The little talked-about pleasures of smoking
Of course, one obvious reason why it might have been possible to sustain such rules among the smoking community is that a cigarette is a minimal currency that can be given with almost no sacrifice of time or money, and without any breach to the ramparts of personal space that are so important to modern people. In every sense, it costs little to give a cigarette, so the gift economy of smoking can sit fairly comfortably alongside the much more closed-handed system of the rest of life. But there is another reason why smoking can remain separate from such a system, and this is the second point I want to make: the possibility that it offers of holding onto a different kind of time.
When we discount all the millions of cigarettes that are smoked over a laptop, all the ones smoked to cope with the pressure of tomorrow’s deadline, we are still left with millions more that are smoked in a sidestep from the rush of time. The timeline of contemporary lives is often unforgiving, and many people smoke in order to create moments of reflection and stasis: when somebody takes a break from reading to reflect on the knowledge that has entered them, and to smoke a cigarette, which allows them a physical sense of “taking in”; when a smoker comes out of an airport and tries to ascertain her feelings in this new place with the aid of a ritual that focuses her on inner sensations… Smoking, like various kinds of meditation, concentrates the mind on breathing and thus on a personal rhythm of time, separate from the hurry of the world.
There are other ways of doing this, you might say. But what is interesting is that cigarettes have come to enjoy a certain institutional approval for this “grounding” role that they play in people’s lives: for in these days of smoke-free offices has the “cigarette break” not become a staple of corporate culture? It is difficult to imagine a group of people leaving the office several times a day saying that they wanted to share a packet of M&Ms, or do five minutes’ yoga. But cigarettes seem to be a legitimate vehicle for people to retreat from the intensity of workplace time and gather themselves up for a moment, to speak to colleagues as fellow human beings rather than as bosses or subordinates – so much so that often these little outings are accompanied by non-smokers who do not themselves have any such legitimate way of creating mindspace outside the office.
Of course, once again, cigarettes can play this role partly because they represent such a minimal interruption to everything else – infrequent five-minute breaks that make people happier and possibly more productive, and that can exist more or less invisibly within the otherwise ordered and onward logic of the workplace. But this is not to say that the oases of personal time that they represent are insignificant within the economy of individuals’ days.
None of this is supposed to be a defence of cigarette smoking. It’s just an illustration of how crude the logic of the Health Minister is in comparison to the phenomenon it is supposed to manage. This is one of the serious problems we face today: the ubiquity of a language of management which fails to capture most of the human dimensions of things, and relates only obliquely to the way in which they are actually lived. At the present moment in time it’s not difficult to see what extremes such a tendency can take us to.