Doodling theory

As part of the textbook ‘Dead White Men and Other Important People’, authored with my great PHD supervisor Ralph Fevre, we wrote some ‘doodles’ which were meant to mimic how students could take notes in a style that encapsulated the problem they were examining. The intention was to sum up each chapter retaining the core idea of the book, that it is written in the voice of a student and her peers. Each chapter was written as a dialogue through which the theory unfolded. The problem for student readers was finding the core argument in this without having to dig too much. The doodles were our solution, imagined as the narrator, Mila, summarising her ideas in drawing and words. As you can see from this example, Mila is left handed, like me. She writes on the reverse page of her notebook as left handers must do in order to avoid the spiral binding.

Ask not ‘what is my PhD about?’ ask ‘Why am I doing this PhD?’

I wrote this because one of the most persistent and grief inducing questions I ask in supervisions is ‘what is your research question’, the slightly more honed version of ‘what’s your PhD about?’ It is unfair to ask it since I run many research projects where the ‘research question’ is the last thing on our minds. If as a team we explain to anyone else why we are are doing the work we say ‘it’s because this is a really unusual, insightful, baffling, worrying or productive thing to study’. It falls more naturally to explain why we are engaged in the work than what answer it is going to produce at the end of the day. The research questions are elaborations on that primary purpose rather than queries which somehow exist independently of it. We are driven by what it is about the issue that matters to us and what might matter to others.

For example: Just now I am studying the distribution of counterfeit currency through a cryptomarket. I am studying it because how distributors and buyers of counterfeit currency use the fake notes shows what elements of crime commission are incidental and which are necessary to the process. I am also doing it because I often characterise the cryptomarkets as ultimately benign when used for illicit drug distribution and I want to challenge that view with some trickier test cases where it hard to argue that the distribution mode reduces harm. Counterfeit currency involves immediate risks to those handling the notes and longer term potential harms in damaging the cash economy. The cash economy is now often the domain of less affluent groups who are excluded from the digital economy or have their own reasons for operating outside it. Counterfeit currency is presented by its users as harmless or as ultimately sticking it to The Man, in this The Man being the Federal Reserve. It is true that large scale money laundering is vastly more harmful and takes place through corrupted institutions or players.

In contrast to cartel scale money laundering, the kind of counterfeit currency use I study is small beans. However distributing counterfeit currency still puts the more marginal in society at greater risk. Cashiers or waiting staff who unwittingly handle fake notes might have their wages docked or be prosecuted. Smaller businesses which handle more cash will likewise be more at risk and unable to easily absorb losses. There are direct harms stemming from the practice itself and as society becomes more digitised these will increase. The process of deciding on a research question involves backtracking through what I just wrote so I can come up with a research question which encapsulates all that.

As I framed it in the title, the question is ‘why am I doing this PhD’ not ‘why am I doing a PhD’. The latter question is more existential and is often asked during the lonely hours of the night. The first question might answer the second to some extent. There is a purpose there.






They not we: aesthetics of drug harm

‘Laugh at [the ads] because when you’re in active meth addiction you don’t really care what the outside world is saying and you surely don’t care what the Internet has on it. … While you’re an active meth user, it plays no role in your recovery or wanting to get recovered.’ Melanie, in Marsh, Copes and Linnemann, 2017

The image of the meth crisis in the US and Canada is presented as one of ‘white trash’: intersection of race and class failure in the context of decay. The ‘Faces of Meth’ campaign began in 2004 with an Oregon Sheriff’s department using mug shots of meth users over time. The before and after shots showed physical and personal decline, with features intended to provoke revulsion: decaying skin, sagging faces and so on. There are longstanding issues here: we know from the history of anti-drug campaigns that shock tactics don’t work, and are usually not addressed at potential users primarily but are intended for a wider audience to show: something is being done; and these people are not you. Then there are issues with the images themselves: these reify meth as the problem, regardless of e.g. malnutrition, domestic violence, violence of the prison-criminal justice complex, the health care system, the use of other drugs, other elements of material suffering.

