I never thought I’d miss choking on someone else’s cigarette smoke. Second-hand smoke was no respiratory joke, but at least the nose knew what it was in for: burning leaves, burning paper and a few bonus chemicals that added up to a practically national scent. Second-hand vaping is better for you, I presume, but it’s an olfactory crapshoot. The nose knows not what bubble-gum, what passionfruit comes to incense its sinuses.

Cigarettes have been so altered by their producers and so castigated by our governments that, between corporate pushing and state pulling, we hardly recognize their objectively good smell — burning leaves are really very nice. But while the turn to the vape has saved us from the musty stink of cigarettes, it has done so by replacing it with the sweet, cloying waft of — well, I’m not sure. One is never sure, because every vape cloud is a personalized vape cloud.

Humans dislike sitting in other humans’ clouds. We have a nausea for cushions still warm from another person’s rear-end. We cringe under blankets that still smell like a stranger’s house. We might fear germs, but there seems to be a deeper fear of dwelling in the residual presence of another person. It is a plunge into communion that we are not ready for; a grafting of ourselves into the warm, smelly world of other bodies, quite apart from the love that makes such grafting delightful. Despite humanitarian assurances that we can all dwell on top of each other without violence and disgust, we seem nature bound to either loathe or love intimacy, with little tolerance in between. To mix and mingle with another person, another family, is horrible — until love makes it a joy.     

The vape cloud does more than replace smoke with steam. Its vapor is also the unique choice of the vaper. And while one could generalize cigarette smoke as one odious odor amidst a whole host of stinking sewers, dirty dumpsters and idling buses, the vape-cloud resists generalization. A man vapes outside his cell phone store in East Oxford, seeping steam like a coal-fired power plant in Eastern Pennsylvania. I brace my nostrils. Whatever cherry or chocolate cloak I’ll be wrapped in, it will be his cloak — his unique consumer-choice. There is a cloying particularness of vape-steam which is like the particularness of someone’s natural breath — by which one feels particularly molested.

The vape is a fitting addiction for a generation whose skills and habits are being steadily replaced by the activation of machines. Stressing our identity is one way of dealing with the lack of personality that inflicts a world that lives and moves through the manipulation of technological devices. Dealing with most objects personalizes them — we have our effect on them, our wear and tear, our different ways of holding and handling. “The worker animates [the instrument] and makes it into his organ with his skill and strength, and whose handling therefore depends on his virtuosity,” says Karl Marx. Not so with machines: “The machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it.”

More than cars and brand names, cigarettes created an immense culture of expression. Cigarettes were offered, shared, lit, smoked, and stubbed out in a complex series of forms that could express friendship, sexual attraction, sympathy, social rebellion, and impatience. Films found no better, subtler way to signify a character’s estrangement from human solidarity than his refusal of a cigarette or a drink; no better way to cross the divide between man and man than his acceptance. Men could express themselves through their addiction to cigarettes, lifting up a cheap dependence to the level of sign and symbol, ennobling their ignoble habit by making turning it into a language.     

Thanks to their status as dumb products — leaves rolled in paper — this “universal culture” was not an oppressive one. Smokers left his their personal and cultural imprint on the handling, holding and flicking of lighters, boxes, filters, and empty stubs. Vapers, for their part, find their activity “reduced to a mere abstraction of activity…determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery.” One cannot light it off a stove when it is out of battery, fix it when it is broken, let it dangle off one’s lip, or otherwise personalize the thing. “Gesturing angrily with his vape” is a caricature. 

The explicit turn to find vape solidarity in vape stores (the vape nation) and self-expression (in the modification of flavors) is not something that is simply enabled by the devices, rather, the lack of solidarity and personality inherent in the turn to the machine has vapers seeking to attain these lost goods by an artificial effort. Vapers buy more products to personalize their product. Like the profile picture, the iPhone background, the personalized latte, or the bumper-stickered car, the vape is extrinsically personalized as a reactionary attempt to give a human soul to things that seem to operate with a soul of their own.    

This is why there is something sad about being blasted by a honey-bourbon steam cloud as I walk down the high street. I am dwelling in someone’s personal consumer-choice, but I am also dwelling in his attempt to distinguish himself in a world in which men are slowly losing their distinctions by consenting to live everyday life through the operation of the same machines.  

Godspeed, vapers, and everyone else who finds themselves in a world that largely involves the manipulation of mechanical devices. I hope we will all be able to personalize our way back to a world in which human acts upon objects naturally express the meanings and distinctions passed between men. But in case our efforts fail, and no amount of flavoring, bumper-sticking, profile-updating, and individualizing will save us from being “regulated on all sides” by the machine, we should consider leaving it behind for the clearer air. 

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