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“Life, Life”: Living in the Process of Dying

It’s been both surreal and intensely frightening watching the cultural change that has surrounded nicotine consumption the past couple years. In my memory a complete societal-cognitive shift like this—youth addicted en masse, and a general OK-ing of such a phenomenon—is unprecedented.

It has been about nine months since I’ve had nicotine in my bloodstream. It’s good sometimes but also sometimes not. Sort of as Gertrude Stein said, one day is alright but a number of days is not alright. Stephen Dedalus: “many days, day after day.” A total break-off from nicotine seems daunting until one actually does it; it then becomes so distracting and difficult that all thoughts about addiction and weaning-off tend to fizzle out and diminish.

This probably happens either because: it’s not as hard as it seemed at first; one’s brain stagnates and lags after being cut off from the nicotine rush after taking hits from a vape upward of ten times a day for upward of nine months; one looks for some sort of habit-adoptable thing to do to compensate for this sudden lack of habit, something even as simple as spinning a pencil or biting one’s nails or tapping one’s feet or grinding one’s teeth. Or perhaps all of the above.

Who is speaking in this way?

It’s hard to conceptualize one’s addiction in context of society as a whole: what contributed to it, what trendy waves it rides on, why it didn’t stop earlier than it did. And it’s also difficult to really process how monumental and sudden this whole nicotine and vape craze has become in the United States (and perhaps beyond). It is, however, easy to see why vape companies’ strategies work: They have higher nicotine content than cigarettes, which already have a negative stigma; they are (Juuls in particular) designed to look sleek, attractive, and stylish to kids; and they are small and easily concealable. (And a host of other factors.)

I’m not necessarily, here, trying to condemn vaping or nicotine addiction. Beyond the arguments of it being beneficial for weaning off cigarette use, I am also a firm believer of the idea that everybody is addicted to something and that no one thing is “better” or “worse” to be addicted to as, presumably, they all offer those addicted similar levels of happiness. (It should also go without saying that nicotine addiction is also generally not the “worst” addiction out there… if we’re comparing.)

But given we live in an Age of Entertainment, it seems that—like Marx’s materialist view of history—our national culture, ethos, oeuvre seems to be defined by the dominant pastimes, whether they be television, smartphones, the Internet, or even addictions—like intense nicotine use.

But on a macro scale, this is the vape and cigarette companies implicitly acknowledging and acting upon the understanding that American youth aren’t so much more impressionable and trend-focused than previous generations (Generation Z, according to the American Psychological Association, is more likely to experience mental health issues—in part, in response to current events and politics—compared to previous generations) but rather that the incomprehensible barrage of information, minutiae, stressors, and trends, from social media rather makes it impossible to not be so.

It seems as if we are living in the age when the map Jorge Luis Borges described in his story “On Exactitude in Science”—the map that depicts the area of an empire exactly—is no longer a fable. As Jean Baudrillard feared and expanded on in his Simulacra and Simulation, “abstraction is no longer part of the map”: We’re in his Desert of the Real, it’s no longer a Matrix prophesization, a pessimistic extension of the informational immediacy come to terms with in the 1990s. And, especially in a post-truth political and informational environment, the U.S. populace is faced more than ever (or, at least in the recent past) with the daunting task of discerning truth from fiction.

The Age of Information has hit a lull, it seems.

Are all philosophers’ thoughts profound? Do they have days they feel more stupid than others and can’t explain or postulate why? Are they “smart” enough to not get addicted to things—or, if they do, do they have explanations for it all? How does one gripe about their generation without sounding like they’re griping? How did Fitzgerald, Hunter S. Thompson, and Zadie Smith do it?

One of the persistent frustrations of my life has been having most of my questions left unanswered. Call it the anxiety of choice, sensory overload, analysis paralysis—there is too much out there to be able to know what to do with. It seems reasonable that part of American youth’s forced impressionability might result from this sense of feeling unsure—perhaps spurred on in part by the iconic loss of identity and self following the September 11th attacks—that the pointing out of certain trends may tend to act on. We latch onto things, like vaping or other obviously damaging or unhealthy things, not only because of our inevitable status as neurally underdeveloped teens, but also because we yearn for peace and might reach for whatever may guarantee it, albeit temporarily. As David Foster Wallace had once described the consumerist ethos of the late ’90s, “an anxiety relievable by purchase”—though, here, “purchase” is more “decision”: what we decide to spend our increasingly-important-and -precious time on.

