The Freedom to Breathe

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It almost goes without saying: During the current pandemic, breathing lost its mere subliminal existence as an automated subsystem of our conscious existence and gained an oppressive presence. It did so in medical terms, in the spread of a virus attacking the respiratory system. It did so in terms of the lockdowns that virtualized much of our physical existence, cutting breath off from being part of the communal atmosphere we dwell in. It did so in terms of the fear of taking in the contaminated breath of others, or of letting others inhale our own viruses. It did so by forcing us to wear face masks that simultaneously protected and obstructed our breath, and made us constantly smell our own bad breath. It did so by means of a fear, and regulation-induced deformation of our embodied interaction–which forced us to avoid each other rather than share our embodied lives. Breathing emerged into consciousness in a way that problematized the permeability of our breathing bodies, promoting instead an increasingly monadic existence reducing that permeability–an existence allowing only for an extremely mediated partaking in the world and interacting with others, as if (or indeed) talking to images on a computer screen.

This change to our everyday breathing activity, as I will argue, profoundly altered the “metaphor we live by” that breathing is: If the emotional and enacted feeling of being a breathing body is altered, and if the habits of breathing change, then the ways we organize and understand our lives using breathing as a metaphor will lead to different meanings. And these meanings can be centered around a new feel of longing for freedom–a feel by means of which the concept of freedom is changed as well.

A bitter example is the now worldwide awareness, and, as I will argue, altered understanding of the rallying cry, “I can’t breathe.” Originating from the 2014 police murder of Eric Garner, these had also been George Floyd’s last words, uttered while being suffocated by police officers in 2020. The agony condensed in these words provided for an even more powerful metaphor to be adapted by the Black American community and beyond: people who had not literally been suffocated, but for whom the phrase spoke on their systemic historical oppression. “I can’t breathe” became a metaphor upon which a continuing legacy of repressions was projected.

Yet, the term “metaphor,” as precise as it is, can be misleading, because it seems to suggest this act of generalizing the lack of breath to be an act of mere comparison: People who are suppressed and metaphorically lack the air to breathe would then simply compare their lives to the suffocation of George Floyd; the similarity between their suppression and his would then be brought down to an “as if,” wherein Black communities would simply feel as if they were suffocated (while what their ‘suffocation’ really means would remain an open point). However, things are not that simple: Adopting the words “I can’t breathe” as a “metaphor we live by” does not only turn George Floyd’s last words into an iconic comparison; it also evokes and suggests suffocation as a “feeling of being,” as an experiencing of one’s own existence. “Metaphors we live by” (Lakoff and Johnson) reside on subliminal bodily re-enaction and embodied empathy, enabling us to experience a feeling of suffocation which–as a feeling–is as real as the coldness of anxiety (as Louise Bourgeois would have it [see Klemm et al. 321]) or the warmth of social inclusion. This experience of felt suffocation, in turn, helps us talk and think about the state of subaltern existence, by replacing the question of whether the subaltern can speak (per Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak [1988]) with the question of whether they can breathe. Doing so aids in expressing indignation, and provides conceptual and iconic clarity. The clarity and precision of such metaphors is not about concepts, but about existential feelings. And in order to provide for this particular precision, these metaphors do not only rely on acts of comparison; much more than this, they rely on acts of subliminal identification and mimetic experience within the given bodily situation.

The metaphor of breathing thus merges into the political struggle for liberty. In the case of the murder of George Floyd, this liberty could be equated with freedom from the institutional violence that killed him; it was about the naked life that was taken away from him. Similarly, it was picked up by the Black American communities protesting for their right to live free of racist violation. The main connotation in the broader, global success of the rallying cry “I can’t breathe” was rather of the freedom from suppression–especially freedom from suppression by a deliberately racist executive power.

