Homeostasis and Extinction: Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation”

Full Text

“Exhalation,” a 2008 science fiction short story by Ted Chiang, virtuoso of the genre and the form, begins with a truism, refuted: “It has long been said that air (which others call argon) is the source of life. This is not in fact the case, and I engrave these words to describe how I came to understand the true source of life and, as a corollary, the means by which life will one day end” (37). The narrator’s promise is so alluring—knowledge of life’s origin, knowledge of its expiration, and knowledge of the relation between the two—that we may be forgiven for overlooking the parenthetical. Argon amounts to less than one percent of the air breathed within Earth’s atmosphere. The narrator specifies that “others call [air] argon,” others who may or may not live where the narrator does. In any case, Chiang has transported us elsewhere.

Where, exactly? In a world governed by parameters and constraints distinct from Earth’s, yet recognizable to us—which is to say that “Exhalation” is a thought experiment. What if, we are invited to contemplate, inhalation and exhalation were distinct processes, rather than inseparable phases of an autonomic, autopoietic, and ecological cycle? Chiang severs inhalation from bodies, rendering it strictly mechanical. Exhalation, by contrast, remains the province of bodies; individuals partake in this activity whatever else they may be doing. The disembodied inhale literalizes resource extraction, and the embodied exhale a process of extinction coextensive with the achievement of a certain equilibrium or homeostasis. Perhaps unexpectedly, the extinctive exhale holds the key to a future that deflates operas of total destruction and annihilation. “Exhalation,” I propose, unlocks a horizon of human persistence contingent on Man’s exhaustion.

All lungs in “Exhalation” are artificial. They at least appear so to us; within the world of the story, they are not seen as replicas of “actual” organs. Every day, all members of the humanoid species to which the narrator belongs head to filling stations to remove pairs of empty lungs from their chests and replace them with new ones “heavy with air” (Chiang 37). The characters are supplied air that has already been “inhaled”—aspirated from “the reservoir of air deep underground, the great lung of the world, the source of all our nourishment”—and they spend the day exhaling it (38). Breathing is closely associated with social exchanges and transactions in Chiang’s world as it is on Earth, although for distinct reasons. Breathing as it is practiced within Earth’s atmosphere is shorthand for being in relation: to breathe in and out is to incorporate and process alterity, and to breathe the same air as others is to share conditions of experience, if not necessarily experience itself. In “Exhalation,” the filling stations operate as agoras, facilitating social interactions that are not so directly tied to respiration. “We all keep spare sets of full lungs in our homes,” the narrator explains, “but when one is alone, the act of opening one’s chest and replacing one’s lungs can seem little better than a chore. In the company of others, however, it becomes a communal activity, a shared pleasure” (38). Nodding, knowingly or not, to breathing as it occurs on Earth with a subordinate clause, the narrator muses, “While this perhaps does not constitute air sharing in the strictest sense, there is camaraderie derived from the awareness that all our air comes from the same source” (38).

It is at a filling station that the narrator hears the rumor that precipitates the story’s events. At noon on the first day of the year, the district’s public crier customarily recites a passage of verse—a ritual calibrated to last exactly one hour. For the first time this year, the turret clock struck the hour before the crier had finished. The hypothesis that the clock’s mechanism was defective is invalidated by news of a similar incident in a separate district where the central clock uses a different mechanism, marking the hours by the flow of mercury. Is time out of joint? No: bodies are.

The narrator reaches this conclusion through a scientific experiment that the short story, largely procedural, relays in detail. After arranging prisms and mirrors into a sophisticated apparatus, the narrator, a “student of anatomy,” sets out to dissect his own brain (Chiang 39). If the dissection must be performed on a living subject, it is because the rare accidents that befall members of the species are explosive: ruptured lungs tear the body apart, and the brain erupts into a golden haze. Having meticulously exposed his brain, the narrator contemplates “a microcosm of auric machinery, a landscape of tiny spinning rotors and miniature reciprocating cylinders” (46). Air tubules ramify into capillaries interwoven with a latticework of wires on which gold leaves are hinged. The leaves do not store memories, as was the narrator’s prior belief. Instead, consciousness is “encoded in the ever-shifting pattern of air driving these leaves” (48). Consciousness is not merely activated by the daily exhale; it is the exhale, its movement and dynamic, the “persistent currents of argon” (48). The narrator’s finding in turn solves the enigma of the rushing clock. The clock only appears to run faster than usual; in truth, it is individuals who are struggling to catch up. If thought is decelerating, and if it relies on the passage of air, then air flows must have subsided. As promised, the narrator decrypts in one fell swoop the secret to life’s origin and expiration:

