Zombie Sticks, a horror story

Today starts an occasional series looking at the gothic and strange in the everyday. Warning, it will be a little more morbid than usual. One of the great things about blogging is the freedom to experiment with different styles. I am passionate about exploring and promoting flourishing and vibrancy in life and society. From time to time however, it is worth taking a look at the darker side of things to work out how best to move forward.

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They came from nowhere.

And now it’s impossible to escape them.

We weren’t prepared.

How could we be?

These zombies that stalk our shopping centres, newspaper collumns and TV bulletins are the strange, underworldy e-cigarettes that goulishly represent what they are not. At one so familiar and so alien.

These aliens are a negation, defined by what they are not, they are unthings.

A cigarette is a typical killer. Don’t they say most murders are committed by people you know? The cigarette is the broken engagement, spurned friend or bitter cousin you know, or thought you knew, so well. You may have got on with them for many years, but then one day something in them snaps.

And then you’re dead.

E-cigarettes are less complicated and yet more bizarre. An e-cigarette does not point to reassurance, comfort, friendship, camaraderie, peace of mind or a new romance. A cigarette is always there for you until it is not.

A cigarette may evoke nostalgia, hurt, memories.

An e-cigarette evokes a cigarette.

Its one benefit is that it is not like cigarettes. It’s main selling point is that it is like cigarettes. They even light up at the end and emit a smoke like vapour. Smoking is pointless and harmful. E-smoking is pointless and slightly less harmful, it is not pointful. It is not full of meaning, it is not enriched or enhanced in any way. If anything meaning is stripped from it. An e-cigarette is an absence. A ghost, a zombie, a vampire.

If a cigarette is a typical murderer, then your e-cigarette is the opposite – someone who looks shifty and talks the talk but is more in danger of boring you to death than killing you, full of empty threats and bravado. Although he just might, he sometimes gets that look in his eye when his charger starts sparking.

Smoking is a means to an end of a burning stick. The point of a cigarette is what you do with it – not the cigarette itself, they literally burn away into nothing.

An e-cigarette is still embarrassingly present at the end of your smoke. Cigarettes have no point once they’ve expired. The point of a pointless e-cigarette is still incongruously present past puffing. Smoking is a dangerous, detrimental habit most people want to give up once starting. A cigarette shows enough decorum to disappear as its raison d’être goes up in smoke.

An e-cigarette is the last one still up in the party telling you about how he fired a gun once and wanting to know what you think of his guy-liner, and his planned skull tattoo.

E-cigarettes, may be healthier than cigarettes but are they healthy? From what I gather research is not conclusive. What of the psychology? Habits that should be laid to rest are punching up from their graves to stock our taxi ranks and ATM queues, lurching forward to grab us by the wallet and eat our disposable income.

The philosopher Slavoj Zizek has explored this area before when discussing caffeine free diet coke. In his argument coke, a rather bland, muddy tasteless beverage, serves as a conveyance for caffeine and sugar. It’s notoriously difficult to define what coke tastes like. It kinda tastes like ‘more coke.’ It is not very effective at re-hydrating or refreshing you but that’s not the point. It gives you a short term kick that wears off quickly. Caffeine free and diet versions however do neither – all they are is ghosts haunted by the memory of tastes gone by.

People want to drink coke without drinking coke and the only reason they want to drink coke is that it makes you want more coke so the circle becomes a spiral and they have un-coke. Coke that doesn’t stop them being thirsty, doesn’t taste of anything other than a memory, doesn’t stimulate the brain or provide energy. It is consumed simply to be consumed.

Because that’s what we are – consumers.

That’s why we should shut up and buy our zombie sticks because who we are is consumers and we consume. Films that feature smoking getting higher rated certificates on theatrical release. We are becoming increasingly aware that we should not be glamourising smoking.

If smoking is bad, how can we keep smoking?

Is the wrong question and the loudest question.

Smoking, traditionally a big money spinner, has found a way to keep us smoking, and keep us paying. Smokers eventually die and so will e-smokers, but e-smokers will take longer in doing it, or so the big businesses diversifying their portfolios want to think.

Yes they want to keep us alive.

No they don’t have our best interests at heart.

You wouldn’t start with that chemically slush or a clarinet pen with their sketchy and inconclusive health benefits but they exemplify a culmination of consumerism. They only exist to be consumed. Their merits are that they are not something else. Consumerism and materialism as the theologian William T. Cavanaugh points out – are not the love of things they are more accurately the hatred of things. It is more like the love of the next thing. Materialism alienates us from the material.

Consumerism works by creating needs and then stepping in to sell us a means of fulfilling those needs. It purports to satisfy us but really it constantly disatisfies us.

Diet softdrinks and e-cigarettes are the perfect conduit for consumerism. They are already modeled on products we literally consume and burn away but they also meet a need that can never be met. A smoker can only smoke so many cigarettes, a drinker only so many cans of drink. These items kill us. The zombie versions don’t kill us – they slowly eat our brains.

There’s no override caused by death, tooth loss or failing lungs. We can keep tapping and refreshing them, haunted by the ghosts of caffeine, niccotine and sugar. As we used to rely on their stimulus now we can rely on their spectre to get us through the day.

To end on a lighter note, will this zombifying of life bottom out? Will it reach some nadir with the e-sandwich. Folk walking about sucking on a small plastic tablet. ‘I downloaded some coronation chicken, none of the calories, just a chickeny flickering taste with pulsing pixelated sultanas.’

And that moment, the sun might hit our face, a breeze might ruffle our hair, the scent of a barbecue might prickle our nose. We might remember a funny email, or take a photo of a snail because it kind of looks like a friend.

If you squint,

and you’ll have to squint,

because the sun will be shining so bright,

you’ll catch a glimpse,

and we’ll rip the memory stick off our lanyard and text our friends about a micro-brewery meets internet cafe idea that’s been at the back of our mind. Or do something wonderful with 3D printers and the rainforests. We’re not even sure.

But we’ll sub out the e-cigarette for the last time, shade our eyes and start setting fire to our imaginations,

not our lungs.

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