tobacco and capitalism

alec ramsdell a_ramsdell at
Tue Dec 8 09:20:22 PST 1998

I thought I'd post just a little more from Klein's book, partly as an homage, since it was once quite helpful to me. So here's an angle on the cigarette and drug *consumption* question.

"A Polemical Conclusion" p. 191

Moralists always want to vote cigarettes up or down; realism requires us to acknowledge that, like all drugs, they are a mixed blessing. No society has succeeded in getting along without smoking tobacco, which suggests that the practice will outlive the current wave of antitabagism, or will co-exist with it as it always has. As with all drugs, one ought to resist the sort of intolerance that morally reduces these substances to their active chemical ingredients. Champagne and beer, whiskey and vodka, sake and soma, are indistinguishable in the eye of temperance--but the conditions under which they are normally consumed, the significance of their use in sociey, and the pleasures they produce differ widely. Similarly, tobacco in all its forms, and cigarettes in particular, cannot be judged solely on the basis of the effects of nicotine and tars. But, conversely, one must not therefore be led to believe that the harmful chemicals in cigarettes are somehow separable from the uses to which they are put. Cigarettes are bad for you, like all drugs, and that is what makes them so good to those who use them. No addict can imagine his drug without the discomfort and inconvenience that accompanies its use.

If cigarettes were not also good for you, so many good people would not have spent some part of their lives doing them uninterruptedly, often compulsively--them, or some drug or other. One thinks of the many great men and women who have died prematurely from having smoked too much: it does them an injustice to suppose that their greatness did not depend in some degree on the wisdom and pleasure and spiritual benefit they took in a habit they could not abandon. And the same could be said of others. Healthism in America has sought to make longevity the principal measure of a good life. To be a survivor is to acquire moral distinction. But another view, a dandy's perhaps, would say that living, as distinct from surviving, acquires its value from risks and sacrifices that tend to shorten life and hasten dying. A life, in that view, is judged by the suicide it commits.

The great Puritan repression began by seizing and manipulating the attribution of the word *drug*, defining it narrowly and abusively extending its connotations to a vast variety of substances. Since the compulsive use of drugs has been a feature of civilization from its origin, there is reason to think that it cannot, or that it should not, be eliminated. History, both universal and personal, demonstrates as well that when drugs are freely available, their use obeys cycles of excess and abstemiousness. Drugs may be necessary for the survival of civilization, perhaps even of the species, but most particularly at moments of social crisis or at trying times of life. It is likely that the censors, obscurely, understand that. If their interest is not in promoting surreptitiously what they pretend to abhor, their aim is to enlarge the power of surveillance, to intensify regimentation, and to increase the principle of policing in general. Yet the reasons for smoking cigarettes are not always, are probably rarely, vital. Nevertheless, every cigarette, says Annie Leclerc, may have its secret reason, its own particular rationale. I may light a cigarette to start the day, she says, or to finish it, to find a phrase, to take a shit, to savor my coffee, to pass the time, or because I need to relax, or to concentrate, to think about this or about something else: "Piles and piles of little possible reasons can be found for our piles of cigarettes."

(end quote)

The main reason this appeals to me is that it runs counter to American recovery industry-style moralism. That is, it's not to glamorize the drug; rather it's to look into what the "drug" attracts, in the form of prohibitions etc. Also in a body's relationship to a drug, and questions of social control of bodies. America's current favored mode of "treatment" is still puritanical, collapsing all "mind-altering" chemicals (except cigarettes and coffee, of course) into a demonized space, while giving a brand of ego-psychology guidelines for a former user's new way of living precariously. Interesting stuff to consider in questions of subjectivation (assujetissement) and the subject. Hey, it's apropos Psychic Life of Power!


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