Meeting: #4, June 2019

Article: Vitellone, N. (2010). Just another night in the shooting gallery?: the syringe, space, and affect. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28(5), 867-880.


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Team: Center for Alcohol and Drug Research, Aarhus University (@CRF_Aarhus), Maria Dich Herold (lead), Thomas Friis Søgaard, Vibeke Asmussen Frank, Mie Birk Jensen.

Meeting summary:

Vitellone’s article, “Just another night in the shooting gallery: the syringe, space, and affect” (2010), provides a very well-written, complex, and thought-provoking insight into the lived policy of needle exchange. It is a ‘wild’ and rewarding read, which requires some effort from its reader, but which keeps its promise: It “unsettles the boundaries between subject and object, private and public, and space and place” (p.867). Vitellone does so by approaching ‘the syringe’ in new and challenging ways, paying attention to the “affective dimensions of the shooting gallery” and the “sensation of the syringe” (Ibid.). By focusing on shooting galleries, injecting practices and drug users’ everyday lives, she adds important insights into how needle exchange policies have an impact on injecting drug users’ lives.

Vitellone takes her point of departure in anthropologist Phillipe Bourgois’s (1998) (i) work on New York City shooting galleries, in which structural inequalities and economic power relations are viewed as a main force in the production of substance use, social marginalization and suffering in the inner city. Vitellone seeks to challenge and critically evaluate Bourgois’s (1998) take, which in her view does not tell the whole story. While structural and economic inequalities are important perspectives in understanding substance use, these grasp neither the affective nor the spatial dimensions of injecting drug use. In her article, Vitellone manages both to approach the phenomenon of ‘the syringe’ from a novel perspective and to engage in a critical dialogue with one of the influential anthropologists in the field of drug research.

On a methodological level, Vitellone applies “a method of studying the biographies of objects through their movement” (p.870). Using this methodological grip, she illustrates what happens when we, as researchers, zoom in on the ‘the object’ – the syringe – instead of strictly investigating the subject, i.e. drug user(s), their perspectives, experiences, attitudes etc., as is often done in qualitative studies. Based on a combination of qualitative interviews and fieldwork, she follows the ‘syringe’ through the urban spaces it inhabits, and the affectivities it produces – in local community contexts, policy contexts as well as in the everyday lives of the people for whom the syringe brings pleasure, disgust and other sensations.

In her analysis, Vitelloneconsiders the impact of affectin relation to the needle exchange, and notes the status of the syringe as an abjectthing marked by disgust. From this perspective, she considers the syringe as being ‘affectively charged’ in the context of the shooting gallery, which in many cases is a setting that is associated with shame and fear. She approaches the shooting gallery as a ‘heterotopia of deviation’, marked by ‘the displacement of time’, which requires those (researchers) who aim to understand its ontology to dare to ‘think the unthinkable feeling of shooting up’; that the syringe, in this context, creates ‘prosthetic intimacy and an intensity of affect’. The pleasure of shooting up, Vitellone argues, is ‘a spatial event’, which cannot be separated from the context in which it emerges. Shooting galleries are not merely dangerous, unhygienic, or even safe spaces to inject; they are spaces, which highlight a sensation of being in a different place and time.

Vitellone also illustrates how the needle exchange (and thus the syringe) enables new spatial possibilitiesfor marginalized drug users, and how they, through handling syringes in certain ways, are enabled to engage with urban spaces in new ways. Thus, she argues that the syringe cannot be restricted to its use value as an “injecting device” (p.874), and that “the disposable syringe is more than a symbolic marker of waste, or matter out of place” (p.875).

Part of what makes Vitellone’s text an inspiring read is that the paper breaks with conventional article formats: that is, theory/analytic, background, methods, and results section. Instead, like the syringe, the text is in a constant flow, where methods, background and initial analysis are interwoven. Similarly, rather than adopting a theoretical ‘purist’ approach, through which the empirical data are filtered, which is sometimes a side-effect of traditional article formats, Vitellone lets the empirical data and analysis be the guiding principles, while tentatively drawing on a multiplicity of theoretical approaches and concepts where these makes sense. This results in a very inspiring and grounded analysis. Finally, we wish to mention that in addition to forming a highly engaging and novel take on phenomena (injecting drug use, the syringe, needle exchange), which are critically important to investigate for researchers in the drug/addiction field, Vitellone’s article is also methodologically inspiring beyond these particular empirical issues. It is, in a broader sense, inspiring to ‘think with’ and let oneself be ‘informed by’ when designing and conducting research in other branches of the field of AOD research.

(i) Bourgois, P. (1998). Just another night in a shooting gallery. Theory, Culture & Society, 15(2), 37-66.

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