Post # 21 of the Art as Gift project’s reading of Jacques Derrida’s Given Time
Economic registers of the poetics of tobacco (GT 109-112)
As a sumptuary product, i.e. luxurious – essentially wasteful, one could be tempted to think tobacco outside the economic cycle, resistance to this idea is possible in terms of several “registers” of the economic.
1. The psycho-analytic
The reason for smoking can correspond to an aim, which accomplishes real or symbolic functions, essential to the “economic balance of certain psychic organizations.”
There is a clear economics of tobacco and its state exploitation for tax purposes, which appears as beyond the poetics of tobacco. Yet there are examples of both coming together. Derrida cites a poetry magazine, Poésie 1, which produced an anthology of texts on the subject of tobacco: La Poésie ne part pas en fumée (Poetry does not go up in smoke). Subtitled Poets and Tobacco, the edition, sponsored by the French national tobacco company Seita, contained an ad for a brand of cigarettes, Gitanes Internationales, on its back page. Derrida draws attention to the publishers, who title themselves Editions du Cherche-Midi “as if they wanted to pay tribute with this title to the smoker-narrator of Counterfeit Money who is forever occupied “à chercher midi à quatorze heures,” looking for noon at two o’clock.” (111)
3. The Symbolic
Tobacco can be thought in terms of an economics of “natural need,” expressed in terms of contract, gift/countergift and alliance, [eg potlatch] a reappropriation of an excess in the system of natural need and the labour that corresponds to it. This excess over natural need, appears to take on a symbolic function, expressed in terms of the symbolon, that which is split in two, and the alliance between two parties who share the two segments, obligating themselves, one to the other.
Tobacco symbolizes the symbolic: It seems to consist at once in a consumption (ingestion) and a purely sumptuary expenditure of which nothing natural remains. The fact that nothing remains does not mean that nothing symbolic remains: “the annihilation of the remainder, as ashes can sometimes testify, recalls a pact [of the symbolon] and performs the role of memory.” [This recalls the idea of death in relation to the gift, touched on earlier.] Derrida introduces the central theme for what follows, expressed through the question: “Is there an essential relation between the seduction that attracts one into an alliance, desire as desire for tobacco, and a certain work of mourning linked to the incineration of the remainder?” (112)