Some Musings on Quitting Cigarettes and Facebook

“Here, the elements in play find their individuation in the assemblage of which they are a part, independent of the form of their concept and the subjectivity of their person.”

–Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, “Memories of a haecceity”

 

I have been thinking about cigarettes lately, and the extraordinary way in which a practice that was so widespread, so economically profitable, and so entrenched in daily life disappeared from that life in less than a generation, at least in North America. I grew up at a time when many, if not most, adults smoked. Kids, too, when they could get smokes, which wasn’t hard. At least it seemed that way. The men had come home from the war having picked up the habit while waiting to be killed. Women took it up as a rebellious assertion of their newly found independence from traditional roles. Romance clung to it. Bogart and Bacall stared into each others’ smouldering eyes through a swirling veil of cigarette smoke. A fag dangled with insouciant threat from John Garfield’s lip. The Marlboro Man’s rugged beauty and the Virginia Slims model’s sassy topless seductiveness (over the slogan, You’ve come a long way, baby) called out, offering a world of romance and adventure. And then there were all those long, marvelous nights around a kitchen table with friends, talking, drinking, smoking cigarette after cigarette till the sun came up. Not to mention rolling over and sharing a smoke after sex.

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart have a smoke.

A smoke, really, after pretty much everything—waking up, eating, starting the car, starting a job, finishing a job, doing a job. After the addiction sets in, your soul becomes chained to an endless cigarette, one after another, till it’s constant, two, three packs a day. It’s the perfect commodity, a quickly consumed satisfaction machine. Once your cells hunger for the dopamine rush released by nicotine and your mind is shaped to the repetition, a cigarette guarantees a little hit of pure satisfaction that lasts for 30 to 60 minutes. And in a workaday world where satisfactions are few and far between, that’s nothing to shake a stick at. Then it’s time to do it again. And again. Till its claws sink deep into your being and you are left helpless in the face of Need.

Eventually you reach a point where—your lungs clogged with mucous, your mouth coated with a foul residue, your clothes stinking of stale smoke—you realize that bit of satisfaction is no longer worth the cost. You have to quit. And like Mark Twain quipped—quitting smoking is easy, I did it hundreds of times. After the excruciating first couple of weeks, it takes years finally to get over the desire for a cigarette. As many people who have gone through it have reported, it’s like losing your best friend, someone who has always been there for you when you needed them, someone associated with every aspect of your life. So that grief adds a further dimension of pain to the physical withdrawal. And for years you find yourself reaching over and over for the pack of smokes that isn’t there.

Facebook.

Which brings me to Facebook. I quit Facebook recently which is why smoking was on my mind. It wasn’t easy. First of all, Facebook does not want you to leave and continually tries to suck you back in. You can’t just delete your account and be done with it. They make you wait a month or two for some reason that’s never fully clear. During the interim, weird things happen that cause your account to reappear without your fully understanding why. Every time you log on to some other program, you are offered Facebook as an alternative to the password you can’t remember. Are you really, really sure you want to leave all your friends, all your photos, all your brilliant posts it keeps asking? They will be nuked, vapourized, you are warned, destroyed forever, the implication being that you will lose an essential record of your life. But beyond that, Facebook sinks its claws into you not unlike cigarettes do.

It is is a weird place with many faces, many uses that keep people engaged. I was on Facebook for well over 10 years after a student in one of my courses told me I should sign on so that I could keep in contact with him and some other students when the course was over. It was a relatively new phenomenon then, as was the whole idea of something called “social media.” My wife heard it was a pickup place, and asked disapprovingly why I was on it. In the beginning I did little more than repost an occasional essay or news article and thank people I had never met for their birthday wishes after Facebook announced to them all it was my birthday.

Likes and dislikes.

But it soon began to heat up, shedding whatever early reputation it had for hookups. Politics got more and more central and more and more shouty. Flame wars erupted over poetry interpretations and people fretted about etiquette. My news feed, while always eclectic, became increasingly focused on poetry and the poetry scene, with a lot of politics thrown in. As more people signed on, my “friend” list grew longer and longer, filled out with the names of people I didn’t know and most likely never would. Poetry became more and more defining and my activity increased till I was posting 5 to ten times a day, not counting comments on other people’s news feeds. Sometimes I posted an R. Crumb cartoon or a photo of Case, my dog. Other times a poem or an essay on poetry or politics or philosophy which often led to long interesting exchanges of view. It had become a space in which Michael Boughn, a rather obscure figure in the world of contemporary poetry, performed himself in the midst of a collection of “friends”.

After I quit, I would find myself reaching for it. Like a pack of cigarettes. Mostly this happened when I read something interesting and want to share it with the collection of vaguely perceived identities continually awaiting word of my state of being. They were, in Heidegger’s sense of technology, at-hand. But why, I began to wonder, did I desire or feel compelled to share particular photos, writing, videos with “friends” who for the most part I didn’t know and never would? To persuade people to my point of view, whatever that is? That may figure in certain political posts, but seriously, for the most part, anyone who reads them is already there, already part of your tribe., and you are simply affirming your place among them. Argument may arise about whether or not to vote for some specific candidate, but that’s about as far as disagreement goes. Was I doing it for the “likes”? Some people get millions of likes. This is an indication of their social significance. They are called “influencers” and they influence people. And get money for it. The most likes I ever got was about a hundred in response to the Facebook’s announcement of my birthday. While these socially stratifying signs of approval (and disapproval) are known to lead to mental health issues for some young people, I learned quickly not to pay attention to them. Which, given how few there were, wasn’t much of a problem.

