Vapor Eyes

E-cigarettes are social consumption, not private vice. They keep us addicted not so much to nicotine as to each other.

The e-cigarette feels like the future. It is a generational marker that gives millennials another way to distinguish themselves from the past. It takes its design cues and business models from smartphones, gentrified downtowns, and complimentary next-day global delivery systems. When you choose to use silicon and glycerine over paper and tobacco, you are also choosing a shipping warehouse in Anaheim over the nearest gas station, opting to monitor battery life instead of lighter fluid, and possibly demonstrating a preference for the DIY promise of building your own vaping rig over the predictability of mass-produced, uniformly rolled cigarettes. It should be no surprise that almost every e-cig battery charges over USB, there are no disposable batteries, and if you want to plug it into a wall outlet you have to use a converter brick just as with a smartphone. E-cigs are eminently compatible with our digitized lives.

It is safe to say that I am obsessed with my partner’s pen-style e-cigarette. She chooses a flavor from among several amber bottles — mint chocolate chip, bed of roses, vino veritas — and fills the e-cig to capacity with “e-juice,” sealing it with an atomizer that screws on top. After the ritual assembly is complete, I hear the hiss and the exhale. This time, the room smells like cherry limeade for a fraction of a second.

Like some cross between a childhood chemistry kit and a customizable smartphone, an e-cig is a simulacrum that transcends the natural cigarette it copies by virtue of its sheer customization potential. E-cig hardware is handmade or composed of significantly modified off-the-shelf parts, and custom vaping rigs can grow well beyond what could reasonably be described as a pen. They can contain any number of custom liquids with varying degrees of nicotine strength and flavoring.

Vaping is not by any means the first time mass tobacco consumption has changed. The move from cigarettes to e-cigs is arguably a far less radical shift than the jump from pipes to cigarettes in the early 20th Century. As average wages in the US started to rise and mass-produced goods began to flood the market, one’s lovingly curated collection of pipes gave way to simple, cheap, and extremely portable cigarettes. They were relatively clean and they lacked the classed and gendered connotations of former tobacco products. The sociologist Randall Collins, in exploring the history of tobacco rituals, notes that the various methods for imbibing tobacco were rarely chosen for solely practical reasons. Instead, they were selected as Baudrillard or Bourdieu would have predicted: as part of a larger system of status markers. In fact, according to Collins, cigars came to prominence only in places where “class differentiation by commercial wealth was developing most rapidly.”

Though e-cigs may become commonplace, right now they look a lot like early 20th-century cigar and pipe smoking: something conspicuously consumed to distinguish oneself from other smokers and signify social position. Unlike today’s cigarettes, which have stabilized into a more or less standardized form, e-cigs are infinitely adaptable and can evolve to express countless levels of distinction and symbolic investment. As vaping catches on, it’s easy to imagine a world of mediocre, cheap cherry-flavored bodega e-cigs on one end of the market and enormous, elaborate, iPhone-enabled rigs that hold an array of artisan flavors on the other.

The venues that currently sell e-cigs and their requisite juices run the gamut from Apple Store-inspired modernist boutiques to the rich tones of a velvet-draped café to the utilitarian truck stop. Whereas the gas-station attendant will expect you to know what you want (or at least offer no help in deciding), the boutique encourages exploration, sampling, or even experimenting with mixing existing flavors into a custom blend.

Vaping combines the material joys of having your e-cig with the ephemeral allure of intense but quickly dissipating tastes and smells. The e-cig combines the social distinction of the pipe with the consumer efficiency of the cigarette. It lasts long enough to become part of your identity, but the act of consuming ends literally in a puff of vapor.

Just as e-cigs fuse the material and ephemeral and bridge the low and high ends of the market, they also span across the gap between addictive and nonaddictive that consumerism has always straddled. Most e-juices come in nicotine and nicotine-free versions, which allows the e-cig to be addicting like a cigarette and “addicting” like an iPhone.

This not only means e-cigs are twice as compelling as consumer objects, but they are also twice as susceptible to being deployed in moralistic addiction narratives with twice the force. As historian of science Nancy Campbell has pointed out, addiction narratives, thanks in no small part to their psychoanalytic roots, elicit visions of unchecked morality, lost rationality, and biological illness: The user is being used, the customer is the product, and absolutely none of this is natural. The addict is out of control and yet completely culpable. Consumers are being addled by an unnecessary supplement that compromises the moral authenticity of their lives yet at the same time they lack the capacity to resist a substance that is physically addictive.

