own individual struggles with heroin, but the broader imagining of being a certain type of worker that's been used up. And it's now sitting on the sidelines in this very painful way as their city's being remade. I mean, I think that that's a feeling that is very common in China and does locate them as being part of a much broader group of people who played a very important role in a certain moment and now find themselves unable to, to reenter the economy in a way that they'd like. Again, at least certain people I don't want to generalize.
YIFAN WANG: Yes. So I want to ask a question about methadone clinics. Especially now that I know that your initial interests actually lie there. One thing that I saw in recent news is that methadone clinics in China are being automated. The idea is that there's this automatic methadone dispenser and they're going to do the work for former workers. And such dispensers are presented as a technological innovation that overcomes the interpersonal barriers that allegedly had prevented people from using the clinic. In a way, this is a very predictable narrative about automation, about the future. But I think there's something especially interesting in the context of drug recovery . I have two questions. So on the one hand, So many scholars have written about, and a lot of your interlocutors talk about this as about the importance of social networks in the recovery process. And I wonder how automation intersects with these social networks. Do the workers at methadone clinics consider themselves part of the social network, but also, do you consider yourself part of the social networks for recovery? That would be one set of a question.
Another set of questions is on the more technological side. It makes us wonder how these information of swiping in, swiping out or using methadone is going to circulate along with other sets of drug using histories with them when they move around.
NICK BARTLETT: Yeah. So that's an interesting question. When I was in Gejiu, there wasn't this move towards automation, I mean, in, in some ways. So first of all, just quickly for people maybe who don't know methadone is being used in China. So it is this sort of the methadone maintenance clinics and they proliferated after 2004, 2005. Very quickly scaled up all around the country. It's a national program that's run by a couple of different ministries and supervised by three. When I was in Gejiu, there were two clinics and the majority of people who I was spending time with were in one or the other clinic.
They went every day, one of them had an NGO associated with it. So there was a little bit more of a sense of drop in and linger a little bit. And there were workers who were there. So it was just a friendlier place, a place that had extra funding to be reaching out to people. But with that said, I think that for most people, their contact with the staff on a daily basis was very minimal and they weren't necessarily people who, the medical staff there, were particularly important in their lives. And in some ways I'd say that the infectious disease of the hospital, which is where most of them, that was the frontline service place for people who are HIV positive, which is a very high percentage of drug users, sadly, there were HIV positive. So I think that in some ways maybe some of the more intense personal encounters with medical staff happened there inpatient encounters. But to your question, I think in some ways the automation, I think is something that the people who at the NGO that I initially was working with would be very excited about because it allows an expansion of access to methadone, which, very practically there was always a little bit of a struggle to try to get the clinics, to expand their hours, for example, so that if you had a job that you needed to leave the city, you could get back at 6:00 PM. Would the clinic be open like now? So it's those practical elements of trying to expand access. And I know that there are some pilots doing that, where the idea was you could take it out for longer periods of time. You could take out more doses and there's always the fear that there's going to be the illicit circulation of methadone.
And this is in China, this is everywhere. So I can imagine without being familiar with the details of the particular rollout of the project, because I haven't been back recently. In a certain way they could, I can imagine it being perceived as a pragmatic and beneficial thing, if it is making methadone more accessible, accessible in a way that it's easier for people to access.
As for the social network , I think you're right. I think that the clinics do become a place where people see each other and they are meeting spaces and that was often when I would ask, I haven't seen this person in awhile, often there was somebody would say, oh, I saw them at the methadone clinic last week. And so it was a way that in positive and negative ways sort of a community that is formed in part through heroin use in the past and part through time spent in labor camps. But also through the circulation through methadone. I think that was a way that people stayed in touch or sort of kept up, kept a rough sense of where other people in that group were.
The last thing I'll say is there's also the complicated ways that there's, there's a certain amount of tracking involved in all of this and that exists in the police system, separate from the methadone, but the clinics and at various moments, there have been abuses of the names on the list of the clinics, or even just the fact that the clinics they're sort of police are often under At least when I was doing field work, would have arrest quotas. So for a particular month, that particular activity , a "xingdong" would happen and you'd need to, the local police would be supposed to, okay, I've got to get 10, you've got to arrest 10 people with their heroin usage. And so it becomes very tempting at certain moments to use the clinics to help you to achieve your "renwu", your quota.
