Membership Tokens

Copyright 2015, John Manimas Medeiros


I remember when I was a kid I noticed the special role that cigarettes seemed to play in social communication.  The small rectangular package or box of cigarettes seemed to signify something like a token of membership.  It fit into the hand comfortably.  One took out the cigarette and played with it.  Tap it on the package, or on a table, or on the back of one's hand, then put it in your mouth and light it.  I didn't smoke, primarily because of a history of asthma, and secondarily because all I got out of smoking was an odd feeling of something hot and drying near my lips.  No buzz, no boost.  For whatever reason, nicotine did nothing for me.  So, I observed the game of cigarettes dispassionately.  And I saw it as a significant game.  Others did too, in particular, the way that cigarettes revealed a character in the movies.  If the way that a person used a cigarette revealed a character in a movie, then it probably revealed character in real life, one would think.


We live in a highly conformist society.  The great majority want to belong, want to be accepted and recognized as cooperative and worthy members, not "troublemakers."  Do not rock the boat, and you will not get hurt.  In order to carry visible evidence of one's inclusion as a member of society, or of a distinguished sub-group, people carry visible tokens.  The more uncertain about belonging a person is, the more visible their membership token.  Or, the more important it is to a person to be recognized as a member, to dispel any doubts, the more likely that person will carry or possess a loud and clear token of membership.  There are many, but there are also standard tokens.  One was and perhaps still is the cigarettes.  Another is the type of automobile one drives.  These tokens or membership are tokens of self-expression.  We use them to say something about who we are.  That is why cars, when they were "new" technology from the 1930's through the 1960s, were often "customized."  Special paints, chrome accessories, and decorative designs were used to state or imply something about the owner or driver.  The most blatant statement might be flames painted around the front hood and wheel wells, or the silhouette of a nude woman depicted on the rear trunk panel.  Remember the gangster car, the raked rear end, power shocks, noisemaker mufflers, drag races, sudden death by flying through the windshield.  The car told others that the owner belonged to a group, or a gang. 


The cigarette signals were more subtle, but still important.  The manner of smoking could be used to suggest sophistication and independence.  The way one held and smoked a cigarette might convey a high level of self-confidence, feigned or real, narcissism or arrogance.  It was not just the smoking, but the handling of the cigarette.  It said something about one's station in life, again real or contrived, if one carried cigarettes in a gold or silver toned cigarette case.  Did he light his cigarette with a match, or with a cigarette lighter?  What kind of a lighter was it?  Was it decorated with initials, with a message, with jewels?  What about the cigarette package tucked under the short sleeve of a tee shirt?  What did that convey?  Toughness?  A careless or risky and unattached way of life?  Did the way that one smoked convey that the smoker was single, or married?  Or divorced?  All of these things might be deduced, or at least suggested, by the manner of smoking.  Some social scientists commented that smoking cigarettes, or a cigar or a pipe, gave men (and non-conformist women) something to do with their hands.  Then there was the way that cigarettes were shared, or traded.  It was fairly widely known that cigarettes might be used as a form of money in prison culture.  If another male asked you if you had a cigarette, this sometimes being called "bumming" a cigarette, your response could go a long way in revealing how you felt about the one asking.  Is your answer "Sure" or "Why don't you get your own"?  If this transaction were meant to convey a deep commitment of friendship, or membership, you might even put the cigarette between your lips, light it, and then give it to the friend who bummed it from you.  The cigarettes, and one's smoking of them, made one a member of some group.  Possibly it was loosely defined.  Then again, maybe not.  Tough guys held a cigarette between their lips in certain casual but assertive way, sometimes in one far side of the mouth.  So, is this the way that tough guys smoked, or was this the way one smoked in an effort to be accepted into the national association of tough guys?


