A Breath of Fresh Air: Or, Why the Body is Not Embodied

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One of the more irritating affectations of much recent writing in the humanities and social sciences is the habit of inserting the word “embodied” in front of the topic in question, as though by doing so the specter of binary thinking could be magically exorcised.1An earlier version of this essay was published under the title “On Breath and Breathing: A Concluding Comment,” as an epilogue to a collection of papers, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Breath, Body and World, edited by Rebecca Oxley and Andrew Russell, and published in the journal Body and Society, vol. 26, no. 2, 2020. It has been substantially rewritten here. Almost anything, it seems, can be embodied – the mind, consciousness, experience, knowledge, skills, practices, the self, meaning. If there is one thing that cannot be embodied, however, it is the body itself. At first glance, the phrase “embodied body” looks like a simple case of tautology, of saying the same thing twice. “How can a body not be embodied?” you will protest. “It’s the embodiment that makes it a body!” But on second thought, the matter is not so straightforward. For if the body is the predicate of a process of embodiment – if it comes after embodiment, so to speak – then all the other things we claim can be entered into the process must come before it. Thus, the dualism of mind and body, to take just one example, is still there, just as categorical as it ever was, but it no longer equates to a schism between ideal and material worlds. It is, rather, a matter of separating what is poured into the funnel of embodiment from what is extruded at the other end of it. It is a division between what goes in, and what comes out. Only things that go in can be embodied. The body, since it comes out of the process, cannot.

A body, however, if it is to remain alive, has to breathe. Does it make sense, then, to regard breathing as a practice of embodiment, or to add breath to the list of things that can be embodied? That a body breathes goes without saying; that breath is thereby embodied is another matter entirely. Fundamental to breathing is the rhythmic alternation of air going in, and air coming out. Perhaps there’s a sense in which breath is embodied on the inhalation, as air is drawn into the oxygenating process essential to bodily metabolism. But the release of air on the exhalation seems like the reverse, since it serves to expel gases–principally carbon dioxide–which in concentration would be lethal. If your body absorbs as you breathe in, it exudes as you breathe out. Embodiment, then, catches only half the picture, minus its complement of vaporization. Likewise, with the body itself we have only half of the living being: the fleshy part. The other, gaseous part is normally invisible, though under certain conditions it can be seen, for example in a room full of smokers, in which everyone is wreathed in a haze, or when it is very cold, causing the warm, humid air issuing from the lungs to condense into a little cloud. As vaporization appears to be the complement of embodiment, so the cloud, whether of tobacco smoke or condensed moisture, seems to complement the body made up of flesh and blood.

In the Western world there is a long tradition of prioritizing body over breath. This is consistent with an ontology of naturalism that tends to put the being of things before their becoming, as though everything there is had already precipitated out into bodies of one form or another, which have then to be set in motion in order to have the effects they do. Among many so-called Indigenous peoples, however, most especially those credited by anthropological observers with an ontology of animism, this priority is reversed. For them the vital complement of the living being wafts in smoke and resonates in song, whereas the bodily complement is but an ephemeral, almost ghostly appearance.2For example, Fernando Santos-Granero, speaking of the Yanesha, a people of the Peruvian Amazon, writes of the corporeal realm that it is the mere “tunic of things,” shrouding a vitality that is fundamentally aerial (61-62). Although a comparison of Western and animic ontologies might appear to lend support to the thesis of complementarity, pitching western naturalists into a world of bodies and indigenous animists into a world of vapors–both demi-worlds which, if only they could be combined, would make a perfect whole–I shall argue, to the contrary, that with a focus on breath and breathing, the division between the two halves is ultimately unsustainable. Before embarking on our argument, however, we first need to get the measure of the topic at hand. What is a breath anyway? Is it some kind of entity? Does it have the power to act? Does it have an existence in some sense independent of the body that breathes? I’m pretty sure the answer to all three questions is ‘no’.3For Irma Kinga Allen, by contrast, the answer is ‘yes’. For her, the material turn in academic theory demands no less than that breath should be incorporated into the realm of “nonhuman agentic entities” (85).

