peteg's blog - noise - OldOldOld - 2007 02 06 smoke

Another trawl through the not-authored-by-me archive.

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burn FAST burn BRIGHT
Post Political Smoking: Is Tobacco the Heroin of the Next Millenium?

Ruby E. Royal

It is happening again. In backstreets and alleyways, schoolyards and bedrooms, the pungent aroma of smoking tobacco is staging a comeback. Faced with the hassles of maintaining expensive smack or crack habits, junkies and drug afficiandos alike are rediscovering the joys of tobacco. The number of young smokers is actually increasing despite increased awareness of smoking and its bundle of assorted dangers. Mainstream persecution of smoking has made it such an uncool and distasteful pastime that it has paradoxically renewed its rebel appeal and counter-culture chic. Demonised by scientists, the media and recent government anti-smoking campaigns, tobacco is looking to be the dope of choice as we head into the new millenium. Smoking 'schwag' has become an act of nihlism and disinterest, the perfect vice for today's cynical, disaffected youth. It's strengthened status as 'fringe activity' has turned the famous convivality of the 'smokers bond' into an emblem of cultural identity, of solidarity between disparate individuals. Whispered with the conspiratorial urgency of any secret society, the knowing looks and loaded subtext behind "Got a light?" have made it the definitive pick-up line of the century.

Marijuana is passe, it dulls the senses and carries too much hippie baggage for today's forward looking radicals. The new-wave of nicotine-surfers describe a high that is more intellectual than physical - a euphoric experience of freedom sourced in a rejection of contemporary social mores. In lighting up, they are saying "Whatever!" to an increasingly confusing and catastrophic world. With antagonistic relish and odious selfishness, the new smoker partakes in the sadistic pleasure of tormenting their oppressively moral and puritanically rational non-smoking neighbours. This determined refusal to surrender personal desires to those of the consensus, has canonized smoking as an individualistic and life-affirming assertion of "I am here, watch me breathe!" - a triumphant display of being able to do whatever the hell you want, despite the controlled and regulated environments we live in. The "Bring 'em on!" attitude of famous chain-smokers such as John Wayne and Dennis Leary appeals to universal desires for empowerment, re-investing the atomised individual with the freedom to flaunt the tyranny of 'common-sense' and to give the finger to mainstream opinion.

Vices are pleasurable because their irrationality lies closer to the essence of the human condition. Consequently, each cigarette offers the individual the heady rush of invulnerability that comes with sucking at death's nipple - the ultimate disposability of life personified in a symbolic gesture of confrontation with the infinite. With each drag the modern smoker is saying "Come on death! I'll take you on, but on my terms." The very damaging properties of tobacco supplied as readons for not smoking have instead been turned on their head and incorporated into the smoker's philosophy. Lung cancer? Heart Disease? Death? "That's the whole point!" they exclaim, "It's death at your disposal!"

This cynical god-complex has proved popular with kids facing another seventy years of fatalistic existence in a world plagued by serial disaster. The traditional anti-smoking reproaches such as "Each smoke takes five minutes off your life" fall short of Generation Me's gritty social realism. With black humour they reply "As if I'll get a root in the last five minutes of my life anyway!" The trade-off is alluring - increase the intensity of youth at the expense of decrepit old-age - live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse. So what if smoking is a filthy habit? That's half the attraction for a generation which has embraced the trash aesthetic and junkie culture as more than a pastime, but a way of life.

A whole philosophy has grown up around abuse and excess, colonising our pop-culture and collective consciousness as evidenced by the long list of famous addicts-for-their-art and substance-martyrs. Models, actors, rock stars, painters, writers - anyone with any talent appears to be hooked on something. It's not hard to see why every little boy and girl wants to appropriate an addiction for themselves. The problem is serving them all in an orderly and efficient manner. Hence cigarettes - habitual, easy to manufacture, but above all, bad for you. You don't need to be intelligent to do them, there's no messing around with needles or teaspoons, mirrors or razors, no risk of flashbacks or overdosing. It's Russian Roulette made cheap and easy. Unlike their predecessors, who had to indulge their escapism covertly and illicitly, the nicotine addict has the advantage of being able to score almost anytime, anywhere, from newsagents, supermarkets, even petrol stations! Tobacco is also retro enough to claim a mythology of its own; as an appetite suppressant it keeps you thin at the same time as giving you the voice of a blues singer! No wonder it's being hailed as the perfect drug.

There are certain rules to be observed with any addiction however. 'Nicking' (a cute tag for nicotine withdrawal) is taken for granted - it's what you do with it that counts. It's not enough to get the shakes or fidgety fingers, the enlightened smoker must convey the deeper meaning behind voluntary dependency, a recognition of humanity's tenuous place in this impassionate and unpredictable world. This is the age of the masochist, the martyr, and smoking is the most favoured choose-your-own-noir adventure. In a nihilist world, tobacco is the nihilist's choice. As any hardened smoker will gladly explain (between drags) "Smoking kills? Oh tell me something I don't know baby. The entire boat's sinking and if you want to drown in your seat that's your choice. The world is fucked and every one of us is dying a little bit each day, so you may as well choose your own exit, and enjoy yourself while you're at it. I'm gonna roll my way to heaven, up there in smooth clouds of ready-rubbed Class A. You have to respect that. There's nothing more infantile or prudish than the limp-wristed crowd of puritans making exaggerated hand gestures and gasping like beached whales. Don't they know the three great consumptive pleasures in life - sex, coffee, chocolate - are all made better with a good smoke? Smoking is everything. Smoking is the light at the end of the tunnel, through which the world is going to hell in a handbag. We're all blindfolded prisoners in front of the firing squad see? Any last requests? Well yeah, gimme a smoke."

This article won the author a creative writing competition at UNSW sometime in the late 90s.