Sunday, June 16, 2013

Mladen Dolar: "The Smoking Communism"

The smoking communism
Mladen Dolar

for Dominique and Oxana

A group of people is gathered outside one of those glamorous skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan, at a proper distance from the entry, which is duly manned by a security person checking the measured distance with a keen eagle eye and with a serious mien meaning business, a group composed mostly of employees from the offices towering high over the street, but also some tourists and some odd homeless looking persons. The purpose of this small gathering, comprising a dozen people or so, is smoking. The group is heterogeneous, the employees are in a rather formal attire, one can easily imagine them placed somewhere in the intricate workings of financial capital, tourists wear some incongruous informal multicolored gear, making a brief stop-over on their well planned route through the highlights of the city, the homeless are wearing some baggy crumpled clothes, each group duly corresponding to the cliché. We smoke in silence, standing relatively close to each other, for the place seems to be cordoned off by invisible strings, no doubt abiding by some rules issued by god knows what authority, but we look in different directions, feeling vaguely ashamed or at least not at ease, for the designated place is both located out of the official ways, keeping this nuisance at bay, and at the same time on display, for it can’t be quite hidden in this heavily frequented area and one feels like exhibited, the passers-by and the people on the way to the grand entry casting suspicious side-way glances at the new pariahs, not of approval. This is a haphazard congregation of strangers gathered for five minutes, for the duration of a cigarette, flocked together to a designated spot, having just one thing in common. Then someone says, out of the blue: “First blacks and Jews, now us.” There is an immediate outburst of laughter and merriment, the total strangers instantly becoming friends, for these brief minutes, cigarettes are short-lived and so is our friendship, but there is a surge of solidarity, a sudden human tie, and the brevity of the precious moment reaches far beyond the gathering, beyond the schedule which soon makes us disperse in all directions. It all evaporates in smoke, just as the cigarettes, but the brief moment has a curious staying power and reaches beyond the dictate of time, beyond the pressure of jobs, obligations, survival and allotted social slots. And it is clear that by laughing together we have won a small victory over the disapproving crowd that vastly outnumbers us and over the carefully designed regulations that isolated us on this spot. The excluded and the ashamed have turned the tables, at least for these moments, we are the winners.
The remark is of course made in the spirit of the smokers’ cheek, or rather their tongue-in-cheek. It would be a bit much to put in line centuries of slavery and pogroms with this new figure of outcasts and it would take quite a bit of conceit to claim such ancestry. But smokers always tend to speak tongue-in-cheek. There is a couple of blacks in the gathering and as it turns out also a couple of Jews (and yes, you have guessed right, they belong to the ‘financial capital’ part of the group, one can doubt anything except for clichés). The blacks and the Jews are particularly amused by the remark, the Jewish person smilingly adding: “We haven’t yet reached the point of the holocaust”. Some smokers can actually be blacks and Jews into the bargain, and we all turned temporarily into honorary blacks and Jews. There is a sudden swopping of life stories, one actually grimly stretching back to the holocaust, the other to the pre-Martin Luther King days. An elderly black man, I suppose belonging to the maintenance staff of the building, says, to the general approval: “In all my life I have never been so oppressed as a black man as I am now as a smoker.” And he has lived through the times before the civil rights movement when at least in New York it wasn’t so bad to be black as it is now to smoke, the one exclusion mirroring the other in their very discrepancy and in a strange connivance. The homeless have some stories of police chasing them for smoking in some perfectly legal places, the new handy excuse for harassment. The rather wealthy looking Jews suddenly look at the homeless with new eyes, almost in appreciation, with the incongruous specter of the common fate of exclusion in the air, connecting for a brief moment its widely disparate ways. The Spanish tourists tell of some tricks of guerilla tactics smokers employ in Spain after the anti-smoking measures were introduced, although far less serious than in the US – but the US are, as always, leading the way and we agree that soon we will all be there, partaking in the promised land.
Smokers of the world, unite. But we are already united. We have collectively managed an incredible feat of traversing the social divisions, of conjuring the specters of history and its antagonisms and laying them at rest, of finding some bits of solidarity across boundaries, laughing together and having fun, complete strangers in just a few minutes, standing off the main course in Manhattan, at the heart of the world power, at the center of financial capital, an unlikely collectivity based on smoke, and smoke alone. It became perfectly clear: smokers live in communism. They create communism wherever they are, even a few minutes from Wall Street. Smokers have started the Occupy Wall Street movement long before, only nobody noticed. They don’t wait for a future classless society to appear, they instantly make it happen. Smoking is an instant pleasure that requires instant solutions, it can’t be relegated to some distant future. Two smokers are already enough for a budding communist cell, when two or three smokers congregate the (unholy) spirit of communism flashes in their midst. Smokers form a party with a very simple membership token, everybody is welcome to join in, and they gladly accept honorary non-smokers in their gathering. This is a party that immediately starts to dissolve hierarchies at the stroke of the lighter. Iskra, the spark, was famously the title of Lenin’s political newspaper, and smokers take it literally, the spark is all it takes. Lenin based its title on the line that the spark is there to ignite a big future flame, but smokers thrive just on sparks and very small present flames, their future may indeed be uncertain, given their habit. This is communism without a future, for they will all die young, afflicted by lung cancers and heart attacks, to say nothing of impotence and wrinkled skin. They use weapons of mass destruction destroying their users, who accept their fate with cheerful equanimity.