To start with the entity question: for something to be an entity, at least to my ear, it has to have a certain solidity and fixity about it. You can point to it and say it is there. You can determine its limits: where it ends, and where other things begin. It is a unit, complete in itself. Alongside other entities, it can be counted. Fixity, solidity, boundedness and completion, however, are all inimical to life. Perhaps this is why we tend to think of entities, in the first place, as inanimate. This, after all, is how they present themselves to the intellect, as objects of analysis. “The human intellect,” as Henri Bergson philosophized over a century ago, “feels at home among inanimate objects, more especially among solids, where our action finds its fulcrum and our industry its tools” (ix). Opposing an intellectualism that looks back on residual products that have already fallen out from the fluxes of life, Bergson called for a vitalism that swims with the current. For him, the contrast between the connective logic of solids and the generative dynamics of flux was critical. Breath manifests in the latter mode. It is not fixed but fluid, not solid but gaseous, not bounded but diffuse, not complete but ever arising. And just as with the waves of the sea, breaths don’t succeed one another like beads on a string. You can count them, if you will, but they don’t add up. Their succession is the rhythm of time passing.

Does breath, then, have the power to act? Can it produce effects? We might suppose that the song is an effect of the breath of the singer, or the melody of the flute an effect of the breath of the flautist. Yet in truth, neither song nor melody is an effect of breath; it is, rather, breath itself, modulated in one case by the vocal cords, and in the other by the instrument. For there can be no breath without breathing, without the alternating inflow and outflow that constitutes its generative movement. You can no more catch your breath in a bubble than you can trap the wind in a jar. In the jar, there is air but no wind; in the bubble, air but no breath. While breath can be held, albeit briefly, it cannot be contained. Arguably, air forced into a confined space under pressure, such as in a balloon, is possessed of a certain agency in its potential to burst. We only have to compare the inflation of the balloon with the procedure of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, however, to see that the containment of air is the very opposite of holding one’s breath. In both cases, you blow into another body with unaccustomed force, but while the former stores up its explosive potential, the latter stimulates an equal and opposite reaction in the patient. Indeed, the act of tying the neck, which seals the balloon and secures its content, would–transposed to the human case–be tantamount to strangulation! Breath, in short, is not agentic; it is animate.

If breath is not an entity, and has no agentic power of its own, then can we any longer regard it as distinct from the body that breathes? Breathing, after all, is not an exchange of substance between bodies otherwise isolated from one another and from the air they breathe. This is why the living body cannot properly be compared to a vessel. A vessel such as a jug can take in and give out precisely because it is impervious to the substance it holds, as the fired and glazed clay of a jug, for example, is resistant to water. But a body that received and gave out, while taking nothing into its own substance and process, could not remain alive. The real, living body is not a vessel but a composite of flesh, blood, and vapor that admits to the continual interchange of materials across its intricately folded surfaces. Since bodies themselves are part aerial, the air they need to breathe does not circulate in the space between them but constitutes the very medium of bodily intermingling.4“We go in and out of each other’s bodies,” writes Maurice Bloch, “not only because of the physiological processes of birth and sex but also through the neuro-psychological processes of the synchronisation of minds that occurs in social exchange” (139). Yet, he forgets the most obvious example of bodily interpenetration: in the respiratory process of breathing. This goes for human bodies as for bodies of any other living kind. No human, as philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has observed, exists at the center of their own circle; they are always with another, as one pole in a bipolar ellipse (44). One cannot breathe without breathing upon the other, who reciprocally breathes by breathing upon the one. The two, “bonded by an intimate complicity,” are ontological twins. Here, in the sharing of breath, lies the very essence of human conviviality.

If bodies are not vessels, might they be compared instead to buildings? Do buildings breathe like bodies? Not really. While the indoor environment does indeed provide a breathing space for its inhabitants, with its own particular characteristics, this space doesn’t exactly work like a lung. To be sure, air circulates inside a building, as it does in a body. And in this circulation, its composition is altered, not least thanks to the breathing of its inhabitants, and to their everyday activities of cooking, washing, heating, and refrigeration. By opening doors and windows, you can let fresh air in and let stale air out, though both drafts carry their load of pollutants, respectively exogenous and endogenous. You could even use extractor fans and air conditioning units to augment the flow. There is a world of difference, however, between the operation of a fan that moves air across a threshold between the inside and outside of a structure whose surfaces are otherwise fixed, and the breathing of a body–more comparable, perhaps, to a bellows or a bagpipe–where the movement of air is brought about by the heave of the surfaces themselves. The fan can be on or off, doors and windows open or closed. But for a folded configuration like the body, this binary, on-off or open-closed option is not available. It can never be completely open or completely closed. It is rather launched on a perpetual and alternating movement of opening and closing, dilatation and contraction. And that, of course, is what it means to breathe.

