“Young artists don’t smoke anymore” I hear the raucous voice of a woman say. She is dining at a table next to mine in a traditional Viennese restaurant. Right, traditionally artists are smokers and if the younger are not, there must be something wrong. Who knows, maybe they just prefer what a dear friend of mine called bon bon. I say called; sadly, we are not friends anymore. Our friendship was interrupted by my decision to quit the daily practice of smoking pot. I must admit, I miss some of those days, and, to be honest with you, I am now bewitched by the authoritative tone of the woman in the Viennese bar that taints with melancholic colours everything it touches, like the patina that made the world a special, unchanged place for hundreds of years before fashion replaced it with frivolous words. Those good old days! And, thank goodness for melancholic personalities! How else would you otherwise realise that time is quickly passing by? Times are changing; habits too. From generation to generation, something is either forgotten or passed onto the next. Did artists stop smoking? I don’t think so, for that matter, but nostalgia is not something you can easily dust off.
I lit a cigarette, and look back, uneasily twisting my neck a bit. I want to tell with smoky words all the memories caught up in that elegant gesture of squeezing between fingers the smelly little butt. Puff. Puff. Puff. Inhaling, and then weaving the right hand as one does with a little fan, and I try to chase a thought away.
I have tried very hard to avoid any disappointment, deigned even to think that it might be worth writing about. Yet there is often an undeniable truth in such experiences that cannot be denied. And whether expressible or not, well articulated or confusedly mumbled, it exists. Could you deny it? A presence hidden beyond the chance, beyond the “you must’ve got it wrong!” Yes, I may have; yet, I feel it. I feel the heavy smoky breath pressing on my neck. A dark grey shadow; bigger when confronted, of the shape of a nut when first encountered. It spells trouble. Some people get used to its presence, it becomes the aura around their heads. Will I? They become one with it. Other people long for it. It seems to be cyclical, like a seasonal cold; each time manifesting in a different form. Artists don’t smoke anymore, she said. Her voices keep echoing in my ears.
The rebellion and its reprimand seem to be caught up in the same terms, a phenomenon that gives rise to the critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: the prevailing law threatens one with trouble, even puts one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, trouble is inevitable, and the task is how best to make it, the best way to be in it. As time goes by, further ambiguities arrive on the critical scene.
It was a friendly conversation at a restaurant that made me change my ideas on “experimental education”, “independent from within” the educational institution. I had decided to set foot in university again. ‘Who are you?’ she addressed me in an inquisitive tone. I felt a storm coming upon me; and indeed, later she said to a colleague that she thought I thought I knew what I wanted. How did she know? Was she wrong? No, not at all, yet how could I have explained to her that in any case this was not enough to shut me down? Though since that was her community and her home, she had the power to decide who was in, and who was on the same page; because you ought to be on the same page to really understand what it feels like to see the door shutting in front of your nose.
Now, like only the thought makes me feel sick. The unpleasant feeling looms over my head, weighty like the heavy breathing of a chain smoker; I still feel it, pressing on my neck. It smells troubles, while the air in the restaurant is becoming oppressive; the thoughts consuming. I go out to take some fresh air, and smoke a cigarette. Traditionally, I might respond by pouring another drink and wait for the dinner to be over, by leaving without saying anything, or expressing my frustration: ‘This is unfair!’ Instead, I return the glance and reverse the gaze. You know what? I don’t want your PhD, I better transform your voice into a disco beat which will eventually become a summer hit to warm us up when the night is high, and stars glister in the dark blue sky.
The sky is full of stars, and stars form beautiful constellations. When you are in a constellation you share with others the task of dancing a magic dance to keep it alive and in place, but when you are excluded from it, it’s all fear and frustration. Even when you are in, but you cannot find your place within it: too big to pretend you are just a fly, or just too small to pretend you will become a supernova; when you are skilled enough to fly, but you can’t quite fly straight up, what will you do then? Become the shadow that will grant you a space there, or risk the flight anyway and shift the weight of your body to the side?
I keep shifting my bum from one side to the other, the seat is hard, and we have been here for a while now. The dinner is almost over, but there are still drinks on the table, and as long as there are beverages, you can be sure nobody will leave the place. It’s an unusual warm evening in fall. It is a special occasion and as on any special occasion everything is quite ordinary, included the procession of those going to have a puff of nicotine between the many courses. How many official lunches and dinners have I gone to, to find out the place I belong? In the middle, next to a friend, at the head of the table, in front of the coolest; and you, where do you sit? The coolest of them all never leaves the table or they leave it too early. In any case, the cool smokes too. It smokes you, all in one puff, you are consumed and reduced to dust. Conviviality is celebrated; what remain is cigarette butts, which is OK, as butts are a material sign of an evanescent reality.
Another signifier is the gut. While I am still trying to digest the toxic meal, I think that there is nothing wrong about smoking, the question is always the same: how to do it. After all, I think, the use of means is limited by the attitude of the person who uses them. When in the 1920s women started smoking, in order to incentivize consumption, Edward Bernays, inventor of modern PR and nephew of Sigmund Freud came up with the idea that, for women, smoking was an act of emancipation. He developed a campaign to promote the liberation of women through what he called “the torch of freedom”1, meaning cigarettes. He opened the market to a new consumer group (young women), and created a new modern imaginary of rebellion: a few decades later, in the 1950s, James Dean, the handsome wild boy always portrayed holding a cigarette between his fingers, became the symbol of free modernity and emancipation.
