Conspiring (Sympnea and Dyspnea)

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Conspiracy has probably become one of the key notions—or fantasies—of our times. Conspiracy, in the modern acceptation of the word, as in “conspiracy theory,” has not only filled the mediasphere in which we live and breathe but it has also overshadowed—maybe we should say repressed—its ancient meaning. Surprisingly, this forgotten sense was revived on a poster lithographed by Andy Warhol in 1969 for a group exhibition in a Chicago gallery. The poster was meant to benefit the legal defense fund for the Chicago Seven (who were charged by the federal government with conspiracy for organizing anti-Vietnam War protests). Warhol used the image of an electric chair (as he did in a series of paintings titled Little Electric Chairs in 1964-5) and he printed the following words over it: “conspiracy means to breathe together.”

The remarks that follow are a first attempt to attune our ears to what this largely buried meaning bears as a future-in-the-past. Unearthing the forgotten resonances of conspiracy as co-inspiring could certainly be described as an archaeological gesture. But since my excavation aims at finding something hidden in what we think of (reductively) as the most immaterial (or subtle) of media, i.e., air or the atmosphere, it could also be characterized as anarchaeological, as a sort of reversed or upside-down archaeology, directed upwards, towards the unground of the aerial.

The very possibility of breathing, and breathing together, has maybe never seemed as fragile as now, after a coronavirus pandemic (with face masks and ventilator shortages), after the culmination of decades of racist chokeholds by law-enforcement in the United States and elsewhere, after more than a century of airpocalyptic smog episodes worldwide (the word “smog” was coined in 1904 by the Treasurer of the Coal Smoke Abatement Society to designate the “London particular” which “consists much more of smoke than of true fog,” while “airpocalypse” appeared in 2013 to refer to record atmospheric pollution in Beijing).1See Henry Antoine Des Voeux, “London Fog,” The Times, 27 December 1904, p. 11; and Jonathan Kaiman, “Chinese Struggle Through ‘Airpocalypse’ Smog,” The Guardian, 16 February 2013: “A prolonged bout of heavy pollution over the last month, which returned with a vengeance for a day last week—called the ‘airpocalypse’ or ‘airmageddon’ by internet users—has fundamentally changed the way that Chinese people think about their country’s toxic air.” How do we still breathe and share breath, when and if we do?


Two millennia and many airmaggedons ago, the Stoics had a word for breathing together: sumpnoia. Diogenes Laertius, in the chapter of his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers dedicated to Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school, sums up the Stoic worldview in the following way: “The cosmos contains no void, but forms a united whole. For this is necessitated by the cohesive breath [sumpnoian] and tension [suntonian] that bind together things in heaven and on earth” (361 [book VII 140]). We could transliterate rather than translate the Stoic sumpnoia in English as sympnea, drawing on the physiological paradigm that comprises apnea (in sleep or diving), dyspnea (shortness of breath), eupnea (quiet, unlabored breathing), or tachy- and bradypnea (abnormally rapid or slow breathing). But the Stoic sympnea, far from being reducible to a medical condition, has a cosmological dimension that we can still hear, though in an attenuated and already individualized form, in one of Marcus Aurelius’s maxims for himself, five centuries after Zeno: “Be no longer content merely to breathe in unison [sumpnein] with the all-embracing air, but from this moment think also in unison [sumphronein] with the all-embracing intelligence” (227 [book VIII 54]).

Sympnea has been brilliantly restored to its full cosmological scope in Emanuele Coccia’s recent “ontology of the atmosphere” (strangely, his multiple references to Stoic philosophy never include the notion of sumpnoia that they nevertheless constantly presuppose) (Life of Plants 35-53). For Coccia too, “the world is unified by a common and universal breath” (52), by a sympneumatic texture that interweaves all (living) beings; and atmosphere is the name of “the absolute medium” (49) wherein the “universal circulation” (27) of elements and forms results in a “reciprocal interpenetration” of bodies (68): breath as sympnea is not only “the art of mixture, what allows each object to mix with the rest of the objects, to immerse itself in them,” but breathing also means “to be plunged into a medium that penetrates us in the same way and with the same intensity as we penetrate it” (53, emphasis mine). Even if he surprisingly avoids the word, Coccia is probably the contemporary philosopher who has taken most seriously the togetherness and simultaneity (the “syn-“) of sumpnoia.2Luce Irigaray, by contrast, emphasizes the radical dissymmetry inherent in the gift or givenness of air: “This debt of life,” she writes, “must remain unpaid” or “unpayable” (28). But absolute dissymmetry and absolute symmetry might amount to the same. He constantly insists on sameness and reciprocity in breathing: indeed, in what he calls “climate” (“the name and the metaphysical structure of mixture” qua “cosmic unity”), reversibility is the rule, so much so that “the medium becomes subject and the subject becomes medium” (27).