[Air] is not the source of life. Air can neither be created nor destroyed; the total amount of air in the universe remains constant, and if air were all that we needed to live, we would never die. But in truth the source of life is a difference in air pressure, the flow of air from spaces where it is thick to those where it is thin. The activity of our brains, the motion of our bodies, the action of every machine we have ever built, are driven by the movement of air, the force exerted as differing pressures seek to balance one another out. When the pressure everywhere in the universe is the same, all air will be motionless and useless; one day we will be surrounded by motionless air and unable to derive any benefit from it.
(Chiang 50, original emphasis)

In a story note included in the collection titled after “Exhalation,” Chiang identifies as an inspiration the mathematical physicist Roger Penrose’s writing on entropy: the physical property associated with disorder, randomness, or uncertainty. The law of conservation of energy states that energy is neither created nor destroyed; we radiate energy at more or less the same rate as we absorb it. The difference between the chemical energy we absorb and the heat energy we radiate is that the former is low-entropy or ordered, and the latter high-entropy or disordered. “In effect,” Chiang summarizes, “we are consuming order and generating disorder; we live by increasing the disorder of the universe” (342). In “Exhalation,” argon’s motionlessness (a gas now inert in more than one sense) registers as disordered because it is “useless,” devoid of “benefit” for the humanoid species. Chiang’s exhale narrativizes Claire Colebrook’s claim, in a study of extinction as thought experiment, that “thinking possesses annihilating power” (27). “With every thought I have, I hasten the arrival of that fatal equilibrium” (Chiang 50), the narrator proclaims. To think is to exhale, and to exhale is to convert air at high pressure into air at low pressure; so, to think is to become extinct. Cogito, ergo sum nihil.

“Exhalation” captures something of the existential problem posed by climate crisis: the survival of individual human beings is incommensurate with the survival of the human species. One measure of longevity, or sustained breathing, on Earth is a growing carbon footprint that makes the atmosphere less breathable. As Steven Swarbrick and I have written elsewhere, “To live . . . is to make waste and so too lay waste to the worlds we wish to protect” (4). Chiang compresses this equation, envisioning inorganic life—life that is not sustained by biological processes which, even without outside intervention, inevitably result in permanent termination—to synchronize individual (nonaccidental and not-quite-suicidal) death and species extinction. The elimination of the scalar distance between the individual and the population renders life as self-contradictory and self-negating. In Elizabeth A. Povinelli’s “geontological” idiom, the titular exhalation folds Life into Nonlife, the universe achieving permanence as geos, soullessness (4-5, 175). Life moves toward permanence in nontransformation—homeostasis with the emphasis on stasis.

Chiang’s diagrammatic account of extinction fulfills a pedagogical and political function, according to Essi Vatilo. “Exhalation,” as Vatilo reads it, simplifies climate rhetoric, giving readers no alibi to exempt themselves from environmental responsibility and accountability. “By presenting the atmospheric changes as a certainty with a definite causal relationship between breathing and the deteriorating conditions of life,” Vatilo maintains, “the story reduces possibilities for different forms of denial” (47). By this logic, the reduction of correlation (extinction is tied to the way we live) to causation (life causes extinction) gives credence to a political agenda that promotes urgent action to ward off climate catastrophe. As appealing as it may be, Vatilo’s reading overstates the extent to which recognizing life’s movement toward extinction would protect the former against the latter. Holding on to life does not make it any less self-contradictory or self-negating, as Povinelli has argued (“Cling to life if even in the form of its mass extinction,” she concludes her book Geontologies: A Requiem for Late Liberalism [177]). Moreover, a model of responsibility and accountability excavated from a story in which members of an undifferentiated humanoid species exhale all at once may be ill-suited to a context where respiratory afflictions testify to the uneven distribution of risk and harm (see Bohme; Kenner and Ahmann; Nixon). Health disparities pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic have made glaring Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities’ restricted access to care and services (“Health Equity Considerations”). The now-ubiquitous mantra “I can’t breathe” denounces two temporalities of the necropolitics of anti-Black asphyxiation: one chronic (environmental and structural racism), the other accelerative (police violence). As an utterance, “I can’t breathe” indicates that there is nothing universal about human extinction. Nor is it a future occurrence. Extinction is ongoing among populations deemed disposable by the state and the market.

