Fresh Air

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Science fiction in found footage. This is not the future. You could buy any of these helmets. Just look at the credits at the end of the video. You find the name of the helmet you like best. You can order online. They are usually sold in different colors. The front is made of plexiglass. But the plastic behind the head and around the face varies in shape and color. Some of these helmets make you look like a cosmonaut. But most often you would just look weird.

We have mainly used commercials, which we found on the Web. It does not mean there was no work involved. In fact, we did a lot of work on the images. We chose particular sequences in the commercials. We re-centered the image, changed the focus, and the balance of colors. The commercial focuses on the product, whereas we usually wanted to look at the human using the device, and show how happy he or she looks, a bit too happy maybe, weirdly happy. In a word, we wanted the sequences, as we have put them together, to tell a different story.

This story does not intend to be a personal narrative, an intimate film. We used only common images, images that one can easily find on the web. Unfortunately, this does not exactly mean that they belong to everyone. They may be copyrighted, and sometimes we were asked to take them down. We then replaced them with a sequence from another commercial. But they are images which have had millions of views. So they should tell us something about ourselves and the network that we form–humans, computers, algorithms, data centers, etc. These images saturate the imagination of the network. They may have the role of recurrent dreams for the network but they are not necessarily the most popular. We do not claim to document the technological imaginary of the 2020s.

We do not intend to tell the future. We do not think that we will live in this way in a few years. We do not intend to describe our actual life as sociologists would. This is not the actual present. Let’s say we are making science-fiction out of found footage. We are probing the imagination of the network to tell a story about certain people using a certain technology.

It is a story about people who feel very happy wearing helmets that filter the air, and who do not worry too much about the plastic they use. Maybe they have been through a pandemic, and they want to avoid viruses. It is possible. The fact is they are so happy that they play music in their earphones. These helmets go with earphones. It is a Swiss Yodel : the kind of song, with an enormous variation in tune, that shepherds sing in the mountains when they want to be heard on the other side of the valley. It is difficult to sing. It goes (in a rough translation): “A beautiful day in the mountains. So good to be in the sun. Breathing fresh air, lalilalaaaaa.” You would think these people have suffered a lockdown. Or maybe they don’t understand the words. They just like the melody.

Breathing fresh air. Smart helmets have a system that regulates temperature. They could not be used outside without something like that. Humans are not tropical plants, and their heads cannot be wrapped in plastic without some kind of cooling. In one of the sequences in the video, if one looks carefully, one can see small drops of sweat on the forehead of the man advertising the helmet. It could be that the refrigerator does not work very well. It must certainly use a lot of energy. Maybe these people have a spare battery in their pocket, like we sometimes have for our phones. In any case, in the world depicted by these commercials, the air they breathe is always fresh. It is also pure (which is implied in the expression “fresh air”: fresh air is not only cold wind). The helmet is equipped with a filter, which blocks small particles from entering the safe micro-environment that they have built around their heads. It is like a small house, a tiny home, an inside around the head, and everything else is outside, even their own bodies. It is the sort of home where guests take off their shoes when they come in, except there are no guests in the helmet but only its usual inhabitant. There are no viruses, no dust, no pollution, no pollen either. I think (but I am not sure) that these helmets were first devised to block pollution and pollen. I myself have hay fever, and sometimes, in the spring, I would love to be able to wear such a helmet and look at the glorious countryside without a runny nose and a lot of sneezing. I can’t smell anything when I have these allergies. So I wouldn’t mind if the helmet suppresses all smells. In the park, as our terrestrial cosmonauts and bikeless motorcyclists walk around wrapped in the plastic bubbles, there are no roses, nor dogshit. The world has become perfectly odorless, and it is always cool around the head. That is fresh air: pure presence in the realm of the olfactory.

It is not all senses that can be reduced to pure presence. Consider sight. What would it be to see pure presence? It is not nothingness. I would see something but it would be devoid of sensory content. Even the whitish rooms of VR games have various shades and forms, the whiteness more or less gray, its angles marked with black lines. They have poor content but it is not empty. Empty space would just be nothingness, without presence, whereas fresh air is something. I breathe and feel the air going in through my mouth and throat. In the same way, I can’t imagine hearing a sound without it having a pitch and a specific tone. If my hand is anesthetized, the things that I touch may have lost their temperature but they have form and texture: they are smooth or rough. Taste may be reduced to presence: something may be perfectly tasteless. It is there in my mouth; it has texture and shape but it has neither sweetness, nor bitterness–no taste at all. Thus, taste and smell may confront us with pure presence, something without specific content. The difference is that we usually do not like tasteless food, whereas we love fresh air: that is why we dream of helmets, or the network dreams of helmets for us. Not exactly the fresh air of the mountains, which may still bear the whiff of flowers and cows pasturing, but a more exact version of fresh air, technologically produced.