Before we question what I am tempted to call the syn- or simul-centeredness of this fascinating revival of the Stoic sympnea, before we take a step backward in time and reread a crucial passage in Aristotle’s Politics, let’s linger for a while with Coccia’s privileged or paradigmatic beings when it comes to understanding “what the world is” in sympneumatically immersive terms: plants (8). “It is through them and with their help,” Coccia recalls, “that our planet produces its atmosphere and makes breath possible for the beings that cover its outer skin” (10). Plants, in this sense, are cosmogonic, they cosmogonize, they are responsible for “the constant genesis of our cosmos,” our world (10). But Coccia is not content with subverting a hierarchy formulated exemplarily by Heidegger in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, a hierarchy that sees man, and man only—contrary to animals or plants (not to speak of stones)—as “world-forming” (weltbildend).3“We do not say that the stone is asleep or awake. Yet what about the plant? Here already we are uncertain. It is highly questionable whether the plant sleeps, precisely because it is questionable whether it is awake. We know that the animal sleeps. Yet the question remains as to whether its sleep is the same as that of man [. . .]” (Heidegger 62 [§ 16b]). The plant, with its intermediary position between animal and stone, plays a lesser role when, during the second semester of this lecture course (§ 42), Heidegger follows “the path of a comparative examination of three guiding theses: the stone is worldless, the animal is poor in world, man is world-forming” (176). Plants are not only cosmogenetic beings that overturn the inherited metaphysical order of beings. Rather than counter-hierarchical, they could be characterized as anarchical in that they “destroy the topological hierarchy that seems to reign over our cosmos” (10): “They demonstrate that life is a rupture in the asymmetry between container and contained. When there is life, the container is located in the contained (and is thus contained by it); and vice versa. The paradigm of this mutual overlap is what the ancients called ‘breath’ (pneuma).” To put it simply: I am contained in the air that is contained in me.

Breath, then, as the result of vegetal cosmogenesis, becomes the name of symmetry as reciprocal imbrication in a version of sympnea that doesn’t seem to allow for any ontological imbalance of forces: “To breathe means to be immersed in a medium that penetrates us with the same intensity as we penetrate it” (11, emphasis mine); or again: “We are in something with the same intensity and same force as that something is in us” (66, emphasis mine). In sum, plants, having “transformed the world into the reality of breath” (11), are for Coccia the agency of a universally sympneumatic symmetry between medium and subject or between self and other.


But plants themselves, we should remember, have a temporally complex cycle of breathing: during the day, they release oxygen by photosynthesis and during the night they release carbon dioxide (CO2). Some plants—like cactuses or pineapple—even defer or divide their photosynthesis thanks to a remarkable mechanism that evolved as an adaptation to arid conditions: their stomata remain shut during the day to reduce evaporation but open at night to collect CO2 and store it as an acid that will be converted back to CO2 during the day and used for photosynthesis. In sum, when plants breathe, their breath involves contrasting rhythms, a differential and deferred temporality that seems hardly compatible with the perfectly symmetrical and “reciprocal interpenetration” characterized by Coccia—using a political lexicon—as “an absolute freedom of circulation” (68).

