Translated by Alexis Ann Stanley
A rather suffocating atmosphere is becoming our customary environment, ecologically, politically, and socially. It is time to affirm “a universal right to breathe”–what Achille Mbembe called the essential demand for justice that escalated during the age of the Anthropocene and is now crudely reemerging in the current pandemic’s attack on the respiratory system.
But the right to breathe is not “merely” the right to live, to breathe in unpolluted spaces, or to share clean air; it is also the right to a breathable life, a life worth caring for. It is the right to love life, life with and among one another: the right to fraternize in and through breath, the right to detoxify our relationships and breathe with others. To respire with: to con-spire.
Because in order to breathe, one needs air, but one especially needs other living beings, a world and landscapes with which to breathe, in which to breathe, and which can breathe through us. To breathe is not only to maintain one’s own breath or nourish one’s own organic system as if it lived an unconnected life; it is to acquiesce to the world, to the fact that there is a world—this one, precisely—and to participate in it. A person who breathes, in fact, partakes both in and of the world. Moreover, they make a gift to it, contributing to the way of the world in its entirety by a breath that tightly holds the ties binding each of our bodies to the current state of the living.
The lack of air, the feeling of a stifling age, even the fear of overwhelming suffocation—such is our current “natural” condition, the primary characteristic not only of our virtually toxic living environment, but also of our smothering, asphyxiating political condition wrought with violence and discrimination. Such also is the state of our social condition—the way we (rather poorly) create community—or rather, of our distinct social conditions. For there is a very inequitable distribution of the right to air or to breathe determined by which lives “count” and which do not.
The Anthropocene is perhaps the age of a new respiratory ‘condition.’ Toxic fumes, pestilential odors, extensive carbon consumption, agro-chemical discharge, microparticles, deforestation and soil asphyxiation, radioactive clouds with phantom trajectories and invisible powers of penetration… the history of industrial modernity is that of “the continuous and large-scale alteration of life’s atmospheric conditions” (Zimmer 25). Recently, wildfires affecting America and Europe have been adding their horrifying fumes to century-old pollution. Even clouds (“the clouds up there, the marvelous clouds” of Baudelaire) are being targeted: China recently announced the country’s intention to accelerate its cloud seeding program1See Blaise Mao, “La Chine accélère son programme d’ensemencement des nuages, » Usbek & Rica, 16 December 2020, https://usbeketrica.com/fr/chine-accelere-son-programme-ensemencement-nuages. (in 2008, over one thousand shells loaded with silver iodide were dispersed in order to clear the skies of Beijing and prevent rain from ruining the opening ceremony of the Olympic games. This technique is also used more and more frequently to generate rainfall and avoid agricultural droughts. This type of ‘sky colonization’ or climate militarization is a profanation of language as much as of nature: to “sow the clouds” (or “grow meat”)—even language tells us something is wrong…)
It took a great amount of time and much denial before widespread bodily infection and industrial pollution’s public health effects could be recognized. Industrialists may object (at times with doctors), but in the most working-class regions, bodies know: “lungs and our sense of smell protest in their own way against any conclusive evidence which would exonerate factories” (Zimmer 23).
The history of pollution is, in fact, also a question of exploitation as well as a social history: that of the unequal distribution of air and the inequitable exposure (depending on one’s living milieux) to what is oppressive, stifling—in a word, unbreathable. Unsanitary housing, proximity to mines or factories, and lack of access to healthcare are always factors; respiratory diseases are the most prevalent of occupational illnesses2See Judith Rainhorn, Blanc de plomb. Histoire d’un poison légal (Presses de Sciences Po, 2019). ; and the staggering surge in childhood lead poisoning in the very heart of our capitals—the weakest of bodies have become the site where the tragedy of migration, social misery, and the intoxication of the world converge.3See Didier Fassin, “Naissance de la santé publique. Deux descriptions de saturnisme infantile à Paris (1987-1989),” Genèses, vol. 53, no. 4, 2003, pp. 139-153.