Still, we would be wrong to cast “Exhalation” as yet another iteration of extinction discourses that, by effacing the demographic distinctions that typify both the causes and the consequences of extinction, “[naturalize] a colonial order” (Theriault and Mitchell 177) or “[legitimate] an inegalitarian social order” (Dawson 15). Chiang, in my reading, does not provide a portable model of climate action so much as he dreams up what it would look like to give up the position from which what does or does not count as climate action is currently assessed. The extinctive exhale, a response to the extractive inhale that nevertheless deserves to be understood on its own terms, sketches the exhaustion of a particular figure of humanity prone to imagining himself in universal terms. This figure, who conquers and occupies in the name of rationality, whose thought is (self-)destructive, goes by the name of Man.

Far from a postracial flight of fancy, Chiang’s thought experiment parallels the project of Black feminism and feminism of color. Sylvia Wynter, for instance, seeks to unsettle “the Coloniality of Being/Power/ Truth/Freedom” wielded by “our present ethnoclass (i.e., Western bourgeois) conception of the human, Man, which overrepresents itself as it if were the human itself” (260). One indicator of “the overrepresentation of Man” in “Exhalation” is, quite plainly, the exclusive use of the pronouns “he,” “him,” and “his.” Most often, these pronouns designate an abstract, hypothetical “person” (Chiang 37, 41, 48). The pronouns retain a generic quality even when they refer to such characters as the two public criers (39, 42). In the latter case, “he,” “him,” and “his” signal, rather than a given gender, a dearth of identifying information. My suggestion is not that every character in Chiang’s story is male, but that all characters (over) represent Man, an archetype for destructive rationality.

Man, “Exhalation” announces, cannot fix his way of extinction. Jeffrey Moro argues that “Exhalation” calls on readers to reconceive industrial media as “breath-sustaining,” not “breath-ending.” Some of the story’s characters answer this call, though unsuccessfully. The narrator alludes to a “sect,” the “Reversalists,” dedicated to the restoration of air pressure (Chiang 52). A prototype for an air compressor in hand, the Reversalists announce a new filling station that promises to “revitalize not only individuals but the universe itself” (52). The design, however, presents a fatal flaw: “The engine itself was powered by air from the reservoir, and for every lungful of air that it produced, the engine consumed not just a lungful but slightly more. It did not reverse the process of equalization but, like everything else in the world, exacerbated it” (52). The narrator further insists, “There is no source of power in the universe that does not ultimately derive from a difference in air pressure, and there can be no engine whose operation will not, on balance, reduce that difference” (52-53). Rather than improved technologies, a certain Luddism is, I would venture, promoted by the story. In this sense, “Exhalation” might belong to a genealogy, traced by Matt Tierney, of artistic interventions that throughout the long 1970s have predicated social reproduction on the destruction of machines (1-7, 13-15, 30-32, 45-47). There is no future in Chiang’s story for a human(oid) life that cannot be disentangled from machines. At minimum, “Exhalation” confronts us with the fact that dominant colonial and capitalist rationalities provide no durable solutions to climate crisis. Technical and technological fixes will not do.

“Exhalation,” then, calls on us to expand the political imagination beyond what counts as an intervention from the vantage point of Man. Wynter, writes Alexis Pauline Gumbs, teaches us that “we . . . have the capacity to know differently. We are word made flesh. But we make words. So we can make ourselves anew” (xi). Kandice Chuh hinges the project of envisioning life after Man on the generation of “illiberal humanisms . . . through intellectual and creative work disidentified from bourgeois liberalism and its cognate onto-epistemologies” (xi; see also 52–54). Chiang’s extinctive exhale, whereby Man thinks his way out of existence, activates the process of thinking humanity anew, illiberally.