I do think that Facebook, or something like it, has legitimate uses. Commerce for instance. It’s a great marketing tool. And organizing people into events like poetry readings and political actions. If those are things you want to do, Facebook is the tool for you. Finding old friends you have lost touch with is also useful. But the clams for it, and the actual uses, go far beyond that. It is, we are told, a platform for building community, even, according to Zuckerberg, the spider at the center of the web, a “global community.” And so it seemed. I “met” poets and scholars I would most likely never would have otherwise encountered, given my aversion to conferences. Old friends emerged. New friends, too. A network coagulated, bound together through cyber space by webs of common interest.

And, it turns out, mostly common opinion. Certainly, one of the most notable developments of Facebook was its rapid tribalization. Tribalization, if it’s most evident in the political discourses of the last several years, is a general phenomenon. Even the poets got organized into tribes of common opinion. Not identical opinion, but broadly common. This became evident to me when I was “unfriended” by a famous (ambitious) poet because I suggested that the best way to deal with inequity of representation on art booty committees was to get rid of the prizes and the committees along with them. She apparently found this position so heinous and offensive she could no longer bear the thought of even an attenuated electronic link to me. Clearly the gloves were off. Facebook quickly became a place where you went to be confirmed in what you already knew by people of the same ilk. This is what Zuckerberg calls “community.”

It wouldn’t be so bad if Facebook hadn’t become the New York Times for so many people who hate the New York Times. As a news source, it turns out Facebook is the perfect platform for maliciously spreading disinformation within tribes/communities in order to disrupt legitimate political processes, and in fact destroy communities. Not only that, it is a perfect space for organizing Instantaneous Vigilante Posses (IVPs) to erase whomever might have triggered you, violated your sense of moralist perfection, or showed up on someone else’s shit list of Bad People determined by unverifiable accusations of others you don’t know but who share your “politics”—you think—in some way. And an ideal venue in which to create “communities” based on the common consumption of destructive conspiracist theories, unleashing heavily-armed warriors on innocent pizza parlours across Washington, D.C.. But that’s a different Facebook story. I was thinking about cigarettes. And how it felt to leave Facebook.

It’s not easy because it involves giving up the attention that fills every day with connections. A like, even when you don’t take likes seriously, shows someone saw you, someone read what you said and maybe even shared it. And you get a slight glow even though you know 90% of likes are just gestures. Your “liker” probably was scrolling through his newsfeed and doling out likes without actually reading what he liked as a way to say—I don’t know—maybe “I saw you, dude” out the window of his Chevie as he passed by. And a comment can lead to an interesting, short exchange over a point of politics or philosophy or poetry. That’s what I think is meant by community in discussions about Facebook—smooth communication with a network of likeminded people either on news feeds that becomes a part of the fabric of the day. The friends are a daily habit.

The thinking of community became especially intense in Europe in the 1990s just before Facebook hit the scene, and just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the last illusions about communism, the great, failed collective attempt to create an international community of equals. Qualified by limiting adjectives like negative (Bataille), inoperable (Nancy), unavowable (Blanchot), and coming (Agamben), various thinkers attempted to address the possibility of a mode of being-in-common that avoids the purity/totalitarianism of communion that characterized both the Nazi myth of the Volk and the Marxist-Leninist myth of pure ideology, community as the relations of homogeneous beings to each other determined in the exclusion and excision of the impure other.

How, in other words, do you articulate the necessity of difference or otherness within the bounds of identity that community is bound to? Community has so many different usages, each assuming a clear meaning. From Zuckerberg’s perverse fantasy of a “global community”— what the hell is that, anyway, other than a unified international market? – to vague descriptions of similarly engaged people, say, the “community of artists,” to geographical proximity as in The Bracondale Hill Community News, the word speaks to a desire for connection and intimacy never quite specified, a desire that masks mere mechanical proximity, and so continues to generate a feeling of loss that eventually open to some further intensification or purification.

Jean-Luc Nancy suggested that “community is what happens in the wake of society.” What we call “community” is a nostalgic desire for what never was, born of the face of the massively impersonal, deadening statistical abstraction called “society” we find ourselves in. In this form, it is not just a collection of knitters or poets exchanging compliments and tips. The nostalgia prepares the ground for eventual communion with its violent excision of difference. Think of the early “flame wars” that have branched into vigilante excisions. Think of the lead-up to January 6. Facebook thrives on the myth of community, but that myth obscures the reality of a superficial network of tenuous connections organized into communions of exclusive opinion modules defined by excision and exclusion.

Bogart and Bacall, still smoking.