It is true that Coccia himself sometimes oscillates between acknowledging a repeated imbalance inherent in breathing and affirming an ultimate “unity from the infinite forms of breath” (56). This oscillation is particularly palpable (maybe I should say breathable) in this passage:

In breath, for the duration of an instant, the animal and the cosmos are reunited [. . .]. It is, however, with and in the same motion that living being and world consecrate their separation. What we call life is only this gesture, through which a portion of matter distinguishes itself from the world with the same force that it uses to merge with it. [. . .] This operation is never final: the world, like the living being, is only the return of breath and of its possibility. (55-6, emphasis mine)

The question, as simple as it is haunting, is inescapable: if breathing is never complete or completed (jamais définitive, writes Coccia in French), if it has to return again and again, isn’t it because its very possibility resides in its being finite? Breathing is rooted (up-rooted, rooted upwards) in finitude.4Coccia quotes this extraordinary sentence by Genevan naturalist and philosopher Charles Bonnet in his Recherches sur l’usage des feuilles dans les plantes published in 1754: “Plants are planted in the air nearly as much as they are in the earth.” And Coccia comments: “the atmosphere rather than the soil is their first medium, their world” (44). And what I am tempted to call the infinite finitude of breath is the constant dyspnea or imbalance that turns (or returns) sympnea into tachy- and bradypnea (into an ontological shortness or deferral of breath). Isn’t this essential breathlessness what leads Coccia himself, as we saw, to shrink the vast, all-embracing, sympneumatic togetherness inherited from the Stoics into an elusive and ungraspable instant?


Let us take a deep breath and a step backwards.

The notion of sympnea also has a pre-Stoic history, a genealogy that branches into a completely different path, one that doesn’t jump directly to the question of the ontological unity of the world but remains entangled in the difficulties pertaining to the constitution of a political community. A few decades before the foundation of the Stoic school, Aristotle, in his Politics (V, 1303a26), uses the verb sumpneō, “to breathe together,” in his admonition against faction or sedition:

Dissimilarity of stock [to mē homophulon] is also conducive to factional conflict [stasiōtikon: inclined to sedition, to stasis] until a cooperative spirit develops [heōs an sumpneusē: literally, until they breathe together]. For just as a city does not arise from any chance multitude, so it does not arise in any chance period of time [en tō tukhonti khronō]. (135)

Aristotle’s phrase, to mē homophulon, has also been translated as “difference of race,” a translation we should resist in light of the examples of sedition he gives later in the same paragraph, since they involve not races in the modern (and highly problematic) sense of the word, but settlers from different Greek city-states: “the Amphipolitans [Amphipolis had been colonized by settlers from Athens], after admitting later settlers from among the Chalcidians [the citizens of Chalcis, another city-state where Aristotle eventually died in 322 BC after leaving Athens], were almost all driven out by them.” Furthermore, this passage is strongly reminiscent of a similar one in Plato’s Laws (708d) where the same verb, sumpneō, is used: “the tribe [genos] that has been collected from all over,” the composite or amalgamated clan, Plato wrote, “would probably be more willing to obey certain new laws, but for it to breathe together [sumpneusai] [. . .] would require much time” (94). That both Plato and Aristotle are clearly weary of the mixed multitude shouldn’t surprise us. But what we should pay attention to is that they both insist on sympneumatic unity as the result of a process in time. In other words: contrary to a Stoic or neo-Stoic sympnea that is ontologically (pre)given, synchrony in breathing is here the outcome of a political process: it has to be produced.

The political sense in which Plato and Aristotle understood sympnea predates the cosmological sense it acquired in Stoic philosophy. But the latter didn’t replace or silence the former. Indeed, they coexist, for example in Cicero’s writings. In his philosophical dialogue On the Nature of Gods, when one of the dialogists, Stoic philosopher Quintus Lucilius Balbus, describes the “interconnexion” of things (their reciprocal interpenetration, as Coccia would say), the verb that translates the Stoic sumpneō is conspirare. In Cicero’s correspondence during the years that followed Ceasar’s assassination in 44 BC, the same verb occurs when, in a letter to Plancus, he marvels at “how the entire population of Rome, of every class and order, is of one mind [conspiravit] in its united desire for the deliverance of the Republic.” But when, in a letter that appears on the same manuscript, Plancus and Roman general Decimus Brutus address the Senate and call for vigilance in the interest of the Republic, they use the noun conspiratio: “do all you can to ensure our being perfectly equipped both in troops and in every other respect [. . .] against a most iniquitous conspiracy [contra sceleratissimam conspirationem] of public enemies” (De Natura Deorum 143; Letters 335 [X, xii], 465 [XI, xiiia]). Conspiration or conspiracy oscillates between absolute unity or unanimity on the one hand, and seditious secession on the other hand (gathering in dissent or rebellion). As a word inherited from this layered Greco-Roman tradition, conspiration or conspiracy thus tends to secede from the union of its supposedly unified meaning and ends up signifying the contrary of itself: as the signifier for sedition, it is a faction or strife within its own semantic field of operations.