Breathing in, however, is far from the simple reverse of breathing out. They are very different operations. Normally, with a body that is calm and healthy, inhalation gathers and prepares, while exhalation carries the forward propulsion of life, its ‘doing’. This is like the breaststroke in swimming, where the backward sweep of the arms readies the body for the forward thrust.5For more on this, see Ingold, p. 87. It goes against the grain to put this into reverse: to use the inhalation for doing and the exhalation for preparation. Examples of such ‘reverse breathing’ include the sniff, designed to draw enough air to test its smell; the pant, when intense exercise heightens the body’s demand for oxygen; and the gasp, where the airways are constricted by bronchial spasm. With the sniff, pant, and gasp, it is the following outbreath that prepares the body for its next act. People with chronic breathing impediments face this reversal all the time, and may suffer social isolation in consequence (Macnaughton). This is largely because it is the outbreath that carries the voice. In fluent speech, the outbreath is prolonged, and the inbreath foreshortened, so as to reduce pauses to a minimum and not to interrupt the flow. For those with breathing difficulties, by contrast, the inbreath is prolonged relative to the outbreath, leading to interrupted speech that can seem jerky and even incoherent. Where the fluency of speech is taken as an indicator of the cognitive prowess of the speaker, it is all too easy to infer that those who are short of breath are deficient in mind as well.

There is nothing universal about the denigration of the pause, however. Efforts to conceal the inbreath, so characteristic of modern western societies, and of a communicative style that answers to the call of reason, are a historical consequence of the modeling of speech, through education and training, on the printed word. In print, words and sentences are laid out as segments, chained end to end to form an articulated sequence. When we say of proper speech that it is– or should be–’articulate’, we assume that it should be concatenated in the same way. In articulate speech, the pause is an unproductive gap that should ideally be closed. It is considered unproductive because all the thinking, which the words are meant to convey, is assumed to have already been done by a cognitive machine that sits atop the apparatus of speech, and delivers its outputs for execution. This assumption is shared even by cognitive theorists who would extend the mind beyond the compass of the brain to include the body in which it is housed, and the world in which both brain and body subsist (Clark and Chalmers). The extended mind, in the purview of these theorists, is an intellectual machine with the logical connectivity of solids, undisturbed by the turbulence of wind and breath that aerates its joints. Here again, it is the machine–now including somatic and extra-somatic components–that does the thinking, leaving the voice, on the outbreath, to manage the speaking, and the inbreath with nothing to do but reload with air.

Yet, for many people around the world–indeed, perhaps for all of us, in our own experience–thinking cannot thus be cut off from the life-sustaining process of respiration. Rather, thought and speech are felt to be inseparable, as intimately involved as inbreath and outbreath. The pause, on the inbreath, is itself a pause for thought, where to think is to feel, to pay attention to things, to gather the forces and energies of one’s surroundings, to recollect and prepare. It is, quite literally, to draw inspiration–to breathe in as one is breathed upon (Ingold 139). To speak without pause, then, is a sign not of cognitive mastery but of thoughtlessness. It is a sign, too, of the modernist valorization of the self over the soul. For where we identify the self with a certain capacity for reflective awareness and cognition, albeit situated within a body and a world, the soul is formed as a vortex in the flow of life. It is not on the inside rather than the outside of being but exists, like breath itself, in the churn of taking in and going out. Its form is the envelope of this movement. Winding up on the inbreath, and unwinding on the outbreath, the soul-as-vortex is a place not of rest but of tumult, adrift on the current of air that it temporarily pulls aside, into the ‘whirl of organism’,6I have borrowed this phrase from Cavell, p. 52. prior to its re-release. To live, and to breathe, is not to run with the current but to deviate from it, to hold out against the flow.7“I am myself a deviation,” writes Michel Serres, “and my soul declines, my global body is open, adrift … Who am I? A vortex” (37).