While the two cannot and should not be seen as comparable, the metaphor has resonance with the experience of breathing in the time of COVID-19 as well. Indeed, this is what makes the metaphors we live by so interesting: Their workings on a bodily scale are not a matter for comparison, but can invite empathic identification. In this way, the experience of suffocation was present due to the pandemic as well, as nearly everybody’s freedom to participate in the world–to live, and continue living, through the porosity of one’s breathing body–was negated or at least circumscribed. And, more than this, this participation was hindered by a political recoursing to executive powers (largely more extreme in Asia, fairly strong in Europe, moderate in Africa and the Americas) that brought bodies in direct contact with the laws, rules, imperatives, and dispositives of control–sometimes even by excesses of force. The experience of not being able to breathe as an experience of suppression of human freedom was a phenomenon felt by many.

This experience of freedom– and thus its embodied conception–is much more important than most theories of freedom can express. Freedom is not just a state allowing for making decisions and taking actions (without inner or exterior limitations, inhibitions, coercions, or compulsion). Nor is freedom just a concept of that state (albeit a complex concept, which only a very few thinkers have brought to a precise definition, and none of them undisputed). If it were just a concept or state, no rhetoric could possibly use it in a productive way. Instead, freedom is also a learned attitude, an emotional skill, a feeling–something hard to conceptualize but easy to embody in a precise way. When, say, advertising or propaganda uses the semantically vague word, they are invoking this precise attitude and feeling: They do not use it as a concept, but rather as a trigger; they appeal to the feeling ‘body,’ rather than the reflexive ‘mind.’

The identification of this feeling for and the experience of freedom is not new. It is certainly not by chance, not when, for example, cigarette ads link freedom (of choice and attitude) to inhalation (from which the metaphor of inspiration draws its embodied tradition). The feeling of freedom, in our day and age, has a lot to do with breathing: Taking deep breaths, accepting the body’s porosity and letting in the surrounding air. Freedom of action, freedom of thinking, freedom of decision, speech, opinion, etc., is certainly more than just breathing; but without a kind of emotional breathing technique, all these freedoms might not feel really free.

The pandemic, therefore, helps us understand the deeper shifts in this experience of freedom, that might (one day) perhaps resonate in the theory of freedom, too. The freedom to breathe–unlike the freedom theorized in philosophic and political theory–indeed has little to do with “free will” (i.e., the human ability to make decisions according to mental judgments), but a lot to do with the subliminal embodied semi-automatism and necessity of breathing. It has little to do with what Jean Paul Sartre (1943) called “transcendence” (i.e., the human “condemnation to freedom,” the condition of always having chosen one’s own existence and the burden of full responsibility for it)–but a lot to do with what he called “immanence” (i.e., the limitations of our physical existence and the existential ‘thrownness’ into it). It has little to do with free choice, free decision, free invention, free intention–but a lot to do with identity (i.e., the aspects of one’s existence one cannot change).

The freedom to (safely) breathe, which people literally lacked during the pandemic, accordingly, cannot be reduced to the limitations of our freedom as citizens. And it might be an overstatement, but I do think that the theoretical shift inside the civil rights movement (founded on citizenship and the rights of the transcendent subjects) to #Black Lives Matter (focused on identity and the right to exist-while-Black) can be brought in line with this kind of metaphorical reasoning about freedom as breathing. As much as it is true that the early civil rights movement was also about the right not to be lynched, and as much as it is true that BLM is also about civil rights, it is still possible to perceive a shift from a politics understood as a struggle for the citizen-subject to a politics understood as a struggle for acceptance in one’s embodied identity. While 20th-century movements focused on voting rights and civic equality in order to secure the naked lives, today’s movements focus on identity and the naked life in order to gain societal and political acceptance. Although it oversimplifies the matter, a shift can be traced from “I have a dream” (the utter experience of transcendence) to “I can’t breathe” (the utter experience of immanence).