If turning to reach for Facebook called to mind turning to reach for a pack of cigarettes, there was a crucial difference. I don’t want to push the comparison too far. Nicotine is a drug—a physical compound—that is highly addictive. It invades the body and turns it into a nicotine desiring machine. The comfort of habit, repetition, plays into it, but the deep somatic dimension drives it. The habituation Facebook, Twitter, and group video games create is mostly mental. Although muscle memory may play into the somatic satisfaction of games, the satisfaction is not fundamentally somatic. In a weird way, the difference between cigarettes and social media is characteristic of a deeper, fundamental difference between what Neil Gaiman called the Old Gods and the New Gods. One is centered in the flesh, the body, soma. The other is dispersed in electronic networks. Cigarettes are in and of the world waiting to be grasped. They are in hand, an event in somatic time. Facebook, not so much. The intermediary zone connecting me to Facebook includes a keyboard, a screen, and an entire electronic infrastructure, as well as a bunch of electrons. Push a switch, then click click click. As you log on, you leave your body, drawn out into an alien space, a purely technological space that thrives on your disembodied attention.

With a cigarette, when you spark up you enter a ritual space defined by physical acts, a liturgical practice: first you remove the package from pocket or purse, withdraw a cigarette, fondle it as you find your matches, place it in your mouth stimulating your lips, rub the matchhead against the rough sandpaper, watch flame erupt from the blue/red head, bring the fire to the tip of the tube which glows with a deep red burn, draw hot smoke down into your lungs and fill them with addictive, carcinogenic toxins. But oh, what marvelous toxins. The nicotine is carried in smoke particles into the lungs which absorb it rapidly into pulmonary venous circulation where it enters arterial circulation and moves quickly to the brain binding tightly bins to nicotinic cholinergic receptors, facilitating neurotransmitter release, including dopamine, glutamate, and gamma aminobutyric acid.

You are immediately hit with a wave of pure pleasure and satisfaction. Craving cells whimper with relief and delight as dopamine floods brain cells. The tortuous itch gets scratched. It is a deeply somatic event. When you return from electronic spacetime, you are attenuated, part of you remains behind, caught in the web. It’s part of what Justin H. Smith calls “the dematerialization of our interactions.” When you finish your smoke, you are left recentered in fulfilled flesh. At least for a while. Till the itch returns, the itch that becomes a scream. Then you get to do it all over again, which is the point of addiction.

Reaching for Facebook turns out to be a very different act than reaching for a cigarette. Like a Zoom meeting with someone is different than actually being-with someone. Ivan Illich reports being told that you can’t know someone is your friend until you smell them. Zoom attenuates presence so that you are not really with even though you are with. You are watching without being able to smell. I think this is crucial to understanding community. For Illich, even before the mass proliferation of the technologies of “social media,” the problem we all faced was the technogenic destruction of the connections that allow and nurture a being-together grounded in somatic time. “A community,” he argued, is “established by a somatic interchange and not by some cosmic or natural referent.” Community is the somatic incorporation of equals into a creative being-together-apart. Without the somatic connection, what is called community is an illusion, a phantasm. And in fact a kind of vampiric phantasm that sucks haecceity out of the world.

Deleuzian haecceity is the absolute thisness of the world at any moment. As he and Felix Guattari put it in “Memories of a haecceity,” “. . . a season, a winter, a summer, an hour, a date have a perfect individuality lacking nothing, even though this individuality is different from that of a thing or a subject. They are haecceities in the sense that they consist entirely of relations of movement and rest between molecules or particles, capacities to affect and be affected.” This is as true of each-of-us as it is of a summer or an hour. Cyberspace attenuates haecceity, and the attenuation spreads into the somatic world. It is subtle, but nonetheless real. That may sound dramatic, but when I left Facebook, the fact is, the specific world of my limited, finite, being became more present, more articulate, more defined. I found myself in it. It demanded more of me. It demanded all my attention. And it rewarded that attention.

Not that I recommend taking up smoking in place of Facebook. Nor do I think, regretfully, that it’s possible to return to a pre-lapsarian, pre-computer condition, circa 1980, or what ever other antediluvial date you pick, or that it would make much difference if we did. You can’t undo Facebook and what it stands for like the government undid cigarettes because the cost of treating lung cancer was overwhelming the health care system. This cancer infected the world a long time ago. It has metastasized and is now totally implicated, in the world’s body. It determines the fundamental infrastructure of the landscape in which we are immersed, something cigarettes, however profitable they may have been, never did.

It is a fact now that we live in the shambles created by the technogenic devaluation of the range of knowledge that arises out of physis/body/soma, and the mass dematerialization of our interactions that accompanies it. Facebook is as much a symptom of that as a cause. The technogenic disabling of knowledge long preceded it. It is scientific materialism’s poisoned legacy to our thinking, the dark enchantment of capitalism that has wreaked havoc on the earth, leading us to the verge of catastrophe. Maybe past the verge. The catastrophe may be inevitable and irreversible at this point. And leaving Facebook may amount to little more than whistling in the hurricane, the tornado, the firestorm. But here’s the deal. This, this here in its ineluctable haecceity, is where I would rather be.

 

Michael Boughn

Michael Boughn is a writer and poet, the author of "Cosmographia" (2010). He taught at the University of Toronto.

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