Matthew J.X. Doyle

Sometimes a Cigarette Is Just a Cigarette, or, the Phenomenology of Natural American Spirit


Now, we don’t really need to worry about people who don’t smoke. They’re safe. They’ve heard of the long-term health problems stemming from tobacco, seen the photographs of tar-blackened lungs, and witnessed the exiled smokers standing outside of bars, cafes, airports, bus stations, train stations and laundromats. This is warning enough. If they’ve made it this far, why bother with what’s outside of Eden? There are also those who smoke habitually, ‘socially,’ for pleasure. They are the chief maintainers of the cigarette’s edge and elegance, invulnerable like photographs. They tap the sacred reserve of nostalgia, enter into the intricate ballet of genetic predisposition, psychological susceptibility, sociocultural contingency, and death, and seem to be able to step out at any time. Occasional smokers never feel the shame of relapse because they never need to ask whether or not a cigarette should be their last. Then there’s the compulsive smokers. The addicts. What distinguishes them from social smokers is that regardless of social cue or context, they will absent themselves for the sake of a cigarette, whether or not anyone is coming with them. They’re committed. Currently, their devotion occupies a liminal position in the field of acceptable behaviors. On the one hand, if they need to get up and leave the restaurant before dessert is served, it’s their own business. On the other hand it’s like, you didn’t grow up in the 1950s, what the fuck are you doing to yourself? This essay is in part an apology for their frustrations, because I count myself among them.

Neither my parents nor my brothers are smokers, nor are any extended family member on either side. The whitewashed suburban culture that I grew up in was vehemently opposed to smoking. None of my friends smoke. The fascination emerges from nothing but adolescent exposure to French films, junkie writers, and rock stars. I’m the cigarette century’s last gasp. I can’t say for sure which iconography of the cigarette first hooked me, but I know the one that stuck: the ‘Don Draper’ before Don Draper. Serious, locked jaw. Getting things done, the vices take the edge off, very hetero-masculine—a figure of which any of my friends will attest I am, at my best, the complete antithesis. Appropriately, my first cigarette was an unfiltered Lucky Strike, smoked under the awning of my parents’ house in Weston, Massachusetts, in the middle of the night. I was 14 and had never been intoxicated before, so the light-headed giddiness I felt stumbling back up the stairs was an epiphany. The rest of the story, as with any misty-eyed chronicle of an addiction’s days of glory, is banal and narcissistic. I’ll make it brief. Cigarettes were consumed between the ages of 15 and 17 in the parking lot of my high school, Harvard Square, and the driveways of friends’ houses. Then there was the study abroad program in Paris, which needs no further elaboration. Then there was college, where I quickly allied myself with the heavy smokers, those who visibly smoked at any and all hours of the day. Cigarettes, coffee, idle conversation became the fuel of independence fostered by attendance at an expensive liberal arts school. My inauguration into the life of the mind. Four years later, my non-smoking family and close friends have all but given up on me. I’ll be broke and still somehow burning through a pack a day, leave birthday dinner with Grandma to smoke a Marlboro, and come back feeling that toxic sweet stench radiating off my jacket.

Don’t get me wrong, I love smoking—most of the time. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that I’m horribly addicted, but also that I’m not sure what that means. The DANGEROUS relationship between tobacco and addiction was solid concrete to my mind before I ever took my first drag. Of course, contemporary popular understandings of addiction are almost unanimously negative. Think of the pornographic car-crash spectacle of television shows like Intervention, where we watch the voracious consumption of ungodly amounts of uppers, downers and aerosol products, or My Strange Addiction, the chronicles of compulsive glass crunchers and urine imbibers. The shows are designed with a pretty standard formula: first the addict is in denial at the bottom of the barrel, then the tragic backstory is told, usually invoking an originary trauma, and then the weight of reality comes crashing down on their volatile dependence. Family members, friends, medical officials, counselors, all sweeping in and clearing the way for a stint in a rehabilitation facility, where the subject will be habituated to pathologizing their compulsive behavior as symptomatic of some cocktail of popular mood disorders. But the defense of many a desperate addict is that addiction is, in some sense, part of human nature. Addiction to food, dependence on coffee, SSRIs, clinically administrated amphetamines, right? It’s not just the addict, but pharmacology in general who reinforces I/you-just-need-[MODIFYING SUBSTANCE OR ACTIVITY X]-because-you are/I’m-already-disposed-to-[X]. Anything can make the passage from resistance and trepidation to metabolism, to addiction and so-called second nature—and these metabolisms may be, by coercion, transposed into the register of a different habit.