As a theoretical endeavor, this process implies a radical push beyond some challenges to the Anthropocene framework. The term Anthropocene attributes to a monolithic and universal subject—anthropos, the human—the advent of the current geological era. Novel concepts such as the Capitalocene and the Plantationocene have been coined to bring into sharper relief the economic structures, upheld and perpetrated by the white bourgeois elite, that usher in extinction (see Haraway; Haraway et al.; Moore). Like “Exhalation,” these alternatives frame climate change as an epistemic problem; concepts like the Capitalocene and the Plantationocene enable us, as we contemplate the problem of futurelessness, to know the past and the present differently. Yet, because they are positioned as correctives to the Anthropocene, these terms, in the name of subverting a monolithic and universal human subject, retain it as a referent. The Capitalocene corresponds to the Anthropocene with the added complexity of anticapitalist critique; the Plantationocene corresponds to the Anthropocene with the added complexity of abolitionist critique. “Exhalation,” on the other hand, inspires us to lose this referent, inasmuch that thought can no longer look like itself. The post-thought homeostasis in which the exhale results is not nothingness; it is instead nothing knowable to Man. In “Exhalation,” the divine breath (pneuma, spiritus) does not die out but dissipates. It exceeds and survives Man; it was never meant to be his alone.

Thinking humanity anew is no small task, of course, and the ending of “Exhalation” reminds us that Man does not easily relinquish his position. The narrator of the epistolary story eventually addresses the reader as “explorer” (Chiang 56). The narrator, like every member of his species, died long before the reader happened upon his autobiographical engraving, presumably while searching for new universes to colonize. Our encounter with the engraving is museal; the story makes our ability to read it contingent on colonization, just as museums, with their imperial spoils, embed the practice of looking at artworks and artifacts into a network of colonial relations (see Hicks; Wild). The generosity of the narrator’s address and the miracle of intergalactic recognition barely mask the horror of being hailed as Man. A colonial rationality is projected onto us. We are made to stand as living proof that Man is not done exhaling.

Works Cited

  • Bohme, Susanna Rankin. Toxic Injustice: A Transnational History of Exposure and Struggle. University of California Press, 2014.
  • Chiang, Ted. “Exhalation.” Exhalation: Stories. Knopf, 2019.
  • Chuh, Kandice. The Difference Aesthetics Makes: On the Humanities “After Man.” Duke University Press, 2019.
  • Colebrook, Claire. Sex after Life: Essays on Extinction, vol. 2. Open Humanities, 2014.
  • Dawson, Ashley. Extinction: A Radical History. OR Books, 2016.
  • Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. Dub: Finding Ceremony. Duke University Press, 2020.
  • Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities, vol. 6, no. 1, 2015, pp. 159-165.
  • Haraway, Donna, Noboru Ishikawa, Scott F. Gilbert, Kenneth Olwig, Anna L. Tsing, and Nils Bubandt. “Anthropologists Are Talking–About the Anthropocene.” Ethnos, vol. 81, no. 3, 2016, pp. 535-564.
  • “Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 12 Feb. 2021, https://www-cdc-gov.calarts.idm.oclc.org/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html. Accessed 7 March 2021.
  • Hicks, Dan. The Brutish Museum: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution. Pluto Press, 2020.
  • Kenner, Alison, and Chloe Ahmann. “Breathing Late Industrialism.” Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, vol. 6, 2020, pp. 416-438.
  • Moore, Jason W. “Introduction: Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism.” Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, edited by Jason W. Moore, PM Press, 2016.
  • Moro, Jeffrey. “Time Is a Difference of Pressure: Breath as Environmental Media in Ted Chiang’s ‘Exhalation.’” Paper presented at the conference of the Modern Language Association, 7 Jan 2021.
  • Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, 2011.
  • Povinelli, Elizabeth A. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Duke University Press, 2016.
  • Swarbrick, Steven, and Jean-Thomas Tremblay. “Destructive Environmentalism: The Queer Impossibility of First Reformed.” Discourse, vol. 45, no. 3, 2021, pp. 3-30.
  • Theriault, Noah, and Audra Mitchell. “Extinction.” Anthropocene Unseen: A Lexicon, edited by Cymene Howe and Anand Pandian, Punctum, 2020.
  • Tierney, Matt. Dismantlings: Words Against Machines in the American Long Seventies. Cornell University Press, 2019.
  • Vatilo, Essi. “Climate Change in a Chromium World: Estrangement and Denial in Ted Chiang’s ‘Exhalation.’” Fafnir, vol. 6, no. 2, 2019, pp. 38-50.
  • Wild, Jennifer. “Under the Figure of the Palm Tree.” Avant-Gardes and Crisis: Art and Politics in the Long 1970s, edited by Jean-Thomas Tremblay and Andrew Strombeck, State University of New York Press, 2021.
  • Wynter, Sylvia. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 3, no. 3, 2003, pp. 257-337.
Read Article On Muse