I’ve just finished reading Adam Reed’s “Smuk is King”, which describes the role of tobacco and cigarettes in a prison in Papua New Guinea. What is fascinating about the article is the agency Reed, an anthropologist, finds tobacco to have in the prison. Reed argues that “In inmates’ eyes, the organization of prison life is premised on the action of smoking; when cigarettes are taken away those social forms break down and men withdraw from contact with each other” (42). But such significance is not imbued upon cigarettes by Reed or another outside agent. Instead, through a close examination of the way in which the Bomana prison operates at the inmate level, he finds that cigarettes govern every action. “Smuk is king” as Reed points out, “because it makes men act with these things [cigarettes] in mind” (42).
Cigarettes rule these prisons in two unique ways – as both a form of currency, but also (and I think, more interestingly) as cigarettes (that is, material objects destined to be smoked). Unlike the formal form of currency, this informal prison currency is both valuable (traded for food, toothpaste, soap, etc.) and useful. When smoked, the men claim the smoke of the cigarettes makes them forget – that is, forget the outside world, forget their anxieties of being in prison. Reed takes this claim that “smuk is king” seriously (for why shouldn’t he), stating that “As smokers, inmates learn to love cigarettes because they kill their memory and therefore change their state of mind” (35). Cigarettes (or smuk), then, must be smoked, not saved. Again, Reed finds that “At Bomana inmates identify what might be taken as the spirit in cigarettes – its role as medium of exchange and token (the same spirit they identify in kina and toea [traditional forms of currency outside of the prison]), but they also highlight what might be taken as the spirit of cigarettes – their role as consumable matter” (41).
Reed proposes that one way to look at smuk or cigarettes in this prison is to see it as a fetish object. Following Peter J. Pels, Reed states that “The fetish object is not animated by something foreign to it – human intention or social meaning – but by a spirit that seems its own. That spirit is not held to reside in matter, but rather it appears as the spirit of matter” (41). And it is this spirit of matter that the inmates at the Bomana prison find in cigarettes. “Smuk moulds men,” as Reed concludes, “by having them transform its material state (it is the smoke of the cigarette, not its solid matter, that acts upon the mind of inmates). From this simple action, life in Bomana unfurls; as far as prisoners are concerned, it is the point from which everything starts and to which everything returns” (42). What we have, then, is a process or procedure of smuk – of finding, collecting, or exchanging cigarettes and then the ritual smoking of those cigarettes. Each cigarette, each object or unit, in this financial system is valued the same. Every cigarette, whether rolled tight and thin, or loose and fat, is just as valuable as another – for what is important is the eventual smoking of that cigarette. Each cigarette is a martyr, and this martyrdom gives it authority and agency.
What excited me about this article is its potential for drawing out some of the same concepts I’ve been struggling with in my conception of an object-oriented rhetoric. Like Reed, we too must approach situations, not from the outside, but from the muddled middles, from the quasi-objects (via Latour) and work our way to the outside extremes of social or natural concepts. We must think through objects by following their effects; but we must never see them as the only cause of those effects. In other words, we must understand these quasi-objects as both being effected and effecting others, so that no one, or only, cause can be claimed. Cigarettes did not cause the Bomana prisoners to act the way they do; however, they directly effect the prisoners’ actions. For to be effective is also, in some ways, to be persuasive.