Redress must be sought and sometimes found. Miners with lungs scarred by silicosis and faces blackened with coal dust or whitened by silica dust4See Dust to Dust: a World History of Silicosis, directed by Paul-André Rosental (The Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming). will recognize themselves in Paul Snoek’s poem of 1976, which was dedicated to the young asthma patients of De Haan’s Zeepreventorium who protected their fragile lungs like doves:
To breathe is to live longer
As long as there is air in this life
I want to merrily laugh with my lung
sand with the power of my good muscles
caress my throat with sweet oxygen.
With great mouthfuls drink up joy
from the source of open-hearted breath. (…)
My lungs are my best friends,
I love them, I carry them in my hands,
fragile as a pair of doves.
I hold them tenderly as snow, and pure
in this life’s healing abundance,
I protect them like a mother and a father5Translator’s translation.
Even today, northern miners often raise doves in sheds at the back of a garden. Their actions are precise and touching. The obvious symbolism is heart-wrenching and almost overwhelming. It is an allegory cruel in its clarity: instead of stooping, the dove-raiser raises his head; instead of suffocating in the darkness, he breathes and breathes in whiteness (one thinks of photos of blackened miners juxtaposed with the white porcelain of a mug or bowl of milk). And it is not a tandem breath, a breathing of man and bird side by side—no, it is something else coming into the world, liberated: the body finally breathes in and through another body.
As we have been told at school, for a long time canaries were used in coal mines to warn against explosions of firedamp, a toxic gas. Because they were so sensitive to these fumes (impossible for men to detect without proper measuring equipment), the birds were quickly asphyxiated, vanished, and died. The end of their song was cause for alarm, and miners would hurry to escape the mine. Canaries were sacrificed in the face of imminent catastrophe, of which they were the sentinels. In this sense, a sort of friendship among humble beings was formed to preserve breath.
On April 6, 2020, Achille Mbembe published “The Universal Right to Breathe,”6See Achille Mbembe, Le Droit universel à la respiration (AOC, 2020). a text that reflects on the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, highlights our very inequitable distribution of vulnerability, and makes breathing the emblem of the equal right to life.
In it, he emphasizes how we were already susceptible to suffocation well before this virus:
Much of humanity is threatened by a great chokehold […], we must return to all living things—including the biosphere—the space and energy they need. […] If war there must be, it cannot so much be against a specific virus as against everything that condemns the majority of humankind to a premature cessation of breathing, everything that fundamentally attacks the respiratory tract, everything that, in the long reign of capitalism, has constrained entire segments of the world population, entire races, to a difficult, panting breath and life of oppression. To come through this constriction would mean that we conceive of breathing beyond its purely biological aspect, and instead as that which we hold in common. (Mbembe)
A few weeks later, George Floyd died from asphyxiation after having suffocated for more than eight minutes, repeating “I can’t breathe!” under a police officer’s knee. (In France, these words were similarly heard in the mouth of Cédric Chouviat, a delivery driver who died 48 hours after being pinned to the ground by police on January 3, 2020. He also cried out seven times in a row, “I’m suffocating, I’m suffocating”). The phrase has become symbolic of the fight against police violence. And in it, breathing becomes the very lifeforce of life—of life that matters—its organic and political heart, and even its slogan. During George Floyd’s funeral, the congregation observed a moment of silence lasting 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the exact duration of his asphyxiation. Previously, the artist Dread Scott had created a work sarcastically and tragically asking, “If white people didn’t invent air, what would we breathe?” And protests multiplied across the world following George Floyd’s death despite injunctions in favor of what was still called “social distancing.”
Evidently, these events had a particular resonance during a time when we were especially attuned to the respiratory distress of seriously ill COVID patients, when emergency services lacked respirators, and when mask-wearing was becoming obligatory almost everywhere.
But there is more to be said, because one also must always consent to one’s breathing—that is to say, compromise oneself by giving in to breath. One must submit to something that is nevertheless a physiological necessity and natural reflex (albeit controllable). One must consent to live. Breathing does not happen without ‘me,’ my desires, and my compliance with life and the world.
Do not be proud. To breathe is already to show consent. More concessions will follow, each one embedded in another.