So I think that was a danger that, I don't think that necessarily happened a lot, but certainly the questions of confidentiality and for certain people in particularly, needing to provide their ID cards and names and everything was especially if you didn't have the history of being arrested and going, but compulsory labor, again, that it was a big deal to go into that system. And so most people were already in it, but I do think that there is an enormous amount of surveillance and among patients, you know, anxiety about their confidentiality.
YIFAN WANG: Thank you. Thanks for that. We are a little bit out of time and I want to wrap up by asking about writing. One thing I thoroughly enjoy it in this book is your decision to write about uncertainty in the last chapter. You write about, I don't know how to interpret this, but here are several ways of writing about it. I just wanted to hear more about that decision and the potential and limitations of this approach.
NICK BARTLETT: I think that the way that particular chapter happened and it is, I mean, you mentioned basically it calls into question the entire structure of the book in a very direct way. So I guess in certain ways, it's a little bit risky as, as a as a sort of a technique of writing and as a way of reflecting on the broader project.
But I guess. It came about in different ways. Like one issue was it was writing about a person who I had in some ways, the most complicated relationship to where we were very close. Really a good friend and somebody I respected and looked up to and all these different ways and also somebody who just kept getting into all sorts of trouble but also really like hurting people who I knew and who were close to, and kind of at certain moments, not so great to me too, but like, and the two of us had all these different collaborations and just a very complicated, you know, over a few years set of way of working together.
And so to write about him in this phenomenological mode of trying to get at structures of experience and how is he oriented towards the future? What is his idea of recovery? He was somebody who kind of exposed the limits of that method because I didn't feel like I knew, I felt like he, I felt like he was such a complicated person that I didn't feel comfortable in saying that he has some transparent or stable course or that, or more to the point that I had the ability to say in any definite way. And so I think in an earlier draft, I kept on defaulting into tracking the different ways that he told the story and the other people told this story. And I think at one point a colleague who read a draft said, you know, why don't you, instead of just getting stuck on this, why don't you drown dramatize it and bring it to the center of make that part of the analysis rather than just like turning, without able to find your own voice on it.
And at the same time, it was also a moment where I wanted to put myself more directly into the book, which I had also been feeling a lot of anxiety about and was unsure how I wanted to do. And so my relationship to him becomes in some ways the source of my inability to successfully pursue this phenomenological project that I've been setting out. And he sort of explodes the whole question of return to society. You know, who is to ask that question? Who's to say, I haven't already returned, like maybe I'm ahead of everybody else. And it's precisely these experiences and my relationship to the state and the bravery that I showed confronting all of this. And it's precisely people like me that this country needs. And so in some ways he's doing a really neat work on turning certain of the questions inside out and the temporality of addiction and recovery, and really interesting way. So, so he does that work on his own, but then in my relationship to him I just keep on feeling like I don't understand like what's happening and when, and how certain in his life and in our relationship, like I keep on and ultimately I have incredibly strong feelings towards him and like incredibly invested in his sort of ideas about what he wants to achieve. And then I realized that they don't, those aren't transparent or constant or, and so this is also, the last part of that chapter that I think was happening was I was moving myself to become more interested in psychoanalysis and beginning to pay more attention to my own dreams.
And the nature of the sometimes implicit assumptions around the subject that we have when we were eight, about as anthropologists. And so there's a certain staging of a dream and a key part of that entry that it doesn't get me out of the trouble, but I think it really points to the broader attentions in the whole project and in the different relationships that I have in it.
So yeah, it felt like I had the urge to call into question all of the attempts to try to tell these neat stories that had come before that I both, I do feel like there's a certain power and a truth to those earlier chapters. And there's something about doing that I was very uncomfortable with.
And so I wanted to stage that and really put myself in the center of these relationships that I have my own interests and my own desires, my own ways of hearing and not hearing what's happening and just allowing that to then destabilize some of the earlier claims that I had been making.
YIFAN WANG: Yeah. I think that's a really beautiful conclusion to all the complicated narratives. And instead of offering a stable conclusion, it really makes us question in the reading experience, it was well done. Thank you so much for this wonderful talk.
NICK BARTLETT: No. Thank you. Thanks for doing this. I really appreciate it. Great questions. It's fun to talk to you.
Hosted by Yifan Wang
Produced by Lan A. Li
Music by Paolo Pavan