The images are crafted to reifies meth as a problem of rural, marginalised working class white people. Not e.g Robert Downey Jr. They commodify the drug problem, turning it into a series of shock value images to be consumed, for example, a Youtube video with 8 million views. The mug shot is part of a networked criminal aesthetic, taking in mug shot websites, jail cam, the Cops Tv show etc. The audience consume the ‘gritty realism’ on offer. Users are ‘framed’ without context. The white subjects of the pictures imply a contrast with ‘black’ African American crack-cocaine users. The latter were presented as violent, urban and lawless. The ‘white trash’ meth users are presented as self-victimising and polluting, a lost underclass. You could interpret this as putting the problem back in its racial box: drug problems are bracketed off as being about ‘they’ and not ‘we’. A fascination with the transgressive.

The pictures show we can’t expect any evidence to speak for itself. These show a bodily deformation which is not consistent across meth users and which is not reducible to this one habit in itself. We have to look at consumption practices and contexts to understand more how a drug affects the body. The campaigns did not change public perceptions. Nobody looks at that photo and thinks ‘that’s me’. Over the time of the campaign in Montana meth became more acceptable. This is normal – for example, with mephedrone reports of death spiked interest in buying it. What do meth users think? Users never think they are like ‘those’ users. Rather than rejecting the visual system promoted by Faces of Meth, users place themselves outside it even if they are objectively in that group demographically. Many found the representation funny or unserious. The ‘virginity’ image de-familys users, implying they wouldn’t ever have a normal sex life.  They did not long term changes they attributed to meth, such as boyfriends behaving violently.

They saw their addiction is too potent to be overcome by these messages. But also said that smoking meth would avoid these problems which largely came with intravenous use. IV users tend to be at the bottom of all user status orders especially heroin, cocaine and meth. There was a strong emphasis on ice (chrystal) meth being ‘clean’ and homebrew ‘shake and bake’ being dirty, making people ‘crazy’.

Marsh W, Copes H and Linnemann T (2017) Creating visual differences: Methamphetamine users perceptions of anti-meth campaigns. International Journal of Drug Policy 39: 52–61. DOI: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2016.09.001.

Linnemann T and Wall T (2013) ‘This is your face on meth’: The punitive spectacle of ‘white trash’ in the rural war on drugs. Theoretical Criminology 17(3). SAGE Publications Ltd: 315–334. DOI: 10.1177/1362480612468934.


A counterfeit currency vendor on the darknet

The aim of this article will be a crime script analysis of a counterfeit currency vendor and their community. Crime script analysis breaks a crime down into its fundamental protocol and generally proposes points where crime control can intervene.

Much research and intervention focuses on electronic money laundering and large scale counterfeiting. This article will examine the micro-process of last mile distribution and the interface between user purchase and practice.

Counterfeit notes posted on ‘Benjamin’s’ thread:

BenjaminsThe real thing from the US Federal Reserve. The US government provides a toolkit for tellers to spot genuine currency, including some tips such as ‘If it has “For Motion Picture Use Only” or the word “Replica” on it, it could be fake.’

The US dollar was originally minted in deference to the Spanish ‘piece of eight’, the silver dollar, and the quarter was in reference to American’s use of the Spanish two-quarter dollar. Spanish and Mexican currency were in widespread use and legal tender until 1857. Political conflicts raged over the metal content of dollar coins, pegging the dollar to the Gold Standard, and recently the value of a fiat currency in comparison to cryptocoins. The global nature of the dollar as a reserve currency makes it tempting to fake and hard to update, as new versions can be seen as untrustworthy.

This post concerns a vendor of counterfeit dollars who sells through a darknet market. ‘Benjamin’ (gender unknown) introduces themselves in what becomes a long thread where buyers return to critique their product. Benjamin responds by defending the product, saying that buyers are using it improperly, and eventually agreeing that the counterfeit notes are not what they were.

Benjamin had a number of buyers who were very positive about the product. As problems emerged they were accused of being sock puppet accounts. These acolytes proposed that if people were finding problems getting the notes accepted they were doing it wrong. They were following the wrong strategy, or were inherently suspicious individuals who invited greater scrutiny. Benjamin endorses these readings:

‘”However, some customers (no need to name, just check my feedback) seem to either have RIDICULOUSLY high standards (are there any higher than these bills?) or plainly wish to sabotage this operation… What a shame.”