Combat Breathing

Breathing, then, cannot be conceived simply as the givenness of “mutual overlap,” as the “permeability” that accounts for the fact that “everything is in everything,” as “reciprocal imbrication,” “reciprocal mixture,” “reciprocal interpenetration,” or “reciprocal inherence of all things in all other things” (Life of Plants 10, 32, 66, 67, and 68). Before being harmoniously sympneumatic (if it ever is), breathing is always what Frantz Fanon, in “Algeria Unveiled,”called “an observed, an occupied breathing” (une respiration observée, occupée) and “a combat breathing” (une respiration de combat). On the one hand, the breathing Fanon describes in colonized Algeria is dissentious, it hides in clandestinity as it respires against occupation; and on the other hand, it is a breathing that seeks unity in deliverance, as the people of Rome evoked by Cicero: it conspires in view of “the new respiration of the nation” that Fanon hears coming on the waves of the radio station established by the National Liberation Front (FLN) (65, 85).5 What the English translation renders imprecisely as “the nation’s new life” corresponds in the French original to la nouvelle respiration de la Nation.

The contemporary thinker who went farthest in conceptualizing breath as a polemological theater of operations is certainly Peter Sloterdijk with his “atmoterrorist model” meant to account for what began in 1915, when German troops first made a large-scale use of “gas as their means of combat” (9-10). Conversely, Sloterdijk sees in “the gas mask concept” the dawn of “the principle of air conditioning, whose basic idea consists in disconnecting a defined volume of space from the surrounding air” (20). Air conditioning and gas warfare, as the ultimate expressions of a pneumatic discord, are the utmost opposites of sympnea. They belong to the era of what Sloterdijk calls, quoting Elias Canetti, “the splintering of the atmosphere” (98), the era of the dismantlement and enclosure of “the last common property” belonging to “all people collectively:” air (100).6Sloterdijk quotes from Canetti’s speech for Hermann Broch’s fiftieth birthday, pronounced in Vienna, November 1936: see Canetti, pp. 11 and 13. Canetti also has this striking image in Crowds and Power (translated by Carol Stewart, Continuum, 1981): “Flags are wind made visible. They are like bits cut from clouds, nearer and more varied in colour, tethered and given permanent shape. In their movement they are truly arresting. Nations use them to mark the air above them as their own, as though the wind could be partitioned” (86).

This dyspneic worldview comes to the fore with “modernity as a process of atmosphere-explication” (47), that is to say when the implicit necessity of breathing for life becomes explicitly thematized and at the same time questioned. But in its most general sense, air conditioning, Sloterdijk argues in the first volume of his Spheres trilogy, is “the primal production of every society” (46). Air conditioning, we could say, is the precondition for togetherness: far from being unconditionally sympneumatic, breathing is a constant conspiration against apnea, a tachy- or bradypneic conspiracy that can never be said to yield a balanced or unlabored eupnea. If air, if the atmosphere has to be preconditioned, how could there be a eupneic naturality? How could there be a natural rhythm, a right speed in breathing?