In short, whereas the self may be embodied, it is the soul that breathes. Is it, then, because breath is so much a part of our thinking and doing–because it is consubstantial with the life of the soul–that we are so hard put to speak of it? How, after all, can you talk about breathing if you are breathing as you talk? It is like asking a swimmer to analyze the ocean–not an easy thing to do when your first priority is to stay afloat. While it may be difficult for analysts to speak of breath, however, they seem to have no problem in speaking of the body, at often tedious length. The body, it seems, is all too easy to talk about. Yet is the body, too, not along with us in everything we do? Why can we so readily expound on one but not the other? Could it be that as the predicate of a process of embodiment, the body emerges as an after-effect, caught in the rear-view mirror of the self’s regard? Breath, by contrast, opens to a vivid present. In its very pronunciation, the word ‘breath’ evokes the sound and gesture of exhalation, retaining a kind of poetic resonance that is clipped by the language of body-talk. With breath, the muscular movement of breathing, in the heave of the lungs, merges with thinking, with the voice, with speech and song. All are together on the same plane of being, or rather becoming, in the torments and the ecstasies of the soul (Gatt).

Take breath away, however, and words and muscles part company, appearing in separate registers of verbal cognition and embodied practice. Song decomposes into language and vocalization; the animate soul splits into self and body, life divides into information and behavior. That breath and body have fared so differently as topics of scholarship tells us much about the lingering effects of old habits of thought which, still elevating the mind over its body, raise words to the summit of self-consciousness while allowing bodily practice to sink to the depths of unconscious automatism. Academic scholars, having claimed the summit for themselves, are the masters of explicit representations; all else is reduced to silence. The body, in their eyes, cannot breathe a word of what it knows, not because it wants to keep its secrets to itself, but because knowing only rises to the heights of language when the air has been sucked out. If we find it hard to speak of breath, it is because it challenges this rupture between verbal explication and tacit embodiment and with it, the very hierarchy of knowledge on which the academy rests its authority. By all means, then, let us begin with the ‘stuff itself’, as Mark Jackson and Maria Fannin advise in their call for elemental aerographies (438), but let it not be stultified by such breath-stopping terms of art as ‘cognition’, ‘articulation’, even ’embodiment’, that refuse all sensory commerce with the reality of which they speak. To save the soul from suffocation at the heavy hands of theory, scholarship needs room to breathe.

Works Cited

  • Allen, Irma Kinga. “Thinking with a Feminist Political Ecology of Air-and-Breathing-Bodies.” Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Breath, Body and World, edited by Rebecca Oxley and Andrew Russell, special issue of Body and Society, vol. 26, no.2, 2020, pp. 79-105.
  • Bloch, Maurice. Anthropology and the Cognitive Challenge. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Translated by Arthur Mitchell, Macmillan, 1911.
  • Cavell, Stanley. Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays. Cambridge University Press, 1969
  • Clark, Andy, and David Chalmers. “The Exended Mind.” Analysis, vol. 58, no. 1, 1998, pp. 7-19.
  • Gatt, Caroline. “Breathing Beyond Embodiment: Exploring Emergence, Grieving and Song in Laboratory Theatre.” Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Breath, Body and World, edited by Rebecca Oxley and Andrew Russell, special issue of Body and Society, vol. 26, no. 2, 2020, pp. 106-129.
  • Ingold, Tim. The Life of Lines. Routledge, 2015.
  • Jackson, Mark, and Maria Fannin. “Letting Geography Fall Where it May—Aerographies Address the Elemental.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 29, no. 3, 2011, pp. 435-444.
  • Macnaughton, Jane. “Making Breath Visible: Reflections on Relations Between Bodies, Breath and World in the Critical Medical Humanities.” Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Breath, Body and World, edited by Rebecca Oxley and Andrew Russell, special issue of Body and Society, vol. 26, no. 2, 2020, pp. 30-54.
  • Santos-Granero, Fernando. “Sensual Vitalities: Noncorporeal Modes of Sensing and Knowing in Native Amazonia.” Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America, vol. 4, nos. 1-2, 2006, pp. 57-80.
  • Serres, Michel. The Birth of Physics. Translated by Jack Hawkes, Clinamen Press, 2000.
  • Sloterdijk, Peter. Spheres, Volume 1: Microspherology. Translated by Wieland Hoban, Semiotext(e), 2011.
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