Enter Félix Ravaisson-Mollien, 19th-century French philosopher. His 1838 doctoral thesis De l’habitude (On Habit) argues that habit is fundamental to both a spiritualist metaphysics of being, and a whole philosophy of nature.1 For Ravaisson, habit is the “primordial law” of being, rooted in the universal law of change. Not all actions become habitual, of course: you can throw a piece of wood or a body across a room a hundred times, and it will not acquire a habit of throwing itself. These are mechanisms wholly situated outside of the organism or object, such as a physical law. But what if, for example, you voluntarily jump across a stream every morning on your way to work? The first time you decide to jump across the stream, you recognize it as an efficient way of keeping your pants dry and ensuring your well being. But every time you repeat this action, it is not just a spatial movement, but iterated at a different moment in time. Initially, those stream crossings may seem unique because of their uniqueness in time, and therefore heterogeneous. But eventually, they may seem to be the same action, tokens of a type. It is in this way that if movement produces a sensation that is repeated again at a different time, it accommodates the contraction of habit, the transformation of voluntary movement into instinctive (but, crucially, not involuntary) movement: a kind of second nature. Ravaisson writes,

Habit is an acquired nature, a second nature that has its ultimate ground in primitive nature, but which alone explains the latter to understanding. It is, finally, a natured nature, the product and successive revelation of naturing nature.

It is in this idea of habit as the contraction of a second nature that Ravaisson moves to the examination of habit in human being and consciousness. The epigraph to Of Habit is a quote from Aristotle’s On Memory and Recollection: “ὥσπερ φύσις ἤδη τὸ ἔθος,” variously translated as: ‘habit is a second nature,’ ‘habit here takes the role of nature,’ and most literally ‘now habit is just as nature is.’ But, ἔθος (ethos) denotes the habitat, the accustomed place—the community, the root of ἠθικός (ethikos, ‘showing moral character’). This differs from bodily hexis (ἕξις, ‘disposition, health [via Aristotle], habit’). The Latin habitus is translated from the Greek hexis, and both come from the verb ‘to have’ or ‘to hold’ (habere in Latin, ekhein in Greek). Habit is a law of being both moral (intentional, rational) and embodied (physical, or instinctual). Only at these higher levels of being capable of intentionality and rationality can habit serve to nature nature to create natured nature, or second nature. The moral and embodied force of this second nature is in another law of habit, that “prolonged or repeated sensation diminishes gradually and eventually fades away... prolonged or repeated movement becomes gradually easier, quicker and more assured.” Think of smoking as gesture, a movement or series of movements—the preparation of the hand rolling a cigarette or opening a pack, placing the cigarette between lips, lighting it. The movement is initially in the service of producing a sensation, one to which the body becomes habituated to. The smoker’s cigarette isn’t really as enjoyable, as intoxicating, as their inappropriate absences may make it seem. Once the sensation’s force and pleasurable dimension diminishes, subtleties such as the modification of the movement to produce novelty takes the forefront—how to hold, to touch, my cigarette?

As a habit-forming substance, it’s undeniable that tobacco is remarkably insidious. The average cigarette yields about 1mg of nicotine, and when it’s smoked that nicotine quickly crosses the blood-brain barrier, activating the brain’s dopamine-based reward system. MAO uptake is inhibited, arousal is increased, adrenaline flows. The effects of tobacco linger for two hours or so, but the brilliant bit is that the effects of nicotine are not the same as those of a brash intoxicant like alcohol. It’s both a relaxant and a stimulant, but this double nature is acquired only through repetition—through habit. But beyond these now-ubiquitous scientific exhumations of tobacco’s dangerous chemical mechanisms, we sense an inadequacy. One is still compelled to supplement this answer to the question of “what tobacco is” with a deeper questioning of what is tobacco’s essence: a metaphysics of tobacco. Jacques Derrida, in an essay on Baudelaire’s poem “Counterfeit Money,” places particular emphasis on the poem’s first line, which situates two friends “leaving the tobacconist.”