Shortness of Breath

It is striking to see how Coccia, while rigorously arguing for a sympneic ontology, not only adopts Sloterdijk’s idea of air conditioning as a precondition for life but even expands it to an inter- or panspecific dimension. In The Life of Plants, he recalls how photosynthesis has early on (in the eighteenth century) been “understood as a natural air-conditioning device” (44, emphasis in the original). The same thought recurs in his more recent Metamorphoses: while reaffirming even more strongly his belief in a neo-Stoic sympnea (“We share our breath with all living things present and future”), Coccia argues that “air-conditioning” is “the inaugural architectural act,” the act that makes space “breathable” and hence “inhabitable” (128, 153). In his latest book on the concept of home, “breath” (respiro) is strikingly torn between designating the ontological structure of general exchangeability that Coccia now conceptualizes as “cosmic twinship” (gemellanza cosmica) and the action through which “we produce twins by breathing” (produciamo gemelli e gemelle respirando) (Filosofia 69-70, my translation). As a consequence, home itself oscillates between, on the one hand, the place of “free circulation” for “an indeterminate, protean, and omnivorous life capable of [. . .] becoming anything,” and, on the other hand, “the insertion, the adjunction, the arbitrary addition of a different space-time” (66, 76).7There is a remarkable occurrence of the verb cospirare in Filosofia della casa: “Each home [ogni casa]is only the telluric evidence [l’evidenza tellurica] of the fact that, in order to say ‘I,’ we need a world, a surrounding space, things, persons that conspire together with us [abbiamo bisogno di mondo, di spazio circostante, di cose, di persone che cospirino assieme a noi]” (19).

Acknowledging this respiratory oscillation between what is given and what is produced, between being and becoming, between continuity and discontinuity as well as between symmetry and asymmetry, we could rephrase, then, the question that Coccia’s thought-provoking ontology of a shared metamorphic or transubstantial atmosphere raises: how can respiration be the name of an unconditionally communal togetherness while at the same time being preconditioned or air-conditioned? How can breath be the infinitely welcoming unity of the world as absolute freedom of interpenetration while at the same producing (conditioning) the world each time singularly?

Conditioning or conditionality is finitude. Life—be it one life or life in general, transindividual life—is finite rather than an “infinite transmigration of matter” (Coccia, Metamorphoses 93). Life has begun and it might end. And it is precisely because of its finitude that one can be responsible for it, that one can fight for it, in other words: conspire for it. If breathing is always, in one way or another, what Fanon called a “combat breathing,” it is because breath is fundamentally determined, as Canetti writes, by its “defenselessness” (13).

Breath is short, always too short. Contrary to what Coccia’s neo-Stoic discourse often suggests, “to be in the world” doesn’t mean “always to share [. . .] the same breath” (Coccia, Life of Plants 52). What we share, what we have to share—the object or subject of what Canetti calls a “breath economy” (Atemhaushalt)8—is shortness of breath. Indeed, dyspnea might be the very reason for sharing in general.

Sympnea, when and if it happens, is only possible on the condition of dyspneic finitude.

Works Cited

  • Aristotle. Aristotle’s Politics. Translated by Carnes Lord, The University of Chicago Press, 2013.
  • Aurelius, Marcus. The Communings With Himself of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Translated by C. R. Haines, William Heinemann, 1916.
  • Canetti, Elias. “Hermann Broch.” The Conscience of Words, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, Seabury Press, 1979.
  • Cicero. De Natura Deorum, II, 19. Translated by H. Rackham, Harvard University Press, 1967.
  • —. The Letters to His Friends. Translated by W. Glynn Williams, II, Harvard University Press, 1952).
  • Coccia, Emanuele. Filosofia della casa. Lo spazio domestico e la felicità. Einaudi, 2021.
  • —. The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture. Translated by Dylan J. Montanari, Polity Press, 2019.
  • —. Metamorphoses. Translated by Robin Mackay. Polity Press, 2021.
  • Fanon, Frantz. “Algeria Unveiled” and “This Is The Voice of Algeria.” A Dying Colonialism, translated by Haakon Chevalier, Grove Press, 1965.
  • Heidegger, Martin. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Translated by William McNeill and Nicholas Walker, Indiana University Press, 1995.
  • Irigaray, Luce. The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger. Translated by Mary Beth Mader, The Athlone Press, 1999.
  • Laertius, Diogenes. Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Translated by Pamela Mensch, Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Plato. The Laws of Plato. Translated by Thomas L. Pangle, The University of Chicago Press, 1980.
  • Sloterdijk, Peter. “Gas Warfare—or: The Atmoterrorist Model.” Terror From the Air, translated by Amy Patton and Steve Corcoran, Semiotext(e), 2009.
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