This larger shift can be described rather clearly by reference to Michel Foucault’s famous definition of the “human” in his Les mots et les choses (1966). Foucault understood current humanity as a historical constellation of discourses that had turned the human being into both the originator and the product of modernity– and, above all, its own double, what he called a “doublet.” On the one hand, the human being can be empirically investigated, delineated by work, language, and life (objectified in economics, linguistics, and biology); at the same time, the human being is the site where this knowledge emerges, and thus the subject of knowledge. Or, to say it differently: The human being upon which Western democracies and their citizenship are erected (and on whose rights the earlier movement has focused) draws upon a figuration on the human being as double–as being, on the one hand, the condition of possibility of knowledge and cognition (which, according to Kant, for Sartre and for Foucault, means the word “transcendental”), and, on the other hand, the object of that knowledge (and as such objectified as a determined immanent existence). This humanistic constellation, this humanistic mode of existence, is currently facing its most significant crisis–yet, unlike predicted by post- and transhumanist theories, it does not find its end in the immanence dissolving into transcendence (i.e., the transgression of the objectified human being), but rather by omitting the transcendent subject and objectifying it too.

The abovementioned shift from focusing on citizen rights (in order to be accepted in one’s identity) to focusing on identity (in order to be accepted as a citizen) follows this broader development. Another manifestation of this crisis can be grasped by recourse to Yuval Noah Harari’s observation that the (transcendent) conscious subject is no longer necessary for most cognitive operations, and hence will soon be mostly unemployed (356-408): Most education-based jobs (that is, academic education) will face the fate of jobs based on bodily labor, opening new scenarios of exploitation and exclusion even for those who had once been privileged as transcendental subjects, thereby reducing their importance to their immanence. Accordingly, more and more decisions for which subjective reflection and mental operations were once necessary can better be made when recurring to objectification and algorithmic processing. What is more: these algorithms tend to understand and analyze our preferences, character traits, needs, etc., slowly turning subjectivity into something hackable. Transcendence itself is reduced to immanence in the course of its objectification.

This development too, was accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic. Giorgio Agamben (A che punto siamo?) read the turn of politicians to medical-virological experts as demoting human transcendence in favor of medical objectification: Implicitly, many societies and political systems accepted a medical attitude, according to which biological life was first distinguished from sociocultural life, and then understood as a conditional possibility of the latter, so that any other forms of life had to be subordinated to the biological understanding of life. For a similar operation, Foucault had coined the concept of biopolitics, i.e., a politics whose object is precisely the organization of medically determined organisms. During the pandemic, wherever this operation was set in motion, humanism was replaced by humanitarianism, and the transcendent subject no longer mattered–what mattered, instead, was the living organism and its right to avoid death and suffering.

Agamben labeled the new paradigm the domination of the medical discourse over others in politics (A che punto siamo?); he then went on to describe the foundations of medical discourse as the distinction between two forms of life–the life that can be addressed by medicine (i.e., organic and psychic life as far as it can be objectified by medical research and treated by medical cures), and the socio-cultural as well as individual life that escapes such objectifications. Consequently, he called the political praxis of recurring to medical truths a reduction of the human being to naked life (see Homo Sacer).

To be sure, we also have to admit that most people who were saved, were saved due to this reductionist approach– and Agamben tends to [End Page 149] immensely downplay this very fact. What is more important for this article, however, is yet another limitation of his approach, which we are able to conclude from breathing as a ‘Metaphor We Live By’: The ‘naked’ life at stake, indeed, is not as naked as Agamben would have it. What we can learn from a focus on breath as well as from a focus on identity (which in turn took over breath as a metaphor to live by) is that Agamben’s criticism remained stuck in the modernist humanism described by Foucault–despite his having been an avid forerunner for post-humanism (see e.g., L’aperto). Indeed, Agamben was still advocating the liberty of transcendence. And if one thinks of the harm that came from humanism (“humanistic” in Foucault’s reading was, for example, also the colonialist, communist and fascist ideologies of modernity), a step away from this kind of humanity does not have to be something condemnable per se. This is especially true given that, as we have seen, a different kind of immanence emerged during the pandemic: One capable of its own human freedom, its own political struggle, its own notion of life and why it matters.