What is tobacco? Apparently it is the object of pure and luxurious consumption. It appears that this consumption does not meet any natural need of the organism. It is a pure and luxurious consumption, gratuitous and therefore costly, an expenditure at a loss that produces a pleasure, a pleasure one gives oneself through the ingestive channel that is closest to auto-affection: the voice or orality. A pleasure of which nothing remains, a pleasure even the external signs of which are dissipated without leaving a trace: in smoke. If there is some gift—and especially if one gives oneself something, some affect or some pure pleasure—it may then have an essential relation, at least a symbolic or emblematic one, with the authorization one gives oneself to smoke.

One seems to always consume tobacco at a loss: its consumption simple as inhaling and exhaling, its traces smoke and ashes. But, the apparently pure, immaterial pleasure of smoking can not be subtracted from symbolic economy entirely. If, in a crude paraphrase of psychoanalysis, it is a phallic substitute directed towards the fulfillment of a symptomatic psychic goal, it fulfills a function, possesses a value, within a libidinal economy. There’s also tobacco’s value as a commodity, implicated in capital’s structures of exchange and excess. Most important, though, is tobacco’s inscription in the system of ritual exchange itself, in the economy of the gift. Derrida directs our attention to a passage from Lévi-Strauss about the ritualistic functions of tobacco in Native American culture, in which Lévi-Strauss tries to illustrate that tobacco has a ‘meta-’ or ‘ultra-culinary’ distinction. Like honey, tobacco fulfills both a complementary and a supplementary role: it is both natural, in the sense that it is organic/consumable, and wholly unnatural, in the sense that it performs a function beyond the necessary metabolism of the organism. In Sioux ceremonies, tobacco has an intimate relationship with death and the immaterial, the realm of ghosts, spirits. The smoke and the dwindling ashes become the metaphoric link between signifier and signified; they symbolize the symbolic. Though nothing material remains, “the annihilation of the remainder [...] recalls a pact and performs the role of memory.” It symbolizes a moment, creating an interval of authenticity—the cigarette as interval, as a break which takes its own time. This memory always denotes the presence of a transcendental, stable signification, and to smoke again is to always be memorializing the untouchable presence of lost time. This is a haunted auto-affection, the spectral gift one gives oneself, structured in the iterations of the hand touching tobacco, bringing cigarette to lips, tipping ash into the ashtray. To touch oneself is to experience the self exceeding itself, the self as other. The touch creates that interval which makes auto-affection necessarily hetero-affection, when the affecting is the same as the affected. Again, we see heterogeneity, the gap of differing from oneself that is as necessary in auto-affection as it is in the contraction of habit. It’s worth noting here that Rousseau was an adamant non-smoker, perhaps unsurprising given his views on masturbation.2

Compulsive behavior may seem to be entirely involuntary, but this is not the case. In compulsion, movements both involuntary and voluntary become dialectically situated both within and outside the organism, and habit-as-being vacillates between the subject and the material consumed. One is perpetually suspended in aporia, at a loss, between affirmation and denial, between the voluntary and involuntary. This compulsion draws near the obsession which fascination engenders, what Blanchot calls the fascination of time’s absence—and with it, the constant desire to reify, to re-experience this freedom. The cigarette’s interval becomes time itself. When the addict smokes, there may be a moment of pleasure, but this moment is indistinguishable from those which precede and follow it. Compulsion is habit as illness—the verbal tic, nervous laughter, or the compulsion to speak. This brings us to the 20th century’s most notorious compulsive smoker, Sigmund Freud. The narrative of his tobacco use is the story of habit becoming compulsion. Here is Freud on his own struggle to stop smoking for 14 months:

Soon after giving up smoking there were tolerable days. Then there came suddenly a severe affection of the heart, worse than I ever had when smoking... And with it an oppression of mood in which images of dying and farewell scenes replaced the more usual fantasies... The organic disturbances have lessened in the last couple of days; the hypo-manic mood continues... It is annoying for a doctor who has to be concerned all day long with neurosis not to know whether he is suffering from a justifiable or a hypochondriacal depression.