(Michaux, Face aux verrous 73)7Translator’s translation.
The above words are Henri Michaux’s (who also said one must find in oneself “the strength to sleep”—that is to say, to participate in one’s own fainting or activate one’s passivity). And characteristically cruel and funny, he states this in a vaguely menacing way: Watch out, you’ve taken a breath, it’s too late now, too late to free yourself from the world or escape from the business of living…
I believe doctors—especially those who take care of extremely premature babies—are well aware that in order to embrace life and stay alive, one must consent to breathe. And in order to do so, it is necessary to somehow find one’s way, feel that it is worth the effort, discover what is worthy, know that one is welcomed into life and into speech. In other words, one must become attached. While in a neonatal unit, the psychoanalyst Catherine Vanier8See Catherine Vanier, Naître prématuré. Le bébé, son médecin et son psychanalyste (Bayard, 2013). observed this connection among breathing, the will to live, and true speech. After a baby weighing a few hundred grams and requiring respiratory assistance began to gain strength, the medical team decided to “unplug” the infant yet keep the machine working nearby. The baby would continue to hear its rhythm (its breath, as it were), because it was through that mechanical respiration that he was able to regulate his own; it was to its pulse that he fashioned his own will to live. Vanier then asked the child’s mother to speak to the infant so that he could become weaned from the machine and attach himself to her, to life.
It was important that the mother speak the truth and address it to the child in order to help guide him toward life. False, careless, and haphazard words would have been inconsequential. True speech inserted into the space which separates and binds us is as vital as the air we breathe: we breathe in speech, we survive in it. And it has taken another psychoanalyst to highlight this solidarity (this transmission) between breath and speech, and to hazard the idea that “babies are spoken into life by doctors or mothers” (Webster). The expression of this connection overwhelmed me as an asthmatic child (an asthmatic child that remains in me and remembers what it costs to exhale).
A recent study9See Dominique Mazéas, La Respiration et la mise en mouvement de l’auto-érotisme dans la psychothérapie avec les enfants, Doctoral Dissertation in « Recherche en psychopathologie et psychanalyse, » defended at Paris of the role of breathing in the psychoanalysis of autistic children also suggests that therapeutic accompaniment of breath with attention to its quasi-conversational rhythm (inhale/exhale, question/response) might indicate a sort of “dialogue” and show signs of a possible relation to alterity—of a dis-enclosure.
This pneumatic dialogue, fluttering under the wind of words, is what Goethe depicted as the rhythmic pulsing of oppression and deliverance, the two blessings of respiration:
In all our breathing are two kinds of blessing:
Inhaling air and thereafter expressing.
That will oppress, this one refresh:
Life’s such a process in marvellous mesh.
Thank thou the Lord, hard though he be,
Thank him as well when he’s setting you free.
If babies, if all living beings must consent to breathing, perhaps this is because breathing is necessarily an act of participation, and even a contribution to the way of the world in its entirety. And so, consenting to breathe is not merely wanting to live, but it is to want the world—that there be a world, the world there is, that is—and to want to participate and be in it: to contribute to the world in an ecology of breath.
An entire landscape is necessary in order to consent to one’s breathing. Otherwise, it is difficult to surrender one’s air, the air borrowed from the world and which must be returned. As Ludovic Janvier responds to Goethe:
In breathing Goethe told me there are two blessings
the air you assimilate and the one you release
the challenge for me is to surrender my last breath
the soul the air lent me I forget to exhale
so that I may consent I need no less
than the calm of undergrowth swimming
or a slow jog’s persistence
Oh the brutal pleasure of yawning beneath trees
And of emptying airbags all Sunday
full-bleed in the room of boredom
but it’s true that to take your breath away
you need music beyond yourself
which aerates you and slowly lifts you high. (7)10Translator’s translation.
Indeed, to breathe is to feel that we owe the functioning of our organic system to others, who in turn owe theirs to us. We breathe the outside, and the outside breathes us and breathes itself into us. The air we inhale passes and passes through other lungs, other organisms, other lifeforms (just like the water we drink, which has already been “pissed several times.” as Gilles Clément likes to remind us). It is not simply that air enters and exits the body; it is that the chemistry of life is made up of this vast metabolism, greater than each participating body. It breathes when we breathe, it lives when we live, it is breathed among and lived between.
