Accepted Paper:

Agent tobacco: cigarettes meet their maker  


Andrew Russell (Durham University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper argues for the increased agency of tobacco through the development of the Bonsack cigarette-making machine in the 1880s and the consequent industrial-scale production of cigarettes. The commercially produced cigarette is in a hybrid relationship with ‘the smoker’, one which has become increasingly anthropomorphised over time.

Paper long abstract:

The development of the Bonsack cigarette machine in the 1880s has had profound effects on the relationship of people and tobacco. We can take Latour's description of mediators literally - "they transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning of the elements they are supposed to carry" (2005:39). Far from mediating a relationship, the Bonsack instigated a relationship which had not existed before. The creation of the technology for mass production of cigarettes had a transformative effect. From being a 'natural' product, cigarettes became commercially produced 'agents', responsible for the advent of a major global industry ('Big Tobacco'), and for changing the relationship of 'smokers' and 'smoked'. This paper will trace the development of the Bonsack machine and the ramifications of its product (mass-produced cigarettes) as agents of social transformation in a hybrid relationship with their human associates. It will use ethnographic data to trace the growing anthropomorphisation of the cigarette - in no small part fuelled by the tobacco industry, ever keen to develop and exploit new markets - from 'object' to 'friend' and (latterly) enemy of the state.

Panel P13
Encountering living things through technology