Thank You for Smoking

Thank You for Smoking is a satirical film that should be required viewing for all NGO spokespeople or grassroots activists. Hugely entertaining and highly informative on how to debate, persuade and — above all — never lose an argument.

In discourse theoretical terminology, the key is to create chains of equivalence, that is, to ‘divide social space by condensing meanings around two antagonistic poles’ [1]. Nick Naylor, Vice President of the American Tobacco Academy, i.e., spokesman for the US tobacco lobby, constantly creates frontiers in the social space so that he is on the side of the good and ethical, with his opponents merging into one single antagonistic position.

He links the rights of smokers to general civil liberties (against those who try to deny them those liberties); he connects the defense of beleaguered tobacco corporations to the universal right of the global oppressed to a competent defence (against the powerful oppressors), and presents himself as a man of the people (against the political/health advocacy elites who only aim for personal gain).

A simplified model of equivalential chains is provided by Ernesto Laclau in On Populist Reason [2]

The example I had in mind was that of an oppressive regime – in that case Tsarism – separated by a political frontier from the demands of most sectors of society (D1, D2, D3, … etc). Each of these demands, in its particularity, is different from all the others (this particularity is shown in the diagram by the lower semicircle in the representation of each of them). All of them, however, are equivalent to each other in their common opposition to the oppresive regime (this is what the upper cemicircle represents). This, as we have seen, leads to one of the demands stepping in and becoming the signifier of the whole chain – a tendentially empty signifier. But the whole model depends on the presence of the dichotomic frontier: without this, the equivalential relation would collapse and the identity ogf each demand would be exhausted in its differential particularity.

More on empty signifiers, and an exploration of a less simplified model to follow…

[1] Howarth, D., & Stavrakakis, Y. (2000). Introducing discourse theory and political analysis. In D. Howarth, A. J. Norval & Y. Stavrakakis (Eds.), Discourse Theory and Political Analysis: Identities, hegemonies and social change (pp. 1-23). Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 11.

[2] Laclau, E. (2005). On Populist Reason. London: Verso, p. 130-131.

Thank You For Smoking, 2006. Directed by Jason Reitman. Produced by David O. Sacks. Nominated for the Golden Globe Award.

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One Comment to “Thank You for Smoking”

  1. Yes, right after I go see ‘The Wrestler”, this is next on my list. great find.

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