Rilke has also described this “world-space in pure constant interchange,” where landscapes are always already internal, and where winds are akin to the children of breathers (who engender through breath):
Breathing, you invisible poem!
World-space and our own
being in pure constant interchange. Counterweight
in which I rhythmically happen.
whose gradual sea I am;
you, the thriftiest of all possible seas,
—prize of space.
How many of these places in space were there
inside me already. Many winds
are like my son (…).
And so, we have breathing as mutual participation, interpenetration, and reciprocal generation: it is the engendering of that by which one is engendered, an invagination of one’s surroundings immediately restored by the mouth to the landscape. We take and we return; we take a bite from the sky and spit it out.
Everything revolves around a certain ecology of breath. An ecology of the great worldly or cosmic breath through which each life is shaped and exhaled by other lives, convincing us that to live is always “to live off of.” Because the air that bodies breathe is not a geological or mineral substance, it is the breath of other living beings. Plants transformed the world into breath and endowed the planet with an atmosphere—a climate suitable for life: “It is through photosynthesis that our atmosphere is largely made up of oxygen,” which implies that higher animal life forms live off of the organic gases emitted by plants (Coccia).
(…) it is greenness that breathes you enlarged by the lungs
green is the canopy air shakes in full view (…).
To breathe, then, is to know we are collaborating with the way of the world in its entirety, and to acquiesce to it. In this sense it is also to feel one’s capacity, to feel that one’s participation is a type of potentia.
Sometimes I breathe harder and suddenly, with the help of my continuous distraction, the world lifts with my chest.
Maybe not Africa, but great things (…).
(Michaux, La Nuit remue)11Translator’s translation
There is indeed a link between my breathing and the state of the world (as there is between my trash and the ocean, between my waste and the albatross’s plastic-filled bodies at the world’s extremities12See Albatross, directed by Chris Jordan and Sabine Emiliani, Possibility Entertainment, 2013.). It is not exactly a responsibility, but something comparable to a compromise, commitment, or promise.
It is a familiar tragedy that we breathe in a suffocating world and share in air polluted as never before, intoxicated everywhere; that we swallow radioactivity, poisons, and the murky speech of which we are made and make; that we are this damaged world… Moreover, in today’s pandemic, all air is suspect, and the ecology of breath exists in a profaned state. We fear our neighbor’s breath, a cough distresses us, a sneeze is cause for worry, and we no longer trust the atmosphere in which we bathe when it is shared by others. In 2020, we even had to tell ourselves that speech itself was a virus-spreading vehicle. That wind—salutary wind—was, we knew already. But speech! As Le Monde reported, “It is becoming increasingly clear that simply speaking releases droplets capable of spreading the new coronavirus” (Morin). The French National Academy of Medicine even recommended being “silent in the subway”—so what about other public spaces? What defines social speech?
Yet a breathable life is first and foremost a life that is connected, shared—an agreement that opposes our Great Suffocation, and a breathing-with. In short, a con-spiration. To con-spire is not just to breathe together (or to breathe in the same way, in cadence13Conspiring in this sense is to be understood idiorhythmically like Roland Barthes’s “vivre-ensemble” (author’s note).), but also to breathe with one another, from one another, in one another, and through one another. We con-spire like two children breathing into each other’s mouths, like the prisoner of Jean Genet’s A Song of Love who exhales his cigarette smoke through a straw in a hole of his cell’s wall, wafting his desire to his neighboring prisoner.14See Un chant d’amour (1950), directed by Jean Genet, Argos Films, 1975. Or even in the way an entire neighborhood recently tried to recover a bit of breath.
