Peter Benson's research looks at cultural politics and contemporary capitalism in the United States, and the racial assemblages and corporate forms that are related to the production of harm. His primary focus has been the history and ethnography of tobacco agriculture and racialized labor in the American South. He is currently writing an artistic autobiography, a medley of campus novel, pop culture compendium, and survival guide for the end of the world and life during wartime.
Current Book Project
My new book, Stuck Moving: Pearl Jam Letters and Lyrics, is part of the “Atelier” series at University of California Press. Blending anthropology, creative writing, cultural studies, psychoanalysis, queer theory, and comedy, this book is a deprecating and challenging autobiography about a professor who struggles to reassemble his broken and fragmented life and make meaning of his profession against the backdrop of a society in shambles and the end of the world. He grapples with drug addiction, mental illness, breakdown, fraught intimacies and domesticities, and meanings of failure and success. Steeped in the popular culture of the long-90s, this memoir scrutinizes fictions of normative masculinity through an embrace of ugly feelings and negative affect—irreverence, cynicism, slackerism, disillusionment, irony, and anger. Dramatic and mundane personal failures and dysfunctions are written into cultural studies of perilous times, conservative politics, societal hypocrisies, endless warfare, spurious entertainment, commercialized higher education, and for-profit humanitarianism. The book asks how downbeat realism and depressive modes are interesting and provocative alternatives for critically engaging a dominant anthropocene solution paradigm marked by the optimisms and enthusiasms of corporatized development and progress. Modestly confronting hopelessness not as epic narrative, but in the mediocrity, disarray, and fraying of the little life, this book is a singular, path-breaking experiment in grunge anthropology and literature.
Broad Research Program
Across various projects and publications, my research looks at cultural politics and contemporary capitalism in the United States, and the racial assemblages and corporate forms that are related to the production of harm. While my primary focus has been the history and ethnography of tobacco agriculture and racialized labor in the American South, I have also explored a range of issues related to the politics of harm, including gun violence, slavery reparations, and football concussions. I am also concerned with the rise of “corporate social responsibility” campaigns in harmful or hazardous industries such as tobacco and football and the ways that businesses address and influence problem-spaces and debates about ethics and policy. My scholarship draws on medical anthropology and critical studies in global health and public health and engages conversations in social theory and cultural studies. My goal has been to produce ethnography and reporting that is richly informed by historical and archival research, critically attendant to political economy and biopolitics, and deeply appreciative of human experience as inspired by my fascination with existentialism and phenomenology.
Previous Two Books
My latest book, entitled Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry (Princeton University Press, 2012), combines historical and ethnographic lenses to examine citizenship, racialized farm labor, agricultural industrialization, and economic decline in North Carolina, set against the backdrop of national debates about tobacco-related public health regulation and Latinx immigration. The book was awarded the 2013 Delmos Jones and Jagna Sharff Memorial Prize for the Critical Study of North America from the Society for the Anthropology of North America, as well as the 2012 James Mooney Award from the Southern Anthropological Society, and was a finalist for both the 2012 Book Prize from the Society for the Anthropology of Work and the 2013 Julian Steward Award from the Anthropology and Environment Section of the American Anthropological Association.
In addition, I completed a major collaborative research project on structural adjustment, export agriculture, and political violence in highland Guatemala, which culminated in a co-authored book, Broccoli and Desire: Global Connections and Maya Struggles in Postwar Guatemala (Stanford University Press, 2007). Tracking the commodity chain of the global broccoli trade, this book connects affluent American consumers concerned about their health and diet with Maya farmers desiring and struggling for something better. Broccoli is a starting point for a broader analysis of the social production of power and desire at multiple levels, such as shifting frameworks of international trade, discourses about health and nutrition, and the vastly uneven worlds that consumers and producers inhabit.
Prior to coming to Washington University in St. Louis, I was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Program in Agrarian Studies at Yale University. My research has been funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the National Cancer Institute, and the National Institutes of Health.