Certainly, a humanism of the doublet between the transcendent and the empirical (and this a humanism of a broader life as opposed to the naked life) cannot do justice to the new constellation of the human being (as no longer double). Rather, life, freedom, and humanism as condensed in this movement omit the paradoxical separation between transcendent and immanent life, between subjective freedom and determined identity. And again, the bodily metaphor of breathing might help in understanding how a different, post-human constellation that exceeds mere objectification, mere empirical determination, and mere naked life might be evolving.

Indeed, there is a long, multicultural tradition of the metaphor of breathing: A tradition that is not so much linked to freedom, but very much to humanism; and that does not share the premises of the humanistic doublet, whose origin Foucault has located in the last 250 years or so, and only for Western civilizations.

The rather unusual figuration of this doublet can be observed by making recourse to the metaphor of breathing, too. Nearly all cultures share this metaphor, in ways as different from each other as the Hebrew ruakh (closely connected to the once wind-god Yahweh) is from the Indian prana (a mind-breath subject to skillful and ascetic control), or as the Chinese chi (or Japanese ki) is from the Greek pneuma and psykhe or the Latin spiritus or its Renaissance equivalents (where inner spirits had physiological functions). Similarly dissimilar copulas of mind and breath are and were present in many African cultures, as well as in pre-Columbian America, Aboriginal Australia, and Polynesia (see Söffner). By contrast, the culture whose contours Foucault outlines when describing it as the humanist doublet is one of the very few (maybe the only one) avoiding the metaphorical unity of breathing and mind.

One might, of course, ask why this relation between thinking and breathing is so omnipresent elsewhere–but that question will lead to vague hypotheses involving the intense emotionality of our respiratory system, breath as vehicle for language and song, breathing’s relation to life (not-breathing being proof of an organism’s death), the psychedelic qualities of certain breathing practices or inhaled drugs, and so forth. The more important question, rather, is why modern cultures avoided this kind of metaphorical reasoning, despite the presence of linguistic remnants of the older cultures in notions like “inspiration” or “atmosphere.” And here, we can be more precise, since these metaphors would contradict the concept of the mind as a Cartesian cogito: They contradict the notion of the mind as reflexive (and would rather focus on an embedded and resonating spirit), and omit thinking of consciousness as a vessel for immaterial thoughts (but rather leads to thoughts that are of the “stuff dreams are made of,” passing all boundaries just as the porosity of the breathing body suggests)– and therefore they counter the tendency to conceive of transcendence as something mental, and set it apart from a the body that is conceived of as something immanent and objectifiable in biological terms. Such metaphors omit the Cartesian dualism between cogitans and cogitatum, between the mind and its objects, and therefore between subject and objectifications.

If freedom and breathing come together in our present-day metaphorical reasoning, of course that does not mean that we have returned to a conception of thinking as breathing (and breathing as thinking). But it does mean that freedom, as a concept and attitude understood as purely mental, has turned into something embodied– and thereby defying the difference between the transcendent mind and the immanent body. Breathing is bodily and free. The body is no longer felt as a limitation of the free subject, but has rather (in its limitation) turned into the condition and form of a subject that is no longer its own double–instead occurring in the objectifiable self, the self with identical, unchangeable traits. The metaphorical reasoning of breathing thereby opens up a path for restituting full-blown life to what otherwise would be reduced to the naked life, restituting politics to people who had been reduced to their identity, and restituting freedom to the presumed automatisms of the body–without falling back into the old dualism.

Longing for the freedom to breathe might therefore mean longing for a freedom that is no longer humanistic, but–once again–might find transcendence in its immanence, just as meditation can find insight in a breathing technique. And it might find a new kind of political struggle built on a different human being, whose potential and limitations today can hardly be foreseen, but who might hold a new and different kind of freedom–a freedom that better suits a time in which the transcendent human subject is no longer the measure of and condition for our existence.

Works Cited

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