Sunday, June 22, 2008

Ciggies, continued: Wittgenstein's lesson

The freedom to choose whichever brand of cigarette one prefers is thus constrained by the discursive framework that defines what smoking one brand or another can signify about the smoker. But as important as the choice of object is, equally important can be the choice of how to consume it. The way one smokes says something about one's thoughtfulness or nervousness or attitude toward pleasure, or any one of another of dispositions. The cigarette is a prop, as all actors know.
Long drags, short puffs?Holding the cigarette cupped Nazi-style conveys an attitude of analytical assessment and judgment ("very intereshting... but shtoopid!" as Arne Johnson's Laugh-In Nazi says). Oscar Wilde's heroes smoke languidly, reclining on Persian pillows and aphorizing that "A cigarette is the perfect type of the perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and leaves one unsatisfied." But not all smoking is about exquisite unsatisfying pleasure. Hardboiled Bogarts bogart, squeezing all the intensity possible from experiences that are scarce, fleeting, and perhaps not even pleasurable.

Wittgenstein was famous for the way he smoked while teaching. Without pausing from his thinking-out-loud he would take a cigarette from the pack, light a match, and then, as if he had forgotten what he was doing, continue to follow his own thoughts. Meanwhile, the match would burn down, coming closer and closer to singing the philosopher's fingers. Always, at the last possible second, Wittgenstein would in a single gesture bring cigarette to lips and match to cigarette, then shake the match out -- all without missing a beat in his philosophizing. It was a brilliant illustration of the rich embodiedness of language games. It also offered a lesson in power, for it fascinated philosophers studying with the master, who began to imitate him in their style of smoking. Generations later, this mannerism has spread through the philosophical community, infecting many who have no idea that Wittgenstein gave it salience to begin with.

What is true for cigarettes is true for all cultural goods. Cultural economics will remain hobbled unless it develops a multivariate methodology for analyzing the many dimensions in which symbols can be consumed, the many ways in which choosing a cigarette (or any other cultural good) involves expressing a preference, the many kinds of "good" that one can seek to make one's own via the consuming of a cigarette (or a book or a play or a song). Without a cultural stylistics, cultural economics will not be able to bring into view the costs and benefits of cultural choices.

I am a non-smoker, by the way.

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