What sets us apart from previous generations, in a qualitative sense, isn’t the lack of information and the desire for more; it’s a yearning for peace and quiet, focus, cessation, that eventually leads us to like and appreciate the things we do.

The higher rates of depression, the unstable and autocratic political regime, the impermanence and superfluousness of information, news, media, trends, collective consciousness: it’s a marketed psychosis, psychosia, preyed and acted (up)on by mass media and those in power, either consciously or unconsciously. It is self-sustaining and growing and the trend of youth nicotine addiction is only symptomatic.

We’ve flipped the script. Or, rather, soaked it, torn it up, read it in a mirror. The cause of this is vague, ambiguous, and almost definitely not going to be sussed out through an armchair-y, sappy op-ed. But the social media change, the American cultural shift from an Internet-accommodating modus operandi to a primarily Internet-focused one, seems to result from a Durkheimian bureaucratization gone awry, his worst nightmares realized. That is, the dissemination of information has become so formulaic, predictable, and overwhelming that individual agency has largely been lost—that the United States young collective consciousness is so strong that it’s nearly impossible to avoid consciously dangerous things like vaping.

Am I taking this withdrawal harder than other people? Why is it still hard even after the physical effects have subsided? Am I overreacting? Do people just not talk about this? Is the reason this seems so hard because I haven’t had enough conversations with people about it being difficult so that I’ve been unable to gauge what the “normal” response to nicotine withdrawal is like?

Severing one’s body and mind from nicotine really is not, as I’ve heard people say, “hard for a few weeks then pretty OK.” Although it is arguably much less extreme than other forms of addiction and recovery, you come across its Ozymandian vestiges all throughout your time off it. (Time which, it needs to be added, is forever stained “post-nicotine,” the drug a ball and chain. Who is speaking in this way?) After nine months without it in my system, the other day, I entered a fourth libe bathroom and was hit with the distinct smell of a vape hit and found myself, again, just as in the first few weeks without hitting a pen, craving it intensely, seriously debating skipping my 5a to go to Downtown Tobacco.

U.S. youth culture, on the whole, seems always similar, whether through news crazes (ebola, Wuhan, World War III), memes (sorry, I sound like a Boomer), or cancel culture—these patterns are familiar, repeating, and all equally frenzious. It’s an addicting, self-sustaining barrage of information that seems to fuel this psychosia, this overreliance on and predilection to capital-S capital-H Something Happening.

The Trump Administration’s increase of the age limit to purchase tobacco products, for all the criticisms it has received (the “War on Drugs for White People” argument is particularly apt), seems to try to cure the symptoms, here, without addressing the cause. This approach to higher rates of youth nicotine addiction is markedly punitive—cutting youth off from the drug suddenly (as it’s assumed they wouldn’t know 21-year-olds who would be willing to buy them supplies) is only going to seriously mess up their bodies—and fails to address the root causes of this issue. The causes of which could be—among a plethora of others—in particular the administration’s demagogic and tyrannical reign over the U.S. and its politics. Such things aren’t the cause of this frenzy per se, but rather aid in perpetuating our culture of freneticism that may at least allow this mindset to persist, this barrage of information and anxiety of choice to continue its malicious cycle of chewing great young minds up and spitting them out crushed, soulless, and deprived. And confused.

The way out of this psychosia, it seems, is through an appeal to genuine emotion and sincerity—through those sappy op-eds, corny jokes, genuine compliments. Something that can offer the drifting populace something to hang on to. Something real, genuine, understandable, and humanizing, through the cloud that has surrounded and uprooted the metaphysical underpinnings of identity in the twenty-first century thus far.

Where do I draw the line between normal conversation and being uncomfortably nosy? Is that line shifting? How can I stop talking at a million miles an hour during conversations? Is this a “me” issue or something more macro, societal? Should I change or wait for everybody else to slowly become the same? Why should I be any different?

There’s been lots of debate surrounding what effect, from a public health and cultural perspective, the age limit increase will have on American society. These ways of viewing and approaching the legislation, however, are reductive and end much of the conversation before it even starts, as they assume the Trump Administration to be the sole agent shaping American society. In fact, really as with all political activism/philosophy, it is up to American society what effect it has: how we react to it, how we address it, how we try to fix and address the root causes of the issue of youth nicotine addiction, this culture of freneticism, this identity loss and deep resonating fear, will determine the effect it has. No amount of administrative meddling can or will determine how much the United States is screwed; rather, we must strategize, economize, and compromise as much as possible in order to make this—and, really, other—legislative change exactly what it needs to be.

Who is speaking in this way?

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