The story of this neighborhood took place in Southern California in 2006. The project was called Pigeonblog.15See Donna Haraway, Vivre avec le trouble, translated by Vivien García (Éditions des mondes à faire, 2019). It emerged within a reflection on urban air pollution, on residents’ inequitable exposure to this pollution according to their race, class, or migratory status (for persons living on the outskirts of highways, power plants, and refineries), and on how people could be sensitized to—and hopeful for—the restoration of decrepit neighborhoods and broken social relationships. The artist Beatriz da Costa previously had remarked that civil authorities indeed had been installing air pollution monitoring devices, but in remote locales too removed from heavy traffic areas, and too far from where the most exposed populations (human, animal, and vegetable) lived. She consequently looked for ways to collect data “from below” in order to communicate reliable air quality information to the public. This involved bringing pigeons, people (scientists, citizens, pigeon fanciers), and devices together into a “team” to measure pollution more accurately. Pigeons equipped with a small compact apparatus held in a kind of minuscule backpack proved capable of collecting this data continuously and in real time! The project incited enthusiasm: in it, people and birds shared (briefly) a stage where they created meaning, “collaborating” in order to understand, evaluate, heal their common landscape, and find new ways to grasp the present. Better yet, they con-spired.
To “con-spire,” con-spirare, etymologically means to breathe out with: to be in agreement, to get along in readiness for action, to contribute, to throw one’s energy into a common goal. Pigeonblog was in every respect a con-spiration: it dealt with air quality, the inequitable effects of pollution, the collective reparation of breath. A beautiful story of “breathing-with”… but perhaps one we should not overestimate.
Because now, “conspiration” denotes above all conspiracy. Can we really clean up a word and expunge its negative implications? Probably not, and this undoubtedly indicates that all life is a compromise with the outside. At the very least, we can make it sound different, resist its appropriation by “conspiracy theorists,” and valiantly let the connections we dearly need—the fraternity we crave—resound.
Personally, it is the care taken with speech or words, this fragile “commons,” and with what it conveys to one another, that helps me breathe. Which is why I have been composing this reflection as a poem. Speech makes my life breathable, which is to say fraternal; speech which, exhaled and proffered as a gift, makes life rich with breath and potential relationships. And I am not alone: each of us feels that through the air we exhale—exhale in acts and sentences, restoring by mouth and gestures our common world—we participate in producing something called “l’air du temps.”
I was born lung like everyone
anticipated grace was slow in coming
until the day when to hear myself better
I walked word for word on pages at random
that was when lo and behold all breathed in peace
I had found I continue I breathe in
I breathe out calmly under the wind of words
(Janvier 8)16Translator’s translation.
- Coccia, Emanuele. La Vie des plantes. Payot, 2016.
- Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. “Talismans.” Poems of the West and East: West-Eastern Divan–West-Östlicher Divan. Bilingual Edition of the Complete Poems. Verse translation by John Whaley, with an introduction by Katharina Mommsen. Peter Lang, 1998.
- Janvier, Ludovic. La Mer à boire. Gallimard, 1987.
- Michaux, Henri. Face aux verrous. Gallimard, 1992.
- —. La Nuit remue. Gallimard, 1935.
- Mbembe, Achille. “The Universal Right to Breathe.” Translated by Carolyn Shread, Critical Inquiry, vol. 47, no. 52, 2020, www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/711437.
- Morin, Hervé, and Audrey Lagadec. “Comment la parole et le vent diffusent le SARS-CoV-2.” Le Monde, 26 May 2020, www.lemonde.fr/sciences/article/2020/05/26/comment-laparole-et-le-vent-diffusent-le-sars-cov-2_6040837_1650684.html.
- Reid, James D. “Breathing, you invisible poem!” in “On Inwardness and Place in Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus.” Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus: Philosophical and Critical Perspectives, Edited by Hannah Vandegrift Eldridge and Luke Fischer, Oxford University Press, 2019, pp. 41-76. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190685416.003.002.
- Snoek, Paul. Een zwemmer is een ruiter. Un nageur est un cavalier. Les midis de la poésie éditions, 2019.
- Webster, Jamieson. “On Breathing.” The New York Review of Books, 2 April 2021, www.nybooks.com/daily/2021/04/02/on-breathing/.
- Zimmer, Alexis. Brouillards toxiques. Vallée de la Meuse, 1930, contre-enquête. Zones sensibles, 2016.