Technological membranes. These helmets are one of the technological membranes in which we wrap our body. By definition, these membranes protect us by putting things at a distance. But they also transform the properties of our senses. The screens through which we have video-conferences are an obvious example. They enable us to see and hear at great distances, and without coming into contact with the people we meet. My angry colleague will never punch me in the nose on Zoom. In fact, I can turn off my camera and look at her, or make faces, without being seen by her, which is possible without technology (I can hide) but difficult during a meeting. Screens may also change our vision in more subtle ways. When I look on my screen at the various views that surveillance cameras take of the main crossroads of my hometown (most cities just stream online), I don’t have a bird’s eye view of the city. I have several local, partial, images. In Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction, this sight through a screen is haptic rather than optic. But conversely, technological touch also takes on some properties of sight. Museums have devised smart gloves that enable the user to touch, feel the shape and the textures of an antique, as if they were holding a Greek vase in their hands, when it is in fact stored in a glass case. This is touching at a distance, and touching without being touched. I cannot cut my finger when I touch the virtual avatar of the Assyrian knife. Devices as different as sex toys and drones depend on this transformation of touch. They enable the user to touch at a distance and without being touched, or enable the user to be touched without touching, whereas when I shake hands with my friend, I touch her hand and she touches mine at the same time.

The helmet is such a membrane. Its effect is to filter the world around me so that the world is turned into pure presence, which would not be possible using sight or touch.

These membranes are not skins. Our skin is thin; we touch things just on the other side of the inside nerves through which we feel pain and pleasure. That is why things may cut through our skin and produce pain. When the doctor presses through my skin, the small lump of the contracted muscle, I feel pain on the other side of my skin. On the contrary, technological membranes are thick, immensely thick in space and in time, so thick that nothing can cut through–no virus, no knife, hardly any sight so unpleasant as to make me feel sick. I manage on my screen not to look at things I do not want to see, whereas they seem to jump at my face on the street. Our skin is the very locus of the reciprocity of sensibility. It is touched by all it touches. And conversely. But these technological membranes interrupt this reciprocity.

Rather than skin, technological membranes could be compared with the Aristotelian flesh, which in the De Anima creates the distance between the thing that I touch and the organ of touch, which, for Aristotle, is the heart. The flesh is the transparent medium that transports tactile qualities from the thing to the heart. It embodies the distance between them and enables the organ of touch to touch without being touched. When I shake hands with my friend, it can be that is only my hand that is touched, and not the heart through which I touch.

So we build many different kinds of flesh around us: flesh for sights, and odors, sound, and flesh around our tactile flesh, thick membranes that filter sensory contents, put things at a distance and break the reciprocity of senses. We wear them like plastic bubbles, through which we only breathe fresh air and never bother anyone with bad breath.

However, contrary to the Aristotelian flesh, these membranes do not belong to us, even if we buy them. One could imagine (even though it is not yet the case) that my helmet could analyze my breath and send the data to an insurance company that would offer me a better, or worse, deal depending on my health. It would turn my breath into something that has value, for someone else. I would be robbed, it seems, of something in my breath, even though this something, data, had no previous existence.

But, more importantly, these technological membranes survive us as our flesh does not. There are plastic and electronic components.

Plastic. The short film by Alain Renais, Le chant du styrène, 1959, based on a poem by Raymond Queneau, tells the story of a bright red plastic bowl. It tells the story backwards, from the plastic object to the petrol and the plankton that coalesced to produce petrol. We go through all the steps, molds, beautiful machines, and factories, up to the refineries that process crude oil. They spew smoke in the sky. Oil–so says Queneau–used to go up in smoke, when the chemist had the lucky idea to turn these clouds into something solid:

“Et pétrole et charbon s’en allaient en fumée
Quand le chimiste vint qui eut l’heureuse idée
De rendre ces nuées solides et d’en faire
D’innombrables objets au but utilitaire.”

Smoke, or so we could believe, disperses in the air but plastic lasts. It lasts so long that we cannot get rid of it: our red bowls, but also our masks, which have plastic components.

Again, we make science-fiction in found footage. We just look for commercials, images, and newspaper articles on the Web. When we give numbers, these numbers may be wrong (but then we don’t claim they are true). Thus, on the Web, we found out that more than two billion masks have ended up in the oceans this past year-and-a-half, and each will take about 450 years to disappear. They will be eaten by fish and birds, they will turn into micro-particles that are invisible to the human eyes but still poisonous to the human stomach, lungs, and skin. Luckily, in this fiction, we will wear filters, helmets, and all kinds of membranes. We will sing: “a beautiful day in the mountains, when the sun sets on the horizon, lalilalaaaaa.” We will breathe fresh air and feel the pure presence of an undefined thing.

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