Introduction: Breathe

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This our fiftieth anniversary is the occasion to reflect on the journey of SubStance, and to renew the terms of its pledge to an evolving critical present.

SubStance was animated from its beginnings by a faith in literature’s zones of contact with other ways of seeking and knowing: notably philosophy, science, and linguistics. Thus, founding editors Sydney Lévy and Michel Pierssens declared in the introduction to the inaugural issue the journal’s allegiance to “tout ce qui fait éclater notre ancien objet si pur” [“everything that explodes the erstwhile purity of the literary object”]. Like other U.S. journals emerging at this time in response to (and, in turn, shaping the reception of) “French theory,” SubStance in its early years paid close attention to the nouveau roman, structuralist narratology, and poetics. But its deepest commitment, and the one by which we, generation 2.5 of its editors, remain loyally bound, was to thought’s ways of seeking and tracing possible pathways through the world. In terms both self-conscious and candid, SubStance, in that first issue in 1971, professed an inclination less toward things certain or conclusive than things potential and coalescing. Lévy and Pierssens would write of their editorial mission: “Nous voudrions que par là certaines préoccupations encore vagues ou dispersées prennent conscience d’elles-mêmes, se fassent jour, et nous ne voulons poursuivre l’effort que nous avons entrepris que pour nous offrir à accueillir tout ce qu’elles promettent” [“We would wish thereby for certain preoccupations still vague or dispersed to become aware of themselves, to emerge in the light, and we wish to pursue the effort that we have embarked on only to offer our welcome to all that they promise”].

Through the 1970s and ’80s, SubStance would have the honor of bringing a number of texts now considered classics to an Anglophone readership, including the second chapter of Gayatri Spivak’s translation of Derrida’s De la grammatologie in 1974, a long excerpt of Richard Seaver’s translation of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus in 1975, as well as interviews with Jean-Luc Nancy, Julia Kristeva, and Hélène Cixous. Over the years, SubStance came to provide a platform to numerous key voices of the trans-Atlantic dialogue in literary criticism and theory: from Mary Ann Caws, Sylvère Lotringer, Ann Smock, Jean-Jacques Thomas, Denis Hollier, Tom Conley, Gerald Prince, Naomi Schor, Steven Winspur, to Henri Meschonnic, Raymond Bellour, Michel Deguy, Emily Apter, Lawrence Schehr, Avital Ronell, and Françoise Lionnet. Through the 1990s and 2000s, the journal would become the venue for significant perspectives within post-structuralist and post-humanist thought—including Derridean and Deleuzian studies, feminism, and, more recently, animal studies, ecocriticism, new materialisms—publishing in the last fifteen years such pieces as Claire Colebrook’s “A Globe of One’s Own: In Praise of the Flat Earth” and Ursula Heise’s “Journeys through the Offset World: Global Travel Narratives and Environmental Crisis” (in Issue #127: “Globing the Earth: The New Eco-logics of Nature,” edited by Ranjan Ghosh); Cary Wolfe’s “Flesh and Finitude” and Timothy Morton’s “Ecologocentrism: Unworking Animals” (in Issue #117: “The Political Animal,” edited by Chris Danta and Dimitris Vardoulakis); and Vinciane Despret’s “Talking Before the Dead” and Donna Haraway’s “SF with Stengers…” (in Issue # 145 “Isabelle Stengers and the Dramatization of Philosophy,” edited by Martin Savransky).

Remaining faithful through it all to the emergent and the offbeat, Pierssens and Lévy wrote in the introduction to the 25th anniversary issue (#81, 1996): “If SubStance has played a role in the history of criticism in the last 25 years, we hope also that it has played a role in the resistance to that history.” That year they modestly confessed their surprise that the journal had survived that long, and expressed their wish to pass on the mantle to a younger generation. SubStance would be led into the new millennium by David F. Bell, Paul A. Harris, and Éric Méchoulan, joined soon thereafter by Pierre Cassou-Noguès, and Anita Walia Harris as managing editor, with Rosemarie Scullion continuing as book reviews editor. The editors’ introduction to the hundredth issue in 2003 would reiterate the journal’s first loyalty, not to particular theoretical orientations but to literature’s “extraordinary potential to constantly recreate things with words,” and, more broadly, to “what drives us as scholars and human beings, trying to understand the meaning of our lives on this fragile globe, spinning in interstellar space.”

Fragility—of lives, lungs, ecosystems, thought systems—names today more vividly than ever the conditions in which we exist and write. Yet, we are sustained by the critical-creative effort to understand what conceptions of world and thought make world and thought still meaningfully inhabitable. What truths, ironies, becomings, vital solidarities does our present obscure or, on the contrary, make us now uniquely able to see? In the summer of 2020, SubStance‘s editorial committee expanded to include four new members: Églantine Colon, Marion Froger, Thangam Ravindranathan, and Rebecca Walkowitz. Emerging from a year darkened by a deadly global pandemic, yet which found historical purpose in the lucid fury that followed the murder of George Floyd, the expanded SubStance collective together addressed in 2021 this invitation to a range of writers, scholars, and artists to contribute to the journal’s 50th anniversary issue short pieces on the topic “Breathe”:

The extreme pressures on life, thought and hope dramatized by the current moment may be understood, in terms no less material than metaphorical, as oppressive historical impediments to breathing. Multiple unsustainabilities of our age—the slow violence of industrial pollution and toxicity; systemic racial injustice and anti-Black violence normalized by the state; the ongoing loss of lives and livelihoods to a virus infecting human lung cells; a zoonosis itself the latest consequence of relentless habitat destruction inseparable from racialized global capitalism and “non-stop growth”—concatenate uncannily in that fateful phrase uttered by Eric Garner and over 70 others in police custody over the last decade: I can’t breathe. Taken up worldwide, the last-utterance-turned slogan crystallizes the struggle against racism and racial oppression, while inviting us in its very motif to think about the ways in which to talk about race today is to talk necessarily about environmental injustice: toxic communities, sacrifice zones, food deserts, disproportionate disease rates, climate vulnerability. Equally, to write about environmental degradation or the climate crisis today is to have to reckon, explicitly or not, with a history of racial and socioeconomic violence inseparable from that of industrial capitalism. When it comes to the air we breathe, in the United States alone, Black and Latinx residents are exposed to more pollution than they cause; people of color breathe more polluted air than whites.

Still, the struggle is to keep breathing at all. We whose respiratory pathways evolved over eons in symbiosis with the forests of the earth and the plankton of the seas, breathe today raspily and in historic inequality, our worlds as compromised, as disparate, as the air we inhale. We whose breath slows when we meditate, quickens when we sense something inhospitable, turns into speech and song when we are “inspired”—what do we express and create as we breathe now, and how does it link us with those amongst us who can’t, or with the ways in which we can’t? What other stories beg to be told about our present or past through the motif of breath? How do literature, art, critical theory, humanistic inquiry think the poetics and the politics of breathing—as commons, finitude, disparity, futurity, struggle, practice, right, purpose, life force? What portrait are we painting, in our research or practice, what questions are we asking, in our respective fields, of the predicament and life-worlds of (us and other) breathing beings?

We are excited to bring to our readers the powerful pieces we received in response to this call. We are also pleased to be able to launch on this occasion SubStance‘s new website at, where you will find some of the extra-textual contributions to “Breathe.”

Thank you for your continued readership and support. We look forward to our next fifty years of collaboration.

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