When I started out as a social worker -- in a rural area of the Northeast in the 1970s -- I was amazed at the fact that impoverished people had CB (Citizen's Band) radios.  Some even had one in a junk car.  They listened to the dispatcher's calls about fires and police actions.  These same poor people would have dirty tables and chairs, dirty clothing draped around the house, and a television.  The television would be on all the time, like some people in an earlier culture would keep a radio on all day.  The CB and the TV were connections.  If the TV was on, in a household of one adult, it became a household of everyone.  Someone was talking to you.  There was a connection.  I am not here alone.  I am in the world.  The world is talking to me.  They got news and felt like they were part of something happening.  They were members of a group.  They belonged to the community.  They did not have money for food, or to pay their rent on time, but they had a CB radio and a television.  This was something like the myth, possibly true in some cases, of poor black men who had noo job, but had a girlfriend and a Cadillac.  We do use our tokens of membership.  The man with the Cadillac was her token of membership. 


I was a consciously serious student from the Fifth Grade on.  During my freshman year of high school -- I walked to school --  I carried most of my books and notebooks both ways.  Why?  What group did I aspire to?  Later, I received financial aid and scholarship support to attend college.  My mother had not a dime to help me pay for a college education.  There was no father in the picture, never had been.  Going to college meant many things to me, mostly learning, but clearly going to college, decorating one's life with books and used furniture, must mean some form of membership is being sought. 


Today (2014) it is laughably clear what is the token of membership, the cell phone.  There is an entire vocabulary that is to be mastered and one's level of mastery reveals the quality of one's membership.  If you are not a member, you will not know the meaning of a "four gee."  You will not know how to set up a voice mail box.  You have a voice box in your own throat, so you are confused, baffled, by the concept that a cell phone has a voice (mail) box.  But the members of the cell phone world are deeply committed to their world, and they spend a lot of time sending out messages about what they are doing, or what they are thinking, or what they are feeling, or what they like and don't like, or who they like or don't like, or what they just ate, or the current state of their digestive tract, how they slept, when they slept, and who they slept with if not alone.  The success of social and political change has been attributed to cell phones, even the conduct of revolutions, the commission of high crimes, an accessory to combat with the largest and strongest armed forces in the world.  The cell phone is an electronic penis that can be used to love or attack the world.  In the recent past, the comic book detective Dick Tracy had a wrist radio that was science fiction in the day.  The reality of the cell phone combined with the internet web makes the wrist radio a joke.  The real police today do not have a wrist radio, they have access to the world in a rectangular device, interestingly similar in size and shape to a box of cigarettes, which they can use to protect or kill anyone who belongs, or does not belong to a group which one should or should not belong to.  One has access to information that used to be private.  Everyone knew that it was against the law to open another person's mail.  Now, with the cell phone and the net and hacking and stealing and "licensing agreements" that require information be shared, or public, others can not only look into your eyes, they can look up your ass. 


But the loss of privacy is okay now that the human species has discovered the thrill of planetary narcissism.  Why worry about privacy.  I want lots of people to know what I like on my pizza, my sophisticated religious viewpoint, and my sexual preferences.  These things are important.  People need to know these things about me, and how I look, maybe just my face or also my whole body, and maybe my naked body, because these things are important and they make me a member of whatever.  I send and receive and therefore I am.  I belong.  To what no one is sure, something like "the world" even though it may be a world of fools.  As the groups role by on the conveyor belt of a dying civilization, everyone feels the need to belong, to not be left behind, to not be alone.  So, one must join.  Buy and pay for your membership, in something, whatever.  If you wait too long to join, you will have less to choose from.  You don't want to have no choice but to join the last and hesitant losers.  Then again, some may not join any cell phone group.  Who are they?  What do they belong to?  Are they non-conformists?  Or non-existent?


We have wilderness survivors with cell phones.  They are survivors, demonstrating how to start a fire, build a shelter, find and prepare wild foods.  They belong -- to the film production crew.  With our electronic devices, we document reality, indoors and outdoors, because we want to be members of it, from a distance.  What we all want is to be members of a group that has no membership requirements.  Just be.  Tell us about yourself.  Then we will know what you are likely to buy?  Do you know what you are buying?  Do you want to unsubscribe?

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