In their discussion the buyers mentioned how they slipped the counterfeits into the supply chain. Their varied tactics were aimed at laundering bad notes into good. Buying a small value item with $50 or $100 notes and obtaining change would do that. However there was a risk that cashiers would be more likely to scrutinise or refuse large value notes for small value items. Others worked in businesses with a large cash throughput and were able to swap out notes. There was a sense that these were not major players and would be buying small amounts to use in ways that would not attract attention.

Buyers put forward justificatory strategies for using counterfeit currency. There was a big picture political justification in terms of banker and government greed. Then there were micro-justifications that the fraud was harmless and that cashiers would not be punished for accepting the notes.

A crime script analysis of the process of using the currency would look like this, separated into the currency manufacturer and the final end point user of the notes:

Producer User Control condition
Preparation Template Inside post as cashier/legit buyer
Entry Printing Choose high traffic setting
Precondition Bulk production Surveil shop Shipping
Instrumental (contextual) precondition Microprinting Smell Select/stealth person/car

Select young cashier/busy time

Instrumental initiation Test/prepare market Identify high value/good return good Restrict note size Cashless economy
Instrumental actualisation Select consumer Recycle bad product into good notes Publicise fake notes
Continuation After sales support Transfer legit cash
Post condition Manage reputation Select new location/time
Exit/reset Cash out/repost Return to producer Trust disruption operations

The control condition refers to possible points for crime control intervention.

A further analysis is invited which treats the counterfeit notes as part of an actor-network. In this perspective the discourse around it, the production and distribution system, is part of a set of practices that produce the product as a workable entity.

Rewriting the normal/pathological self

Typically ‘performance and image enhancement’ drugs refers to a set of drugs taken to improve physical performance or appearance, or work on the body in ways that confirm to a particular set of expectations. Anabolic steroids taken to improve athletic performance or status in a bodybuilding subculture would be one example. Fat burning hormones or appetite suppressants can also be taken to speed weight loss.  Beyond that we have a range of substances used to enhance sexual performance and cognitive ability, augmenting brain training apps, ‘smart’ drug use with Ritalin. Some of these drugs have notable effects on the brain. Then practices of using psychedelics that are aimed at addressing the human capacity to work and think.  As with recreational drug use, problem drug and other boundaries, there is a fuzzy line between categories. I would frame this as purposeful use to change the trajectory of the self. Effects include: time compression, time shifting, focus locking, and a sense of being left behind otherwise.  They deal with deficits not top performers. 

Psychedelics have represented a useful study as they function as technical fixes, windows to the psyche, and probes into the mind. There has been for many years renewed research interest in psychedelics and renewed socially legitimated narratives for them.  There is a push and pull between dominant Silicon Valley CEO style enhancement narratives which present themselves as rewiring the self to be more competitive, and many others which focus on treatment, transcendence, and the self in the world. 

For example, Ibogaine is a natural hallucinogen used in ritual practices by followers of Bwiti, an animistic religion. Iboga used much as the sacrament in Catholic mass. Has powerful effects- sickness, frightening hallucinations, leaves you exhausted. It is hard to fit LSD or Ibogaine use into the schema of pleasure/hedonism, for instance, or that of Ketamine, a dissociative that produces in the user a sense of becoming dissociated from their body. They work on the same biochemical systems as the more hedonistic substances but do not appear to generate reward sensations and can be in fact quite disturbing – if satisfying, revelatory or otherwise worthwhile – experiences.  Research hampered by legal, financial and epistemological considerations – it’s not really like a medicinal drug, can’t easily be brought to market and resists commodification.

One approach is epistemological and ontological. Since the 1990s ‘Decade of the Brain’ there has been a concerted attempt to understand the neural substrate of all mental states, states of mind, especially consciousness.   LSD and hallucinogens then are treated not lenses on the psyche (as in the 1960s) but probes into the brain. The neuroscience now follows the principle of materialism – that mental states can be reduced to physical states. Every single thought pattern has its neural substrate.  The use of enhancement drugs and the materiality of mind mean medicalisation is no longer about sorting the normal from the pathological and sociology of medicine cannot hang our hat on that.

Canguilhem, Georges. On the Normal and the Pathological. Vol. 3. Springer Science & Business Media, 2012.

Durkheim, Emile. “Rules for the Distinction of the Normal from the Pathological.” The rules of sociological method. Palgrave, London, 1982. 85-107.