The smokers’ party doesn’t have a program, except for what is immediately put into action. Their deeds precede their words. But this is not to say that their community is based just on pleasure and instant gratification, shying away from intellectual demands, quite the contrary. There is nothing like smoking together to instigate reflection, one is there sharing a break from the usual turmoil of life, looking at it from a distance, reflecting on it, all kinds of programs spring up in the space of few minutes, wild ideas circulate freely, just as the smoke, one looks back and looks forward, excepted from the immediate pressures and obligations, in a non-discriminatory community of friends and strangers alike. Crazy stories and good jokes are generously shared along with the smoke. One can suddenly hit upon a solution to a problem that one couldn’t find by a sustained intellectual effort, precisely because this is a non-productive pause from the requirements of production, and it takes more for the mind to work than effort. Smoking is the time of serendipity, gratuitous and unexpected gifts. It is essentially social, smoking alone never tastes the same (well, just as sex). The more it aims at the bodily pleasure, the more it arouses and invigorates the mind, it is a non-Christian activity par excellence, constantly testifying against the division into body and spirit. The craving of the body goes hand in hand and coincides with the craving of the mind, the one enhancing the other. The smoking party doesn’t start with a program in order to instigate action, but with an act in search of a program, and the moment a few smokers gather programs start mushrooming. They interpret and they change the world for the time it takes to smoke a cigarette.
Being social smoking is never socially neutral. Its social and historical connotations stretch in all directions, some far away from the communist one. But under present conditions of ban and the growing political anathema, against the backdrop of the excessive campaign and ever new regulations that epitomize something like a caricature of ‘biopolitics’ in its link with exclusion, smoking as a rule emerges as a metaphor, it mirrors and refracts all other exclusions in a miniature model, it traces a line of division which assembles and brings together multiple dividing lines. Smokers state and represent. They represent e. g. the cancer on the healthy social body, and enjoyment is increasingly treated like a cancer on the prescribed normative bodily demeanor. There was always something in enjoyment that reached ‘beyond the pleasure principle’, something recalcitrant and indifferent to the aims of survival. Smoking promotes enjoyment in the bosom of a pleasure-seeking society, against the backdrop of its hedonistic injunctions. It pursues pleasure a bit too far, to the limits which invoke the specter of the lethal, and what the society promoting health and pleasure is allergic to is, in one word, enjoyment. Freud, another great smoker, knew it well. So did Lacan, another smoker, who established a stark opposition between pleasure and enjoyment.
Of course the smoking communism dissolves just as quickly as it emerged – it all goes up in smoke. In the first step, with the magic power of cigarette smoke “everything solid melts into thin air”, following Marx’s (another smoker’s) line from the Manifesto, all social relations are momentarily a bit dislocated and shaken, and then in the second step the specter of communism that emerged in the process melts into thin air in its turn. Leaving no traces, just as the smoke? There is of course the danger of romanticizing the fleeting moment and extol its charms, the moment when everything seems momentarily possible, although through a smoke-screen. Oh, the passing beauty of the passing, the Sirens’ call of the instant sublime. There is the firm intellectual impulse to resist any such penchant as well as to resist the feel-good self-congratulatory move of turning something banal into something deeply subversive, with the bunch of self-aggrandizing quick-and-easy revolutionaries, dispensing with the need for discipline, pursuit and organization. But perhaps one should also resist this impulse to resist and allow for a moment of fancy.
Smokers, like proletarians, have no country, but they instantly create liberated territories wherever they appear. Smoking always represented liberty, a fickle freedom against the chains of survival, it is an anti-survivalist stance. It states: I am free in chains, while being chained to this habit that I can’t give up, but these chains allow taking a bit of distance to the overwhelming other ones and I am willing to pay the price. Smoking makes a statement, which can be read in all kinds of ways, cynical, spontaneous, relaxed, neurotic, psychotic, perverse, obsessive, compulsive, guilty pleasure, sinful, dandy, bon-vivant, desperate, anti-stress, aggressive, arrogant, seductive, available, mark of class, mark of lack of class, sociability, anti-social behavior … But against all odds and in a wild fancy I would like this statement to read: communism has a chance.

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