This logic of the supplement, as Jacques Derrida calls it, has a very long history that dovetails with a larger history of new tech adoption. New technologies — whether they be smartphones or e-cigs — always appear to us as supplemental to an already complete world, as Rousseau felt about masturbation, like smoking and phone-gazing, another technological of seemingly solitary pleasuring. Instead of engaging in heterosexual sex that could produce offspring, masturbation, Rousseau argued, was purely self-serving, outside the natural order defined by procreation. The dichotomy between the supplementary “artificial” and the heteronormative “natural” carries forward to Freud’s theories of addiction. Campbell points out that “as early as 1897, Freud regarded drug addiction as a substitute for masturbation, the ‘primary addiction.’ ”

This association lingers on eerily in present-day critiques of consumerism and technology. These critics argue that the only route to a healthy, complete and natural life is to be free of supplemental gadgetry. You need to cut back or quit. Commenting on such digital-detox pieces, Nathan Jurgenson argues that “this concern-and-confess genre frames digital connection as something personally debasing, socially unnatural despite the rapidity with which it has been adopted. It’s depicted as a dangerous desire, an unhealthy pleasure, an addictive toxin to be regulated and medicated.” E-cigs, the smartphones of drug-delivery systems, are the material manifestation of these critics’ fears.

But what is often missed in the “concern-and-confess genre” is that what is fretted over as self-pleasure (e.g., checking Facebook, vaping vanilla-chai-flavored e-juice) is actually a deeply social act. Indeed, much of what we normally call “consumption” should really be seen as acts of social reproduction. E-cigs aren’t just a different delivery system for the drug; they represent a reboot of smoking culture. Perhaps more than anything, the e-cig’s greatest feature is its capacity to recast smokers as innovative, social people rather than asocial addicts. Unlike the patch or gum, which are embedded in a medicalized discourse of aspirational quitting and reinforce addiction taboos, vaping offers a new nicotine ritual that eschews some of the vilification smokers have experienced in recent decades. It invites curiosity rather than judgment. It gives us a new set of eyes through which we can view the intersections of culture, biology, consent, agency, and choice.

Collins sees tobacco use as primarily social and only secondarily addictive. He doesn’t deny that biological addiction exists or that quitting nicotine is, as reports have shown, more difficult than kicking a heroin habit. He is, however, convinced that “the completely isolated Robinson Crusoe smoker” would never exist. Which is to say tobacco (nicotine addiction and all) cannot be fully understood outside of its social contexts. Or to quote Baudrillard, "A need is not a need for a particular object as much as it is a 'need' for difference." Our choices in drug-consumption vehicles (or anything else for that matter) say something about who we want to associate with and who we want to be. Drugs or any other consumable gain their “addictive” allure from the system of objects they are associated with and the people that are seen to be enjoying them. If we are addicted to anything, it’s status. (Of course, cigarette advertisers and antismoking advocates have made great use of this fact, with dueling celebrity endorsements.)

But the e-cig’s ambiguous addictiveness and technologized sheen are not all that make it the sine qua non of consumer goods. It also balances capitalism’s emphasis on the pleasures of property with the symbolic need to use things up. To enjoy goods under capitalism, they must be owned, but it is difficult to establish for oneself that one has total and exclusive sovereignty over an object. The only surefire way to claim something as yours is to reserve the right to destroy it — as many rituals of consumption do, fulfilling desire by using goods up. The destruction of goods also makes room — in our homes, on shelves, and in our bodies — for newer offerings that promise bigger and better experiences. Consumption must be a combination of physical destruction and a kind of ephemeral sensory stimulation that can never be contained.

Food consumption, for instance, is a display of ownership through destruction. Hunger is never-ending, but the e-cig provides an appetite-suppressing nicotine in an effervescent vapor that can mimic anything from peanut butter and banana sandwiches to rose water. It is the closest one can get to the medieval paradises of endless feasts and rarified smells upon which our modern idea of consumption is based.

David Graeber has argued that anthropologists should stop focusing on consumption in the abstract and start thinking about the acquisition and use of goods as “the production of human beings, not just as labor power but as persons, internalized nexes of meaningful social relations.” E-cigs exemplify such a nexus; they have the capacity to structure moments of private ritual in public places. This may appear to be antisocial, but it is the opposite. When someone makes their own vaping rig, they are not only vaping but also consuming vaping culture. Moreover, they are reproducing complex social relations within the subculture. Every time they use their e-cig in public, users are reifying class hierarchies, producing new etiquettes, and forcing us all to reconsider what exactly we are vilifying and pathologizing.

If my partner and users of e-cig forums are representative of e-cig smokers as a whole, then vaping produces new social relations in two very concrete steps: First, someone, usually a bartender or a server, has to answer the question “Can I use this here?” and thus make an executive decision about whether vaping should be counted as smoking and relegated to outdoor benches or be treated as something categorically different. The second step is much more personal. The e-cig user assumes the awkward and self-conscious role of an early adopter. She must, through the sheer force of her addiction, use this device and be a cultural ambassador for an unwritten future. Someone — maybe a total stranger, maybe a close friend — will try to impose the beginnings of a new sort of scientistic control on her. Some will warn that the e-juice could kill you if you drink it (no one disputes this); others may say they’ve heard that the vapor can cause water buildup in the lungs.

It is the kind of folk science that, after a decade or so of accumulation, can garner research grants and policy proposals. It is the beginning of a society grappling with a new technology and thus a new arrangement of people, things, and meaning.