Considering these premises, today stopping smoking would itself be an act of rebellion; rebellion against, amongst other things, the hysteric power relation between corporations and public interests. Still, we, the smokers, are smoking. Are we childish, old-fashioned rebels? Are we too stupid, too social, too hip, too fashionable? Are we simply addicted? What’s wrong with these young people? Artist David Hockney recently wrote a series of articles against anti-smoking campaigns in The Guardian. Smoking relieves stress, he said, arguing that anti-smoking rhetoric is not going to make the situation any better as cigarettes are simply being replaced by all kinds of drugs and anti-depressives. Smokers are still smoking, so “Why won't they (authorities and anti-smokers alike) accept that there are still a lot of smokers and that the reports of its demise are wildly wrong? The young think they are immortal and this won't change”2. They also think they know what they want, and this won’t change either.
Cigarettes are replaced by anti-depressants like power is replaced by power, the master by the coolest, and so on; but again, the use of means is limited by the attitude of the people who use them. Freud speculated on the existence and manifestations of the unconscious; his nephew made a practice out of it, establishing psychological manipulation as the basis of consumer society. I guess what Hockney is trying to say, according to my interpretation, is that it is infuriating to witness and participate in a society which constantly denies, morally represses and dissimulates the contradictions that inevitably emerge from the experience of an unpleasant reality; whether an addiction, or the realisation that power relations have gone unchanged for more than a hundred years, that equality is a beautiful concept, not yet a reality.
Hockney’s remarks make me think that ours is a society of bad moralism, constituted of those who judge as if pretending that they are outside, pointing their fingers at those who have agreed to play the game, and of those who play the game and deny the existence of it in the first place, except when they declare that power is out of reach, beyond their wills and practices. In both cases, authority is repressed, while authoritative behaviour is acted out and manifests itself in many variants. Then, there is the independent-emancipated subject who does not question the power that is, but always invokes emancipation as the source of its having overcome the system. Why pretend that power is never at hand, but always somewhere else? The rebel denies the legitimacy of the ruler-cooler by paradoxically enacting the rules and becoming the ruler him/herself, while the ruler believes to be the rebel and does not question power at all.
There is a moment in which the ruler and the rebel become almost indistinguishable: they start mimicking each other. While, as Michael Taussig suggests in Mimesis and Alterity3, social mimesis has the potential to overcome the highly regulated space of power and social relations by means of becoming indistinguishable from the other, this re-enactment might also ensure that a particular power structure continues its course unchanged as the rebel becomes the authority and the ruler-cooler pretends she is still the rebel that most probably once she was.
The cigarette becomes the vessel for this process of mimesis to take place, and the image of the king/the emperor/the cooler-than-you overlap with that of the rebel James Dean, who in the meantime has become an authority. So too, the woman in the Viennese restaurant. She holds her cigarette with the cool look of someone who knows it all, and in a nostalgic tone spells it out: Young Artists don’t smoke anymore, as we – who once were the rebels and now got some power – used to do.
Indeed, at the heart of this mimetic process where the rebel mimics the authority and vice versa, there seems to be a massive dose of nostalgia. For what exactly? For a space and time of real “confrontation”, in which artists were still smoking, the present ruler-cooler was still the rebel, and who was who was pretty clear. And while the ruler-cooler and the rebel are still mirroring each other, this feeling of longing for a lost past feels not only inappropriate, it produces delusionary scenarios and conspiracy theories in which the “we” fight a “they” who threaten us. Svetlana Boym has called this sense of longing "Restorative Nostalgia", and in her description, she points out that “What drives restorative nostalgia is not the sentiment of distance and longing but rather the anxiety about those who draw attention to historical incongruities between past and present and thus question the wholeness and continuity of the restored tradition”4.
There is nothing wrong with being nostalgic when the past enriches our experience of the present. Yet, the casual sentence spelled out after a few drinks in what sounded a pretty loose conversation is enlightening on a more general state of affairs described by Hockney in his pro-smoking articles as the deafening and socially defeating desire to preserve some semblance, at least rhetorically, of existential wholeness and moral continuity. Are we really serious about it? Authorities of all kinds, left and right, like insidious, weighty shadows are waiting around the corner. They populate language, social behaviour, imaginaries, and it is hard to interrupt their consolidated tradition. To ask for a change, and keep coming back to the same place: isn’t this, of all, the worse addiction?
We are still smoking. But It’s OK! because there are good reasons to believe that eventually smokers, artists and power players will stop poisoning themselves with additives, anxieties, moralisms, and lies. When they won’t be afraid of the contradictions of living in these fleeting, frivolous times, abandoning barricades and the nostalgia for a better time; when the music volume will be too high to hear the calling of this demanding voice on the other side of the line. Call it hedonism, eccentricity, radical individualism, insolvency, or bad taste:
I am sorry baby, I am stuck in the middle of this with you, but I don’t miss the rebel and I don’t long for the tyranny of the cool.
- 1. See Adam Curtis, "The Century of The Self", documentary series (2002)
- 2. "Life is now. Don't let the professional anti-smoking brigade ruin it"; The Guardian -Comment is Free section, March 2013.
- 3. Michael Taussing, "Mimesis and Alterity"; London - New York: Routledge (1997).
- 4. See Svetlana Boym, "The Future of Nostalgia", New York: Basic Books (2001), p. 44-45.