I can sympathize with Freud’s hypochondria. More than anything, when quitting smoking I always face the abyss of my embeddedness in time and my mortality. I am no longer the master of my own death. ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’ is the morbid punchline to Freud’s health problems and career. This misattribution is a sense of Freud: that his denial of the symbolic essence of tobacco was symptomatic of his inability to diagnose himself, to differ from himself even for the sake of the preservation of the ego, of the hand that writes. Freud had in his work enumerated among strong oral characteristics ambition, envy and a tendency to self-punishment. All these are aspects of a neurotic relationship with the desire to exceed oneself, compulsion as the point at which the organism repeatedly attempts the futile integration of other with self. Kaja Silverman aptly points out that Freud wrote his major works on feminine sexuality and the ‘inferiority of the female sex organ’ immediately after undergoing a mutilative jaw surgery necessitated by his tobacco-induced cancer. By constituting his own lack via writing, he provides a justification for his own narcissistic dependence on his daughter Anna. It is in Freud’s compulsion that we see the essence of the smoker’s habit, and indeed habit in general, as pharmakon, at once necessary supplement and poison pill. Compulsive smoking allows us to place ourselves outside of time. We may feel immortal as we delimit every single moment, presenced in time’s ceaseless flow—but tobacco is simultaneously a radioactive mutagen that hastens the very process of mortality by turning our cells against us as the metastasis of a tumor, l’intrus par excellence.

The cigarette century is almost finished. This is obvious, seeing the rich taxonomy of tobaccos—Brightleaf, White Burley, Criollo, Dokha, Perique—now replaced by the hegemony of Natural American Spirit. The most popular brand of tobacco for people under the age of 30 invokes those forgotten realms of the Natural (importantly, not native), the conflicted lineage of the American, and the immaterial transcendence of the Spirit. It only takes one look at the line-up in an average gas station to see the advanced stage simulacrum that is Natural American Spirit. From the pitch black and grey Perique cascades a rainbow across the shelf: blue, celadon, yellow, orange, earth-tan, verdant and neon green menthols. But right next to them are the maroon USDA-certified ‘organic’, and the red, white, and blue ‘official U.S. grown tobacco.’ If the other Natural American Spirits are not grown in the U.S., and are not certified ‘organic,’ then what are they? What we’re seeing is the development of a technology of habit, which operates by affirming everything it once was, or may have never been, but is now. The Natural American Spirit is the posthumous reconstitution of tobacco as natural, the ironic, appropriately timed reunification of tobacco with its so-called essential characteristics.3

Regardless, we can all take a breath of fresh air, and scrape the yellowing wallpaper from our bars and libraries. The legacy of the cigarette will seem to be as a harsh reminder of the relationship between the mind and body, spurring us towards self-reflection and a different understanding of disease and mortality. We now face a new paradigm for those who already have everything: having your iPhone count the number of steps you take every day, Google Maps, genome sequencing, OkCupid. It’s the inauguration of a century of auto-affection via compulsory self-improvement and reality augmentation, the possibility of ego-less digital immortality our sovereign beacon. In the 21st century, the experience of timelessness begins with the internet, with the fascination of our own image, the auto-affective potential of Facebook. What is the nature of habits and compulsions developed when information changes at speeds beyond human temporal experience? Suffice to say that after the digital, the question of reality has supplanted the question of the natural, and is not reified or interrogated within the material, but instead by sifting for good data, balancing contingency against the flow of information: metrics and statistics. But always remember, Blanchot says it’s not the hand that writes that is the master, but the hand that takes the pen away.

1Ravaisson’s work was carried over to the 20th century via the intense admiration of his student Henri Bergson, Martin Heidegger (who spoke glowingly of his work to Frédéric de Towarnicki, who then relayed it to Sartre), and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. See also Paul Ricoeur’s Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary for a analysis of action influenced heavily by Ravaisson.

2In Of Grammatology, where Derrida thinks for Rousseau: “Pleasure itself, without symbol or suppletory, that which would accord us (to) pure presence itself, if such a thing were possible, would be only another name for death.”

3After reading Baudelaire’s case of the counterfeit bill in Given Time, Derrida asserts “there is no nature, only effects of nature: denaturation or naturalization. Nature, the meaning of nature, is reconstituted after the fact on the basis of a simulacrum (for example, literature) that it is thought to cause.”